Monday, August 27, 2012

Discussing MMOs: The Secret World

After taking a weekend off (for some serious MMO playing), I'm back, though this will either be the last or next-to-last entry in this short series. The Secret World is an MMO by Funcom, and it is an MMO that is far from the norm - instead of a bright, open fantasy world, The Secret World (or TSW) is about horror, conspiracy, and what will happen at the end of the current age. It's very different from most MMOs I've played or seen. For one thing, the RPG takes place, essentially, on modern day Earth, though it is an Earth that isn't very familiar to most of us.

 Everyone's character is human, though you will certainly run into non-human (or inhuman) things during play. There are no classes, and instead of two opposing factions, they have three, each one a secret society: The Templars, the Illuminati, and the Dragon. Each society is in a fight with the others about how to approach the secret supernatural world (the Secret World of the title) and how the Earth's next age will go when the current one ends. Unlike, say, WoW, WAR, or TOR, the factions can talk to each other in game chat, and people from various societies can even group together to do difficult missions or go into 5-person instances. Guilds (or cabals) are one faction only, however, and each faction has their own chat channel where they can speak amongst themselves without the other factions knowing. Each is based in a different real-life city (London, New York City, and Seoul), which is reasonably large, has plenty of bits to explore, and even has the occasional mission.

Characters in TSW are different, in that not only are there no classes, but also no levels. You choose a faction, and then you choose two weapon categories (out of 9, from Shotguns to Blades to Chaos magic), and you're done. As you progress through the game, you put points (Ability Points, or AP) into various abilities for your favored weapons; each character has seven slots for active abilities (ones you hit buttons to use) and seven passive slots (ones that provide benefits to you regardless of what buttons you hit). How you assemble your skills (or 'deck', the term used by the game to refer to the full suite of 14 abilities) determines how your character fights. You also put a different kind of points (Skill Points, or SP) into the degree of skill you have in your weapon group; this determines what grade of weapon you can use; the higher (up to 10), the better. You keep earning experience for AP and SP throughout the game, so, in theory, you could eventually max out every ability and every skill.

While all character are human, most don't look anything alike; character creation has a fair degree of customization, with more to be added in-game soon. In addition, the clothes your character wears are entirely separate from any gear that provides bonuses to statistics - you wear what you want (bought at in-game stores), and how you look never has any impact on how effective your character is. TSW is even more lenient in this regard than superhero games like CO and DCUO; in those games, you can find costume pieces that will affect your stats, and you often have the ability to save the look of that piece even if you replace it later, but in TSW, looks and stats are totally separate. The only things on your avatar that you  will see change are your weapons; some Hammer weapons look like axes, some like sledgehammers, some like weapons from hell, but other than that, your look is entirely up to you. This is something I think other games need to do more of; item sets are nice, but I really shouldn't have to look like a clown in order to be functional (I'm looking at you, WoW and TOR).

The factions being able to speak to each other is another nice touch; it tells the player that while the factions aren't terribly friendly to each other (the Templars and Illuminati have been in a sort of cold war for centuries), they realize that the world's current troubles are bigger than their arguments, for the most part. Aside from some text when missions are turned in, and the tutorial, factions actually don't play a huge role in the game. You get a call on your character's phone whenever the faction has decided you have moved up in rank, and the Templars (the faction I play) have three missions they send you on, but otherwise they play almost no role in the game. While it is nice they aren't all over every character's business, I think I would have preferred the factions to be a bit more involved; I want my Templar to have a much different experience than, say, an Illuminati player.

Missions are another interesting thing to look at. TSW is always careful to call them missions, never quests, and they have divided them up into several categories. First, each of the three main play areas has a long, involved story quest. Then, each 5-person instance has its own quest. Then there are sidequests, things you get from items spread throughout the game world that tend to be minor tasks with relatively small rewards. And then there are the main quests. The main quests are divided up into three categories - action, infiltration, and investigation. Action missions are what you'd expect - the missions consists primarily of fighting and killing, with no subtlety involved. Infiltration missions are harder (fro some) because they involve getting around and performing your task without being noticed (or, occasionally, by killing the few who do see you). From avoiding cameras and sentry drones to running gauntlets of patrolling guards and mines on multi-level constructions, infiltration missions are about being stealthy. Finally, there are investigation missions, and these are where the game shines. With these missions, you will be required to actually investigate things, often very obscure, and often difficult to figure out; there is an in-game web browser to assist with these. For an investigation mission, you might be asked to crack a substitution cypher by converting the number of the first 26 elements on the Periodic Table into letters and then translating a message; or you might need to find the password to a computer, be given the hint that it is the owner's wife's name, and, by finding the owner's company ID on his body, go to the (fictional) company website, look through the employee roster, and determine his wife from that. They are complex, difficult, and involve a lot of thought; while most of them are sadly available in cheat form, I prefer to do them the long way.

Sadly, TSW is lacking in at least one area I love, and that is exploration. Currently, there are only three areas in the game, besides the starting cities - Solomon Island (an island off the coast of New England cut off form the rest of the world), the Valley of the Sun God in Egypt, and the wilds of Transylvania. Between the three areas, there are 8 zones - 3 on the island, 2 in Egypt, and 3 in Transylvania - and they are all quite similar in theme. Both Solomon Island and Transylvania are dark, foggy, and depressing, though there are some exceptional areas like a haunted amusement park or the churchyard where Vlad Dracula is buried. Egypt, while sunnier, reminded me of a hellish cross between Resident Evil 5 and the Biblical plagues on crack. While each area keeps to its theme well - and I can see touches of Lovecraft, Stephen King, Silent Hill, and Resident Evil as influences - it really comes down to three very similar, often oppressively dark areas. I realize it is a horror game, but even in horror movies, directors realize that audiences need a few moments away from the darkness every so often or the darkness and horror stops meaning anything. Speaking as someone with depression, I can only take a couple weeks of that at a time before I need to take a break. I'm still playing, but I don't know for how much longer; the release of Guild Wars 2 (my possible final entry in this series) and the impact this is having on my generally depressed state might necessitate some time away from the game before coming back to see how it all turns out.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Discussing MMOs: Star Wars: The Old Republic

As a profoundly geeky person, I have been a fan of Star Wars for a long, long time. I have also been a long-time fan of almost every game the game studio Bioware ever made. Thus, when the two combined to create a Star Wars MMO in the (slightly advance) timeline of the hit game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, I figured that things couldn't possibly go wrong. In some ways, I was right, but in other ways, I was terribly wrong.

Character creation is one of the areas where the game is very much like early WoW. There are two sides, Republic and Sith. Each side has its own classes (though each class is mirrored by the other side), and while the species of human, cyborg, Twi'lek, and Zabrak are available to both sides, the Miraluka and Mirialans are Republic-only, while Chiss, Rattataki, and Sith Purebloods are Sith only. Yes, you read that right; no Wookiees. Also no Devaronians, Duros, Bothans, Gamorreans, Gungans, Jawas, Rodians, or any of the other popular Star Wars species. While you can meet most of these other races, you can't play as them, which I found disappointing. Each class (bounty hunters, Imperial agents, Sith Warriors and Inquisitors for the Sith, Troopers, Smugglers, Jedi Consulars and Knights for the Republic) has two advanced classes that you can choose from once you reach a certain level, which can cause some serious divergence among class types.

Each class has its own storyline, and they are one of the best parts of the game. You start your storyline as soon as you finish creating your character, and it will go through the rest of the game with you. There is always a portion of your storyline to be followed on each planet, and they range from the somewhat mediocre (the Jedi Consular, from what I've heard) to the very thematic, cool, and fun (Bounty Hunter, Imperial Agent, and Smuggler). Though your story, you will meet a variety of characters who will choose (or be forced) to accompany you on your way through the galaxy; these will be your companions, computer-controlled NPCs who accompany you on quests for an extra bit of firepower, guarding, or healing ability, as well as some amusing dialogue. At least one of your companions will be a possible love interest (well, if you're straight - if you're gay, then while Bioware has said they will add gay-friendly companions for love interests, they hadn't gotten around to it when I quit playing). Every time you speak to a character, either on your storyline or just for a regular quest, it will start a full cutscene, where you get to choose from a variety of dialogue choices and the NPC will respond accordingly. Each character is fully voiced, often by a voice actor who is fairly well-known for such work, with a lot of cameos from other more well-known actors and actresses. This is possible one of the most immersive things I have seen in an MMO, and it was worth playing for this, at least.

Each character will also, eventually, get their own starship. This is determined by class, sadly; you don't get a choice of ships. While they are fun to see in a docking bay, your primary interaction with a ship will be as a resting place and the means by which you travel between planets; each ship looks different, and your companions will wait there while not on missions. Sadly, there is no customization available for your ship; every Smuggler's ship will look the same. Ships are also used for space missions, where you stop playing your character and instead pilot your craft on a space-going mission, shooting enemy fighters, avoiding meteorites, and generally being destructive. You follow a specific path for each mission, sadly, so while you can move around the screen a bit, it's basically a rail-shooter.

Being a Star Wars game, you can, of course, be a Light Side or Dark Side character. This is not restricted to your Republic or Sith affiliation; I played as my main character a Light Side Bounty Hunter, and I know a few people who played Dark Side Jedi. While some of the choices that affect your Light/Dark Side meters are fun, some can be head-scratching; in one mission, after retrieving medical supplies at the behest of an embattled field medic running out of battleground supplies, you are accosted by a civilian who demands the medical supplies for a group of refugees. This sounds like a difficult choice, but in the game, it is simple - giving the supplies to the refugees is the Light Side choice, and giving them to the medic who asked for them is the Dark Side choice. Also, of the two, only Dark Side choices seem to have a visible effect on your character; the more Dark Side you go, the paler, veinier, and generally scarier you look. Light Side choices don't have any visible effect. Also, if you want to be essentially neutral, good luck; there are some items - some of which are cosmetic, but others of which are important - which depend on you choosing Light or Dark.

Speaking of cosmetic, The Old Republic (or TOR) decided to go in the same direction as WoW with regards to outward appearance. So the armor you have equipped is the armor you see, and there are no easy ways to change that. There are certain items, both armor and weapons, which can be improved gradually as you play, so that you can keep a coherent look without wearing outdated and useless armor, but these items, especially the ones that look good, aren't often easy to find. Also, each class only has a single weapon style available to them; Bounty hunters only use blaster pistols, Troopers use either blaster rifles or assault cannons (depending on their advance class), and Jedi/Sith only use lightsabers - Knights/Wariors either use one or two, while Consulars/Inquisitors use either a single lightsaber or a double-bladed lightsaber. This means that most members of a class will be easily recognizable, because they will be wearing very similar armor and using very similar weapons.

TOR also made the decision to have groups that require the Holy Trinity of WoW - if you want to do instances (which can be quite fun), you need a tank, a healer, and 2 damage-dealers (groups in TOR are only 4 people). Occasionally a member can be substituted for by an NPC companion, bu the computer isn't very good at controlling companions in instances. I found this design decision particularly disappointing. I wanted to play a Bounty Hunter who could, for instance, jump into combat, use a flamethrower at close range, then use my jetpack to fly off to a distance and snipe. This was, however, not an option; while the Bounty Hunter does indeed have a jetpack, it can only be used in one or two abilities; no fancy jetpack-assisted out-of-combat jumps. Some of the mechanics TOR implemented for classes also didn't work well in the settings they were designed for; instanced 'dungeons' (more often than not starships, space stations, or abandoned archaeological digs) often had boss fights that required being mobile, while both the Smuggler and Imperial Agent classes had a number of abilities only available while they were in cover - which necessitated staying in one location.

As for exploration, there were quite a variety of planets to travel to. Korriban, with the ancient temples of the Sith; Nar Shaddaa, playground of the Hutts; Coruscant, jewel of the Republic; Alderaan, the planet of royalty. Each planet was designed for a certain level range, and to play through your storyline, you had to go to each planet in an order determined by Bioware. On most planets, even the ones that were hotly contested by both sides, you rarely saw players from the opposing faction - there were computer-controlled enemies of that faction, but the players were often in areas you never saw or had a reason to go to. Open PvP only really became available on the 'final' planet or two, and even then it was rare to see people engaging in large-scale PvP; most people simply queued up for instanced PvP battlegrounds. So there was a lot of ground to cover, but each planet was very monothematic; one part of Alderaan was very much like the next.

Overall, I thought the storylines and companions were fun, but it seemed that the game had been intended, essentially, as a massive single-player game, and then had MMO elements added into it later; this meant, for the most part, that the most fun parts of the game were not shared experiences, but the storyline cutscenes that, even if they were present, your fellow party members could not take part in. It would have been great fun as a single-player successor to the original Knights of the Old Republic, but I think TOR went too close to the formula of WoW with its MMO elements, and as such failed to truly distinguish itself from the leader of the pack in all the ways that make a difference in an MMO. It also didn't help that, when I began to become disillusioned with TOR, I also had massive problems with the ending of Mass Effect 3- also a Bioware game - and so, not feeling particularly generous, decided to quit both.

Next up: A Secret World

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Discussing MMOs: Lord of the Rings Online

Lord of the Rings Online is the first MMO I played after it became free-to-play. It is, of course, based on the Lord of the Rings property, and takes place, chronologically, just before or around the time when the Fellowship of the Ring is formed in Rivendell. The company, sadly, only has access to the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit; it cannot make use of material from the Silmarillion or other Tolkien works. Predictably, players play characters in Middle-Earth, and unlike WoW or WAR, there is only one side. You can choose to play as a human, elf, dwarf, or hobbit, and different classes are open to each race; humans can play as 8 of the 9 available classes, while hobbits only have access to 4. The graphics of the game are slightly better than those of WoW in that they are not as cartoonish, but they aren't high-quality like DCUO or WAR.

I only played Lord of the Rings Online (or LOTRO) for a little while, but in the time I did play, I learned quite a bit. Despite being a game basd in a well-known world, LOTRO has a lot to offer, even to veteran MMO players. For one, there is a long, epic storyline that progresses through the game; it progresses parallel to, but outside of, normal area quests, and is generally relatively difficult - though I hear that it can become easier with multiple players progressing on it at once. This gives the game a coherent storyline, even as you move between quest areas that are often unrelated.

Health is handled differently in LOTRO; characters don't have hit points or health points, but morale. Some creatures - particularly direct servants of Sauron, like Ringwraiths or powerful undead - will lower your morale simply by being near your character, so seeing this effect is a telltale sign that there is a difficult fight or area ahead. I found this to be an interesting mechanic, because it made some fights that would have otherwise been easy into harrowing affairs, though fun. I don't know that I'd recommend it for other games - it works in LOTRO because of the creeping fear and sense of terror inspired by true evil - but it works to make the game feel more immersive and thematic.

Like the superhero MMOS I played, LOTRO has a loose, easy method for creating your character's look; the armor you appear to be wearing is not necessarily the armor your character has equipped, and you can store a number of armor pieces in a sort of closet, allowing you much greater freedom in how your character looks. This allowed me, as a player, to make my human Guardian look like the warrior from Rohan I pictured him as, rather than someone who armored himself by picking random pieces of armor in the dark. This is really a feature that all MMOs ought to embrace.

Once you reach a certain level, you can buy a house for your character; houses reside in instanced neighborhoods, each with dozens of houses, and they vary in appearance depending on where you buy them - a human house looks different from a dwarven abode. In your character's house, not only can you decorate it according to your whim, but you can also use it as a way of displaying trophies you have won from quests or difficult monsters. Other characters can come visit you, and you can likewise visit them, to relax or roleplay in a quiet environment - and to show off, of course.

One thing I never tried, though I would have liked to, was LOTRO's music system; each character can learn, at the very least, how to play a lute, and the Minstrel class can play every instrument, and each instrument can be played with in-game macros covering several octaves. With sufficient organization, this can lead to some cool in-game musical performances by other players, and there are scheduled musical festivals - the most well-known of these being 'Weatherstock', essentially Woodstock on Weathertop mountain. It has no mechanical effect on the game, but is a fun way to bring the community together for something besides in-game monster hunting and such.

Being set in Middle-Earth, there is an enormous amount of territory to cover, and most of it will be familiar to fans - you can visit Bree, the Prancing Pony, the Shire, Weathertop, and the first expansion opened up the Mines of Moria. After the Moria expansion came other packs that expanded Mirkwood and Isengard, and an expansion coming in October of 2012 should open up Rohan. I never got a chance to see Moria in-game, as it is quite the dangerous place and I never got to a level capable of handling it, but I imagine it would have been a sight to see. LOTRO definitely fulfilled my need for exploration; I doubt I explored even a third of what the game had to offer.

As a free-to-play game, I have to say I never really noticed any real focus on getting me to buy from the game store; there were a number of items available in the store that appealed to me - a variety of character outfits, new mounts, and even some useful items - but none of them looked like they were so necessary that I would need to spend money to get them. Indeed, by performing some deeds in the game, you can earn points for use in the game's store, meaning that if you work hard enough you might never need to spend money on the game. From what I can tell, the game is still going strong; Wikipedia notes that LOTRO is said to be the third most popular MMO, with Turbine, the company that runs the game, citing its free-to-play model as a large part of the reason. LOTRO is one of the games I would like to return to, if I knew anyone else who was likely to play, because even in such a  detailed world, it gets a bit boring doing everything alone. That was, in fact, the reason why I stopped playing - I just felt too lonely. And so I stopped for a time, but there was more on the horizon.

Next up: Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Discussing MMOs: Warhammer Online

Warhammer Online, for those of you who don't know, is based on the enormously popular (well, among wargamers) miniatures wargame, Warhammer Fantasy Battle. Warhammer was the loose foundation for the original Warcraft games, thought the two have since diverged significantly. Much like Warcraft, it is set in a fantasy world, with elves, dwarves, orcs, and the like. Also, like WoW, there are two factions: the Armies of Order (humans, high elves, and dwarves) and the Armies of Chaos (Chaos, orcs & goblins, and dark elves). Character creation was a lot like WoW, except that each race had its own classes, and other races couldn't take them; each race's classes were based on units from the miniatures game, and generally pretty thematic, though they lost points in the minds of some by having three classes allow only male characters, while there was only one female-only class. The graphics for Warhammer Online were somewhat less cartoonish than those of WoW, which was nice, and made the differences between the two easier to see.

One of the primary draws of Warhammer Online was their PvP system, also known as Realm versus Realm; you could have armies of each faction made up of players from several servers, which meant that battles could be quite large and bloody. This was a big deal at the time, though since Warhammer Online didn't perform as well as hoped, servers dropped fairly quickly in number, meaning that the populations in RvR battles dropped as well. Because of the draw of  PvP play in Warhammer Online (or WAR), even I gave it a shot, and I found it kind of cool, especially since the holders of a battlefield in a given area actually had some effect on the rest of that area. I never got to play in the high-end RvR battlefields, but the lower-level stuff was crazy and vicious, but fun.

Another of the things that WAR used that I found pretty innovative were the idea of public quests. Public quests were, as the name implies, public; certain places in zones would have a quest, or series of quests, start every so often, and the quest could be carried out and worked on by anyone nearby, meaning that things got done much faster if others in the area helped - in fact, some, or even most, public quests were impossible without other players working together, even if they weren't grouped together. This encouraged players on the same side as you to be sociable, even if they didn't know you, because you might be the difference between finishing a public quest or failing. From what I remember, the rewars were quite nice, as well, and scaled depending on how successful you were.

WAR, much like WoW, took to heart the idea that a game world should be large and have plenty of places to explore; there were 31 zones, 10 each for High Elves/Dark Elves and Humans/Chaos and 11 for Dwarves/Orcs & goblins. 3 of those 31 were high-level contested zones, which changed depending on which side held them at the time. Chaos and the Humans each had a capital city for their respective sides, which could also be attacked and conquered. There was a great deal to see, and as I never reached the level cap, I never saw all of it; I probably saw only about half.

I think, though, WAR was crippled by the fact that it was released only a few weeks prior to the Wrath of the Lich King expansion for WoW; people tried WAR for a couple weeks, and then returned to WoW, causing the game's population to drop vastly: according to Wikipedia, from 800,000 subscribers around launch down to 300,000 only 3 months later. As WAR stayed with a subscription model, instead of becoming free-to-play like many other MMOs, they continued to lose customers and money, causing them to shrink even more; as of December of 2011, they had only 3 remaining servers worldwide. It's sad, because the game had some good ideas, and the PvP was more enjoyable than that of WoW (at least for me), but I guess the market couldn't handle two big subscription-based MMOs.

Next up: Lord of the Rings Online.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Discussing MMOs: DC Universe Online

I was apparently still interested in superhero MMOs after Champions Online, and so my next foray into the world of MMOs was DC Universe Online. As the name implies, it takes place in the world of DC Comics, and so many of the prominent NPCs are recognizable to may people: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor, the Joker, and so on. As in Champions Online, creating a character and costume is a large part of the process of starting the game; you have a wide variety of costume options when the game begins, and can unlock more during play. Since the look of a superhero character is so important, the ability to have a costume that you, as player, like from character creation onwards is nice, and it helps with immersion into the character. The characters in DC Universe Online looked more realistic than those from Champions Online, and even had different options to choose from at character creation to change body language, from Comical to Serious. The power sets in the game could have been expanded, though; one of the most iconic power sets, that of Green Lantern, wasn't added until the first expansion pack, even though there were Green Lanterns you could interact with and do missions for in the game.

While I didn't take advantage of this, in DC Universe Online (or DCUO), you can choose to play as either a hero or a villain. As a hero, you will have a big-name mentor; for character with tech-based abilities or normal human skills, your mentor is Batman; for people with superhuman abilities, Superman is your mentor; and for people whose abilities are magical in nature, Wonder Woman mentors you. Conversely, on the villain side, Joker takes the position of Batman, Lex Luthor takes Superman's mentor spot, and Circe takes Wonder Woman's role. This means that you will almost certainly run into players of the opposing allegiance during regular play, though unless you play on a PvP server, fighting amongst yourselves is optional.

One of the more enjoyable things about DCUO is that virtually every NPC, and especially the named ones which most people would be familiar, has a voice actor, some of them recognizable - Adam Baldwin for Superman, for instance, or, for fans of the Batman animated series, Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker. By making these characters have actual voices, as opposed to simple text boxes, I felt like I was actually a part of the world.

DCUO was also one of the few MMOs that was not just PC-based; you could also play it on the Playstation 3, meaning that at least some console gamers were a part of the player base. This also meant that the setup for powers and abilities was relatively simple and easy to use, as it had to be something that was viable on both the PC and while using a Playstation controller. I wish this was embraced by more MMOs, as I have a number of friends who seem to play games exclusively on consoles, and this would allow me to play with those friends as well as those who prefer to play games on their PCs.

Sadly, to an even greater degree than Champions Online, DCUO had very little room for exploration. There were really only three zones: Metropolis, Gotham City, and Central City. While each city was very large, the feel never really changed very much between areas of a city. Gotham felt very different than Metropolis, but one section of Metropolis was very similar to the next, even if one was being invaded by aliens and another attacked by super-powered terrorists. The only forays out of the three cities happened in tightly controlled instances, and so there was never a feeling that, if you went to, say, the moon, that you were there for anything other than a single short mission with a few other players. Each allegiance had their own 'base' area - heroes had the Watchtower, while villains had the Hall of Doom - but these were really very basic areas that were mostly for show and making character changes. Consequently, as there was little to explore in DCUO, even though I enjoyed the world and the characters, I became bored with my surroundings relatively quickly, and so only played for about two months. Then I went on MMO hiatus again.

Next up" Warhammer Online.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Discussing MMOs: Champions Online

After WoW, I took a break - most of a year. The next MMO I played in was Champions Online, in large part because I had been hearing good things about it and I am a big fan of superhero-type things. Champions Online (or CO) is based in a setting created in a tabletop RPG - the Champions game. So most of the signature heroes are unfamiliar to mainstream comic readers; even I had little idea of who or what the named character were. CO's graphical style is very comic-oriented; the characters look like they just leapt off of the pages of a comic book, which was an interesting change after playing WoW. Now, while CO is currently free-to-play, and has only a limited amount of set archetypes that free-to-play users can use when creating characters, when I joined character creation was still very customizable.

One of the biggest things I noticed about CO was that you basically designed your character's look (for a large part of the game) in character creation. Costume, body armor, body shape, even whether your character looked human, animalistic, or alien, you determined all this stuff in creation. There was no big worry with having to find the right dropped equipment to clothe your character so that you didn't look like a jester, as happened in WoW; you could add or change your character's costume later, as some options for clothing only became available through play, but for the most part, the way your character looked in creation was how you wanted it to look and how it would stay. I am a big fan of things like this in MMOs; part of what I want in a character is to look cool and thematic, not like I just assembled my outfit by picking up random things out of a Goodwill container. You could even change some really small, and yet important, details - you could have energy blasts come from your head instead of your hands, or you could change the color or look of your projectile attacks; you could make a character that looked like a gorilla walk and run like a gorilla rather than a regular human. All of these little details made it feel like you had a great deal of control over your character, and that the game was empowering you to do what you wanted.

The variety of powers you could choose with your character were also pretty astounding. There are six general power sets - Energy Projector, Technology, Martial Arts, Mentalist, Brick, and Mystic - and each power set has a number of power groupings within it - Technology, for instance, contains Archery, Gadgeteering, Munitions, and Power Armor. you could mix and match between any of these power sets, though some power sets were seen as 'optimal' for purposes of PvP play, or grouping for instances, but other than that, you were free to choose any powers you wanted. Not only could you have a wide variety of powers, though, but each character got to choose their own method of speedy traveling. Where in WoW you had mounts, which would increase in speed as you leveled your character, in CO you got travel powers. You could fly, travel at superspeed, make giant leaps, swing around (not unlike Spiderman), teleport, and travel in a number of other ways. All of these added up to essentially the same thing, but was just one more point of customization that helped make your character unique.

The third big innovation I found in CO was the Nemesis system. All good superheros need a villain - Superman has Lex Luthor, Captain America has the Red Skull, Batman has the Joker. In CO, you got the chance to give your character a nemesis, too. Once your character had advanced enough, you were given the choice to create your character's nemesis - you chose his powers, who his minions were, what the nemesis looked like, and why they were your character's nemesis. You would then eventually go through a series of encounters with your nemesis, popping up at random through gameplay, eventually ending up with you sending your nemesis to jail - at which point you could create a new nemesis, or choose to keep re-using the old one. Again, this made it feel like you had some real control over your own story, and even if the greater world never saw it, you knew that even if you changed nothing else int he game world, your nemesis could be jailed - and stay there. Well, until his inevitable prison break, of course.

The big problem I had with CO was just that, at release, there was simply not a huge amount of content to play through. The developers packed a huge amount of material into the few areas they did have on release - Millenium City, which unlike the cities in WoW, was gigantic and had a ton of content to do, the Canadian Wilderness, the Desert, Monster Island, and the underwater area of Lemuria - but compared to the amount of explorable areas in WoW, it fell quite short. Exploration, as I noted in my entry for WoW, is one of the things I really like to do in MMOs, and so the paucity of explorable areas really bummed me out. It also meant that there was a very clear progression of areas, and there wasn't really any way around that; from Millenium City, you went to the Canadian Wilderness, then to the Desert, then to Monster Island, then on to Lemuria. I hear they eventually added other areas, but that was after I had stopped playing, sadly. It also didn't help that, while I had friends and acquaintances who played WoW, I knew virtually nobody in CO; not having anyone to banter with really hindered my enjoyment of the game. After a few months of play - far short of the years I played WoW - I dropped out of Champions Online.

Next up: DC Universe Online.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Discussing MMOs: World of Warcraft

I don't have a lot of tabletop gaming going on, but I am active in online gaming with MMOs, so I thought I might talk a bit about those. Now, I have no background in computers, and I've never developed a game; I've got an MA (hopefully soon a PhD) in English. I like good stories, and I like to be able to be involved and see change occur in a persistent gaming world. I also like to play games online with friends, and so I feel drawn to MMOs as an easy way to keep in touch and play games with friends that I otherwise don't see very often. I've played a number of MMOs, and there are a lot of things, both good and bad, I have seen in each; I thought it might be interesting to talk about those.

World of Warcraft is up first because, even 7+ years after release, it is still the leader of the MMO market. It has something like 9 million subscribers, even after such a long time on the market, and is set to release its fourth expansion later this year. I started playing World of Warcraft (or WoW) the day after it was released, in large part because I had been so fond of the Warcraft series of strategy games that had preceded it. The world of WoW is a familiar one to anyone even moderately familiar with fantasy; there are two player factions, the Alliance (made up of, originally, Humans, Dwarves, Gnomes, and Night Elves) and the Horde (consisting of Orcs, Trolls, Tauren, and Undead). They are in a state of constant low-grade war over the lands of the world of Azeroth, and being a fantays land, it fits many of the tropes of traditional fantasy - dwarves live in a city in a mountain; night elves live in a tree city; orcs are savage, yet also somewhat noble, barbarians. Wizards wear robes, paladins fight evil, and both sides are trying to keep their place in the world.

As a WoW player, I played an Alliance character almost exclusively, so that is most of what I saw in the game; I also tended to avoid too much PvP, as it didn't really interest me. As an MMO player, I am interested in three things - exploring the world that is available to me; learning and playing a part in the story of the world; and advancing my own character (of which a large part was being able to clothe my character in armor and weapons I thought looked good). From the very first day in WoW, I had a blast with exploration; I slowly worked my way through the world, taking quests when I saw them, following storylines, and being able to see all the amazing sights that the game's developers had included. There are two main continents in basic WoW; the continent of the eastern Kingdoms consisted, at launch, of 23 zones, while the continents of Kalimdor had 18. This is, frankly, a massive amount of content; even considering that 6 of those zones were essentially for totally new players, it still left 35 zones to travel in, and that doesn't even count the faction cities - of which there were 3 per faction. Amount of content for exploration is one of the areas I feel that World of Warcraft really has yet to be exceeded. And the content was beautiful and thematic; from the idyllic forests of Westfall to the rocky, desolate Badlands, from the rolling plains of Mulgore to the ancient ruins of Azshara, each zone had a distinct feel to it. Sometimes the change between zones was a bit shocking - traveling from the oppressively dark, terrifying forest of Duskwood in to the lush jungles of Stranglethorn Vale was a bit jarring, but each area was its own place.

The story of WoW was, of necessity, often somewhat static. Since there were players in both factions, it was hard to have one clearly triumph over the other and still keep the players who were on the losing side, so there were other threats that had to emerge to keep the two sides in an uneasy cold war-type standoff. Humans contended with their own rebels and malcontents, while dwarves and gnomes dealt with the results of experiments gone wrong and the actions of the ancestors; orcs tried to carve out a place for themselves in a continent previously inhabited mostly by night elves, while the Undead of the Horde had to face their darker cousins in the Scourge. Most zones had quests that followed a theme or story, though at first this was somewhat disjointed; it wasn't until the Cataclysm expansion that almost every zone had its own coherent line of quests. Many of the important, world-changing events happened only in instances, whether for a single group or for a larger raid, and this was where I started having trouble. Once I had explored the world of Azeroth, I wanted to know who I was fighting, and why, and then I wanted to defeat them. The greatest opponents, though, were only faced in raids - foes like the great dragon Onyxia, or the lord of fire elementals, Ragnaros. For someone who was more interested in exploration than spending hours repeating boss fights in order to learn how to kill them, it was difficult to get into a raid and see how the story of Onyxia or Ragnaros played out. I was, and still mostly am, a 'casual' player; even though I can devote a large amount of time to playing games like WoW, I don't enjoy having to set aside 4-5 hours of time in a block to throw my character at the same fights time and time again - I wasn't going through those raids for the items that each boss dropped when killed (though some of it was nice), but rather to find out how the story played out. That's a personal problem, but it was the start of my disillusionment with WoW.

Advancing my character became a problem that extended from that. Once a character in WoW hit the level cap, there wasn't a lot to do on one's own; to get better gear, or find out the big parts of the story, you had to join groups, which often meant guilds. And while I enjoy being social in MMOs, I prefer to socialize with a smaller group of people I know, rather than dozens or hundreds at a time, in a guild where I may not know every member. I shied away from what were known as PUGs (or pick-up groups, groups that came together just for a single instance and often didn't know each other) because I found that, for the most part, it was hard to trust players I didn't know to either play seriously or to understand that I was not a perfect player. While I had my own story that I kept to myself about my main character (a human paladin named Helliyas), I found that most players had no interest in the game's story, or in telling their own story; they just wanted cool items with bigger numbers, or to kill the biggest number of opposing players, and those were things I had little interest in (the only items I was interested in were ones that I thought looked cool). While I did eventually manage to find groups of players that shared many of the same interests, the necessity of raiding in order to find out the best parts of the story still bothered me.

WoW, being the big dog of MMOs, is often pointed out as the originators of something called the Holy Trinity (no relation to Christian concepts): groups were made up of three characters types, a tank, a healer, and damage dealers. I hear that Everquest did this before WoW, and it may have been done before that; Everquest and WoW were certainly not the first players in the MMO market. Even in the granddaddy of RPGs, the original Dungeons & Dragons, there were originally only three classes - the Fighting Man, the Magic-User, and the Cleric (with the Thief coming later), and these classes vaguely fit the Holy Trinity at work in WoW grouping. It works in WoW, but I think that it has become one of those concepts that newer MMOs see and can't seem to think their way out of. WoW is only culpable in this because they are such a large market presence that other games seem to feel the need to copy at least some part of their gameplay in order to get off the ground.

The static nature of WoW didn't always bug me, but after I had explored everywhere and done nearly everything (at one point, there were literally fewer than ten Alliance quests that I had not done, in a quest with hundreds or thousands), I wanted things to change. I wanted what I was doing to have some effect on the world around me; if I killed all the rebels, I wanted an area to stay clear, or if I saved an NPC, I wanted them to stay saved, and maybe say thank you when I saw them after that. Because even Blizzard can't devote that much time to changing the game world, though, I began to feel like my character, who was as powerful (or moreso) than most NPCs, was basically invisible; enemies I killed reappeared moments later for other players to kill, while NPCs I saved were back in danger again in a minute or so. My character's deeds were rarely acknowledged, and on the off chance they were, it wasn't for long. There was almost nothing I could do to change the world, which made all my time feel somewhat wasted. This is one of my big sticking points; at some point in almost every MMO, I begin to feel like nothing I have done has mattered. It's part of why I play tabletop RPGs, because in a game like that, when we save someone, they stay saved, and kingdoms remain toppled. MMO worlds are persistent, yes, but they are static by necessity, rather than changing with the actions of players. I wish this could change, and WoW, even with this, still has more content to play through than almost every other MMO out there, but barring massive changes in game development, an adaptive, persistent MMO world is beyond our reach.

Next up: Champions Online.