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Archive for July, 2012

Guest Post – Lie to Me: Guild Wars 2 & the Evolution of MMOs by Rob Haines

MMO beta weekends are odd little snapshots of gaming; throw a bunch of early-adopters into a expansive game world for 48 hours and watch most of them never make it out of the starter zones before you shut up shop and delete everyone’s progress. That said, the hours I sunk into the Guild Wars 2 beta this past weekend were anything but wasted.

I could wax lyrical for hours about the things I loved about GW2 – my Asura’s personal story of stolen inventions and warring tech enclaves; the communal events that rewarded people for playing together without being dicks about it; that not once did I have to deliver 20 rat scrota to some guy with a punctuation mark halo – but I couldn’t help but consider how GW2, alongside other interesting examples of the latest wave of MMOs, are helping to progress the genre away from its stereotype of ‘grind monsters for loot’. No matter how good the world and the lore and the end-game content of an MMO are, if the primary aim of the game is simply to kill the same gaggle of foes over and over again for hours at a time it becomes like working a shift on a production line. Endless repetition, broken up by occasionally sweeping up discarded debris from the floor.

The trick seems to be to make a game which actively rewards doing interesting things, then filling the world with fun stuff to do. In GW2, you gain more XP from exploring nooks and crannies than you do from smashing an army of random mobs. You get big XP bonuses for killing more than ten different types of enemy a day, or for clambering to the top of buildings and mountain peaks for Assassins Creed-style camera-swirl viewpoints (even if the actual jumping controls are decided unsuited to the precision being asked of them). You progress even faster by joining randomly-occurring local quests which flash up in the corner of your screen, quickly degenerating as an influx of players struggles to cooperate, stringing together combo attacks or working to revive downed players. And it mostly works.

After a weekend of play, Guild Wars 2 reminds me of Disney World. You wander through brightly-coloured worlds full of automata spouting pre-recorded lines, and there’s always something new to look at, some new toy to play with or ride to experience. And just when things are beginning to feel predictable, a spontaneous parade erupts and everyone’s cheering and having fun.

Until you come back again for the second day; you’ve already been on the rides you gave a damn about, and when an identical parade erupts just as spontaneously for the new arrivals as it did back when you saw everything with neon-tinted glasses, the illusion begins to waver. The world is never as dynamic as you think it is, but while you can believe in it you’ll have a lot of fun.

But I can’t imagine going back to Disney World for a third day; all I’d have to look forward to is the slow degeneration of fine illusion into mundane reality. Perhaps GW2 can sidestep that through progression – by day three I’d be levelled up enough to move out of the starting zones and into the wide world – but whether the full game can keep up that sense of momentum throughout is beyond the bounds of a weekend of play. And if not, at least I won’t be spending fifteen bucks a month for the pleasure of grinding my way to level 80.

Rob Haines is a writer, podcaster and ex-turtle biologist. You can find him at Generation Minus One [http://www.generationminusone.com], or follow him on Twitter (@rob_haines).

Categories: Guest Post

A Brief Reflection on My Time in Kingsmouth

I’ve spent much of the past week in the charming New England town of Kingsmouth. It’s one of those places that seems trapped in time. Unlike the quiet hamlets in central Iowa that typically merit such descriptions, however, Kingsmouth is not of the belief that Eisenhower is president and horn-rimmed glasses are fashionable. No, Kingsmouth is perpetually celebrating that most fantastic of holidays: Halloween.

It’s serious business there.

As the first exotic destination in the newly-released MMO The Secret World, this quaint town is not without its problems. For example, I thought I would spend my first evening enjoying a quiet drink on one of the many piers along Fletcher Bay. Not only was the place I chose somewhat rundown, but the service was terrible and the wait staff lacked charisma.

I only tipped ten percent.

Once I was done taking in the local charm, I set to work exterminating all manner of evil things. Zombie, draug, wendigo, and hippie alike fell before my sword and my axe (yes, my in-game persona is as awesome as Aragorn and Gimli combined). It only took me about a week to play through most of the Kingsmouth quests at a fairly casual pace of 2-4 hours per night. My storyline now calls me toward the Savage Coast, but I have temporarily delayed my progress so I might serve as Tori’s guide through the lovely port town.

Things I Liked

-Horror-themed MMO. Let me say it again: HORROR-THEMED MMO. After spending years frolicking about lesser copies of Middle-Earth, MMO players now have the chance to crawl down the twisted paths of dark mythologies ancient and modern. No more elves with floppy ears and orcs with horrible dental hygiene. Now we can explore modern cities, crushing the un-life out of Lovecraftian spawnlings and ancient Egyptian deities. Even better, Funcom gives the player NPCs with personalities and dialogue that is fun to listen to.

-The ability wheel lets you take your character in any and all directions you choose. Equipping seven active and seven passive abilities gives you a “deck” of skills, much like a Magic: the Gathering player’s deck. As you can see from the screen shots, my character favors swords and hammers/axes, but I’ve also started exploring the mysteries of chaos magic. I’m intending to craft a solid tanking deck for running dungeons before branching out into heavier damage-dealing powers. The powerful system for selecting and equipping powers means I don’t have to roll and level different toons to play various roles. There are no tank, healer, or DPS classes, just different builds.

-Combat is a good blend of traditional hotbar with the flexibility of free movement. Spells and other channeled abilities don’t require nailing your boots to the ground, and most mobs have some sort of AoE power (advertised by white lines on the ground) that one would do well to dodge roll away from. While still not up to par with true hack-and-slash titles, it’s still a cut above standard MMO offerings.

The mesquite beans are also quite tasty.

Things I Didn’t Like

-As with most MMO launches, there are quite a few bugs. Quests glitching out, rough animations, server dumps, etc. Teething problems happen to all games, and Funcom has actually weeded a surprising number of them prior to launch (I was in <1.0 beta builds). It’s certainly no buggier than Skyrim was at launch, but that doesn’t mean the bugs are any less annoying.

-I rolled my character on the RP server Arcadia hoping to find two things: a strong roleplaying community and a lesser chance of moronic toon names. I haven’t joined up with any serious RP guilds yet, but the vapid chatter and rampant spoilers in every chat channel I’ve joined (local, global faction, and help) are absurdly effective immersion-breakers. Similarly, the server rules (if there are any) regarding character names are not enforced to any degree I’ve seen. I’m not one to go around reporting violators, but the sheer amount of idiocy people display in their name choices never ceases to amaze.

In a perfect game, I would be able to set any poorly-named player alight with my mind.

Verdict: I’ve been anticipating this game for four years now, so it’s frivolous to restate my opinion here. I own it, I play it, I love it. Furthermore, I seriously recommend it to those questioning the future of the MMO. After the disappointment that was SW:TOR, you may be mistrustful of the genre as a whole. While not perfect, The Secret World builds on tried-and-true delivery methods while innovating in all the right areas.

Categories: Game Reviews, Games

The Shortest Page, the Longest Struggle

In high school, I always thought one of the best parts about being in a band would be getting to write the “Thanks to” sections for each album. It was a chance for the band members to give shouts out to friends, family, and colleagues. I loved reading them because it made the musicians I so admired seem more human. They would also drop inside jokes I didn’t get but still laughed at because people in bands are cool.

I have this on good authority.

Book acknowledgements and dedications are similar. A short list of people who helped make the book happen plus an personal italicized message. Just give shouts out to your friends and family, maybe name drop a few, be funny. Work up a sweet nothing if you (like me) are dedicating the book to a significant other. When you’re done, pour yourself a glass of something, lean back, and cogitate. Like train etiquette, it seems like super simple stuff.

It’s not.

At least not for me. I’m sure other authors have a much easier time of things like that. And, to be honest, the acknowledgements didn’t take me all that long. I had a good idea of who I wanted to include by name, and I kept it short so as not to bore the few that might read it. One or two inside jokes for good measure, and I’m done.

The dedication, on the other hand, was a monster. I spent a full month trying to come up with something absolutely fantastic, something beautiful and stirring, something that might approach the level of meaning I wanted to infuse into the few words I was permitted. Something perfect. Having written poetry long before trying my hand at prose, I am familiar with obsessing over word placement. Yes, fiction writers do it, too, but as someone who has successfully composed both, I can say the process is different. My poetry subscribes to the “economy of words” philosophy; I don’t blather on in my stanzas, preferring to keep them tightly-focused and potent. With that sort of background, one might think I’d be well-equipped to tackle something like a novel dedication.

You can almost hear the imagery crackle.

Well, one would be wrong. I spent more time trying to come up with a single line than I spent drafting the synopsis of She Returns From War. You only get to dedicate a first novel once, after all, and I wanted it to be perfect. However, after spending many weeks working and reworking various ideas in my head, I finally had to go with something I fear falls short of that goal. Really, though, how do you sum up the entirety of a loved one’s undying belief and support in a single line? If there exists such a level of writing prowess, I have not attained it. So, much like the larger work of the novel, the single line of dedication is something that may never reach the divine ideal hoped for at the outset.

It somehow feels like a greater failing, though. Sure, nobody can ever write the perfect a novel. It’s big, it’s complex, it has all of those stupid words in it. A beast of many backs that can never truly be domesticated. A dedication, on the other hand, is just one line. One. Line. If you can’t perfect that, perhaps you should give up the whole writing gig altogether. So say the whispers of insecurity, and who’s to say they’re wrong?

This guy.

Anyway, the deadline for the dedication came upon me last week, so I went with something I hope serves as a portal into the universe of gratitude I feel. It’s something of an inside joke, but it isn’t the kind that makes every other person return their breakfast to the earth via the most direct means possible. I’m not perfectly happy with it because it isn’t perfect. In fact, I’m more apprehensive about how Tori will like it than I am about how book critics will view the novel itself. Perhaps my priorities are askew. Then again, it’s highly unlikely I’d have ever written the book I did without her support.

Categories: Writing
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