Maybe it’s because I’m hopeful Guardians of the Galaxy evokes the old feelings of wonder that came with A New Hope. Maybe it’s the discovery of the excellent X-Wing Miniatures game. Maybe it’s just nostalgia. But whatever the cause, I have been on a sizable Star Wars kick lately, and a big part of that is the time I’ve been spending in Star Wars: The Old Republic.
I did a first impressions post a few years ago when the game was in beta, and upon reflection, I ended up being a bit harsh in the name of blunting my nostalgia. I think leaning towards objectivity is good for anybody looking to present a review of entertainment for a wide audience, but I think it would have been okay if I had talked more about my curiosity and excitement about a new facet of the universe opening up and less about the clunky mechanics and the opinions of non-fans.
Playing it now, I’m definitely hooked. I’m curious to see where the various stories go. I’m doing my utmost to avoid spoilers, and I’m actually enjoying the quest structure. It doesn’t feel like a grind – I’ve never had more than two or three quests in my log at any given time. “Kill X amount of Y” only pops up as a bonus, and since I get jumped by uppity bunches of Y on my way to the objective anyway, why not pull in a little extra XP? It does still have a lot of mechanical similarities to World of Warcraft, but the little differences do more than their fair share in setting the game apart. The bottom line is, even moreso now than back in the game’s beta days, I see potential.
I think that’s been what keeps Star Wars a positive thing in my mind. For all of its flaws and missteps, the universe Lucas created has always contained the potential for truly great storytelling. The military sci-fi bent of Rogue Squadron stories, the antiquated feel of Tales of the Jedi, the way Dark Forces felt like so much more than a DOOM clone because you were stealing the Death Star plans… I could go on. Lucas may not be the best director or a very good scriptwriter, but the seeds he sowed almost 40 years ago were in very fertile ground indeed.
I’m interested in exploring the Edge of the Empire RPG, probably after I move, if I can rope my new housemates into it. I’m expanding my collection of X-Wing Miniatures. I’m going to play a lot more of The Old Republic. And I am keeping a wary eye on this new film of theirs. While I don’t agree with the official word ejecting the expanded universe as canon, JJ Abrams has always been more of a whiz-bang director than the intellectual contemplation that Star Trek really demands. In spite of my cautious curiosity, though, one thing is certainly clear.
Star Wars is back in my life. I enjoy Star Wars quite a bit. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
A surprisingly provincial addition to a world full of dragons and wizards.
When I’ve played MMOs previously, especially World of Warcraft, the prevailing sentiment has been that ‘the real game begins’ at the maximum level a character can achieve. For the most part, this has applied to large-group raid or player-versus-player content. Not everybody is interested in such things, though. The question becomes, then, what does one do once their main character hits the ceiling of the maximum level?
There’s always the option of rolling another character, for certain, but I would argue that a good MMO provides a plethora of content for a player who’s struggled through the slow grind upwards. There was a part of me that was concerned when I approached the top level available as I worked my way through World of Warcraft’s new continent of Pandaria. However, when that bright light and familiar sound met me, I was in for a surprise.
Like many previous expansions, World of Warcraft’s newest areas feature multiple factions towards whom a player can endear themselves. They’re all over Pandaria, but unlike the forces featured in Cataclysm or Wrath of the Lich King, they’re not necessarily worried with getting your help to save the world. The Anglers are fascinated by the various kinds of fish you can find around Pandaria, the Order of the Cloud Serpent raises the continent’s unique breeds of dragons (and you can, too!), and the Tillers are farmers, plain & simple. I’ll get back to them in a moment.
Top level players have been queueing up to enter dungeons for a long time, but Pandaria also gives us scenarios to experience. These instances are smaller and more scripted, geared for 3 players instead of 5 and not necessarily requiring a specific team makeup (a tank will certainly help you, though). With many of the factions I mentioned, you can participate in daily quests ranging from slaying nasty critters to corralling lost yaks. These quests and instances yield plenty of gold to finance other endeavors, gear either through direct drops or special currency, and even reputation with the factions above. But not everything that you can do with your max-level character is so confrontational.
The Tillers allow you to start a farm of your very own. I’ve been told this portion of the game is lifted almost directly from the Harvest Moon games, based on the different crop conditions and finding gifts for fellow farmers. Either way, it feels to me like a lovely change from the usual grind of post top level gear gathering. It’s still a bit of a grind to get your farm to a point where you can grow materials you need for your professions, but considering the things you can do with the other crops in the meantime, it feels like less of a grind, and a player getting a positive feeling from an in-game experience is evidence of good mechanical design.
If you skipped a profession on your way up, or want to change from one to another, max level is great time to retread those steps a bit. Archaeology, in particular, is a neat secondary profession to explore at top levels. Few of the areas you’ll be digging in are actually dangerous to you, you pick up unique items, and it’s a skill that can be used for dailies in Pandaria. In fact, the Order of the Cloud Serpent has dailies that call upon your skills as a cook, medic, angler, and archaeologist. It pays to diversify your skills, after all!
And then there’s the Brawler’s Guild, which I haven’t even touched yet…
Of course, this could just be my feeling about reaching the current top level in World of Warcraft. I’m sure others are more interested in the raiding scene or jumping into the Arena to take on other players. While there will always be alts to level, the game clearly does not end when the levels do. A MMO worth its asking price should keep providing fresh, new content, and for my money, Mists of Pandaria is doing that pretty well for World of Warcraft.
It’s been a while since I’ve played Tribes: Ascend. While I still think the skiing movement mechanic and the unique weapons make it fun in the middle of the game, some of the periphery aspects of the game and its business model left me feeling sour. It’s hard to stay invested in a game with ongoing development when you get the impression that the dev team cares more about producing super-powered weapons for an initial rush of cash than they do fixing existing problems or heeding feedback from the community. League of Legends occasionally has this problem as well from time to time, and while Planetside 2 can also feel like the devs have gone too far one way or another, I just can’t stay mad at it.
I tried a bit of the original Planetside back during my World of Warcraft days. A MMO shooter seemed like an innovative idea. Shooters tend to be at their most chaotic and unpredictable (which leads to fun times) when games and servers are full. Most of them limit the size of their games, with something like 16 players to a team. That’s one of the main things that sets Planetside 2 apart: its scale. Instead of 16 players to a side, engagements can involve any number of players, and I’ve seen battles take place with hundreds of players swarming around a base while hundreds more rush about defending it. There are no NPCs or boss monsters or dungeons: all of the conflict is generated by players, vying for control of resources on a distant world.
It would be very difficult to get any positive results without some organization, which leads me to the second point in Planetside 2‘s favor: the outfit. Like guilds in other MMOs, an outfit makes a huge difference in yielding enjoyment from the game. While there is a proximity voice chat feature in the game, I’ve found it’s a great deal better to find an outfit that has its own voice solution, like Mumble or Ventrilo, to facilitate communication and organization. You can enjoy the game as a lone soldier following no orders but his or her own, but this can also be a lonely and confusing experience. In an outfit, you know where to go, can communicate what you need to the team or offer contributions of your own, and if the outfit is right, you can leave proximity voice for things like a teammate broadcasting music to put you in the right mood.
Finally, Planetside 2 puts an emphasis on combined arms, from foot soldiers with various weapons to ground vehicles in multiple roles to aircraft. And all of them can be customized with weapon loadouts, perks, armor options, even camouflage and vanity items. This is the part that appeals to the theorycrafting portion of my brain. I find myself asking many questions as I pore over the options available to my classes. What’s the best way to dish out a ton of damage as Heavy Assault? Is the Infiltrator better as a close-quarters stealth assassin with a suppressed SMG, or a long-range sniper with the best scope? How can my Engineer best protect the Sunderer that supports our advance? So on and so forth.
I think it’s these factors combined that keep bringing me back into Planetside 2. Sony Online Entertainment may not always strike the right balance, but with the addition of things like the Engineer’s AV turret and the upcoming VR trainer for pilots, they seem to be moving in the right direction, which is more than I can say for some other developers. They’ve put together a game that makes you feel like you’re part of something large and expansive, and for my part, makes me want to experience more of it. I want to keep earning certifications that yield more interesting loadouts, improve my skill at flying so I can escort our dropships or pilot one of my own, and I definitely don’t want to miss the next time the outfit advances down a hillside, firing our plasma rifles as a teammate plays “Disco Inferno” over proximity.
If you’re even tangentially connected to video games that deviate from the big cash-cow options of linear, realistic first-person shooters and endorsed sports simulations, chances are you’ve heard of a game called Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. After all, it isn’t often when a new IP makes it out of the imagination of a basement programmer and onto major platforms. Sure, indie titles can sneak into consoles and hard drives, but we’re talking a full-blown commercial release backed by the marketing juggernaut of EA. You need to have serious clout to get them involved. Being a major league baseball star helps.
Curt Schilling isn’t just a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, you see. He plays and is passionate about MMORPGs. He founded 38 Studios to develop his own, currently code-named Copernicus. In the meantime, his creative resources for the art direction and backstory for the project, Todd MacFarlane & R.A. Salvatore respectively, also developed a single-player RPG called Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which boasts an open world, organic and free-flowing combat and a dynamic character-building system allowing you to change what sort of character you play on the fly. It’s an impressive endeavor on paper.
At first blush, however, it seems that a few notes have been cribbed from BioWare. You start the game having been recently resurrected (Mass Effect 2) in an underground facility reminiscent of the Deep Roads (Dragon Age: Origins) and everybody seems to be in awe of you but are no help in filling in the gaping holes in your memory due to your amnesia (Knights of the Old Republic 2). I don’t mean to say or even imply that Reckoning is ripping off BioWare or anybody else. R.A. Salvatore apparently wrote up a timeline of 10000 years’ worth of history for this new world, and I like the fact that the primary conflict is due to a struggle between the Summer and Winter Courts kind of like that one novel in the Dresden Files.
While the story beats may feel familiar, the world at least has a unique aesthetic with a breathtaking amount of detail. The world is rendered in such a way that every aspect has some thought & creative energy behind it. The walls and decoration of buildings give them a lived-in feeling and the forests have flowers, fungus and greenery aplenty. Character designs opt more for fantastical, painter-like style rather than photo-realism, and it fits in with the overall design of the world even if the NPCs seem to only have three or four gestures between them.
I can see why you’re by a fire. Doesn’t it get cold in that getup?
You’ll be seeing those gestures quite a bit, too, as you go from one glowing exclamation point to the next picking up quests. Like the MMOs that drove Schilling into the gaming business, Reckoning is structured to present a world in which you can explore every corner as you hunt down quest objectives, item drops or just some extra experience to build your character. The knowledge of these origins and the nature of the gameplay make it not quite as immersive as Skyrim but it’s still a tried-and-true design that will have players grinding for hours, battling enemies they happen upon and taking all their stuff.
Combat immediately reminded me of the likes of Fable and Dragon Age 2, with a slightly better pace. You can switch on the fly between two melee weapons and a variety of spells, stringing them together into interesting combos to vary the ways in which you dispatch hapless opponents. You also have a blocking maneuver, though you may need to wait for the animation of your last attack to finish up before your shield appears, and you can also dodge. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of delay outside of what I’ve mentioned, and I’d say the game encourages you to try different weapons and styles because sticking to one particular set of skills could get a bit repetitive. Also, on Normal difficulty, it was entirely possible for me to run roughshod over the guards in the starting village and collect whatever gold and armor they dropped. I spent the night in jail afterwards, sure, but other than that there was no consequence. It was like nothing ever happened, kind of like appearing outside the police station in a Grand Theft Auto game but retaining all of my weapons and stolen goods.
In addition to your normal means of laying waste to folks is the Fate meter that grows as you deal damage. Fate plays a big part in the world of Amalur, and as one who does not have a pre-determined Fate, you have the power over the Fates of others. After enough mundane destruction you can go into a special mode that slows down the world and allows you to unload on an enemy with abandon. At a certain point you can execute that enemy with a special quick-time event for bonus XP. It’s animated well and has a unique look to it, varying the means of execution enough to keep things interesting in that regard.
Character advancement revolves around three skill trees: Might, Finesse and Sorcery. The more points you invest in a particular tree, the more options you unlock in the form of character classes based on Fate cards. This makes it easy to create a hybrid class of character rather than being rigidly fixed within one of the three main archetypes. And if you’re ever unsatisfied with your choices, a little gold to a Fateweaver allows you to re-specialize immediately. I didn’t spend enough time to delve into the crafting professions or really check out the selection from vendors, but if my experience thus far is anything to go by, they’ll be very similar to established conventions with a bit more depth in places.
I guess what I’m getting at is that, to me, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning feels a bit derivative. Don’t, however, take that as an entirely negative thing. What the game does, it does well. The way lore is weaved into most aspects of the game is impressive and I can’t deny it has a neat look to it, even if some of the proportions and fashion decisions strike me as somewhat odd or trying too hard to be ‘fantastical.’ It sticks to tried-and-true methods of RPG design and for the most part is functional and slightly above average without pushing too many boundaries or blowing a lot of minds. For a first title in a new IP from an untested studio, I can’t help but be somewhat impressed, and I can understand cribbing notes from what’s worked before in order to forge a successful title. I just hope that Copernicus and future Amalur titles take a few more risks, as Reckoning tends to play it safe. Still, there’s some good game to be enjoyed here, and if you want to pick up Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning for some MMO-flavored action that also lets you unlock collectible armor and weapons for other titles like Mass Effect 3, I say go for it.
I’ve been a fan of your work since the days of Warcraft 2. I’ve played games in all three of your major IPs and enjoyed every one. I’ve begun playing StarCraft 2 in a competitive sense (even though I suck) and I’ve watched the development of Diablo 3 with interest. However, I have let my World of Warcraft subscription lapse, and in light of the latest major patch, I doubt I’ll be re-subscribing any time soon.
When I pay for World of Warcraft every month, my expectation is not that the game will be exactly what I want. My expectation is that the game will allow me to explore the extensive world you’ve created, interact with like-minded players and face challenges in the form of dungeons and raids. It’s that last part that’s been lacking for some time now. Cataclysm began with some promising steps in the right direction, but in light of many, many complaints from some of the more vocal members of the community, you have taken World of Warcraft down a path I can no longer follow.
I’m reminded of a scene from the movie The 13th Warrior. Antonio Banderas is traveling with a band of Vikings looking to protect their homes from vicious savages, and one of the Vikings gives him a large sword. “I cannot lift this,” says Banderas’ character. The Viking shrugs and says with a smirk, “Grow stronger.” The solution to the problem is not handed to Banderas; instead he must find the solution for himself. Granted, he eventually has the sword shaved down to a scimitar-like size and balance, allowing him to use speed he possesses instead of strength he does not, but it was still a solution he developed on his own.
Instead of letting your players grow stronger or adapt to face the challenges you present on their own terms, you’ve swapped the big heavy sword for a butter knife.
By lowering the difficulty of encounters, you do several things that I feel will be to the ultimate detriment of the game. You remove the challenge that is part of the appeal of dungeon and raid encounters. You encourage players to be lazy and not improve their skills. Most importantly, you foster the notion that a player or group of players who complain loudly enough about something they feel is unfair or to which they feel entitled will gain them what they want, without them having to expend any real effort. Get a bunch of like-minded friends together, post on the forums about how unfair or overpowered or unbalanced something is, and next thing you know stuff is less difficult and it’s easier for you play. It’s magic!
I’ve been frustrated by encounters before. I’ve gotten into absolute fits over not being able to clear a particular boss. I’ve been short with guildmates, yelled at my wife, startled pets. But not once did I think any of my difficulties needed to be fixed with a wave of Blizzard’s magic wand. No, my frustration came from the idea that my skills were not good enough, so I would need to improve them. I can be impatient, and crave my shinies just as much as any other adventurer in Azeroth, but I want to earn them, not have them handed to me. Developing the skills to earn something is difficult and time-consuming, not to mention carrying the possibility of failure.
Rather than letting players fail more often, you lower the requirements for success to near insignificance. I know I’m not the only player who feels this way, but as I don’t complain regularly my voice is one of the many that goes unheard. These concerns and worries go unspoken, because we’d rather work on our problems within our own reach rather than wave our arms in hysteria and grab attention, screaming as soon as we have it until we get what we want.
I was hoping to come back to World of Warcraft soon. I met my wife there, after all. But I’ve realized you can’t hope for things to go back to the way they were. I met my wife during The Burning Crusade, long before this sense of entitlement crept into the player base and the development team was producing multiple raid dungeons for every tier of progressive content. We had a great guild that worked well together, from role-playing to raiding, and it was a great time we’ve thoroughly enjoyed.
But those days are gone. And no matter how fondly I might recall them, wishing for a thing does not make it so. You have decided that a vocal minority demanding you change is more important than the majority of the player base who want to progress, improve and succeed on their own merits. I feel this is an incorrect decision, and all I can do is call attention to the whys and wherefores of my own decision not to return to World of Warcraft. I hope I have done so and that this criticism is taken in the spirit with which it’s written.
I will continue to play StarCraft 2, but I must admit to being wary of doing so. I am aware that many of the official forums for that game are also full of complaints about balance issues and how one unit is more overpowered than another, how this matchup is unwinnable or that one needs a nerf. I’m also now nervous about Diablo 3. While I still look forward to playing it when it launches, I fear that within a month of its release players will complain that a boss is too hard and your response will be to lower its difficulty until all challenge and excitement from the encounter is lost, reducing the experience to the repetative process of “click enemy once, recieve loot.”
I’m certain that Blizzard Entertainment is not overly concerned with the complaints of a single customer who will no longer be using a particular service of theirs. It’s entirely possible that this rather verbose dissertation on the state of the game will fall on deaf ears and go largely unread by anyone in a position to correct the course World of Warcraft has taken. I accept that, yet I could not let my feelings go unvoiced. It is my hope that as I and others of a like mind try to bring this very real and unfortunate situation to light, you might understand the position we are in and look into ways to make World of Warcraft great again. I guarantee you’ll see players coming back if you make the right decisions for the sake of the game, rather than pandering to players who feel entitled to their loot instead of being willing to work for it.
Thank you for the years of entertainment. I wish you nothing but success.