Saturday, February 27, 2010

Darkfall (cue ominous music)

So, the infamous harder-core-than-thou PvP sandbox Darkfall has celebrated its first birthday by giving the curious their first opportunity at a, well.. almost free trial.

Years of slings and arrows and cries of "vapourware!" meant that I didn't expect much when Darkfall launched, but its resilience has surprised me, it has seemed to be a genuine quiet achiever, with the word being steady growth and improvement over its first year. And, I have to say, rarely have I seen anyone make any game sound as good as SynCaine over at "Hardcore Casual" makes Darkfall sound. So this was not something I was going to miss.

First of all: "almost" free? Yes, it costs a buck to activate an account for the 7-day trial. This is novel: we've seen games selling trial CDs in shops for a tiny fee before, but have we seen a fee like this for no physical media? Not that I know of. It's caused a bit of debate, with both supporters and detractors. My take on it? A buck is nothing. It's meaningless as a sum of money. It's clear that the purpose of the nominal fee is to give Aventurine the means to exert some control of any abuse of trial accounts that might occur.

Because, as many have pointed out: Darkfall is not a game where you can stick trial players off on their own island, and have it be any sort of trial of the game. It's not a game where you can impose significant restrictions on chat and trade and interaction (as most MMORPGs do with their free trials), and have it be any sort of trial of the game. You have to put them in it as if they were real players, and if that means taking a credit card number to enable the blacklisting of people who want to use trial accounts to spam, or test out hacks, so be it.
And so, one extremely fast 7 gig torrent download later, on with the game!
Zitron-meter™: 2 hours 10 minutes played
So, in my opening couple of hours of Darkfall, I have killed some goblins (as you do), been killed by goblins once, fled from goblins like a scared little girl several times, fled from goblins that I couldn't see but which were shooting me with bows from somewhere several times, done some mining, logging, herbing, caught some fish, cooked some fish, and killed a deer with a bow and arrows.

The recently introduced "New Player Protection" system is surely a blessing. It's true what everyone says about the interface and controls being rather different and feeling rather strange at first, for anyone who has played a bunch of other MMOs with their similar controls. I'm willing to brave PvP but if I got ravaged by another player when I was five minutes into the game and had just switched into UI mode again by instinctively right-clicking to try to turn my character, I'd be peeved.

But, I've got no argument with the explanations I've heard for the interface decisions: when they feel like they're getting in your way, I can see that there are solid gameplay reasons why. Can't freely spin your camera around? PvP decision - it's to make you actually turn around if you want to check if anyone's behind you. Can't autoloot, but rather have to sheathe your weapon and drag items one by one to your backpack? Looting is intended to expose you to vulnerability, not something that is a mere quick shift-right-click in the middle of a fight.

I have to say, I don't enjoy aim and click melee combat, though. I've never played a game where it was enjoyable. Trying to whack a goblin with a sword was a frustrating mess of spinning around as this tiny little thing scuttled around me, not helped by the fact that frankly I'm not getting a particularly great frame rate out my somewhat-elderly PC. I think I would definitely prefer to specialize in ranged combat or magic in Darkfall.

My few attempts at shooting at goblins with a bow, I never hit a damn thing. I did, as I said, kill a deer though - deer don't fight back, so you can creep up close to one, shoot it, watch it run around in a panic for a bit, and then when it settles down, creep up and shoot it again! I actually got a real zing of realism from this: shooting a moving target with a bow is hard. You need to practice on easy targets first. I'll do more of this.

Resource gathering reminded me very much of EVE Online. Park your ship (yourself) next to an asteroid (tree, boulder or shrub), turn on gathering, and relax while every 10 seconds or so, another unit of material appears in your inventory. Or in Darkfall's case, fails to do so, because I'm a noob with skill level 1 out of 100 in mining, logging and herbalism. But don't relax too much - this is an area where I can see that the "no spinning the camera" restriction is going to bite hard. You practically have to push your nose up against the node you're harvesting, leaving you in a very vulnerable state indeed. It's not like EVE where keeping an eye on your scanner will alert you the instant potential trouble arrives.

As for the use-it-to-skill-up skill-based character advancement: playing a game that worked like that really brought home how rarely you see that these days. There have been plenty of CRPGs that worked that way over the 25 years of so I've been gaming, but MMORPGs? So few and far between. They all followed the Dungeons & Dragons level-based model rather than the RuneQuest based skill model. I didn't play Ultima Online, so this might actually be the first time I've hit it in an MMO.

Obviously I'm way too new to say how well it works in Darkfall long-term, but there's no doubt that it brings a level of feedback-excitement over a level-based system. Rather than a regular rhythm of that bar filling up, ding!, and then filling up again, skill-ups are all over the place. As a total noob almost every fight was dinging something. Even just heading back to town was dinging my running skill. Dings all over the place! It would clearly give you a lot of choices in how to work on your character, too. Do I kill tough monsters with my sword, since that's what I'm good at? Or do I go and kill weak monsters with an axe, which I'm useless at, to build up my skills there.

My grand overall reaction on the game is still a bit unsure. My time so far has been spread over a couple of sessions, but then this afternoon I played some Atlantica rather than firing up Darkfall again, so it hasn't really grabbed me yet, as such. I'll see how it goes and post more (along with the updated Zitron-meter™!) as the week progresses.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Alganon to go free-to-play, it seems

So Alganon finally launched, to a reaction of pretty much universal apathy. I've glanced at some news and discussions every now and then, my vague interest mostly due to the fact that my impressions of the beta were the most popular thing I've ever written. Anyway, things haven't looked good - unconfirmed forum reports have claimed that there were less than 100 people online during prime time, even straight after launch, and even the few enthusiasts I've seen on forums seem to have mostly abandoned the game.

But now, news emerges that they are planning to adopt "a new subscription-free pricing model." And, according to the usual Alganon rules of quality control, this news has emerged not through an official announcement, or interview, or anything like that, but a post regarding some arcane changes to the addon API made by one of their programmers.
As you have probably already seen elsewhere on the site, The new subscription-free pricing model that Alganon is adopting introduces the concept of Tribute. This is what part of the new API for the last patch includes.
Upon the realization that this info was not meant to be announced yet, he added:
please be patient and wait until the information that this post refers to is made available before jumping to too many conclusions about it's meaning. I'm sure that said information will be released soon™

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

More on Atlantica Online

Previous post in this series: "Howdy, y'all!" from the lost city of Atlantica

In my first entry on Atlantica Online, I got so carried away writing about the turn-based, party-based combat system, that before I said much else, I decided the post was quite long enough already and hit "publish."

Now, I have complained in the past about being bored of "race/class/level quest-to-endgame-and-then-PvP sword & sorcery themepark MMOs". Does Atlantica fit into that category? Well, it is class/level based - however, the class system is mitigated by the fact that it is party-based. My character is an Archer. But there are Archer mercenaries available. If I was playing, say, a Swordsman, and had an Archer merc as part of my formation, I don't think it would feel significantly different to my current situation of playing an Archer and having a Swordsman merc.

If I want to experiment with some different classes, I don't need to roll an alt of a different class, I can get a merc of a different class into my party. My main frustration with the class/level paradigm is that once you're established in a game, trying another class means leaving behind your levels and starting from scratch, so it's nice to not have to do this - sure, my new merc will be level one, but at least the rest of my party is still strong and can continue adventuring while I raise him up.

(note: storage space for unpartied mercs does need to be purchased, either at the item mall or for in-game currency, otherwise you won't be able to keep your old merc in reserve while you play a new one)

Quest to endgame and then PvP? Well, I'm level 36 now, and while I have indeed been supplied with quests the whole time, never needing to grind, the bulk of this questing has been in a single massive chain leading me around. There haven't been that many side quests, really, so gameplay has been a bit lacking in that "which of these quests shall I do next?" feeling.

The quests are mostly pretty standard "kill ten rats" and fedex style things, as with many MMOs they really just provide a structure to the gameplay rather than truly standing out for their own merits. If I wasn't taken by the turn and party based play, I'd certainly be bored by the quests. Although the quest dialogue does have a "subtitles from a Chinese martial arts movie" feel to it, which has some charm. And it's also interesting that a lot of the tutorial elements of the game are integrated into the main quest chain - e.g., you get questgivers giving you a quests to do such things as use a scroll in battle, equip an item, buy and sell items from vendors, even open your world map and look at it! It's a nice way of making sure a new player doesn't miss any of the basics, whilst giving more experienced gamers a little gold and xp for nothing.

But one thing which Atlantica has certainly gotten right which so many MMOs do not is that PvP is by no means an activity solely for the endgame. There are various competitions which run regularly in game, the main one being the "Free League". I believe you have to be level 20 to participate in this competition, which realistically means that by the time you've learned the ropes of gameplay, you can start PvP'ing. Entering involves merely clicking a button, and sees you matched against an opponent, using a division ranking system so you should get a relatively fair fight. My record is currently standing at nine wins and eight losses so I'd say the matchmaking works pretty well!

PvP certainly challenges your formation-building and tactical skills far more than PvE - in PvE, mobs tend to whack away at random members of your party, and have few special abilities, but in PvP you can expect to be confronted by a broad mix of classes and thus many different abilities, with your opponent (if they're any good!) doing their best to hammer you with stuns and silences and heavy focus-fire on your most important party members. I was planning to write more about it in a separate post, but I'll finish off by saying that I think that Warhammer Online is the only MMORPG I have played which offered this much PvP entertainment so soon after you started playing - and lord knows that game had enough problems to counterbalance that quality.

Crafting? Atlantica has a lot of crafting skills - literally dozens of them. Every type of weapon and every armour slot it its own crafting skill. And you can learn all of them on one character. Needless to say, to do so would require such effort and expense that you won't be doing it any time soon!

The system is fixed recipes, e.g. sword crafting skill level 1 will allow you make a Spirit Sword for 5 Copper Flakes and 4 Maple. There are no gathering skills, by the way, raw materials are all monster drops, also all the ones I have seen so far can be purchased from NPC vendors for a fixed price.

However, unlike most games, it's not a "click a button, watch the progress bar, and bam! you now have a sword" process - after clicking the button, you need to accumulate a certain amount of "workload", which you get by fighting monsters. At my low level, crafting one item seems to require maybe one or two fights, so it's pretty quick. And you can get books of "crafting secrets", which are consumables that give you workload. I've gotten a bunch of these as rewards for competing in the PvP league, so if I want to craft something quickly, I can use them to do so.

There are a few other wrinkles, like being able to dismantle an item that you are capable of crafting to learn extra crafting xp, but you can only do this once per day. On the whole though, crafting seems pretty grindy, even to keep a single skill up to pace with your level (say, to make crafted weapons for your main character) looks like it would take quite a lot of money, materials and effort. I'm not sure that I'm particularly gripped by this aspect of the game.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

"Howdy, y'all!" from the lost city of Atlantica


There was one phrase I'd always heard used to describe Atlantica Online: "free-to-play turn-based MMORPG".

And that always made me think "what the hell??" How can an MMORPG, which by definition, you would think involved a bunch of people doing a bunch of stuff all at the same time, be turn-based? Well, I finally got around to having a play with it, and now I know the compromises involved. But the end result is a game which definitely has some charm, and, importantly to me, passes the test of being genuinely different to the other MMORPGs I have played.

First of all, in an element reminiscent of non-MMO CRPGs, in Atlantica, you control your "main" character, and a team of "mercenaries". Apparently at endgame you can have eight mercenaries, but it builds up gradually - my level 34 character is allowed to have six. Selecting an effective combination of classes for your team is a big part of the game - the options to customize individual members are not that extensive, but picking a good "formation" with a good combination of offence and defence and healing is key. Looking at the website, there are 23 different classes of mercenary (many of them have a level requirement and require a quest to unlock, I believe), so obviously the number of possible combinations is absolutely enormous.

Combat may be turn-based, but this is certainly not a game where you can plan your strategy in a leisurely fashion. You have 30 seconds to take your turn, and can move up to five characters in that time, so while we're not talking Starcraft levels of clicks-per-minute, you need to be fairly sharpish with your decision-making, and should probably adopt the attitude that a suboptimal move is better than no move at all because you ran out of time.

The complexity curve of combat starts off quite gently. As I said, the number of mercenaries you control grows as you gain levels, and also, each individual mercenary will not have a lot of moves available - initially, it's "attack" or "use magic" (although later, some mercenaries will have up to three different magic spells rather than just one). "Attack" varies by type: some mercs, like a Swordsman, make a single-target attack on an enemy in the front row. An Archer, however, can target any enemy, even if they're standing behind someone else. And then some hit multiple targets - a Spearman hits a target, and whoever is standing behind him. A Viking hits a target and anyone standing directly next to him. So you want to pick the appropriate target to maximize the number of enemies hit by these multi-target attacks.

Plus, you want to arrange your own formation so your softer characters are standing behind more robust melee types. This is especially true for your main character - if they die, it's a wipe, no matter how many of your mercs are still standing. So you'll seldom want to put them anywhere near the frontline.

Magic effects include more powerful attacks (like a Swordsman's "Flame Sword"), crowd control (like a Viking's "Frozen Axe", which freezes up to three enemies and renders them unable to act for a couple of turns, or an Archer's "Silence", which prevents its targets from using magic themselves for a couple of turns), healing (always vital of course!), buffs, etc. Spells have cooldowns which prevent you from using them every turn, as well as consuming mana from a traditional blue mana bar, so you'll want to pick the right moment to cut loose with them, especially in PvP.

As you get a larger party, you run into the "no more than five characters can act per turn" limitation. Now you have to consider which mercs you want to use each turn, as well as what you want to do with them. Sometimes the choice is easy (no point using your healer to do a weak magical attack if nobody needs healing), sometimes not so much, as you really really want to use everyone.

But anyway, how do all of these thirty second turns fit into a persistent multi-player world? Well, that's where it gets a bit dodgy. When you're out and about in the world of Atlantica, you'll see other players running hither and thither, and wandering mobs shuffling about, much like every other MMO. It's just a single human figure, though, representing each player, even though it's really a group of up to nine. And a single monster figure represents a group of monsters, generally three to six or thereabouts in my experience. And, when a player engages a monster, both figures just stand there with a little sword icons over them to indicate that they're fighting. If you stood nearby, you'd see the monster keel over dead a few minutes later (actually, I think you can right-click on the mob and choose to observe the battle, haven't done that myself though). Additionally, I haven't seen any aggressive hostile monsters yet - they all just wander around and wait for you to attack them. At first I thought this might be because I was low-level (given that many MMOs don't make you deal with aggressive enemies at first), but I'm 34 now and no sign of any change!

This adds up to a somewhat less than immersive world. It feels very game-y, moving from zone to zone, ignoring the hordes of monsters that you're not interested in fighting, and then activating the turn-based combat against those that you do want to kill.

Still to come: my thoughts on how Atlantica approaches some other standard MMO tropes, also its PvP, and the deal with the interaction between free-to-play and the item mall.

Next post in this series: More on Atlantica Online

Monday, February 1, 2010

Many people are enjoying Allods. Me, not so much.

So Keen, from Keen & Graev's, wrote a nice piece entitled “Max Level in Allods Online: The Adventure is just beginning...” He has been hitting the Allods Online beta pretty hard, and has written a number of interesting posts about it - and as that title suggests, he's pretty impressed by the game. So I was maybe a little impolitic in saying:

..I’ve spent quite some hours in the various phases of closed beta, and while it’s all very competently done, I find it absolutely 100% bland, derivative and boring. I’m struggling to say there’s even a single element that I have seen in Allods which is in any way interesting to me, given that I’ve already played WoW, LOTRO, EQ2, WAR and various other fantasy MMORPGs. I certainly can’t imagine ever playing through Allods long enough to get anywhere near its endgame. Maybe the world needs another race/class/level quest-to-endgame-and-then-PvP sword & sorcery themepark MMO. But I don’t.

Back when I first mentioned Allods in passing, my feelings were reasonably positive. And when a number of commenters on Keen's post suggested that the Empire faction was the one to play if you wanted a change from the standard sword & sorcery setting, I was reminded that I did indeed play Empire on my first spell of closed beta.

When I came back for closed beta round 4, though, I played the League faction (an Elf Demonologist, to be precise), and if the Empire is "a far cry from the usual small village in a lightly forested, lightly hilly piece of Olde Englishe countryside," the League certainly is not. Once I was out of the introductory zone and approaching the city of Novograd, I was deep in cod-medieval "kill ten wolves .. kill ten bears .. kill ten boars" territory.

And I think that without the steampunk gloss of the Empire faction to distract me, I was really struck by just how uninteresting the game itself was, to me. I put in a day of pretty solid play on CB#4, and I just don't think there was anything in the gameplay that made me think "wow, that's fresh."

Select from two factions - same as WoW, WAR, EQ2, etc. Select a race. Select a class. Same as pretty much every MMO in history. You've got a button bar with a few abilities. You've got a health bar and a mana bar. Same as everything else. There's a guy standing in front of you offering a quest. You do quests, and the combat they entail involves targeting monsters and tapping your ability buttons until they die. You level up. Levelling up allows you to pick a stat to increase and a talent point to spend - a system which, although it isn't the same as any recent MMO I've played, is much the same as Diablo II. Add in some rep grinds with items to buy at various rep levels - just like WoW and LOTRO - and I was yawning.

Crafting I didn't really get to test out. I intended to try tailoring on my Demonologist, so I took dismantling first, in order to get some cloth to tailor with.. and then discovered that you only get one tradeskill unless you spend hundreds of gold to get access to a second. So I can't comment on that area of the game.

Look, it's all very slick and polished - and it's free to play - so I'm sure a lot of people will enjoy it. The endgame of astral ship combat does sound fresh, if you can get that far. But I've probably played ten or more sword & sorcery MMOs, to various degrees, and I really need something different if it's to stand any chance of luring me away.

Coming up next - a game which probably won't capture me long-term, but which is undeniably different from the competition: Atlantica Online.