Saturday, October 31, 2009

Torchlight demo thoughts

Yes, I'm on a demo rampage this weekend!

Good thoughts:

1) Dungeon crawling feels fun, slick, and streamlined. There is lots of loot, but the mechanics are transparent enough that it's not too difficult to decide which to junk and which to keep. The skill system is easy to use and the skills themselves are quite fun. A range attack that pierces through enemies *and* rebounds off walls? Yes please.

Between this and Kivi's Underworld there are a lot of good ideas for maximizing the fun in these kinds of games, and I'd recommend playing both for anyone looking to design their own.

2) You get a pet that semi-tanks for you. It has an inventory which you can fill with crap, then send it on its way back to town to sell. Much win.

3) You can duel-wield a ranged and melee weapon, and you will fire/swing with the most appropriate one depending on the range of your target. I had a blast (pun intended) with my hammer in one hand and a pistol in the other.

4) I'm fairly sure the levels are at least semi-randomly generated, which keeps things fresh (that or I have a really bad memory)

Bad thoughts:

1) The cartoony graphics don't do it for me. They are cute if you like that sort of thing though, so WoW players won't see any disadvantage there. For me though it's a waste of an opportunity to create any sort of tension with the atmosphere.

2) There is no multiplayer. They are apparently working right now on making an MMO out of the game and I assume using the single player proceeds to fund this. But, some simple direct connection support circa 1992 would have been much appreciated.

3) The story feels like a direct rip-off of Diablo 1. I mean, they are quick to point out in interviews that "we are the dudes who made Diablo so we are awesome", but you can't just ctrl-c -> ctrl-v the whole thing.

4) One thing that was also plagiarized, which was always quite lame about the Diablo games, was the need to dump multiple skill points in a particular skill, usually for little tangible benefit. Ooh, fear the wrath of my increased 6% weapon DPS! (That's right, they actually use the terminology "DPS" in the tool-tips... that needs to die, stat). I much prefer the other approach where once you have something, that's it, it's yours... a la Dungeons and Dragons, Guild Wars, even Aion.

So in summary, they've got the core dungeon crawling mechanics done very, very solidly. But with no multiplayer and that cartoony look, I just don't find myself wanting to spend much more time with this one.

Left 4 Dead 2 Demo thoughts

The demo has gone live for those that pre-ordered the game. I am... almost never one to pre-order games, but when it comes to Valve I just have to slap the money down.

Good thoughts:

a) The melee weapons are both hilarious and awesome. There is a guitar, a machete and a frying pan in the demo. The machete is close enough to being a katana if you squint a little.

b) I was worried that I would miss the old characters, but the new ones seem just as endearing. I like running around with a southern USA accent.

c) The new special infected are cool. There's a 'jockey' that jumps on your back, a 'charger' who is like a mini tank, and a 'spitter' who coats the ground in acid (this last will be especially appreciated against teams that camp a corner in versus matches).

Bad thoughts:

a) Day time is not as scary as night time

b) Some graphics-related performance issues. The game regularly freezes up for 5-10 seconds using the same settings I play Left 4 Dead 1 with. I'm sure these will be patched.

c) The censored Australian version is laughably light on the gore. When the corpses hit the floor they just fade from sight. This makes me a sad panda.

So overall I am pleased, but I hope there are more dark areas in the full version and I hope there is some dodgy way to obtain un-neutered carnage (anybody heard of one?).

Friday, October 30, 2009

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Making peace with the Diku

Paying $15 US a month to grind endless hours away on repetitive tasks to gain minor virtual advancement, sound tempting to you?

After playing WoW for 6 months, I swore I would never go back to a Diku MMO. Oddly I played WAR for a month and am now playing Aion. What the hell dude??

The answer is simple:
  • I knew there would be boring grind
  • I knew that it would take a good 2-4 months to get anywhere in the game
  • I knew it would cost me an ongoing subscription fee
.. and I didn't care.

All I wanted was to submerge my mind in a fantasy universe and brain out for a couple of hours a night. Maybe even get a dopamine fix here and there.

My expectations for Aion were low. For a Diku MMO that has only just been released, I was pleasantly surprised. The game has very few bugs, looks gorgeous and has relatively smooth combat. My only complaints are that the servers are based somewhere light years from Australia providing me with a 700+ ping. When they say 'Oceanic server', it would be nice if they actually put the server in Australia!

Anywayz, my point is that the world is going to keep serving up diku MMO type WoW clones. You can spend your gaming life slagging them for bad design, or you can enjoy them for the masterpieces of art that they actually are. So it's time to suck it up and make peace with the Diku. For now...

...grumble... subscription fee... grumble...

...grumble, when is GW2 out? grumble...

Friday, October 23, 2009

AFK Over!

Would you believe that I haven't posted in over 3 months! If you were wondering why (or you never noticed until now, but still want to know why), I've been traveling around Europe with a few of my mates for a few months. It's been a hell of a trip and for the most of it I didn't have access to a computer, nor did I want it. Hence the no posting or game playing. I saw many great cities and land marks in my travels, and had a tonne of fun doing it. My itinerary looked something like this:

London -> Madrid -> Barcelona -> Paris -> Bruges -> Amsterdam -> Berlin -> Prague -> Vienna -> Munich -> Venice -> Rome.

I really wanted to cover Ireland, Scotland and Northern Europe (Denmark, Sweeden, Finland etc), but there just wasn't time.

The highlight of the trip was definitely Oktoberfest in Munich. I was there for 5 days, with a best effort of 8 steins in one day. I still can't believe how many people there were in one place drinking beer. If you haven't been, then I suggest you make plans to go (assuming you like beer, and even if you don't).

My favourite city was a tie between Amsterdam and Berlin. Amsterdam had a few things to offer that would normally be considered illegal (++), but the beer was expensive (-). Berlin had the best pubs/clubs and party atmosphere (although I'm sure Dublin would have been a winner had I of made it there). The best beer I had was in Belgium and was called 'Strasse Hendrik', although Germany definitely had some close seconds. Best land mark went to Rome for the Colosseum. You have to see it to believe it.

All in all, I've had a wonderful time and was glad to completely put computers out of my life for 2.5 months, but now that I'm back, it's back to business! :) Melf has informed me that Aion is worth a look, but he hasn't made up his mind on the PvP yet. I downloaded it last Sunday and have a level 13 Cleric. My early thoughts are that Aion is blatant diku based MMO that makes no attempt to conceal the kill ten rats side of things. Unless the PvP is good, I can't see myself sticking around for any more than a month. Graphics are gorgeous though (I'm sure you've heard the same thing from 50+ sources). Moving on..

In other news Guild Wars released an update today that has my attention. A new type of PvP mode called Codex Arena, which sounds like the game designers from ArenaNet have their heads screwed on right (as usual). I'll post some thoughts once I give it run.

Good to be back ;)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Aion review

So, I'm playing Aion at the moment. I was going to give a little synopsis and then proceeed into a piece-by-piece breakdown of the game, but I realised that for Aion (and perhaps for most MMOs) this is not appropriate. Aion is a game of fantastical highs but also drudgerous lows; you will either grind and bear it because you think the highs are worth it, or you will leave it by the wayside after being exposed to the horror of the grind. An overview would be of little use...

... Although "like WoW but with wings" would be a fairly good one.

I shall break things up into the most relevant areas that I think any MMO should be critiqued on. I'll start with the ones that Aion does well:

1) Wonder 5/5

This is what the Bartle "explorer" feeling is all about - that general sense of wonder when you experience new facets of a game. Aion is literally a wonderous experience. The zones are incredibly laid out and pretty to look at. Here is the 6th screenshot from my screenshots folder (in keeping with a recent meme):

As you can see, I'm flying, there are some giant elephant/dinosaur/kind of messed up animals, the water is quite lovely looking, etc. I'm really not a graphics whore by any means but this aspect of the game is very impressive. Note that the graphics themselves are not always great - some of the textures, and especially the flowing water effects in the game, can look quite low-tech. But the vistas themselves are always something to behold.

The flying adds to that feeling a lot. You may have heard that you can not fly in all the zones - this is true. However, you can always "glide", which basically means that if you find even a slightly raised hill, you can coast your way along for quite some amount of time. There is some level of skill involved (I dare say, more than in the actual combat system; more on this below) and this actually makes it quite fun traveling to various locations. The wings are obtained at level 10 which felt like it took a couple of hours to get to (i.e. not too long).

2) Polish 5/5

People always talk about the famous Blizzard polish, which I'm sure we're all quite sick of hearing about. Aion is really, really well polished, so get ready to hear more of that term. Performance is great even for me connecting all the way from Australia. The translation from the original Korean is in flawless, flawless English - even the jokes are well localized. There are a couple of typos here and there but it's actually better than any other Western game I've played. There are voice-overed tutorials for key game aspects. There's hyper-linking of items and map locations and quests into the chat. You can even save map locations from other people - for example I've downloaded a location text file from the forums containing the locations of all the PvP rifts that open from time to time (joining the two separate worlds). There is a "locate" function for finding the next mob you're looking for or difficult to find NPC's.

The list goes on - the game is just smooth.

3) Character appearance customization 4.5/5

The character generator does not have the same flexibility of City of Heroes, but this is purely because Aion is not a superhero game. In terms of non-over-the-top customization, Aion knocks the competition into the water. In other words, yes, you can make a ridiculously hot female character to ogle if you're a man (I'm not so sure about the sexual attractiveness of the male characters; sorry ladies).

4) Achievements 4/5

I class Achievement features as pretty much anything that goes "ding". Between leveling up your character, your items, your crafting skill, your PvP rank, getting rich, completing quests and obtaining titles, there seems to be a lot to do to keep all the achievers occupied. There is really nothing new over what WoW brought to the table hence why it can't be given a 5 (disclaimer; I'm not really the biggest "achiever" type, so I'm basing this somewhat on what others say in-game and how similar to WoW it is).

5) Travel 4/5

As said above, you can fly, which gives automatic bonus points in my book. A flying mount is just not as cool. There are also fast flight and/or teleportation NPC's in most places that you need to go to. Some places don't have these, but are conveniently often located a long way away down gently descending land, meaning that you can glide there to your heart's content.

6) Zoning 4/5

The game is not instanced for the most part and there are no loading screens except on teleportation, so I know that will appeal to the "open world" fans out there. Again the game definitely plays up to the explorers.

However the game actually features multiple channels in the more crowded areas, which can be freely switched between every 3 minutes. This is actually a similar approach to what I've heard Age of Conan does, but where AoC was ridiculed Aion seems to be being praised. I think the difference is that it's quite out of the way so as not to break immersion (I didn't even realise about it until digging around in the settings), yet it still offers the massive convenience of getting around queuing up for spawns and general overcrowding.

So, that was the good, and there's been a decent enough amount of it to keep me playing. But you didn't think I'd go on extolling the virtues of a WoW clone for the entire review did you? Here is where Aion is really quite dismal:

1) Gameplay 1/5

Gameplay in Aion is non-existent. In this sense it really is WoW with wings. You have a bunch of skills that you mash in order, on cool-down. Changing the order is rarely if ever indicated as it will have little impact on the fight. There is a little more skill required in groups to prevent aggroing too much etc, just as in WoW. This is not a "gamey" game in other words.

One thing that really bugs me about games like this is the "one monster at a time" rule. The monsters are just too tough for you to be able to take on very many of them at once. Sure, if you want to provide me with no challenge then go ahead and do it - but could you at least make me feel powerful by letting me slaughter a horde of enemies at once instead of one at a time? Give me Diablo 2 any day of the week.

There are hardly even any AoE skills in the game, so it's not even possible to get a good group together and AoE a bunch of mobs down. Stuff like that could make the grind (discussed next) quite a bit more tolerable.

2) Grinding 2/5

There are some racist people who claim that Koreans love their grind games. At least, that's what I thought until I played Aion. The game is a massively soul sucking grind fest (hmmm MMOSG??). I felt this way about WoW, but Aion is noticeably worse. I am only rating it a 2/5 because I have heard that Everquest was worse again.

3) Grouping 1/5

Grouping is dismal, for only one reason - there is no bonus XP when in a group. This means that DPS characters are much, much better off leveling up solo. Even the healers are better off due to down-time in between pulls etc. I'm actually playing side-by-side with my girlfriend and we decided to split up and farm mobs separately so that we could level faster. That is a massive, massive design flaw for a "massively" multiplayer game (I can't remember what WoW does there).

4) Build customization 2/5

There are 8 classes currently in Aion. You begin as one of 4 archetypes (Warrior, Scout, Mage, Priest) and then each of these has 2 classes available to it, which you select one of (permanently) at level 10. So far so good.

However, up until level 20 you will have the exact same skills and stats as every other player of your class. There is no talent tree, no opportunity cost, none of that good old sit-down-and-knuckle-out-your-own-build kind of fun. Your stats can be modified somewhat by your gear, but generally the way to go there is just "focus on stat XX" - it's not very complicated. I'm not a big fan of needlessly complicated RPG mechanics (in fact I hate it), but this is too bare bones for me.

After level 20 things get better, as you gain access to "stigma" skills. These are basically extra skills that you can equip, however there are only a limited number able to be equipped at once so there should be some sort of opportunity cost involved. I am only level 21 at the moment so I don't have much more experience than that. It will be a long time before I get to tinker because the best stigma are highly sought after and expensive, so at the moment I have to rate build customization quite low. It's possible that I'll feel differently at a higher level, but really, every other RPG gives you character build customization at level 1 (or before!). That's supposed to be a staple.

5) Crafting 2/5

Crafting in this game is an even more epic grind than the actual game itself. Just like leveling your character level, leveling your crafting is even more painful than in WoW. The saving grace that prevents this from being a 1/5 is that there are "work orders", where the crafting NPC gets you to make something useless, but he gives you most of the materials. This is designed purely to allow you to level your crafting without paying too much money. This is very considerate of them; however, it is possibly the most boring thing I could imagine doing with my time.

On the other hand, it does allow me to read the forums and what-not. I am actually writing this entire review while my character busily works away at the crafting bench, which should give you an idea of how long it takes. You actually can level from crafting, but I wouldn't reccommend it. I spoke to a fellow yesterday who went from level 24 to 25 entirely from crafting. It cost him 400 k (about twice as much money as I have managed to save by level 21), and it took him 9 hours. Yes, the correct response is "lol" - however at least he was able to queue it all up and then go to sleep.

6) Enemies 2/5

The monsters in the game are for the most part quite ridiculous looking. On the one hand it's good because it's not the same tired old elves-and-dwarves fantasy fare. On the other hand, the enemies are so round, fat and squat looking that I want to poke them with a stick in the name of science rather than slaughter them. I don't think it's too much to ask for monsters that look a little more bad-ass. I am hoping that once I get to the abyss, the Balaur (the NPC faction) will look more intimidating. I know that the enemy players will look cool, so at least that's something.

7) Quests 2.5/5

Kill 10 rats. Good, now go and kill 10 slightly different rats. Nice job. Now kill 8 of these rats and 7 of those rats (some kind of psychological trick to hide the fact that the number of rats I'm being asked to kill is increasing, I'm sure). While you're there, could you collect X of this and Y of that - cheers.

In other words, standard MMO quests. However they do tend to make pretty much everything in any given area be something that you need to do for some quest or other. Kill a mob to satisfy one quest, collect the berries sitting next to it, kill the mob on the other side for some other quest, etc. It gives you kind of a "Ok, you're here, and you're going to be grinding for quite some time, but at least you're multitasking" feeling.

The quest text is extremely well written, but there's a lot of it, and as usual I don't read it. I have to say, if the game wasn't grindy, I probably would read it (I did for the first couple of levels).

There are a few quests that stand out from the dreary fare which I'd give 5/5 for general awesomeness (being teleported "accidentally" into enemy territory and being told to find my own way back was particularly awesome), but the dreary majority of quests has to lower the score.

The one thing that has been surprisingly left out of my review so far is of course PvP. The wonderousness of the game only gets me so far - the real reason that I'm putting up with the grind is because I want to get to level 25, which is the level that you can enter the abyss, which is the free-for-all PvP area. Call me old fashoined, but mention the words "fortress siege" to me and I just get all giddy. I'm quite excited to see how the PvP pans out after reading the hectic-sounding accounts in general chat. The "hostile to all" third NPC faction may be just what large-scale MMO RvR action needs.

It's a big let-down that I haven't been able to try PvP earlier than this. I went into the arena and fought a little against my girlfriend (who schooled me quite hard by the way), but it was devoid of other people. I miss WAR in this respect, where I could PvP all the way through the game if I wanted to, even from level 1. Scenarios were a great "jump in and have fun" feature as well and I definitely miss that aspect.

In summary, I'm still playing the game. I'm enjoying the scenery, and uncovering new aspects of the game and I'm very much looking forward to the PvP, and these things are allowing me to push through the interminable grind to the light of day at the end of the tunnel. If you're not much bothered by grind and are an achiever/explorer, I'd definitely recommend trying Aion. If you are looking for an MMO with engaging combat or great social aspects (grouping) then look elsewhere.

Stay tuned for further opinions, especially on PvP, as I get a bit higher in level!