Gordo’s Gaming Blog

My adventures in the many worlds of gaming.

Archive for May 2008

The Classics: Morrowind

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This is the first of a series of posts I’ve planned about some of my all-time favourite games from years gone by. I’m gonna kick it off with Morrowind.

How can I describe Morrowind? I guess, it’s the closest thing to the perfect RPG I’ve experienced. Yes, I liked it. A lot. Before I played Morrowind, I was definetly a console gamer. I remember a friend let me borrow it, and the PC I played it on I hadn’t played a game on since The Sims. It struggled. I hMorrowindad to play it on 640 by 480 minimum detail. And still, every 200 yards or so a loading box would pop up. Did I care? Not in the slightest. This world gripped me immediately. After a couple of days playing it on my friend’s CDs, I bought my own copy. I pored over the manual and map that came included for hours. The island of Vvardenfell was so massive and so rich. So much to do; every little settlement had its story. I remember, I’d been given a quest to collect some eggs from a mine (yes, in Morrowind, they have egg mines!) when I took a wrong turning, and ended up at the wrong mine. But I spoke to someone outside, and they explained to me that someone had been stealing their eggs. He asked me to investiage so I did. I came across a shady looking figure, and when I confronted him, he attacked me. I killed him, looted and took the egg back to the man outside. My point? It was so easy to go off the beaten track, and get caught up in a whole different storyline.

It’s strange. Before I played Morrowind, if you asked me to name my perfect RPG setting, I’d immediately think of a Tolkien-esque medieval England setting. Yet Morrowind was so different. This was a volanic island, with huge barren areas, and the majority of foliage consisting of giant mushrooms and moss or lichen. A land where humans weren’t the dominant race. This was the land of the Dark Elf, the Dunmer.

I got hooked on Morrowind from the start. Seyda Neen, the first town you visit was enough for me. It was a ‘damp little squat’ as one of the locals called it. Still, I spent an hour or two simply exploring, doing little tasks that people gave me. I fetched a ring for someone, only to find he owed money to someone else, so, after spying on him at night-time I saw he’d hidden something in a treestump. I inspected the treestump and found some money, and a lockpick. Then I had the choice – did I keep the money, or do the honest thing and return it to its rightful owner? From there, I never looked back.

See, that’s the true beauty of Morrowind. You choose. I’ve played so many games that claim to be open-ended. Oblivion, Morrowind’s sequel is a prime example. Yet Oblivion pushed me in the direction it wanted to be played, Morrowind just gave me the choices. Throughout the whole game, there were so many choices. I remember stumbling across a traveller; I had the choice to help him, or kill him (he possessed some very nice boots that increased runspeed). And yet Morrowind didn’t judge you. Where some games tally up your moral decisions, and hold them against you when you complete the game, Morrowind didn’t do that. There’s no karma in Vvardenfell. If someone saw you robbing them, you got punished. Unless you decided to kill them. But if you were seen killing, you’d be in even more trouble. You could spend the rest of the game avoiding guards – sneaking into towns only at night time, and lurking in the shadows. Or you could do your time, or pay a fine.

The main quest was so long and rich, it was 10 times the amount of content some full RPGs have; and yet that was only the very tip of the iceberg in Morrowind. Each town had dozens of quests for you to do, as well as the dozens more found in the wilderness, and of course, you could spend time in other ways. With such a beautiful world, I could spend hours just exploring, tracking creatures, plants and people. There were hundreds of dungeons to brave, camps to explore, and ruins to loot (or simple explore, if you’re playing a priest or something!). It even contained storylines that allowed you to become a vampire, and then back into a human again, and with an expansion, a werewolf too!

The music in Morrowind was haunting, and fitted oh so well. I never got tired of it, as wherever it was, it seemed appropriate. The sound effects weren’t the best, but I didn’t care!

MorrowindIt contained readable books. The amount of fiction put in those books is more than 6 whole novels I read somewhere. Some you can pick up anywhere, some are extremely rare, and you have to search for them to complete your collection.

It was the height of immersion for me. This was partly due to the fact that it forced you to decide what to do in quests, it forced you to find out where to go, and go there yourself, so you always remained in the game (bar the few fast travel routes between major cities). The world was beautifully crafted, the story was top-class, and while it had its flaws (combat system and some models), I doubt I’ll see such a good game again.

If you’ve not tried it, go and pick it up. I just checked Amazon and you can pick up a second hand copy of the GOTY edition (including the 2 expansions) for under a fiver including postage. Honestly, if you’ve not tried it before, I really recommend it. If you have the patience to put up with some bad models (which, to an extent can be upgraded – try Planet Elder Scrolls for mods – there are literally thousands) and what might be an alien world, you will enjoy it. It may take some perseverence for the modern gamer, to whom the game is an instant hit. It’s not an instant hit, but a definite slow burner. It kept me enticed for months.

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Written by Gordo

May 31, 2008 at 10:12 pm

Posted in The Classics

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Forts at Thoughty. Oh, no – Thoughts at Forty.

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So, I’ve hit the big 40 in Age of Conan, and I thought it was about time I posted again about this game. If I’m honest, Age of Conan is rapidly losing its charm to me, and the carbon copy crafting system has a lot to do with it. To even learn the professions you need to grind, which I’m pretty sure is a good indication of what’s to come. For those of you who hadn’t realised yet – I hate grinding.

Combat is still fun to me, I love the way it’s implemented, and the buzz you get after a fatality. The quests in the game are starting to get to me though, or rather, the lack of them is. I’ve had to grind a bit recently, and the members of my guild who’re approaching 80 say that most of the game after level 70 consists of grouping up and grinding. That’s pretty worrying and puts me off the game a bit.

The music I still love, the sounds too are great. I’m still troubled by how little it immerses me, compared to games like Morrowind and Bioshock, it’s very poor in that regard.

It’s a shame, because the game had such a strong start in Tortage, but it seems that maybe Funcom concentrated too much on Tortage, and neglected the rest of the world. ‘Age of Conan: Tortagian Adventures’ would have been a more appropriate title.

Nethertheless, I have over 3 more weeks of prepaid time, so I’ll keep playing. It wouldn’t be the first time I hit a certain milestone and the spark comes back. Indeed, I was considering quitting LOTRO when one day I suddenly got reinvigorated by it, and really enjoyed it once again. Will the same happen in AoC? Only time will tell.

Written by Gordo

May 31, 2008 at 4:23 pm

Posted in Age of Conan, MMO

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(Kind of) Free to Play

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I read this amusing article at Ten Ton Hammer earlier, and it got me thinking. Free to play. Now, if you say that to someone who doesn’t have the internet that you can play totally free games, they’ll probably laugh, cough a bit (likely they’re pretty old) and say ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch, my dear!’ (That’s how people talk where I live). But we, the internet-savvy generation, aren’t as wise. There is a lot of free stuff on the internet. Advertising pays for a lot of stuff, which in effect, works out as being free. But games are a different matter. I don’t mean flash games, put together by a wannabe game maker in his free time, but I’m talking full game MMOs. Even the simplest take countless man-hours to make, test and release. Yet I see the link ‘Free to play’ and fall for it. There’s something about human nature, where if we spot an oppourtunity, we take it. Some sort of neolithic instincts I guess.

I’ve not tried many free to play MMOs, but I have tried a couple. In the Western market, they’re kind of on the outskirts of mainstream, but in the Asian markets, they are massive. The ones that I’ve played rely heavily on catchy graphics to get you in. Then, they give you loads of quests and fun gameplay for the first few hours, after which it descends to grinding. But, nethertheless, you can progress, you can still level up – just grind these mobs, kill 200 to reach the next level. Then, you see someone else killing the same mobs, but he’s doing it 5 times as fast. You send him a tell, ‘What’s up dude? How you killing them so fast?’. He replies ‘I got my Sword of Chaotic Destruction. Bought it from the Cash Shop’. ‘Oh, Cash Shop’ you think. That sounds interesting. Now that is how they get you. You buy the Sword of Chaotic Destruction, and yes, you get to the next level much quicker. But then, the Sword of Chaotic Destruction is inefficient for theLoads of money. next level, you need the Sabre of Chaotic Destruction.

Pretty soon, your bank is full of all variants of the Sword/Sabre/Slasher/Katana/Blade/Dagger of Chaotic Destruction, and you check your credit card bill. Woah; you spent £25 last month on those items. And a pay to play MMO would have been 1/3 of the price. Still, the advert says ‘Free to play’.

Personally, I disapprove of so-called Free to play MMOs. But I don’t see them as a threat to the traditional  pay to play model, as the games are often rushed and not polished to ensure lowest production costs possible. And the Western market expects better.

Written by Gordo

May 31, 2008 at 1:47 pm

Posted in MMO

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Dr Mario; We’re addicted!

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Today I dusted off my Wii, plugged it in, and turned it on. Why do I say dusted off? Well, in all honesty, I’ve not used it much recently – it’s not that I’ve got bored with it, I’ve just had so much to play on my PC and 360, that I’d neglected the smaller, tamer sibling.

As I’d not plugged it in for a while, I was hit by a wall of updates when I started it up, and I found in the Wii Shop, the new feature ‘WiiWare’ (think XBLA for the Xbox 360) – it’s basically cheap games, that take up maybe 50-100 megabytes, and, supposedly, are short or lack the features of boxed games, which you download to the Wii’s hard drive.

I decided to give one a try, and, when I saw ‘Dr. Mario and Germ BusteDr. Mariors’ it sounded good – I remember playing a Dr. Mario game on my Nintendo 64, many, many years ago. It cost me £7, then I downloaded it and started playing.

Within minutes, I was addicted. Then, the addiction spread rapidly as my sister called in; then, so did a couple of my friends – pretty soon it was at pandemic level. We were trying out the different modes, playing against each other, taking it in turns, each of us itching to play the next game. One of my friends, who’d only called in to pick something up, ended staying for tea, and not leaving until 9:45 PM (having arrived at 4:00).

It got me thinking – what’s so addictive about the basic gameplay, and simple style of Dr. Mario? Then it hit me – just that! The basic gameplay and simple style make it so accessible, anyone can pick up, and within minutes, start playing. And once you understand the game, you see every time you make a mistake, you realise it, and you want to rectify it. That leads to you playing time and time again. Eventually I went on the Nintendo Wi-Fi multiplayer. My backside is still sore from all the kicking it got when I trying my hand against the Japanese community. Did I care? Did I get disheartened? Not in the slightest. In fact, each time I lost, my blood pressure rose and I wanted to win the next game even more. I couldn’t quit until I’d won, as much as for my dignity as anything else, to prove to myself I could correct the mistakes I made in the last round. Crazy really, isn’t it?

I think I’ve found a beauty in Dr. Mario – something that’ll keep me going, forcing myself to improve as I try new techniques, handle the game better and eventually start to win. Yet I know, I really shouldn’t be doing it. Oh well, it can be my dirty little secret.

Written by Gordo

May 30, 2008 at 9:10 pm

Posted in Wii, WiiWare

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Quests, quests, quests.

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Have posted about Age of Conan recently, and currently playing it, and also discussing it a bit on Keen & Graev’s blog, it got me thinking – what is my ideal questing system?

First of all, it’d have to be engaging – properly engaging. I mean when I see someone standing, bolt upright like a board, with an exclamation mark above their head, I have no empathy for them. Even if they they go one to tell me how their son was killed by bandits from a nearby pirate camp, I’m just thinking – ‘What the hell are you standing there like that for then!?!’. No, for a quest to be truly engaging, the person I get the quest from, I must be able to empathise with. By that I mean, if I see a drunken man with eyes that haunt you as you look into them, due to the pure sadness they convey. If I saw that quest giver, I’d talk to him. First of all he wouldn’t want to talk about it, being a man and all, but then, as I probe deeper, he gives away the story, but doesn’t ask for help. Something I hate about quests in RPGs (MMOs specifically) is how all these NPCs stand around all day, demanding help. Life just isn’t like that! So, you, being the kind and heroic protagonist decide to help – or, alternatively, in a game like Age of Conan, you see a benefit for yourself, so you help.

Secondly, the storyline should be non-linear. By that I mean, at each stage of the quest, you have choices. You are told what has happened, and your action is your choice. Take the man with the son killed by bandits example I gave above. OK, well, you see this guy has had his son killed by bandits. What do you do now? Depending on how you play the game, it’s your choice. You could charge into the camp, and slay them all, and bring back a portion of the spoils for the grieving father as compensation. You could go to the leader of the town he resides in, and ask his advice on what to do. You could explore a completely different line and simply try to take the mans’ mind off it, maybe (if you were playing Age of Conan), by hiring him a prostitute, or if you were playing a more morally centric game, by finding him a nicer woman for companionship in his time of need. Now, I’m sure many players, given these choices, would choose to raid the camp – there’s profit in it for them, as well as killing. But, my ideal questing system would give players free choice to act how they see fit, and in the process, getting different rewards and outcomes. E.g. you get monetary rewards for raiding the camp, but if you set this man up with a woman, he might give you his prized possession for making him happy again. Or if you spoke to the town’s leader, you might be given the authority to raid the camp, and although your monetary rewards would be fewer, you might be awarded a title of the saviour of ‘Mmosville’.

Thirdly, although this sort of ties in with the second point, the objectives should vary. Killing stuff all the time is just as repetitive as running, and the quests I hate most are those which command you to kill 50 of the same creature. Quests with a true storyline should evade this point, and by giving you the option, you can do as you choose. Sometimes you might feel diplomatic, others, you might prefer to let your weapon do the talking – but variety is good, and simply grinding killing quests is just as bad as grinding mobs in the first place.

Fourthly, there should be minimum ‘downtime’ that is, time when the quest storyline is not being advanced. Running miles ruins a quest for me, I feel bored by the time I get there, and have lost the urge to act that I got when I left the NPC. I guess it ruins the empathy I felt, as I zone out, I lose immersion from the game when it happens. And in RPGs, when you’re playing a role, you need to stay in that role – you need to be immersed. Hence immersion!

Finally, your actions should affect the world as a whole – this point is fairly self-explanatory. You should leave a town after having quested there for a while, with citizens now saluting you as you walk past, and thanking you. Not standing stiff as a board as you leave, in the same way as they did on your way in.

Written by Gordo

May 28, 2008 at 9:45 pm

Posted in General, MMO

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Age of Conan, Part 2

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OK, so I’ve been playing Age of Conan for 5 days now. As I’m sure you’re well aware, a lot of things can change in 5 days. However, I’m still feeling pretty positive about AoC now, even 5 days on, and after many hours more in the game.

What do I still like about it?

  1. The combat – it’s not gotten old yet, and it doesn’t look like doing so for a good while either; it’s really refreshing. What I think is the best thing about the combat is you’re always involved. You have to make the character move, make it attack, and as a result, when you kill your enemy, it feels all the more satisfying – especially if you get lucky and pull off a fatality.
  2. The sound – I didn’t really talk about the sound in my original post, but the sound is fantastic. The music fits each area perfectly, from the greek sounding background music in Aquilonia, to the chanting and tribal songs of Africa-esque Stygia. The combat sounds are great too – if you listen carefully you can even hear your enemy’s skull crack as you bring the sledgehammer down on their head. Tortage really was amazing though, with every quest and every NPC voice acted. Sadly, that is only carried on as you carry out your destiny quest – but there are rumours that more is being recorded as we speak and will come in future patches. Which would be great.
  3. The graphics – each zone is designed well, and looks beautiful. Even on my moderate PC, the areas feel alive, and look it too. I’m more of a fan of realised graphics, and therefore it suits me perfectly. Stylised fans may not like it so much, but personally I can’t see how anyone could think it ugly.

Although there are a lot of good things about Age of Conan, I’m starting to find areas which I don’t like so much:

  1. Quests. Quests in Age of Conan are highly variable – I’ve done some really good ones, some absolute beauties, requiring not much running between places, just lots of action and great storylines (an example of this – the quests in Border Range in Aquilonia – they were fantastic). I’ve also done some awful quests – quests taking me halfway across the zone to talk to an NPC, who then wants me to go back to the original quest giver. Also, it needs me to run through mobs 5 or 6 levels above me! Another problem I find with the quests in Age of Conan, is that, often, there aren’t enough quests for me to level up sufficiently. I had to grind 1/3 of a level earlier to get some quests within my level range again. This is poor design – nowadays, in pay to play MMOs, where questing is the main mechanic for levelling, I expect more quests than I need – I expect to be able to drop quests too easy for me, not have to do them for pitiful rewards just to get the next level up. On the topic of quests, each zone seems to have just 1 quest hub!? It seems like in the zones which are intended for a wide range of levels (e.g. Wild Lands of Zelata), I could be running huge distances to do a quest for me at level 36 or 37, because all quests can only be picked up or handed in at the very beginning of the zone where you join at level 20. Running disrupts immersion, and ruins the fun value of the quest.
  2. Zones. The zones in Age of Conan are meant to be small areas of a massive map. As such, you only play a fragment of the world at a time, and the zones are not connected – you need to travel through load screens to get to other areas, via fast travel NPCs. This also means that you can travel many many miles in seconds, resulting in a huge break in immersion, as you were in a sandy desert with tropical beasts, and now you’re in the mountains being attacked by wolves. Personally, I loved WoW in this regard – the whole area was one massive area where you could run from one end to the other uninterrupted if you wanted to. And the fast trave of riding a wyvern, eagle or bat was awesome, you got to see the whole zone and landscape; even if it did take several minutes to travel from one zone to another at times! As for the instancing matter – it doesn’t bother me too much, as in the larger zones, instancing only seems to be used to prevent congestion – I like that – I mean, what’s more frustrating than waiting around a quest mob spawn with 10 other people?
  3. Monotony – this comes from the requirement of many boring quests, I’m afraid. Sometimes, I find myself playing for a couple hours and getting bored – it stems from lack of immersion I guess, as I don’t feel ‘in’ the game, so my mind wanders to other things. What compounds it is the daunting task of levelling – there are so many levels to achieve, I feel as though I’m only just on the tip of the iceberg. That should be a good thing, but I’m worried that as I level up, the quest grinding will only get more boring, and the rewards will get lower.

Overall, I’m still happy in Age of Conan. I am, on the whole, enjoying the levelling process, though sometimes the lack of (good) quests can get to me. I don’t mind it, and every MMO I’ve played before has been the same; MMO developers concentrate on keeping players playing for many hours, and they do that by creating a bucketful of quests to do; sadly, this often results in monotony for the player, which in turns ruins immersion, and makes the player go away and do something else for a while.

Verdict? Age of Conan is a good game, and probably my favourite MMO of all those out at the moment. It doesn’t do anything worse than any game that’s come before, and it brings some really nice innovations to the genre. But, it’s far from perfect – the Holy Grail of MMOs it is not. It’s quite difficult to get immersed in it, but if you can cope with taking breaks occasionally between levelling, you’ll be fine. I know from my post it looks like I think there are a lot more bad things in the game than good, but in actual fact, that’s not how I feel. It simply hasn’t corrected all the errors in previous MMOs – I can live with them, and if you enjoyed a previous MMO, you probably can too.

Written by Gordo

May 28, 2008 at 6:48 pm

WAR – the MMOMessiah?

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The MMORPG community is a large and complex one, not easy to analyse at all. However, many players are looking for the next mass-popularity MMO. That is, the MMO that becomes the largest game in the world. There is a consensus that World of Warcraft, long the undisputed King, Emporer, Tsar and High Priest of the MMO world has had it’s day – the best is behind it. Whilst the upcoming expansion pack ‘Wrath of the Lich King’ will undoubtedly sell like hotcakes, I can’t see it fulfilling the players’ every dream.

WoW nowadays is a mix of people playing for the social aspect purely, some who are doing a little bit of the raid content and endgame PvP, and Pro-gamers and 1337 raiders. Many of which have played the game for far too long, and are striving for something else, only sticking with WoW until that messiah comes.

Many people saw Age of Conan coming, and thought it would be that game. As much as it would be nice if it were, I guess I always knew it would not – why? It’s too different. It explores adult themes, and WoW has always been quite a teenager-friendly game. The graphics are good, but need a decent rig to run; single mums who can’t afford to spend that much on a PC could play WoW and enjoy it, a little time away from their busy lives – but no way could they do the same with AoC. Also, AoC is a strongly male-orientated game; I’ve yet to meet a female gamer on my server (yes, I guarantee they do exist, but in WoW, there was a pretty large percentage, considering this is a video game, once the realm of only middle-aged men and teenage boys). That has the result of repelling women, repelling men who normally play with their girlfriend or wife, and repelling men who hope to meet a woman in the game (yes, I’ve met ingame couples in previous games that have ended up with a real life marraige!).

As well as this, the combat in AoC is more skill-based – it rewards people who’ve played RPGs and fighting games for years, and makes progression much harder for those who’ve not. WoW didn’t do this; it’s combat was so simple, anyone could pick it up and learn to play in minutes, yet it had the depth, that it attracted ‘Pro-Gamers’ (and still does) – a mistimed skill can cause a wipe for a group in the toughest of dungeons or fiercest of battlegrounds.

What am I getting at? Well – WoW is, as far as I’m concerned, history. There’s room for a new MMO on the block, one which will take over the world like WoW did. And, this Autumn (Fall for the American reader), Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is coming out. This game comes from a 30 year old IP, one that, probably, of all the IPs you could use to build a game on, has the most content available. It is similar enough to WoW in all the good respects, and different enough in the bad. It’s a game that’ll be built for the average Joe’s PC, so it can tap into the mass market. It has a realm vs realm PvP system, giving you automatic allies, and a common cause with them. It promises quest that affect the state of the world you reside in, large scale battles allowing you to even take your enemies’ city for a limited amount of time. All you actions, directly or indirectly, lead to the promotion of your side – but simultaneously, another body of players will be doing the same, belittling the effort you made. This game could be special, and I’m definetly going to be checking up on this game as it progresses. I have my collector’s edition pre-ordered, and I can’t wait until the Open Beta, when I should get to see the game for myself, and see if it really works. And if it does, could it be the WoW-beater? The messiah of MMOs?

Written by Gordo

May 27, 2008 at 6:54 pm