Saturday, October 30, 2010

"Let Freedom Ring". European Lotro goes F2P on November 2nd.

After a delay of almost two months European Lotro-players will finally get the new patch and the transition to free to play on Tuesday 2nd November.

If I was to judge the mood of the european player base it is one of feverish anticipation. I know that European players were initially disappointed at the delay  and angry at the lack of explanation from Codemasters. During the first few weeks of the delay there was almost no communication from Codemasters except for a very occasional embarrassed post from a community manger telling us nothing. Eventually we got a post from the David Solari MD of Codemasters apologising for the delay and explaining it was down to contractual issues. This was an important and necessary conciliatory measure. After that post much of the anger dissipated and the anticipation began to build again.  The preview server that was put up last week was  mobbed and had login queues of three to four hours.

We have waited, how we have waited. We want this patch so badly. We want the shiny new content. We want the influx of new players. We even want the opportunity to spend our money on frivolous fluff in the item shop.

"Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Instant Levelling: A Different Way to Play an MMORPG

Codemasters are running a preview event for the long awaited European launch of f2P Lotro. I don't normally go in for beta's but they were giving free Turbine points for the final release so I downloaded the client and logged in. The preview is proving enormously popular by the way with three hour queues to get into the one server but that is another story.

The thing that really caught my attention is the instant levelling mechanism that Turbine uses on beta servers. I guess Betas need an instant levelling mechanic so that players can test the full game. Turbine implements this via an inn that spawns at various locations bearing the somewhat humorous title of "The Eyes and Guard Tavern".

The "Eyes and Guard" is one of the most wonderful locations I have ever been in an mmorpg. It is a gloriously chaotic place. Like Dr. Who's Tardis it is much bigger inside than it looks and its various chambers contain npcs who can instantly bestow you with powers and rewards that would take months of dedicated play to earn under normal circumstances. A low level character can enter the Eyes and Guard and leave a short while later boosted to the level cap carrying a full set of epic gear.

This sounds simple enough but it is clear that Turbine implementation of the feature has grown organically over time with bits added on that conflict with earlier bits and developers availing of the opportunity to have a bit of a laugh in a non standard part of the game. The level 20 booster is in one place, the level 40 in another, the level 60 somewhere else and so on. In addition various npcs (and animals) scattered in the various chambers offer boost in reputations or mounts or epic book quests or traits and deeds. Doors lead off to numerous exotic regions scattered around Middle Earth. Indeed there appears to be a certain randomness to the whole place and every time I enter the Eyes and Guard  I seem to exit somewhere else.

Getting to the level you want is a complicated. Here is one step from a helpful forum post explaining how to get to level 65:

Now go down in the same building until you found the "Moria Training Chambers". There is a snowman standing in front of the door. Enter it and you'll find a NPC called Liu-Tsieng in the middle of the next room. Talk to him, and he'll give you a quest to get 60. Empty your bags before! Now you should be 60.

This is only one step of a process which is fraught with pitfalls. Accept the wrong quest from the wrong NPC and you break your character losing your chance to reach your desired level. Add to this the fact that the tavern itself only opens its doors (of which there are several spread around middle Earth) randomly for short periods and you will perhaps begin to understand how the Eyes and Guard has developed an almost mythical reputation.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Am I too Fickle about Gaming?

Great question posed by Stabs in a comment after my blog post in which I admitted to having bought 42 games last year and only played 13 of them thoroughly.

"Do you see it as a problem that you never or briefly played so many games - are you too impulsively buying games you're not really going to play or is it still worth getting them to have a brief look?"

I gave a brief answer in my own comment but I will try to expand on it here.

I do try out the majority of the games I purchase and I do manage to immerse myself more completely in a small number of them. In fact once I latch on to a particular game I often immerse myself quite completely in one game for a few days,  or even a few weeks. One of my greatest gaming pleasures actually comes from completing games and once a game gets its hooks into me I will stick with it quite doggedly to the end of the main campaign. For this reason I quite like the modern trend towards shorter more intense single player games and I simply ignore gamer achievements, DLC and other mechanisms that are used to artificially add longevity to games.

Of course with so many games to play it does sometimes happen that I get distracted from a game before I reach its natural conclusion. If I wasn't enjoying the game that is not a problem but there are a small number of titles I regret not having played more thoroughly. I tell myself that one day I will get back to them but it rarely happens.

My play-style does limit what I can hope to achieve in certain types of game.  Competitive multi-payer gaming of any sort is more or less out because I am not prepared to commit for long enough to build up any ability. MMORPGs could be a problem but I appear to have struck a comfortable compromise with Lotro where  I play for a couple of months and then take a year break and Turbine have been kind enough not to add content at such a rate that I cannot catch up.

Gaming Acquisitions since last Friday: Disciples 2 Gold Pack (Original Game plus two expansions), Batman Arkham Asylum, Lotro Europe F2P preview client, Dogfight (Aerial combat).

Games played since last Friday: Disciples 2 (half way through tutorial), Batman Arkham Asylum (about two thirds of way through main campaign),  Lotro original (Joined a kin raid to Barad Guldur last night), Lotro F2P preview (spent half an hour starting a new character and getting him to Archet). Dogfight (installed and played about 10 minutes of tutorial. Might join RPS event on Friday).

Monday, October 25, 2010

Approximately a years worth of gaming statistics

In a moment of boredom I fired up a spreadsheet to try and analyse how many games I bought last year, how much I paid for them and how many of them I have actually played. There is a bit of estimation involved because I am too lazy to go back over old credit card bills but in general I think my figures are pretty sound.

Please note I only include full feature games that I first acquired in the period from November 2009 to the present. I do include full featured games that I got for free but I don't include Flash games. I include mmorpgs that I either started or bought a paid expansion for during the year.

Level of play is a somewhat subjective measure. Zero percent means I never even played the tutorial. 100% means I finished the main campaign of a single player or I spent a substantial amount of time in multiplayer.

Please note that all of the games were legally acquired. I don't pirate games.

Number of new PC Games Acquired from November 2009 to October 2010:
Games from Steam:  28
Other Digital Downloads: 7
Mmorpg: 4
Hardcopy Purchase: 3
Total New Games: 42

Prices Paid
Number of games above €20.01: 3 (7% of total)
Number of games above €10.01: 9 ( 21%)
Number of games €10 or below: 33 (79%)
 Number of games that cost me nothing: 5 (12%)
Total Spend on new games: €392.00
Average Price per game: €9.33

How many have I played?:
Number of new games I have never played: 4
Number of new game I have played thoroughly: 13
Average play rate: 47%

Friday, October 22, 2010

I love Guild Wars Skill System but ...

I think Guild Wars's skill system is terrific but it does make it harder to  get back into the game after a break.You have to select a working build from hundreds of available skills and remembering what they all do and how they interact is not easy. To make matters worse Arena net continually tweak and modify skill functions. I think they do this deliberately to keep the meta game interesting to prevent "flavour of the month" builds from becoming too dominant.

I haven't played Guild Wars since April 2009 so I am completely befuddled. I have a vague notion of trying out the Eye of the North Expansion which I added to my account some time ago but never played. There is also something called the Hall of Monuments which I have heard ties in to Guild Wars 2 but about which I know little else.

I have two high end characters who are probably good enough for eye of the North: a Mesmer and a Paragon. The Paragon ( a heavily armoured buffer / support class) is easier to play but I have a hankering to go back to my Mesmer just as soon as I can make some sense out of the confusing array of skills.

Sadly I don't even have the luxury of  picking up where I left off. It is more than two years since I last played this MEsmer and when I logged he had a confusing build with most of his skills points invested in the off spec Necromancy attributes. I think this was some kind of farming build I was experimenting with but it certainly wouldn't be suitable for general adventuring. Starting again from scratch I decided to focus on the Domination skill line because that is where most of a Mesmers direct damage skills lie and it used to be recommended as the easiest line for a Mesmer to play.  A number of skills that I remember seem to have changed functionality but in general I was happy to see that Mesmer skills seem to be stronger on average than I remember. For example the iconic Mesmer skill Empathy which hexes an opponent so they injure themself every time they attack now weakens the attack as well as damaging the attacker. Anyway here is what I ended up with: http://gw.gamependium.com/tools/builds/template/?key=OQBDAmwzOxAhgG4EoCkBEBMO

The idea being I cast mindwrack on a foe and then proceed to strip them of their energy using spirit shackles , energy surge and energy burn. Mind wrack does a little bit of damage along the way and when their energy finally reaches zero mindwrack delivers (hopefully) a killer blow. I have empathy in there because I just like the skill and I remember it being generally useful against all kinds of foes. I also equipped wastrel's worry because I remember it being a great boss killer. Perhaps it still is, I don't know, but even if it isn't surely those foe that I strip energy from won't be in a position to use a skill for at least three seconds allowing wastrel's worry to deliver some nice aoe damage. The Sunspear rebirth signet is a one shot ressurection skill that will allow me to ressurect the healer if things get really messy.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Midway's Area 51: A Free Shooter Game

I have always enjoyed a bit of sci-fi shooter so when I discovered that Midway's Area 51 is now completely free to play I downloaded a copy from here

The game got fairly lacklustre reviews when it came out in 2005 and I can understand why. It is a game that was already out of date when it was released. Area 51 doesn't do anything that Half Life, Halo and Unreal weren't doing much much earlier and the graphics and game-play are more 2001 than 2005. Happily the passing of time makes this fault seem less relevant. What the game does do it does very well and it is now possible to enjoy it much as you might enjoy any other retro game.

The game-play, involving shooting a variety of humanoid and alien opponents with a selection of mundane and exotic weaponry is too familiar to warrant explanation. You do get the ability to morph into a hard hitting virus spitting mutant which provides an alternative way to play through levels without really being stronger than the normal gun toting human.

The one area where the game really stands out is in the number of conspiracy theories it manages to cram into one script. Of course alien encounters and government cover ups are absolutely mandatory given the setting but it also manages to drag in the Illuminati, the Kennedy assassination, faked moon-landings, fluoridation of water and just about any other crackpot conspiracy theory you can think of. There is actually quite a complex story being told throughout the game with the aid of cut scenes between chapters and a host of secret documents that you must pick up and "scan" along the way. Scanning reads the document into your data files which is quite a nice touch except that I cannot find any way to access the data file from within the game. You need to exit the game you are playing in order to consult the archives. This really is a bizarre design choice given that some of the information is useful for playing the game.

I must warn anyone thinking of playing the game about a couple of serious issues:

1. There is an intermittent graphics fault whereby the in game lighting disappears leaving you in a pitch black environment. Happily I fond a workaround that turns the lights back on - alt tab out to another window (I leave task manager running in the background just for this purpose) and then alt tab back to the game and, hey presto, vision is restored.
2. The second fault is that there are intermittent crashes to desktop when the game breaks for a cutscene. It crashes before the game saves leaving you to repeat from the last checkpoint. This happens up to 50% of the time and has even happened to me after a boss fight.

These faults might be specific to my combination of an ATI graphics card and Windows 7 64 bit but I couldn't find help for either fault on the net. Given that Midway are in receivership there is no likelihood of official support. Happily the game has very well placed checkpoints and you never have to replay more than about five minutes of game but I know that even this would be a deal breaker for many. I guess it is a good sign of how much I am enjoying the game that I am prepared to put up with it.

PS. Apparently the free release of this game was sponsored by the US Airforce back in 2008 and there are supposed to be recruiting ads interspersed at various points in the game. I haven't seen any ads at all so I wonder if that is related to my crashes. Could it be that the game is going off to look for an ad server which is now offline?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Pop Crack: The Tale of a Woman's Descent into Video Game Addiction

This story is not really mine to write but if I don't write it will never be written. In any case I don't think she reads my blog too regularly so I think I'll get away with it.

Despite my own obsession with PC games my beautiful wife has never really warmed to the hobby. In the early days of our relationship I tried to share my enthusiasm but "Doom" and its mass murdering ilk had no appeal for her. At one stage "Simon the Sorcerer" looked to be a minor breakthrough. She did show some interest in the game's puzzle solving  but a hobby which keeps participants up alone till  three in the morning does not mesh well with newly married bliss. For a time gaming became an uncomfortable element in our relationship. Sometimes dismissed as a foolish waste of time and sometimes challenged as an insidious  rival.

Years passed. We built a life together. We built a family together. Maturity, understanding, love and trust combined to allow the freedom to pursue independent hobbies. My gaming has become an accepted part of our life but not a shared part. For one brief moment it looked as if the social aspect of mmorpgs might provide a common interest but it quickly became apparent that while the social aspect was appealing to my wife the combat focus was not. I became reconciled to the fact that she would never really become a fellow gamer.

PopCap came into our lives through the medium of Peggle Nights. It was on sale if I recall and I downloaded it in order to sample a taste of the casual gaming revolution without any expectation of lasting interest. I played it for a few hours and completed  a few levels. While I was hugely impressed by the polish and quality of the game I soon grew bored of the repetitive format and moved on. That would have been that except that the attractive presentation caught my wife's eye and she decided to have a go.

That was all it took. She played and she played. The colourful presentation, the affirming jingles and  the compelling game-play grabbed her. She played and she played. My wife has a very competitive spirit (which I by the way do not) and she became obsessed with completing the main campaign and subsequently with completing the other challenges. She played and she played.

I had heard about PopCap. I had read about PopCap. I knew that they were the best at what they do but I seem to lack the gene that this particular style of game is so carefully crafted to ensnare. I could only look on with somewhat academic interest at my wife's growing gaming obsession.

Eventually she began to exhaust the possibilities of Peggle but then "Plants Versus Zombies" arrived. Again I must take credit  (blame) for having spotted it in a Steam sale and creating a Steam account for my wife in order to play it. Plants versus Zombies is undoubtedly a work of brilliance, a transcending achievement of gaming. I may lack the receptors for this particular strain of narcotic but even I recognise how much more potently it manifests itself in Zombies than in Peggle.  Peggle grabbed my wife and held her for a while but Zombies consumed her.

She played Zombies obsessively. She played in the morning. She played in the evening. She played when she should not have been playing. Late at night she would turn on a computer for an hour of Zombies before bed and then toss and turn, unable to sleep after the ferocious concentration of zombie fighting. I could only observe. My own personality and my relationship with gaming are very different. Even at the height of her obsession I was probably spending more hours gaming than she was but my gaming did not drain me. I have never lost sleep over gaming. Indeed I find an hour spent in a virtual world is an excellent way of de-stressing before sleep.

The main campaign of Zombies is really only the tip of the iceberg. There are numerous  side games and a host of achievements to earn. My wife has played them all and earned them all. She has finished "Plants verus Zombies". Knowing the gap that this would create in her life I downloaded a copy of "Bejewelled 2" when PopCap offered it for free in an anniversary promotion. My wife installed it and started playing it and liked it.

Two days after starting Bejewelled my wife stopped mid game and said:
 "No. I do not want to do this any more. I do not want to be like this any more"
 She uninstalled the games. She told me not to get her any more games.

I have been gaming a long time and I am comfortable with my gaming. I feel it is a positive part of my life. My wife was not comfortable with her gaming. Gaming does not make her feel good about herself.  She has decided to stop.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Isn't Multitasking Great?

Right now I am running Lotro in a window (just watching the chat screen to see if any interesting groups come up) while playing Left 4 Dead 2 while downloading Area 51 (Free Download, Ad Supported) while writing this blog post. CPU usage is 10% rising to about 60% when I actually start shooting Zombies.



The second screen is an old Dell monitor courtesy of my brother who recently upgraded his PC and was throwing this out. I hooked it up to my machine and I have fallen in love with dual monitors. Now that PCs are powerful enough to actually run more than one programme at a time I find it really improves productivity. When I am working I find I can review a document on one screen while typing my comments on the other. When gaming I can have a browser open on one screen while a game is being played on the other. One minor annoyance is that most games demand focus if you want to run them in full screen mode. Left 4 dead is somewhat unusual in that it has a border less windowed mode that behaves like full screen but allows you to change the focus to another application without minimising the game.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Lotro: End Game Fever

Hm....
Less than a week ago I decided I had gone as far as I could comfortably go in Lotro and was  trying to decide whether to quit and wait for the next patch or to dabble in a few end game dungeons.

A few days later I find I have slipped rapidly into end game mindset. I have been  running instances. I have started deliberating over incremental improvements in stats. I have refreshed my personal equipment and I have made a decent start on collecting some end game armour.

Thanks entirely to the generosity of more experienced players who were willing to  show me the ropes in dungeons I have amassed 90 radiance out of the 120 radiance required for entry into the current end game raid Barad Gularan. In fact 90 radiance would already allow me into two lower tier raids "The Watcher" and "Dar Narbugud but these aren't run as often any more as attention is focussed on the main raid of BG.

Perhaps the most damning evidence of my slipping into end game mindset is that I  have even done a fair bit of grinding: killing hundreds of beasts in order to tweak the virtue deeds for my class.

All of this is quite out of character for me but for the moment I am having a blast.  I will need to watch my playing time if I keep this up though, particularly when grouping. It is one thing to spend four hour a night soloing when you can pick up the game and put it down as real life requires. Spending four hours doing group  content is much more demanding of attention and family don't get a look in.

Aside: The new "Great Inspiration" buff that is designed to allow solo players complete volume 1 content is a complete boon for grinding slayer deeds. Instances that used to need a group to run can now be blitzed solo. If you can find a book instance that has the mob you need to kill then the buff turns it into a kill fest. I used it to kill 80 elite Angmarim in the Forges of Tham Mirdain in about half an hour last night. I didn't even need to leave the instance to reset the mobs, just stepping out of the final room would reset it with about 15 Angmarim each time.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Call of Juarez: It's all about the story telling.

I have just finished Call of Juarez Bound in Blood. It is a more conventional shooter than the first game and takes fewer risks with the gameplay but it feels more polished overall.

It is hard to talk about the Call of Juarez sequence however without commenting on the story telling: Some people loved it with one reviewer saying it is the "pinnacle of story telling in first person shooters" others hated it saying "The story’s a meandering mess of multiple villains, double-dealing women, faux-rugged heroes, terrible accents, sloppy racial stereotyping, and unmoving tragedy."  Personally I tend to agree with the more favourable assessment. I agree that the quality of the storyline is far below that which we have come to expect from literature or top notch Hollywood screenplays but this is a first person shooter video game  a medium that famously eschews any attempt at coherent storytelling The two Juarez games tell a multi-generational epic story and developers Techland have saturated the game with cut-scenes and narrative Dialogue. I particularly liked the choice of making the second game a prequel to the first and I found my experience of the game was enriched by the fact that I knew where the characters were going to end up but I had no idea how they were going to get there. More of this sort of thing, I say.

Minor gripes:
Too many duels. Every major encounter ends in a one on one duel and theses are a tedious exercise in twitch game play.
The optional side missions suck:  At two points in the game you are left to wander on our own with the choice of doing several optional side missions. These optional missions are for the most part much lower quality than the normal storyline arc. The game actually feels like the completely depressing Far Cry 2 at this point. You can skip these missions but the cash they generate is useful for upgrading your weapons. Thankfully they only happen twice in the game.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Lotro Lows and Highs

Lows: No free to play and no new content yet for Lotro Europe. Not even a clear date as to when these will be released.

In the six weeks I have been back in Middle Earth I have pretty much achieved everything I wanted to achieve before the release of the new content. I am finished the Epic books and I have equipped my level capped main character with a reasonable if not spectacular set of gear and skills. The end game grind awaits which is the point I normally get bored and move on from the game but the carrot of new content still dangles tantalisingly out there. I guess I will try and run a few more end game dungeons while I wait without making a serious effort to gear up for raiding.

Highs: I did have a minor success last night when I managed to solo a difficult quest that was recommended for a small fellowship (the Book 9: Epilogue quest set in Gath Ulunn). It is common enough to hear players talk about soloing group encounters and I am sure more experienced, better geared players would laugh at my pride in this but for me soloing the big worm pulls in this dungeon was a substantial achievement. I had to plan my tactics perfectly not just using long cool down skills but timing their use so that they gave the maximum impact. Pulling it off cheered me up.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood

Currently playing through Call of Juarez:Bound in Blood in between bouts of Lotro. I really liked the first Call of Juarez game and this sequel was a complete steal on sale from Go Gamer, Eurogamer's digital download service (still on sale as of 3rd October 2010 by the way).

I am enjoying Bound in Blood so far. Just like the first game it features a very strong storyline which is in fact a prequel to the original. The Wild West setting is superbly done at least to my Hollywood trained eyes and top notch graphics and sound effects provide a great immersive experience. The quick draw bullet time mode has been expanded on with different effects for different situations but it no longer feels like an I win button. Partly this is because it no longer charges up automatically meaning that it is no longer a given that you will have it available whenever you need it. Another reason is that the enemies are a lot smarter and inclined to use cover which prevents the from being easy targets for quick draw mode.

You still play as a one of two characters - a twin six gun toting tough guy ( who we recognise as an earlier version of the reverend from the first game) or his more agile rifle wielding brother. Neither character has stealth ability so the stealth missions that made the first game so unusual are gone.  In my opinion those stealth missions missed more often than they hit so I personally don't miss them.

The opening chapter deserves special mention because it is actually a war scene set during the American Civil war and it is very well done. It makes a refreshing change from the standard second world war battle scene and even from the modern warfare version which has now become almost as ubiquitous. Sadly it only lasts for one scene but I would totally go for "Call of Duty: Johhn Reb versus the Yankees"