Archive for December, 2010

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Cinematically Yours

December 31, 2010

When I first caught wind of today’s the Star Wars: The Old Republic update, I immediately thought, “Oh, another dev blog.” Don’t get me wrong, because I do enjoy these dev blogs quite a bit…but I usually find these types of updates moderate in terms of content and more subdued, so I never expect to get too pumped up.

This dev blog by Paul Marino on Cinematic Design is a little different though, because admittedly I  have a personal interest. First of all, the main draw of this game is the story, and you can’t tell a good story without getting your audience emotionally involved. There’s also the matter of choice in SWTOR, and obviously the cinematic decisions for, say, a light-sided action versus a dark-sided one would be completely different. Hence, I’m very curious for any insight from the team behind the magic.

Second of all, somehow reading this article brought to mind several of the independent comic projects I’ve had to tackle in the past, and I remember all too well the many challenges in the “storyboarding” process. So many questions like how to set up a series of sequential images to tell a story, how to layout a frame, or what to do to get the most dramatic angle to capture the look and feel of a scene. It’s all about mood. Should the “camera” pan up? Down? Wide shot? Close up? What about body language?

Cinematic design for a game obviously encompasses so much more. Now you also have considerations like a dynamic environment, character movement, music, voice work, etc. etc. etc. There are a lot more tools at your disposal, but so much more that demands your attention and so many more teams to coordinate with. I am amazed Mr. Marino is able to say everything in about ten paragraphs in this dev blog; I’ll bet he probably could have written a entire book given the scope of his work, especially for a game like SWTOR. I mean, in his own words, almost every discipline in the studio works with the Cinematic Design department in some capacity. The guy has a really cool job; if he had written a book, I think I would have read it all gladly.

And finally, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the dev blog also came with a couple short clips to illustrate the significance of Cinematic Design.

The only adverse thing I noticed was the limited facial expressions, especially in the first clip where for a few seconds there I totally got that Knights of the Old Republic feel from the Alderaanian’s sort of deadpan eyes. I wonder if there will be further tweaks to that, though in the end I don’t think it takes too much from the scene. I also noticed that player characters look really, really good (that Sith Pureblood in the first clip at 0:30, anyone?) The second clip was also surprisingly humorous. I didn’t even realize I laughed out loud while watching it until my husband called to me from the kitchen and asked what was so funny.

Don’t know what else to say except that both these scenes appear really well done. And it’s interesting how I got so pumped after this update, since I’m usually pretty good at keeping my excitement in check. The thing is, as eager as I am for this game to come out, I can also be very patient. I’ve sat through relatively more amazing updates like class trailers and major reveals earlier this year without batting an eye, but this dev blog comes along and for the first time in many months I’m really, really, really dying to play this game. Thanks, Bioware, great update to wrap up 2010.

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Torn By Rift: Beta Impressions

December 29, 2010

Opinions and impressions of Rift have been pouring in since the NDA dropped last week, and I thought I’d throw in my two cents worth.

I’m going to echo a common thread shared by all the beta reviews I’ve read so far, and call Rift a “chimera” in the genetic sense. Make no mistake, Rift is a whole new animal, but it does very much strike me as a creature composed of tissues of several other MMO species. Some say Warhammer and Aion, and a lot more others say World of Warcraft, and while I’m loathe to jump onto the tired old “hey, let’s compare every new game to WoW!” bandwagon, I have to admit there’s a lot of truth to that. Not that I have a problem with this; as many of you know, I’m a big fan of the “tried-and-true” and the “if it ain’t broke…”

Most of the write-ups have been generally positive and people genuinely seem excited. However, on a scale of 1 to 10, my own enthusiasm probably comes in at a very average 7. But before the torches and pitchforks start waving, let me just say that I did have a lot of fun. There’s certainly a lot to like about Rift, but after participating in two beta events and now being about halfway through a third, parts of the game still leave me underwhelmed.

Let’s just put it this way. Rift personified is a refined gentleman, cuts a great figure and has all the right moves, but hang out with him long enough and you’ll find he’s just your regular Joe who likes his joe regular. He’s agreeable to everyone, audacious enough to be a just little adventurous, but somehow still lacks the assertiveness to really stand out.

Okay, now that I’ve gone from comparing Rift to an animal to comparing it to a man, I’ll stop metaphorizing and get into specifics. Upon your arrival in the game, you’re presented with the interface for the first time. No surprises there. Then you start your first quest, which sets the tone for the next 20 levels pretty nicely. No surprises here either. Players are funneled from one area of a map to another like an assembly line, with questing being pretty much your standard MMO fare — which I’m totally okay with, by the way, but I’m nonetheless a little let down by the execution. I take a look around the beautiful world of Rift, and for lack of a better term the game environment truly does feel “alive” and the visuals seem to have their own personality. Ironically, I didn’t get that feeling from the questgivers and other NPCs. At all. They could have been wooden sign posts for all I know. Nothing in the text really drew me into what I was supposed to be doing, and I was disappointed at how little I was able to glimpse of the lore from the quests themselves. For a world rife with such history, its denizens seem rather “character-less”. After a while, I started skimming the quest texts, but certain important NPCs will still give dialogue options to delve deeper into their stories, which I really enjoyed.

I also adore the soul system. Though I personally found it beneficial to continue investing heavily into my first soul even after getting my third (for now, anyway), I love having options, and any game that strives to give the player more choice gets an A+ in my book. Given more time, I can see the soul system keeping me very busy trying to figure out combinations and I think it has very good long-term potential. More flexibility in MMOs is a trend I would like to see continue.

The other major draw of Rift are the rifts (shocking, right?) and while I’m all for dynamic content in MMOs, its lasting appeal remains to be seen. The first rift incursion I jumped into was with about a dozen or so other players and it was positively orgasmic. I had such an amazing time, honest. But by the time the 9th or 10th rift descended right upon my head, I was like, “Oh my God, again?!” I’ve spent more time trying to avoid rifts than trying to find them; they’re quite literally everywhere. It is quite an experience when you’re in a group, however, and it’s nice to be able to jump into one for a little excitement to spice up your leveling. You can gain quite a lot of experience doing nothing but rift-hopping.

I also enjoy playing the Defiants more as a faction (which explains the Kelari-centric screenshots of my Mage, Caidia) given their love for technology and magic. You wouldn’t imagine the two to be likely bedfellows, but the resulting look and feel is very striking (just look at that friggin’ mount!) Despite being the “chosen of Telara’s gods”, the Guardians didn’t speak to me on the same level, not to mention I was really turned off by their opening movie sequence. The visuals were fine, but the voice acting left a lot to be desired.

Overall, there’s nothing all that markedly different about Rift that sets it apart from its peers in the genre, but when it comes to execution and polish, this game certainly has a leg up on the competition — especially when you consider the fact that it’s still in such an early stage. And really, I don’t mind more of the same as long as it’s well-presented and playable, and Rift has got that part covered. Believe it or not, while it’s arguably falling out of fashion, I still play betas to test. I do my part flagging down the bugs and glitches, but I also like giving positive feedback where it’s due, and in the end I think I had just as many good things (if not more) as the negatives to say to the devs. Things I liked ranged from the little things (like the transparent map when moving, or the ease of AoE looting) to more general topics like the awesomeness of the unique soul system.

I had fun. As a gamer, that’s really all I can ask for. How long it can keep people’s interest is another story, but what we’ve experienced is still just a mere fraction of the game. In the meantime, none of my thoughts are set in stone, and I’ll keep playing and testing with an open mind to see what else they have in store for us.

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Holiday Aftermath

December 27, 2010

It’s been absolutely craaaazy over here in the last week. I bought a house. My parents and grandfather visited us from overseas and my brother flew in from Toronto (it was a pretty big deal since I only see my parents an average of once a year and it’s been ages since the whole family has been together). And of course, on the day I finally see them all off safely to their hotel near DC — they were planning a trip the next day to the nation’s capital — my husband and I (and Strider the pup) were hit by that monster of a snowstorm that hammered the east coast on our way back home. We practically spent the night on the I-95 on our 11-hour trip that normally takes two-and-a-half, and today was spent with the neighbors digging our street out of of all this white stuff.

It was a stressful week but also joyous, and I’m grateful for health, love, friends and family, and the kindness of strangers. I’m also grateful to my readers, who have to put up with my sometimes nonsensical ramblings on this blog. I’m a little late here, but since I believe in better late than never, I want to wish you all a happy holidays, and hope everyone had a great time this weekend.

I also want to give a special shoutout to Victor Stillwater, my not-so-Secret-Santa who got me a Steam game, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. And of course, many thanks to Stargrace of MMOQuests.com, who took the time to set up the Secret Santa event. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to participate this year, given my wacky moving schedule that could run anytime from mid-December to mid-January, but the ever-flexible and accommodating Stargrace did her thing and arranged the possibility of digital gift-giving!

I don’t know much about Amnesia, but it sounds like a rockin’ game from the descriptions of the gameplay on Wikipedia:

Amnesia is an exploration-based adventure game played from a first-person perspective…allowing for advanced physics based puzzles and interactions such as opening doors and fixing machinery.

Amnesia does not give the player access to weapons, giving them no defense against the gruesome creatures that wander Brennenburg Castle. As such, the player must use their wits to escape and hide from the monsters until they lose interest in finding the player. Players can also choose to hide in the shadows at the cost of slowly losing their sanity.

Separate from the player’s health bar is an indication of the character’s sanity. Being in darkness too long, witnessing unsettling events, or staring at the monsters for too long will reduce the character’s sanity. As the sanity level decreases, visual and auditory hallucinations start to occur and the player is noticed by monsters more easily…this forces the player to find a balance between the amount of time they spend in light and shadow. Sanity is restored to full once the player completes an objective or progresses the game’s story.

It sounds creepy, but it’s definitely my kind of game. Can’t wait to check it out! Thanks again, Victor!

Got some other great loot this year. No other games though, which is probably a good thing considering my already massive and ever-growing to-play list. But I did get some great gifts, including the newest generation Kindle (my brother was quick to pounce on my 2nd gen, reminiscent of the hand-me-down times of our youth), a beautiful pair of turquoise earrings from Thailand, some Body Shop bath soaps and lotions (mmm, mango scent!) and a Victoria’s Secret gift card courtesy of my husband because he thinks that I — and I quote — “don’t buy enough clothes for myself.” Thanks, sweetie, but Victoria’s Secret? Looks like I still wouldn’t exactly be buying clothes “for myself”.

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Super Trooper

December 24, 2010

I know — really, really cringe-worthy and groan-inducing title. But I have the sniffles and the cold meds make my head feel like someone stuffed my skull full of cotton candy, so bear with me. Please pardon any typos and if I stop making sense, feel free to nod, smile and back away.

Today’s Star Wars: The Old Republic update has been the subject of much speculation over the last week. “It’s Christmas Eve, are they going to give us something extra awesome?” “No, no, no, it’s a holiday weekend, no way it’s going to be anything special.” The actual result? The skeptics were right in that there was no “extra special” reveal for the holidays, but the other camp was right too –  the Friday update was still nothing short of AWSOOOOMMMME!

Today, Bioware says, Dear Troopers, Merry Christmas. Enjoy the goods:

Class video:

I’m Trooper Shepard, and this is my favorite video on the Citadel.

Trooper starship, the BT-7 Thunderclap:

Like I read somewhere, the Thunderclap really does have the look of a love-child between an Imperial Lambda shuttle and a giant B-Wing. Very nice. And very “Republic”, if you know what I mean. Or maybe you don’t. Cold meds, remember.

Trooper companion, Tanno Vik:

I don’t like him. He has the look of a cocky bastard and his description doesn’t exactly report to the contrary, but his “undisciplined and unstoppable” presence could be the key to the question of whether or not you can play a darkside trooper. I say yes, for sure, and it would be believable to boot. I like having the choice, but personally I think I’d feel pretty bad about being an amoral trooper. I’m sure the Republic doesn’t pay me to mow down NPCs.

Playable species for Trooper, Zabrak:

A lot of folks thought the Zabrak would only be available for the Sith, but a very minor character in the SWTOR novel Fatal Alliance made me think otherwise. Yeah, he was sort of a jerk in the book, but a Zabrak Trooper is a Zabrak Trooper, and I had a feeling it was a big hint on possible playable species.

And finally, revealed Advanced Classes to round out the Trooper Dossier.

All in all, a great update. Now bring on the Bounty Hunter!

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Steam, You Evil, Evil Bastards

December 22, 2010

Today, I bought a house.

And this:

Ah hell, I figured I’m poor again anyway, what’s 10 dollars more? :)

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Strength Of The Jedi

December 17, 2010

Today’s Star Wars: The Old Republic update is a Fan Friday, which I did not expect. Is it that time of the month already? It didn’t seem very long ago that we had the last Fan Friday, and it’s a little strange to think that the next one we get will be in the new year. If you really can’t wait for SWTOR, here’s a suggestion — start measuring time based on the Friday Updates schedule, then the days will just seem to zip by.

Given all the Jedi impressions and Jedi-related interviews we had floating around this week, I also half-expected to see even more stuff about the Jedi today. I don’t know, the Bioware team strike me as folks who like to keep with a theme, after all. In any case, Darth Hater has provided an excellent round-up of all the information this week with their “Jedi Immersion Day” articles.

I usually take all previews with a grain of salt (and that means both negative and positive ones) since they are still early in development, and impressions are very personal and subjective especially when it comes to starting areas, but I found DH’s hands-on write-ups to rival Massively’s in terms of level of detail and relevance to an MMO gamer. Even though I generally find it difficult to agree or disagree with someone else’s take until I get the opportunity to play a game for myself, I enjoyed reading a lot of these for their unique points-of-view or specific examples.

Videos courtesy of Darth Hater. They have a lot more cool stuff on the Jedi, I highly recommend checking it all out.

Back to the Friday Update, once again the Fan Friday came bundled with a Studio Insider and Community Q&A — this week’s developer goodie is titled “Experience Coruscant” and it’s a blog from World Designer Eric Young featuring an in depth look at the process of building the ecumenopolis.

It’s hard to wrap my head around all the descriptions in his narrated tour, especially when all we’ve seen so far of Coruscant in-game are screenshots and a few short clips, and I will admit that all along I’d figured much of the city to be a “mere facade.” But no, apparently, the plans for Coruscant are much more ambitious. To make traversing a multi-level sci-fi city like this “seamless” and “immersive” sounds like a dream come true, and I really hope they pull it off.

From the brightest lights to the darkest depths; such is the glory and tragedy of Coruscant.

They all seem to have a way with words over there, because I just love this quote. And speaking of quotes, gotta love this one too, from Dallas Dickinson’s Q&A:

All of our planets have iconic musical themes as well as beautiful environmental art and effects, and even if a dirty cantina on Hutta isn’t beautiful, it sure feels like Star Wars to sit in one, listening to music and watching a creepy Rodian hit on a Twi’lek dancer.

Awesome.

And finally, the first chapter of the upcoming Deceived novel is available for our reading pleasure, along with the second chapter on Starwars.com. Personally, I’m not going to read it because I don’t want to spoil it for myself. I’ll wait until March to read the entire thing, thanks, hopefully on my Kindle…but given the fact that the e-book version of Fatal Allliance is still not available for purchase, I’m not holding my damn breath.

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The Road To 85

December 16, 2010

Into the Cataclysm

Exactly one week with World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, that’s how long it took for me to get to level 85. There was a lot to do so there’s a lot to say, but I’ll start from the beginning.

Like Wrath of the Lich King, this expansion has two starting zones to choose from to alleviate the initial influx of players. I decided to choose Hyjal to tackle first over Vashj’ir, since it was my speculation that the latter zone will be more popular due to the novelty of being underwater. It didn’t really matter in the end, though; the crush was just as bad. Surprisingly, the crowd did not affect my questing so much, in part thanks to the ridiculous spawn rates in some areas. You can literally spend ten minutes stuck in combat staying in one spot while mobs spawn continuously on top of you.

And overnight, it seemed as if the WoW community suddenly found its manners. Players happily grouped together for mini-boss kills, and — *rubs eyes in disbelief* — both Horde and Alliance alike lined up like civilized human beings:

Long lines are a fact of life.

80 to 81 flashed by very quickly, since the experience gain was relatively low and the quests rewarded so much experience. The item rewards were also surprisingly powerful. I replaced all my old epics with the new greens without a second thought, and was happy I didn’t waste my time grinding heroics in the last few months since my return to WoW.

With Hyjal, I was also introduced to the new “style” of questing. I’ve likened the new zones in Cataclysm to chapters in a storybook more than once, and this was no exception. Hyjal had its own “introduction” as you entered, and you’re hit with the phasing stick almost immediately. There’s good and bad things about this. The good is the quality of the storytelling, which has been raised to a level I never would have expected from a game like WoW. I don’t even mind so much the fact that is is now more on rails than ever, since this is a theme park game to begin with. And while the game has indeed become a heavily directed experience, I’ve come to appreciate the organization.

What I don’t like, however, is the feeling like I’ve been cut off from the rest of the world. I quested with my husband through my entire journey up to 85, so it’s still possible to play with others, but once you get “out of sync” it can be really irritating. You can be right beside your friend on the mini-map but not see them in game, which makes you feel really helpless when you want to lend them a hand but can’t. I also felt a sense of loss every time I saw something really cool in the environment “phase” away. Knowing that the scenery isn’t something I can go back to enjoy later on really grates me. Good thing I take plenty of screenshots.

I was also surprised by the generous use of cutscenes. I could almost always count on seeing one for a zone’s “intro” as well as “conclusion”, but there were also many scattered in between to push the story along.

And speaking of introductions, I really enjoyed the one leading into Vashj’ir. I wanted to experience everything in the expansion, so I opted to go there next instead of moving on to Deepholm. I’m glad I did. Vashj’ir is a long zone, perhaps a little too long for my tastes, but it’s beautiful with lots of very fun and unique quests given its watery nature. This also provided me tons of hilarious screenshot opportunities involving sharks:

I suppose I did just disembowel a naga with my shark, but I still think I look waaaay too happy.

This shark, swallow you whole. "Jaws" quotes for the win.

One thing about fighting underwater is, when you’re directionally challenged like me, combat with the additional axis can be pretty disorienting. Now you have to keep an eye out for high speed mob spawns above and below you too!

Deepholm was another beautiful zone, which was a pleasant surprise given that it is underground. Miners will love this place.

Pretty lights, like glowworm mucus strings I saw in a documentary once.

For all that though, Deepholm is probably my least favorite zone thus far. After the excitement that was Vashj’ir, the story and quests here felt slightly bland. The shallow part of me also compels to state that I’m not a fan of caves, canopy, or any dark, foreboding places. I don’t get claustrophobic, but I do prefer questing beneath an open sky, if that makes any sense at all.

But then we get to Uldum, which is another story.

Nothing cuter than a purple kitty sitting in the back of a caravan.

I’m not even done yet, but I think the Egyptian-inspired Uldum is my favorite zone so far, with its quirky-looking inhabitants and a very intriguing storyline. What I didn’t expect was how humorous the quests were in this area. We have the legendary Harrison Jones to thank for that, methinks. I now I have my first crush ever on a WoW NPC.

He thinks I'm pretty! *sigh*

Is it strange that I’m proud to be Alliance just so I can learn Archaeology from the greatness that is Harrison Jones? I think it helps that I simply adore the original Indiana Jones trilogy (The Last Crusade is one of my favorites of all time, you just can’t go wrong with both Harrison Ford and Sean Connery in the same movie) and I loved all the Indy references, many of which were obvious while others were more subtle. At around level 83, the amount of experience required to level increases significantly, so by the time I was in the 84-85 stretch I was thankful for all the amusing quests to keep me going.

Crazed gnomes fail at keeping out of the way of huge, fiery rolling balls.

I hit level 85 somewhere in the middle of Uldum, so now I’ll have to finish that as well as the Twilight Highlands, which I have yet to even set foot in. A bulk of Cataclysm’s new content is in old Azeroth, but there’s still a shockingly huge amount of stuff to do at 80+, and even though I’m at 85 now, a part of me feels like I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface.

I usually throw my full attention into new games and expansions, so it’s no surprise that lately I’ve been playing a lot of WoW, but I’ve since discovered that the leveling process is what I enjoy most, especially since I do it ALL of it with my better half, and that includes alts. So it remains to be seen whether or not the game can hold me for the long run, especially since I seem to have lost the taste for endgame raiding and grinding heroics. Still, I have to admit Catacylsm is probably my favorite expansion so far, and I’m quite impressed with everything I’ve seen.

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