Archive for January, 2011

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Postcards From Telara: Of Rifts And Titans

January 31, 2011

Long time readers will know that I’m a Canadian living in the United States, but that wasn’t always the case. Even after our wedding, my American husband and I had to live apart for more than a year while we waited for the paperwork and the immigration process to complete so we could finally be together for good. In that time we only got to see each other on the weekends every few weeks or so, when my husband would fly into Toronto to spend time with me. That chapter of my life is thankfully behind me now, but I remember clearly the way I used to look forward to the days he would arrive and have a heavy heart on the days he would leave.

Now I wonder what he would say if I told him I feel much the same way about the Rift beta events?

To be honest, he’d probably roll his eyes at me and laugh at the way I set up that punchline at his expense. Still, I don’t remember exactly who said it, but the words of the blogger who first likened the comings and goings of the Rift betas to a long distance relationship resonated with me, for obvious reasons. Now that Rift beta 5 has come and gone, I find I’ve fallen back into the similar routine of waving farewell while reminding myself this is not goodbye — after all, the next one might be just around the corner, and in any case, the soft launch for the pre-order folks is just a mere month away.

Because of the huge number of patch notes included in Rift beta 5, a part of me seriously considered rolling another character and starting over to experience the new changes, but in the end I decided against it and resolved to press on with my mid-20s Defiant mage. I’ll be playing the early levels again soon enough, and I had to leave at least some surprises for myself at launch after all.

Zxeyl the Tainted -- Wow, the letters X, Y and Z all in your name. You win.

It always makes me feel a little hokey to say something like a game is growing on me, but in this case it’s really true. I have no doubt part of it has to do with Trion’s continued efforts to address player concerns and improve the game, but I’m also convinced that Rift simply starts to get better the higher level you get. For one thing, I’m gaining better abilities and getting more powerful, which helps.

However, more significant I think is the increased scope of the rift events as you progress into Stonefield and beyond. I remember being tired of the repetitive and tedious nature of the rifts and invasions at the beginning, to the point I actually started avoiding them. But zone-wide events and quests associated with them promptly changed my tune, and now I find myself seeking out the invasions whenever they occur periodically. The rush you get from joining a raid group of 20 players or more and defeating a raging colossus is motivation enough for me, but the rewards you receive upon completion of these events are nothing to scoff at either.

As a result, I did much more “rifting” than I did for all the previous beta events, and the public grouping system probably had much just as much to do with that. Defeating rift incursions is much easier when you have an idea of how much support you can count on, and also spotting where others are congregating on the map tells you quickly where you can join battles being waged. I also leveled much quicker this time around, thanks to all the rifts I participated in and the experience gained from sharing monster kills.

I made enough progress to make it to the zone of Scarlet Gorge, a beautiful zone in which I saw my first signs of Guardians and Defiants clashing in open conflict. I didn’t join in, however; there’s a good reason I rolled on a PvE server. On that front, I was glad to see that many quests relevant to the lore have emerged, especially those marked “story”. I love the look of this zone, and I eagerly await what comes next.

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It Happens In A Flashpoint

January 28, 2011

Late in the evening on Thursday, Gamespot published a new article about Star Wars: The Old Republic Flashpoints so it wasn’t surprising to see that it was also the subject of today’s update. The new entry titled Flashpoints Overview is pretty scarce on information, though it does include a new video featuring a first-look at Taral V, a mid-game (level 32 and above), Republic only flashpoint (Darth Hater also has a cool dissection that’s worth checking out):

Here’s a random thought that possibly might only interest Hunter, given our little wager over the number of planets we think there will be at launch — with the reveal of the Taral V flashpoint, could we expect the presence of other individual self-contained instances like this scattered across the game on many different worlds? This led me to think that the famous “dozens” of planets claim by the devs could have meant these worlds as well, and not just the fully explorable ones released so far. I think our bet came forth from that quote in the first place, which is why the thought struck me.

Anyway, the update also lists the names of a few other flashpoints we can expect to see in game. It’s not complete, but it’s enough to see the availability of flashpoints to players on both factions and its apparent spread from early game all the way up to end-game. Nevertheless, I felt more information could be gleaned from the Gamespot article.

Some of the answers about Taral V in the Q&A from World Designer Jesse Sky are worth contemplating:

Taral V can be played in roughly 90 minutes, which is about the average length for a flashpoint. A completionist play-through would probably take more than two hours. If you have any stealthy friends, you might find them particularly useful on this mission.

Interestingly, in the video we actually get to see a quick glimpse of a “stealthy” player at work. Sky’s choice of words give me pause, and let’s just say I cross my fingers and hope that “particularly useful” doesn’t translate to “almost necessary”.

90 minutes is I think a fair length for a flashpoint, though I have to question what he meant by a “completionist play-through”. Does that simply mean clearing the place completely of all enemies? Or are there other little extras we can expect from inside these instanced flashpoints? It’s Bioware, so I had to wonder. Especially given what Sky says later on in the interview:

Flashpoints are repeatable by design, and we strive to include elements that keep them fresh for multiple play-throughs. The gameplay focus in a flashpoint is very tight, which contrasts a bit with adventuring in the open world, but it lets us empower players in some really interesting ways. For example, you might explore the area and discover a secret that changes the mechanics of a boss fight. Or you might make a story decision that alters the course of the gameplay.

The inclusion of little extras and secrets notwithstanding, that’s incentive enough for me to explore flashpoints, though Sky is still vague on what he means when he says they’re “sympathetic” to players who are tired of the “traditional” dungeon experience. Maybe I’m just paranoid, but having the best equipment found in flashpoints and other “reward structures” in place to me sounds like item progression, which on the face of it I wouldn’t mind so much but which I hope won’t be too greatly emphasized. Admittedly, I’d be a little disappointed if it were, but I can’t say I’d be very surprised either.

Personally, what motivates me isn’t the gear, it’s the cooperative gameplay. Speaking of which, that’s another thing I’ve been thinking about a lot — flashpoints are balanced around and intended for a full group of four players.

I know smaller groups make for more intimate and tight-knit interactions, and not that I mind getting cozy with my fellow players, but I do admit I’ve been perplexed by SWTOR’s group size ever since last year — especially in light of this post I saw on We Fly Spitfires last week, where Gordon points out that larger groups allow for more variety in party make-up. According to him, 6 is the prefect group size and 5 is World of Warcraft trying to be special, but Bioware seeks to one-up (or should that be one-down?) even Blizzard with 4-man parties. I look forward to seeing how the dynamics in a four-player group are going to work out in this game.

Finally, Sky ends the Q&A on a positive note, mentioning that they are heading into their “homestretch”. Despite rumors that surfaced earlier this week that SWTOR will be delayed for a September release, the devs appear to be giving the impression they are still on track, and as late as Tuesday evening, community representatives are still acknowledging a Spring release (thanks to Harbinger Zero for the link). Personally, I still very much doubt we’ll be seeing the game until at least late summer, and it wouldn’t surprise me even if the rumors for a fall release turn out to be true.

Would that be so bad though? Don’t get me wrong, I’m hoping SWTOR will come out sooner rather than later, but God knows I have enough games to keep me busy this spring and summer, and I fully trust Bioware to know when the right time is to release the game. I figure I’ve waited this long already, a few more months isn’t going to kill me…though on the other hand, sifting through the angst and vitriol on the forums that will come with another half year more of Fan Fridays just might.

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Champions Online: Free Ass-Kicking For All In Millennium City

January 26, 2011

This week, I return to the world of MMO gaming with a vengeance — I know I said I was going to play the crap out of Rift beta 5, but still I found some time last night to download the new Champions Online free-to-play client.

I was pleasantly surprised to see my old character still there, waiting for me at the character screen. It’s been a little more than a year since I created her, but I can still remember the process clear as day. I’m a huge Marvel fangirl, so not surprisingly, I drew a lot of inspiration from the comics. Jessica Drew the Spider-Woman is one of my personal favorites, so giving my character her good looks and long beautiful black hair was a no-brainer. Combat-wise, I couldn’t stop thinking about Elektra, but instead of a couple of sai I’d opted to let her wield a Samurai sword instead.

If you’ve ever played a Cryptic game, you’d know that creating a character is always fun as hell, and Champions is no exception. I can’t say I remember exactly how it all happened, but my character ended up with a banded red skintight jumpsuit and a couple of horns. Now, Matt Murdock might be able to get away with running around town looking like the devil, but um, how should I put this? For my heroine, I wanted something a little less…demonic?

Hey, nothing like slapping a cutesy animal name on her can’t fix. Meet the Red Gazelle:

Not long after I logged in, I met up with my good friend Blue Kae who was also checking out CO at the time. He came up to greet Red Gazelle with his character — get this — named Blue Ram. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.

We partnered up to form, um…Team Ungulates? The Bovidae Duo? Something tells me even if I brush up on my mammalian taxonomic classifications ’til the cows come home (oh my God, I slay myself sometimes), I’ll still never be able to come up with a good-sounding name for these two.

I’ve played CO in the past, but I didn’t stay with it very long — that decision didn’t really have anything to do with the actual gameplay, mind you…just, you know, it gets a little hard to play when the client crashes your computer every five minutes. Not really the game’s fault, but I never did get the chance to go back even after I bought a new PC last year.

Kae was a good teacher, and I happily played Robin to his Batman while he took me around Millennium City and helped get me reacquainted with the game again. It’s clearly a fun MMO, and depending on how it goes, I may decide to sub for the month of February just to get my hands on all the good stuff Gold members get. I’d hate to miss out on the chance to fully customize my powers and abilities, which has been touted as one of the best features of the game, even if it’s just for a little while.

For the remainder of the night, Blue Ram and the Red Gazelle brought their own brand of justice to the streets of Millennium City — both above and below. Our cloven heroes even took to the sewers, rudely interrupting an evil crime syndicate meeting that was taking place in its smelly dark depths. I’m proud to say I did my part by getting in the way and making myself dead while Kae fought to kill the bad guys and save my useless ass. In other words, I was the perfect sidekick!

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Have Game Tie-In Novels Gotten Better?

January 25, 2011

I’ve been reading a lot recently. I take my Kindle everywhere — I read during lunch, I read before bed, and thanks to handy mobile apps I’m also reading on-the-go while walking the dog or waiting in line at the grocery store. I even read when I’m playing games at my PC during loading screens. This has led to a flurry of activity on my Goodreads page, so I’ve been talking books with my friends a little more than usual as of late.

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of reading Mass Effect: Revelation, and expressed my thoughts of it in an overall positive review. I was a little surprised at how much I liked it; after all, the book had been on my to-read list for many months and I’d been putting it off in favor of other stuff I wanted to read more. Revelation is a pretty short novel, and I was planning on saving it for when I needed a light and casual read. When it turned out being better than I thought, a discussion with Blue Kae resulted, and we both agreed that for some reason game tie-in novels seem to have gotten a lot better in the last couple of years.

That isn’t to say that I think all video game novels have become literary masterpieces overnight, because certainly things have still been pretty much hit or miss for me. Still, I too get the sense that the bar has been raised. I think part of it has to do with better authors penning these types of novels, but I also wonder if the nature of games coming out nowadays makes a difference. In the last few years, we’ve seen games — single-player and MMOs alike — put a lot more emphasis and importance on lore and storytelling, perhaps making the novels based on them simply that much more interesting and enjoyable to read?

I’ve been pondering this, especially since Revelation is such a good example. Not only are the Mass Effect games powerfully story-driven, in my opinion the awesomeness of their gameplay is only rivaled by the incredible feat of world building the Bioware team has managed to pull off. It probably helped that the author Drew Karpyshyn is the writer for the game too, and a great storyteller (his Star Wars: Darth Bane books can attest to that as well).

Still, even the best writing wouldn’t matter if you can’t make someone care enough to pick up the book. What amazes me is that so many people are drawn to Revelation and the other Mass Effect novels in the first place, and find that they enjoy them…even though Revelation makes no mention of Shepard — the ultimate badass who is THE face of Mass Effect — or even any of his companions from either game. Some games are so immersive now that lorehounds are finding just as much enjoyment out of a prequel or a background story about a secondary character. Revelation, for example, tells the story of Anderson and how he almost became a Spectre. If you ever wondered about that from the first Mass Effect game (I know I did), this book has all the details.

On the whole, I think game tie-in novels are getting better and better, but I still don’t know if I’d approach them the same way I would with other fiction, and admittedly there’s probably always going to be a part of me that will remind myself “I’m reading a book based on a video game.” Despite that, it’s uplifting to see the good reviews some of these novels have gotten, and how more books based on video games seem to be able to stand on their own as general sci-fi or fantasy, that even non-gamers can enjoy.

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STO: Aye, She’s A Beaut

January 24, 2011

Twitter was abuzz this weekend with Star Trek Online players talking about the amazing changes to Earth Spacedock on the Tribble test shard. Normally, I resist looking at anything before they reach the live servers, but  the temptation this time was just too great. I knew I had to see them for myself.

That said, I tried to limit much of my exploring to ESD, and after seeing it I have nothing but compliments. First off, it’s nice to see that we now have a transporter room. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that Club 47 got a face-lift, and after making a giant fool out of myself by careening into the transparent barrier separating the club from the corridor, I even did a little jig on the dance floor with a few other players (after wiping my bloody nose, of course). Not sure why they need so many guards armed to the teeth standing on the lookout though, are a bunch of partying Federation officers really that much of a threat?

There are heaps of other changes scattered all across ESD, but the real surprise was waiting for me in the new Ship Requisition area:

Wow. I literally felt chills as I stepped off the turbolift and ventured up to the window to behold the Galaxy Class beyond it. When you play “as” your starship out in space, you start to lose the sense of just how massive these things are supposed to be. Here, the new Ship Requisitions serves as a clear reminder. This area used to be a bunch of NPCs standing around a room talking about ships and now it’s…well, still a bunch of NPCs standing around a room talking about ships, but its presentation (something which Cryptic is becoming increasingly accomplished at, I might add) is simply beyond beautiful.

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*QUESH*! What? No, I Didn’t Just Step In Bantha Poodoo

January 21, 2011

Quesh, quesh, quesh. Maybe it's just me, but that's a pretty unfortunate name for a planet.

Today’s Star Wars: The Old Republic update is a new planet reveal — a valuable yet dangerous world worthy of any environmentalist’s worst nightmare: Quesh. By all accounts, it appears to be a BioWare original, created especially for SWTOR, undoubtedly for the sole purpose of providing us players with another PvP planet. Or at least, I believe all signs point to it being a PvP planet.

Here, check out this video featuring 20 seconds of fly-by footage of some of the polluted, poison-laden and smoke-filled chemical refineries on the toxic surface of New Jersey — er, I mean, Quesh!

If indeed PvP is going to be the main feature of this planet, then Bioware has once again gone above and beyond with the story. When I first read the description for Quesh, I figured the valuable chemicals in its atmosphere was just your typical set-up for yet another Republic vs. Empire quibble over a resource war. In other words — YAWWWWN! But throw in a Hutt cartel war? Hutt-on-Hutt action (Oh God, no…hey! Stop, picturing that, brain!) is something else.

And a Republic and Hutt alliance? Even if it’s with just a few individuals, that’s um…rare…to say the least. But then again, a Hutt’s greed knows no bounds.

For those keeping count, we are now sitting at 17 for the number of planets in SWTOR. The devs weren’t kidding when they said this game’s gonna be huge, and even though it’s been more than three months between Quesh and the last planet reveal of Ilum, I don’t doubt we’ll be seeing at least another planet before release. I can’t really provide the evidence as to why I think so, just that I think it’d be weird to stop at an odd and prime number like 17 (hoorah for totally unscientific and groundless hunches!)

And hey, keep ‘em coming. I love planet reveals and can always do with more, even if that number is to reach 24 and I end up losing my bet with Hunter. Haha, it’s been a while, but nope, I haven’t forgotten about that.

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Of Puppies And Finding Refuge In Single-Player Games Before The Onslaught Of The MMO Storm!

January 19, 2011

Question: Do you always play the games you buy? Because I know I don’t. Damn Steam and their sales. They are the worst at making me commit this travesty. Every holiday season they hook me in with dirt cheap prices and I end up with another half dozen games in my cart, all purchased with a “buy now, play later” mentality. Except “later” becomes weeks and stretches into months until they become all but forgotten, sitting in your games library gathering the proverbial dust, all loaded and installed with nowhere to go.

Part of the problem is the MMOs I play. It almost goes without saying, when you play an MMO you’re committed to it for the long haul. At the very least, if you’re paying a sub you want to be getting the most out of your month. I fit in a single-player game every now and then, but that’s time usually made for new releases that I go out of the way to pay full price for at the store the day it comes out. It’s rare that I can find time for those other games relegated to the “later” pile.

Sometimes it takes some personal changes in your life to break the pattern. You see, I haven’t touched a single MMO in almost three weeks, with the exception of the Rift beta weekend — no World of Warcraft, no Star Trek Online, not even free-to-play Lord of the Rings Online.

Remember a week and a half ago, I mentioned getting a new puppy? Don’t let her face fool you, Mara is a little devil. Her type of coloring, a rich true red all over like that of an Irish Setter, is called “ruby.” The breeder told us there is a myth, that as in the world of humans, many owners of ruby Cavalier King Charles spaniels say these red-heads are more volatile, wild and fun to live with. I’m beginning to question whether or not this is really a “myth” at all. Mara the rambunctious little hellion constantly needs watching — every single hour, if she’s not needing to be taken out, she’s either escaping her puppy pen or trying to chew something she’s not supposed to.

Moral of the story? I can only play games with a big fat pause button. MMOs are out of the question, as there is nothing more embarrassing than having to sit back down to a wiped group, trying to explain “Sorry for going AFK guys, dog got into the laundry hamper and was trying to eat my panties.”

This is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for, to tackle those single-player games in my Steam library — games that include titles like The Witcher, Bully, and Bioshock 2…games that I actually really want to play. The puppy’s going to settle down sooner or later (GOOD GOD I sure hope so) and this lull could be my only chance before the MMOs take over my life again with a vengeance:

January 25: Rift Beta #5 – Battle of the Ascended, and Champions Online goes free-to-play. January 29: STO returns with Featured Episode Series 3 (I. Can’t. Wait.)

February 24: Rift head-start access for those who’ve preordered.

March…geez, do I really need to go into it again? March is full of goodies; apart from Rift releasing for real, I’m also heading out to PAX East, and my nose should be buried deep in the new Star Wars: The Old Republic novel by the end of the month. And with luck (though quite honestly, I’m not holding  my breath), SWTOR will come out late spring or early summer, and then it’ll be all over from there.

This is the calm before the storm for me (well, as calm as things can be with a 3-month-old puppy nipping at my heels everywhere I go), and if I don’t start making a dent in that to-play list now, I’ll likely not have another chance until summer.

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