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My gaming PC has served me well, but it’s old and well overdue for upgrades. It plays WoW well enough (well, my toaster can probably run WoW), has no problems with GW2, even Blade & Soul runs just fine – but it doesn’t meet the minimum specs for Black Desert Online (mostly down to the graphics card), for example.

It did play The Elder Scrolls Online just fine until yesterday. I’ve recently re-installed ESO as part of my ongoing reorganisation of hard disk storage, since I’ve found most MMOs will in fact work just fine off an external hard disk drive so the games which had been purged to free up internal drive space are making a comeback. Unfortunately, ESO’s latest update includes a move to requiring a DX11 graphics card. Having logged in for the first time in months over the weekend, I thought I’d spend a bit of time running around and having a look at some of the earlier DLC. Since the update, however, the game won’t even launch.

Sigh. It’s not that a new card is insurmountably expensive (I could have a perfectly suitable one of the price of a new game), nor is it exactly difficult for me to fit the card – I might be a manager and before that a software specialist, but sliding a card into a slot is within even my capabilities. It’s just a hassle. Still, on the upside a DX11 card will let me play the latest incarnation of Tropico as well and that’s definitely cheaper than a Caribbean holiday…

No, I’ve not succumbed to mad cow disease… just a touch of mad galactic emperor disease since Wargaming’s reboot of Master of Orion is now available in an Early Access form on both Steam and GOG.com which is where I got my copy with a small discount for having previously bought MOO1 and 2 from them (the previous incarnations of the game are all bundled in with the ‘collector’s edition’ which is the only one available for early access). I note that this game isn’t called MOO 4 – they seem to be pretending MOO 3 never happened, an impression reinforced by the developer videos on the website where they talk about all the lessons and features carried forward from the first two games and never even mention their disappointing younger sibling.

So what’s it like, and what do the dreaded words ‘early access’ mean in this case? Well, it’s almost feature complete, stable, and pretty. Only about half the races are in the game so far, the espionage system is missing – which means there are a few technologies and colony buildings available in-game that do nothing at the moment – and you can’t score a scientific or diplomatic victory yet. It’s got be dominance via a commanding vote on the galactic council, or bloody conquest. There’s no option to vary the difficulty level yet, but it seems to be in the right sort of zone for me as it stands (probably too easy for hardened players as high settings on these games usually hand me my head). AI needs a bit of a tweak, I would say. As it stands, AI players never invade and conquer planets, they always bomb them clean of life, and the logic they use in diplomatic negotiations is a bit bizarre. Specifically, if you want to offer peace terms, what they ask for is based on how much they hate you and not on the current balance of power. This makes the North Koreans look like the epitome of rational enlightened discourse at times…

ME: Alkari leader, you are on the verge of defeat! All of your colonies are lost, your fleets have been blasted to dust, and your homeworld is orbited by my Doom Star and half a dozen titans, each large and powerful enough to bombard your people to extinction by opening their garbage chutes, never mind actually using antimatter bombs. At this final hour, I offer you my hand in peace. Will you accept?

ALKARI: Featherless scum! We will have peace only if you cede to me eight of your most productive colonies, all of the money in your treasury, backbreaking ongoing tribute and a laundry list of really cool tech!

ME: Fleet commander… set the antimatter bombs to ‘extra crispy’ and fire at will.

Niggles aside though, it really is a fun game that plays well… it plays very much like the classic MOO 2 spruced up for the modern era. One major difference is that tactical ship battles run in real time (with a pause function) which takes a little getting used to but can look truly cool if you zoom into the action. Production standards are high, this is clearly a game that Wargaming have lavished some of their oodles of World of Tanks money on, and in my view it’s money well spent. The voice cast has a string of familiar names including Alan Tudyk, Michael Dorn and Mark Hamill… who has way more lines in Master of Orion than he had in the last Star Wars film.

Belghast has also had a play with this game and seems fairly impressed. I’ll be keeping an eye on it to see how it polishes up for release.

Over at Bio Break, Syp is asking if healers should be pressured into DPSing. At the risk of being monstrously unfair to Syp, I’m going to go with “well, duh!” because you aren’t there to heal, you’re there to help your group complete the dungeon. If you’re playing a specialised healing class then yeah, keeping people alive is the most important part of your contribution, but as long as you’ve got that covered you should always be on the lookout for ways to help out the team. That’s what teamwork is, everyone pulling together (gung ho as the US Marine Corps has it) rather than standing back and going “can’t do that squire. Not in my job description. Union rules, innit?”*

Yeah, I am being unfair to Syp. He doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who would say that, and I’m not a huge fan of the optimisation-mad crowd who harangue their teammates in an attempt to shave eight seconds off the instance run time either. I’m just gobsmacked that this is even a question, and I think it relates to the recent posts by Keen and Bhagpuss about how a lot of MMO gameplay has simplified and streamlined roles (and a lot of other things). Modern games tend to expect you to perform one role, and one role only. The tank tanks, the healer heals, the DPS roll ‘need’ on everything they can. Each is very good at their job and sucks at everybody else’s. Older games were less stratified in roles, had more hybrtidisation and things were more likely to go pear-shaped but be recoverable by prompt action from the group. In DAoC the friar could stop meleeing and throw out some heals long enough to save the group; the mercenary, normally a melee DPS, had the tools to tank for a bit even if it did put a strain on the healers keeping him alive, and the cleric could smite (if he wasn’t 100% focused on saving the bloody merc’s worthless ass). If everyone pulled those trucks out at the right time, you could turn a bad pull into glorious victory. That’s unlikely to happen in WoW because the characters as so good at, and optimised, for their normal roles that assuming they’re doing content tuned for them, that’s all they can do. An enhancement shaman doesn’t bring the healing needed to keep a tank up through more than a light trash pull, and a combat rogue doesn’t have the tools or survivability to cover for a dead tank.

We’ve become very good at what we do, at the price of that being all that we can do. We don’t have to think about what we’re doing so much as focus on performing our assigned task as perfectly as possible. I view that as a loss, personally, and see it as devaluing the game experience… but that’s a whole other blog post.

 

 

 

  • for those younger than I am or from other parts of the world, the above quote  is a caricature of the British work ethic c. 1975.

My local Tesco superstore has a range of Star Wars themed birthday cards for sale. This includes one addressed to “Dad”, with a picture of Kylo Ren on it.

Have they SEEN The Force Awakens?

I picked up the DVD of The Martian today. There’s an advertising flyer for potatoes inside the case…

Count me amongst the horde of bloggers who have downloaded Blade and Soul. Others, such as Bhagpuss, have given a much better overview of the game than I will attempt to here. Suffice to say that I found the game not without interest, but not with enough interest to become part of my regular repertoire. The high point was the combat, which felt like a fighting game and has a nice flow to it, with all sorts of interesting combos you can set up with your abilities (which the game does a decent job of teaching you via a series of ‘training room’ missions interwoven into the early part of the story) and quite a decent control system of contextual controls. Rather than having a shedload of abilities on a shedload of keybinds that you have to remember (a la SWTOR), or the limited set of abilities normal to an action MMO (such as ESO), B&S has a shedload of abilities on a handful of keys, with keys mapping to a different ability based on the situation. So, for example, the ‘F’ key allows you stomp enemies who are down, or comes up to activate an ‘on critical hit’ skill after landing a crit. Neat.

Downsides for me really came down to the art style, which veers between highly-realistic (apart from the OTT jiggling) human models to extremely cartoonish looking characters standing side by side, some frustration with the ‘wheel of fortune’ loot system and the fact that pretty much all loot items have to be unlocked before being used, lack of engagement with the story, and the fact that there’s no open world to speak of that I can explore – just a story on rails that moves from set location to set location (at least as of level 15, where I stopped). The story is the hackneyed staple of wuxia – you are a martial arts student, bad person turns up and kills your master, you set out to avenge master. Possibly my problem is I came straight from playing through the Sith Warrior storyline again in SWTOR, which boils down to you going on a quest to kill your master yourself, so I couldn’t take my rip-roaring rampage of revenge here seriously. Still, there’s a decent game in B&S if you like that genre… it’s just not really for me.

De-installing B&S freed up 20 GB or so of much-needed hard disk space on my pitiful PC,  a figure that sounded oddly familiar. Then I remembered someone mentioning that was approximately the disk footprint of WoW these days. Which set off some musing… I managed to remember my Battle.net password and check my account status. I last logged into WoW in 2009, and that was for a cursory session or two – I stopped playing WoW with any regularity in 2008. I have, in fact, not played WoW for two-thirds of the game’s lifespan. And sitting there, on the web page in front of me, was a button that would activate a 7 day trial of the current expansion for free…

So I’m playing around in Azeroth, doing low level content like the filthy casual I am these days. My highest level characters were level 70 when I stopped playing, and were both kitted out in awesome raid gear for their day – now of course they are mid-level characters who should be replacing all that stuff with Northrend green quality drops, or would be if I was playing them. I’m spending more time on my level 40 mage and level 60-something rogue, as well as creating new worgen and pandaren characters to see what their starting zones are like. Gameplay, and especially character customisation (hah! In so far as there is any!), evokes a feeling of “it’s WoW, but not as I know it”, and all the Cataclysm changes to the world are new to me. It’s strange, but not entirely unpleasant. Is it my ideal MMO? No, but it feels comfortable, like an old sweater. Being a middle-aged dad, I well understand the pleasure of sometimes just wearing that old sweater and relaxing with what is known rather than trying to scale the heights of fashion. Next week brings new and shiny SWTOR, of course, but this week maybe I’ll just try and remember my way around Orgrimmar.

No, not Victor Victoria

I’ve just been listening to some of my music purchases from last year – two of my favourite epic music outfits released public albums, Two Steps From Hell (Battlecry) and Immediate Music (Gates of Valhalla). By what I am sure is pure coincidence, one has a track called Victory and the other has Victorious, both with a similar sort of structure. For what it’s worth, it looks like the Immediate track is an older piece of library music and has only recently been put on a public album, while most of Battlecry was written specifically for that album. Both worth a listen, anyway.

Here’s Two Steps From Hell at the peak of their epic game:

And here’s Immediate Music’s take on the theme:

I saw The Force Awakens last night. Without wanting to spoil anything, I left the cinema happy and thought one of the over audience members I overheard nailed it when he described the film as “Star Wars in a nutshell”. I had re-watched the original movie (well, one of the versions butchered with gratuitous extra CGI, that being all that was available on DVD) just a couple of days before, so it was fresh in my mind for comparison. The original is, well, it’s a great film from the 70’s. I don’t have an automatic hate on for older films, but you would have to be blind not to notice that the film-making art has evolved over the years and Star Wars was a film of its era. I’m not just talking about the dodgy sideburns sported by far too many characters (which The Ancient Gaming Noob has already pointed out) but also the fight choreography, dialogue, cinematography – modern films do these things differently. TFA takes many of the story beats of the original film (a GREAT many of the story beats – while it’s not an exact remake, there are plenty of points in common) and makes the film in a modern style while keeping the good vs evil moral sensibilities that so often get jettisoned to make things ‘gritty’ but are at the heart of Star Wars (side note: Marvel films have a similar theme, where even though Tony Stark and Star Lord are flawed human beings they are still heroes who when push comes to shove do the right thing. These films sell tickets by the metric shitload. Maybe we aren’t as cynical a society as we like to pretend).

I also saw a fair few nods to The Old Republic, real or coincidental. Some of the scenes and landscapes in the film just look like something from SWTOR – watching Rey clamber round the crashed Star Destroyer on Jakku reminded me intensely of the Endar Spire on Taris. And in this film’s take on the cantina scene, one of the patrons looks awfully like SCORPIO. Which could be coincidence, could be a little nod to the game by reusing the look… or could be a bigger nod. We are talking about an effectively immortal self-upgrading droid/AI, after all.

Of course, if you look to the customer reviews and the SWTOR forums it’s easy enough to find people who hated the film. Some of it is hate for hate’s sake, of course, what one of the posters described as trying to muster cool cred but there are also real fans genuinely disappointed by the premise of the movie. A lot of them seem to be unhappy that the universe has moved on (people and things are NOT as Return of the Jedi left them thirty years ago) but it hasn’t moved on in the way the now-defunct Expanded Universe novels did – no Grand Admiral Thrawn, none of the tedious hack-work Jedi Academy, no invasion of the Force-immune You Suck Dong from beyond the galaxy… yeah, I’m not a fan of the EU In its entirety and I honestly believe that jettisoning it and going with a new storyline, which has some common elements with parts of the EU without being bound by all the crap which went with it, was the right decision.

My own main grumble is that the ultimate Big Bad, Supreme Leader Snoke, seems to be a lazy copy of Emperor Palpatine who has appeared from nowhere to take on the role of manipulative master of the Dark Side. As of RotJ we were all outta Sith, yet Snoke has apparently popped up to orchestrate the (now much more diverse) forces of evil and to train apprentices in the Dark Side. We can only hope that there is more to be revealed, but for now the copy/paste Dark Lord is the weakest element of the film for me.

I feel I’ve got my GW2 groove back, to some extent, playing around with the new elite specialisations in the expansion. For those who aren’t that close to the game – an elite spec is a bit like a prestige class in D&D (3rd edition) in that it unlocks after playing the base class and gives you the option of modifying it into a different or more specialised role. In GW2 it takes the place of one of the 3 specialisation lines you pick (so instead of a normal character choosing 3 out of 5 spec lines of talents, an elite has 2 out of 5 spec lines from the base class plus the elite line), requires a hellacious number of skill points to unlock all abilities and each elite spec gets access to a weapon type not available to the base class. While I’ve had good fun with the Reaper (a necromancer who picks up a greatsword and turns into an unstoppable force of melee destruction), my new true love is the Daredevil – a thief who uses martial arts type moves and delivers non-stop beatdown with a staff.

I’ve mentioned before my love of the Friar class in DAoC, and I’ve been searching for a worthy successor ever since. Rift came close by letting me build a melee cleric, but the problem was the staff models in the game. Like most fantasy MMOs, the staves in RIFT are ornate things with top-heavy decorations, suitable for wizards to brandish whilst yelling “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” but utterly impractical as melee weapons… even when wielded in melee (along with a sword!) in LotRO by that game’s wizard wannabes. GW2 gets around this by handing out a nice new simple -looking quarterstaff with your choice of stats immediately upon you unlocking the Daredevil specialisation. With this weapon I can smack, thwack, twirl through my enemies, swipe and dodge backwards, knock dust into my enemies’ faces to blind them or vault and smack down to deliver massive damage to an area. Add in a ‘utility’ skill that is basically the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique and I’m in love.

It almost makes up for the fact that my existing level 80 thief was a Charr, and the image of a 7foot tall, 500 pound cat demon monster bounding around doing staff vaults was so ludicrous that I had to roll a new, human alt for the purpose. Tullius Tremayne will have to remain a base thief and wait for a Sniper elite spec what uses rifles. Go on, ArenaNet – you know you want to.

WARNING: here be some spoilers for the Knights of the Fallen Empire storyline. Nothing that is blindly obvious to anyone who’s at least started playing it, or read any of the posts in other places on the topic, but still: spoilers. Some folks out there may not have got around to it yet, after all.

 

There’s a new Empire in town. The Empire of Zakuul has apparently been sitting off in unexplored (by the Sith or the Republic) Wild Space for centuries, quietly minding its own business until it decides to give the Sith Empire and the Republic a poke with a raid led by its two princes. When the old factions unite and respond, it kicks off events that lead to Zakuul smacking down both of the old factions at the same time – this is no petty periphery state, it’s a superpower that nobody even knew existed. And it’s not exactly Evil Empire 2.0, dishing out more of the same as the Sith but bigger and badder (which is the usual trap Star Wars writers fall into). It’s a very different animal in terms of its nature and its governance. Which is interesting, given that the Immortal Emperor of Zakuul turns out to be one and the same person as Emperor Vitiate of the Sith.

The Sith Empire is a straight-up evil empire of pulp fiction. It oppresses EVERYBODY, and runs on fear. The Emperor sits at the top, and for most of SWTOR’s storyline the best that can be said about him is that he is a neglectful, absentee boss. Below him are the Sith, who endlessly scheme against each other whilst treating any non-Force sensitive like expendable trash. Next are Imperial citizens, who are amazingly loyal to the Empire as an ideal whilst doing their best to avoid or work around their erstwhile Sith masters (most of whom take the freedom of the Sith code as licence to act like psychotic children). At least the citizens have slaves to take their frustrations out on, whilst all those poor unfortunates at the bottom can do is suffer. And maybe give the droids a hard time. The Imperial economic pyramid comes to a pretty sharp point, but even the Darths of the Dark Council don’t seem to be able to enjoy their status as they spend most of their time fending off ambitious underlings.

Zakuul, however, is at least on the surface a paradise. As described in the in-game codex, every citizen receives a stipend that allows them to live like the nobility of the Sith Empire or Republic, and frees them to devote their time to the pursuit of science or art or philosophy. Larry Everett over at Massively OP ponders whether this is a form of communism or true socialism but I don’t believe it is, not exactly. There’s nothing to suggest that the state has control of the means of production (socialism), and the state certainly hasn’t withered away to nothing (the end game of communism). What we have is a post-scarcity society, very like Star Trek’s Federation or the societies that show up in a number of Peter F Hamilton’s novels. If anything, it’s a commentary on modern Western society as seen by anyone outside it – yes, we have income inequalities, and poverty on a relative scale, but the poorest Americans or Europeans are more likely to suffer from obesity than starvation. There are plenty of people outside who’d love to get themselves some of that sort of poverty.

It’s not just the economics that differentiate Zakuul from the Sith Empire. The Emperor is also viewed differently. The Sith feared and avoi9ded their Emperor even before he got into the habit of devouring worlds to fuel his immortality. Zakuul idolises its Emperor, and even rebels against the tyrant Arcann still revere his father. Valkorion sure as hell isn’t democratically elected, but he rules with the consent of the governed, whereas the Sith simply seize power and Force choke anyone who objects.

However, Zakuul isn’t the idealistic paradise that the Star Trek Federation is once you start looking closely. There’s a criminal underbelly where people have dropped out of the perfect society of course, but there’s also a decadent demi-monde where the underbelly is happy to provide services for the wealthy society. Seems that, given freedom from the necessity to work for a living, not everyone will devote their lives to art, science and philosophy after all, and at least some Zakuul citizens waste their lives away in pampered ennui and seek thrills to alleviate the boredom.

And then, of course, there’s the Emperor. Sure, Valkorion seems to be a benevolent father figure, but this is still the same being who obliterated Nathema and Ziost to fuel his own power. We haven’t seen his end game yet, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t set Zakuul up as a paradise for the benefit of its citizens, and he’s not aiding the player character solely to restore peace and justice to the galaxy. We’ve got a way to go with this story yet, but at least for now Bioware have given us a more nuanced view of an authoritarian state in our new enemy, with more subtle evils. For what is, when all is said and done, a Star Wars story, that’s not bad at all.

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