Vampire Bloodlines: Fire and vamps don’t mix

(This is part of my journey going playing through 2004’s Vampire The Masquerade Bloodlines. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Downtown’s nicer facade doesn’t do much to cover the atrocities that happen just beyond its surface in this game, and by this point, I’m up to my neck in cults, monsters, and all sorts of sordid affairs. The question that persists is, how much do I embrace my own inner monster — and how much do I try to hold on to my humanity?

The plaguebearer storyline eventually led to a hotel populated by misguided fools (aka zombies) who thought they’d be better off being infected for some reason.

Morgan Freeman’s voice-over: They were not.

Bloodlines does have a streak of fantastic black humor that runs through most of the game to offset the unrelentingly grim atmosphere. Such as allowing the player to play basketball with a severed head (I didn’t sever it) and then hear a buzzer go off if the shot is made.

The more I replay this, the more I’m convinced that The Secret World’s designers drew a lot of inspiration from Bloodlines. Because yet again, I’m plunging myself into a monster-filled underground parking garage and going through all sorts of PTSD flashbacks from Funcom’s title. Wasn’t quite as scary, but the deja vu was uncanny.

In one of the most unsettling missions of the game, there’s this creature that lurks deep inside the bowels of an abandoned hospital. She’s not a vampire, but rather… some sort of spider thing that looks like a human. Human-ish. There are a lot of webs and I kind of didn’t want to know more. There’s a choice here to either work as her agent or kill her, which brings us back to that “monster vs. humanity” theme.

I eventually hopped back onto the main storyline to investigate the mansion of Dr. Grout for more information about this sarcophagus. The Anarchist Nines wanders out of the mansion, dazed, and I have no idea what to make of that before I’m plunged into madness.

A common horror trope is that of the mad doctor who experiments on people with the thought that the ends justify the means, somehow. Dr. Grout took this on a different track, experimenting on ghouls to somehow help his wife. He makes a deal with the Malkavians and gradually goes mad because of it.

The mansion itself isn’t scary, just a little eerie and weird. It tilts a little toward puzzle-solving, but nothing really that complicated.

The gradual progression of the mansion leads up to a double tragedy: Dr. Grout, now a vampire, has been chained to a bed and staked, and his wife, frozen in suspended animation, doesn’t look as though she’s going to be making a recovery any time soon.

Plus, a vampire hunter shows up and torches the place, forcing me to evade the “quick to kill me” flames and jump out of a window. While I normally use a combination of my knife and the Visions of Death skill for combat, in this instance I switched over to a shotgun because I didn’t want the flaming ghouls to touch me and light me up.

Speaking of black humor, I love this guy. Always has a weirdly oblivious comment at hand. I’m rooting that he wins the game.

ESO: Necromancers make their own friends

Probably the single biggest obstacle for me getting more deeply invested into Elder Scrolls Online — more stuck to it, I should say — is what I see as its lackluster combat system and class skills that feed into it. I feel that there are too few weapon types (of which almost all are boring) and the class skills feel more spammy than fun. Not all, but many.

So I’ve been biding my time to the Elsweyr release this summer and the hope that the Necromancer promised. Since necros almost always signal “pet class” in MMOs — and an interesting, Halloween-themed one at that — I gravitate toward them. And with the additional stigma of ESO’s Necros, that you can’t use their magic in cities or else be swarmed by guards, this seemed to be an attractive prospect.

With some of my birthday money, I picked up Elseweyr a couple of weeks ago and got right to making a new character and exploring whether ESO’s Necro was a bone-raising hellion or a dead corpse walking. Once again I got frustrated with the ugly character creation settings and ended up hitting the “randomize” button until I got something palpable.

I actually like the setting that Elseweyr presents, as it’s more “African savanna” than “Sahara desert.” Definitely warm and bright and inviting, even with those pesky dragons flitting about. With the new zone guide, I was up and running on the main quest line. Figured I might as well go through this expansion while I’m here.

So far, there are the usual assortment of incredible settings and inviting questlines. I really enjoyed one in which I helped a hapless private investigator track down a missing daughter. The longer quest chains for even side quests in this game get a lot of respect from me, and once I’m on one of these chains, I ride them to the very end.

But what about the Necromancer? I’m only like level 5 as I write this, so I’m not coming at it from a great position of knowledge. What I can say is that I’m a little intrigued and a little worried. I mean, the expectation I have for a necromancer is to be able to order skeletons and other dead things about with impunity, kind of a minion master, but that’s not ESO’s vision. Most all skills have some element of undead theming, from tossing skulls to wearing bone armor, but the closest thing you have to a pet is a 16-second summon — and I don’t even have that yet. The Warden felt more like a true pet class than this, and that worries me. I don’t want to get disillusioned with it just yet.

I think it’s going to take more time to come to a verdict. The combat is very smooth and I do appreciate the choice of morphing skills into stamina-based, offering a different build if I’m so inclined. I’m either going with a one hander and shield or dual wielding, because I feel that the staff is the obvious (and thus, more boring) choice. I want her to get up and personal while she slings her dark magic.

If after a few weeks I’m not warming up more to this class, then I’ll probably go back to the Warden and its permanent pet and skills that, if I don’t love, I at least like and can work with. Plus, I have my Warden’s steed almost maxed out, which is something I haven’t even started doing with my Necro (pitiful sigh as I think about how great it would be to have account-wide unlocks in this department).

What do you think of the Necro so far? What build are you running?

LOTRO: Vales and valleys

What a pleasant surprise it was to have LOTRO release Update 24 last week — I honestly didn’t think we’d see it until later this month. It was ideal timing, as I’d been missing a good dose of Middle-earth adventures, and getting to see and experience brand-new regions is even better than getting a legendary server unlock. I’m eager to see where this game is going, especially as the small team really brings to bear considerable care and talent in each of its content drops.

And really, that has to be the draw right now for me — the experience of it all — because I’ve about come to a complete halt in terms of progression. I’m level 120, have all my legendaries maxed out, and have enough virtues to keep myself well-rounded. Right now I’m doing the quests 99.9% because of the stories and adventures that they take me on rather than any useful reward. That’s fine by me.

After a chapter of the epic book up in the Grey Mountains (which felt like a lengthy epilogue to the previous zone’s events), I was finally on my way through the western boundary of Mirkwood and into the lush Vales of Anduin. And lush they be! It’s kind of like going on Bilbo’s journey in reverse, a bit, and I rejoiced to see another wide-open zone full of attractive landscapes, easy travel, and scads of quests. Anduin is right up there along with the more good-looking of LOTRO’s zones, and I know I must feast on it now before the team sends us back to Mordor later this year.

My honey cake looks good. I want this known by the entire world.

It’s a good decision to rub shoulders with Beornings in this area, seeing as how it’s both their homeland and that we’ve had so little contact with them to date other than seeing other player characters roll up one. There’s a strong “get in touch with nature” theme going on with both the Beornings and Radagast, but this is in a different way than, say, how the Elves do it. More down-to-earth and burly. I like these quieter quests of feeding bees and making honey cakes myself, and I suppose if you do not, then you’d probably never made it this far in LOTRO anyway.

Probably my only major criticism of the new area so far is that the mobs do feel a little tougher and more numerous than they should be. I mean, I’m a level 120 adventurer with pretty good stats and gear, and yet I have to struggle to take down a fly that boasts half-again as much morale as I have. That fly right there, he could take down Saruman single-handedly if we were to compare stats. That fly could have ravaged Eriador and laid the entire region to waste. So yeah, I feel that SSG has once again erred on the side of making the landscape a little too — not challenging, necessarily, but sloggy. It was a real problem in Mordor, that high time-to-kill, and it hasn’t really lessened since.

Battle Bards Episode 146: More vocals

In another theme sequel, the Battle Bards return to the notion of vocal tracks in MMORPGs. Does singing hold a special place in online games, or is it immersion breaking? In some cases, it can be both. Join Syl, Steff, and Syp for a romp through a widely diverse array of sung tunes — and beware the pigs!

Episode 146 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “Singing” from Elder Scrolls Online, “Song from the Woods” from The Secret World, and “Eternal Love” from Lineage II: Oath of Blood)
  • “Dragonsong” from Final Fantasy XIV
  • “Glutton for Nourishment” from RuneScape
  • “The Daughter of the Sea” from World of Warcraft
  • “Dungeon Herograve” from Lime Odyssey
  • “Wild Side” from WildStar
  • “Port Lux (Vocal Version)” from Cabal Online
  • “Odyssey” from Granado Espada
  • Which one did we like best?
  • Listener mail from Caroline
  • Jukebox picks: “The Frostlands” from Octopath Traveler, “Dolphin Surf” from Tetris Effect, and “Future” from Max Payne 3
  • Outro (feat. “Day of Destiny” from Dragon Nest: Saint Haven)

LOTRO: Group for survival

With little else to do in LOTRO these days — I am resisting the occasional urge to reroll, as that would not help in the long run — I decided to devote a week of sessions in the MMO to grouping up as often as I could. While I have no idea how to actually progress in gear (and have never felt the need for it, since questing gear was more than enough to get through the epic story and various zones), I figured it’d do me some good to party up and do a few skirmishes and dungeon runs.

This was, it turned out, a fairly enjoyable way to pass the time. At least it was a change from my normal questing routine, and I even got a few runs in as the main healer. I think I acquitted myself well in those situations, but honestly, I just slam on every heal button I can to keep these lemming-like groups alive and hope for the best.

Moria instances are not my favorite, probably because they throw me back into Moria and I am beyond done with that place right now. I haven’t seen a lot of people clamoring for the next unlock on the progression servers, but I think that’s probably because much attention is being given to Update 24’s test run right now.

For me, running these dungeons was mostly about getting some face time with my kinship and seeing some areas and mobs that I wouldn’t otherwise. I mean, look at gorgeous up there! So demure, so passionate, so likely to go on to a liberal arts college and major in advertising! She doesn’t let the lack of clothes or skin stand in her way!

One run did pay out in an unexpected bounty of loot. I did a Turtle run the other day — again, just to do it, not that I needed the currency to get any more First Agers — and actually won the roll on a small turtle head item. I had no idea what this was, so imagine my delight when it turned out that this became a little turtle home that sits outside of my house and spawns a baby turtle when clicked. I’ve seen some mild grumbling from others that they had yet to win this, so I’ll count myself fortunate and keep my head down.

As I type this, I think I’m going to shelve LOTRO until Update 24 arrives. There’s simply nothing left to do for me, and besides, I’m pretty sure U24 is coming very soon (and watch that it arrives before this scheduled post actually goes out).

City of Heroes: Masterminding a new approach

World, meet Pain Jetson. Pain Jetson, meet the world.

So after rolling up a couple of City of Heroes characters for random mindless grouping action, I felt like I wanted to actually experience the story of the game from start to finish. It’s something I had never done when it was live, and if we’re only given a finite time with these emulators, it’s up there on my bucket list to witness. Therefore I created Pain, a Bots/Rad Mastermind who has the perfect package for me: a swarm of killer robots and all sorts of radiation superpowers.

I even gave her a cool retro scifi look which ended up very close to what I envisioned. Not wholly original, mind you, but I was pleased with the result.

This is certainly a much different approach than I’ve ever taken with City of Heroes, which is slightly funny to me, because it’s the *standard* approach of most MMOs. I guess that is a testament to the fun and ease of grouping in this game.

But there’s a lot of enjoyment to be found in these story arcs, and I kept finding myself really surprised at the quality of writing and the clever little quest twists the devs included. Here I am going undercover as… a demon? I guess? My robot really should have horns on to fit in.

This’ll be the new Pain Jetson poster art.

Mastermind has to be one of my all-time favorite MMORPG pet classes. It’s kind of insane that the devs decided that it’d be cool to give us so many pets, but you know what? It turned out really fun, too. Since the story progression means a much slower leveling experience, I’m only level 10 and therefore limited to just two bots, but even so, I like having Huey and Louey joining me for my adventures.

Demonic supernatural rituals? NOT IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD!

Another neat touch is that I was able to customize my MM’s pulse rifle to be retro scifi as well — and her jet pack even animates when I’m flying!

If I could have one wish with doing the game this way, it would be to have the NPCs voiced. Reading the relatively tiny text gives me a headache, and a lot of this would be so much more effective if done by competent voice actors.

Oh! So regarding the above screenshot, this was another pleasant surprise: Every once in a while, we’re given actual choices in the quests. Not sure if any of them actually hold any consequences, but even if it’s just window dressing, it’s still very welcome. Getting the option to arrest or kill a disgraced contact who has caused the death of others is an interesting roleplay decision indeed.

One of the story arcs had me joining a lower tier superhero team that included all sorts of rather funny members. My favorite is Dillo here, some sort of rock alien who speaks in near gibberish. I cherish every time we converse.

Anyway, I’ve gone through all of the Atlas Park missions and have made significant headway into Kings Row. I’m still flabbergasted that I’m actually playing in Kings Row in 2019, because I still haven’t gotten over how wonderfully strange this all is, but I’m not complaining either!

SWTOR: Knights of the Fallen Empire completed!

So this may mark the longest it’s ever taken me to get through an MMO expansion, as I started Knights of the Fallen Empire, oh, back in October 2015 and am only now wrapping it up in the late hours of May 2019. Despite a really strong start, I ran out of steam midway through and left the game for a good long while. I am glad I came back, however, because sometimes you want to see how everything plays out, you know?

The final two chapters accelerated the drama and tension of this expansion, which had a tendency to sag in the middle. SCORPIO, predictably, betrayed me and my crew, and unpredictably stole the Eternal Throne from right out under Arcann and his sister. Having a former companion, even a shady one, become a Big Bad Boss, is a pretty gutsy move on BioWare’s part. I always liked SCORPIO because she was a darker, more sinister droid that you always felt could turn on you at any moment.

And despite the last couple of levels being nothing but lengthy excursions through the corridors of enemy ships, there was enough narrative development and cool set pieces (especially when said ships were breaking apart all around me) to make it worth the journey. Other than a very brief interlude between the missions, I didn’t see or hear from another player, which definitely felt weird for an MMO. BioWare’s choice to greatly skew this to the single-player realm took away that feeling of “playing alone together” that so many of us enjoyed.

The final mission, the Battle of Odessen, was masterful from start to end. It was just the right length, exciting through and through, and ended on a series of fascinating cliffhangers:

  • Arcann is defeated but sort of (maybe) comes around to the light side again as his mother steals him away
  • SCORPIO gives all of her GEMINI “children” free will to stay and serve or head out to the stars
  • A good chunk of the Eternal Fleet, including the flagship, is destroyed
  • Koth returns — and steals the Gravestone
  • The Emperor ghost reasserts himself to give me a small pep talk
  • And Vaylin takes the Eternal Throne with SCORPIO’s permission, with the droid remaining to be her right-hand advisor

It wasn’t all that shocking, but it kept me glued to the monitor for the last half-hour or so. I liked the bits of humor that my character interjected, but disliked that my choice to shoot down Arcann’s shuttle was yanked away from me due to BioWare’s Plot Armor. Seriously, BioWare, if you’re going to give me a serious choice, then let it play out. Doing otherwise makes me feel like you’re handling me instead of trusting me to forge a path. It felt ironic that the droids of this episode were given more free will than I.

So as the curtain descends on Fallen Empire and rises on Knights of the Eternal Throne, what say I about this expansion as a whole? Like many SWTOR players, I’m deeply divided on whether or not the trade-off between MMO and single-player storytelilng was worth it. It was certainly initially exciting, receiving all sorts of publicity and acclaim, but I think that all of the production values couldn’t replace the social component (not to mention simply being able to explore areas and go on a variety of quests instead of just one main one). If you’ll excuse the expression, a balance needed to be struck here, and I think BioWare recognized that following Eternal Throne, which is why the game’s shifted back to its former format.

I am generally inclined to be kind to this expansion, because a lot here works well. We get the return of major companions, a daring time shift to five years in the future, lots of funny quips and NPCs, some amazing moments, an awesome main ship, a couple of poignant deaths (I’ll miss you, HK!), some residual tension between Empire and Republic, and crazy space battles. I have plenty of criticisms too (and if I never have to see another skytrooper again, I’d be a very happy man).

In any case, it’s time to see if I can get through the next expansion in something less than four years. I think that’s doable.