Nostalgia Lane: Rating BioWare’s Lineup

In honor of the recent Dragon Age II launch and in anticipation of the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic, I thought I’d go back through BioWare’s library and rank the games from best to worst — and why.

Knights of the Old Republic

I know, I know — as safe, predictable and boring a pick as they come, but I can’t think of a BioWare title that both bowled me over as a game and a story as KOTOR.  We may take it for granted now, but Star Wars games by the early 2000s were really sucky and had lost a lot of the essence of what made Star Wars… well, Star Wars.

Then comes along KOTOR that not only wipes the slate clean by jumping back in time a whopping 3,000 years, but carried with it the Star Wars spirit in all its glory.  It was simply awesome all around, even with a couple whiny companions, and I never got tired of picking Dark Side options.  No wonder why fans were really hoping that KOTOR would be the setting for BioWare’s MMO, and they were right!

Baldur’s Gate II

As I’ll talk about later, the original Baldur’s Gate never clicked with me, but BG2 was a lengthy obsession in my gaming.  I played it alongside a friend who was doing the same thing, and we’d often call each other to swap war stories about our adventures every day.

At the core of Baldur’s Gate II was the feeling of a wide-open world where you could just go on a whole bunch of adventures before finally settling down to tackle the main plot.  Because of that, I took my sweet time exploring the city, establishing my own personal fortress, wooing a girl or two, and building up my character to uber-elite status.  It was a terrific ride from start to finish, and I don’t think I’m alone in considering it one of BioWare’s finest masterpieces.

Mass Effect

Hm… now this is tricky.  Which is better, Mass Effect or Mass Effect 2?  I love both almost equally, but I’m giving the edge to ME1 because the story felt more gripping and I couldn’t get enough of that bouncy rover vehicle (just kidding on that last part!).

With both games, I am jazzed that BioWare decided to go the scifi route because we get precious little of good scifi storytelling in RPGs these days (cue caveman marine: “I MASTER CHIEF!  I BLOW STUFFS UP!”).

Mass Effect 2

Also quite excellent, although the overarching story and final act were underwhelming as motivation.  Still, I totally loved the characters, and the part with Joker saving the day probably ranks as one of my favorite RPG moments ever.  And how funny was his relationship with EDI?

Very funny, is the answer.

Dragon Age II

Unlike the two Mass Effects, I have no compunction against ranking DAII higher than DA:O.  While I appreciate the characters, dialogue and SOME of the story of DA:O, overall it was a bland-feeling game that claimed to subvert typical fantasy tropes — and yet fell right into them anyway.  Whereas Dragon Age II just feels more exploratory and less rote of a RPG, one that I’m more likely to finish.

DAII has a better combat system, a protagonist who actually talks, and the freedom to explore the world BioWare had to establish in the first game.  I really like the fact it moves forward in the timeline and intertwines with aspects from DA:O, although not as much as some people were hoping, I’ve heard.

Dragon Age: Origins

Here we reach the middle point — the “not bad but not especially good either” section.  As I said, I didn’t hate DA:O so much as completely lose interest somewhere 3/4ths of the way through, which isn’t a great sign if that’s supposed to be where the story is ramping up.  There were quite a few things that I’m fond of here, such as the dog as a character and the dynamic between the mages and Templars, but overall it wasn’t enough.

Neverwinter Nights

This is kind of a weird entry in the BioWare experience, since it was both a single-player RPG and a multiplayer experience.  I tried it but didn’t really latch on to it enough to remember anything more for this post.

Jade Empire

Hm.  Cool setting?  Sure.  Martial arts?  Neat.  Everything else?  Forgettable.

Baldur’s Gate

And thus I’m relegating BG to the bottom of the heap, even though it was BioWare’s big breakout hit.  BG2 was so superior in every way that BG is just sad in comparison.  I never really liked the repeating maps or the initial lack of direction, and the story wasn’t nearly as interesting as its successor.

BioWare and the Romantic Movie Genre

So back at PAX East, Larry asked if I’d help him with his Old Republic interview by using my many years of academic and professional training by holding up a microphone so he could take notes by hand.  Yes, I said immediately, not because I have a microphone fetish, but because I’m a nosy person and wanted to interject a few questions of my own.  After all, if the opportunity is there, it’d be a waste not to take advantage, right?  We’re all gamers, you understand how I’m thinking.

I forget who we were talking with (am terrible at names), but during a lull in the interview I throw a curveball.  “So BioWare is notorious for interjecting romances into its games,” I said, “and I know you’ve said there’s going to be romantic options with the NPCs in The Old Republic.  What I want to know, as a married man, is the romance going to simply end after your characters kiss or hop in the sack, or will you show that relationships go past that point?”

Cue one slightly weirded out-slash-nonplussed developer.  It’s fun to earn that look.

Romance and relationships… AFTER the kiss?  Is it possible?  Do such things even exist?  In real life, of course.  But in romantic movies and BioWare games, not really.  The moment when two people finally admit their mutual attraction and get together is kind of the ultimate point, and nothing happens past that; it’s just left up to the imagination.  Further courtship?  Marriage?  Relational maturity?  Bah… there’s no need to do that.  Just hook them up and churn out a sex scene for the perverts and we’ll call it a day.

I guess what I was driving at by asking that question was the hope that BioWare would be using the persistent, ongoing nature of an MMO to continue relationships through their ups and downs instead of building up to a single moment and then effectively ending it by freezing that relationship in time.  I’ve always wished that NPCs in all MMOs would grow in their relationships with you, especially the ones you’ve done favors for.  Most of the times it’s like you get that quest reward and then they shun you forever after that.  What, no follow-up phone call?  Ask me over for dinner sometime?  Name a kid after the hero who saved mommy from the dragon?

We’ve seen how players are pleased with memorable NPCs return later on in a game, mostly because it helps carry on the illusion that the player-NPC relationship is continuing in a way.  If virtual relationships are to be an important part of the future of MMOs, I want to challenge developers to at least leave doors open for future twists and turns in those relationships instead of an end point.

A good day of gaming

Every once in a while, we need a good day of gaming, especially if gaming time falls short for us.  Sometimes I feel like I’m just nibbling at games between everything else and really desire to take a big ol’ bite every so often.

For me, it was Saturday.  A lazy Saturday, as it turned out.  After spending time shopping with the family in the morning, we laid the kids for naps and my wife entertained herself with various projects.  Therefore, I ended up with several hours of uninterrupted gaming time, in which I bounced between LOTRO, RIFT and Dragon Age II, accomplishing various tasks and feeling as productive as a gamer can.

I’m still working hard on getting my Eagle-friend for my Lore-master, but it’s probably going to take some time.  I was stupid during this quest chain and used some skirmish points to buy items that I could’ve farmed or purchased on the AH if I wasn’t being lazy.  Now I’m at the next step where I need special items that are only dropped by dungeon bosses or sold for ridiculously high prices through a skirmish vendor, and I blew almost all my skirmish marks already.  Doing some basic math, I figured that I’d have to run about 28 skirmishes to get the items if I couldn’t find a dungeon group.  At two a day, that’s a couple of weeks.  Ah well, I wasn’t thinking ahead enough.

As for RIFT, I’m not really rushing anywhere in particular but am enjoying Gloamwood for its quests and rifts, and am joining as many dungeon runs as I can get my hands on.  Dungeons in RIFT aren’t as mindless as I felt they became in WoW, nor are they as difficult to find a group for as they are in LOTRO.  Some of the fights are tough, but with a little perseverance and group strategy (boosted by swapping roles), I’ve seen many dungeons to the end without frustrated players throwing in the towel.

Dragon Age II is proving to be an excellent RPG experience.  It’s much, much better than the first game, which I felt suffered from too much generic fantasy and too tough of a combat system.  Instead, it’s shrunk the world down to a city and its immediate surroundings (like in Baldur’s Gate II) and set you loose to earn your fortune through various side-quests (again, like BGII).  I much prefer the combat in DAII over DA:O, since I’m not dying every single fight and magic doesn’t have to worry about friendly fire.

I first started playing DAII as a mean-spirited warrior, but quickly abandoned that to reroll as a goofy mage.  DAII’s dialogue system may be streamlined too much for some people’s tastes, but I like that I know exactly how I’m approaching the situation, and I really love the humorous choices.  It’s actually started to make my character sound like an actual character instead of a placeholder for myself, which I feel is a good thing.

I’m also cursing the game for making an elf that I actually find quite adorable and hilarious — the little quirky Merrill  (“They’re so big and grim! What do you suppose would happen if I tickled one of them?”).  The roster of characters may not be as strong as DA:O, but they’re not bad, either.  I’m still trying to figure out the optimal party setup, but I am definitely having fun with a rogue and three mages.

Story-wise, I’m once again vastly enjoying all of the yarns that BioWare crams into these games.  The over-arching tale isn’t as captivating for me as the smaller stories are, and I’ve found myself surprised a few times by twists and turns even though I figure I’m pretty good at spotting them coming.

/AFK: Pax Catchup Edition

One of the worst things about coming back from a trip is all of the catching up you have to do — especially if you happen to have hundreds of blogs in your Google Reader.  I tried my best, but after a day or so of scrolling I gave up and marked all as read.  Ergo, this week’s /AFK is incomplete in a sense, as it’s both covering two weeks’ worth of posts and missing a bunch of those posts at the same time.  Ah well!

Welcome back to /AFK, a weekly roundup of interesting posts that caught my eye:

  • MMO Reporter — The naming of chars
    “It drives me crazy to see someone play a rogue named ‘Death-Rouge’ or a variant of this, usually with loads of accented characters. To use your class as a name is wrong of itself, but to then misspell it?”
  • Epic Slant — PAX East 2011 in review
    “This year I attended my first PAX and I have to say that in comparison to the other conventions I regularly hit it felt far larger and friendlier!”
  • Levelcapped — Don’t cry for me World of Warcraft
    “But really, WoW community. You’ve had the cat-bird’s seat for many, many years. You can’t blame people for getting excited about an alternative – we might even whisper “competitor” if we want to fan flames, although I think it’s far to early for that discussion to be had in serious circles.”
  • Casual Is As Casual Does — One of us and level ennui
    “After months of gentle cajoling (which didn’t work), and more recently, letting him watch over my shoulder as I trudge through vanquishes, Zaishen bounties, and re-build my character stock in general, Mr. Randomessa has caved in and decided to give Guild wars another try.”

P.S. – Go check out Ferrel’s book on guild leadership! Way to go, man!

Sword and Staff

I don’t have a precise term for it — maybe you can help me out here — but in every MMO character’s career there are rewards that are by far and away better than most everything else you’ll get.  I’m not just talking about gear here (although that can be one), but any type of reward that lets you do or be something much better than anything you’ve done or been before.  An uber-reward that you’ve been slavering over for months, as eager to get your hands on as anything on Christmas morning.

In my experience, every character gets two, maybe three of these in their run.  Not every skill is a game-changer for the user, not every level grants awesomeness, and not every piece of loot bowls us over.  But sometimes… sometimes it’s all worthwhile.

For my Lore-master, I had three of these rewards I was struggling to attain: an Ale Association rep goat mount (which I got back during the winter festival), my sword-and-staff legendary trait, and my eagle-friend trait.  For me, these three would be the cornerstone pieces to defining what a Lore-master was and what I wanted to be, and all three took some doing.

I just got the final page of my sword-and-staff trait the other day, and I rushed over to the bard to equip it.  It’s hard to explain to non-LM players just how much this changes the class for you, as you’d have to understand that LMs do use an awful lot of melee attacks with their staff during the levels, and while staff attacks are cool, the DPS is never what you’d want it to be.  Now?  Now I have a staff in one hand and a sword in the other, slicing everything up with dual-wielding madness.

Sword-and-Staff is simply one of the best traits of the game for all that it gives you.  You not only get another weapon (and thus doubling your DPS), but you get that weapon’s stats as well.  Sword-and-Staff also comes with a decent +300 morale boost as well as improvements to melee offense and defense, making you a better fighter all around.

So in this, the Lore-master becomes an anomaly of MMO cloth-wearing classes.  He still uses long-range “magic” of a sort with crowd control skills, but he can — and is usually expected to — wade into the fray and swing away, hoping that the DPS race will win in his favor before the enemy cuts him down.  I personally love it.  I’ve never liked how watered-down the D&D vision of mages became, as toddering old men with their staff and inability to withstand a stiff breeze.  Gandalf, on the other hand, loved swords just as much as Aragorn, and he was right in the thick of battle on many occasions.  That’s the type of wizard archetype I want to be.

As for the third uber-reward, the eagle?  It comes at the end of the lengthy class quests — you know the type, where you collect things and more things and more things until you want to cry but the game won’t let you because you have more collecting to do.  So I’m in the middle of that, but very much looking forward to my next pet, and by all accounts the eagle is an excellent companion for the LM.

Darkening Days

I read a blog lately that said (and this is paraphrasing) RIFT must be going downhill because the enthusiasm for it has died down on the blogosphere.  Well, it could be that we’re all just playing it instead of talking about it, y’know?  I can only speak for me and those I observe, but I’m still having a huge blast with the game.

Last night we cobbled together a group to go explore Darkening Deeps, the level 25ish dungeon in Gloamwood.  We had four guild members wanting to do it, so I put a call out in the general chat and got perhaps ten instant responses.  So I’m guessing there are lots of folks out there wanting to run dungeons and very few willing to put them together.  Hopefully Trion will get that dungeon putter-together thing sooner rather than later!

I remember running Darkening Deeps from PAX Prime last year, and I once again found it atmospheric and fun.  So far in my experience, RIFT dungeons are somewhere between WoW’s “run in and AOE everything down” and other games where you carefully mark, mez and cautiously proceed.  Instead, we just agreed to whatever roles we wanted and headed into the fray, trusting in each other to do the right thing.  It ended up working beautifully — we had a dedicated warrior tank, me as an off-tank, a healing cleric, a bard, and another cleric doing straight-up DPS.

Let me tell you, having the freedom to zip around as a teleporting tank was just about one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in an MMO.  Without having to worry about carefully pulling or aggro issues, I could just zip in and flit between enemies, slicing them up to my hearts’ content.

The only sticking point came with the first boss, mostly because a pet aggro’d before we finished up with nearby adds.  After that one wipe, I switched to bard for backup, and between three healers we kept everyone alive just fine.

DD is a great run — it’s just the right length, there’s not a ton of mobs between bosses, and the atmosphere is delicious.  What I loved the most was just having an entire group who could come to a dungeon and modify roles on the fly depending on what was needed.  We didn’t really worry much about strict roles while setting up the group, trusting that we could adapt if needed.  I find myself doing a lot of role-shifting in group situations in RIFT, whether they be dungeons or dynamic events, because it takes a little bit to figure out what a group’s strengths and weaknesses are.  Having those tools at my disposal keeps me from fretting about not being as group-friendly as I should be, because I know I have all types of builds in my back pocket.

Great MMOs I’m no longer playing — and why

One of the most frustrating aspects of my gaming life is that I simply have so little time for it.  Between two jobs, a family, and other personal projects, gaming has to vie for small slices of my 24 daily hours (I’m trying to increase that limit, but it’s a pretty hefty microtransaction).  I think it’s been said many times that if you work in games journalism, you end up playing games less as a whole, and I know that to be true on many nights.

Ergo, I’m not able to play nearly as many games as I would if I had unlimited time and money.  I’ve seen a few comments over the years as to why I seem to cycle through games and whatever happened that that game I was so clearly in love with?  Mostly the answer to that is “no time”, but I thought I’d give a shout out to a few great MMOs that I’m not playing but wish I could be.

Dungeons & Dragons Online

After talking with Fernando Paiz at PAX East and watching a runthrough of the new Update 9 content, I felt my heart being pulled back to DDO.  Argh, I wish I had more time for this game, because I absolutely love the setting, the structure of the game, and how truly unique it feels in this industry.  Maybe one day I’ll dedicate a night to it or something, but as for now, no can do.

Fallen Earth

This was the sleeper hit of 2009 and my MMO lady love of the year — so why did I ever quit?  One word: Massively.  When I got hired on, I knew I’d have to spend a lot of time playing and covering LOTRO (which I certainly don’t regret), and Fallen Earth had to take a backseat to that.

In many ways, Fallen Earth is one of those MMOs that asks for your full attention, not just a night here or there.  It’s a truly interesting world that’s vastly different than sword-and-sorcery MMOs, and I always appreciated the humor and hidden secrets that abounded.  I feel bad that the studio took a big pounding over the past year, and while the game is still enduring, it never really took off as huge as it perhaps should’ve.

Guild Wars

I know a lot of folks are excited about the recent update — with Dervish improvements, 7-hero parties and whatnot, there’s certainly a lot that should be interesting me lately.  But like it or not, Guild Wars hasn’t peaked above “decent entertainment” (a step up from its previous “couldn’t catch on” stage) for me, and I’m really only playing just to rack up points for the Hall of Monuments.  I at least want to finish one campaign to get my points entered, but past that I’m doubtful.  It’s a beautiful game that has offers a lot of bang for your buck, but I’m really just looking forward to GW2 and lacking enthusiasm for the first.

Kingdom of Loathing

KoL is still one of the funniest, most clever MMOs I’ve ever played, but I can only get into it in spurts.  It requires a lot of puzzle-solving and daily time spent in the game, and I find that that cuts into my blogging.

Star Trek Online

Hey, if it went free-to-play, I’d be so back in.  As it is, I really like the game, but only in a “once per week” sort of way — and I can’t justify a subscription for that.