Guild Wars 2: Super Adventure Box FTW!

sabI know some people are really soured on the whole April Fools Day concept, particularly when it comes to the internet and gaming, but I love it.  Love.  It.  The way I see it, it’s not about truly being fooled (although that’s sometimes a bonus); it’s about people and studios and organizations letting their hair down to be goofy, creative, and create a joke that will amuse — if not entertain — others.  Finding all of these is like running around opening presents, never quite knowing what you will get.

This year, I think Guild Wars 2 delivered the best present of all, and it’s not even April 1st yet.  It wasn’t even that secret, as some players discovered files beforehand that leaked all of this.  But still, it’s heckafun.

It’s Super Adventure Box.

I think what makes this stellar is that it goes way beyond a joke mockup and delivers true content to players.  Saying that Guild Wars 2 had a 16-bit/64-bit era platformer available is one thing, but to actually create one?  With multiple levels?  And lots of rewards?  That pushes this into an actual holiday event.

The fun begins at the login screen, with an 8-bit version of the Guild Wars 2 theme song, but the meat of it is at Rata Sum, where an Asura created a portal allowing players to jump into a blocky, Minecrafty world where they must save the princess from a big baddie.  It’s all about old school gaming homages here along with the jumping puzzle fetish that someone over at ArenaNet clearly has.

All of your skills have been replaced with basic attacks (you begin with a stick, three hearts, and five lives), and your goal is to progress through the stages, beat the bosses, get as many baubles as possible, and find little out-of-the-way secrets.  And these levels (jumping aside) are just genius.  It’s so easy to forget that you’re in Guild Wars 2 because other than your character, everything you experience is pure retro.  I love the little touches, like how the speech bubbles (which are in gibberish) are actually 3D objects that float over heads and can be walked around.

It’s pretty challenging too.  My first try I made it through a full level and a half of a second one.  I didn’t purchase any upgrades, although I hear the whip is awesome.  Going to have to try that next time.

The commercial is pure win too:

Anyway, major props to ArenaNet for going all-out with this.  It might just be the most fun I’ve had with their holiday content yet, and it really raised the bar for what MMO studios can do on April Fools.  I mean, even Blizzard’s past efforts didn’t touch this level of commitment to the joke.

And this?  Is my new favorite picture.

rytlock

But I’m sure many of you have played SAB already.  How far have you gotten and what tips do you want to pass on?

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The 10/10 Project: Pirate101 (Day 4)

pirate101There are many things that I admire about KingsIsle and the studio’s approach to MMO design/delivery, but I got to say that after wrassling with Aion for the better part of a day to just get into the game, the ease of access into both of KingsIsle’s MMOs is sublime.  Signing up takes three or four fields.  Then a big, inviting “PLAY!” button starts loading the client, which lets you in after about a minute or so.  If that.  Pirate101 front-loads the tutorial while continuing to download the rest of the client in the background so that players can get in as quickly as possible.

It might not matter in the long run, but first impressions count, people.  And having an MMO bend over backwards to get me into playing it as quickly and painlessly as possible is a terrific first impression.

The good impression doesn’t end there.  Pirate101’s character creation and tutorial quickly shows off the game’s core strengths: vibrant colors and art design (which compensate for lower-polygon models), a goofy sense of humor, and easy to understand… everything.  Considering that the core demographic are youths, those are all musts, but they’re still appreciated by grown-ups.

Pirate101 is set in the same game universe as Wizard101, which I think is an intriguing setup.  The developers are keen to tell stories of the spiral that aren’t just about magic, and that leads to all sorts of speculation on future titles.  Anyway, the obvious focus here is on (kiddyfied) sky pirates who are putting the screws to the vaguely British-robotic Armada.  Like (oddly enough) Star Trek Online, the action is divided between ship combat and ground adventures, although I’m guessing there’s probably going to be a lot more of the latter.  While I found ship combat to be really simplistic, the ground combat is quite interesting.

Instead of the card battles of Wizard101, Pirate101 lets you control a small squad on a grid overlay of the current area.  You click to queue movement, attacks, and special abilities, and then the action is played out between the two sides.  It feels faster and more interesting than Wizard101, because your character is doing more than standing in a circle flinging spells.  Still, there is the annoying camera swooping that makes me a little nauseated, and if other players happen to jump into your battle, you could end up waiting a full half-minute between turns as everyone queues up the next actions.

I kind of like how there are footpaths to the sides of most zones that let you traverse them without triggering enemy encounters — that’s highly useful if  you need to go back over territory that you’ve already explored.  And popping open treasure chests after battle felt visceral and didn’t get old.

I can see a real attraction to collecting squad mates while building up effective combat units.  Each character (usually an animal) has an exaggerated personality and very flashy combat moves to boot, which makes for an entertaining time during fights.

Would I play it again?  After the chaos of PlanetSide 2, the frustrating blandness of Aion, and the slow pace of RuneScape, I’ve got to say that Pirate101 is leaps and bounds ahead of those three in tempting me to come back for another play.  It doesn’t feel like I have to be heavily invested into it, time-wise, to enjoy myself, and quick load times makes for a grin of approval.

It’s also hugely kid-friendly, and if my son was older, I think this would be a marvelous game to play with him.

That said, KingsIsle isn’t exactly super-generous with the free-to-play portion of Pirate101.  You hit the pay wall pretty early to access new areas, and considering how much else the cash shop is trying to sell, you’d think that the studio would want to keep players — even freeloaders — in it as long as possible.  Would I play it again?  Sure.  Would I pay for more of this?  I don’t think I would.

Nostalgia Lane: BASIC games

runningdos1

That image right up there caused a huge pang of nostalgia in me.  It’s the spitting image of our first family computer, an IBM PC, along with the huge set of thick manuals that came with it.  The second book to the left, the brown one, was one I became intimately familiar with: the BASIC manual.

Without the internet, loads of stores selling software, or a shareware distribution system between friends, our first couple years of owning this machine was thin in the programs department.  We had a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a couple games (like breakout) — but that was it.  So as the family member who quickly became the most obsessed with the computer, I turned to making my own games as a form of entertainment.  Hence my adventures into the wells of the BASIC manual.

I loved BASIC.  It was easy to understand and pick up, although I had no concept of structure and clarity.  The manual itself was extremely technical and dry, with each page listing a command, a definition, and perhaps an example.  So it was left up to me to figure out how it all pieced together.

I had some help.  It seemed like BASIC programming was all the rage with the up-and-coming 80s set, so lots of magazines and books (like Micro Adventures) had sample programs that you could copy and run on your computer.  There was lots and lots and lots of typing involved, which I also taught myself (I was a two-finger typist until a high school class broke me of the habit and taught me the proper way to do it).  Above all else, it helped me grasp the fundamental pieces to start putting together my own games.

Dang, but I loved making games.  I *loved* it.  I couldn’t do much with graphics, although I tried hard to figure out ways to make ASCII doodles move (usually via scrolling or screen redrawing).  Mostly I made RPGs and text adventures.  I did program one series, Spaceship Combat Simulator, which proved somewhat popular with my family.  I think the second edition allowed you to choose a hull type of a ship, equip it via store purchases, and take it out for galactic conquest.

These games got obscenely long, too.  I was routinely topping 5, 10-thousand lines of code toward the end.  I composed my own music and experimented with musical pitches to see if I could simulate speech (I couldn’t).  I learned a lot about color pairing, in particular what would make the best background and foreground colors.  I had games that would print you off award certificates if you beat them.  And I was pretty much the only person who ever played them.

I think I loved all of that because I could envision a game and execute that vision single-handedly.  My parents really thought I was going to be a game designer, especially after I started taking programming classes.  But something happened in college after I picked up three or four other languages — I lost interest in it.  Programming wasn’t fun in and of itself, it was just a means to see my game vision come to life.  And it was getting more and more complicated.  I could see that we had moved past the point where a single programmer had total control over a project and I had no interest being a coding monkey.  Plus, figuring out where you went wrong in one line of code among thousands is a major headache.

So even though I graduated with a degree in computers from college, I stopped pursuing that path a couple years prior to graduation.  Perhaps that’s why I started making web pages (again, I could conceive and execute my vision by myself), and later on blogging.  I don’t know.  But BASIC will always have a special place in my memories, and I regret that I didn’t save the discs that had all of those programs.

iPhone: Nimble Quest takes Snake to the next level

nimbleI get ridiculously excited whenever NimbleBit releases a new game.  Tiny Tower remains one of my most-played iPhone games, and Pocket Planes was a good ride for a time.  Last night the studio released Nimble Quest, a mash-up between the classic mobile game Snake and RPGs — and it’s pretty addicting.

The basic concept here is that you start with a single hero (that you choose from a list) and walk around a big room while slaying enemies.  You start to accumulate other heroes to follow you in a chain, and their attacks are added to your arsenal.  If you bump into a wall, an object, one of your own heroes, or an enemy with your lead character, you die and have to start aaaaall over.  Your lead character can also be killed with enough attacks.

So you’re trying to get as far as you can in a single game because every new level that you conquer for the first time grants you a new hero for your chain.  There are a number of RPG elements in here: power-ups, leveling up your lead character, permanent buffs, etc.  And since all of the heroes have different styles of attacks, picking the best one for your lead can change everything.

I put a couple sessions into it so far and generally like it a lot.  The controls are simple and responsive, and it creates a zen-like experience as you continue to move and attack without stopping.  There are definitely some strategies in play here and both the look and one hit, one life attitude make me think of old-school console games.

The 10/10 Project: PlanetSide 2 (Day 3)

ps2First of all, I want to give a shout-out to a few other bloggers who are joining me on what a commenter called a “speed-dating” trip through MMOs.  Why I Game, Mama Needs Mana, and Nerdy Bookahs are also trying out 10 MMOs they’ve never touched, so give ’em a read!

So next up on my 10/10 to do list was also the most recently released title that I picked: PlanetSide 2.  It’s at this juncture that we must discuss my history with FPS games.  I got hooked early on to Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, enjoyed Duke Nuke ‘Em 3D for a good while there, and even gave Unreal Tournament a run for its money.  But for me the FPS was never about PvP, just a different form of PvE, and as the online world started skewing more toward PvP in this area I gradually lost interest.  The last online FPS I played seriously was Battlefield 1942 (egads, was that really 11 years ago?), so if you’re assuming right now that PS2 has an uphill battle with me, you’d be right.

And I’ll go ahead and spoil the ending: My general lack of interest in FPSs and PvP led to a somewhat unenjoyable evening.  That’s why I give you the background first, because I don’t feel like this is a judgment against PlanetSide 2 at all.  In fact, it looks like a very polished (and pretty) shooter that gets you into the action quick and provides infinite scifi PvP.  It just wasn’t for me, and that’s OK.  My curiosity was sated and I’m glad I gave it a try.

So unlike most MMOs I’ve played, PlanetSide 2 isn’t big into (a) character customization and (b) tutorials.  I got to pick my faction (I went Vanu Sovereignty), one of like four heads, and a name… and was instantly thrown into the action.  And here I’m not talking about a “dip your toes into the water” type of action; it was more of a “two seconds after I poked my head out of the safety chamber I was fragged.”

The lack of overt instructions and weird placement of the UI (the map is on the lower-left corner?  Okayyy…) meant that I started floundering from the start.  But hey, mouse button means gunfire, right?  Might as well start spraying at everything that moves!

Well that did not end well, no it did not, not one bit.  Apparently friendly fire is a thing in this game, because PS2 started yelling at me to cut it out or it would lock my weapons.  “I’m not a griefer!” I yelled at the screen.  “I’m just an ignorant newbie who can’t tell the difference between all of the armor-clad goons running around in the dark!”

I guess you had to look for the (very tiny) symbol over the heads or the style of armor, so I stopped firing and just followed my teammates around while aiming in corners to put up a good front.  What were they doing?  I don’t know.  Were we capturing objectives?  I don’t know.  Why did we lose the facility?  I don’t know.  Did I just kill a bad guy?  I guess so.  Yippee.

So an average round for the game would be me running like a maniac, trying to kill someone, and almost always getting killed myself.  One of the reasons that I severely dislike FPSs is the first-person view.  It feels stiflingly claustrophobic, since you miss that peripheral/back view that you get from third-person perspectives, and I had to keep whipping the camera around like a jittery bunny to see around me.  That didn’t help with my nausea any.  Again, it’s a hazard of the genre, not PS2’s specific fault.

I did eventually jump on top of a tank and enjoyed a ride out into the middle of nowhere, at which point my driver disconnected and I realized that I wasn’t sure how to exit the tank.  After a quick trip to the keybindings menu, that got sorted out, and I took Mr. Tank for a joyride myself.  I definitely liked the feel of being in a vehicle versus on foot, although I couldn’t find any targets to shoot.

I wish I had better stories from this session, I do.  Truth be told, I just felt lost and dead.  I admired the visuals, the music, and little moments like air dropping into a facility, but I never felt like I was making a difference.

Will I play it again?  Nope.  Wasn’t expecting to, but always willing to be surprised and all that.  I’m sure this is gangs of fun for FPS fans, and SOE did seem to create a nice F2P title from the ground-up.

Involving my kids with MMOs

Despite what you may think, I’m not pushing my kids to becoming hardcore gamers by the time they’re six.  I think that physical play for them is so very important, and whatever video gaming I allow them to see or interact with is quite limited at this stage.

That said, I don’t push them away from me either when they see daddy logging into LOTRO for a 20 minute session.  Sitting on my lap and being involved is important to them, so instead of instructing them to sit still and touch nothing, I figure out small tasks they can do so that they feel like we’re a team.  “Shout out ‘spider!’ when you see a spider on screen, honey,” is one of them, and we both go “Squish!” when the spider dies.  Or I let my son have full access to the spacebar to make my character or horse jump as many times as he likes (as this doesn’t generally interfere with combat other than to make me look like a loon).

I don’t know what games I’m going to play with them when they’re older (depends on what’s around four to eight years from now), but I definitely want to be a part of their gaming life than separate from it.  I love seeing how they overflow with happiness when they’re included, and I like any opportunity to do something together.