My 10 favorite geeky things of 2014 #7: RIFT’s Nightmare Tide

nightmareThe allure and promise of Nightmare Tide pulled me back into RIFT this fall, and I am quite glad for it.  It’s been a nice long streak thus far, playing a brand-new character from level 1 to (currently) 61 while plowing through the original game, Storm Legion, and now Nightmare Rift.

While I’m not fully through Nightmare Rift yet — it will probably be months yet — I can say that it’s a far more streamlined and compelling narrative than has come before.  I really thought it would be nothing more than swimming, but instead it’s been more about the unwanted lack of water and a desire to see it return to the plane.

What’s been even more interesting are the new bullet point features with NT, including the nightmare rifts (wild group experiences), being able to sidekick up to friends, and best of all, the minion system.  Minions have been overshadowed by both what’s come before (STO’s duty officers and SWTOR’s crew skills) and this year’s WoW garrisons, but I find them an amusing side diversion that nets me some nice rewards (and cash), feeds my collector’s urges, and involves a smidge of strategy.

I’ve also really enjoyed playing a Rogue as a Bladedancer, which was quite unexpected considering how little I usually do melee classes.  But it’s so versatile and self-sufficient that I have a hard time playing any other build right now.

Temple of Elemental Evil: The Fellowship of the Elmo

(This is part of my journey playing through The Temple of Elemental Evil. You can follow the entire series on the Nostalgia Lane page.)

vil1For all of the complex and time-intensive process of creating a party from scratch is in ToEE, the game sure does shove you right into the world with the barest of backstory.  I’m given a single sentence about how some druid elder wants to meet with me and then… we’re plopped down onto the landscape.  I guess back in 1985, when this module was originally written, D&D gamers didn’t need a lot of reason and motivation to go do something.  It might’ve been a grateful desperation at having a purpose: “Yes!  That druid elder dude!  HE WANTS TO SPEAK TO MEEEE!”

As with many RPGs of the 90s and early 2000s, Temple of Elemental Evil plays out in an isometric format, although it’s a little more 3Dish and detailed than Baldur’s Gate.  I love how some of my party members have hit points that can be measured on two hands.  That’s newbie D&D for ya.

vil2The druid elder is concerned that another druid, Jaroo, hasn’t reported back as he’s supposed to do once a month or so and asks us to go investigate at the local village of Hommlet.  Why he can’t climb on top of one of his bear bodyguards there and go see himself is symptomatic of lazy NPCs and the sole justification for wandering heroes such as myself.  We are the Fellowship of the Druid!

vil3Hommet is a pretty place, although fairly large for your standard RPG village — the world map features a north, south, and central hommet, if that gives any indication.

Our fellowship immediately stumbles upon a couple of farms belonging to one family.  Apparently, the two brothers are bickering a lot after their dad and one of the brothers’ wives died, and that’s caused a lot of grief for the families.  I’m given the option to go play matchmaker by convincing a carpenter to build a new barn as a dowry, and boy does that sound like a lot of work.  Where’s the temple already?  When can I start bashing heads?

vil4And then some drunk villager named — I kid not — Elmo stumbles into me and says that he’ll be a hired hand if we pay him 200 gold to come fight.  Gee, why wouldn’t I want a drunk Elmo to be a part of this band?  I pay up and he becomes our sixth member, which is so awesome because he’s stumbling all over the place while holding an axe PLUS he is level 4 with 41 hit points, which is a beefcake compared to the rest of my troupe.

We are now the Fellowship of the Elmo.

vil5After our long and arduous journey, um, up the street, we arrive at the Inn of the Welcome Wench.  I’m guessing this is the medieval version of Hooters or something?

Inside of the cozy tavern, we find a wizard with the unfortunate name of Spugnoir, who’s in the market for wizard scrolls.  He agrees to join our party if he gets to keep all of the scrolls we find.  Fine with me, Spuggy!

The inn is actually crawling with potential NPC party mates, all of whom will gladly join up as long as you have room.  I actually have to turn down a monk and his friend due to space limitations, but I do snatch up a knight named Zert (a breath mint?).  My party’s gone from five to eight people within ten minutes.  That’s weirdly fast for an RPG.

Anyway, Zert is all eager to explore the nearby moathouse that Spug was talking about (it was some wizard home back in the day) and offers an instant teleport option to go right there.  Sounds like fun fighting time to me!  Let’s do it.

vil6We arrive at the moathouse in the dead of the night and a giant frog lunges out of the water to nearly kill Ardwulf.  The fight is on!   ToEE has turn-based combat, so there’s no pressure to react quickly.  I’m not doing much more than clicking at a mob to tell my guys to move and/or attack, but it works and the frog soon falls over dead.  Three more evil frogs follow.  I get into the groove of things and we emerge victorious.  Over frogs.  It’s not a glorious victory.

vil7ToEE has a rather strange interface for a D&D CRPG, as it uses an unfolding radial menu to select options.  While it does look slick, in practice it’s rather cumbersome.  I’m sure there are hotkeys to shortcut all of this, but I’d rather have a handy hotbar instead.

My Cleric casts his one heal spell and then… I guess he’s done for the day.  No more heals left.  My poor Rogue has to heal herself with a potion.  And we haven’t even gotten past the first screen yet!

My 10 favorite geeky things of 2014 #6: WildStar

jemI can’t look back at my year in MMOs without giving tribute to the gravitational pull of WildStar.  It was such a major event in 2014 for me, with its build-up, launch, and live game.  I developed a huge crush on its art style, world building, and housing system (not to mention its soundtrack) and greatly enjoyed my time gaming on Nexus this year.

WildStar probably gets the award for Syp’s most re-rolled characters in an MMO, because egads did I mark the first few months with restarting over and over and over again.  The grass was always greener on the other side of the class fence or the path fence or even the server fence, and so I pretty much forfeited my chance of hitting level 50 this year by making a small army of middle-level managers.  But hey, that was fun for me and for the experience alone, I don’t regret it.

I won’t lie and say that WildStar is perfect, of course.  It’s a very mixed package full of great highs and pretty sobering lows.  I was hoping that it would have had a stronger launch and even stronger legs, but a combination of Carbine’s misreading of the MMO industry (“HARDCORE 40-MAN RAIDZ!”) and the sub model seemed to push many away that might have otherwise stayed.  So it’s kind of limping out of 2014, still alive, still updating, but finding itself more of a niche title than a mass-appeal one.

I do have to thank WildStar for hooking me up with my incredible multi-game guild, Remnants of Hope.  I’ve been hanging with them in several MMOs for the latter half of 2014 and really enjoyed their warmth and penchant for friendly group activities (and parties, oh the parties).

Here’s to WildStar in 2015, that it may find a better business model, cater more to the crowd that actually wants to play it, and cultivate a come-from-behind success story that it could indeed have.

The Secret World’s Christmas Conspiracy

cc1What better a way to mark Christmas than a sojurn into The Secret World and its nutty conspiracies?  A few days ago I went through the brand-new seasonal investigation mission, The Christmas Conspiracy, and walked away very impressed with both its mechanics and storytelling.

The tale begins with an invitation to see a play at the Albion Theatre in London.  I dressed up in as fancy of clothes that I had — top hat and all — and got really excited to see an in-game play.  But before the play could begin, I got a phone call from one of the performers, who was asking for my help on behalf of his sister.

The curtain rose and then…

cc2…Phoenecian soldiers barged into the theatre, firing rifles off in every direction.

cc3They mowed down the actors and audience without discrimination.  The look of fear on the actress in that picture was really spot-on for the moment.

And let me tell you, this whole cutscene was perhaps one of the most disturbing of the game so far, probably because it hit a little too close to home with terrorist attacks and mass killings by gun-wielding psychos.  I’m actually more than a little surprised that Funcom had the guts (or confidence?) to do this.  In any case, I wasn’t expecting this and was genuinely shocked.

Of course, after the initial attack, I got a chance to retaliate against the purple troops… and none of them got out alive.

cc4Does this play backdrop look a little familiar?  It should to any Savage Coast tourists.

cc5So the soldiers were apparently in pursuit of chunks of good old St. Nicolas (aka Santa Claus), whose carved-up corpse still has miraculous properties and is much-desired by all of the secret world players.

It becomes a race to secure one of these chunks (aka manna) that’s locked away somewhere underneath the Venician library.  It’s here that the investigation mission kicks in with its unique mechanic.  In this case, it’s using a “magic flute” to play short melodies that have various effects and allow me to overcome obstacles, like locked doors and flaming spirits.  It very, very much reminded me of Orcana of Time, which I bet was a major influence for this mission.

This musical dungeon was on the long side, but it wasn’t that hard to figure out.  In the field of investigation missions, this one had a really good balance between using your noodle and not getting too frustrating.

cc6This one moment in the mission actually had me a little nervous to proceed.  It just looks so dang creepy.

cc7Anyway, the mission leads to a vault with St. Nick’s remains and another fight with the Phoenicians (and an old foe).  No problem here; I wiped them up handidly.  And then — a Christmas miracle!  The ghost of St. Nicholas appeared to attend to the body of the sister of the slain actor.  They both disappeared in a blazing white light, and all is good again in the world?  Well, the bad guys didn’t get the corpse chunk, so I guess that’s as merry and jolly as The Secret World gets this time of year.

My 10 favorite geeky things of 2014 #5: Weird Al Yankovic’s Mandatory Fun

funA new Weird Al album is always a cause for extreme nerd celebration, especially in my life.  I’ve been following him ever since buying his “Even Worse” cassette that was positioned next to Michael Jackson’s “Bad” album in the store in the 80s.  I’ve seen his movie UHF more times than I can count, I have every single song he’s ever released (or sneak-released) on my MP3 player, I’ve seen him in concert, and I look up to him the way a lot of folks in today’s jaded and cynical world do.  He’s just a nice guy who likes making people laugh through funny, largely inoffensive songs.

And it was both mind-blowing and exciting to me that his 14th album in a career that spans back into the early 80s became his very first Billboard #1 album in the US.  The guy is 55 years old and he’s now at the height of his game.  That was a win for geeks everywhere, I felt.

Weird Al didn’t skimp with Mandatory Fun’s release, either.  He made and released eight music videos over eight days to celebrate the launch, and they were pretty much all great.  My personal favorites were Tacky (with all of the celebs) and the grammar-slamming Word Crimes, although I do like the album as a whole.

Yankovic says that this might be his last traditional studio release, but I’m okay with that if he does go forward with releasing singles here and there.  The wait between albums was too much and the music industry does move too quickly these days.

So out of all of the music I listened to this year, this release was definitely the highlight for me.  I think I didn’t shut up about it to my wife in the days surrounding it.

My Marvel Heroes roster

rosterFor Christmas, Marvel Heroes is giving away a free random hero to everyone who logs in today — and I lucked out by getting Star Lord!  I could have easily gotten a dupe or one of the crappier heroes, but I might actually play Star Lord at some point.

This brings my roster up to 20 out of the (now) 43 characters available:

  1. Black Panther
  2. Black Widow
  3. Cable
  4. Captain America
  5. Colossus
  6. Daredevil
  7. Hawkeye
  8. Human Torch
  9. Luke Cage
  10. Ms. Marvel
  11. Punisher
  12. Rocket Raccoon
  13. Rogue
  14. Scarlet Witch
  15. Spider-Man
  16. Squirrel Girl
  17. Star-Lord
  18. Storm
  19. Thor
  20. Wolverine

That’s so much to play I don’t even feel that tempted to go after any of the other characters.  Maybe Psylocke, I used to think she was so awesome back when I watched the TV series.  I might save up for X-23, just for looks, but I’m hoping that we’ll get more of the X-Men before too long.  Beast?  Jubilee?  I’m all over that.

The funny thing is, I only spent actual money to get Squirrel Girl — the rest I got from various promotions, the beginner freebies, and in-game currency.

Jumping puzzles are the worst.

jumpingWe all have our white whales when it comes to MMO features or issues that we dearly wish would eat a barbed harpoon and then bleed out while uncaring players hacked away at their blubbery corpse.  For some it’s raiding, others it’s welfare epics, but for me, it’s jumping puzzles.

They are, and I cannot emphasize this enough, the worst.

This rant comes to you specifically from an event the other night, in which I was attempting to get to another SWTOR datacron, most all of which are tucked away at the end of jumping puzzles.  Whoever decided that jumping puzzles were the way to go in SWTOR obviously never talked to the animators, because my character has such tempermental, inconsistant jumping abilities that I am pretty sure an RNG rolls to check whether or not I’m going to even hop when I slam on the spacebar.  It is certainly not a game that offers precision jumping and handling controls, because that’s not what MMORPGs are about.  But here we have a bucket of free stats walled off by inexcusable, inexplicable platforming elements.

With the decrease in latency and the increase in poor judgement in developers, jumping puzzles are cropping up all over the place.  Guild Wars 2 has so many of them that the only explanation is a severe fetish over at ArenaNet that needs attention by counselors before someone gets hurt.  WildStar thought jumping puzzles were so cool that it devoted an entire path to them — although, to be fair, no one is forced down that path and there are double-jumps, which are super-sweet.  One of the most frustrating RIFT quests in Storm Legion involved jumping to the top of a tower while being given an overdose of jumping power, so that it was incredibly common to overshoot everything.

Jumping in platformer titles is common, expected, and makes sense.  It’s part of what those games are.  But MMOs were never about platforming as a key gameplay element; our obstacles are bundles of numbers that we fight with other bundles of numbers.

I’ve seen some people defend jumping puzzles as “fun” and “another type of gameplay,” and while they are dead wrong, I suppose I should justify why I hate them so much in MMOs.  First, at no point did I pick up an MMO hoping for a platforming experience.  I love these games primarily because they are more about strategy and RPG tropes and not about twitch-based, reflex-centric gaming.  Some of us (older?) gamers don’t care to play Mario Bros. all over again.  We’ve done that.  We are now interested in these games instead and resent the invasion of platforming influences.

Second, jumping puzzles are the worst when they are mandatory to a quest, an event, or hold a much-needed/desired reward at the end of them.  I can ignore their inclusion otherwise, but when I feel pressured into doing them because I’ll miss out on advancement otherwise, the rebellious backlash brews within me.

Third, there is still enough latency and multiplayer issues that can make jumping puzzles far harder than they need to be.  Missing a jump because the server hiccupped or because a giant player character obscured your vision takes the blame for the fail away from us while still making us eat the penalty.

Fourth, jumping puzzles are unforgiving by design.  Mess up just once, and you have to do them all over again.  Checkpoints?  Ways to rebound from a setback?  Pshaw.  That might exist in other areas of the MMO, but not here.  Of COURSE not here.

Fifth, repeated failures are frustrating and lead to immense disatisfaction with the game and its designers.  I don’t need to be handed everything on a silver platter, but I don’t like it when the game I’m playing decides to become this OTHER type of game and then slam me into the ground over and over again to demonstrate how gravity works and how I have poor depth perception.

And sixth, jumping animations are… how shall I put this?  Are not usually the strongest part of the MMO portfolio.  Do devs want to us to repeatedly witness the goofy pose that our character makes while in mid-jump?  So few MMOs get jumping “right,” both in looks and feels.  Jumping puzzles rubs our faces in it.

The thing is, I’m certainly not against jumping.  It can be fun, especially when you’re left to do it on your own as part of personal amusement or exploration.  Seeing if you can get to a spot for the sake of it is far more enjoyable than having a timed guided path where the platforms start disappearing on you and you have to make 16 perfect hops in a row to reach that epic chest of loot.

Jumping puzzles.  Stahp.  You are not as loved or cool as you think you are.