KOTOR 2: Ebon Hawk

(This is part of my journey going checking out Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Now that we have a little breather after escaping Darth Craggy and his Sith Predators, I guess it’s time to chat up the crew. Hm… who to pick? The whiny pilot? The grumpy Jedi without a hand? Or the BLEEP BOOP droid?

Why not do all three?

Turns out that there’s actually a fourth passenger on board the Ebon Hawk, although he’s a little worse for wear. HK-47, fan-favorite from the first game, is sitting in a closet deactivated. He’s missing four key parts, of which I only have one. Hope to find the others and get my sarcastic pal back!

The repaired ship is a little sterile and has a few parts with scaffolding still around (for… some reason, I guess to show that this is Where Things Were Repaired). Sterile doesn’t feel like the right word… lifeless, I guess. A little empty. Needs more people. Coming back to a KOTOR game from SWTOR, the Ebon Hawk feels a lot bigger than our MMO ships, and right now there aren’t a lot of people to populate it with.

The talk with Kreia goes about as I expected, considering that I’m chatting up a grumpy one-handed Jedi (?) who keeps saying cryptic things and attempts to shoehorn herself into my life as a teacher. At least there are some delightfully mean things to say to her in response for the game devs trying to foist her upon me. You can see in my character’s eyes up there that she’s so done putting up with this bat.

Oh! And I find out two more pieces of info. The first is that as a Jedi Exile, apparently I was cut off from the Force by the (now dead) council. Which is something they can do, I guess. Still don’t know what I did to deserve it, and it doesn’t quite explain why I’m able to select all of these Force powers in leveling up. Kreia says that we’re connected to each other through the Force and I’m able to learn how to regain my skills through her, but again… I’ve already got the skills. Why do I need training?

The other thing I learned is that whatever happens to her happens to me (and vice-versa), especially in the wound department. I anticipate a long game of going about passive-aggressively pinching myself in tender places just to see Kreia jump.

The game is firmly on rails, as there is only one destination for the Hawk: Telos. It’s another station, this one hovering above a world bombed to death by Darth Malak. We land and are promptly arrested by a completely incompetent security chief, who has apparently heard that we blew up Peragus. Now, how news traveled to this station faster than a ship blasting through hyperspace I do not know, but I will go with it.

After being detained by security and led off to a nice comfy jail cell, an albino woman is seen lurking about the gangplank of the Ebon Hawk. She has not heard that you should avoid white after Labor Day. Or maybe she’s a refugee from The Matrix 2.

As we stew in jail cells, a bounty hunter shows up to sell me to the Exchange. I have to admit that whoever they got to do the voice of this guy did SUCH a good job. He’s got this oily, unnerving way of talking that lends some weight to his menace. Too bad that our group pummeled him to the ground — unarmed, to boot — within about three seconds of his opening up our cages.

The security chief shows up and has a moment of eating crow when he sees what’s happened, but he still keeps me under arrest. House arrest this time, setting us up in a nice apartment. Once again I’m in an apartment with a sarcastic scoundrel and a nervy Jedi, ready to explore the world. Just got to slip past my curfew…

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Crossing the MMORPG emote barrier

A few days ago I was watching a video of a single-player RPG — Witcher 3, I think — and what really caught my attention was how expressive and natural the various NPC characters were with their body language and emotes. Just little things, like hands fluttering to different areas, eye contact, leaning against things, but instantly I had this connection with the game world and felt that it was more “real” than what I’ve been used to in MMOs.

I love MMOs, don’t get me wrong, and one of the things that I love the most is how I get to inhabit a world populated by many other people. Even if they’re running by or standing around or being silly, it’s all the difference to me between being in an empty room and hanging out at a coffeeshop with like-minded people.

But what’s subtlely bugged me over the years is the feeling that these other avatars are masks. I know that there’s a person sitting behind them, controlling them, but the range of expression is usually limited to movement and combat. Is that person — or his or her character by extent — happy? Sad? What are they looking at at any given moment in the game world? Even with MMOs giving characters some small measure of idle animations (shifting, breathing, fidgeting) and some games tracking a character’s eyes or head to what that character is targeting, it still often feels like there’s this “emote barrier” between me and others. A little like I’m in a world with controlled puppets that are unnaturally restrained.

So how do we overcome that? SOE famously rolled out its “SOEmote” tech a few years ago, and we all had a hearty laugh at Dave Georgeson’s goofy faces and the weird results in EverQuest II. Yet now that I look back on it, I can’t say that this was the worst idea in the world. SOE was trying to free players’ hands up and allow a quicker and more natural interface to controlling a character’s expressions.

This is problem one with emotes: triggering them takes an extra step or two that doesn’t always feel natural. You either have to type a slash command in, find an emote from a menu, or drag emote abilities to a hotbar for faster use. And unless you’re deep into the roleplay scene or make yourself do it, chances are that most players just don’t think about emotes much of the time and don’t develop the habit of using them.

Personally, I only fiddle with emotes when I’m standing around in social situations in-game and have nothing else to do. I mostly use them as amusing tricks, to see what weird things my character can do, but I worry that if I spam too many of them, I come across as annoying and as an attention hog. It doesn’t feel like I’m just using them in the natural course of my character’s day.

While SOEmote was an interesting experiment, it only went so far as to mimic exaggerated facial expressions — and emoting to me involves the whole body. How can we cross the emote barrier to make using emotes among the population easier, more natural, and more accessible? It might seem like fluffy nonsense, but I think that encountering others who have characters that are more naturally emoting would go a long way to deepening our immersion in these virtual worlds.

I don’t have any great answers, just some random ideas. Voice-activated emotes could be a solution, especially in the Siri/Alexa age when we’re already getting used to talking to machines. “WoW, grin.” “WoW, handstand.” “WoW, shake fist and growl.”

I’d be down for more robust idle animations that would allow players to pick and choose their own character responses to expected MMO encounters in advance via menu. For example, if my character was near a wall and I stopped moving her, the character would automatically back up against the wall, cross her arms, and kick up a heel. Or if I encountered a guild mate, my character would automatically wave and cheer at them. Or if I partied up with others, my character would go over and shake their hands.

In LOTRO, the community loves collecting and using emotes, and if we had better tools for using them, this could be as addictive as collecting pets and toys. I just feel that this is an area that MMOs have been stagnant in for about as long as there has been MMOs, and maybe it’s time to shake things up a bit and move emotes and body language in games forward.

What I’m playing: World of Warcraft, LOTRO, Guild Wars 2

World of Warcraft

Time for a little update on my current evening rotation, which pretty much keeps cycling through three MMOs. Let’s start with WoW, because I absolutely loved the fact that there were swimming skeletal fish in Tirisfal Glades and wanted to use this pic for a header.

Anyway, I’m kind of stalled once again with my Death Knight. There are odds and ends to do, but now that I’ve got flying and four (!) legendary items, I feel a lot less motivated to clear out my quest log and run mythics. So instead I’ve found myself spending a little time here and there with my baby Undead Warlock, who hasn’t even hit double digits yet.

Let me tell you, those early levels are really rough. Not hard, combat-wise, but very slow. I didn’t even get my pet until level 5 or 6, and burning stuff down before you get your second DoT is just a pain. Suck it up, I tell myself. Deal with it and enjoy the Halloweeny scenery. I always did love this zone.

Since this is a Horde character, I have no characters to shuttle her money or bags, so it’s pretty much a start-from-scratch scenario. That’s fine for an alt, and there’s no rush to get to the cap.

Lord of the Rings Online

10th anniversary activities continue to consume me (and that’s fine, since I am not feeling particularly hurried to get back to the Wastes). I run the delivery quests every three days for the easy tokens and otherwise plink away at the scavenger hunts. I’ve done all of the Year One quests and two of the Year Two — but there’s a sticking point with that last one.

You see, there’s a quest to re-do a bunch of Volume 1 instances via reflecting pool, which wouldn’t be a problem except I haven’t done Volume 1 on this character at all. So I either give up on a meta-goal of doing ALL of the scavenger quests or I suck it up and do 26 books of an extremely long epic questline in a row. I’m not fully committed to the latter, but I am working on it when I have nothing else to do. I figure I have until mid-July, so it might happen. Might.

I do want to procure a few of the anniversary rewards, like the goat mount and some of the cosmetics. I am very, very happy with the scavenger hunt rewards so far and eager to see what future weeks hold. It’s been such a weird trip around the world, sometimes frustrating (I am not a fan of LOTRO’s stable master system and all of the hard-to-remember town names and where they connect). I’ve probably spent more mithril coins than I should have on quick ports, although I’ve also strategically set bind points at three spots around Middle-earth to get to regions when I need to.

Guild Wars 2

Still really enjoying the relaxed return to this game as I level up a new Engineer (now level 27 with no boosts). I have kind of a formula I’m following, which is to work on zone completion until I unlock the next personal story chapter, then stop to do that, then resume zone. I’m sticking with the human zones for the most part right now, although I did digress into Asura territory when I ran out of on-level human areas to do.

I was happy to see that Heart of Thorns dropped in price for good yesterday, so for $30 I felt that it was time to finally get it. If nothing else, it gets me the Scrapper elite specialization and gliding in the future, so I’m down for that. There’s such a mountain of content to climb to “catch up” with the current releases, and I have serious doubts that at this pace I’ll be ready for the expansion… whenever it gets here. I do have a level 80 boost now, but I’m really reluctant to use it. Don’t see the need, really; I’m enjoying the journey and am not going to skip ahead to the expansion story.

Battle Bards Episode 97: The sound of magic

“Magic can be ANYthing!”

The forces of magic run deep within MMORPGs, casting shadows of wonder wherever we look — and listen. In today’s show, Syl sparks a musical revolution as her fellow Bards struggle to rise to the challenge of defining what, exactly, constitutes a “magical” track and evokes that particular feeling. Did we nail it? You’ll have to join us for the journey to find out!

Episode 97 show notes (show page, direct download)

  • Intro (feat. “The Magic Shopfrom PlaneShift and “The Magic Forest” from LEGO Universe)
  • “Ethereal” from Lord of Ultima/Ultima X Odyssey
  • “Crystal Castle” from Fiesta Online
  • “The Fortuneteller” from The Secret World
  • “All Out of Breadcrumbs” from WildStar
  • “Lost in a Spiderweb’s Beauty” from Dungeons and Dragons Online
  • “Garangdol Plains” from ArcheAge
  • “The Elven Prophecy” from Runes of Magic
  • Which one did we like the best?
  • Jukebox Picks: “The Calm” from The Binding of Isaac Rebirth, “Kingsmouth Ahead” from The Secret World, and “Santa Monica” from Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines
  • Outro (feat. “Magic Undergrowth” from Trove)
  • Stinger

Back to City of Heroes with Paragon Chat

As this Friday is the annual birthday celebration for City of Heroes, a group of us at Massively OP decided that we’d get together to join the party in Paragon Chat. If you’ve never seen this, Paragon Chat is a combat-free version of City of Heroes that lets players create their favorite costumes, hang out, talk, and enjoy a handful of travel powers in Atlas City.

I’d been aware of Paragon Chat for a couple of years now, of course, but had never logged into it. Last night changed that, thanks to a fairly painless process that involved downloading the last version of City of Heroes made and then the Paragon Chat client on top of it. A (free) registered account later, and I was actually logging back into City of Heroes — kind of — for the first time in over a half of a decade.

It was, to put it mildly, surreal.

It was like City of Heroes never left, if I was willing to buy into that illusion (with my illusion powerset!). Same music, same character creator, same wonky costume options. Well, it was all a little newer than I remembered, since I wasn’t really around for Going Rogue and Freedom, but more or less, it was a lot like I remembered it.

My kids, who had never seen City of Heroes at all, started to congregate at the computer and ask what the heck I was making. I told them “a superhero” and boy did that glue their attention right to the screen. I started scrolling through all of the head, costume, and detail options, and there were both appreciative noises and crazy laughter at some of the more ridiculous aspects. My son in particular grew quite interested when he saw bug costume options and asked if it was possible to make a bug superhero. For sure, son, for sure.

Of course, time hasn’t been completely kind to this game, particularly since it’s been in an arrested state since shutdown. Those blocky hairstyles, painted-on faces, and some of the costume pieces (ugh, those trenchcoat tails) are quite ugly and dated. And the claw hands! But that’s all part of the nostalgic package too.

Part of the fun of City of Heroes was when you cut loose from the concept of making only good-looking toons and walked on the wild side. I went with a kooky mad scientist hero, complete with a backpack that spat gears, a mouth that chewed on a cigar, and a jacket that I never remember seeing in the game. The exposed brain I totally do, though.

You ever tell yourself that you’ll never go back to your high school or college after graduating but one day you do? I imagine it feels a little like this moment, seeing the loading screen into Atlas Park. Like I never left, I kept repeating in my brain. Like I never left.

Lo and behold, there was a small crowd hanging out at the plaza as if NCsoft never bothered to tell them that the game was being closed and they weren’t going to listen anyway. Emotes and chat were the order of the day, and we passed a few fun minutes talking about the upcoming party and how cool it was seeing all of this again.

One of my favorite parts of City of Heroes was eyeballing all of the other designs and feeling completely inadequate. In a good way. A fun way. Superheroes were supernarcassistic, but kind of in a more youthful “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine and we’ll both make oohs and ahhs to feel validated” way.

So what else is there to do? No enemies, no fighting powers, but there are a few more options. You can explore, thanks to an array of travel powers (you get access to all of them, but I went with superjump because SUPERJUMP C’MON!). You can earn badges. You can fiddle with all of the chat channel options. You can’t die, although I did try by flying high and then turning it off for some vertigo. You can emote. And that’s about it, I think.

Overall, it’s certainly amazing that such a fan effort exists. It might be just a shadow of what City of Heroes used to be, but it’s SOMEthing — a living memorial to a great game that allows fans to congregate, ruminate, and enjoy a few of their favorite social activities. Looking forward to Friday night… maybe I’ll see you there? Keep an eye out for “MOP Justin” if so!

Ashes of Creation and the Nodes of Victory

Now that Ashes of Creation is counting down to its Kickstarter campaign on May 1st, it has a week to do all it can to prep fans and the wider MMORPG community about what it offers — and make a case that it’s worth your crowdfunding dollars.

From what I can tell, so far the indie team has been doing a tremendous job doing just that. The site looks great and lends some authenticity to the project, the dungeon video (all of the videos, really) make a case that there’s been a lot of development poured into the game, and there have been regular blog posts walking players through Ashes’ design. But the campaign and hype may hinge upon a single feature that the devs are trying very hard to convey: nodes.

OK, I’m not crazy about the name. “Nodes” may be succinct and work, but the name seems a little… off to me. Associations with “lymph nodes” or “mining nodes” send my brain off in weird directions. Ashes of Creation’s nodes are more like an evolved version of Guild Wars 2’s event system and public quests in other MMOs, but in a larger and more structured way than what we’ve seen before. I like the concept, but it’s definitely grand and the backbone of the game, which makes it essential for fans to comprehend.

So far, the team has released two out of a planned videos and blog posts on the node system, the first one outlining how nodes and their associated Zones of Influence (ZOIs) work and the second talking about level 5 nodes, metropolises, and how they’ll impact the world.

If this is the core structure of the game, then I think it’s wise that they’re taking this much time to lay it out. It’s what’s going to set Ashes of Creation apart from its contemporaries, a sort of fusion of theme park and sandbox elements that allow for player input and choice while still containing all of it in a structured system that won’t allow for too much unconstrained chaos to reign.

I’m still absorbing and processing all of it, to be honest, but I cautiously like it. It’s seeing an MMO as a large-scale Civilization-type game, with politics, housing, economics, and individual action all playing a part. A few random thoughts:

  • I’m gratified that they have three types of housing, including instanced housing (so that there’s no shortage) and freeholds (for more WildStar-style layouts).
  • The whole concept of “citizenship” to a city is pretty intriguing and could do more for building and giving real meaning to player factions than the artificial divides that most MMOs create based on racial choice.
  • Most of the large-scale stuff — making a metropolis, being a leader, probably owning a town house — won’t ever involve me personally. I’m watching these videos thinking, “But what about the average player who’s not a power-mad dictator or some rich billionaire? Other than benefiting from some of the node features, what will we have direct control over and be able to do?”
  • I like the concept here because it’s like the devs are setting up a play room with certain rules but have no idea how the players are going to react and what they’ll do with the toys they’ve been given.
  • All of the growth (and presumably destruction) of nodes sounds measured and slow so that we’re not seeing several metropolises rise and fall overnight. It’ll give players time to figure out the world, keep abreast of changes, and maybe band together to influence them.
  • Will the node system keep us centered in one single zone, once we declare citizenship and have a house there? Will that just be our home base and we’ll go ranging on expeditions? What about the nomad who simply wants to travel the world?
  • The videos are flat-out gorgeous. I also liked the animated map in the first video to spell out how the node system works. It’s clear-cut and works wonderfully.
  • Little worried about the checks that might or might not be in place to guard against player griefing and abusing the system. Can’t think of anything worse than being part of a fiefdom of some Internet Warlord (Derek Smart?) and not having an easy way to untangle from it due to citizenship, housing, and other benefits.

Kickstarter is May 1st. I’m seriously considering backing it. Going to see what they talk about next week and evaluate what they’re offering, but dang if this game isn’t kicking butt already.

KOTOR 2: The Harbinger

(This is part of my journey going checking out Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Believe it or not, even though we’ve left the station and are on board another ship, we haven’t actually left Peragus. No, the plan is to get the Harbinger’s asteroid drift charts and then use the ship to bypass the force field that’s keeping us from the Ebon Hawk. Why we can’t just steal the Harbinger, Sith lord or no, I have no idea.

“You two are the worst Jedi I’ve ever met!” Atton complains. Can’t fault you for that one, buddy.

One slightly new thing that KOTOR 2 does is put more emphasis on companion influence, something that made the transition to SWTOR. Now that I’m in a party, what I say can increase and decrease influence in my companions, opening or closing dialogue options and making them like/hate me more. I’m going to dedicate the rest of the game to being rude to Kreia, because I’ve already had it with her condescending lectures.

The Harbinger is, once again, strangely empty, save for all of the corpses. Turns out that it’s actually crawling with stealthed Sith assassins, which are about as threatening as silverfish (to people, not to books). Various crew logs fill in more of the backstory leading up to the start of the game, namely that I was an “important passenger” that the Harbinger had to deliver posthaste to Telos. Along the way, the ship picked up a distress call, went to investigate, pulled in an empty freighter that turned out not to be so empty after all and a dead Sith lord that turned out not to be so dead after all.

The Harbinger is an obvious reuse of the Endar Spire map from KOTOR 1, which I guess is economical but a little disappointing to bump into so early in the game. Makes you wonder how much else is going to be reused.

I had a hearty good laugh when I saw that Atton had the EXACT SAME “I’m clutching my right side because I’m wounded” pose that shows up all over Star Wars: The Old Republic. Guess it was a tradition by the time the MMO came along, I didn’t know that.

The Harbinger serves to fill in the last few tidbits of the game’s backstory, filling in the blanks about how HK-50 put events into motion to disable me, how the ship got a distress call from a Sith attack, and how Darth Craggy here (not his real name) and a platoon of invisible Sith assassins Trojan’d their way about the warship to take it from the inside. I love this Sith’s design and description, which mentions that his body has been broken and repaired so many times that he should be by all rights falling apart… but he isn’t.

There’s a remarkably effective moment when you face Darth Craggy for the first time in the lower deck corridor. You look back and see far off, amid blinking lights, this figure standing still, very small but very threatening. It’s kind of nightmare fuel, especially after being so on edge during this whole opening with the dead bodies and the dour soundtrack.

Kreia faces off against Darth Craggy by herself, earning a chopped-off hand for her efforts. My teacher, ladies and gentlemen. I guess it’s a grand Star Wars tradition, right up there with “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” (which Atton actually says two minutes earlier than this scene).

After going through the Harbinger (I got a new pistol that fires through shields, woo), we loop back on board Peragus through the fuel line and fight another few dozen droids for good measure. Can’t we just leave already?

And then, finally, there it is: The Ebon Hawk, repaired and awaiting our grand escape. But first, a somewhat pointless turret scene to kill a whole bunch of Sith troopers. I’m reminded of how we were all oohing and ahhing over their reflective armor back in 2004 when KOTOR 1 was on the scene and now it looks very dated. Anyway, any troopers you miss end up boarding the ship and require hand-to-hand fighting before leaving.

Our party of four (Kreia sans hand, Atton sans patience, T3, and myself) blast off from the facility and cover our tracks by blowing up an entire planet thanks to the gas leaks. What’s a few trillion lost credits and a crippling fuel shortage compared to a grand escape?

Sounds like we still need to get to Telos, my original destination, at some point, although I wonder about how wise that is considering that everyone knows I was going there to begin with. Also, Kreia tells me that after a civil war and the events of KOTOR 1, I’m the very very very last Jedi in the galaxy, and I’m an ex-Jedi at that. I don’t know what she’s advising me to do, exactly, but she gets cheesed when I state that I’m going to take a stand against the Sith instead of run away. You’re not my teacher, woman. Go teach yourself a new hand, why don’t you.