On Trolls

So my eight-year-old son went to school the other day and was talking to his friends about what he put on his Christmas list this year (we start early in the Syp household). One of the things he wanted were some Troll dolls from that animated movie, because it’s all the rage in our house.

One of his friends started teasing him that he liked those “girly” dolls, and the teasing extended to the fact that my son — in addition to snakes, dolphins, and pokemon — said that he thought princesses were cool too.

He came home crushed, asking his mom to take the trolls off his Christmas list. She refused and had a long talk with him about toys being OK for boys and girls, and that you liked what you liked.

My approach was a little different. I took him to my computer and loaded up a few MMOs. LOTRO. Neverwinter. WildStar. SWTOR. I asked him what I played, and he said, “Girls.”

Yes I do, I nodded. Because girls — like boys — are pretty awesome. And I don’t care if anyone laughs at me for it, because I’m having fun. And then we joked around about what we liked best in the troll movie and moved on with our lives.

Don’t listen to the trolls, kids. Just enjoy them if you wanna.

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Steamy sorcery in Neverwinter

People do rash things when frustrated. They also take action when frustrated. It’s better than just sitting and wallowing.

I was getting a little steamed at the whole DDO scene last week, as I found it just about impossible to find a guild. I always had memories of DDO being a pretty solid community, maybe not LOTRO levels but active and friendly. That was, of course, a half-decade ago, and a lot can change, especially as a game slides down into obscurity and bleeds off all but the most faithful and devoted. Sometimes those smaller MMOs have just the best people, and sometimes they cultivate elitism that becomes daunting to newbies and returners.

I won’t go into the whole saga, but I kept putting out feelers to interesting-looking guilds and kept getting ignored or shut down because I wasn’t high level enough or hadn’t raided or what have you. Nobody was advertising in general chat. I applied to two guilds, never heard back from them. At that point frustration was brewing and I had to take a break… and Neverwinter popped into mind. Because a lateral jump to another Dungeons & Dragons game? Minds work in weird ways, but at the moment it felt right. Cryptic games are like popcorn experiences — mindless, enjoyable, soothing, and not necessarily the deepest.

For this 2017 experiment, I rolled up a new class to me: a Tiefling Scourge Warlock. I think I tried it for about two seconds a year ago but nothing past the tutorial. I’m glad I stuck with it this time, because I’m really grooving on it so far. I don’t have a firm grasp on its mechanics — there’s a lot to do with curses — but she gets glowy healing spheres, the occasional soul puppet pet, and some hard-hitting spells.

And wouldn’t you know, within the first ten minutes of hanging out in the opening area, I had at least three guilds reach out and talk with me. I ended up with the friendliest-seeming one of the bunch and felt mildly vindicated about the switch (I’m not writing off DDO, mind you, but I’m allowed my moments of being a little bit petty).

I’m very glad for some previous package bonuses that roll over to any new character, granting me some premium bonuses, like a giant spider mount, purple-quality panther pet, and other odds and ends. It helps to forestall the desire or need to spend money in the game store, that’s for sure. Plus, my wife won’t come within 20 feet of my computer when the spider mount is out, so now I can duck housework with a video game.

I like how this guy’s collection of art has not one, but two pictures of the same guy holding the same skull, just in different-colored clothes. In-game art always amuses and interests me, for some reason.

Anyway, no great tales of derring-do in Neverwinter quite yet, mostly because I’m going back through the opening zones that I’m quite familiar with. There has been a lot added to the game over the years, so I’m sure there’s plenty to see, but I’ll have to get up to level 50 before that starts to happen.

You know what’s one little thing about this game I like? All quests and NPCs are voiced — and you can keep listening to them even as you run away. Even if the voice acting isn’t always the best, it gets me to pay attention and gives me something to listen to as I dash off to the next objective.

Try It Tuesday: Iron Marines

Even though I’m trying to penny-pinch in anticipation of a vacation next month, I had to loosen my purse strings to buy this game. I’m totally owning that purse strings comment, too. Real men carry around velvet bags of gold doubloons with impunity.

Anyway. This week’s try-it game is Iron Marines, a mobile RTS from the makers of the incredibly awesome Kingdom Rush tower defense trilogy. This studio’s art style and accessible, addictive gameplay made Iron Marines a must-buy sight unseen, and I have no regrets over its purchase.

So instead of being strictly a TD title, Iron Marines is best likened to a slick mobile edition of Starcraft… with a hint of tower defense. It’s basically Terrans vs. Zerg, although obviously named differently. You can pretend it’s Starship Troopers if that helps you get through the day.

You play the part of the human forces landing on a hostile alien world and take part in a campaign to establish a stronghold and yadda yadda yadda. It’s just an excuse to blast bug-things en masse with all of the technology that the human race has to offer.

Even though the Starcraft comparisons are inevitable, it’s not exactly the same game. Everything’s more streamlined, so base-building is merely upgrading your main structure and deciding what defenses to build. You can only have a handful of squads out at a time, too, so no building up an overwhelming force and then getting into fights.

In fact, being outmanned (such as it is) is a big part of the game — the aliens have vastly more numbers on their side, and if you’re not careful you can get overrun quickly. But by being daring and smart, you might be able to push forward, take over their bases, and slowly expand your resource base.

On your side, you have the choice of different types of units, such as squads of snipers or big flamethrower mechs. You also get a tougher hero unit with a pair of useful skills, a mobile tower that can be dropped down for a limited-time assistance every 30 seconds, and whatever defenses you build up around your base. Making the best decisions for the situation is a key part to living or dying.

It’s just a fun game, period. The art is more cheery than Starcraft and keeps the Kingdom Rush-style alive and kicking (I like the little sound clips that the units have, especially the heroes). It’s just enough complexity for a mobile game, with touch-and-drag being a majority of what you end up doing during a game as you maneuver units around the map.

If I had any complaints, one might be that the map is too small and can only be enlarged a little bit — even on a tablet. I wish I could zoom in more to see what’s going on. Also, I’m worried that the 14 missions and 10 spec ops missions might not be that much content overall. I did replay the Kingdom Rush games like crazy, so I’m keeping an eye out for replayability here. Finally, I’m not crazy about the fact that this is a premium-priced game WITH in-app purchases (buffs and additional hero units past the three or four you are allocated).

Anyway, I have a feeling this is going on my regular mobile play rotation and will be there for a while to come. Perfect for vacation travel, even!

LOTRO: Prison break!

Talath Úrui continues to cement its status as one of my most-hated zones in the game. Its higher difficulty level and incredibly unfriendly map design makes me pound my head on my desk more often than not. But I’m marching forward, ever forward, and this week I broke into a prison and then broke myself out again.

Let’s start by talking about the zone design. Talath Úrui skirts around the bottom of the exploded Mt. Doom, becoming an incredibly large if linear crescent that takes a long, long, long time to traverse, even on war-horse. To make matters worse, the zone’s sole respawn point, vendor, and stable master is alllll the way in the top left, meaning that if you die — and you will die, make no mistake about that — you get to experience the joy of one of the longest corpse runs in the game.

There IS a second milestone, although I largely suspect that it is a cruel joke on the part of the developers, since it literally sits in the middle of a field of lava way off the road and is surrounded by fire spirits and dragons. I can’t even, it’s so stupid.

Initially I was a little excited to head into Naerband. It’s a cool idea, some large prison fortress deep inside Mordor, and I’ve got a thing for cool MMO prisons. Plus, LOTRO does that thing here where it gives you four quests that can all be completed in the same area, which feels efficient and satisfying.

But once I got into it, I realized that I was in for a very slow slog. Despite being level 115, I am not killing mobs at any fast rate. Not even a medium rate. I see Hunters zipping through the area like manic pixie archers, and I’m slowly tossing fireballs and watching my swamp-thing spit out bees while reminiscing about the good old days when we could actually tear through camps like death machines.

I really think that this is going to have to be another one of those areas that requires some grouping action. What’s this going to be like in the future when players spread out and there aren’t folks running in and out of these zones all of the time? I pity future players trying to solo these places.

One of my small and enduring MMO pet peeves is when there are glitches with terrain. Floating bits of hills, grass that hover two feet off the ground, and this weird sliver-thing above. It always shouts to me “YOU ARE IN A GAME!” and breaks my immersion.

I thought it was highly considerate of all of these dead men to perish in the same exact pose for the sake of aesthetics.

Oh look, I’m dead again and running back! Sure hope those mobs don’t pull me right off of this horse while I’m trying to get by the way they did the last four times!

So unfortunately, I am just not having fun in this zone. Here’s hoping that I can get through it and on to more verdant lands sooner rather than much, much later.

Nostalgia Lane: Turtles in Time (SNES)

For all my kids know of the Super Nintendo System, it’s pretty much two games: Super Mario World and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time. This is because they’re quite not old enough for the complexity of the other titles’ controls (but they’re getting better!), so these one- or two-button games are perfect for them on the platform. And frankly, Turtles keeps winning out as a crowd favorite.

I can’t blame them; it’s one of my favorite games on the SNES as well. Has been since the mid-90s. After the brutally tough TMNT game on the original NES (I was never aware of the sequel on that console), getting a Turtles game that was both fun and accessible was a revelation.

At its core, Turtles in Time is a streamlined beat-em-up that delivers more on visuals than on mastering any real martial arts. If you can jam on a button real fast, you have a good chance of winning. But the colorful figures, the expressive animation, the choice of four Turtles to play, the fun levels, some vocal clips, and the kickin’ music all come together to create a party-like atmosphere of a game. It’s just sheer fun to play with others.

Plus, there’s time travel, as the title implies. For my taste, it comes too far into the game (and as far as I know, there’s no save states, so every time you have to start over), but at least it’s there.

And even though you can be a simple button-masher, Turtles in Time has more to offer for those looking to master its gameplay. Various moves can be performed like jump kicks and (my favorite) grabbing an enemy and slamming them back and forth on the ground, Hulk-style. You can even fling a character at the “camera,” thanks to Mode 7 graphics, which actually is the only way to beat Shredder in the Technodrome (see above picture).

Even though the environment isn’t complicated to traverse as in a platformer, there are usually a lot of elements with which to interact. Barrels can be hit to explode (naturally), pizza picked up to be eaten, your character can fall into sewer holes and moan about it, and so on. The choice of Turtle (and weapon) that you pick changes things up a little too — I prefer Donatello for his long reach with the bo staff, but my one son always picks Raphael for his really quick melee attacks with the sai.

Turtles in Time is also polished to a T, and it really shows. It looks, sounds, and performs great all the way through, and the fact that it doesn’t require a huge manual to know how to play it means that just about anyone can pick it up to enjoy. It’s a real shame that this wasn’t included on the Classic SNES, but at least I have a physical cartridge (which is somewhat expensive to buy these days) and another copy on my Retropi, so we’ll keep on playing it in my household for years to come.

LOTRO: Arena Fighter 2000

Before we get started with Syp’s Amazing Adventures of Catching Up, let’s talk about perhaps my greatest trivial pet peeve of the game, which is what I privately call the “Turbine Stance.”

You can see it in this accursed Elf’s stance above. It’s this absolutely bizarre way that the game makes many characters stand: Butt out, knees bent, arms flexing out, hunged a little forward. They all look like they got to poop, if you examine them at the right angle, and I cannot for the life of me understand why their center of gravity is not thrown off so that they just topple over. I really wish that they’d go back and give a lot of these characters different stances, because it’s always noticeable and weird.

Anyway, let’s get going!

Ooh! Giant spider about to eat annoying Elf, this is a very good start to this week’s adventures. It’s not Shelob, but one of her larger children who is going through a growth spurt.

I wrapped up Lhingris recently, and so far this zone is my favorite of all of Mordor. It’s well-paced, has a more varied landscape, and the quests and themes are pretty interesting. Seeing the loose alliance of spider and orc unravel put me in the rare situation of observing enemies turning on each other. It’s a slow burn to the final climax where spiders take over a sole orc fortress, resulting in a last-ditch effort to kick them out because… reasons.

AHH! SUNLIGHT! IT BURNSSSS

After Lhingris, I dinged 115 (finally) and took a break to run an alliance quest for the Dwarves. The new king under the mountain wanted me to establish contact with some of the other Dwarf bigshots around Middle-earth, so another tour was called for and off I went. It even took me back to Angmar, which continues to be a problem for this character because I never did the quests (epic ones?) to nullify the one-shot-kill power of the watcher statues there.

That done, I returned to Talath Úrui a few levels higher and a week or two smarter. I decided to ditch the annoying and somewhat unnecessary busy work quests and move on with the main storyline. This promptly threw me into the middle of a nest of Orcs, only I had the advantage of a flimsy disguise that kept Syp from being Syppressed. Thank you, I’ll be here forever. This is my blog, after all.

So when we talk about weirdly specific MMORPG quests that seem to pop up in every game, here’s one that we should mention: the gladiator chain. So many MMOs have, at some point or another, a series of quests where you enter an arena and fight a series of bad guys as a gladiator in the Roman coliseum of old. I guess it’s an easy chain to program and keep players busy for a while, and here I worked my way up as a “Master Mangler” over the series of three days of hard fighting on a bridge.

My only problem here was when two flimsy orc spawns fell into the fiery chasm below the bridge and wouldn’t die. I had to kill them to get the quest to proceed, so the only way I could even target them was by inching out onto abutments and flinging some embers their way.

I really should take a break at some point to trade all of these ashes and tokens for actual useful gear. Should research that as well.

The wild beckons in Secret World Legends

One thing I realized the other day is that I really hadn’t been in the Shadowy Forest for years now and that I had started to forget that this was, in many ways, a terribly special zone. Maybe I didn’t even understand that the first time through. But now that I’m about to finish things up, it’s striking home.

The progression through Transylvania is quite interesting when you look at it. You start out in the Besieged Farmlands, which features more human-made structures and outposts (besieged as it may be) along with some vampire camps. But it’s not really the wild. The fae presence is on the fringes, because this is the human area.

That all flips with Shadowy Forest, which is primarily ancient growth, a graveyard, an abandoned village, bogs, and, like, one farmhouse. You get the feeling that the more you head into it, the more you leave civilization behind. Even the main settlement, so to speak, is nothing more than some campers forming a makeshift enclave in the middle of the forest. It’s also a nice break from vampires, focusing more on spirits, fungal threats, some angry tree-things, and the Deathless. I should read up more on the Deathless, they seem like an interesting crew.

Of course, for all the great things Funcom has done for writing, stories, and body language, it cannot make a normal-looking kid to save its own hide. Have they seen kids? Because that up there, that is not a good example of what a human larva should look like. They couldn’t fix THAT when they rebooted this game and took away all my stuff?

I like to imagine that he stands there, looking all imperious, for hours and days. Just hoping that some adventurer will come along and be impressed. He’s probably sick of reading the same two pages of that book, too.

I don’t think that Transylvania as a whole has as memorable a cast of NPCs as Solomon Island (or even Scorched Desert), but it’s not a wash, either. The Iele is a completely fascinating quest giver. She doesn’t talk at all, but communicates the theme and objectives with her actions instead.

Also, that girl with her faerie wikipedia wagon is pretty awesome. A shame that she only gives one quest.

It’s my favorite spot in this zone! The cafe door with the heart that makes no sense!

One thing I’m trying to get back into the habit of doing is to go through all of the get-to-know-you dialogue with the quest givers. I stopped doing that on the second playthrough and I think it was a mistake. I’m learning a lot more about these people now that I’m taking the time to talk. Well, “talk” as I can. Maybe I slip them note cards so they know what I want to hear them blather on about.