LOTRO: The abyss called collect, and I came running

We all remember this moment in the books, when Frodo said farewell to Bilbo at Rivendell in front of a completely random Hobbit in a mining helmet. I’m a living retcon for Lord of the Rings.

After over a month (!) of running in place and waiting for Moria to get here already, LOTRO finally unlocked the first expansion on the progression server and all of us were off once again. There was a lot of excitement for this unlock in my guild, as Moria holds a special place in many players’ hearts. Not mine, exactly; there are parts of Moria that I like, but I’m not a super-fan or anything. My enthusiasm mostly comes from a heap of unlocked content to keep me occupied than anything else.

On the night it unlocked, I started right from the beginning of Volume II. I guess I forgot just how much prelude stuff had to happen before you get into Moria proper, because it took me all of the evening just to get through it, including the side quests and leveling up my legendary weapon. I had to bite my tongue when I saw a couple new players to the game in our guild get all a-titter over getting their first legendary. It’s still a pit of a system that I’d abandon entirely if it wasn’t for the useful skill buffs that they supply.

From night two on, I said farewell to the sky for the next couple of months and dove right into Moria. I’m certainly glad we’re benefiting from a few thorough content and balancing passes for this place, as it’s a lot better in terms of flow and navigation. Really, my only remaining quibble are the still-horrible “hand-drawn” maps that often lack important details for getting around specific places.

Moria does have its charm as an expansive underground realm that’s part dungeon, part civilization, and part wilderness. There are some new mob types and other modified ones, and I’d have to say that the insect mobs are far more terrifying in the dark than they are outside in the daylight.

I’m being pretty careful in trying to complete all of the quests and scoot around to see the sights. Combat is no longer as fun on my Minstrel since the big nerf, but I’ve made my bed with this class on the legendary server and have to lay in it.

If my first couple of nights are any indications, I’ll probably be blasting through a zone every few nights at this pace and will hit 60 by mid-April at the latest. I suppose that’s fine; looking forward, I know that we have a regular LOTRO content update on the horizon, and when that hits it’d be nice to have a month or two break from the legendary server to catch up with my Lore-master. So I’m calling it about two months to get through all of Moria and Lothlorien, then maybe a few weeks past that mopping up deeds and maybe working on my skirmish soldier.

In the meanwhile, I’m trying to live in the moment as I explore. I’ve been taking a whole bunch of pictures like a goofy tourist, and I keep bumping into guildies all over the place. Even had a little campfire chat with one of them for a few minutes.

Secret of Monkey Island: Cruising the Caribbean

(This is part of my journey going playing through 1990’s Secret of Monkey Island. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Finally off of Melee Island, Guybrush surveys his just-barely-adequate ship and addresses the crew. He quickly finds out that the three crew members are much more inclined to cruise around the Caribbean and work on their tans than to head off to Monkey Island to rescue Elaine.

With a lazy mutiny in progress, Guybrush has to figure out a way to get to Monkey Island(tm). A journal from the boat’s previous captain mentions some sort of toxic stew that made the crew pass out and then somehow appear at the island, so that’s probably the route needed. Guybrush goes about the ship looting left and right, including a cabinet full of (naturally) Cap’n Crunch cereal. With a toy inside. I love the observation about how this cereal cut up our mouths because it really, really did. Why did we eat it?

After concocting a really bizarre stew, a voodoo thing knocks Guybrush out and takes the ship to Monkey Island(tm). He’s pretty happy to be there — what with the potential of rescuing Elaine — but the crew continue to sunbathe without a care in the world.

In a really terrific cutscene and a callback to the circus, Guybrush dons a pot on his head and fires himself from a cannon onto the shore. No going back for now!

Monkey Island(tm) seems to suffer from the late game curse — that is, the early part of a given game is treated to a lot more care and detail than the crap-we-need-to-rush-to-ship-this back half. So it kind of feels underwhelming to be in this sparsely populated setting after the bustling fun of Melee Island(tm).

On the other hand, there’s a reclusive hermit named Herman Toothrot (the previous captain of Guybrush’s ship who got stranded here 20 years ago), a friendly monkey, and a tribe of big-headed cannibals who are giving up red meat for the time being in an effort to stay healthy.

So most of the action here is slowly unlocking areas via object puzzle solving, which is just as thrilling as it sounds. Probably the most fun puzzle was using a catapult to launch a rock at a banana tree (or, if clumsy, Guybrush’s own boat). The only thing that kept me moving forward at a fast pace was the burning desire to know the truth — what is the secret of Monkey Island?

Try-It Tuesday: Eldevin

Eldevin is one of those MMOs that gets mentioned when people are asking for recommendations for little-known and underrated titles. Those are the kinds of games that I’m always keeping an eye out for, so I loaded this one up over the weekend for a try.

Strange note, it turns out that I had tried this at SOME point in the past, as I had a level 2 character on the screen. I don’t recall when, and my auxiliary gaming brain (this blog) is of no help. In any case, I started with a fresh character, marveling over the low-polygon graphics.

I mean, REALLY low-poly. Eldevin gets compared a lot to RuneScape, and I can see why. Both games offer similar generic fantasy styles with low draw distance and chunky visuals. Yet both also have some measure of charm in them, and I appreciated that there was some effort here to provide world details (such as flowing sewers or ambient creatures) and a colorful setting.

Another point of comparison with RuneScape is a class-less system. In Eldevin, you start out as a generic Human adventurer like everyone else and can invest ability and talent points as you level up. Pretty standard stuff, but then again, I kind of appreciated how easy it was to understand all of the systems in Eldevin. Sometimes in MMOs we get devs who feel like they have to reinvent the wheel and make everything far more obtuse than it needs to be.

I won’t say that the opening hours were anything that amazing in this game. It’s one of those MMOs where it feels like it has to hold your hand for a long, long while, where every quest is an extended tutorial of some sort. About the most interesting part was when I was sent through a portal into some sort of void dimension that felt like the “dark world” from Zelda.

Combat is… well, it’s there. Since you can pick your playstyle, the game encourages you to try out melee, magic, and archery to your heart’s content. I settled on archery, mostly because it was enjoyable to sit back and thwip-thwip-thwip hogs and beetles to death. On a weird side note, the auto-attack in this game is obscenely fast. Like this would be rapid fire in other MMOs, but here your guy is just going nuts. I think it may be the fastest auto-attack I’ve ever seen.

A nice player came along and took pity on my noobness by donating an entire vanity set of Santa Claus gear to me. Nothing like bringing Christmas cheer into March, I say! Ho-ho-ho.

One early quest that showed potential had me diving into multiple levels of a goblin cave to rescue “Mandreke’s Wife.” Pause for recognition. Yeah, it’s a cheap World of Warcraft joke, but hey, I smiled. And it was weird because the lady refused to be rescued, instead complaining that her husband should come down and rescue him herself. He, in turn, sent a letter and an amulet as an apology. The game let me choose whether or not to keep the amulet (I did), which was a nice touch. And the boss fight with a hobgoblin was the first fight I’d had in the game where a critter didn’t die in under a half-second.

Still in the throes of tutorials — and I promise you, I’d been trucking for a good solid two hours here — I found myself taking a self-guided tour all over the main city while my character provided narration (?!) as to the locales I’d passed. The end result of this was a little teleport token that I could use to return to the city, which I would probably never do because I’m not a big fan of fantasy cities to begin with.

From my early experience, Eldevin is a nice but forgettable MMO that manages to get the basics right without doing anything that interesting or different. I mean, it’s adequate, but how can I recommend adequate when there are other MMOs that do pretty much everything here but better? It’s cute, it’s inoffensive, and it’s at least understandable, which is more than I can say for some titles. But I doubt I’ll be coming back.

Die Hard, DDO-style

Bargain of Blood — or “Bob” as I like to call it — is another one of those House D quests that my DDO leveling group did not too long ago. Thus, it’s fairly fresh in my mind, although I certainly didn’t have any problems running it again. It’s a fun setting, that of a bazaar where pirates are reselling stolen goods back to people. It’s a dungeon where the setting is an outside mall. Kind of like fighting your way through IKEA.

There are plenty of places for me to snipe down and afar at enemies, so I was in my natural habitat. Nothing like the feeling of gunning hobgoblins or whatevers down as they try in vain to close the distance and hit me. There was a lot of ranged fire as well, although in DDO you can actually dodge it if you see arrows and spears coming and move out of the way.

I’ve been working hard to make my Artificer as self-sufficient as possible (although I always have a Cleric hireling on hand because it never hurts to have healing and a free rez nearby for those one-shot-kill moments), and she’s shaping up nicely. I can self-heal for large amounts, shoot with the best of them, and even run and jump much better than on my Druid. Plus, I’ve got really great spot, search, and trap disarm skills (the Gnomish bonuses help there), so the occasional trap gets foiled. As long as I don’t get in over my head with the difficulty level, I’m usually pretty good.

Call it the Goonies Syndrome, but any time a dev team tries to do a pirate-themed mission in an MMO, chances are that they’ll end up putting a pirate ship inside a cavern. I’ve seen it in at least four MMOs so far, and I haven’t been looking that hard. It’s too oddly specific of a trope to blend in, so stuff like this really calls attention to itself.

That said, The Black Loch is a pretty enjoyable adventure. I mean, pirates are good, but pirate zombies are even better.

I mean the captain might have lose some of his color, skin, and an eye, but he’s still sporting that bushy and luxurious muttonchop pairing. Not to mention very rich fashion indeed.

Annoying platforming elements aside, The Tide Turns is an expertly crafted quest from both a narrative and design view. Continuing with the struggle against the Blood Tide pirates, this mission takes place in House D’s tower where the pirates have taken it over — and only one Gnome can single-handedly wipe them all out.

That’s right. It’s Die Hard, DDO-style.

It’s really a blast to fight your way upwards in the tower, finding ways around the pirates’ obstacles and cutting them down until you blow up their ship (not shown) and kill the leader. Who, in a fun twist, turns out to be a gigantic Ogre mage in disguise for some reason. I had a great time start to finish with this one, as it’s just the right length and difficulty while throwing plenty of little scripted moments to keep the story flowing.

DDO: House D-lightful

This week’s DDO goal was to chew through as many of the House D quests as possible, as this was one house that my solo Artificer had yet to touch. Plenty of quests here, starting with The Depths of Despair, a standard sewer crawler with a kind of snarky intro. If you skip by bestowment quest text in DDO, you’re often missing some pretty interesting and even hilarious stuff.

The second of the fourth “Depths” quests, Depths of Darkness, also looked like a standard sewer affair — but it had a few surprises waiting to spring on me. Not only was there an acid trap that melted my face right the heck off (I was on elite mode), there were a couple of mega-slimes that exploded into dozens of smaller enemies when hit. I was backpedaling through the entire sewer trying to kill about 30 or so mobs before they swarmed me. It was honestly crazy — and I loved it. A very memorable battle and one that had me laughing by the time it was all through.

Then there was Depths of Discord, which at first I assumed would send me into some of the shadier chat channels. But no — more sewer surfing on behalf of a lazy NPC adventurer who would rather drink in a tavern than do her darn job. At least I got to experience momentary terror as a 700 pound minotaur dual wielding battle axes charged right at me.

The last one in the series, Depths of Doom, was pretty much the same as the first three. Honestly, this whole series felt like a large cut-n-paste, which rubs me the wrong way after the annoying repetitiveness that I went through with Tangleroot Gorge.

For a change of pace, I finished out the night with Storm the Beaches, which is an assault upon a pirate stronghold. From having run this with my group a month or so ago, I knew that a secret waterfall path would take me up behind the bad guys and allow me to attack from the top-down instead of the bottom-up. Lots easier that way, and plenty of opportunities to snipe unsportingly from afar.

Cryptic calls it quits on the Foundry, and that is a shame

Man I am getting sick of promising features (and games that contain them) being shuttered. If MMORPG developers are ever going to crack the problem of ravenous gamers consuming content at a blazing pace, then chances are player creativity is going to be the tool to solve it.

We’ve seen this in plenty of places, from the successful (Minecraft, Roblox, Trove) to the sunsetted (Landmark, City of Heroes). Players like to create and many would leap at a chance to expand their favorite game worlds via their handmade quests, so why not facilitate that?

To its credit, Cryptic’s long been in the player created content business. City of Heroes did spawn Mission Architect to let supers make their own maps, and while that was a problematic system, it was popular enough to make it into both Neverwinter and Star Trek Online as The Foundry. I’d only briefly engaged in both ends of this system (creation and consumption), but I liked that it was there and felt that so much more could be done to sift the really good created quests from the cruddy ones that littered up the place.

But after the first year or so of these games’ operation, you could tell that Cryptic didn’t really have the heart to keep The Foundry in the forefront. It did make some half-hearted attempts to promote it, but after a while it was demoted to one of those systems that you know will never get an update or a revision. It was a withering appendage.

And now that appendage is gone, as the studio is ending both games’ Foundries. The official excuse is that the people who helped to create and maintain this system are no longer with the company and it’s a pain to update. There’s a ring of truth to that, but it also sounds like a convenient excuse to do what Cryptic always does — which is to get frustrated with a system that isn’t working out as well or is as popular as it hoped and then just can it with vague promises of maybe doing a better version in the future. STO players are still waiting on that exploration system, by the way.

I’m not crying buckets over this, but I have to say that it is a real shame that both of these games are losing this. For starters, plenty of players — such as the MMO blogosphere’s Tipa! — put in countless hours crafting their own narrative experiences to share with others. This sunset wipes all of that work out while the games endure.

Also, this isn’t an idea that should be given up on. I think Daybreak had it right when it saw that player-created content was a rich resource to be harvested, and even though the Landmark/EverQuest Next experiment didn’t pan out, that doesn’t mean the studio was wrong about this. The Foundry needed help, maybe even a total rewrite. But you look at Star Trek Online, which might get one new mission every two or three months, and you can see that there’s a real need for more content to fill the gaps.

How these player-created content systems can be wielded, promoted, and utilized in MMOs is a speculation essay for another day, but suffice to say that some serious thinking and planning would need to be done to avoid gross exploits while promoting quality.

In the meanwhile, these games have one less item to put on their feature list. And while Cryptic may deny it, it’s a pretty significant loss for the potential of both titles.

Secret of Monkey Island: Guybrush overboard!

(This is part of my journey going playing through 1990’s Secret of Monkey Island. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Astute players of this game might recall that Guybrush’s one defining skill — as relayed to the Important Pirate Leaders — is that he can hold his breath for ten minutes. This seemingly useless trait suddenly has incredible bearing on the situation once Fester Shinetop attempts to drown Guybrush at the bottom of the ocean.

Here’s where the game really likes to tweak players, because there are all of these sharp pirate weapons all over the place on the ocean floor — but Guybrush’s tether isn’t long enough to reach any of them. Adding insult to injury, two pirates end up walking right overhead discussing how they want to get rid of an incriminating knife by throwing it into the water… and then they end up keeping it and walking away.

You know how I said at the start of this playthrough that I liked how these LucasArt games wouldn’t kill you at every turn? To my knowledge, this is the single way you can bite it in the game, by waiting for ten minutes in this spot as Guybrush’s face turns all sorts of delightful colors. Finally, he perishes and the parser commands change to things like “rot” and “order hint book.” They don’t DO anything, but it’s amusing.

What’s even funnier is that the solution to this “puzzle” is insultingly easy. Guybrush already had picked up the idol before, so all he needs to do now is pick it up again to climb out of the water. Easy peasy.

Up on the dock, Guybrush spies a GHOST SHIP sailing away and is understandably perturbed at its passing. He feels even worse when the lookout from the very start of the game comes down and tells Guybrush that LaChuck has kidnapped Elaine to take her to Monkey Island. See, Elaine was actually coming to rescue our hapless hero when she was intercepted by her zombie stalker. Since that makes this partially Guybrush’s responsibility, he vows to get her back. It’s a really cheesy moment as he gets all gushy on Elaine and sappy music swells up, which allows me to forgive the revival of this tired your-princess-is-in-another-monkey-castle trope.

Of course, that’s not going to be easy. He’s not even a full pirate yet, and he lacks a crew and a boat to get off Melee Island.

The cook in the now-abandoned SCUMM bar entreats Guybrush to undertake this task to rescue their beloved governor. Why him? Because he has “love” written all over his face, obviously.

Ahem.

As Guybrush starts to assemble his crew — which includes Otis the prisoner and Carla the sword master — a cutscene informs us that Elaine is doing her darndest to escape LeChuck. It actually turns out that Fester Shinetop is LeChuck in disguise! I had totally forgotten that from my previous playthrough.

One of the crew that Guybrush needs to recruit is ol’ Meathook here (he has two hook-hands, you see). He’s reluctant to sign up until Guybrush proves himself by touching “the beast” that took his hands. Or a relative of the beast that did that. A descendant, at least. Doors open, Meathook gets visibly more anxious and moves to a safe distance…

The suspense builds as the final door opens…

…to reveal, of course, a tiny little parrot. Guybrush tickles him and that’s that. Meathook is suitably impressed and signs up. It’s a classic sequence that had me laughing out loud once again.

A crew is all well and good, but a pirate captain needs a boat — and only Stan, the owner of Stan’s Previously Owned Vessels — is around to sell one. The music, manic gestures, and tacky ships are all spot-on for a parody of a used car salesman, and I can understand why Stan has become a beloved fixture in this franchise.

Ship procured, crew assigned, pirate status attained — is there nothing that will stand in the way of Guybrush Threepwood and his destiny? Probably 66% of the remainder of the game will, if adventure game logic holds.