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.

Battle Bards Episode 140: Piano piano!

It’s one of the most powerful and versatile of musical instruments, and now the piano is getting its own featured show here on Battle Bards! The crew re-assembles, not to avenge, but to uplift beautiful, striking, and moving piano themes from MMORPGs. So tickle the ivories with Syl, Steff, and Syp as they listen to today’s signature tracks.

Episode 140 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “Breezewind Park” from Blade and Soul, “Main Theme” from The Secret World, and “Piano Works #1 Serendia” from Black Desert)
  • “Theobomos Hotel” from Aion
  • “Purple” from Worlds Adrift
  • “Kaelar and Empyrean Freeholds” from Ashes of Creation
  • “Tieve’s Theme” from Vindictus
  • “Lullaby” from Chronicles of Spellborn
  • “The Die is Cast” from Tree of Savior
  • “Ancient City” from FFXIV
  • Which one did we like best?
  • Listener mail from Katriana and IronSalamander8 [link]
  • Jukebox picks: “Chiasm” from GRIS, “Main Theme” from Neon Chrome, and “The Beginning” from Resident Evil 2 Remake
  • Outro (feat. “Hywel” from Mabinogi)

Try-It Tuesday: Torchlight Frontiers (alpha)

One of the (few) perks of being in the gaming media is occasionally getting a key for a game that you genuinely want to try out, and this past week I was the recipient of a Torchlight Frontiers alpha code. Now normally I wouldn’t go for an alpha, but Torchlight is one of my most-anticipated games this year, and I was pretty restless due to all of the DDO/LOTRO downtime. So why not?

And for a game that’s in alpha, TF is looking pretty slick. Apart from some placeholder art in the intro, I don’t think I encountered any bugs or rough spots while playing it. As a Diablo clone, the barrier to learning it is very low — you can literally play this entire game one-handed if you want, especially if you have a gaming mouse. Click to move, click to attack, reap rewards, repeat.

There were only two classes/races on hand, so I went with the steampunk robot because IT IS A STEAMPUNK ROBOT. That has a chest cannon. And can fire a blanket of burning coals. And has a pet llama.

As I said, everything is very slick here. It looks great, especially if you like the vibrant cartoon color style that this series is well known for, and I couldn’t help but being charmed by all of the character and mob animations. Watching little gobbos crawl in from a rock face or jump out of a tent felt a lot more natural than just seeing a host of mobs fading into existence.

Sure, it’s heavily instanced — although there are public areas and hubs — and it’s very much a combat clicker at the core. But the wardrobe and housing system give me hope for something beyond that. Speaking of housing, I love the fact that the game gave me a fort within the first 10 minutes. It felt like a cross between WoW’s garrisons and WildStar’s housing plot, in terms of both being able to decorate it and having a lot of functional workstations lying around. There’s also a lot of crafting in the game, although I haven’t quite gotten into that yet.

The first dungeon I ran was a total cakewalk — an enjoyable one, but a cakewalk nonetheless — until I got to the boss. Then I had to sit up and actually try hard, because his high health bar, attacks, and the ability to raise mobs from the dead kept me dancing around and hitting my potions on cooldown while trying to win the day. Which I did, because I’m awesome. Yay Syp, you beat a level 1 dungeon. Songs will be sung in your honor until the end of time.

All in all, the past weekend in TF has reassured me that this is going to be a fun time waster whenever it comes out this year. I’m looking forward to it more than ever now, but as I am wont to do, now that I satisfied my curiosity I won’t touch it until release. Which I hope won’t be too, too long!

Coping with LOTRO and DDO’s blackout

“The game is old! SSG is a small outfit! Not everyone can be like Blizzard! Go work for SSG if you think you can do better! Stop complaining! Its only a few days, suck it up! Data center stuff is complex! Lots of things can go wrong! They are working hard to fix it! They should let us pre-order Sharn while waiting!”

~ Someone summing up all of the white knight responses to the outage

I like to pride myself on having a diverse game library, especially in the MMO space. That way I can limit my losses, especially with content droughts and downtime and even cancellations. So what are the odds that the two main games I’m playing these days would be taken offline for an unexpected multi-day stretch of data center work?

Turns out that those odds are pretty high.

As you probably saw, last week both LOTRO and DDO went from a lengthy 22-hour downtime to an astounding stretch of multiple days. The accounts kept tweeting out extensions to the downtime, always pushing the end time to four, six, or twelve hours ahead. At first, it was annoying. Then it became a joke. Then it became genuinely worrisome.

For the most part, it was of mild annoyance to me personally. I am still waiting for LOTRO to unlock Moria and give us the next update, so I didn’t have a lot I had to do there, and DDO was mostly becoming a nice nighttime routine for a half-hour or so as I got through another mission. I actually didn’t game much at all last week, feeling uninspired to dig into other titles and generally being very tired. Lots of early nights.

But you know how it is when someone takes away something that you were used to — after a while you begin to crave it. It’s one thing for me to not to play a game on a given night because it’s my choice, it’s another when I’m denied it by an outside party. By Friday evening, I was really jonesing for a session in either game.

I know that SSG is a small outfit, but for whatever virtues they have in handling these games and producing good content, their lack of communication and general incompetence in handling the actual operation of these games is a sore spot with me. I wasn’t among the crowd pleading for patience and throwing love at SSG last week. I was among those shaking their heads as I remembered the great 2015 downtime and the horrible data center move in 2016. It’s kind of par for the course for this company and while I’m not going to be mean and call them names, I’m not going to excuse how badly it handled this. At the very least, we should’ve gotten more communication than the cut-and-paste Twitter extensions — the first time the studio really talked was Friday evening, two days after this whole mess began.

And while the community was divided in its attitude toward SSG, it was pretty united in the shared misery of being ejected from a regular gaming schedule. Players had fun on Twitter, Reddit, and Discord sharing memes and suggesting other games and mentioning how much they got done in other areas of their life. It always helps to know others are going through what you are — makes the waiting more bearable.

In the end, it would end, and we would all play again. Maybe this will be a momentary reminder not to take our favorite worlds for granted. Maybe it shakes our faith in SSG’s capability to handle these titles a little more. As long as I can log in and play, I don’t care.

World of Warcraft, how could you get me back?

While I’ve stepped away from World of Warcraft, I don’t think I’m quite done with this MMO quite yet. I’ve learned that lesson that many of us have, that “never say never” when it comes to returning. And I’ll admit that some days, especially when I’m feeling a little listless and nostalgic, the WoW pull is strong. I miss the visuals, the tight combat, and the world. I envision working on a new character, a new project.

But then reality kicks in when I evaluate the current scene and I quickly find any enthusiasm dissipating like the morning mist. Battle for Azeroth still has those fatal flaws underpinning its entire structure, and I don’t think I could drag myself up to caring about azerite gear, warfronts, island expeditions, and the rest. At least right now.

One of the projects that I keep mulling over is returning to unlock three things: flying, Dark Iron Dwarves, and Kul Tiran humans. If and when I play again, even if it’s all the way to the next expansion, I’d like these accessible on my account.

I even went so far as to make a list of all of the requirements to get these, and just staring at that list hurt my soul. I’m looking at this and seeing it as Blizzard does, which is a forced grind to keep players chasing these goals as long as possible. And if it was, say, gear or high-end talents, I could see a reason for the barrier, but that’s not what these are. These are character creation options for alts and a re-access to an ability that we already had.

So I’ve been asking the question: What could World of Warcraft do to get me back? And as mind-breaking as it might be for Blizzard to consider, ditching these grinds and outright giving players who already purchased Battle for Azeroth with their money the allied races that this pack advertised would be a terrific start. What if tomorrow Blizzard just went, “You know what? Holding back a toy you already earned is silly, so here’s flying back for free. Enjoy!” It would generate so much goodwill.

What if Blizzard started giving fun stuff for us to do without making us jump through dull-as-heck hoops all the time? What if it repurposed old content and systems that we used to enjoy and that worked instead of making us feel as though we wasted years chasing stuff that wasn’t persistent in the end?

I don’t want to see Blizzard churn out more boring BFA story. I want the company to have a change of heart and attitude. Then, it might get me back.

LOTRO: No good deed goes unpunished

While on one hand I’m glad that my progression server Minstrel is fully ready for Moria, on the other hand I feel very adrift in LOTRO. There’s nothing for either of my mains to do right now in terms of new content, so I tried staying logged off for a couple of weeks and playing other titles. That was fine, but I missed LOTRO as the anchor game of my evening line-up.

Then the producer’s letter came a couple of weeks ago, and that at least gave me some hope and purpose. Yes, we’ll be getting Moria soon, but more than that, we have some exciting developments coming this year. There’s going to be an expansion that won’t be as sloggy as Mordor (huzzah!), and before that, a Vale of Anduin zone drop. That should keep my Lore-master plenty busy.

But the virtue revamp had me most fascinated, and at least for my Minstrel, I think it’s a game-changer. I have long since grown tired of following a very specific track to get the 100 or so virtue deeds that I need. Whenever this revamp comes, we’ll be able to earn “virtue XP” for completing deeds and then apply that XP to the virtues of our choice. It sounds a lot more flexible, especially for those of us who hate doing strings of slayer deeds.

And it even has a benefits right now. For starters, I can just toss away the virtue plan I had for Moria on forward and pursue the ones I want. Also, it gives me more encouragement to run additional deeds right now to build up that stockpile of future XP. I figure some of these early zones are going to offer easier deeds than the latter ones, so why not.

I’ve worked my way through all of the Shire and Ered Luin ones and have been digging into Bree-land. My kinship has a dedicated deed night in which they group up and run through a zone to complete deeds at a faster pace together, and I think I’ll be taking advantage of that.

Apart from that, I’m just ready. I’m ready for Moria (which I really think will be shorter than Shadows of Angmar), and it’s my hope that by the time I’ve blasted through that content, Anduin will be ready for my Lore-master. That way I won’t be facing this kind of content drought in three months from now.

Retro Reprise Episode 17: The shareware show!

They might not have been the AAA-budget titles of the 1990s, but shareware games were perhaps even more well-known due to the proliferation of these demos. Studios such as id, Epic, and Apogee made their mark with these titles — and the simple but memorable tunes from each got lodged into our brains. Joining Syp today is Chaos Constant from Occasional Hero, who is a self-professed retro game music fan and has plenty to say about the shareware era!

Show notes (episode downloadepisode page)

  • Intro (feat. “Cruising with Stryker” from Major Stryker and “The City Streets” from Duke Nukem 3D)
  • “Title Theme” from Halloween Harry
  • “Toy Factory Table” from Epic Pinball
  • “Main Theme” from Duke Nukem 3D
  • “Welcome to a Kick in the Pants in Good Old Hillville” from Commander Keen 4
  • “Main Theme” from Mystic Towers
  • “Spiders” from Jill of the Jungle
  • “Shooting Star” from Major Stryker
  • “Episode 1 Levels 4-6” from Stargunner
  • Outro (“Beach Bunnies” from Jazz Jackrabbit)