Guest Post: DDO Masterminds of Sharn review (part 1)

Today’s guest post is from DDOCentral’s Matt, who wanted to give Bio Break’s readership a deeper look into Dungeons and Dragons Online’s Masterminds of Sharn expansion. Thanks Matt!

Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO) released its fourth paid expansion on May 14th, 2019 titled Masterminds of Sharn. The three previous paid expansions for DDO are Menace of the Underdark, released on June 25th, 2012, Shadowfell Conspiracy, released on August 19th, 2013, and Mists of Ravenloft, released on December 6th, 2017.

Masterminds of Sharn is the first paid expansion for DDO set in the Eberron universe, which was the original DDO campaign setting when the MMORPG launched in early 2006. After thirteen years, DDO finally leaves the small frontier settlement of Stormreach on the southern jungle continent of Xen’drik where the adventure began for the great metropolis of Sharn, the City of Towers, located on the central continent of Khorvaire. Sharn is not only the most populous city in Khorvaire, but is also notable as the seat of power for the racially-affiliated Dragonmarked Houses. The Dragonmarked Houses enjoy a near-monopoly on many crucial business activities, both magical and mundane as well as legal and illegal.

This article is the first in a series of three articles on the Masterminds of Sharn expansion. The article will provide an overview of the Eberron campaign setting in the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game, the history and scheming forces behind the city of Sharn, the new explorer area included with the Sharn expansion and the related walk-up quests found therein, the two new Tiefling player races, and the new Minor Artifacts system which expands on the Sentient Weapons system. The second article in the series will look at the Masterminds of Sharn’s nine story dungeons divided in two parts, and the third and final article will conclude the series with a review of Masterminds of Sharn’s two raids.

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Double-dating Lord of the Rings Online

I don’t recall ever being this torn while logging into Lord of the Rings Online. I’m not talking about whether I want to play or not, but rather which SERVER I want to enjoy at any given time. The near-simultaneous release of Update 24 and Siege of Mirkwood has resulted in a tug-o-war for my attention and affection. The weird thing is that I feel equally interested in both, which is kind of cool.

I mean, over in Update 24 live server land, it’s all about brand-new content in a really pretty zone I’ve never seen before. I’m not rushing this (I rarely rush) but am taking my time meeting the Beornings, doing tasks for Radagast, joshing around with the giant eagles, and watching dogs stand up on their hind legs to serve dinner.

It’s a weird zone, let’s just say that. Lots of Hobbit influences, obviously, and that book wasn’t nearly as “grounded” as Lord of the Rings. I don’t mind, to be honest.

In addition to the zone itself, the Black Book of Mordor added two new books, so on we go with the ambiguity of what this “black book” is and why some Jason Vorhees-wannabe is chasing after it. He’s probably the most effective villain this game has had in some time, and I was kind of shocked when Gandalf blasted off his mask to reveal this scarred, zombie-like visage underneath.

So yeah, good times on the live server. It’s kind of disappointing that I don’t have any character advancement left to do right now on my Lore-master, so pretty much all questing is being done strictly for the experience and whatever gear upgrades the devs want to throw my way.

You’d think that in contrast to the sun-drenched lands of Anduin, Mirkwood would be anathema to me, but that’s just not the case. I’ve always loved this zone and feel far more free questing through it than I did in Moria. And there is plenty of advancement to be had, as I march toward level 65 and work on getting my first agers up to spec. There are a few talent points I’m saving up for, but it’s going to be a long while before I see them due to the slower pace of this server.

And speaking of slow, more than a few of us were complaining the first few days of the expansion unlock that one quest in particular caused a nasty bottleneck. We absolutely had to find and kill seven of these warg riders to advance to the next phase (and the larger zone itself), but the spawn rate seemed really off and players kept roaming everywhere just trying to find one. I eventually took to patrolling the same stretch of road for an hour or so after I noticed that about two spawn points happened around there.

The other factor that helps balance out my interest in the legendary server is that I’m having way more fun fighting as a Minstrel than a Lore-master. Weird for me to admit that, but it is the case. The instant powerful shout/light attacks make for an enjoyable rotation, and I love rounding up groups of mobs and then popping off four AoE spells in rapid succession. Plus, as long as I’m paying attention, I can never die.

So I guess this’ll be my summer in LOTRO: Anduin and Mirkwood/Enedwaith. That’s not a bad fate to be had, and we still have an expansion to go for later this year.

Vampire Bloodlines: Hello Hollywood!

(This is part of my journey going playing through 2004’s Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

It’s a laugh riot playing a Malkavian (and it makes me hope that John Malkovich was compensated by White Wolf), as the most hilarious dialogue options pop up even in the midst of super-serious conversations. While infiltrating a museum, I was momentarily amused by the inclusion of several dinosaur exhibits (unfortunately, however, most of the museum action takes place in the bland basements). Then afterward as the prince is asking if I was able to obtain the sarcophagus, I got to say, “It was stolen, but there were a lot of dinosaurs, so I had fun.”

Ha. Thanks for the laugh, Bloodlines.

Anyway, the narrative backbone of the game — this coffin with a dead god of sorts in it and the scramble to secure it — might just be the weakest part of the whole story. I can scarcely bring myself to care about it, mostly because the importance of the box’s contents is merely hinted at rather than seen or experienced. It’s just a convenient McGuffin to keep the story moving along, and I dutifully follow it because that journey takes me to other, more interesting places.

The only thing that does interest me from all of this is the fact that the Anarch’s Nines weird departure from the mansion I visited earlier has made him suspect number one and target of a vamp-hunt.

With that out of the way and Downtown mostly finished, I scooted over to the game’s third zone, Hollywood. This is definitely the brightest and glitziest area yet (but no less skeevy), with smaller, more colorful locales and a pretty straight-forward street that doesn’t take me too long to traverse. Hollywood actually feels much smaller than the two previous regions, and word is that by this point in the game’s development, Troika had to start cutting corners to get it done on time.

In a surprisingly clever move, I was accosted on the street between missions by a girl named Samantha who recognized me — the old, pre-dead me — and indicates that my old acquaintances have been looking all over for me. Since the player character starts the game right at the moment of siring, there’s been little to make me think of the “life” I used to live.

Anyway, this encounter is also a tricky situation, since Samantha might expose me and cause all sorts of weirdness. So as a Malky, I simply dementate Samantha… into thinking I’m her pet turtle Shelly.

I’m totally serious. It’s absolutely awesome.

See? This is why you place this race. So dang quotable.

While not all of the environments are brimming with lots of details, there are a few fun jokes here and there that are worth careful observation. Found the above warning label in a convenience store. Oh no, not the puppies!

Hollywood doesn’t have a lot in the way of celebrities but it does boast a small cemetery being tended to by a guy named (ahem) Romero. There’s an optional mission to beat up zombies for two minutes, but since you have to simultaneously defend gates on opposite sides of the small zone, it’s too annoying to both with.

Hollywood does kick off a darky gruesome storyline that deals with a VHS tape that contains a monster snuff film. Someone’s making these, and I bet that it’s going to be up to me to stop ’em. I’m cool with that.

Oh, and I fought a giant monkey gargoyle. It was a very long day.

Battle Bards Episode 147: Continent of the Ninth Seal

Bring on the heavy makeup, electric guitars, and MMO groupies, because the Battle Bards are rock and rolling their way into Continent of the Ninth Seal (aka C9). It may not be a game — or soundtrack — that most know, but does that mean that there is a musical treasure trove waiting to be discovered? Listen to this episode to find out!

Episode 147 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “Innocence RunersVill” and “Brotherhood of the Wolf”)
  • “Main Theme”
  • “Cold Mountain”
  • “Black Yard”
  • “Blade of a Knife”
  • “Gong!”
  • “Braveheart”
  • “Waterford Theme”
  • Which one did we like best?
  • Listener mail from Caroline, Bullwraith, and George Wilson III
  • Jukebox picks: “We’ve All Done Things” from Days Gone, “Main Theme” from Unending Dusk, and “The Adventure Begins” from Cube World
  • Outro (feat. “Silent Night”)

Try-It Tuesday: The Last Door

The recent GOG summer sale didn’t leave me unscathed, as I was tempted into snapping up a few heavily discounted deals, including Cosmic Star Heroine, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Epic Pinball, and both of the Last Door titles. I guess I was intrigued about the latter for fairly strong reviews and an interesting graphical style.

In fact, while the indie games industry is ga-ga over pixel art these days (and I’m not complaining, since I love it too!), I can’t recall too many that get, well, THIS pixelated. The Last Door’s art style is chunky and blocky, like early King’s Quest entries or later Atari 2600 efforts. I mean, it’s good for what it is, but I think what works with this is that the lack of fine detail makes the player imagine a whole lot — which is a very useful quality for a horror title.

Which this is, of course. The Last Door is a sort of spooky adventure game set in the late 1800s and dealing with some (pixelated) disturbing imagery and themes. A guy named Devitt is drawn back to investigate some strange goings-on with some former schoolchums of his, and without spoiling too much, let’s just say that an experiment that they performed back at school has had dire consequences and drawn all of them into different forms of madness.

Plus, there are birds. A lot of birds. A lot of angry birds who are possibly channeling things you don’t want to know about.

Each of the four episodes of the first game run about 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how fast you can figure out the relatively few object puzzles. None of them are that hard, as each episode takes place in a single location (a house, a school-turned-hospital, a city block, and another house). There are even handy shortcuts to quickly transition to the next screen when you’ve already explored that location, which is a nice alternative when you have to backtrack a lot.

So is it scary? Um… sometimes. It’s not the most frightening thing I’ve ever played, and these days I have a pretty low bar for being too scared to play on, but there are a few scenes that made me jump or recoil. A few unexpected smash cuts or creepy things or what have you. I wasn’t too much on edge, as Devitt can’t die or be harmed, so the threat of death isn’t so much present as a cracked doorway into insanity.

The real star is not the visuals, but rather the sound design. The minimalistic music, the odd noises, the use of loud chords at dramatic moments, all of this had a deep impact as I was wearing earphones. One episode even ended with a black screen and nothing but the sound of dirt being shoveled on top of the coffin that trapped you. It was highly effective.

I found myself intrigued and enjoyed what the team did with the art style and the gradually unfolding tale. I suppose my greatest complaint is that the narrative doesn’t really move forward that quickly nor is it resolved by the end of the first game (there’s a whole “Hey, come play the second game to find out what happens!” cliffhanger here, which I did not appreciate even though I own the second game). There are several abstract weird moments that are never explained or put into context, as well as a few moments where scary things happen just to be scary, I guess.

For about two hours of play, The Last Door delivered on an interesting enough experience that I didn’t feel cheated out of the 99 cents that I spent on it, and if that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is. Now I guess I’ll have to dip into the sequel, if only to find out how all this ends.

WoW Classic: My kingdom for a dead kobold

I couldn’t resist. I really couldn’t. With all of the World of Warcraft Classic chatter these days and my fired-up imagination as to what I might play come August 27th, I saw the opportunity to jump into the stress test beta last week and took it. As I told myself, it was just to satisfy my curiosity and answer those questions that every WoW fan is asking in regards to this project — Is this actually as fun as we remember? Is it way too hard? Where should my expectations be?

And to my delight, yes, it was as fun as I remembered. It’s this bizarre mixture of a more relaxed WoW experience than the one the game’s slowly morphed into since 2004 and a heavy dose of nostalgia. I don’t think any previous vanilla player can hear that classic login theme without his or her brain injecting serotonin to every extremity of the body.

I went ahead and rolled up a race/class combo that I had no interest in playing — in this case, a Human Paladin — and jumped back in time.

Of course, this being a stress test, I had no illusions that I was going to log in to the Northshire Abby and see maybe one other player running way, way off in the distance. No, it was wall-to-wall chunky humans, smothering the landscape with their level 1 noobness. Lag was also a bad issue the first night, and for a while there I couldn’t even accept a quest. That was fine, this was more a fact-finding mission than an actual push to make progression.

From the music to the graphics to the slowly revealing quest text, this was 2004-era WoW as I remember it. There were a few features that I immediately missed, such as the quest tracker automatically updating (having to do it manually is really annoying) or seeing quest markers on the minimap. Even having no idea where that mob is that I tab-targeted because it doesn’t show a direction made me trip and stumble.

The one that really caught me off guard was the fact that there was no buyback option in the vendor, a fact that I woke up to after I accidentally sold a quest reward weapon that I needed for an upgrade. Oopsies.

As all of the quest mobs in the newbie zone were being overcamped like you would not believe, I formed a group of level 1s that left that sanctuary to the wider forest in the hopes that we could tackle level 5 and 6 mobs as a group. Turns out that we could, although pulling more than one or two ended up wiping us. The Defias Brotherhood has teeth once more.

I guess if I had to describe the whole experience, it really would be “relaxed.” You just have to downshift to get into the groove of slower combat, slower leveling, more steps to getting things done, slower money making, and so on. Without feeling rushed, I had a great time just grabbing my two coppers and crossing my fingers for some grey drops that would actually be useful gear. Never saw a bag drop, though. Pity me.

This poor wolf is the epitome of every mob in the beginner zones during that 48-hour test.

So this was a pleasant surprise. You see, way back in 2004, I bought the WoW collector’s edition, which has since turned out to be a nice investment for the pet collector me. I didn’t expect it, but lo and behold, when I logged into Classic, I got that special quest to grab my pick of one of three pets. As a result, I was the only character running around Northshire Abby with a pet following me. That got me more than one curious tell.

I always went panda out of the three pets, by the way. I love that he falls asleep while I’m fighting.

By the afternoon of the second day — and five levels later — I felt as though my curiosity had been well and fully addressed. Yeah, this is pretty fun stuff right here, and there’s this thrilling current of excitement from everyone playing that gets you all sorts of pumped up. How long this feeling — or a lesser but still content emotion — will endure, I have no idea, but now I am eagerly anticipating the launch far more than I was before.

Here’s a list of great & active MMO blogs to follow

It’s been about a year, year and a half since I’ve last updated the Bio Break blogroll, and once again I wish that WordPress had the widget that Blogger does to automatically link the most recent articles posted on various sites. Instead, I have to painstakingly comb through my old blogroll to remove inactive sites, explore other people’s blogrolls to see if there are any sites I’ve missed, and keep an eye on Feedly to see if there’s a previously inactive site that’s since come back to life.

Anyway, here is the current list that’s done to the best of my abilities. All of these blogs meet the following criteria: They’re blogs about MMOs (at least in part), they’re active (having at least once post since April 2019), and they’re not news aggregators. I tried to be as lenient as I could, but I do want a blogroll that is useful for readers looking for current conversations and essays, so it’s important to me to prune away retired blogs. That said, I was happy to see some sites return to this list and many others join it for the first time.

Here are some blogs you should read, and if there are ones that I’m missing, please let me know!

City of Heroes: A Massively OP production

Mark this as a record for Massively OP: This is, to my knowledge, the first time we ever had this many staff members show up to play — and stream — an MMO together. Our eight-person crew had been planning for the better part of a week to do a livestream of the resurrected City of Heroes, and last Wednesday we did just that.

It’s always tricky coordinating that many people’s schedules, not to mention the fact that a few of the team were completely new to the game itself. Yet it went off almost without a hitch, up to and including functioning as a team during missions. Sure, if we were really professional we would have had a solid tank and a dedicated healer, but we made it work with our slapdash combination of archetypes and powersets.

Of course, before the mayhem and carnage could begin, there was a bit of waiting to do — and whenever there’s waiting in City of Heroes, there are IMPROMPTU DANCE PARTIES. Plop that boombox down and get FUNKY, my friends. Nothing like people in skintight spandex spasming in an approximation of dance moves.

We ran Death from Below once, which I could do sleeping now. At least with the chatter I felt engaged in the group, if not the mission. Past that, we took on a couple of door missions through the time-honored office and warehouse maps. Bree jacked up the difficulty on the first one and threw in the Tsoo as enemies, which meant that we were dealing with some nasty crowd control almost all the way through.

There were… a lot of deaths. And I was quickly reminded of two City of Heroes staples that I hadn’t quite encountered in this return yet. The first was that when everyone’s firing off abilities — friend and foe alike — and there are all of these buffs and debuffs going, the screen turns into this horrid mess of special effects that makes it practically impossible to really see and understand what’s going on.

The second reminder was how fleeing to elevators was a tried-and-true tactic to avoiding party wipes. Get in over your head or pull too many mobs? Get thine buttocks to a lift, stat! This is kind of a snap judgment call that requires at least one eye on the battlefield and one on the team’s health meters to see if there’s a good shot for victory or a wipe.

All in all, it was a hoot of a time, and if you’re interested, you can watch the full 90-minute livestream on our channel.

DDO: Sleepless nights and memory lapses

That right there is the most beautiful sight in all of Dungeons and Dragons Online, because you know that when you see it, you have been or are about to be blessed with a bounty of sweet, sweet loot!

So first up on this week’s trio of DDO quests was Mirra’s Sleepless Nights, which takes place in House J. Mirra is having a hard time sleeping due to all of the disturbing scratching going on in her basement, and instead of investigating, she just weathers it until I show up. Turns out that it’s her long-lost brother, who was trying to get a handle on some unspeakable evil and then got killed and turned into a wraith. Poor dude. At least he’s pretty happy when I put him out of his misery.

And can I tell you how excited I get when I see a rare quest like this these days that’s only “medium” length? I haven’t seen a medium or short quest in a long time, and I do love them. It’s not that I hate playing these missions, but that a shorter mission means that I don’t have to fret so much about getting really far into it and dying or finding myself stuck in a multi-hour quagmire of questing. It’s going to be 20 minutes or less, guaranteed. That’s perfect.

And speaking of medium-sized missions, here comes Memory Lapse! This is one of the more creative quests I’ve seen in the game, throwing me into the mind of a spell-addled wizard. I’ve got to comb his library-like memories for a series of books he needs to be able to pull off a speech. There are several amusing and downright cool areas, such as one place where you get to ride oversized books across the open air. I even got a named hat out of the place that gave me permanent True Seeing, which is absolutely fine by me.

Kind of a Big Deal is one of those quests that you want to hold up to others when you’re evangelizing about DDO. It’s creative and fun in a way that most MMO missions aren’t, and I love how even this second time around, it left me smiling long afterwards with its absurdity.

I mean, when a magical artifact starts making all of these kobolds and minions super-huge, that makes for an interesting mission. The trip through the kobold warren is trippy enough with that, but then when you factor in a couple of over-the-top trap rooms (including one with about two dozen dart traps and another one with loads of rolling boulders), it ups the ante. But the best is at the end when you get to turn large yourself…

…and watch all the kobolds freak out and run away from you in terror. Going back through the cave as a plus-sized adventurer changes the perspective significantly and shows how much thought the designers put into this cheeky run.

SWTOR: Wrath and ruin

And with that, I’ve started the next expansion in SWTOR — Knights of the Eternal Throne. Fingers crossed for fewer skytroopers, more choices, and a slightly better story. I’m prepared to go off the rails if the game lets me, but I know how BioWare corrals us. I’ll see what I can do to push against the boundaries.

Gotta say, I just *love* these title cards. Always gives me slight chills and lends a weight to each chapter. Also feels like progress.

So anyway, Eternal Throne opens up about six months after Fallen Empire ended. My side, the Alliance, has more resources at our disposal, but Vaylinn and SCORPIO wield not inconsiderable power on the titular throne. At the start here, they’ve placed Voss under attack for unknown reasons, and the Alliance is doing everything they can to hold them off. I vaguely remember Voss from way back in the day. I think the people here have a distinct smell? And one hit on me? That’s about it for my recollection.

Skytroopers or no, it’s a pretty impressive opening, full of eye-catching set pieces and things blowing the heck up. Doesn’t make a lot of sense for the singular commander of this entire space and ground armed force to be spearheading a small team like this, but I guess the game would be pretty boring if I was stuck in an office making big picture decisions and reading reports.

“Quick, everyone, pose for the box art! Good, I think we got it.”

Turns out that the reason the planet is under attack is that Senya took Arcann here to be healed, and his sister is not very happy about that. Can’t say that I care too much, seeing as how I’m really tired of the trope where a heartless monster who’s killed hundreds or millions is suddenly worth redemption without any consequences. I mean, save the guy, but lock him up too.

Eh. At least I got to pilot a walker for a while and one-shot stomp on skytroopers. That did wonders for my mood.

Senya gave (most of) her life to give Arcann a quick dose of healing when time grew short, and Arcann does his mother proud by fleeing her lifeless body and being nuts. Glad he’s coming around to our side.

At least the deceased emperor is talking a lot more now, and he’s urging me to seize the Eternal Throne for myself and become empress. You know what? Sure. Let’s do it. I’d make better decisions all around than most of these people, and I’ve had it with the Republic and the Sith. It’s like an independent voter looking at the Republicans and Democrats and going, let’s create a sane third party. VOTE SYP FOR GALACTIC EMPRESS IN 2019!