Posted in Lord of the Rings Online

LOTRO: Gladden Fields at last

If it wasn’t for the still-slightly-too-tough mobs, the Vale of Anduin would be a cinch for one of my top five destinations in Lord of the Rings Online. It’s pure eye candy from north to south with a heavy dose of book fanservice thrown in. As I’ve said many times before, a gorgeous zone can make gaming a delight whereas an ashen volcano one makes it torture.

So yeah, I’m not so eager to head back to Mordor. I guess it’s inevitable, though.

With my recent re-entry into World of Warcraft, my LOTRO time has suffered a little. I’m still getting in regular sessions, just not as long nor as driving. Sometimes you want to devour content, and sometimes you just nibble away at it one little bite at a time, you know?

I haven’t even gotten close to finishing the Vale yet. I got bogged down in one section where they had me return to (ugh) Goblin Town, only this time entering from the other side of the Misty Mountains. I felt it was unfair to have all the mobs be 120 when they certainly weren’t before. Can’t I just have the fun of steamrolling things at least once in a while?

Meanwhile, my poor Hobbit hasn’t seen proper daylight in a while, as she’s still pushing through Mirkwood on the legendary server. I really should be done with this zone by now, but I’m maybe, what, halfway through? And I have Enedwaith past this. I might need to get a move on or I might not actually be ready for Rise of Isengard when SSG unlocks that.

I’m way too far into this server to consider rerolling (and I do like my Minstrel very much, thank you), but the other day a Rune-keeper really made me reconsider my life choices. Seeing her blast mobs down far more quickly than I could shout them to death made me a little envious — as did her taunting totems/stones. I wouldn’t mind one of those, let me tell you.

One really nice aspect of going back through old and familiar content is that it gives you permission to treat it casually if you like. I’ve been catching up on some Netflix while stocking up on a pile of Mirkwood quests and then gradually (and somewhat mindlessly) mowing them down. I always like the feeling of being really efficient and getting two or more things done at once as long as my sanity is not sacrificed in the effort. Being able to walk away from an hour of gaming while having knocked out a dozen quests and watched a few shows, I feel that I haven’t wasted my time.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Online

DDO: Dance like no one’s watching

Dungeons and Dragons Online has a lot of bizarre and situational spells, but perhaps the most amusing of all these is Otto’s Irresistable Dance. Like the name implies, it makes the subject stop what they’re doing and boogie down, complete with a disco ball and little notes flitting around. Even though a boss was doing this to me in the final moments of a very long dungeon, I didn’t mind. I’m that easily amused.

Anyway, more House J quests for me today as I began with the super-lengthy The Enemy Within. On one hand, it was a tedious slog through an unmemorable crypt that took around 40 minutes to complete. On the other hand, it was straight-forward and nothing I couldn’t handle, even with some dancing thrown in to the mix. Fighting some mind flayers at the end proved to be a bit of an interesting challenge, even.

Continuing with the “dead things are bad, kill them again” theme, I went into an oversized tower that a wizard lich decided to conjure up in a graveyard. I do appreciate how the lich used backlit Roman numerals to mark off each of his floors.

Actually, most of And the Dead Shall Rise is a well done mission that checks a lot of buttons for me in the way that the previous mission didn’t. The tower boasts an interesting design with some unique elements and it keeps changing things up from floor to floor.

In fact, one encounter made me laugh out loud when a whole bunch of random ghosts and spectres rushed me — and then a giant gelatinous cube launched itself out of nowhere to absolutely dominate the hallway. Like, where were you staying, pal? Are you visiting socially or is this your home? I have so, so many questions.

I wrapped up this jaunt through the Haunted Library, which might have been haunted but was a library in the same way that a parking garage is a garden. I missed seeing the last chest I needed for a quest reward and spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to backtrack — which included using a precious jumping potion to try to jump back up broken stairs (which did not work) and then exiting and reentering to see if there were rooms I hadn’t explored. Thank goodness for DDO Wiki, which provides fairly helpful maps in situations like this.

Posted in World of Warcraft

Making up for lost time in World of Warcraft

So if the starter pistol for an expansion sends the Day One crowd down the street on their two-year marathon, then by the end of the first hour I’m always hopelessly behind the pack. I’m like that well-intentioned but out-of-shape dude who thinks he can run a marathon just because he thinks that this’ll be different than all the other times in the past.

Now imagine how far behind I am after taking an eight-plus month break. I’m still on the first stretch while the pack is, oh, on the other side of the planet. When I logged back in and started pecking away at my quest log, I realized I was doing mere zone quests that I hadn’t finished up before leaving last time. That’s how far away I am from catching up.

But here’s the thing about World of Warcraft: Patches and expansions come at such a slow rate that even the tortoise can get to the finish line with plenty of time to spare. So I don’t worry so much about everyone being in the Patch 8.2 zones. Instead, I just focused on one goal at a time, which initially was about cleaning up my quest log and doing world quests for gear upgrades and rep.

That actually worked surprisingly well. I went from feeling overwhelmed and sort of lost on Day One of my return to getting back into a good shape by Day Four. My ilevel went from an embarrassingly low number to 392. Even better, I formulated a plan of attack to start working on the numerous reps that I needed for allied races and flying.

This tortoise is going places, baby.

I still find myself absurdly delighted over some of the visuals from the Alliance zones in this expansion. Blizzard’s art team is always so good at creating striking sights out of vivid colors and exaggerated designs.

One thing I haven’t done much of in this expansion is transmog. I’m still wearing all of my Legion outfits (I’m not a huge fan of most of the BFA gear visuals I’ve seen so far). I did find a new guild which promised to do some transmog hunting, so I’m down for that.

I need this bumblebee mount. I don’t think I’ll be doing much more in the way of island expeditions, but I do like the thought of engaging in activities that pay out in “fun” rewards like toys, pets, and mounts. I heard that the new zones have tons of these, so I’m excited to see it.

In other news, the Elf Tree is still burning. Lots of ash coming off of that one, so don’t breathe for the next four months if you want to keep your lungs.

Oh! So WoW is always making me laugh, and there was a short chain of quests that highly amused me as of late. It was a few tall-talking sailors each spinning some sort of over-the-top yarn, and I got to play through all of them. No great rewards or anything, but they were pretty amusing, from the giant octopus fight to the great land shark battle.

Posted in Music

Sunday Serenade: Twisted Metal, Ulchero, Doom, and more

So new/returning feature here at Bio Break — a “for fun” Sunday music playlist with random songs that I listened through and enjoyed from the week previous. Some of these will be video games, but not all.

“Main Theme” from Twisted Metal — I remember these games being insane demolition derbies that I could never quite master. This theme is 80s hair metal gonzo and does an effective job giving off the energy of the matches to come.

“Level Up” by Ulchero — I subscribe to a few copyright-free music channels, and there are a surprising number of catchy little ditties on them. Like this one, for example. Just upbeat and peppy. It’s the kind of music I need some days, nothing too complicated.

“Sweet Little Dead Bunny” from Doom — Can a song be both cute, disturbing, and all-out rock? If it’s from Doom, I guess so! At least this had me chuckling a bit.

“Slave to the Passion” from UltraBoss — I do love me some “retro wave” (modern tunes done in the style of the 1980s), and this one caught my ear for how sincerely cheesy it was. Listening to it, you can imagine this as an end credits song for some sports romance comedy film, can’t you?

“Underground Theme (Super Mario Bros.)” from Super Smash Bros. Ultimate — This is a funky, poppy twist on a very familiar theme. Makes for great background listening.

“Underworld (Kid Icarus)” from Super Smash Bros. Ultimate — I really liked this rearrangement of the classic Underworld theme. Jazzed it up, it did.

“Truth” from Vagrant Story — Never really listened to this OST before, but this track caught my attention for its relaxing trance-like atmosphere. Kind of sounds like a queue to an EPCOT attraction.

“The Color of the Summer Sky (Secret of Mana cover)” by Patti Rudisill — I’ve recently become absorbed in the Secret of Mana OST, and this is an absolutely beautiful cover of one of the game’s most famous themes.

Posted in Retro Gaming

Retro Gaming: Warcraft II

I’ve been going on a bit of a retro RTS kick lately, and one of the first stops on that tour had to be the game that — alongside C&C Red Alert — was one of the most instrumental in sucking me into this genre.

Released in 1995, Warcraft II helped to establish Blizzard as a powerhouse studio rather than a firm that did the random console title. Everyone, just everyone, played this game. It was far more polished and full featured than 1992’s Dune II, one of the first popular real-time strategy games. Even my wife confessed to playing this a lot as a teenager, which gave her a shock when she saw that I had purchased this through GOG and installed it on my computer.

So with years of World of Warcraft under my belt and over two decades since playing this game, how does Warcraft II hold up in 2019? What is it like, looking at it backwards through the lens of WoW? I was dying to find out.

While Warcraft II didn’t really do much new — it had multiplayer LAN, it had a long solo campaign, it spawned an expansion — it soared due to its art style, polished play, and personality. Really, those three factors are Blizzard’s defining qualities, and it’s interesting to see it even back then. It’s also interesting in how some of the buildings and troops look familiar to the WoW style (even as sprites) while others are far more fantasy-generic or alien to WoW entirely.

The first thing I noticed when playing through the Orc campaign was that Warcraft II hails from an earlier era of RTS where all of the controls were on the left side of the screen, which left a much reduced play field over on the right. It’s usable but restrictive. In fact, almost everything here is more primitive and clunky — moreso than expected. There are no tooltips. No ways to tell troops coming out of buildings to assemble at a certain point. Not a lot of in-game explanations about how buildings help certain units or provide other bonuses until after you make them.

It wasn’t hard to figure out how it all worked, just a little frustrating how old it felt. I was actually surprised that I could make battle groups with CTRL+number keys, and a little let down by how slow and stilted the animations and fighting looked. I mean, again, it’s all functional. Just not as smooth as you’d expect.

That said, there’s a lot to enjoy here. It’s still a good time to build up a base and establish dominance over a portion of the world. There’s a *ton* of personality, from the art of the buildings to the fluffy sheep to the vocal quotes of each unit (“zug zug” always gets me).

I think what was the hardest to adjust to was how painfully slow a match progressed. It simply took forever to get a town and army built up, and more often than not I was standing there waiting for enough resources to stack up to fund the next project. After about six missions, I felt that I had gotten out of this game whatever experience I wanted. It didn’t leave me desperate for more, is what I’m saying.

Other than design due to its age, the only criticism I have of Warcraft II is how Blizzard felt that adding ships and naval combat was an important twist on the Warcraft formula. I didn’t like this back then and I certainly do not now. Ships aren’t fun nor feel as immersive as fantasy ground units, and yet so many of the missions forced me to deal with them. It’s annoying as all get out to have to build up a shipyard, pump oil, construct a transport ship, then load up units just to move them from one portion of the map to another.

It was fine to play this for curiosity’s sake, but in retrospect, my $12 or so could’ve been spent better elsewhere. At the very least it highlighted how much of a jump the 3D realm was for Warcraft III and all of the successive design decisions that the new decade brought.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Online

DDO: The plague doctor is in!

As I continue through the Disciples of Rage adventure pack in House J, I’ve gone from bad news to worse. Not only has the entire city been infected by the rage plague, but so have I — which means that simply interacting with NPCs is difficult without getting into fights. It’s kind of interesting to have a personal interest in the quest chain, and with that in mind, I head out to the outskirts of town to find my old friend Brawnpits the giant and ask for his help in formulating a cure.

Brawnpits, you might recall, was a giant who wanted to become an actor, and I helped him with his aspirations:

He’s not that pleased to see me or with his thespian life, but oh well, he owes me. In The Madness of Crowds, Brawnpits and I work on a shamanistic cure, although it doesn’t really end up working so much as delaying the effects of the madness. At least the quest amused me with the frequent mentions of how bad the giants smelled — the DDO writers must have had a lot of fun trying to come up with new ways to convey odors through text.

At least I’m able to take the fight to the Disciples of Rage in the Age of Rage mission. With their headquarters exposed by a nameless informant, I slip inside a warehouse and start doing what I do best — mindlessly rampaging all over the place.

Seriously. That’s the mission. Because I’m “infected” by the rage, one of the mission objectives is to destroy something like 75 random objects around the place. I’m not normally one for smashing things up in DDO missions — even though you get a bonus at the end — but here it is mandatory. Also mandatory? Avoiding numerous bear traps (and associated bears) and destroying the Book of Madness and a beholder that was guarding it. Really neat and nice-sized mission, all the way through.

In the final mission of this pack, Toxic Treatment, a deus elf machina shows up in the form of a Drow with interesting information. Turns out that his tribe has a cure for the rage virus, and we could use it to cure everyone in the town suffering from nonstop anger.

Wow. I mean… wow. For the first time in my life, an ELF shows me what true compassion and mercy is. Does this mean… that I must abandon my prejudice and embrace these pointy-eared saviors who granted such relief out of the goodness of their…

Hahahaha no, it’s elves, which means that they couldn’t care less that everyone is suffering or dying, because they’re not going to give up their precious cure until I prove myself “worthy” by going through three trials, each more annoying than the last. Thanks, you jerks. I’ll think of you as I go through these mazes, play simon says for some reason, and battle umber hulks. Heck, even after I get to the temple and clear it out of invading Disciples and another beholder, the Drow has the nerve to lecture me that I led them to the temple and it’s all my fault they went murdery on the elves.

You know what, dude? You could’ve just given me the cure outright. If I had to do it all over again, I would have sent an e-vite to all of the Disciples to come visit your village and teach you a shred of humility.

Elves. Pah.

Posted in World of Warcraft

Is World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth really that bad?

There’s a period after when you return after a long break to an MMO you used to love that I call “Rediscovery.” During this phase, you’re not only trying to remember what the heck you were up to and how the game’s changed during your absence, you also rediscover many of the elements you used to love, became quite accustomed to, and subsequently stopped noticing. It’s why I advocate taking a break from MMOs from time to time, if just to “refresh” that perspective.

So over the last week or two, I’ve been going through a nice period of rediscovery for World of Warcraft, and more specifically, Battle for Azeroth. I had left last October after burning out a couple months into the new expansion, feeling both overwhelmed at the grind and underwhelmed by the direction and features. I think I needed that, as I had been playing more or less nonstop for two-and-a-half years before that point.

And with a somewhat negative exit alongside of many others who were very vocal with expressing their displeasure over the expansion, it kind of got cemented into my mind that BFA is terrible. Coming back, I can’t say that’s the case, and while it’s trendy to bash BFA these days, I’m also seeing that it’s not as bad as some of the hysterics have made it out to be. It’s no Cataclysm, and it’s not suffering the content drought of Draenor, that’s for sure.

I’m not here to defend BFA, because it certainly does have flaws that need addressing, whether in this xpack or the next. But I do see that there is a lot to be enjoyed — the visuals, the story (yeah, I do like how Blizzard is telling tales these days), multiple paths to obtaining desirable rewards, the music, sleek combat, and so on. Patch 8.2 seems to be a net positive for the game, with a couple of additional zones, mount equipment, and flying. I think we might get one more mid- or large-sized content update past this, but chances are that this is about it for BFA. Blizzard’s probably super-eager to turn the page and start on a new expansion in the hopes of righting some of the wrongs here and getting the faithful back.

Still, I’m having a good time, and that feels weird since so many people like saying how awful all this is. I think it’s a matter of comparison — it’s not as good as Legion in a lot of ways, not as popular as Wrath, not as innovative as… pretty much any expansion before it. But every time I turn the corner to see a gorgeous sunset or a house interior with vastly better lighting and decor than we ever got back in vanilla, I find myself softening in my attitude. When I can pick a couple small goals for a night and pursue them, whether they be quest lines, working on a particular rep, or just trying to get a gear upgrade, I appreciate the options.

So is BFA all that bad? Has it gotten better but the cool kids have moved on? I don’t know, but for the time being, this is where I’m planting my flag.

Posted in Music, Podcast

Battle Bards Episode 149: Istaria / Horizons

Is Istaria more than just “that game where you can play a dragon?” If it is, the answer might lie in its hidden repository of soundtrack tunes! The Battle Bards once again assemble to apply their dragonish wit, tenacity, and fire-scathing critiques to a largely undiscovered score. It’s more fun of an experience than you might expect, so come along for the ride!

Episode 149 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “Saris,” “Kirasanct Tundra,” and “Spirit Island”)
  • “Main Theme”
  • “Ancient Ruins”
  • “Mahagra”
  • “Eyes in the Garden”
  • “Tazoon”
  • “Aughundell”
  • “New Rachival”
  • Which one did we like best?
  • Listener mail from Buddy, Smuggler-in-a-yt, and Chris
  • Jukebox picks: “Rab the Wizard” from Dragon Quest XI, “At Night the Forest Sings” from Anno 1800, “Main Theme” from Legend of
  • Outro (feat. “Mystery Ancients”)
Posted in Try It Tuesday

Try It Tuesday: A Plague Tale

Two gameplay elements that I traditionally don’t like — and often moan at great length about — are escort quests and stealth segments. I don’t think I’m alone in that. So imagine that there’s a game that features a non-stop escort quest WITH nothing but stealth! That’d be the worst game ever, right?

Except, no, it’s not, at least when it’s A Plague Tale: Innocence. This one was picked up on my radar a couple months back due to the high volume of praise that it had been receiving, and after checking it out, I figured the story and setting were interesting enough to outweigh how the game itself plays. And that turned out to be largely true.

Set in slightly fantasized version of medieval France, A Plague Tale follows Amicia, a daughter of a well-to-do lord, who is thrust into a skittering flight from the Inquisition with her hardly-ever-seen little brother Hugo. Something’s both wrong and dangerous about Hugo that’s attracted the Inquisition, and they will stop at nothing to get to him.

To make matters worse, the Black Death has broken out, except in this version of history, it’s called the Bite, and it comes by swarms of man-eating rats that burst out of the ground everywhere and are only thrwarted by light and fire. So, Inquisition on one side, rats on another, and a scared teen and a little kid running through it all. That makes for a compelling framework.

While A Plague Tale isn’t going to make me love escort or stealth missions, at least it incorporated both with a minimum of frustration. Generally, Amicia is not able to deal with challenges head-on, so she has to use her sling (and its various types of ammo) and environment to trick guards, distract rats, and creep around threats. It’s possible to kill the soldiers, but it’s not that easy and not always advisable.

The game is a journey of a thousand smaller parts, with each part being an environmental puzzle or situation to overcome. How do I get through the barn to the rafters? How do I outrun the guards? How do I use lit mirrors to channel rats? The game gradually gives more and more tools to use, but always at a measured pace so that it’s not that overwhelming. What’s even better is that there are often more than one way to beat a section, so I always felt like I was rewarded for my own choices rather than figuring out the one path to success.

I was hoping for a stronger story, something in the line of an adventure game, but really A Plague Tale’s narrative mostly rests on what’s around you — snippets of conversations from guards, sights both disgusting and beautiful, muttered comments from Amicia, and the occasional dialogue between characters. I wasn’t really in love with the idea of lugging Hugo around for the whole game, especially since he tends to freak out if you leave him behind. It’s Babysitting: the Dark Ages in parts.

What really gripped me was how much detail is paid to the setting and this vision of a world coming apart from an apocalypse of sorts. We’re very used to modern day apocalypses in our media these days, but having one set in old timey France is fascinating. It’s not accurate for what really happened, of course, but I think that once we accept that a form of magic is operational in this game, we can go with almost anything else.

Good stuff. I play in little spurts here and there and am hoping to have it beaten within a week or two. I give this the Syp Seal of Approval.

Posted in Lord of the Rings Online

Has LOTRO avoided the over-complexity trap?

On nights that I play Lord of the Rings Online, I’ll usually flip between my progression server character (a level 62 Minstrel in Southern Mirkwood) and my regular server adventurer (a level 120 Lore-master in Vale of Anduin). There are factors I like about each class and the setting they are in (and a few that I don’t), but one thing that I’ve really started to notice as of late is… just how similar they both feel in terms of progression and complexity.

What I mean is that in most MMOs, as you go up in levels and expansions, you start dealing with additional systems that have to be dealt with if you’re going to develop and build out your character to his or her fullest. So at max level, what you’re doing is significantly different than cruising along at mid-levels, and as such, the game feels like it has changed (for better or worse) than what it used to be.

Yet I don’t really get that in LOTRO. Sure, various patches and expansions have added some well-intentioned progression systems over the years, most notably skirmishes, epic battles, and warsteeds. But you’ll notice that those can be ignored after their mandatory bits in the epic books. Really, the only additional progression system that’s lasted is the legendary item one, and even that fades away once you get a good weapon maxed out at the cap.

What is left at the top of the game is the same as much of the journey through: questing, epic storyline chapters, the option to run dungeons/skirmishes/raids, a little bit of reputation grinding, deed hunting for virtue ranks, and maybe crafting, if you’re into that. Actually, I really like that LOTRO hasn’t grown significantly top-heavy. Sure, every so often I wish that we’d get something new and exciting to help advance our characters again, but I know that those systems are often abandoned and undersupported, so it’s a cautionary wish.

For me, I like that I can log into Vales of Anduin and continue the same type of gameplay that I’ve been enjoying for over a decade now. The relaxed pace of questing is highly enjoyable to me and helps me slow down and enjoy the sights and the measured combat and mission objectives. And the game’s even avoided making me the Single Greatest Hero Middle-earth Has Ever Known, which is a terrible trap many MMOs stumble into. I mean, I’m *a* good hero, but I’m hardly the only one, and I’m never above having to prove myself time and again while going on smaller adventures that are strangely more fun than large-scale battles.

Do you feel this way? Am I looking at this from the wrong angle? It’s just a random line of thought, but I suspect that it might be helping the long-term health of the game more than many people suspect.