The 10/10 Project: Day 7 (Neocron 2)

DarkmetalI have this weird fascination with Neocron that I can’t quite explain.  I think it’s one of those early MMOs that slipped under everyone’s radar, had an interesting development history, and continues to stay almost-invisible in the MMO landscape despite being a mature-themed cyberpunk game.  It’s currently community-run as a pure free-to-play title now that Reakktor Media folded, and I think there’s a Neocron 3 in the works somewhere.

Anyway, trying Neocron out was scatching a huge personal itch of curiosity.  Signing up and downloading it wasn’t that difficult; the client size is much smaller than these modern MMOs.

I set the display size to my desktop resolution, which was probably a mistake.  Neocron first came out in 2002, so it’s more or less skewed toward smaller window sizes.  Making the game into a huuuuge field meant that all of the text and UI elements were tiny beyond belief.  I seriously got a headache just trying to read everything.

Most of my first night in it was going through the tutorial.  That’s not because I was lazy; the tutorial is pretty darn lengthy and an adventure in and of itself.  I created a preacher/monk/psi warrior — I was a little confused as to my exact class, because I kept having to pick a new one as the character creator progressed.  The physical features of my avatar were pretty limited, although I soon discovered that it didn’t really matter because the game puts you in first-person mode.

So let’s start with the obvious: Neocron is a chunky little game, graphics-wise.  Factoring in the first-person mode with the graphics, I was getting huge flashbacks to the original Half-Life, System Shock, and Deus Ex.  Really, the best way to describe the game is as a mixture of those three.  It felt a lot more like a shooter than your typical RPG anyway.  The tutorial was a combination of navigating the environment, learning to interact with the world, and hoovering up all sorts of gear.

There’s some story about mutilated corpses that you’re investigating — I guess mutants are doing a little food shopping for their stew — which took place in teeny tiny dialogue windows.  What I really wanted was to get to the shootin’, and I was frustrated for a while trying to figure out just how to do that.  I had a backpack full of cool gear and no obvious way to equip them.  The armor screen just showed armor slots and right-clicking on weapons to “use/activate” did nothing.  Then I saw numbered boxes over on the right side of the screen and realized that those were for the weapons and usable items.

That’s when things got a lot more fun.  I dragged everything usable from my backpack over to those slots, from grenade launchers to assault rifles to a little psionic hand thing to a flashlight.  Swapping between usable items was easy from then on out, and I really dug approaching each situation with a different weapon instead of the same-old, same-old.  My favorite was this pulse rifle that took a second or two to fully lock on to a target (if you shoot too soon, the shot would usually go wild) and then knock them down with a satisfying thunk.  Speaking of the weapons, the animations on them were pretty well-done, especially when reloading them.

The remainder of the tutorial was blasting the crud out of everything and anyone.  It truly did remind me of slightly older FPSes.  I wasn’t a huge fan of how the camera bobbed back and forth while moving — maybe there’s a way to turn that off, but it started to get me seasick.

So toward the end of the tutorial I found a room with police guys in it and said, hey, this would be a terrific opportunity to test out my grenade launcher.  No sooner did I click on the mouse button then the police turned me into a fine pulpy patte.  Game over in the tutorial?  That’s kind of new.

Actually, I think that was supposed to happen.  I woke back up in a government facility of some kind where a guy told me that a “beloved leader” (was I in North Korea?) owned me now and I had to prove my loyalty.  With dismay I saw that all of my nifty weapons and items were gone.  I guess those were just for the tutorial, but it really sapped my enthusiasm to have my beloved pulse rifle taken away.

So I ignored the instructions to go here, do this, and instead made a bolt for the outside.  Neocron takes place in a post-apocalyptic earth with just a couple mega-cities, so the outside was pretty gross.  And blocky.  And chunky.  It was Anarchy Online with a serious brown palette.

I spent a half-hour or so wandering the wasteland without any usable gear and feeling somewhat lost.  Maps?  I guess the game doesn’t need them.  Maybe it has them, but I didn’t see one.

Would I play it again?  Hm.  No, but not because of any fault of the game itself.  I love cyberpunk settings and despite the aged graphics, there’s obvious substance here.  No, I wouldn’t play it again mostly because of time factors and the fact that it’s not really being supported by any company.  Investing time into a game without knowing if it’s going to evaporate tomorrow is a daunting proposition.

The 10/10 Project: Day 6 (MapleStory)

cannonI think it’s fairly safe to assume that I don’t “get” MapleStory.  Sometimes that happens with the divide between the East and West when games are ported over.  There are plenty of MMO staples over in Asia that aren’t as common here, and I guess a UI that looks like a cat barfed up menu options all over the place is one of them.

My interest in trying MapleStory was that we have so few 2D side-scrolling MMOs and I was genuinely curious if this title might make a good tablet port in the future.  It’s easier to control 2D than 3D on tablets/iPhones in my opinion, and Glitch won’t be delivered to us in this universe.  Universe D, now there’s the lucky gits.

So let’s start with the good, because there’s precious little of it.  MapleStory’s look has a certain cartoony pop to it that is more engaging than annoying (in my opinion).  It’s a step or two above flash, has plenty of primary colors going on, and is fairly well-drawn.  The class choices also looked pretty interesting, and I went with a cannoner because the description said it came with a monkey.  That would sell me on just about any class, really.  “Janitor class?  Eh… I don’t know.  But it does come with an orangutan!  OK, I’m in.”

That’s where it stops, because there’s a high wall of ugly and unwieldy to overcome before any “fun” is to be had.  The download uses (sigh) Pando Media Booster, there are about six options when making your character that I had no idea what they meant, and when I finally got to playing my character, my class was nowhere to be seen.  I was Mr. Explorer, level 1, with a microphone (?) as a weapon.

The control scheme is so odd, too.  You use your right hand to control the cursor for movement, with the left handling jump, attack, and interact (ctrl, alt, and Z, I think).  But then you’ll need your mouse plenty, so my right hand had to keep moving back and forth.  My character didn’t really control that well anyway.  Jumping and attacks felt really off, and by the time that the game allowed me to finally start whaling on the cutest little stars that you’ve ever seen, I was terminally bored of trying.

I guess this is supposed to appeal to kids, but there are way, way too many buttons and menus at the bottom to make it as kid-friendly as, say, Wizard101 or Free Realms.  The dialogue, however, was right up your alley if you could only read at a third-grade level.  It’s just cheesy and simplistic and about half of it was a monkey saying “Ook!” at me.  And the chat window was one line?  I gave up trying to figure out this UI.

Ultimately what was disappointing is that I just wanted to get right in the game and start blasting things with a cannon.  It felt like MapleStory kept holding me back from that point for a while, and when it did give me a little slack, it was to whap stars with a microphone.  I was led to believe that the game was a lot cooler than that by the screenshots I’ve seen over the years.  Maybe it would be if I persevered, but first impressions count and this one turned me off.

Would I play it again?  Bwahahahaha.  What was the question?

The 10/10 Project: TERA, no, Book of Heroes (Day 5)

bookYou know what’s the very definition of “not fun?”  When you spend the better part of a day downloading a 28-gig client only to have it not function whatsoever.  It was actually going well with TERA up to that point: The registration was easy, the download started right away, and the downloader had a nice array of tools and information going on.  It was only at the end, when I logged in and saw the bright “PLAY!” button that someone or something did a bodyguard “NOOOOOOOO!” and dove between me and the game, because clicking play did nothing.  Not a thing.

I got out of it, started again.  Nothing.  Checked my firewall, virus checker, etc, nothing.  Cleared out the launcher folder, re-downloaded just that, nothing.  Went online and saw dozens of threads about this, followed advice, nothing.  I have no idea what TERA was doing to my computer, either, because I could never find the actual game directory.  Where did it go?  Albania?  Perhaps.  But I’ll tell you one thing: When I’m just looking to give a game an honest try for an evening, there’s a limit to how many hoops I’m willing to jump through.  Not that I was salivating over TERA anyway.

So I uninstalled (from where?  Where was all this phantom data going and coming from?) and pondered.  I needed an MMO to check out and I didn’t have time to download a huge client.  Browser MMOs it would be, then, except that none really leaped out at me.  Some suggestions over twitter directed me toward interesting-looking text-based affairs, but most of those required an investment of multiple days (i.e. limited adventures per day).  So what?

I decided to take a recommendation from Shawn Schuster to check out a mobile title instead: Book of Heroes.  But you already knew that because you saw the headline above.  Clever girl.

Book of Heroes is a menu-driven RPG where you make a character (only three classes here, bub), go on quests, and mostly kill a lot of things.  Combat’s a bit strategic even though you’re just looking at static pictures of mobs.  I found myself figuring out different skill rotations for various fights and strongly considering how I should invest my skill points when I leveled up.  A little thought into fights is welcome.  Because hit points don’t regenerate between fights and sometimes you have to win several fights in a row without going back to a temple to heal up, minimizing damage and winning quickly is paramount.

It’s one of those games that gives you only a limited amount of energy for actions before having to wait for a timer to count down to give you more (or, y’know, pay money).  For the start, the amount of actions seemed pretty decent, about a 10-15 minute play session with a couple hours’ recharge time.  One nice little bonus is that if you leveled up, your energy level is reset.

I like how the game connects you to others.  There are guilds and chat, although the primary goal of both is to throw players into “raids” — areas where you are fighting at the same time alongside your guildies to see if collectively you can overcome a challenge.  The one time that I saw a guild raid I took part, and I liked knowing that I was contributing to the win.

Anyway, it’s a slick little game.  I appreciate that it gives me some no-nonsense bite-sized sessions, interesting combat, and a ton of things to do.  I kind of wish that loot acquisition was more than mostly money (I didn’t see a lot of gear drop in my time) and that there was more of a personality to the quests/NPCs/areas.  But overall, I enjoyed it.

Will I play it again?  More than I’ll be playing TERA, that’s for sure.

The 10/10 Project: Pirate101 (Day 4)

pirate101There are many things that I admire about KingsIsle and the studio’s approach to MMO design/delivery, but I got to say that after wrassling with Aion for the better part of a day to just get into the game, the ease of access into both of KingsIsle’s MMOs is sublime.  Signing up takes three or four fields.  Then a big, inviting “PLAY!” button starts loading the client, which lets you in after about a minute or so.  If that.  Pirate101 front-loads the tutorial while continuing to download the rest of the client in the background so that players can get in as quickly as possible.

It might not matter in the long run, but first impressions count, people.  And having an MMO bend over backwards to get me into playing it as quickly and painlessly as possible is a terrific first impression.

The good impression doesn’t end there.  Pirate101’s character creation and tutorial quickly shows off the game’s core strengths: vibrant colors and art design (which compensate for lower-polygon models), a goofy sense of humor, and easy to understand… everything.  Considering that the core demographic are youths, those are all musts, but they’re still appreciated by grown-ups.

Pirate101 is set in the same game universe as Wizard101, which I think is an intriguing setup.  The developers are keen to tell stories of the spiral that aren’t just about magic, and that leads to all sorts of speculation on future titles.  Anyway, the obvious focus here is on (kiddyfied) sky pirates who are putting the screws to the vaguely British-robotic Armada.  Like (oddly enough) Star Trek Online, the action is divided between ship combat and ground adventures, although I’m guessing there’s probably going to be a lot more of the latter.  While I found ship combat to be really simplistic, the ground combat is quite interesting.

Instead of the card battles of Wizard101, Pirate101 lets you control a small squad on a grid overlay of the current area.  You click to queue movement, attacks, and special abilities, and then the action is played out between the two sides.  It feels faster and more interesting than Wizard101, because your character is doing more than standing in a circle flinging spells.  Still, there is the annoying camera swooping that makes me a little nauseated, and if other players happen to jump into your battle, you could end up waiting a full half-minute between turns as everyone queues up the next actions.

I kind of like how there are footpaths to the sides of most zones that let you traverse them without triggering enemy encounters — that’s highly useful if  you need to go back over territory that you’ve already explored.  And popping open treasure chests after battle felt visceral and didn’t get old.

I can see a real attraction to collecting squad mates while building up effective combat units.  Each character (usually an animal) has an exaggerated personality and very flashy combat moves to boot, which makes for an entertaining time during fights.

Would I play it again?  After the chaos of PlanetSide 2, the frustrating blandness of Aion, and the slow pace of RuneScape, I’ve got to say that Pirate101 is leaps and bounds ahead of those three in tempting me to come back for another play.  It doesn’t feel like I have to be heavily invested into it, time-wise, to enjoy myself, and quick load times makes for a grin of approval.

It’s also hugely kid-friendly, and if my son was older, I think this would be a marvelous game to play with him.

That said, KingsIsle isn’t exactly super-generous with the free-to-play portion of Pirate101.  You hit the pay wall pretty early to access new areas, and considering how much else the cash shop is trying to sell, you’d think that the studio would want to keep players — even freeloaders — in it as long as possible.  Would I play it again?  Sure.  Would I pay for more of this?  I don’t think I would.

The 10/10 Project: PlanetSide 2 (Day 3)

ps2First of all, I want to give a shout-out to a few other bloggers who are joining me on what a commenter called a “speed-dating” trip through MMOs.  Why I Game, Mama Needs Mana, and Nerdy Bookahs are also trying out 10 MMOs they’ve never touched, so give ’em a read!

So next up on my 10/10 to do list was also the most recently released title that I picked: PlanetSide 2.  It’s at this juncture that we must discuss my history with FPS games.  I got hooked early on to Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, enjoyed Duke Nuke ‘Em 3D for a good while there, and even gave Unreal Tournament a run for its money.  But for me the FPS was never about PvP, just a different form of PvE, and as the online world started skewing more toward PvP in this area I gradually lost interest.  The last online FPS I played seriously was Battlefield 1942 (egads, was that really 11 years ago?), so if you’re assuming right now that PS2 has an uphill battle with me, you’d be right.

And I’ll go ahead and spoil the ending: My general lack of interest in FPSs and PvP led to a somewhat unenjoyable evening.  That’s why I give you the background first, because I don’t feel like this is a judgment against PlanetSide 2 at all.  In fact, it looks like a very polished (and pretty) shooter that gets you into the action quick and provides infinite scifi PvP.  It just wasn’t for me, and that’s OK.  My curiosity was sated and I’m glad I gave it a try.

So unlike most MMOs I’ve played, PlanetSide 2 isn’t big into (a) character customization and (b) tutorials.  I got to pick my faction (I went Vanu Sovereignty), one of like four heads, and a name… and was instantly thrown into the action.  And here I’m not talking about a “dip your toes into the water” type of action; it was more of a “two seconds after I poked my head out of the safety chamber I was fragged.”

The lack of overt instructions and weird placement of the UI (the map is on the lower-left corner?  Okayyy…) meant that I started floundering from the start.  But hey, mouse button means gunfire, right?  Might as well start spraying at everything that moves!

Well that did not end well, no it did not, not one bit.  Apparently friendly fire is a thing in this game, because PS2 started yelling at me to cut it out or it would lock my weapons.  “I’m not a griefer!” I yelled at the screen.  “I’m just an ignorant newbie who can’t tell the difference between all of the armor-clad goons running around in the dark!”

I guess you had to look for the (very tiny) symbol over the heads or the style of armor, so I stopped firing and just followed my teammates around while aiming in corners to put up a good front.  What were they doing?  I don’t know.  Were we capturing objectives?  I don’t know.  Why did we lose the facility?  I don’t know.  Did I just kill a bad guy?  I guess so.  Yippee.

So an average round for the game would be me running like a maniac, trying to kill someone, and almost always getting killed myself.  One of the reasons that I severely dislike FPSs is the first-person view.  It feels stiflingly claustrophobic, since you miss that peripheral/back view that you get from third-person perspectives, and I had to keep whipping the camera around like a jittery bunny to see around me.  That didn’t help with my nausea any.  Again, it’s a hazard of the genre, not PS2’s specific fault.

I did eventually jump on top of a tank and enjoyed a ride out into the middle of nowhere, at which point my driver disconnected and I realized that I wasn’t sure how to exit the tank.  After a quick trip to the keybindings menu, that got sorted out, and I took Mr. Tank for a joyride myself.  I definitely liked the feel of being in a vehicle versus on foot, although I couldn’t find any targets to shoot.

I wish I had better stories from this session, I do.  Truth be told, I just felt lost and dead.  I admired the visuals, the music, and little moments like air dropping into a facility, but I never felt like I was making a difference.

Will I play it again?  Nope.  Wasn’t expecting to, but always willing to be surprised and all that.  I’m sure this is gangs of fun for FPS fans, and SOE did seem to create a nice F2P title from the ground-up.

The 10/10 Project: Aion (Day 2)

Aion0001I know that I’ve not been kind to Aion in the (far, distant) past, but for the sake of this project, I was more than willing to put any past preconceptions aside and meet it on its own terms.  After all, one of the points of doing this is to broaden my horizons and try new things.  I don’t know many people who play Aion today, but back when there was a lot more chatter about it, I do remember enthusiasm for its looks and polish.

So while I put myself in as neutral of a state as possible, Aion itself apparently held a grudge against me.  Seriously, it was a day-long process just to get signed up and download the client.  For whatever reason, the NCsoft signup page really, really hated Firefox and wouldn’t let me use drop-down menus that were necessary for the forms.  After too much fiddling with that, a friend suggested a different browser, which did the trick.  Then came a gargantuan download which wasn’t helped by the fact that it got about 90% done before my computer halted it to tell me that, hey Syp, you’ve finally reached the limit on your 1TB hard drive.  So… delete programs, defrag, re-download… and I was in.

It really wasn’t worth the hassle.

It was pretty, sure.  It was polished, more or less.   It was also quite underwhelming.

Sure, some MMOs take a while to get rolling, but there’s got to be something that grabs you from the start to keep your interest — the story, the looks, the combat, the character system, something.  Here there was pretty much nothing.  Something that Aion couldn’t help is that I generally am not a fan of the Asian style of graphics, particularly character models.  I did give the game props that you could create really chunky or eensy-weensy characters if you so desired.

And none of it was really ugly, to be frank.  I’ve seen much worse-looking titles.  What I bumped into from the start is that the beginning zone (I went with the only-slightly-less-dark-than-the-good-guys faction) was really “busy” with its colors and textures.  It felt like there was too much to look at and my eyes grew fatigued making out what was important from what was in the background.

So what was a few hours with Aion like?  Very rote MMO gameplay.  I played a mage and thus juggled spells like fireballs and roots.  I clicked on mobs with marks over their heads, read the rather dull text, and dutifully did whatever they asked.  I know that this is 90% of what’s out there in the rest of the market, but without anything exciting that was hooking me in, it was just… boring.  Not bad, not unplayable, just boring.

It probably didn’t help that a level 2 mob killed me after I fought a third one in a row without pausing to heal up.  It’s been a long time since a wee little level 2 anything killed me, so that was somewhat of a novel experience.  I also haven’t seen that much blatant gold spam in quite a while either.

Would I play it again?  No way.  At least RuneScape was interesting and put some effort into its quests; this was pretty with little apparent substance.  Maybe it gets better later on.  Maybe flying is awesome and advanced classes are the bomb, yo.  But based on a first impression, I had no problems deleting Aion from my hard drive and not looking back.

The 10/10 Project: RuneScape (Day 1)

rs2To kick off my 10/10 project — 10 MMOs I’ve never played in 10 days — I decided to go back to a title that pioneered free-to-play and browser-based online gaming, RuneScape.  It’s amazing how long this game’s been out there and how popular it’s remained.

Making a new account and getting into the game was exceedingly easy.  Just an email address and password, then about a minute for a loading screen, and I was in.  I’ve got to say, that was a huge plus.

I guess RuneScape doesn’t really do classes so much as a skill-based system, so character creation was picking the visuals for my toon.  There’s only the option to be a human (boo) and the graphics, well, let’s talk about the graphics for a minute.  Even with so many years of development, RuneScape’s visuals still skew toward 1997-era PlayStation 3D blockiness.  Seriously, I haven’t seen this type of primitive chunky polygon design in a long, long time.  Whenever the game zoomed in on character faces it got downright ridiculous how bad it looked.

Yet there are two factors that overcome mere looks.  The first is that it allows a full-fledged MMO to run in a browser, and that ain’t nothing.  The second is that there is a ton — I mean, a ton — of personality in the animations.  It adds up to a cartoony feel that made me look at the game as a cartoony style, and that was that.  I was OK with the looks.

What I was less OK with, and never quite resolved, was how RuneScape handled.  It’s click-to-move with arrow keys moving the camera, either pulled back in an isometric view or swooped in to over-the-shoulder.  It felt slow and unresponsive to me, particularly movement but also whenever I’d ask the game to perform an action, as there’d be a second of lag.  Combat was also rather underwhelming, as I couldn’t really tell if my character was attacking with her magic staff or if her abilities were doing much at all.

But what I found is that RuneScape isn’t primarily a combat-centric MMO, which I guess I knew but didn’t really realize until just then.  The opening zone moves you through the different types of activities that your character can perform, including combat, gathering, and crafting, as you level up your various skills.  I had to outfit a soldier by making him a helmet and gloves, exercise my thieving skills on some snooty rich merchants, and fry up some crawfish for hungry soldiers.  Actually, aside from the opening scene and one point where I had to kill a cow, I wasn’t engaging in combat at all.  That felt different and not unwelcome.

What I probably liked most of all is the cheeky dialogue and sense of humor that ran through it all.  RuneScape made me chuckle at least twice in this first play session, and I was pleased that the NPCs had memorable personalities (and occasional voice-overs) instead of being boring cutouts.  At one point, the game had me deliver a poison pie to a fat jerk, and I had the option to listen in on him barfing everywhere or not.  Of course I did.

rs3

That’s another nice aspect: choices.  The game kept throwing me little choices, either in dialogue or actions, and it was quite effective in pulling me into the world.  Do I fire a baby troll out of a cannon or save it?  Saving it netted me a cute little pet, but I had to wonder what it would’ve been like to see that cannon fire.

Would I play it again?  The question I’ll ask myself at the end of these articles is if this initial foray into the game was intriguing enough to make me log in again.  With RuneScape, it’s probably a no.  The clunky controls are a big deal-breaker.  If I was a poor kid in the early 2000s with no other alternative, however, I could see myself getting into it.