Dreamfall Chapters brings home that classic Secret World feel

With Secret World effectively DIA and Secret World Legends a month out from launch, how do I get that Funcom fix? By going to Dreamfall Chapters, that’s how. Much of the TSW team had formed a new studio (Funcom subsidiary? I’m not quite clear on that) to work on the Longest Journey franchise, resulting in a pretty successful Kickstarter and a five-chapter adventure game.

While The Longest Journey is easily my most favorite adventure game of all time (and Dreamfall a decent follow-up), I was a little slow in playing this game. I’d bought it when the first chapter was released, then just sat on it because I’m allergic to playing episodic adventure games that aren’t yet fully released. Getting a “to be continued…” and then waiting a month or two for the next installment is frustrating and annoying; I’d rather play the whole thing in one go. So now that the game is complete (although they’re working on a final cut with a little bit more content and better graphics) and I’m jonesing for TSW, I figured it would be a good time.

As I mentioned, the DNA between Dreamfall Chapters and The Secret World is so close as to render the two games siblings. Using the same game engine (I assume), playing Simon Poole’s music, and having a semi-contemporary setting was making all of this feel like it was another level or something in TSW. And that’s a good thing! About the worst thing I can say about DC is that the graphics aren’t always the best, particularly on some of the talking heads, but most of the rest of it is as absorbing as Secret World at its best. Really good writing, setting, and characters so far (and some laugh-out-loud moments to boot). Plus, DC is taking a cue from Telltale and Life is Strange by featuring choices that come back to impact you later on, which is a good move.

I actually had to give myself a recap of what the heck happened in Dreamfall, because at this point it’s been about a decade since I played that. As DC opens, April Ryan’s corpse is being floated out into a river, Kian is in prison awaiting execution, and Zoe is in a coma, trapped in Storytime. The twin worlds of Arcadia and Stark are also in dire straits, with the fantasy realm of Arcadia under assault by anti-magic forces and Stark falling into totalitarian dystopia. This cliffhanger led to my dissatisfaction with Dreamfall, so I was hoping for better resolution here.

Oh, also DC has wardrobe tentacle monsters. How can you look at the above picture and not think of the Filth from TSW? Is there a crossover going on here that I’m not totally getting?

Over the weekend, I played through the first chapter and into the second. As with Dreamfall, I was initially put off by the lack of April Ryan as a protagonist. I loved her snark and happy inner commentary, and while Zoe is adequate, she’s no April. Plus, there’s a lot of weirdness going on with Zoe that makes her feel like she’s not all there after waking up from her coma. She’s seeing people that she thinks she recognizes, she talks a little like she’s on drugs, and she’s still with a boyfriend that her coma self instantly recognized as an “imposter.” Suffice to say, I am taking every opportunity to be as rude as possible to the boyfriend.

Definitely enjoying it so far, even though I have a hard time making the mental jump between lead characters. I dislike that in books, too, when there are multiple protagonists and I’m getting into one of their stories and then a new chapter starts and I’m with someone else instead. Zoe and Stark is more interesting to me than Kian and Arcadia, although I’ll give it the benefit of some patience.

So far there have been several very noteworthy moments. The game actually lets you choose to refuse to join up with the rebellion, leading to a second and more final decision that can result in (what I assume is) one of the game’s very rare instant game overs. There’s a crudely named floating robot that spouts some of the most hilarious lines (especially when it realizes how much it loves welding). And these mysterious towers all over the city in Europe have me very much wondering what’s going to happen with them later on. Oh! And we get to return to the House of All Worlds for the first time since The Longest Journey (as a baby, even).

I’ve been needing a good adventure game like this, so I’m savoring it for the duration. I’m worried it won’t be long enough, but if it tells a great story, then I’ll be happy in the end. We’ll see how it goes. At the very least, it should help fill that TSW void for a week or two!

Changing up my nightly gaming routine

Lately I’ve been going through somewhat of a gaming malaise. Nothing terrible, nothing that makes me want to quit MMOs or anything, but simply I’m feeling a little overwhelmed and unsatisfied with how I’m playing and what I’m doing with my time. And when that happens in my life, I try to take a step back, look at the situation objectively, and try a different approach.

What I’ve been doing is trying to juggle multiple MMOs on a given evening, doing my WoW dailies and logging into LOTRO, SWTOR, and Guild Wars 2 to do a bit in each. It’s the format that I came up with years ago to handle my diverse interests, yet I just don’t think it’s working for me any more. Fracturing my game time during an evening is starting to cause distance and disinterest in my progress, and I’ve noticed that when I just stick with a game for an hour or two, I find myself far more engrossed.

Plus, I’m logging out earlier than I used to in favor of getting in some more reading time before bed. This means that my gaming hours are now 8:30 to 10:30, and that’s too short to be divvying up between three or four titles.

So. Two major changes going forward for me, at least for the time being.

Change the first: One game per evening. No set schedule, just pick a game that day and play it. Make some progress. Get a good blog post out of it. Could be an MMO or a single-player game, whatever. Maybe a new title, to try things out.

Change the secibd: One character per game. I’ve been getting bad at this lately, creating alts here and there instead of focusing on my main character, and I just know that I won’t actually see any of these alts through. My roster that I’m going to stick with is:

  • Guild Wars 2: Engineer
  • SWTOR: Imperial Agent
  • LOTRO: Lore-master
  • Secret World Legends: Templar shotgun-something

I think that when you stop having as much time for things, it actually becomes more important to give what you’re doing your full attention when you’re doing them. Thinking about multiple characters or what else I have to do in other games that evening is too distracting for me, and making this change has already had the effect of taking some stress off of what should just be a relaxing time.

I started this last night, just giving an evening over to Guild Wars 2, and it turned into a highly productive session. I wrapped up the personal story on my Engineer — no crashes in the instance, hooray! — and now can move on to the living world and expansion content. I also spent some time guild shopping, which I’m approaching in an unusual way by joining up with multiple guilds and then lurking in their chat channels to get a feel for them.

LOTRO: A Lore-master’s vestments

In the midst of scavenger hunting and Bingo Boffining, I’ve been working on tweaking this outfit. I went with a bright Evendim Blue base for the robe and shoulders, black for the glove, walnut brown for the hat, and green for the cape. The shoulders are there to add more bulk to the upper arms and cover up some unsightly clipping with the cape.

I’ve actually never used this cape before, but it’s so Lord of the Rings, isn’t it? Lonely mountain? And I’m always happy to don my snow-dusted traveler’s hat, which is probably my all-time favorite piece of cosmetic gear.

Level scaling vs. outleveling: Which is better for MMOs?

Pop quiz! Which would you rather prefer in your level-based MMORPG?

  1. Zones that dynamically adjust their levels and difficulty up and even down based on a character’s own levels (or characters whose levels scale up and down to meet a zone’s range), or
  2. Zones that remain fixed in a level range, preventing players from going in them before a certain point and allowing characters to out-level them?

To me, this question isn’t as simple as it might first appear. Lately among MMOs, there seems to be a trend for games to implement level scaling for areas. Guild Wars 2, Elder Scrolls Online, and SWTOR are three major examples of how this is being done (in GW2’s case, it was there from the start, while the latter two changed things later on). You hop into a zone and the level of the zone’s enemies roughly meets your own, whether the game’s adjusted your level and stats to match or the zone’s and everything in it. World of Warcraft: Legion has leveling zones that present dynamic scaling so that it doesn’t matter which one you do first or in which order. If you’re level 105, the zone will be 105. If you’re 110, the zone will be the same.

For the most part, I’ve been more accepting with the level scaling concept, seeing it as more of the future of the genre. I like levels and progression, but dynamic scaling offers far more flexibility and options, as well as allows players of differing levels to group together. Plus, as a nice bonus, it keeps old content relevant; as a level 80 Guild Wars 2 player, I can go into a newbie zone and the level scaling brings me down so that the mobs are somewhat on par with me and the rewards are what I’d expect elsewhere.

But lately I’ve started to wonder if there’s a darker side to level scaling, if studios and we have been too quick to abandon level-fixed zones. While it’s nice to have the flexibility to group with others in a multiplayer situation, level scaling is actually a feature that I didn’t like at all in, say, the Elder Scrolls games. It felt like it made my progress feel irrelevant, that the more I continued to level, the harder the game would get to compensate, sort of punishing me for becoming better. Plus, when you aren’t ever able to outlevel content and become powerful against what was once a threat, then you’ve taken away a genuinely fun part of RPGs. Yes, rofflestomping is quite useful and even enjoyable, for those of us who like farming old content and seeing how far we’ve come.

In LOTRO lately, I’ve been doing the scavenger hunts. These have taken me all over the game world, and as a level 105 character, that means that everything prior to Gondor has ceased to be a threat to me. This is actually incredibly awesome, because it’s like I’ve earned “tourist mode” in these zones now that I’ve outleveled them. I can ride about with impunity, sight-seeing without fear that I’ll have to fight every two steps. It’s an explorer’s dream and even allows me to go right up nose-to-nose with enemy mobs and appreciate their art and their idle animations without that character going all berserk and moving constantly. It sounds like a small thing, but it’s actually pretty cool if you’ve taken the time to do it.

I don’t think I’d ever want dynamic scaling in LOTRO at all. I like how the game uses levels as sort of guiderails to our travels, yet there are enough zone options that I don’t feel hemmed in (or I didn’t, prior to 105). It’s a heady rush to be able to go back to, say, Misty Mountains and romp through the elite giant area that used to be instant death to anyone who dared solo into its territory. I feel like I’ve become mightier and a force to reckon with, and sometimes it’s pretty relaxing to plow through these areas like an unstoppable whirlwind of death.

So I don’t know what the right answer is here, even for myself. Some might say to abolish overarching character levels entirely, some might vouch for level scaling as the future, and some might hold fast to fixed levels for the benefits there. It does really depend on the game and its format, especially if that MMO was designed from the ground-up to function a certain way. What do you think?

Two guns, one MMO: Why dual wielding continues to appeal

If one is good, two must be twice as good, right? Doesn’t always apply to all situations, but it seems true enough for MMO weapons. Generally, implements of death in online games come in one of three varieties:

  1. A single, oversized weapon
  2. Two of the same smaller weapons, one held in each hand
  3. A stat stick that looks pretty and must never be thwocked on the noggin of an enemy

As of late, I’ve really been gravitating toward classes that hold two pistols in games. My KOTOR 2 hero is a double-blaster Jedi, my SWTOR Gunslinger is the same (sans Force powers), my playthrough Illuminati in The Secret World had dual pistols, and my Guild Wars 2 Engineer has twin NES Zappers at the ready.

One of my very first MMO characters was an Adventurer in Anarchy Online, a class that used two pistols and could also turn into a dragon (presumably the dragon didn’t go around with dual pistols because that would be too metal even for MMORPGs). If I ever went back to WildStar right now, I’d probably go with the Spellslinger, which is a remarkably neat class except for its disrupt mechanic (I don’t like blinking around the place).

And I know it’s terribly cliché to have a hero dual wielding pistols, because that’s like every action movie ever. It’s one of those things that projects an unstoppable talented machine of death while avoiding the truth that anyone doing this in real life would miss pretty much anything they were trying to kill. Otherwise we’d have cops and troops running around with dual pistols (come to think of it, wasn’t this the premise of Hot Fuzz?). But sometimes things are cool and appealing for a reason, and right now this fits my playstyle appetite.

I love running and gunning with twin guns. I’m OK to trade off the accuracy and range of, say, a rifle if I have the option, because two pistols looks better and can often offer faster fire. It makes the game feel more dynamic and exciting while giving me the option to blast away from a distance. And many of the classes mentioned have additional abilities that add flavor and complexity to what could just be really boring pew-pewing.

Maybe this is the silly boy in me, but I still haven’t gotten tired of this weapon setup. For me, it’s the combination of three elements that make twin pistols so enjoyable: the wicked look, the ranged gameplay, and the mental fantasy of playing a gunslinger in different environments. It’s amusing to me that I’ve played such characters in fantasy, contemporary, and futuristic MMOs, which speaks to the widespread appeal that dual pistols has with devs and players.

Crossing the MMORPG emote barrier

A few days ago I was watching a video of a single-player RPG — Witcher 3, I think — and what really caught my attention was how expressive and natural the various NPC characters were with their body language and emotes. Just little things, like hands fluttering to different areas, eye contact, leaning against things, but instantly I had this connection with the game world and felt that it was more “real” than what I’ve been used to in MMOs.

I love MMOs, don’t get me wrong, and one of the things that I love the most is how I get to inhabit a world populated by many other people. Even if they’re running by or standing around or being silly, it’s all the difference to me between being in an empty room and hanging out at a coffeeshop with like-minded people.

But what’s subtlely bugged me over the years is the feeling that these other avatars are masks. I know that there’s a person sitting behind them, controlling them, but the range of expression is usually limited to movement and combat. Is that person — or his or her character by extent — happy? Sad? What are they looking at at any given moment in the game world? Even with MMOs giving characters some small measure of idle animations (shifting, breathing, fidgeting) and some games tracking a character’s eyes or head to what that character is targeting, it still often feels like there’s this “emote barrier” between me and others. A little like I’m in a world with controlled puppets that are unnaturally restrained.

So how do we overcome that? SOE famously rolled out its “SOEmote” tech a few years ago, and we all had a hearty laugh at Dave Georgeson’s goofy faces and the weird results in EverQuest II. Yet now that I look back on it, I can’t say that this was the worst idea in the world. SOE was trying to free players’ hands up and allow a quicker and more natural interface to controlling a character’s expressions.

This is problem one with emotes: triggering them takes an extra step or two that doesn’t always feel natural. You either have to type a slash command in, find an emote from a menu, or drag emote abilities to a hotbar for faster use. And unless you’re deep into the roleplay scene or make yourself do it, chances are that most players just don’t think about emotes much of the time and don’t develop the habit of using them.

Personally, I only fiddle with emotes when I’m standing around in social situations in-game and have nothing else to do. I mostly use them as amusing tricks, to see what weird things my character can do, but I worry that if I spam too many of them, I come across as annoying and as an attention hog. It doesn’t feel like I’m just using them in the natural course of my character’s day.

While SOEmote was an interesting experiment, it only went so far as to mimic exaggerated facial expressions — and emoting to me involves the whole body. How can we cross the emote barrier to make using emotes among the population easier, more natural, and more accessible? It might seem like fluffy nonsense, but I think that encountering others who have characters that are more naturally emoting would go a long way to deepening our immersion in these virtual worlds.

I don’t have any great answers, just some random ideas. Voice-activated emotes could be a solution, especially in the Siri/Alexa age when we’re already getting used to talking to machines. “WoW, grin.” “WoW, handstand.” “WoW, shake fist and growl.”

I’d be down for more robust idle animations that would allow players to pick and choose their own character responses to expected MMO encounters in advance via menu. For example, if my character was near a wall and I stopped moving her, the character would automatically back up against the wall, cross her arms, and kick up a heel. Or if I encountered a guild mate, my character would automatically wave and cheer at them. Or if I partied up with others, my character would go over and shake their hands.

In LOTRO, the community loves collecting and using emotes, and if we had better tools for using them, this could be as addictive as collecting pets and toys. I just feel that this is an area that MMOs have been stagnant in for about as long as there has been MMOs, and maybe it’s time to shake things up a bit and move emotes and body language in games forward.