March of the Living is the survival zombie game that you should try

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Lately I’ve been hearing some pretty positive buzz around March of the Living, enough so that it prompted me to pick up a copy a couple of weeks ago. While I’ve only played it here and there — the game is really suitable for sporadic sessions — I’ve been deeply impressed by what it offers.

In a nutshell, March of the Living is a survival rogue-like that is a blend of The Walking Dead, FTL, and old-school shareware pixelart. You take control of a character on a quest (initially, a guy looking for his son) and start marching across the country in the midst of a full-blown zombie apocalypse. Each segment on the map is made up of some walking (which causes fatigue and hunter while holding the threat of zombie attacks) and then a final story choice. Each of these little vignettes takes you into the world and makes you fret over what you think you should do, especially when it comes down to doing the moral thing or doing what needs to be done to survive.

It’s a game of both choices and resources, the latter of which are always limited and cause plenty of the former. Do you sleep on the road and chance getting attacked, just to reset your fatigue meter? Do you pick up more party members for safety, even though they’ll eat more food? Do you head into the city to scavenge or stay in the country and make a beeline to your objective?

It’s tense, because you make the best decisions you can and hope for the best. There’s a combat system here, of course, and you’ve got both melee and ranged weapons to help hold off the zombie horde. I’m not absolutely in love with the combat, but it is necessary and even sometimes gripping. I liked giving my guy a shotgun and having him mow down a pack with a well-timed burst.

I think that the simple graphics work in favor of this kind of game. The most intriguing parts come in text form anyway, so no need to gussy it up with loads of polygons and particle effects.

Anyway, March of the Living might not be the best game ever, but it is a gripping title and definitely a must-buy for me.

Gaming goals for May

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It’s May? Already? Inconceivable!

I’m actually pretty excited for this month, as my wife and I are going on a cruise for my 40th birthday (May 31st, start shopping now!). I just need to take a break and get away for a bit — from jobs, from kids, from the routine. Recharge. Because of this break, I’ll have a week less of gaming than otherwise, so here’s what I’m looking at accomplishing this month:

  • The Secret World: I want to go through the last quest of Issue 12, all of Issue 13, and the upcoming Issue 14 on my high level character. I always feel like she should be through all of the content to date. After that, keep plugging away at City of the Sun God on my playthrough character. Would be great to get to Transylvania by June.
  • Chrono Trigger: I put this game aside while exercise biking to get into Clash Royale, but I really do want to finish it up, so I’m going to make a point to do that.
  • World of Warcraft: I’m still dithering between characters to focus on, mostly my Hunter and Death Knight. I’m leaning toward the latter but keep dying a little too much in heroics for my comfort. Want to make progress in getting through Draenor so that by July I’ll be focused on going back to earlier zones and farming them for outfit pieces. No matter what, I’m sure I could jump into Legion with either of these characters on day one, unless of course I active/roll up a different character and have to get that toon to 100.
  • LOTRO: As I said this morning, I want to fully catch up in the epic book by the end of the week so that I can put the game aside until the next epic is released.
  • Diablo III: I did create a character for season 6, but to be honest I don’t know when I’ll have the time to play it. Would like to finish a season for once, tho!

LOTRO: City slicker

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Generally in MMOs and CRPGs, I am not a big fan of large cities. I don’t like feeling lost or disoriented in an area, and many times these places require a lot of frustrating questing as you try to figure out where you need to go next. Small-to-medium villages are my preferred haunts when it comes to civilization.

It doesn’t mean that I can’t be impressed by the scope of dev-created metropolises, of course. As I’ve been exploring Minas Tirith over the past week, even though it’s a huge city and not my cup of tea, I can’t help but be impressed by its scope and design.

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I know that there was some not-inconsiderable concern about the creation of this iconic city for the game before it came out. Turbine’s been winding down in resources and developers, and at nine years into a game, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the team would take as many shortcuts as possible in trying to tackle massive projects like this.

But the weird thing is that the devs didn’t; Minas Tirith is easily the most impressive city in the game. I went into it thinking that it would be mostly a facade — a bunch of generic building fronts with nothing to show behind them. But it’s a genuine city full of details and places to explore, and I’ve been screenshotting like crazy while doing it.

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Minas Tirith had to be a significant technical challenge, especially in trying to create it without divvying it up into instances. It’s a seven-tiered city with a jutting pier, with each tier rising higher than the last (and being somewhat smaller than the tier before it). In fact, the first mission you get in the epic is to travel from the bottom to the top, a task that took longer than you’d think as you have to keep traversing the city looking for ramps and trying to make sense of the somewhat-cluttered map.

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I did have a few geek moments, like when I saw the white tree or the Houses of Healing. What impressed me the most, however, was how the devs made the tiers nicer and more affluent the higher you went. You start down on the worker’s tier, which is both the largest and the grungiest. As you head higher, the tiers show more polish and even greenery, until you reach the very top.

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I had a sinking feeling that with all of the work done with this city, the epic story wasn’t going to scoot us through it quickly. And I was right. I’m still wallowing in many quests to help prepare the city for the coming battle.

I’m complaining here not just because I want to escape the urban setting for more pastoral landscapes, but because the technical ambition of the city translated into a heavy load for my cruddy computer. I’ve been sticking it out, but man my frame rate took a massive hit in this city. As in, I’m probably in the teens if not lower most of the time, making riding around a frustrating experience.

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And while some of the quests have felt worthy of my Middle-earth hero status, some are just busy work that could’ve been handed off to a servant instead of a soldier packing a broadsword. The devs are obviously trying to get the most mileage out of Minas Tirith, but I’m starting to come to a breaking point here.

Probably the worst example was a quest where I had to go check the food stores in two locations, including one all of the way at the bottom of the city. Now, there are stables to help transport between tiers, but you still have to run between them, and this particular quest sent me from the second-highest tier all the way to the lowest and back about four times. Up, down. Up, down. Up, down. Up, down. It got to be ridiculous, especially when I was going between areas just to say one thing to someone and then come back.

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At least Minas Tirith has personality and a sense of life to it. I love the touches such as the above
“oliphant” in one of the taverns serving as target practice for bored and drunk soldiers.

My goal is to completely catch up in the epic book by the end of this week so that I can move on to a new MMO project. Pray for my frame rate!

Riding the long MMO tail

longtailGenerally — generally — MMOs that launch follow a similar patten in terms of population:

  • Strong boost at launch (stronger depending on the game and hype and IP, of course)
  • Growth for a few months as it’s the new hotness
  • Tapering off
  • Decline as the year goes on, with spikes for expansions or business model shifts
  • Then a long, steady, gradual decline after a few years

That last bit is the MMO tail, when a game has passed the point of being one of the big dogs in the room to a workhorse of a title. Doesn’t mean it’s bad — not at all; many MMOs keep getting better with age, patches, and expansions.

But there are definitely downsides to riding that tail as a gamer. You’re playing a game that isn’t being talked about much any longer. Hope for a renaissance fades away. New player influx goes from a stream to a trickle. And you start wondering — as much as you try not to — how many more years this game has left in it.

Not every MMO follows that same pattern or shares the length of that tail. Ultima Online and EverQuest, for example, are still going and even had expansions last year. But it’s a different experience to play those games rather than, say, Blade & Soul, Guild Wars 2, or FFXIV right now. The wider community all but ignores those games while the active community is very defined and insular.

When you’re riding that tail, there is an undercurrent in the existing community of sadness, of a desire for a return to the days of high-profile greatness. It’s definitely like this in LOTRO right now. On one hand, it’s not a ghost town; Landroval is hopping, people still love the game, and folks even still blog about it. There are player events, chatter, and it recently got a mini-expansion of sorts. It’s even on the cusp of heading into Mordor.

Yet there’s no denying that LOTRO is past being on of the, say, top five most popular and talked-about MMOs to play. It was only a few years ago that we were getting huge expansions, that people flocked to this game, and that it held that darling status that is now passed on to other games. Nine years is a great run for a game, and it would’ve been silly to assume that the party would last forever. So we’re now in the long tail phase — and have been for a couple of years.

As I mentioned, playing in the long tail era is kind of like sticking in the past while the future is here! and amazing! It’s grappling with that constant wish for a return to former glory. There’s a lot of nostalgic reminiscing in the community and talk of days past. There’s also the uncertainty of knowing how much longer a game has in it or how often the dev team is going to create substantial content for it.

It’s not all sadness and inner montages, of course. The long tail has its advantages, starting with it representing an MMO that is seasoned and chock-full of stuff to see and do. If there’s enough of a dedicated community sticking around, it can even feel populated and full of life for a long time to come. Knowing that the game won’t be on the receiving end of controversy and huge design shifts and other stumbling blocks of newer titles is a comforting thing.

Right now as there are few massive games coming out for this genre, players are taking more time than ever to revisit older titles to see — and rediscover — what they hold. I’ve been watching in the blogosphere the delight of these experiences, the reminder that there is a wealth of MMOs out there already that can be plundered if you get your eyes off the future once in a while. Lots of long tails out there, twitching for adventure.

MMORPG feels in the face

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I am both a sentimental old fool and a complete sucker for nostalgia. While I do try to not hang on to everything from the past — or worse, attempt to live in it — I confess to a deep affection for the good things of yesteryear and occasionally let my mind wander back to earlier days. This is particularly true when a thought or smell triggers a memory, and I chase the feeling of that for a while.

Sometimes, you really can’t go back. I can’t, for instance, return to my grandfather’s house on the canals in Florida. He died over 20 years ago and other people are now living there. But in my mind, I can picture every room of that house, the smell of his fishing boat, the “secret” fort that my brothers and I built next door at the marina. Digging through those thoughts, even to details as trivial as what his fridge water dispenser sounded like and how the kitchen chairs felt when you sat in them, are crystal-clear when I dust them off. It’s comforting to me that they’re still lurking there in my mind, somewhere.

So maybe it’s not that surprising that when I go back to an old favorite MMO after a long break, I get a strong dose of the “feels.” I think it’s in part of all of these memories that had been filed in long-term storage once I left the game for a good amount of time being called back. There’s just this powerful, comforting, familiar feeling when I return to a game and am reminded of what I used to really like about it.

Thinking of this made me realize, once again, that an MMO is a whole sensory package. Oh, it doesn’t have smells (yet!) and taste (probably a good thing), but there is the muscle memory of the keyboard and mouse, the sights of the world, and definitely the sounds. Logging into LOTRO last week after almost a year away was like plunging back into a pool of sensory delights. I forgot how much that game excelled at environmental audio and creating a feeling of a real world around you. Likewise, World of Warcraft’s stylized art and audio cues are about as ingrained into my subconscious as my ringtone at this point.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons that you sometimes see bloggers gushing when they return to an MMORPG after an extended absence. It’s the joy in being hit by those feels in the face, of rediscovering something that you didn’t really realize you had lost. Of knowing that it’s still there, still waiting. It’s a small opportunity to revisit the past even as we play into the future. Just one of the reasons that I like this genre, I suppose.

6 things on my MMO to do list

Spring’s here and I’m finding several projects and (lets face it) desires piling up. I’ve been compiling a list of things I want to accomplish at some point in the near future in MMOs, so here’s what I’m thinking so far:

  1. WildStar: Play through Arcterra on my Engineer. New zone deserves a look-see, don’t you agree?
  2. Lord of the Rings Online: Catch up on the main storyline with my Captain. I might not play regularly these days — or at all — but it’d be cool to see the epic volumes all of the way through.
  3. Guild Wars 2: Been mulling over giving this game another go at some point. I don’t have Heart of Thorns and can’t see picking it up unless it goes on sale (even then…), but I have some lowbie characters that could use some leveling.
  4. The Secret World: Check out the new Issue 14 content and wrap up that last quest in Issue 13 that I haven’t done yet.
  5. Star Trek Online: Hey, every now and then this game calls me back. It’s weird that way. And I’m starting to feel that tug. Time for a new ship and crew?
  6. Marvel Heroes: Take Dr. Doom through the cosmic trial. He’s pretty well decked-out as a summoner, so I’m curious if he can hack it with the test.