Torment: Big cities, small peeves

One very common CRPG design, especially over the past 20 years, is to pretty much dump the player into a huge city near to the start of the game and have them quest about in there for a long, long time until finally leaving. I suppose that this is to allow players to explore their immediate surrounds, getting a feel for the world, and enjoying some freedom of quest non-linearity. However, I am not a fan.

Torment is reminding me of this. At the start of the game, you start out in the city of Sagus Cliffs, which is spread over a half-dozen or so locales. I’ve been doing the typical CRPG strategy, which is to examine everything, talk to everyone, and pick up every quest I can. Once I fully explore the town, then I start checking off quests one by one until they’re all done, my character is buffed up, and I’m ready for the open world.

As I said, I am not a great fan of this format. FFXIV actually featured it, which is somewhat of a rarity among MMOs, and that first few hours where I was doing nothing more than running back and forth and back and forth across a city tried my patience. Big cities in RPGs are not a draw for me; I want to be out exploring the wilds and going on a mission with noticeable momentum.

Anyway, I’m counseling myself to be patient. It helps that there are many gripping stories and areas, from a bar full of ex-soldiers from a psychic war to a sweet refugee who gets brutally murdered, and I’m starting to get a better understanding of this alien-like setting. There is a lot of puzzle solving, a lot of details picked up from context, and a LOT of reading. I really wish that the text interface was always on the screen, because the game uses text all the time and having the game constantly pause for the text screen to animate its way up and down really slows things.

Probably one of my favorite activities so far in the game was paying some sort of bizarre surgeon money to perform all sorts of painful and experimental procedures on me. It was money well-spent, because I ended up with a few useful abilities (such as being able to heal myself once a day).

I found out that there aren’t a lot of companions in the game… I think only 5 or 6 that you can recruit out of a party of four (including your main character). So far I have a very flashy Zapp Brannigan-like character and a girl with holes in her memory. I’m working on convincing an assassin to come to my side too, and when that happens, my tale will be complete.

Torn asunder over Secret World Legends

Let me start out by saying that there is nothing so frustrating for an MMO blogger than when some major, groundshaking news comes out about a game you love when you happen to be away on vacation. I was standing in line at Epcot’s Test Track when I looked at Twitter and saw the news about Secret World’s reboot come out. I knew that it’d be a week before I would be able to sit down and blog about it, and thus I had to resign myself to just reading up on it and sorting out my thoughts.

In hindsight, it’s probably best that I had that week, because I still don’t know how I feel about all of this and would have just blathered all over the place if I’d posted the day of. I don’t recall any other piece of MMO news that has made me feel so conflicted and torn asunder between the poles of excitement and dread, between elation and anger. So I think the best way to get it all out there is to look at this reboot — Secret World Legends — from both perspectives.

Why Secret World Legends makes me hopping mad

  1. It’s major change to a game I love as is. You have to understand that among all MMOs, there are only a handful that have really cultivated intense, strong devotion from players that see these titles as something much different and much more special than the rest of the pack. The Secret World has always been one of these, thanks to its unique world setting, its storytelling strengths, and its creative mission design. When you really love a game, you feel very protective of it and don’t want anything bad to happen to it. So for Funcom to up and announce that it’s completely retooling the title (including combat, mission flow, and business model) would induce anxiety whether or not it would end up being a good thing. I wasn’t against work being done on some of the game’s more problematic spots, but this is far and above what I would have suggested.
  2. Action combat? Bleh. Very few people profess to love TSW’s combat, but I don’t think we were exactly clamoring for MORE action combat. I would have been happily content with a more standard tab-targeting MMO experience, but now we’re going the other way. If they don’t get combat right with this reboot, it’s going to prove to be a big dealbreaker.
  3. Funcom’s betraying its MMORPG focus. Funcom, you have me officially worried. You used to be about really great MMOs, and now you’ve jumped hardcore onto the survival sandbox bandwagon and been backpedaling away from MMOs at an alarming rate. AoC and Anarchy Online are in maintenance mode, and TSW is being remade into an online game that isn’t an MMO but more of a lobby experience. If I can still group up, see others, socialize, and have text chat, I think I’ll be fine here, but I am not happy at all with Funcom suddenly deciding that MMOs are “teh devil” after a decade or so of cultivating an MMO community.
  4. It’ll fracture the community. Yeah, it’s nice that TSW will remain online, but now there are going to be TWO versions of the game, only one of which will receive ongoing support. I think we all assumed that the reboot would have reworked the existing game and left the community intact, but no. And there are SEVERELY ticked-off players over this who are just going to leave and not stay in either game.
  5. It’s the end of The Secret World. So what if TSW stays online? It’ll be forever in arrested development, abandoned by Funcom. And our characters we’ve been working on for five years? Also abandoned. I’m wincing so hard at the thought of all of the effort I put into both of my characters that is now rendered moot. If I want to continue the story, and I do, there’s only one option here — to reroll on the new server. It’s a huge shame that the classic server won’t be getting the story updates as well, and I would think that anyone who remains there will do so with the understanding that it’s only a matter of time before Funcom retires that game.
  6. I’m going to have to play everything all over again. I think I have another playthrough in me, but it is so disheartening to think of doing all of these quests over when I’d much rather be continuing on with the story. I’m going to have to do Cost of Magic again. People: Cost of Magic.
  7. We haven’t heard much of anything about Season 2. Where’s the story, Funcom? WE WANT MORE STORY.
  8. This kind of kills my playthrough series. For about two years now I’ve been documenting a full playthrough of TSW’s missions and recently wrapped up the first zone in Transylvania. Now? What’s the point, if the story isn’t going to be continued here? In one fell swoop, I’ve lost any reason to keep playing classic TSW.

Why Secret World Legends has me kind of excited

  1. A fresh start. As annoyed as I am that I can’t just import my characters, there’s something appealing in starting over with everyone and going through the whole story again.
  2. This might be necessary for the future of the game. While Funcom hasn’t dwelt on the point, the whole move to reboot TSW sounds like that it was needed to keep the game alive instead of retiring it altogether. Funcom needs more money from this game to justify more story and development, and it clearly sees this as the best avenue to make it happen. If in the end we get Season 2 and the continuing story, then any gripes I have will be soothed.
  3. Some of the changes sound great. I’m all for better mission flow, visual improvements, and reworking that overly complex ability wheel. Combat? Needed work but we’re going to have to see what the end result is like. Feels pointless to speculate on that right now.
  4. It could bring in a lot of new players. TSW fans are forever evangelizing how great this game is, and this relaunch is a major opportunity to rope in a whole new crowd. Secret World Legends is going to get a lot of publicity and promotion this spring, and it’s going to need it to build up a big launch base. While the buy-to-play model was fine and not that prohibitive, free-to-play means that there’s no initial barrier to entry (and keeping all of the story content free is a very nice move).
  5. Veteran players are getting some perks. We will be able to bring over most of our cosmetics/pets/mounts (especially store-bought ones), transfer our Grand Master accounts, and start out with all weapon pages unlocked. Oh, and we’ll be able to reserve the same names we use right now in TSW. Again, it’s not all that I would have preferred for veterans, but it’s better than nothing.
  6. We will still be able to group. It’s not completely taking the game offline into a single-player experience, but more like making it akin to Destiny or Guild Wars 1. It still allows for a community, guilds, grouping, and even large-scale events in specially built areas.
  7. Funcom is finally talking. After way too much silence, the dam has broken and Funcom is out in force to chat up the relaunch. I’ve been impressed that the studio is fielding so many fan podcasts and site interviews as well as putting out an informative site and FAQ. Lots and lots of communication is the only way that disgruntled players are going to settle down over this, so keep it up.

As I said, I won’t be playing the game until the relaunch happens, but after that I anticipate playing and blogging about it as I would with any other MMO. I’m going to consider what to do with the Secret Adventures series. It’s at least on hiatus until I get my new character up to Transylvania. Maybe I will continue it in the future, we’ll see.

Back from Disney!

As you might have been able to deduce from this past week of posts here on Bio Break, I’ve been AFK on vacation. I generally don’t like publicly announcing that I’m going on vacations in advance for security reasons, but now that I’m back, I’m able to tell you that we took the family for a week of Disney World park hopping.

We knew going into it that it would be a challenging trip, what with four kids (with the youngest only 15 months). Add some unseasonably warm weather (90 degrees most days) and a whole heck of a lot of crowds, and we weren’t able to go as fast as we wanted. But still, it was a good trip. We hit all four parks, did a lot of rides, saw some shows (the Finding Nemo musical was fantastic), and generally tried to provide a memorable experience for the kids. I had the foresight to pick up one of those baby backpack things for when we were standing in lines, because a 20-pound kid gets to be so dang heavy after 40 minutes.

Disney is probably my favorite vacation destination in the whole world. I’ve always loved it, ever since I was a kid, and it’s really neat to be able to share that with my own kids now that I’m older. I adore the attention to detail that’s put into the parks, the variety of rides, the atmosphere, the insanely nice employees, and how the different attractions spark the imagination. The new Frozen boat ride at Epcot was such a terrific experience, and I always welcome a trip that includes a ride or two of my beloved Haunted Mansion. Obviously, I’m a “theme park” guy through-and-through.

I am looking forward to when the kids get a bit older and we do this again, however. Their stamina wasn’t the greatest and there were several rides we never got around to doing (like Jungle Cruise or the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular show). I think it’d be pretty fun to walk around the World Showcase with an older set, too.

It was nice to take a break from writing and working for a week, even if it wasn’t a “relaxing” week. Recharge the batteries, be with the family, and experience a change from the routine. It was very surreal to see all of the huge news come out this past week, and be assured that I have a few posts brewing about the Secret World thing and the new WoW and LOTRO patches.

Hope you all had a good week in your own fantasy kingdoms!

Retro Sample Week: Duke Nukem 2

(This is part of my a special week in which I sampled several smaller or more niche retro games from my GOG library. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Welcome to Retro Sample Week here at Bio Break! Sometimes even I need to take the titular break from my normal routine, so instead of chatting about MMOs and the like, all this week on the blog I’ll be sampling various retro games from my ever-growing GOG library. My library is up to 199 titles so far, thanks to various sales, giveaways, and personal weakness. And while I have been gamely (pun intended) working my way through many of them over the past few years, there’s just no way I’ll be ever able to do playthroughs on all of these. So I thought, why not do one week where I take on a game a day, dip into it, write up some impressions, share some screenshots, and move on? I might not get the full feast, but at least I’ll get the flavor of it.

First up on the docket is Duke Nukem 2 — yes, Duke Nukem 3D actually had two prequels in the early 1990s that are much lesser known today (although they were reasonably popular at the time). Following my series on DN3D, I thought it might be interesting to look at least one of these games. I even remember playing this a bit back in the day, because Apogee’s shareware marketing was all over the place.

As you can see, Duke Nukem originally was a 2D sidescrolling shooter. Nothing super-fancy, but there was a lot of action and some of the personality that 3D would take and run with. I always liked the attention to detail that Apogee put in its levels — it was on par with the SNES and often had delightful background bits if you slowed down to look.

Can I just say that I love that this game has this screen? It’s so nice to actually get a visual of all of the control keys and not merely a list.

Right away, I can identify a few pros and cons. On the plus side, the weapon feels really powerful (and you get to have a machine gun-like rapid fire right out of the gate), the music is tense and exciting, and things are blowing up left and right. On the minus side, you can’t aim diagonally and the screen is too small, with dangers and enemies just off screen that you have to deal with.

So the story, such as it is, is that Duke was captured on an alien world and put into a cell. Somehow he escaped and carnage ensued. The movie right have already been signed away, sorry!

It was definitely nice to get out of the prison area, since the overworld is less cluttered. Also, there’s steaming turkey, which is the universal video game symbol for health and afternoon naps.

You can see the DNA for Duke Nukem 3D here, particularly in all of the different weapons and gadgets. It’s definitely a run-and-gun experience that rewards the most trigger happy of individuals (and you don’t have to worry about running out of ammo). The first level was remarkably short, and other than finishing it and pursuing a high score, there aren’t any additional objectives or way to develop Duke. He’s pretty (pause for effect) two-dimensional as it is.

Wrapping your head around a mountain of MMO content

It seems to me that there’s a big difference when and how you come into an MMORPG. Do it at the beginning, then you’re among company that all shares the same common experience of feeling out a title from the get-go, writing up guides, and sharing advice. Do it later on, then you can feel a little behind but benefit from the experience and writings of others.

But what about when you come into the game many expansions into it, or return to it after a long break? It’s not as if the game waited around for you to join to start for real; it’s been growing and developing for months, the meta (or whatever you want to call it) has shaped and reformed numerous times, there are people who have theory-crafted it to death, and it can feel absolutely overwhelming when you try to get your head around the mountain of content that’s piling on more with every successive patch.

Several times, I’ve found myself in games like LOTRO and WoW, MMOs with a decade or more of growth behind it, and found myself flailing my psychological arms in frustration as I try to separate what I can do, what I should be doing, and what I don’t even know there is to be doing. It helps to listen to podcasts, find reputable sites with guides, and not be afraid to ask questions, but that only seems like it goes so far.

Generally, I try not to let this feeling bother me. I figure out what’s the most important things to be doing (and that I can do as a generally solo player) and focus on that. If a goal comes along that looks appealing and possible, I’m open to pursuing that. But I can’t lie and say that it doesn’t bother me to think that maybe there are things in the game that I would like to do (either for the experience or rewards) but am ignorant about because I’ve developed “tunnel” gameplay or just haven’t come across it yet. It’s a discouraging feeling to find out that there was Activity X you should have been doing for weeks now that could have benefited you, but you wasted that time because you didn’t know about it.

I don’t think there’s a silver bullet for absorbing and sorting through all of the content of games in their double digits. It’s a process that requires experience and the occasional bout of extracurricular research. I always wish that games had in-depth and clear catch-up guides available for players — new, returning, and experienced — that want to fill in holes in their knowledge. Maybe we call those “wikis” these days. Maybe that’s just too much to read at once.

Have you ever caught yourself in this situation? How do you deal with it?

4 games I desperately wish would come to mobile

Apart from MMOs, I would say that mobile (smartphone and tablet) consumes most of my gaming time, followed by a distant third at other PC games. It’s just nice and convenient to have these games at my fingertips when I’m in bed, waiting to pick up my kids from school, spending the night in the drunk tank after a hilarious misunderstanding, etc. There are a lot of great games for these, but every so often I see a game somewhere else and think, “I would play the CRUD out of that if it ever came to mobile!”

Here are four games that would be instant buys for me:

The Sims

I was watching a video last night on the original Sims and having all sorts of feels and nostalgia bursts, and then I once again got steamed that mobile has yet to deliver a regular Sims game for us. Oh, it’s done a weird timer F2P thing and some chopped-up, extremely limited versions of Sims 3 and Sims Medieval, but none of these really let you create your own house and Sims and see them go about their lives.

I loved The Sims so dang much back in the day, and I could totally envision spending some late nights in bed fiddling with a house and torturing watching my little Sims family go about their lives. This would be such a big money maker for EA if they could do it right and proper. Right and proper, mind you.

Stardew Valley

Now here’s a no-brainer for tablet adaptation. Stardew Valley looked and played just like a rock-solid tablet game from the get-go, but I didn’t really want to spend my time in it while at a PC. Give this farming/small town simulator to me on the go, and I will rush back to it with open arms and a goofy grin.

Runescape

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m still waiting for a really good MMORPG to come out for tablets. There are options, some decent, but none that have quite hit that sweet spot yet of having user friendly controls (a big failing in AQ3D), good camera controls, and a full-fledged MMO experience.

One could be made from scratch, but if we were to look at the field and consider adaptations, I’d nominate RuneScape as a perfect candidate. It has a good top-down(ish) perspective that would work best on tablets, it’s a huge game that has small requirements, and I think it’d be pretty fun to pick up now and then.

Nintendo virtual console

As we’re right now moving into month five of constant NES Classic shortages (because Nintendo is a poopyhead), I keep thinking of how terrific it would be to have a Nintendo virtual console on smartphones and tablets. None of this Super Mario Run crap; I’m talking old NES and SNES titles reworked for mobile and then sold at a decent price. A SNES on my tablet? I’d go broke — happily — within a month. And I wouldn’t be sitting here grinding my teeth at how dumb this whole NES Classic shortage thing is.

How MMORPGs have saved me thousands of dollars

Remember when PC games came in boxes large enough to safely house a small nuclear family? Or when they came in boxes at all instead of being handled by Valve gremlins? Good times.

MMORPGs want my money. I know they do. As is often said, these games aren’t charities, they’re business ventures designed to rake in money to sustain the operating costs and development costs that are incurred in running live titles. They have a variety of methods to try to get me to fork over cash, including subscriptions, microtransactions, and major product releases. Also, soundtracks, because I’m a sucker for soundtracks.

I don’t know what I spend on MMOs on a given year, but I’d estimate it’s probably something around $100. Maybe $150. That’s for the occasional subscription, the single box purchase that I’ll be making (such as last year’s RIFT: Starfall Prophecy), the odd microtransaction, and the occasional service. Not, you’ll note, lockboxes. Occasionally I’ll splurge, as with buying TSW’s grandmaster sub, but that’s a pretty rare occurrence. I don’t know if I’ve even spent any money in 2017 so far, come to think of it. WoW sub is paid via tokens through June, nothing in LOTRO (although I anticipate an expansion purchase), nothing in TSW or any of the other side games I’ve played, no Kickstarters or prepurchases. Yeah, so nothing thus far.

It’s weird to think about, but when I step back and trace my gaming history back the past two decades, my spending habits have changed dramatically. I’d wager that I spent far more money as a poor, broke college student, then intern, then in-debt bachelor than I do now as a more grounded adult. And it really is thanks to what MMOs offer and how they do it.

Flashback to 2000!

I’ve just moved to Michigan after a year internship in Colorado. I have a newish computer that I purchased with graduation gifts and an ageing PlayStation 1. Even with a new job, I have loads of time on my hands, thanks to no real responsibilities at home. I come home every day and spend the next eight hours or so kicking around my apartment. Mostly I do internet stuff (I was writing a lot even then, although mostly movie reviews) and game.

The gaming was my hobby, but it was an expensive one. The problem was that I went through games way too fast. Buying and playing them online wasn’t a thing (or at least it wasn’t that common or known to me), so I’d usually haul myself over to Media Play or Best Buy to prowl the shelves for an interesting-looking title. I kept avoiding online games, since I only had dial up, so my gaming diet was mostly RPGs, RTSes, and other simulation titles.

I’d drop $50 on a game, bring it home, and hope that it would hook me in and give me many hours of fun. Sometimes they did, like with KOTOR or Majesty. But more often than not, I’d get kind of bored with a title after 10 hours, and then I’d be back at the store, spending another $50 I didn’t really have to spare.

It got even worse when I picked up the PlayStation 2, hoping that it would be — right out of the gate — an equally good investment as the PS1. The launch lineup was pretty bad, but I bought most all of those games and kept buying console titles too to try to find something that would be long lasting. About a year or two into the PS2, I ended up realizing that I had moved on past consoles and that most of these games were mostly novelties to me and nothing more. Shallow. I needed meat, I needed depth, and most of all, I needed longevity.

I wish I could go back in time to tell myself about MUDs and the good MMOs and other options that were actually pretty decent back then. Some of that money might have gone to better use to a faster internet connection for starters. Oh well.

As I gradually eased into the MMORPG scene (which really took off for me with City of Heroes’ release), I found that my spending habits started to change radically. I not only had games that would deliver dozens upon dozens of hours of entertainment every month that I enjoyed, but the only cost I needed to spend on them (after the initial purchase) was a relatively small subscription. And that sub worked on me psychologically to convince me to “get my money’s worth” on the MMO versus those other games.

I still bought other PC games, of course, and I still do. No money spent on MMOs this year, but maybe $120 or so on some Steam and GOG titles like Torment. But by and large, my “hobby” started costing me a lot less while giving me enough hours of entertainment to fill whatever available free time I had for it. When I got married and my wife helped get our family on track with a strict budget, MMOs managed to fit in quite well into that while box purchases of games did not. Until the F2P revolution came along, I mostly focused on a single MMO at a time because I was only going to subscribe to one at a time. More started to feel wasteful.

Since 2003, MMORPGs have definitely saved me thousands that, assuming that I would have carried on with my splurge-happy and unsatisfied habits, I would have blown on regret elsewhere. I know we’ve all heard that these games are really a great deal for the money, but they truly, truly are. I never dreamed that I would still be playing the same game 10 or 12 years after it launched — and having a good time thanks to expansions, the social scene, and endless things to do. Kind of makes me wish I had started earlier, but oh well!