RIFT: The Gecko Badlands is kicking my posterior

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Look at that! One zone down in Starfall Prophecy, a gaming speed record that puts me on par with a diseased tortoise. But hey, progress is progress, especially when it comes with an adolescent dragon being nominated as Forest King or somesuch. Hey, still better than the presidential candidates we had this year, am I right? (what, too soon?)

Scatherran Forest was a really pleasant zone in which to quest. Great music, lush visuals, and a pretty engaging storyline (weasel and unicorn silliness even so). I took my time, did all of the side and carnage quests, and came out of it entertained and level 66.

My one big complaint is that the loot kind of stinks so far. I’d say about 70-80% of quests only reward XP and money, very occasionally breaking form to hand up gear upgrades. That really robs a lot of excitement over quest turn-ins. And I barely got any drops for the zone entire. Heck, I get more daily loot from minions than I do from questing and fighting — and that doesn’t feel right to me.

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This has to be one of the most fru-fru collection of good guys ever in an MMO. I’m kind of cheering them on, especially Sir Bearington. He’s not just your average bear.

I was disappointed to see that Shyla and Tasuil weren’t going to accompany me to the next zone, Gedlo Badands (or as my head insists on calling it, Gecko Badlands). Instead, we get the king who looks like he’s heading out on a heavy metal band tour and one chatty kobold who sounds like a Dwarf.

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I do take a break from questing every now and then to visit my tower house. It’s starting to feel very cozy, especially the entrance. I need a lot more materials for it, but I do have a vision for what it will eventually become.

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Gecko Badlands is like night and day with the green forest that came before it. You all know my feelings on deserts, and so far this one isn’t really anything special. Lots of rocks, lots of tan, lots of sand.

What really surprised me is how hard this area is. Maybe my character still needs better gear, but the other night I must have gotten killed about a dozen times just trying to work on the first series of quests. The mobs are tough, tougher than the forest, and their density and patrols makes it quite easy to get in over my head.

I’m mostly running a Bladedancer/Riftstalker build, but after a lot of frustration in this area, I threw together a Tactician build that — with one specific legendary skill that greatly upped my healing — virtually made me invincible. Slowly and surely I can now burn down pretty much any mob I encounter as long as I don’t mind how long it takes. No danger of dying, not really.

Here’s hoping the loot situation is going to improve. I know that the expansion has caught a lot of flak for being rushed out the door, and frankly, I can kind of see it in some areas. It’s still fun, but it definitely needs work. As long as the quests continue to entertain and I have places to go and conquer, I’ll be satisfied.

RIFT vs. World of Warcraft: Upgraded skills and the RNG factor

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I don’t know if it’s been pointed out, but the other day I realized that both World of Warcraft and RIFT introduced a sort-of similar feature in each of their respective recent expansions. The feature in question is skill upgrades — that is, taking a standard skill and created a much-improved version that is so good it actually alters a player’s build.

Yet how each of these expansions is doing it is miles apart in execution, and I think it bears looking at because it highlights one of the ongoing struggles of game design: RNG versus a known quantity.

World of Warcraft is introducing these upgraded skills through its legendary items. I haven’t been playing WoW that hard over the past half-decade, but to my knowledge this is the first time that legendaries are featured so heavily in an expansion, to the point where it’s expected that a player might accumulate and equip four at once after a while. Legendaries have skill-defining traits attached, such as the one that I got last week that buffs my anti-magic shell. Before, it was a skill I hardly ever used on my Death Knight. Now that it heals me and is far stronger, it’s part of my standard defensive array.

Of course, there’s no assured way to get a legendary in this expansion; it’s all random number generator. You have to engage in certain activities — opening emissary quests, do mythic dungeons, etc. — and then cross your fingers for one. The devs said that they didn’t want a grind, so they chose the all-RNG route which makes players grind these activities over and over anyway. The only change from, say, a token grind is that the end goal isn’t defined and could happen any time (or not).

Plus, there’s the downside of not being able to get the legendary you want or need for your current build, so you could just be attempting to get the right one until the next expansion arrives.

RIFT, on the other hand, simply gives players one legendary skill point per level from 66 through 70. You know they’re coming, you can choose the upgraded skill you want, and that is that. There’s absolutely no chance to it — and no stress either. It’s exciting to ding because I want to see how my builds will change with these new skills. I can’t imagine how frustrating it’d be if these skill points were tacked on to gear and locked behind an RNG wall.

I’m OK with RNG to dole out fun rewards, and even World of Warcraft has made regular looting fun through the RNG titanforge system. Every so often I get a piece of gear that’s just a little bit better than what I had before thanks to this. But it was a dire mistake to gate all legendaries behind RNG.

A much better suggestion and in line with the expansion design as it is would be to have legendary item quest lines, a la class order hall and class quest lines. At the end of each, you get to pick a legendary of your choice and then have the option to start the quest all over again if you wanted to get a second. That would keep it from looking too grindy, keep it fun, and give players choice.

WoW might be the more popular and successful game in most respects, but dang if RIFT doesn’t actually do design better in so many small and important ways.

RIFT: Unicorns barfing rainbows

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There comes a time in every adventurer’s career when an evil corrupted unicorn is barfing all manner of rainbows on him or her, causing a moment of inner crisis. “Is this who I am?” the adventurer ponders. “Is this what I’ve become? A target for a disgruntled Trapper Keeper employee?”

Rainbows take FOREVER to wash out of clothing. I should know: I grew up in the ’80s. Care Bears wouldn’t stop “care staring” at our fashion lines.

I can’t take full blame for my slow pace through Starfall Prophecy so far. Several nights have seen excess lag or even server downtime, and that coupled with a few days of physical exhaustion have left me far in the dust. I’m still in the first zone, still level 65, and still, apparently, getting puked on by jerk unicorns.

Let’s back up a minute and talk about an aspect of RIFT that Starfall Prophecy has made me realize, which is that this MMO that some deride as being a little too clone-y and too bland in the storytelling department has kind of taken a subversive turn over the past couple of years.

It’s not a flat-out weird game that calls attention to its wacky nature, but instead RIFT wraps itself up in very traditional high fantasy trappings that anyone would recognize. And then, just when your eyes start to glaze over with how safe and familiar all this is, RIFT goes to very weird, often dark places with these things. Again, the game isn’t doing jumping jacks to get you to notice this, but if you’re even half-paying attention to the quest text, companion dialogue, and the like, you’ll start to see that there’s an undercurrent of oddity and a kind of unabashed and unashamed dorky humor just about everywhere.

So in the first forest zone, there are these unicorns that are going missing, and when you start to investigate you realize that they’re being abducted for rituals and generally Not Good Things. This is compounded by encounters with the aforementioned Skittles-barfing corrupted unicorns that I totally don’t feel bad killing. It made me think of how many fantasy MMOs tend to veer away from unicorns entirely, as if they’re just a little TOO traditional and ridiculous high fantasy to exist alongside giant spiders, 637 breeds of Elves, and so many dragons that they have to carpool to make it to the raids on time.

Here? You’re thrust into the middle of Unicorn Central, where you have to gain their trust by — yes — hugging and dancing with packs of skittish mares. Nothing strips away my masculinity as quickly as having to type “/hug” to a teen girl’s greatest dream (prior to vampires). Then I had to play hide-and-go seek with unicorn foals, ingest mind-altering mushrooms, and become the savior of the entire unicorn species just to make sure that my face was fully rubbed in all of this glittery nightmare. Yet I almost can’t be too mad at the game because it’s weird and not something I do every day and I’m kind of laughing at it as much as with it. Plus, we’re long past being critical when I’ve spent a quest convincing hedgehogs to go on a pilgrimage to a critter city.

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Also, there’s a dragon. The LAST dragon of Telara, although I didn’t get the memo that the rest are dead. Could Guild Wars 2 and World of Warcraft enjoy this same dragon drought, I wonder? I picture meeting rooms with stymied developers trying to brainstorm the next content patch for their MMO when one snaps up her head and goes, “I know! Let’s add another dragon!” and everyone shouts “hurrah!” and breaks for an early lunch.

I’m starting to get a better idea as to the whole story of this expansion, thanks to some fellow bloggers, the quest text, and conversations that my NPC companions are having. You’ll have to forgive me, as I didn’t actually complete Nightmare Tide and am a little hazy on what let up to all of this.

Apparently, there’s this giant sentient tower called Ahnket who is no nice being and has some sort of huge master plan going on involving warring factions of the life and fire planes. Ahnket is also in control of a comet that’s been smashing through dimensions, picking up parts of each, and is now bearing down on Telara itself. So we as players are going up to the comet to figure all of this out and hopefully stop this mega-machine from doing whatever it’s trying to do.

Last night I first heard someone in the game mention the titular Starfall Prophecy, which I guess has to do with an Ascended (me) and the last dragon. I’d like more details on this, but again, I’m only a very little way into the expansion proper. By jove, the unicorns will be saved and Lisa Frank will summon me to her kingdom to knight me as its protector supreme!

RIFT: Savoring Starfall Prophecy

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I’ve probably said this before, but whenever I get into a new game or open up a new MMO expansion, I do just the opposite of full steam ahead. The first session pretty much slows to a crawl as I take my time to familiarize myself with all of the changes, poke around at the pretty new intro area, take a billion screenshots, and soak in the quests and atmosphere. It’s a little unsettling when people are zipping by you left and right, but it’s how I like to play. There’s always time to rush later on — why not savor now?

I didn’t have time to play Starfall Prophecy on Wednesday when it launched, so I was already far behind the front-runners when I got in on Thursday. I probably spent the first half-hour just getting my character ready, as I used the level 65 boost to “reroll” my Rogue into a Dwarf. Then there was gearing and extra items from the promotion and creating several builds and finding the perfect costume (I love the one I picked, which is up top there). Finally, I teleported to the comet and started in on the fun.

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The comet city hub of Alittu isn’t huge, but there’s a lot more too it than first meets the eye. It’s kind of a mix of magic, technology, and Aztec-like lines. I dig it, especially this giant telescope up on the top floor of the main building.

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And it has a library. Even when I can’t read the books, I still love libraries when I find them in MMOs. Good associations, there.

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There’s this weird thing floating in the sky. Should I know what it is yet? I never know these things, because I’m always missing out on half the lore (leaky brain, you see).

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To Trion’s credit, the opening area is really lush and inviting. Kind of weird that an interstellar, interplanar comet has a full atmosphere, several biomes, plants, and animals, but weird is kind of par for the course in this game. RIFT is often a lot stranger than you might first assume from its fantasy setup.

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Soon enough, I headed into the forest. This feels like classic MMO design: Really pretty zone first, fire zone later on. I’ll enjoy it while I can.

So this forest is home to one of the most bizarre struggles, and I’m still trying to get a handle on what’s going on. Apparently there’s a bunch of evil fae and witches trying to put the hurt on “Fora,” which are sentient critters (bunnies, groundhogs, weasels, cats, and the like). At one point I got attacked by robotic versions of these things, because nothing makes you feel like a hero than having to shoot bunnies as a level 65 character.

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I may scoff at the Trapper Keeper setting, but c’mon… it’s kind of adorable too. Very much so. Look at the wee table settings!

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Giant robot thing! What is this? I have no idea. Shoot it and ask questions later.

I’m really pleased to see that Trion’s bringing back its NPC companion feature, this time giving me Shyla (I call her She-Ra) and her friend, the dragon-turned-corgi. Their side conversations are amusing and informative, although not nearly as hilarious as Khar’s were. I did get a pretty big laugh when some groundhogs were talking about tunneling down away from danger until one realized that they were on a comet and this plan was not going to end well for anyone.

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Mostly I’m fighting as a Bladedancer and trying to work out some of the kinks of my rotation. The quest reward gear is a nice upgrade from whatever basic stuff they give boosted 65s, so here’s hoping I’ll be seeing a power spike in another night or two.

Can’t wait to hit level 66 and get my first legendary power, although I only earned two bars of XP for an entire night of slow questing. What I am less happy about is the new planar fragments system, which is YET ANOTHER type of gear that we have to worry about and fuss over. RIFT, stop this. Please.

The Great MMO Corgi War of 2016

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As we all well know, Trion Worlds — and reportedly Scott Hartsman in particular — have a weird obsession with corgis. This is a thing that MMO studios seem to do, to get fixated on a particular animal (real or made up) and start putting it everywhere as a sort of mascot. DDO had the cactus, WildStar has the Rowsdowers, and even upcoming Camelot Unchained has its duck.

Well, RIFT has corgis. They’ve been around for a long while, with one being the personal pet of the Guardian king and others peppering the companion bars of players. I got my corgi, Courage, a while back through the refer-a-friend campaign. Use him all the time, too.

It used to be innocent. It used to be silly, even. But then storm clouds gathered as Blizzard saw the ray of corgi-shaped sunshine that RIFT enjoyed and decided to take it for itself.

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This week, all World of Warcraft players are being treated to their very own corgi as part of the 12th anniversary. It’s as if Blizzard was passing them out with one hand and making unkind gestures to Trion with the other. If you have something Blizzard wants, rest assured, the flurry studio will take it.

Corgis. Corgis everywhere, barking and yapping and making Scott Hartsman cry.

The only retaliation? For RIFT to place a corgi of its own in a starring role in this week’s expansion pack, Starfall Prophecy. Oh, and it’s not any ordinary corgi, oh no. It’s a talking dragon glamoured as a corgi that will be following the player character around for hours JUST BECAUSE. Does World of Warcraft have corgis that speak and can boast a draconic lineage? RIFT thinks not.

Ladies and gentlemen, the U.S.A. election may be over, but the Great Corgi War of 2016 has only begun. Countries will be laid waste, bodies heaped into mass graves, and adorable dogs will march en masse against each other.

RIFT: A belated Halloween house

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Halloween might be over in the real world (and most MMOs), but it will always live on in my RIFT dimension.

Across the stream from my warm tavern sits a hulking barn that I decided to turn into a house of horrors. Well, it seemed like a good dumping ground for anything that I got that was horror-themed. I have a long way to go with it, but I thought I’d share a few of my additions, starting with the above dead rogue who I propped up as a torch-holding sentry.

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The entryway is pretty neat — I layered a few webs about (easy to walk through) and tucked in a swinging cocoon and a spider about to drop on some unwary traveler’s head from the eves.

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I was particularly proud of this one! I took a scarecrow and plopped a lit jack-o-lantern on its head. Kind of gives me the creeps, in a good way. Behind him is my indoor pumpkin patch. One of the pumpkin decorations came with a fog effect, so that’s great for atmosphere.

RIFT: Church cyborg club

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I really wish I had known how flat-out funny and interesting RIFT’s Planetouched Wilds was (and I wish it hadn’t been so hard to get into it in the first place), because boy was I missing a wild ride over this past year. During the last few evenings, I’ve been laughing my way through several quest chains with Khar and Usukhel at my side.

How does one describe Khar? He’s kind of a weird mix of every character Patrick Warburton has voiced, a touch of Homer Simpson’s impulsivity, Conan the Barbarian, a frat boy, and a philosophy major all bundled into one party-happy, loquacious king that’s trying to rule over a land that was kicked out of alignment thanks to a cosmic rhino and gone through a very weird journey through the planes. Usukhel is, I think, easier to grapple: She’s a crude barbarian with occasional flashes of intellect and a constant driving lust.

Apparently with this zone, Trion Worlds was experimenting more with giving players constant companions to be a thread that drew quests together. This, I think, works very well. Context and lore is delivered via these two, not to mention an endless stream of bizarre conversations. According to the team, there’s about 30 or so of these side conversations that are meant to fill the player in on the area, the history, and these two figures in particular.

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All of this is so entertaining, in fact, that the “real” purpose behind our quests keeps eluding me. I think we’re trying to find special… things to beat a big bad guy, but often this devolves into nutty detours, such as rescuing Khar’s tasty flock of sheep or (and I kid you not here) punching monkeys in the face until we had to fight a giant bacon ape.

All the while, the two are bantering back and forth, talking about which faction to join (Guardians are “church” and Defiants “cyborg,” and Khar keeps mixing this up so it becomes the “Church Cyborg Club” which frankly sounds awesome).

There’s also quite a bit of meta humor, such as Khar saying when we start a quest: “I should pay some sociopath vagrant a few silver to do this!”

Because that’s what we are, in truth. Not heroes. Sociopathic vagrants.

 

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I really wasn’t kidding about the bacon ape. I’ve never fought a boss during which an ally spent so much time discussing how delicious said boss looked.

It kept getting weirder and weirder until I was half-sure I had fallen asleep and my dreams were taking the wheel. I had several hard blinks when the quests started sending us to find these seven children of some woman to get their blessings, only for Khar to realize that none of these children were human. From there it was a hop, skip, and a jump to talking about how a snake-boy could happen (and I learned way more about Usukhel’s sex life from that conversation), or a flood (“What, did she take a bath one day and get out of it pregnant?”).

One thing I love about Khar is that he has zero respect for the big serious figures, often interrupting them with his snarky commentary. “So tell me all about this zoophile single mother and all of her weird barnyard kids!”

The encounters with each of the seven children were, in their own way, priceless. Some were idiots, some were pretty chummy, and more than one took offense at Khar besmirching the good name of their mother.

“Now I realize that it’s going to be one of those kinds of days, filled with magical nonsense and boggarts.” he said at the start of all of this.

Fast-forward to Usukhel getting a death curse for something, and Khar’s even more manic sister Sevshee gleefully exclaiming that they were now death curse twins. She’s pretty off her rocker.

 

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Many of these adventures are framed by Khar’s court adviser, who keeps getting more frustrated and put-upon by his liege’s impulsive decisions. The quest to mess with the monkeys (“It’s a mad house!”) did not help things, as a plague of rabies and angry apes started roaming the countryside.

But the weird thing is that while I was prepared at the start to pigeon-hole Khar as a one-dimensional type-A jerk, the more I adventure with him, the more I see that he’s kind of a good guy with bad impulses who is leading his country through one of the strangest eras ever.

I liked how his frustration bubbled over when he talked about how the Ancestors granted everyone in zone the ability for super-jump to help out while they were dealing with dinos and the effects of the cosmic rhino. Khar goes on an epic rant about how dumb this was, saying “THEY MADE OUR HOME A BOUNCY HOUSE! AT LEAST WE WERE ALL GIVEN THE ABILITY TO JUMP AROUND LIKE MAGIC RABBITS!”

God bless you, Khar. Never change.