Try-It Tuesday: Starmourn

When it comes to the fringe world of MUDs, Iron Realms is a current powerhouse, containing several popular titles that have endured even as online players have mostly forgotten that text-based MMOs are an actual thing. The studio’s newest title, Starmourn, just released into open beta this winter and caught my attention due to its sci-fi nature and promises of engineers and hoverboards. I’ve only ever lightly tried MUDs, so I figured it was time for another go with as modern of a title as I could access.

I’ll say this for MUDs — they always seem much more concerned with getting you into the headspace of your character during the creation process than most MMORPGs. I often lament how bare bones and boring character creators are in MMOs compared to pen-and-paper RPGs, but at least Starmourn has a slew of options and encourages you to visualize your looks in your imagination rather than giving you a picture to go with it. The details go so far as to descriptive skin and eye color, although I was disappointed not to get more in the way of background and traits. I went with a Jin Engineer with a smoky skin tone in the hopes that one day I would get probes, hoverboards, and other fun toys.

Unfortunately for blogging, MUDs are not very photogenic. It’s a bunch of reading, for the most part, and by and large I enjoyed what I experienced here. The different colors of text separated quest text, other players’ presences, general descriptives, location directions, items, and so on. I think you get more used to parsing this as you play, but I found that it was a bit of an eyesore at first, especially when you got to a new area and the text kept scrolling as events unfolded. I don’t want to be speed-reading, worried that I’ll end up dead because I’m on paragraph 4 while my character is being lasered in paragraph 10.

The other problem I had with the text is that the main box is far too wide, making my eyes travel too far left and right to be comfortable. After a couple of hours playing, my eyes grew fatigued from this. Perhaps there were options to resize the center frame, but I didn’t see it.

One very nice touch was that Starmourn includes a lot of hypertext links, allowing me to bypass typing every last thing out and clicking on options when presented as well as directions on the mini-map.

So this is the general layout here, with the minimap on the upper left, character sheet ont he lower left, main screen and options in the middle, and on the right descriptions of items in the room and quests.

Starmourn started out with my character crash-landing on a planet and then falling in with a group of scoundrels while slavers came to attack the area. It’s all an extended tutorial of do this, do that, and you definitely won’t die, but I still thought it was more interesting than your standard MMO “go kill the first five mobs and return with their ears” quest. Following this, we took off and I got a confusing spaceship tutorial — and yes, the spaceships kind of move in real time, although not very fast. Plus you have to keep using various text commands that I was sure I was not going to remember, so I hoped that there would be shortcuts in the future if I got my own craft.

Eventually the game dumped me out in a large city area, and here’s where my interest started to flag. Probably one of the worst things that RPGs can do to me at the start is go “Here’s a big town, now poke around and feel lost and directionless as you’re trying to learn the game!” I sat on a bench, I stood up from a bench, I had a long chat with an AI information broker, and I took a shuttle from one part of the city to the other, all while whatever immersion the tutorial had created started to dissipate.

I have a feeling that I’ve played visual games for too long at this point in my life. I would have had a lot more patience (not to mention fascination) with a MUD like this in the 1980s or 90s, but getting over the learning hump would take a bit of a push that I’m not willing to put in right now. Still, it was interesting and made me applaud the fact that devs are still creating these kinds of games today, so check this out if it sounds interesting to you!

Try-It Tuesday: Outlaws of the Old West

While Subnautica was a pretty awesome experience, to be honest, I still ended up feeling wearing from the whole survival game “gathering and crafting” loop that is prevalent in these titles. But I was willing to risk it for a free Steam key to the Outlaws of the Old West early access, since I am craving a good western MMO-like experience.

But any hopes that there were going to be old fashioned towns and posses and quests went right out the window in the first hour, because this ended up being nothing much more than a western-flavored survival game. You know, run around like crazy hoovering up all the stuff, and then sit somewhere for a while to craft better stuff, and then you can live long enough to do it all over again.

I guess I was expecting horses and six-shooters and ten gallon hats out of the gate, but instead I got running and a slingshot and bland undergarments. Fallen Earth felt way more westerny than this, thanks to getting a horse and exploring the post-apocalyptic western frontier.

I mean, there’s some potential and promise here. I appreciate the option of PvE servers, and I had an unexpectedly great time taking down a bison with a slingshot (!). The wide-open landscape is easy on the eyes and invites one to explore. And I suppose that if I ever got to point where I had a horse and guns, I’d feel more charitable about this game.

But it’s a little too rough to recommend. User interface needs a lot of work, and there really need to be actual landmarks and destinations to discover. Subnautica and The Long Dark both had these plus narrative, but Outlaws is more like a blank slate where people can gradually make their own western playground and then, more likely than not, wander away bored. I stopped exploring after a while because I figured there wasn’t anything else to see other than more rocks, more trees, and more rivers.

Plus — and this isn’t the game’s fault itself — but I can’t help but find a multiplayer sandbox to be inferior to an MMORPG proper. I don’t want a server with up to 60 people who can’t talk in a chat channel, I want something large and massive and much more enduring. I want theme park elements to go with these sandboxy features, and would it kill the developers to start us off with some fun gear so we could fend off the random bandits that pop out of nowhere to gank us?

Try-It Tuesday: Subnautica

For a couple of months now, the Epic Games Store has been giving away a free title every two weeks. And pretty decent ones, too. It’s a shameless ploy to get people to keep the platform on their computer and check in every once in a while, and hey, free works. I’ll grab quality free stuff, and the first title that they released was Subnautica.

I’d heard good things about this survival game, but as survival games don’t typically draw me in, I wasn’t exactly rushing to try it out. But it was first up on the list I made for March, and with a few kids crowded around me, I dove into the watery world of Subnautica.

Subnautica wastes no time getting right into the action. In the first seconds, the player is ejected from the large spaceship Aurora and sent hurtling down to an ocean world in nothing more than a floating lifepod. Surrounded by thousands of miles of water on each side, alone (as far as I know) on the whole planet, and looking across the ocean at the slowly burning (and exploding) Aurora, the feeling of isolation is palpable. This game quickly taps into that fear we have of bobbing on an ocean’s surface and knowing that there’s a whole world (including some hungry critters) below our dangling feet.

The lifepod serves as a small base of operations for the starting game, and the player is sent out on repeated sorties to grab crafting mats, scan the wildlife, and look for useful wreckage from the spaceship. Inside the lifepod is a machine that generates free health kits, a fabricator that makes useful gear if fed the right mats, a small storage container, and a radio that serves as a de facto questgiver.

I said that survival games don’t usually draw me in, but Subnautica overcame that quickly. This was due in part to a few factors:

  1. The all-underwater setting is really inspired and sets this game apart visually and thematically from other survival games. It’s a different ballgame when you’re swimming and have depth and oxygen to contend with as limiting factors.
  2. It’s gorgeous. I want to keep exploring because everything is so interesting to look at.
  3. It’s a very slick game with just the right amount of UI and tight controls. The crafting doesn’t feel too complicated or cluttered, and I quickly got into the swing of moving, scanning, and resurfacing.
  4. The story — of what happened, what survived the crash, what else is out there — is really compelling to keep me playing.
  5. Plus, this title proved to be a BIG hit to my kids who loved watching it and giving me suggestions. I assigned roles to each of them, such as “bad fish spotter” and “oxygen watcher” to make everyone feel involved.

One other great factor elicited applause from me — there are multiple play modes, including one where you don’t have to worry about food or water. I put in a few hours in the regular survival mode, but honestly, the food/water feature wasn’t that hard to deal with or added much to my enjoyment of the game, so I restarted in the freedom mode instead. It still felt challenging and fun, just without the chore of cooking fish and drinking whenever my computer got grumpy about my fluid intake.

I can sense that there’s a lot to this game and plenty of hours ahead, and honestly, I’ll probably keep on playing for a good while to come. I guess it took Subnautica to convert me into a survival game player, even if for just one title.

Try-It Tuesday: Night in the Woods

In my quest to feed my voracious hunger for “walking simulators” with strong narratives, I did a pile of research and turned up a small list of games that I had yet to play. As you may surmise, Night in the Woods was one of these, and so I sprang for it earlier this month and made my way through the game over the course of a week.

Well, half of the game at least. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

It should be said that this is a weird game right from the onset, one that keeps you a little unbalanced. One of the ways that it accomplishes this is in the use of anthropomorphic characters along with actual, regular animals. Nobody addresses how there’s a world full of mice-men and dog-men and cat-men and crocodile-men co-existing, so I am guessing that these are supposed to be representing actual people, just gussied up differently for artistic purposes.

The story follows Mae, a 20-year-old cat-girl who is coming back to her Midwestern town after abruptly dropping out of college. The game follows Mae as she tries to get back into her old life while dealing with relationships that have moved on, parents who are upset at her decision, and a real world that demands people work and deal with bills. Mae doesn’t want to deal with the realities, she just wants to keep having fun, acting like a kid, and generally not growing up.

The player controls Mae over the course of several days as she wanders around her small town, gradually getting to know (and re-know) various characters and finding out that everything here has gotten a little bit worse than it was before. Or at least, worse than she remembered. Her old band accepts her back in, but Mae has to figure out where she stands with each of the members.

As I hinted earlier, I eventually gave up on Night in the Woods about halfway through. While there were moments of terrific dialogue and clever vignettes, this game doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s a game about a character spinning her wheels, and that gets so, so old after a bit. The only interesting thing that happens for a larger plot early on is that Mae finds a chopped-off arm in the street, but that isn’t brought up again over the next three hours. Then I just closed the game and deleted it.

There are a lot of elements here that, combined, make for a game that I grew to dislike greatly. For starters, I thought that the distinctive art style was honestly rather creepy. The big eyed animals didn’t emote much with their faces, leaving me to stare at those orbs and feel like I was playing a horror title.

Then there’s Mae, who I wanted to smack with a rolled-up newspaper. She’s an inconsiderate jerk who is casually cruel to a lot of people around her and obviously has issues with being responsible and taking charge of her life. I couldn’t connect with her or come to like her apart from sometimes funny stream-of-conscious dialogue.

As I said, there’s the agonizingly slow pace of the game and the lack of an overt plot. But the straw that broke me were these dream segments plugged in between each day to draw out the game. They serve no purpose other than to be occasionally frustrating platforming, and unless something is advancing the plot, I don’t see a need for it.

Anyway, whether or not Night in the Woods got great in its back half is immaterial, because it lost me in the first part. Developers and writers can’t trust that their audience will stick around forever — you gotta make something happen, and the sooner that does, the better.

Try-It Tuesday: Eldevin

Eldevin is one of those MMOs that gets mentioned when people are asking for recommendations for little-known and underrated titles. Those are the kinds of games that I’m always keeping an eye out for, so I loaded this one up over the weekend for a try.

Strange note, it turns out that I had tried this at SOME point in the past, as I had a level 2 character on the screen. I don’t recall when, and my auxiliary gaming brain (this blog) is of no help. In any case, I started with a fresh character, marveling over the low-polygon graphics.

I mean, REALLY low-poly. Eldevin gets compared a lot to RuneScape, and I can see why. Both games offer similar generic fantasy styles with low draw distance and chunky visuals. Yet both also have some measure of charm in them, and I appreciated that there was some effort here to provide world details (such as flowing sewers or ambient creatures) and a colorful setting.

Another point of comparison with RuneScape is a class-less system. In Eldevin, you start out as a generic Human adventurer like everyone else and can invest ability and talent points as you level up. Pretty standard stuff, but then again, I kind of appreciated how easy it was to understand all of the systems in Eldevin. Sometimes in MMOs we get devs who feel like they have to reinvent the wheel and make everything far more obtuse than it needs to be.

I won’t say that the opening hours were anything that amazing in this game. It’s one of those MMOs where it feels like it has to hold your hand for a long, long while, where every quest is an extended tutorial of some sort. About the most interesting part was when I was sent through a portal into some sort of void dimension that felt like the “dark world” from Zelda.

Combat is… well, it’s there. Since you can pick your playstyle, the game encourages you to try out melee, magic, and archery to your heart’s content. I settled on archery, mostly because it was enjoyable to sit back and thwip-thwip-thwip hogs and beetles to death. On a weird side note, the auto-attack in this game is obscenely fast. Like this would be rapid fire in other MMOs, but here your guy is just going nuts. I think it may be the fastest auto-attack I’ve ever seen.

A nice player came along and took pity on my noobness by donating an entire vanity set of Santa Claus gear to me. Nothing like bringing Christmas cheer into March, I say! Ho-ho-ho.

One early quest that showed potential had me diving into multiple levels of a goblin cave to rescue “Mandreke’s Wife.” Pause for recognition. Yeah, it’s a cheap World of Warcraft joke, but hey, I smiled. And it was weird because the lady refused to be rescued, instead complaining that her husband should come down and rescue him herself. He, in turn, sent a letter and an amulet as an apology. The game let me choose whether or not to keep the amulet (I did), which was a nice touch. And the boss fight with a hobgoblin was the first fight I’d had in the game where a critter didn’t die in under a half-second.

Still in the throes of tutorials — and I promise you, I’d been trucking for a good solid two hours here — I found myself taking a self-guided tour all over the main city while my character provided narration (?!) as to the locales I’d passed. The end result of this was a little teleport token that I could use to return to the city, which I would probably never do because I’m not a big fan of fantasy cities to begin with.

From my early experience, Eldevin is a nice but forgettable MMO that manages to get the basics right without doing anything that interesting or different. I mean, it’s adequate, but how can I recommend adequate when there are other MMOs that do pretty much everything here but better? It’s cute, it’s inoffensive, and it’s at least understandable, which is more than I can say for some titles. But I doubt I’ll be coming back.

Try-It Tuesday: Torchlight Frontiers (alpha)

One of the (few) perks of being in the gaming media is occasionally getting a key for a game that you genuinely want to try out, and this past week I was the recipient of a Torchlight Frontiers alpha code. Now normally I wouldn’t go for an alpha, but Torchlight is one of my most-anticipated games this year, and I was pretty restless due to all of the DDO/LOTRO downtime. So why not?

And for a game that’s in alpha, TF is looking pretty slick. Apart from some placeholder art in the intro, I don’t think I encountered any bugs or rough spots while playing it. As a Diablo clone, the barrier to learning it is very low — you can literally play this entire game one-handed if you want, especially if you have a gaming mouse. Click to move, click to attack, reap rewards, repeat.

There were only two classes/races on hand, so I went with the steampunk robot because IT IS A STEAMPUNK ROBOT. That has a chest cannon. And can fire a blanket of burning coals. And has a pet llama.

As I said, everything is very slick here. It looks great, especially if you like the vibrant cartoon color style that this series is well known for, and I couldn’t help but being charmed by all of the character and mob animations. Watching little gobbos crawl in from a rock face or jump out of a tent felt a lot more natural than just seeing a host of mobs fading into existence.

Sure, it’s heavily instanced — although there are public areas and hubs — and it’s very much a combat clicker at the core. But the wardrobe and housing system give me hope for something beyond that. Speaking of housing, I love the fact that the game gave me a fort within the first 10 minutes. It felt like a cross between WoW’s garrisons and WildStar’s housing plot, in terms of both being able to decorate it and having a lot of functional workstations lying around. There’s also a lot of crafting in the game, although I haven’t quite gotten into that yet.

The first dungeon I ran was a total cakewalk — an enjoyable one, but a cakewalk nonetheless — until I got to the boss. Then I had to sit up and actually try hard, because his high health bar, attacks, and the ability to raise mobs from the dead kept me dancing around and hitting my potions on cooldown while trying to win the day. Which I did, because I’m awesome. Yay Syp, you beat a level 1 dungeon. Songs will be sung in your honor until the end of time.

All in all, the past weekend in TF has reassured me that this is going to be a fun time waster whenever it comes out this year. I’m looking forward to it more than ever now, but as I am wont to do, now that I satisfied my curiosity I won’t touch it until release. Which I hope won’t be too, too long!

Try-It Tuesday: Commander Keen

So here’s something a lot of old school PC gamers won’t readily admit: We were downright jealous of console games and the fluid action that they could produce. Oh, PCs still had a vast advantage in game selection and genres, and if you were all about RPGs, adventure games, strategy titles, and so many more, you were in heaven. But PCs kind of stunk when it came to producing really smooth platforming, and that left us envious of the NES, Super Mario Bros., and the like.

This is why the shareware revolution — particularly with Apogee, id, 3D Realm, and Epic Games — were a huge hit in the early 90s. Finally, our computers could handle console-like platforming — and finally we had studios making games just as good as most of what we’d seen our friends play.

The Commander Keen series in particular became a hugely beloved franchise on the computer for really solid platforming and a cheeky personality. It put you in the role of a Calvin-esque kid with a huge football helmet and a Pipboy arm computer who was the last line of defense against alien invaders. The first couple of games were… fine… for the most part. I got the complete collection off of Steam a few weeks ago to refresh my memory, and I wasn’t too impressed with the earlier efforts in this series. It still felt a little basic and rough, not to mention unattractive to behold and horrible on the ears.

Yet when I loaded up “Goodbye Galaxy,” the floodgates of nostalgia crashed open. THIS right here was the Keen game I had played for hours on end as a kid, and instantly I was reminded why. It’s so wonderfully put together, from the ability to keybind (which, hey, wasn’t a given back then) to the Pong-like extra game in the menu.

The idea here is that you get to walk around on a world map to beat levels and slowly unlock new areas. There’s some element of choice in which levels you tackle first, although you can’t just go nuts. Keen only has a couple of items at his disposal — a pogo stick for extra jumping and a ray gun with limited ammo. But that’s pretty much all he needs, really.

Right here was one of my favorite things when I was a kid: Seeing Keen get exasperated when I’d stop playing for a while. Actually, the animations are what really make this game, as both Keen and the goofy aliens exude so much personality and have a lot of range in their motions. Keen can swing down poles, grab onto ledges, and do other Mario-like feats. Platforming is really hard to get right, especially back then, but by this game, Apogee had it down to a science.

I really enjoyed exploring the areas, too. I think that’s part of the fun of these games, that you are more wrapped up with poking around and seeing all that there is in any level instead of trying to blitz through it as fast as possible.

Probably my only complaint is that Keen gets killed in one hit, forcing a level restart upon that event. That got annoying when I’d get really far into a level and then, bam, a bad jump or a worm slime took me to my grave and I was back at the beginning with one less life on hand. A couple of hit points or unlimited lives might’ve been a better way to go, but this was back in the more hardcore days, so I guess I can’t be too surprised.

Anyway, a delightful return to a favorite childhood series, and one that I think I’ll be showing my own kids to see what they make of it.