LOTRO: The North Ithilien tourist

Today I feel like gushing a bit about Lord of the Rings Online’s North Ithilien zone, because I feel like it’s one of the most attractive (definitely in the top five) zones in the game right now.

I wasn’t expecting too much, since other Gondor zones ranged from “adequate” to “battle scarred,” but this one really surprised me. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t really paying attention when it was first added to the game (not having been playing at the time), or perhaps it’s because this zone shares a mountainous border with Mordor, a land not renowned for its pristine beauty.

But North Ithilien? It has been a joy to quest in, just for the uplifting visuals.

The zone is a strip of land that rests between the mountain range and the Great River, so there’s a pretty severe downslope going from east to west. It’s kind of a Swiss Alps meets Mediterranean atmosphere, with great vistas around you most of the time.

Going about this zone, I’m reminded of one thing that LOTRO does really well, which is to create outdoor spaces that feel more wild and natural than what I usually get in MMOs. Lots of varied and leafy undergrowth, interesting trees, and landscape that looks like something that formed over time rather than cooked up in a dev lab to be jigsawed together with other random areas.

My only complaint about North Ithilien (other than the whole flower picking thing, but that’s another post) is that the river gorges and rocky terrain can make it a little more difficult than I’d like going north to south or vice versa, especially when off the road.

Can’t have a LOTRO zone without ruins, even in the “Garden of Gondor!” I always try to envision what these places looked like in the height of their glory.

I love good examples of environmental storytelling, like in this area. There are burned tree trunks and mounds of bones, but all of it is overgrown, suggesting a nasty battle and possible Orc occupation a while ago.

Orc runes carved into one of the trees. Wonder what it says (“GROK WAZ HERE!”).

This troll must’ve been caught unaware in the sunlight and turned into stone. You can see that the moss has started to grow on his chest, suggesting that a good amount of time has passed.

I feel that the zone is hard to capture in screenshots… it just feels much more pretty and alive when you are there.

Meanwhile, Gandalf turns to the north — to the Black Gate and our destiny. It’s a sober reminder that the beauty behind us may be our last for a good long time.

World of Warcraft: Getting to know the Pandas

So I’ve gotten to a point with my Death Knight that she doesn’t really have any normal quest lines left to complete in Legion until 7.2. Everything in my quest log is either raid- or mythic-related, so I guess I need to start dipping into that content a little more than I have been. Haven’t even done that Illidan thing yet because I need 80 dungeon doohickeys that are mostly shelled out in mythics.

I went to look for mythic runs the other night but came up wanting, which is when a guildie reminded me that most people were probably doing all of the Mists of Pandaria timewalking dungeons this week. And even though I wrote a news piece on that earlier this week, it had slipped my mind. So I jettisoned my mythic aspirations and went timewalking instead (bonus: the LFG works so much better for timewalking dungeons than mythics).

For many players, getting MoP timewalking into the rotation was a blast from the past. For me, it’s a brand-new experience. I wasn’t really around for the end of Wrath, all of Cataclysm, all of Pandaria, and the first year and a half of Draenor. There’s this huge gap of personal experience in WoW that I have, which means that dungeons everyone has run a billion times before are still wondrous to me. Guess I can solve that right quick by chain-running them!

There wasn’t really anything I wanted or needed with the time badges, but I figure that (a) it can’t hurt to stock up for when I do want to spend them, (b) it’d be neat to see Pandaria dungeons, and (c) transmog, transmog, transmog. My wardrobe options are limited and I’m a little too lazy to be doing dungeon runs where I actually have to travel to where the dungeon is.

I did a string of five runs for the weekly quest (which netted me a very nice titanforged ilevel 885 boots), and in that time, I feel like I sampled what it must have been like at the end of Pandaria’s expansion cycle. Everyone knew the dungeons by heart, no one talked, everyone blitzed, and I was gamely trotting along and trying to look like I fit in while secretly taking screenshots and being a total tourist.

I’m kind of ambivalent about Pandaria even today. I think it was a pretty enough expansion and more cohesive than Cataclysm, but the heavy dose of eastern aesthetic and design feels weirdly out of place in World of Warcraft. Almost like it’s a different game. And I never warmed up the Pandaran race, either. I don’t hate them, but I’d never voluntarily pick one to play and I honestly don’t see many running around in Legion.

Interestingly enough, almost all of my runs featured a Monk healer, which has sort of renewed my interest in leveling one. The spell effects look cool and there’s enough HoTs in there to appease my healing style. But dare I add a third character to my play schedule or bump one of the other two to the backburner? Eh, it’s all a game.

Duke Nukem 3D: The Abyss

(This is part of my journey going checking out Duke Nukem 3D. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

After a not-so-charming trip through a toxic waste dump, Duke has arrived at the abyss. He stared into it, the abyss stared back, and the abyss flinched. What am I waiting for, Christmas?

The random cliff cactus here actually hurts you if you run into it. Innovation!

I’m starting to worry that this initial mission pack of the game front-loaded all of its really interesting and inventive levels, because now I’m in a (yawn) desert canyon with ramps and the worst soundtrack ever. What happened to the cinema and the electric chair? This is… so… dull.

Hey, random plaque in the middle of the desert for no reason! I’m sure this isn’t going to foreshadow anything…

…except that massive earthquake that just reshaped the entire level.

This is just a horrible level: Dull, confusing, lots of twisty turny paths in the dark, lots of vertical space in a game that makes it hard to see up and down, etc. And there’s just so little of it that’s interesting from a tourist standpoint!

Then when I see something interesting, such as this spaceship/portal thing, I can’t figure out how to get there. ARGH.

At last, I’m able to find a hatch and invite myself inside the alien craft. A really nice fellow by the name of Jeff greeted me and we had tea. By which I mean that I rocket-slapped this octobrain across six dimensions.

Is… is this door mooning me? Aliens got weird interior decoration notions, let me say.

In the inner sanctum of the alien ship is the boss — a Battlelord. Very big, ugly, and well-armed guy blasting away. After a disappointing level, this turns out to be a terrifically fun fight. The room is large, stocked with ammo, there’s lava, secrets, and even a jet pack if you want to fly around. This guy soaks up bullets and rockets like nobody’s business, but in the end, the Duke prevails.

And with that, Duke finishes up his first campaign… but the war isn’t over yet. It is for me, however. I think one campaign was enough to revisit this game and remember what it felt like to play. Even today, Duke Nukem 3D is a wickedly enjoyable shooter, full of personality, great guns, clever gadgets, and mostly well-done level design.

Vote: What retro games would you like to see covered?

As I wrap up the Duke Nukem 3D series this week, I’m looking through my GOG library and trying to prioritize some of the titles that I would ideally like to cover over the next year. I thought I’d list the ones I’m looking at for you along with my thoughts on them, and then ask you to fill out a short poll to pick the one(s) that you would like to see me play and blog about the most.

1. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

I’ve played this lesser-known KOTOR game a few times in the past — but never beaten it. It’d make for a very interesting playthrough, what with all its grey morality, although it could be incredibly long too.

2. Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines

Probably the only vampire game that I’ve ever liked, Bloodlines was downright inventive and gripping from start to finish. Who wouldn’t want to see me play an insane vamp roaming the town looking for new blood?

3. Day of the Tentacle

There are some “classics” that I’ve never had the privilege to play in the LucasArts library, and this is one of them. I have the new remastered version, although I might want to play the original instead for purity’s sake and all that. Heard it’s incredibly funny.

4. Sam and Max Hit the Road

Pretty much the same as above: I’ve heard awesome things about this game but never picked it up, for some reason. I love doing adventure games for retro playthroughs, because they offer the best screenshots and ongoing story.

5. Deus Ex

A FPS/RPG in the vein of System Shock 2 that offered a surprising number of options and paths to progressing through the story. Definitely one of the more well-known classics of its time and I am interested to see how it’s held up over the years.

6. Colonization

One of my college strategy favorites, even more so than Civilization. I’d need to reaquaint myself with all of the systems and screens, but from there it would be the story of Syp’s struggle for independence and liberty in the New World.

7. The Sims

As you might have guessed from this morning’s post, the Sims are very much on my mind lately. I don’t have my old disks but I managed to pick up a cheap copy of the original to revisit one of my favorite PC games of all time. Anyone up for drowning people in swimming pools?

So now it’s your turn: choose as many of these games in the following poll so that I can see where interest lies and perhaps adjust my plans accordingly.

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!