Star Control 2: The meaning of life, the universe, and everything

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(This is part of my journey going checking out Star Control 2. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Next up on my interstellar scavenger hunt to build the perfect bomb is the Aqua Helix. The good news: I know where it is. The bad news: It’s an ancient, revered relic of the Thraddash and guarded by an infinite number of their ships.

To get them to move away from the planet, I simply have to wait for the war between the Thraddash and the Ilwrath (which I started) to play out. This takes a while. Yawn. Just for fun, I take my souped-up ship against the infinite fleet and see how many I can take out before being destroyed. I think I was around 21 or so.

While I’m waiting, I make a quick portal stop back at Earth to offload minerals and restock. I’m out of free fuel credits and my RUs are starting to dip on the low side (I can only afford one of the new Chmmr ships, to my shame). I should go find some moneys.

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The war drags on for about four months until the Ilwrath are pretty much non-existent and the Thraddash are completely extinct. Poor space warthogs, I kind of liked them. Anyway, free Aqua Helix for me!

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Hey, I’ve never met these jolly folks before! Say hello to the Utwig, who are just as cheery and optimistic as Marvin from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Also, they have the worst racial music of the game. It’s like the composer let his four-year-old son just bang on the keyboard for a while.

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So depressed are the Utwig that, right off the bat, they’re talking about suicide and self-harm. Maybe it’s because they’re trying to emulate Cobra Commander’s earlier costume design? That would bum anyone out.

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The reason for this melancholy is that the Utwig had the “Ultron,” some sort of device that had ALL the answers… and they broke it. Naturally, I responded diplimatically:

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God bless you, Star Control 2, for being a beacon of light in my dark life.

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Nearby, another race, the Supox, are pretty much the polar opposite. Cheery plant creatures with a kick-butt soundtrack.

The Supox are friends and allies of the Utwig, and they fill me in about the Ultron. Apparently it’s a piece of junk that the Utwig paid a “planet’s ransom” for, but the Supox didn’t say anything because having it made the Utwig happy. When the Ultron broke, the Utwig gave it to the Supox, who now give it to me to fix.

So those parts I’ve been collecting? They all repair the Ultron. Funny, that! Now I’ve got a fixed Ultron in my possession and a race to make happy.

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Yeah, he’s a happy camper.

Now that the Utwig have found their purpose, they and the Supox become my allies and go off to attack the bad guys to buy me more time. As a bonus, I get the location of their super-bomb for my mission to destroy the precursor battle platform. Yay me!

LOTRO: Bushwacking through levels

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Back when I was doing geocaching more often, I sometimes had to veer off the beaten path to go bushwacking — pushing through bushes, trees, tall grass, etc. — to get to my destination. It was slow-going and sometimes annoying, but it also made me feel just a tiny bit like I was pioneering my own path.

Now that I’ve switched over to my Lore-master to level up as a main and try to get her prepped for Moria before this year’s expansion, I find myself doing a curious kind of bushwacking in LOTRO.

The last time I was playing the LM was two years ago. I wrote in February 2015 that I had made the decision to let her go in favor of the Captain, worried that I wasn’t going to get caught up in the content fast enough. Now I’m even further behind… but there is hope.

What I had been doing with the LM previous to that decision was primarily leveling her up via the epic storyline, eschewing side and zone quests for this focus and supplementing the XP loss with XP pots and a back item that had a permanent boost on it. It’d actually gone well, although slowly but surely the epic started outpacing me in levels. When I came back a couple of weeks ago, the epic was three levels ahead of me. Then five. I could still do them, mind you, because the LM’s pets are nothing short of insane, but I worried about what would happen when the level disparity grew too great.

This came to a head on Tuesday, when I wrapped up a chapter and the next quest was silver to me. I was only level 84 and the quest was 91. I needed to get to 86 to access it. I didn’t want to backtrack and find a quest hub, but instead tried out some of the instances as a solution. First up was skirmishes, but after one of those I had pretty much had my fill. Instead, I turned to a suggested farming method, the warg pens. Basically, you just fight your way through wargs to the first boss, then exit and reset. By doing this, you complete two (repeatable) dungeon quests and get a good chunk of XP.

This actually worked. Took me about an hour or so, but after four runs, I blasted from 85 to 86 and got back on the epic track. I’ll have to keep this in my back pocket for the next time I hit a wall in the storyline.

Another great source of encouragement this week in the game was getting a letter from a kinmate, who told everyone that he was happy to craft legendary items. I sent a request for some level 100 LIs for the Lore-master (planning ahead), and he turned around and wowed me by crafting a pair of not second-age LIs, but first-agers. I’ve never owned a first-age LI in this game — I wouldn’t even know how to go about getting one these days — and that kindness just stunned me. I can’t wait until I get up to 100 to be able to equip and use them.

There are parts of the epic that I’m not particularly looking forward to doing again, in particular the epic battles, traversing the streets of Minas Tirith, and the dreariness of Osgiliath, but the fun of the class and the goal that I’ve set have spurred me onward. Plus, it’s kind of great to be back in Rohan, revisiting this gorgeous country and taking screenshots like a nerdy tourist.

Falling damage in MMOs

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The other day GamingSF had a post on a subject that I was actually thinking about recently: whether or not falling damage was a good thing in MMORPGs. He notes how some MMOs have it, while others (notably RIFT and The Secret World) have elected to do away with it.

So is it better to have the possibility of death or injury from falling in an MMO or is it simply more fun to suspend this element of reality and let players plummet to their heart’s content without worry of having gravity smack them on the face?

I think the right (and probably weasely) answer is, “It depends on the game.” Some games simply work better without falling damage. It makes sense that TSW doesn’t have it, because your character is basically a superhero anyway, and superheroes aren’t usually concerned with stubbing their toes when they trip. They’re big-picture characters. I feel that RIFT’s decision to elect out of falling damage (it used to have it on launch) made the game more fun to explore, especially in light of (a) our characters are “ascended” and virtually superheroes anyway, and (b) there are no flying mounts yet lots of vertical spaces.

LOTRO is interesting in that it not only has some falling damage, but also tacks on a debuff (which slows you down for up to 45 seconds) to mimic a sprained ankle or broken bone. In fleeing an enemy and jumping off something, I always have to judge whether or not it might be worth the drop to do so.

Putting together a pros and cons list for falling damage as a mechanic:

In favor of falling damage

  • It forces players to take the game world/environment more seriously and turns the environment into a challenge that must be navigated and conquered successfully
  • It allows devs to add skills, traits, and fun items that help to counter this threat, giving players utility tools in their exploration
  • It can imbue the game world with a feeling or sense of realism that mirrors our own (we instinctively understand that falling from a great height = bad from our own real-life experience)
  • In PvP situations, it gives players another way to vanquish their foes
  • In worlds that have flying, falling damage feels more fair to have since flight counters it. It also makes flight seem like a better value since it’s overcoming that danger

In favor of freefall bliss

  • It removes a frustration and obstacle to exploration, which in turn encourages players to poke around the world and not be afraid of it
  • It provides another option to traversing zones, even giving players a strategic option (to climb up high and then jump down on top of their destination or hard-to-reach places)
  • It takes away instant death from falling and annoying or impossible corpse runs resulting from that death
  • It’s a game, after all, and designers have the freedom to choose which rules to implement and which to exclude
  • In non-flying MMOs, it’s a nice consolation prize
  • It helps out immensely if you’re doing platforming or jumping puzzles and miss a jump

Generally I’d come down on the side of just not wanting it most of the time, but I think some MMO worlds would feel less authentic and more “gamey” if it was removed. I wouldn’t want it gone in LOTRO, for example, and WildStar’s exploration path needs all of the environmental challenge it can get.

As a player who jumps between MMOs frequently, I will say that it is not always easy to keep track of which game allows for unlimited falls and which penalize me for it. I’ve plummeted to my death more than a few times because I forgot which game I was in and just jumped off cliffs with wild abandon.

World of Warcraft: I found the Game Over screen

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Instead of being scattered across a universe of MMOs this past weekend, I gave myself permission to deep dive into World of Warcraft with the intent of finishing up the Suramar campaign and getting Broken Isles Pathfinder part 1. Sometimes I like to see bursts of progress, and I’ve found that with these city quests, it’s best that I go into them for hours at a time rather than a half-hour here and there.

While I didn’t quite get to the end, I did make tremendous progress, wrapping up three of the remaining five story arcs needed for the achievement. One of those was quite time consuming, requiring me to farm ancient mana and then go all over the place to activate ley line nodes. The finish line is definitely in sight and I’m charging forward.

I’ve started to realize that my character is kind of at the end of the core Legion content, a realization that took me by surprise. I’ve maxed out all of my order hall research and upgrades. I have well over 20,000 order hall resources for gold missions. I’ve finished my order hall and class campaigns. I’ve filled out every node on my artifact weapon. I have exalted on all of the major reputations for the expansion. My mining is maxed out and herbalism is getting there (I had to restart from 0, so being in the 600s feels pretty good). My account is paid up through the end of March and I have two WoW tokens in the bank. And my DK is rocking about an 856 item level with two legendaries, which I think is respectable considering I’ve mostly just been doing world quests for gear upgrades.

When I get to the end of the Suramar missions, I’m going to be at an interesting place where my character will have kind of hit the “Game Over” screen… at least until Patch 7.2. The path forward for gear upgrades is mythic dungeons, and since my guild doesn’t regularly do those and there’s no LFG tool (whyyyy is there no LFG tool, seriously), I’m probably not going to be grinding out incremental gear upgrades. I could focus on cosmetic acquisitions, but truth be told, I’ll probably log in to do her emissary quests a couple of times a week and wait until there’s a new zone released.

This means that I might be on the cusp of being able to work on an alt (most likely my Hunter) without feeling like I’m procrastinating on any serious projects. It might even be relaxing to not have to rush through content or catch up, but just to enjoy the journey again and see how far I can go.

I’m going to give some thought to further projects and maybe do a little research about them. There’s never any shortage of things to do, but some are more profitable or personally interesting than others.

Retro Reprise Episode 9: 8-Bit Castlevania

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Candles will no longer haunt Syp’s dreams — Simon Belmont is here to whip them out of existence once and for all! Oh, and also Dracula. In today’s show, Castlevania on the NES gets the star treatment as Syp dives into the music from the gothic horror platformer trilogy.

Episode 9: 8-bit Castlevania (show page, direct download)

  • Intro (feat. “Mansion” from Castlevania II)
  • “Vampire Killer” from Castlevania
  • “Starker” from Castlevania
  • “Wicked Child” from Castlevania
  • “Out of Time” from Castlevania
  • “Bloody Tears” from Castlevania II
  • “The Silence of the Daylight” from Castlevania II
  • “Beginning” from Castlevania III
  • “Deja Vu (Vampire Killer)” from Castlevania III
  • “Stream” from Castlevania III
  • Outro (feat. “Stage Clear” from Castlevania III)

Try-It Tuesday: Asheron’s Call

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Try-It Tuesdays is a (semi) regular weekly feature in which I take a break from my current roster of games to play something new (to me) for an evening. You can check out past Try-It Tuesday adventures here or submit a suggestion for a future title in the comments!

It’s 2017, and I am playing Asheron’s Call, an MMO from 1999, for the very first time. And, considering that it’s due to be shut down at the end of the month, this will likely be my last time in it too.

Reader Joneseh sent me a tweet a couple of weeks back offering me the use of his account to check out Asheron’s Call while it was still up and running (something I could not do on my own, since you can’t make a new AC account these days). It’s always been on my MMO bucket list to check out — and if not now, then never. So I carved out an evening and went exploring in this member of the class of first-generation 3D graphical MMOs.

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Right from the get-go, you can tell that Asheron’s Call is a different sort of fantasy MMO. For starters, look at its racial options here. There’s a clear lack of boring fantasy tropes and a whole lot of alien weirdness. I went as weird as I could and chose an Olthoi Soldier, because who WOULDN’T want to play a giant bug?

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As much fun as it was chittering around (my son got a kick out of seeing me be a bug), I had no idea what I was doing and soon got natural selection’d by a bunch of bigger insects. Serves me right for choosing an “advanced” class. Time to reroll something a bit more basic!

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This time I went with an Umbraden, which were notable for their completely black skin and absence of legs. Instead, my character just has a cloud for buttocks, genitals, and lower limbs, which is another oddity in my MMO experience.

AC doesn’t have classes, as its a free-form skill-building MMO, but you can choose a set template to get started. I went with a Bow Hunter, because I figured winging things with a crossbow sounded simple and satisfying. I was kind of right in this regard.

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From there, I went into a proper tutorial zone, completely with much-needed walkthroughs of the game’s various systems and controls. I’d say that a bulk of the stress that comes with picking up and trying to play a classic MMO for the first time in a modern era is trying to figure out how everything works, as none of these games followed the same sort of control scheme that most MMOs we know today typically do.

About half of the keys and controls functioned as I would’ve expected, although I didn’t quite have mastery over the camera as I would’ve liked, and having to click on an icon to enter combat mode and then clicking to select a type of attack was kind of off-putting. Slow, too. And it made me wonder if characters ever got special skills or if this was a game of auto-attacking and little else when it comes to non-magical combat.

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“You see, we have ways of making NPCs talk. Mostly by threatening them with a crossbow bolt to the head.”

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Sometimes the game threw rainbow fireworks shows for my entertainment. I think this was when I accomplished something or ate a unicorn.

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By the end of the tutorial, I was starting to get a feel for Asheron’s Call. Zipping through an insect hive, I was taking out bugs left and right while searching for the one that had this protection orb I needed.

One thing I noticed that’s different about AC is that there’s absolutely no music. It’s sound design isn’t too shabby, although in the absence of any other noise, the periodic sound effects can be startling.

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Eventually I graduated the tutorial and entered the world proper. At no point did I encounter any other players or see any in chat, so it felt kind of lonely. Still, there was a huge landmass to explore and I had nothing keeping me bound to any particular area. Let’s go on a road trip!

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This was a neat find: a playable in-game chess set using monster models for pieces. Alas, there was no one around to play with.

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Asheron’s Call has remarkably crude graphics and has aged a lot worse than EverQuest (which has gotten graphic upgrades over the years) and Ultima Online (which always kind of looked great due to its isometric sprites). Yet I found myself kind of charmed by them. I think it’s because they are very colorful, that this isn’t a dull fantasy setting, and that this world invites exploration. Even with all of the fixtures popping into existence, I kept wanting to see what was over the next hill.

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I encountered this “reformed bandit” who politely shooed me away as he was expecting company. What was THAT about? I wanted to know more of his story!

And when I went in his house, suddenly I started hearing these thundering footsteps like a stampede rushing at me… but there was nothing in or outside that I could see. Weird.

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The further afield I got, the weirder and more aggressive the creatures became. Here I am, going about my own business, being karate-kicked by a furry and chomped on by a floating doll mask. Excuse me, a virtuous doll mask.

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In Asheron’s Call, 10 rats kill you!

After being slaughtered by very aggressive rodents, I felt like my visit to this game was at an end. Fare thee well, Asheron’s Call. You seemed kind of odd and interesting, and I regret not having played you back 2001 when I picked up a copy of you in Media Play and contemplated entering the MMO scene. At least I can see why I like Project Gorgon so much, since it has this same spirit of exploration and mix-and-match character building to it.

World of Warcraft: 8 things I love about playing an Unholy Death Knight

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I’ve come to the personal conclusion that maining an Unholy Death Knight in the Legion expansion was a really great pick for me. I was more leaning the Hunter route during the Draenor days, but I couldn’t be happier with my katana-wielding, necromantic space goat. Here is a reason why. And another reason. And six more past that.

1. Death Grip

My contentment with the class stems from the sum of its parts: It just all meshes so very well together to make a character that’s a whole lot of fun to play. Death Grip helps with that, yanking enemies from yards away right into melee range. I use this all the time to grab a second or third mob and quickly position it inside of my AOE fields. Speaking of which…

2. AOE madness

Hitting a lot of mobs at once is a great feeling, especially when you’re doing that as an AOE DOT. The combination of my plague and the big red circle o’ death means that I can wade into a pack of bad guys and take them down near-simultaneously. As a part of the core combat of this build, it’s deeply satisfying to unleash again and again and again. Also, being able to toss out an outbreak long-distance to AOE tag a whole bunch of mobs is wonderful when I need to tag things for quests.

3. Pet frenzy

Believe it or not, but the pet situation for the Unholy DK got way better in Legion. Depending on the fight, I have a minimum of two pets and a maximum of… 20? I think? There’s my abomination (which always boasts great names like Burpface), my skeletal archer, the occasional exploding zombie, the Valkyr summons, and two different ways to pull up a small army of skeletons. None of them are tanks or do a massive amount of DPS by themselves, but they’re great assistants and can come together to form a Voltron of pain.

4. Wraith Walk

I am a massive fan of this skill, which lets me have a short-duration 100% speed boost every minute or so. It’s far more useful than I first thought, less for being a true travel skill and more for sprinting over to a place quickly, having some sort of speed boost underground, or getting out of a bad situation. The cooldown is short enough to be able to use this almost always when I need it, and I even extended its duration via traits.

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5. Path of Frost

Along the topic of travel powers, there is practically nothing so helpful in that department than to be able to strut across water like you own the place. Especially when flight is still off the table. Canals become paths, ponds become shortcuts, and oceans become escape zones. The Broken Isles have a lot of water all over the place, and this comes in handy quite often as a result. I love activating it while swimming, jumping up on top of the water, then mounting for a quick ride to my destination.

6. Mage-buster

I guess one of the roles that the DK is supposed to fill is that of the mage-buster, and in this regard, it does fairly well. I have a nice interrupt (then again, who doesn’t?), can Death Grip for a second interrupt, and can activate my anti-magic shield to give me an edge in a fight with spellcasters. Again, it’s situational, but the situation comes up often enough for this to be proved useful instead of useless.

7. The look

I’ll admit that I’m not above being a sucker for looking good, and the DK has that in spades. I’m not talking about all of the hulking gothic armor (I prefer a light-and-lithe ensemble, myself), but rather the look of the class’ skills and pets. It’s not your typical dark necromancer, but rather a hard-hitting general who wades into a fight with a two-handed sword with an undead army at her back.

8. Survivability

Finally, I am just so hard to kill, I make John McClaine jealous. Not impossible, mind you, but there have been so many fights that I thought I should’ve been toast and yet squeaked out a victory even so. Having a skill that heals me as I attack helps, as does the heavy armor, Draenei self-healing, and the legendary that makes my anti-magic shield a thing of beautiful healing protection, but again it really is the sum of the parts that makes this work. Less deaths equals a less frustrated player wading through content being content. That made sense in my head, at least.