The three types of MMO winter zones


Winter’s been on my mind more lately, partially because the season has turned to fall here in Michigan and partially because I’ve been adventuring through Whitevale this past week on my Medic.

Generally, I like winter. I’m weird that way, but I think it’s important to find something that you love in all of the seasons instead of taking sides and preferring one at the expense of loathing another. After all, if I’m going to be saddled with three or four months of snow and ice, I should make peace with it. And I do: I love the look of snow, the whole lead-up to Christmas, the coziness of sitting inside somewhere warm while the wind is howling outside, wearing winter clothes and jackets, and having fun with my kids outside. There’s a simple pristine beauty that winter can demonstrate that the other seasons can’t.

So I’m also drawn to winter zones in MMOs. We make a lot of jokes about how MMOs have been using the same generic biomes that have been in video games since the days of the NES, but to be fair, many designers do come up with different twists and shades of those biomes that end up putting each in their own categories. So it is with winter areas.

There are the “Christmas” winter zones, as I like to call them. These are welcoming, bright, and full of fluffy snow. WildStar’s Whitevale is a great example of this. Plenty of cozy and inviting settlements with traditionally festive winter activities — building snowmen, for example — and lights and vivid pine trees. The sky is bright, the air is clear, and one wishes that one had a snowmobile to travel around on.

Alternatively and less rare are the “desolate” winter zones. Winter here isn’t a set dressing, it’s a nasty force of nature that’s out to oppress and kill. Lots of ice, mountins, howling snow, blizzards, frozen landscapes, and few if any settlements. LOTRO’s Misty Mountains could fit into this category, or perhaps SWTOR’s Hoth.

Then you have the “Scandanavian” zones, which can be a mix of the above two, but throw in the northern lights, more greenery, and some jagged fjords. There’s a different sort of beauty here, one that’s wild and breathtaking and bold. These areas have more moose and bears and other tundra/boreal forest fauna. World of Warcraft’s Howling Fjord is a prime example.

There are probably more divisions than these, but the above three are the ones that I commonly notice in MMOs. Which is your favorite?

I’m worried about Sword Coast Legends

I wouldn’t say that I’m pinning all of my hopes on Sword Coast Legends — WildStar, SWTOR, and Fallout 4 are there this fall no matter what — but after the premature demise of Shadow Realms, it’s been the co-op DM experience I’ve been anticipating.

Early reports of SCL were good. Lots of strong word-of-mouth, even as recently as PAX. I had no problem with pre-ordering the game based on that, especially since Steam had a discount that made it just a little over $30. But now my faith in this game is a bit shaken based on this past weekend and today’s announcement of a delay.

If you didn’t hear, SCL held a head start weekend that was really just a two-day stress test of an unfinished build of the game. All pre-orders were welcome to attend, so I jumped in on Saturday with the hopes of writing some grand saga on Monday. Obviously, this didn’t happen.

There were things I liked — the character creation looks promising (even if the classes are the blandest of D&D bland), the graphics appealing, and the co-op at least functional. But I felt confused the entire time and frustrated with the controls. I wasn’t sure which menu option to pick to get a live DM campaign (were they running?) and instead ended up in a couple of groups running non-DM dungeons. There was no roleplaying, no big story, just a dungeon crawl with some fights. I felt like I wasn’t getting it, and in a game that you want to understand and like, that’s a big problem.

Also, can someone explain the controls? Sometimes hitting a skill button once and then clicking a target fired it off (healing spells worked okay). Sometimes I had to jam on a skill TWICE after clicking a target. It felt inconsistent and awkward. I ended up auto-attacking with flame cantrips nearly the entire time.

I also really, really disliked how loot — at least in the dungeons I visited — was first-come, first-served. Party members were rushing to grab stuff, leaving the rest of us with nothing. It was like the earlier, uglier days of MMO looting, a time I am not eager to revisit.

My initial goal was to get familiar with the game and then try my hand at making something, but I didn’t even get that far. From hearing what others have reported, many of the tools were either not present or not as in-depth as they would have liked.

So maybe it’s a good thing that Sword Coast Legends is delayed until October 20th. At least it won’t be competing with WildStar’s F2P launch for my attention next week. I just hope that the finished product is a LOT better and easier to grok than what I experienced.

Thoughts on Telltale Games’ Walking Dead Season 2


While the full game has been out for over a year, I only finished up Season 2 of Telltale’s Walking Dead last night (mostly because I’ve been doing it in short spurts while exercise biking). I wanted to wait until I was all done before writing down some thoughts on the season, so here goes.

Season Two transfers the role of the protagonist from Lee (who died at the end of Season One) to Clementine, now a bit older but still very much a kid. This was a risky move that didn’t quite pay off as the designers intended. While I applaud having the player take on the role of a smaller, weaker person in the midst of a zombie-ridden apocalypse, ultimately it is frustrating (she can’t do everything that the adults can) and contrived (why are the adults listening to her this much?). Plus, Clem’s personality isn’t as fleshed out and interesting as Lee’s was.

Likewise, the second season didn’t quite pay off as the writers probably hoped. While Season One was a gripping tale with moments of off-kilter beats and questionable developments, Season Two is a wildly inconsistent ride with a few genuinely poignant moments.

I think what aggravates me the most in the Walking Dead series as a whole is that the characters themselves can’t seem to stop being high-drama idiots who keep fighting and undercutting each other and perpetuating all sorts of horrors on each other now that civilization has collapsed. I won’t deny that a zombie apocalypse would be stressful, but this season couldn’t stop making everyone either a yelling maniac with poor decision skills or dead.

This is especially weird considering that a big theme of both games is the necessity of the group for survival in this new landscape. I guess if you had people get along all of the time and find a good spot to hunker down and live well, that wouldn’t make for an interesting story. However, the opposite is also off-putting. Clementine spends most of the game being buffeted around by different groups (and reforming groups), none of which provide stability or security. She’d have been much better off just footing it into the wild by herself.

I also agree with reviewers who note that the high point of the season — the arrival and showdown at Carver’s hardware store fortress — comes way too soon, leaving the remainder of the game to meander and introduce pointless conflict after pointless conflict.

The story is doubly important here because that’s all the game has. There’s even less puzzle-solving than the already anemic Season One, so mostly it’s just prodding the screen to progress, participating in the occasional quick-time event, and making choices (dialogue and action).

Fortunately, the story did keep me interested for the most part. Carver was a strong threat and the game did well at making you loathe him completely. The return of Kenny was at first joyful and then increasingly regretful, as the man is even more unhinged than he was following the deaths of his wife and son in the previous season. There are a few great new characters here, particularly Luke and Jane, each of whom bring another slice of story into the end of the world as we knew it.

Telltale did make more of an effort to present choices that had meaningful consequences, but the story could only branch so much, and still many decisions — such as efforts to save characters — played out the same no matter what you did. The illusion versus the reality of choice is very much in effect here. If you can buy into the feeling of having agency in these games, then immersion slips over you. But if you get jolted out of it — as I was in the final episode — then it’s just another game of you vs. developer, where the developer always wins no matter how much you try to control your destiny.

I hear they’re making a third season, which I’d love to see. Hopefully Jane would be the protagonist, or a much older Clementine. So now I’ll be turning to Telltale’s Borderlands game, which I’ve heard good things about.

Battle Bards Episode 59: The Crew

crewostHaven’t played The Crew? You’re not alone! Haven’t listened to The Crew’s soundtrack? Shame on you! Today the Battle Bards take on this driving MMO’s score to see if it causes them to put their pedals to the metal… or their heads to their pillows.

Also we got another speakpipe challenge for our regular listeners at the end of this episode – be the first to claim the prize!

Episode 59 show notes

  • Intro (featuring “Takedown” and “Game Over”)
  • “Leadfoot”
  • “Backalleys”
  • “Heavy as a Feather”
  • “Introductions”
  • “Outrun”
  • “Dayton”
  • “On Point”
  • Which one did we like best?
  • Jukebox – “Honor for All” from Dishonored, “Tiny Masterpiece of Evil” from League of Legends, and “Alderaan” from SWTOR
  • Speakpipe Challenge!
  • Outro (“Disband Deed” from Wurm Online)

Listen to episode 59 now!

SWTOR: Down and out on Makeb


It’s hard to tell exactly, but my Smuggler’s voice has changed a bit from the end of the personal storyline and the Rise of the Hutt Cartel. I guess you wouldn’t have noticed if you were playing one all along, but going rapidly through the storyline there’s that jump of a year or so. I guess they got back the same voice actress, but now my Smuggler sounds a little less chirpy and a little deeper than before.


Continuing with my power tour of the galaxy, I blew through Makeb in three or four sessions. That was gratifying, as it’s not my favorite of planets. Pretty sometimes, but chalk up “earthquake zones” alongside jungles and canyons as navigationally aggravating areas that I’d rather avoid.

I actually started running into problems on Makeb in terms of my power level. Doing the 12x leveling thing really hurts your gear acquisition, and I’m saving up my commendations for level 60 gear. So I had to struggle with being underpowered throughout a good chunk of Makeb, meaning that I often got in over my head in fights and died far more than I had before. But I held out, because I knew that sweet, sweet gear upgrade was coming, and sure enough, I started to make progress in this regard.


See? Pretty. Don’t even want to know where the sadistic datacron developer hid all of them.

The story was solid — not so much a “rise” of the Hutt Cartel as a “blip” of the Hutt Cartel. Was nice to hear a Hutt actually talk in Basic for once, and I enjoyed seeing the Republic side of things. More about securing a giant ship and evacuating the planet than stopping the planetary collapse (although if the Imperials stopped Makeb from being destroyed, couldn’t the population go back?).

Progress-wise, my character hit level 56 and I spent some of my hard-earned credits on a tauntaun mount. Do not regret that purchase at all, it’s a magnificent beast. It might die before it reaches the first marker, however.

So now I’m into the prologue flashpoints for Shadow of Revan with the now-famous droid that could conquer the Empire single-handed. Feels good to be on track for the upcoming expansion launch, although I do have a lot of work to do with leveling up companion affection. Guss was quite upset that I took a few dark side choices as of late.

Retro Gaming: Star Trek Judgment Rites Part 6

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


Episode 6: Museum Piece

The Enterprise is finally off for some much-needed shore leave, but if you know anything about Star Trek, it’s that any attempts at taking vacations will always end up throwing the crew into some dire mission. In this case, Kirk gets a call from the admiral asking him to make a pit-stop to the planet’s Smithsonian wing to take part in a ceremony handing back a relic to the natives.

The museum’s curator is about as Star Trek Russian as Chekov (both Chekov and Scotty come along this time — Scotty because there’s booze involved). He lets Kirk walk around for a while before calling him back for a toast.


The toast is interrupted by a red alert — probably the first time in history that this place has seen a red alert. Looks like some bad guys are taking hostages and setting up shop in the special exhibit wing.


So what’s Kirk’s next step? Calling the Enterprise to send down a huge team of security to retake the museum by force? Nope. It’s to steal every single thing in this room that isn’t bolted down by pixel glue and then justify it because we’re in an adventure game. Emergency justification!


“Let’s make it the new ship mascot!”


To get through a locked door, the team comes up with an idea to jury-rig up a mass driver cannon with a lance and some powered magnetic clamps. I won’t lie — this was pretty fun to do. KABOOM!


That’s the Kirk I know and love: The man who would gladly blow holes through a museum to win at any cost. Picard is rolling around in his grave.


Scotty makes friends with a little floating robot named Barney. In a cheeky 2001 reference, he asks Barney to open the pod bay door. Would have been even funnier if the robot refused.

To charge up our last battery, Scotty jury-rigs another device — but has to pour his beloved cognac into the pod to kickstart the battery. The liquor! The humanity!


One last MacGuyverism before we leave this restful shore leave. Kirk and crew hook up an old communications device to negotiate with the terrorists. Apparently they’re cheesed that the Federation is giving this probe — a huge part of the planet’s history — to one faction instead of another. The terrorists say they’ll surrender if the Federation can mediate a better solution.

Kirk’s cool with that, because how else would he have been able to trash an entire museum and get a pat on the back from Starfleet?

Overall, this was a terrific mission: interesting locale, funny quips, challenging puzzles, and the addition of Scotty and Chekov to the mix. Best one of this game yet, I’d say.


Retro Gaming: Star Trek Judgment Rites Part 5


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

Episode 5: Voids

The Enterprise is called to take over a survey mission in the Antares Rift, a section of space that’s a little too volatile to use warp engines. The ship takes a little damage but it’s no biggie…

…until it’s struck by time-space lighting. Then everyone freaks out.


The layout of the Enterprise’s bridge in Judgment Rites and 25th Anniversary bug me a little. Everything in it is shifted around from how it is in the show. For example, the turbolift doors are right behind Kirk’s chair here, but in the series it was more to his left. I guess we must make allowances for game design.

Anyway, an explosion from the lightning strike hits right near the bridge and cuts off the command crew from the rest of the ship — they can’t even leave without hitting hard vacuum. Spock beams out to do repairs, at which a small alien flashes in and then flashes out in his transporter wake. Um, that’s weird.

With Spock AWOL and McCoy somewhere else, Kirk pulls together a new team from the bridge crew and makes his way to auxiliary control. This marks the first time in both of these adventure games that the other principle characters (in this case, Chekov and Sulu) are used on a team and the first time that the Enterprise itself is the location of an episode. Bottle episode, no less!

I also learned here that Sulu was a physicist before he came on board the Enterprise. I either didn’t know that or totally forgot it.

Anyway, the four-armed alien is in auxiliary control and instantly ports Kirk and company away when they try to talk. Call me maybe?

Kirk gets a reading on the alien and brings it to McCoy, who says that it’s a Vurian — an alien race that supposedly went extinct a long time ago and doesn’t have the sort of powers this one seems to. Natually, McCoy suggests gassing it. That’s his solution to everything.

Upon being gassed, the Vurian teleports off of the ship and into another dimension entirely. Well that sounds like a vacation for Kirk, who hops in the magical teleporter for a trip to the Twilight Zone.

Spoiler alert: It’s not that nice of a place to visit.


The colored rocks on the ground elicit strange emotions from Kirk when he picks them up, from paranoia to overprotectiveness. Also, Ensign Walker shares a little about his love life. Good to know, Walker.


The alien behind all of this is the Savant, a creature of pure emotions that has jacked into the Vurian and Spock’s minds to make them feel joy instead of grief or a lack of emotions. Spock — who’s being force-fed the happy — says that the Savant is using telepathic creatures as a way to stabilize its emotions, provide more support.

Since the stones in this dimension are negative, cast-off emotions, Kirk gathers up a whole bunch of them in a pouch to toss them at the Savant. Catch!

The Savant is less than thrilled at having its artificial emotional high disrupted, so it lets Spock and everyone else go. Free will rules, the end.

Interesting episode, especially the bits on the Enterprise, but the overall story seems a little lacking. I think the Savant got off too easily considering that it was emotionally raping Spock and the alien, which made it doubly weird when McCoy was cracking wise at the end.