Star Trek Online: A new five-year mission

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Ever since the expansion announcement — and a little before, to be honest — I’ve been wanting to partake in my annual pilgrimage back to Star Trek Online. When I want a “different” MMO experience, this is where I go. A bit of ship combat, some interesting quests/lore, and a party ground combat segment.

And as I always do, I started a brand-new character because I am too fragile to handle the re-entry of my high-level captains with all of their buttons and questionable mission chain status. Plus, I wanted to check out the new skill system as I leveled up.

This time around, I created an Andorian Engineer and gave her a Jupiter uniform that I thought was rather sharp. I ran her and her ship the U.S.S. Denver through the first few familiar missions, getting back into the groove of phaser return fire and launching my Del Taco shuttle every chance I get.

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The Denver had seen better days…

While I was doing all of this, I was catching up on a couple episodes of the Priority One Podcast. There’s something infectious about the enthusiasm of the STO community. This is one of those MMOs where people have settled into their online home and haven’t budged, so for some, STO is the world entire. That forges a double-edged sword, of course: for all of the excitement and passion, there’s also a lot of rage and insanity over anything Cryptic does that displeases the mob.

It feels like I’ve gone up to the door of a clubhouse and am timidly knocking on it, seeking to gain access to a group of players that are really tight. I haven’t found a fleet yet, but it’s still in the early days, so we’ll see how it goes this week.

It’s going to be very interesting to watch how many players get into the retro-themed expansion. From what I heard, TOS captains will be able to access the “modern” galaxy at some point — and current captains should be able to go back to that era, since Cryptic said it doesn’t want to fragment its playerbase. I have no idea how popular TOS is with the Star Trek crowd these days, but it’s a great idea for the 50th anniversary and I’ll definitely want to take a peek at it when it arrives.

Attention upcoming MMOs: Your style sets you apart (or not)

Let’s play a game this morning, shall we? Here are seven pictures from various upcoming MMOs. Can you identify which one belongs to Life is Feudal, Shroud of the Avatar, Project Gorgon, Saga of Lucimia, Camelot Unchained, Gloria Victis, and Chronicles of Elyria?

To make it fair, I tried to make them all town shots for comparison. Answers are at the end of this blog post.

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No wonder all of these games start blurring together in my mind — there’s this rampant plague of generic medieval European semi-realism that’s become the default for many fantasy indie MMOs. And while they’re all still in development and art changes, at least visually these games are doing little to set themselves apart from each other.

Looks do matter in MMOs. No, they’re not everything, but when you have an upcoming project that you want to get noticed apart from the rest of the pack, you don’t want to slather it with the same art style as everyone else. Some of the above games I’m quite interested in, even though I’m incredibly neutral about their looks. In spite of their looks, I should say.

Then there are the games that are putting in that extra effort to develop a unique art style that makes it visually pop. Games like Crowfall…

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Albion Online…

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Worlds Adrift…

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TUG…

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And even the late Revival had a striking dark Gothic tone to it:

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Maybe this only points out that I have a visual preference for more stylized, colorful art in MMOs, which is why I’ve always loved WildStar and World of Warcraft’s look. Chronicles of Spellborn had an awesome style to it. Asheron’s Call 2 felt wild and alien for a fantasy world. Then again, I’ve always thought Lord of the Rings Online had a great look to it, and that definitely skewed to the more realistic while still exuding an identity.

I guess that’s what I’m asking for with these games: visual identity. I should know at a glance what game is what because it’s not trying to be painfully generic but it’s infused its title with a personality that pops in every screenshot.

Am I alone in this? Is anyone else slightly disappointed at how same-y some of these upcoming games look?

Answers: (1) Chronicles of Elyria, (2) Shroud of the Avatar, (3) Camelot Unchained, (4) Project Gorgon, (5) Saga of Lucimia, (6) Life is Feudal, (7) Gloria Victis

LOTRO: A red day

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I did it! So proud of myself today — I reached my stated goal of catching up in the LOTRO epic story this past week, racing through about four books’ worth of content. I can’t remember the last time I did side quests in this game, although I might have to since I finished up at level 103 and the cap is 105.

So the whole experience was a mixed bag, starting out not-so-great and ending on a high note. As I mentioned last time, there’s a very long stretch of the game where you’re in Minas Tirith, constantly tasks to run up and down tiers and be the job monkey of the entire city. That got old — REAL quick. Pretty city, but egads I don’t need to be the personal counselor to every disheartened soldier lolligagging around.

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Then it got worse when the game shifted into doing a couple of epic battles for the siege of the city. I’ve made my stated opinion on epic battles pretty clear: They’re visually impressive but completely tedious, gameplay-wise. You never feel like you’re making one whit of difference no matter what you do in the fight, and it all goes on short of forever. Both epic battles here were practically identical, as I fought on top of the walls and chopped down grappling hooks and lit siege towers on fire.

After that the city fell and — this is where I genuinely got mad — LOTRO pulled a Scooby Doo “it was all a DREAMMMMM” on me. Apparently this lengthy siege and the fighting afterward was just a vision in the palantir, and none of it had happened yet. You want to really tick of your players? Make them go through annoying content and then tell them after that it didn’t really matter because none of it was real.

ugh. UGH. Seriously, Turbine, I can see why you did this, to give players the perspective of both defenders in the city and the soldiers outside, but… not cool. Not cool at all.

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Happily, the game finally kicked me out of the city after that, and the relief I felt was palpable. There was a stretch of the epic in the nearby wilds that was interesting even if it seemed like the narrative was treading water to fill out a book. Lots of “go here, talk to this dude, go back here, talk to another dude, and while you’re at it will you pick up rocks on the road? That’s a good job monkey!”

Finally, LOTRO turned a leaf and got to the Battle of Pelinnor Fields, and this is where the game got simply awesome. The most recent book, all of it, is purely about this battle. And even though this is an aging game engine, Turbine pulled out all of the stops and created a genuine battlefield that raged all the way to the horizon with you in the thick of it.

I got real goosebumps when Theoden gave his famous speech to the Rohirrim, helped along with some nice camera work and beautiful sights. When he called out to ride, it was irresistible to mount up and charge right in, feeling like part of the action.

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Another great moment was Eowyn’s showdown with the Nazgul. You go girl!

The book ranged across the entire battle and the phasing here showed how the day’s events kept progressing. It was like all of the threads of the game’s storylines were being pulled together, with notable faces showing up left and right like it was a high school reunion. Oh hey, it’s THAT guy! With the thing!

And plenty of rangers, of course, with a few pretty moving deaths. The battle follows the book’s events to a T, with Aragorn coming in to turn the tide.

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All too soon, the battle was over, and with it, the epic story (so far). Time to put a bookmark in LOTRO and turn to a new project!

King’s Quest V Part 2: K.O. by bear

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(This is part of my journey going checking out King’s Quest V. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

With a pocket full of dead fish and a song in my heart, I head out of the town to see what else there might be in this so-far-pleasant kingdom. Hey, other than the snake, nothing’s tried to kill me yet — and that makes me deeply suspicious, since I’m in a King’s Quest game.

You know what doesn’t get old? Cedric telling me that he’s going to wait wherever when I go in a building. Again, owl, I didn’t ask you to come, I don’t want you here, and the second this game lets me loot something more deadly than a deceased carp, you better watch out.

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I like how the game does these picture-like insets when you go into a building. This way we get to look at Cedric all the time!

Graham, ever thinking about his stomach and not his rule, buys a pie. PIE.

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A little ways down the road is a bear messing around with a beehive. Cedric pipes up to say, “OOOH WATCH OUT FOR THE BEEEEAR!” as if I’m not aware that they’re nature’s murder machines. You know what? New rule for this playthrough. Any time that Cedric warns me about something, I’m doing it. I’m going to walk right up to this bear and…

…get punched out by it like it was a boxer? Huh. That’s… not the way I thought I’d die in this situation.

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Bear, meet dead fish. That gets rid of the bear problem, although how cool would it have been if you could’ve chosen the bear companion instead of the owl? “Bear, this shopkeeper won’t let me pass.” “RAWR *sounds of mauling*” “Thank you!”

Once the bear is gone, the queen bee emerges to thank me and offer some honey. This is downright surreal: She’s a person with antennae and a honey drizzle stick, but I guess a bee too? And her voice acting… how do I describe it. A forced Southern drawl modulated to a high pitch. I’m seriously starting to think that about three people total did all of the voice acting in this game.

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About the exact same scenario happens one screen north, as long as you substitute “dog” for “bear,” “ants” for “bees,” and “stick” for “dead fish.” King (sigh) ANTony thanks me for getting rid of the dog and promises to help me. Sometime. In the future.

As Graham starts to head west, Cedric warns him that this is a huge, dry desert and that the owl won’t go in there. Well, we know what our new rule is, right? To the desert we go!

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Anyone remember the confusing and seemingly endless desert from the original Legend of Zelda? If so, you’d be at home here, since this desert is full of confusing, bland screens. And if you don’t find an oasis, you’ll die of thirst.

Graham finds a temple frequented by some bandits, who use the clever phrase “open sesame!” to get in.

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Graham tracks the bandits down to their camp, where the gang is having one roaring party (if you can assume that from the dancing, frantic music, passed out drunk, and amused beasts of burden). He stealths into a tent, steals a staff necessary to open the temple, and whistles his way back into the desert.

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Back up to the temple — remembering to drink along the way or else die of thirst — Graham uses the staff to gain access. Then the staff breaks, because adventure game devs hate you. Inside, it turns out that he has mere seconds (seriously) to grab two items and leave or else he gets stuck inside FOREVER. What, I can’t even look for another way out?

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The brass bottle that Graham liberates contains a genie. Sweet! Three wishes, here I…

…oh wait, this is a Sierra game, isn’t it? Well, now I’m trapped inside of a bottle for thousands of years as a punishment for my natural curiosity.

King’s Quest V Part 1: Shut up, Cedric!

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(This is part of my journey going checking out King’s Quest V. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Playing through a computer game series successively is a fascinating experience that I’d recommend people try at least once. Even if you’re familiar with the series, it’s eye-opening to jump between installments to see how it progresses and to witness video game history unfold.

So we’re going from 1988 (King’s Quest IV) to 1990 with King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder! I am not overly fond of that title — it’s trying too hard to make the pun work — but hey, I’m still a bit thrilled that I’m forging ever-deeper into this series that I never played past the first two chapters in my youth.

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As you can plainly see, the graphics are definitely a lot better than King’s Quest IV, thanks to a jump from EGA to VGA in the early 90s. This is the era that I really started to love computer game visuals, and even today they’re quite attractive.

What you cannot plainly hear is that the music’s been upgraded as well, and since I think that this is the CD-ROM version, there’s speech on the soundtrack. The third big change is that we’re finally to the point where point-and-click action with the mouse took over for cursor keys and parser commands. Love it.

But enough of that, let’s get into the game!

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Generic castle, ho!

Soon enough, a wizard shows up, waves his wand, and generic castle goes flying off in a tornado. Should’ve watched the weather report last night, is all I’m saying. This is the evil wizard Mordack, because if you’re evil, you might as well have “mor” in your name somewhere.

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I love this intro. Seriously, it looks leaps and bounds better than King’s Quest IV (not to mention I, II, and III), and there’s a noticeable attempt to make it more cinematic and atmospheric. The brook here is animated as a strange figure walks down the path. Oh ho, it’s King Graham, still rocking those tights and that jaunty hat!

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Graham is stunned to find his castle missing, and as he puzzles this out, a talking owl with a monocle and vest flutters down for a chat. This is Cedric, who quickly becomes in my view the Jar-Jar Binks of the series. I guess it doesn’t help that the voice acting is of both the “amateur” and “first take only” variety.

Cedric fills Graham in that the castle was taken and that his only hope is with Cedric’s master, the good wizard Crispin (Glover?). Without waiting for assent, Cedric tosses fairy dust on Graham and makes him fly to yet another far-away country. Seems like every installment of the KQ series has another country — wonder how big the world is.

Crispin is somewhat of a disappointment. Nice fellow, but bad voice acting and a forgetful wizard. He rummages through a trunk and tosses Graham a used-up wand and a piece of snake (!) (that lets him talk to animals) before pushing him out the front door. He also sends Cedric to hang out with Graham, something that Graham seems to have no say in either. It’s been a long day for our king and it’s only 9:30 a.m.

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With no more direction than “head out and hopefully save your family,” Graham starts wandering down the path from Crispin’s cottage. There’s a snake on the second screen, and Cedric pipes up a warning not to go near it. Oh, and if you stand still too long, Cedric starts chiding you to get a move on. FORGET YOU OWL YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME.

Yes, I killed myself out of spite. I already loathe this owl so much. Also, while I’m complaining, I miss the option for descriptive text and subtitles. This version of the game doesn’t offer any, so all you get is dull voiceover to the max.

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I feel I should balance these complaints with some praise. The move to a mouse-driven interface is simply divine after the previous four games. No more typing out weird commands, no more using the keyboard to navigate! To move anywhere you only need to click where you want Graham to go, and by right-clicking you can change the cursor to different interactive icons (look, take, talk, etc.). Playing a King’s Quest game with only one hand is downright novel.

Graham heads into the nearby town, at which point Cedric decides to hang back until he leaves. Fine with me, bird. Oh hey, what’s this! It’s a dead, rotting, smelly fish! Well, this is an adventure game, so… into Graham’s pocket it goes!

Star Trek Online and Chronicles of Elyria

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I might have mentioned this before, but back in high school I was downright obsessed about Star Trek. It was one of the escapes I had to cope with those rocky years, and for a good stretch there I was about as deep into this franchise as you could get without getting surgery to alter my ears and appear to be a Vulcan.

I liked the newer series, of course, but I had a particular fondness for Kirk and the original show. Collected all of the novels, watched all of the episodes numerous times, etc. And while I’ve long passed that obsession era, I guess there will always be a part of my heart that cheers at seeing TOS represent.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see Star Trek Online announce that its third expansion would be going back to the TOS period with Agents of Yesterday. It wouldn’t be the first time that this happened in the game — I recall that there was a mission or two that sent you back in time to meet Scotty and defend the Enterprise — but this looks to be a more extensive exploration of that period. That’s pretty dang cool, in my book.

All of the details aren’t out about it, but Cryptic is making it sound as though you can roll up a new captain in this era and play in it versus just visit it from the future. This all comes in time for Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, so it’s a well-played move that appeals to nostalgia and might get the game some needed publicity in the mainstream press. Plus, with the new Trek series coming out next year, might as well dip into the past now before heading into the future.

It did get me to roll up a new captain last night, a punk-haired Bajoran. I didn’t have a lot of time to play, but it’s been on my to do list to revisit STO and play up through all of the new content.

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I’ve wanted to talk about Chronicles of Elyria this week, so might as well squeeze that in before the weekend. I’m really amazed how well this title is doing with its Kickstarter campaign — sometimes you never know how strong a game is going to go when it launches these things, and Elyria didn’t exactly have the biggest team or any super-well-known developers attached. It wasn’t even really on my radar before a week or two ago; many of these indie MMOs seem so much alike that they blur together.

What set this title apart from its competition for fans? It’s not like this is the only upstart game out there with a bundle of pie-in-the-sky ideas, and its look — while pretty enough — looks so much like all of these other indie brewed games that I have a hard time seeing why this is taking off while others have floundered. I mean, if it makes $900K, that’ll be the original goal of Crowfall, if I recall correctly. And Crowfall had some big names attached and a very distinct art style going for it.

It’s an ambitious title, and I definitely like some of its concepts, such as aging/dying and map exploration. Looks pretty too, although the campaign is strangely reusing a LOT of clips from The Princess Bride as examples of its combat and movement.

I guess I didn’t realize it had this big of a community, but well over $500K now and 4,733 backers shows that the team had done something right in laying down the foundation for this campaign. It definitely looks good for them funding, and a strong MMO success on Kickstarter is worth a lot of free publicity. I’m trying to be frugal right now and save up all I can, so I probably won’t back, but it’s on my watch list to try out even with the allergy-inducing “chronicles” moniker.