Monday, February 21, 2005

Byte: WoW, man. War(craft). I mean, WoW.

I once swore that I'd never play online games. Well, that oath was initially broken when I acquired Broadband last year, and this weekend, I committed the ultimate violation, tearing that promise asunder and casting it aside onto a well populated pile of misguided decisions.

Blame my friend Sascha. There's nothing more subversive than a German MMORPG player.

Yes, I've become an orc-bashing level grinder. Actually, that's doing a disservice to World Of Warcraft, because it's a tad more sophisticated than that. Not much more sophisticated, but enough to persuade me into trying an MMORPG for the first time, and taking the monthly hit for the subscription fees.

I've gone for the gratuitous ears of a female Night Elf Druid on the new Zenedar PvP server. I'm playing under the name of Shareth, named for Shareth The Heartstealer, the evil daughter of Doomdark (from The Lords Of Midnight) who you had to fight in Doomdark's Revenge. I figure it's a suitably prosaic name for anyone under 25 not to recognise it, and is suitably fantasy-elvish enough for my character. I chose the Druid class, because I quite like the thought of being able to shapechange at higher levels, plus you get access to a load of nice Nature Spells, such as Healing Touch, Entangling Roots (which holds enemies in place) and Mark Of The Wild (which boosts your Armour rating). I've played it for a couple of evenings - probably about 4-6 hours, and I'm already at Level 9 (out of 60, so a long way to go yet), but it's a pretty impressive level rate.

Unlike other MMORPGs where it's simply a monster grind to gain experience, World Of Warcraft implements a proper Quest system, which allows you to accumulate experience more quickly than simply bashing monsters, plus gives you more concrete rewards, such as cash, weapons, armour or other valuable items. The low-level quests aren't particularly imaginitive - deliver this, fetch that, bring me so many of those - but it's more rewarding than monster-bashing. I'm reliably informed that once you hit level 20 or thereabouts, the quests get much more interesting.

The interface is kept nice and simple - so simple the box proclaims you might never need read the manual - which is true to a point, though the finer nuances really do require you to get stuck into the rather hefty tome provided in the double-sized DVD case. The game runs beautifully on my Athlon 64 system, and even though I've only got 512MB broadband, I haven't had any problems yet with lag. Blizzard have sensibly decided to drop the polycount and simply make the game LOOK GOOD. There are sharp edges everywhere, and the textures aren't all they might be, but you don't really care, since the level design is spectacular, and there's a coherent aesthetic that ties everything together. The Night Elf capital, Darnassus, is right out of Tolkein; you're half expecting to bump into Cate Blanchett or Hugo Weaving as you're climbing up into the trees. Giant treants patrol the city gates, and the city guard wait patiently in grand, columned halls. The graphics have a cartoony look, not unlike Beyond Good & Evil, and it's achingly pretty at times.

It's still early days, but there are plenty of ex-Beta testers around to help people out the newbies, and even the lowly populated servers like Zenedar still have plenty of people with whom you can form parties. I hooked up with a Night Elf Hunter called Rendar last night, and we had a pretty good time - Rendar using his ranged weapons, and me pitching in with spells, buffs and the odd bit of melee. I've found that Druids are quite popular with lummox warrior classes, because of their ability to buff up party members and their powerful healing spells don't go amiss, either. Rendar was a few levels above me, so he was on a much more difficult quest than I could handle - so when he goes in to sort out Umbar (a low-level boss), my spells aren't touching him, so I hang back, buffing and healing Rendar as he gives him a kicking with his higher melee skills. Rendar then helps me out finding the Ambushers on the road to Darnassar I have to kill, and we go our separate ways, before I turn in for the evening. Co-operative play is obviously a lot more fun than playing on your own, but since Zenedar is a brand new server, there aren't really many guilds formed there yet.

It'll be interesting to see how it evolves, and I've signed up for 6 months, because other than KOTOR 2, there's not really anything other than Jade Empire coming up in the next few months that particularly grabs me. WoW should certainly keep me off the streets - there are nine character classes and eight races to try out...

Friday, February 18, 2005

Byte: KOTOR 2

Knights Of The Old Republic possibly rates as my favourite videogame ever, barring perhaps only Elite on the Spectrum. So, you can imagine my anticipation for the sequel, which was released last week. Pretty darned fevered.

Picture then, my confusion after having played the game for the best part of 13 hours over the last week, and still not having acquired a lightsaber. This time you're a Jedi from the start of the game, yet you don't have a lightsaber. Seems a little perverse, to me. The reason for not starting the game with one seems reasonable enough - your character is an exile, for participating in the Mandalorian Wars with Revan - but making you play the game for well over 10 hours with your first lightsaber not even remotely being in sight of being acquired? It seems like a method designed to alienate the audience.

That's not the only difference with its predecessor. KOTOR 2 is far wordier than the original game - so far I've had to sit through several cutscenes over five minutes long, which wouldn't be so bad (given that the quality of the script is good) were it not for a horrendous graphical bug that results in the graphics tearing across the screen whenever a cutscene is tripped. I like wordy RPGs, but not if you can't see the text you're meant to pick your responses from, because they haven't ironed out a graphical glitch, and it's smeared illegibly across the screen. Perhaps Obsidian have been taking QA tips from Troika (and you know what happened to them).

KOTOR 2 is a fine game - the improvements to the weapon upgrades and workbench system are good, plus the other minor tweaks to the game engine - but the edge is being taken off for me by the rather obtuse decision to deny your Jedi their signature weapon for so long (easily three times longer than in the original), the fairly slow start and by the technical glitches. I'm sure the game will improve as the story progresses (if there's one thing I have faith in, it's the storytelling ability of these ex-Black Isle boys), but even discounting the immense reputation KOTOR 2 had to live up to, I can't help being just a little bit disappointed so far.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Byte: Separated At Birth

Number 47's bringing out a new album. Well, it certainly brings new meaning to the phrase "hitman", doesn't it?

Friday, February 11, 2005

Byte: The Online Gaming Pack Mentality

There are certain things that you should never do when you play online games. Team kill, swear lots, or otherwise "grief" people. People tend to gang up on these so-called "griefers" and give them a taste of their own medicine. If, say, someone's playing very negatively in a team game, players from their own team and the opposition with normally just turn around and give them a good slapdown, repeatedly until the message gets across that you shouldn't act like a cock.

Sometimes, however, there are very special occasions where someone commits an inadvertent faux pas, and they're made to pay for it by the sniggering pack. One of these sins is falling asleep during online play. Especially if you're hooked up to an Xbox Live headset so people can hear you snoring, and one of the other people you're playing with has video capture equipment...

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Byte: Exploitation

I was playing Half-Life 2 Team Deathmatch a couple of nights ago, mainly to justify my monthly broadband expenses and keep my eye in, because I've not played against real people for a couple of months. I'm doing pretty well, in the top 4 of a 16 player server, which is about as high as I aspire to, and suddenly in the middle of a game on the Warehouse map, I see the coolest in-game exploit I've ever encountered online.

Half-Life 2 Deathmatch is unique due to the fabulous gravity gun, which you can use to pick up trash and either block bullets with it (should the object be robust enough, and not be, say, an explosive toxic barrel...) or fling it at other people to bludgeon them to death. Now, the warehouse map is basically a ruined three storey structure set in the middle of a plaza, with narrow streets arounding all four edges of the building. It's a tight map, with not much room to manoeuvre. The rocket launcher, possibly the most potent weapon in the game, is on the top floor of the warehouse, and it's hard to get up to the top floor through the building if people are already camping inside. A couple of clever players have found a way of getting to the top floor without entering the building. Obviously, they can't rocket jump, because they don't have a rocket launcher yet. No, instead they use the gravity gun in an absolutely astounding way.

Firstly, they jump up onto a fairly large object, say a filing cabinet, look down at it, and jump. When they're in the air, they use the secondary fire of the gravity gun to drag the cabinet up to them. Then, in the fraction of a second that they have when the cabinet is beneath their feet, they jump up again. By repeating this process quickly enough, they're able to magic carpet ride and levitate into the air, whisking themselves up to the top of the building in a couple of seconds, (effectively bypassing half the level) where they can then grab the rocket launcher and lay the smacketh down. It must really be a hard trick to execute, because I only saw it get used once or twice, and it also leaves you completely vulnerable if you get caught mid-levitation.

Fantastic little exploit, though. I'll have to see if I can master it.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Bark: Pizza Express

A delivery service with a difference.

I love this quote:

The Ministry of Defence spokesman was unable to confirm what toppings were on the pizza.
Because that's the really important thing, isn't it? Never mind the wanton misuse of Government property, was it a really decent pizza?

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Bark: Terrorist Humour

In a sickening development in Iraq, the insurgency has stooped to the abduction of toy soldiers. Rumours that a crack rescue team lead by Navy SEAL Barbie and Delta Force Cindy has been dispatched to rescue poor Special Ops Cody are so far unconfirmed...