Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Byte: Star Wars: The Old Republic - The Emperor's New Clothes?

Given that I'm on holiday and that I've had a bit of free time, I've spent the last couple of days playing Star Wars: The New Republic. I'm sure I'm not the only person who's going to use the "Emperor's New Clothes" line in the coming weeks and months about The Old Republic. I haven't quite made my mind up about the game yet, but the obvious one-liner is that it's the bastard love child of World of Warcraft and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Given that these are two of my top five games ever made, by rights, The Old Republic should be the end of my social life and career. But somehow, I'm not convinced quite yet...

Bioware's big claim for The Old Republic is that it's supposedly a game-changer for the MMORPG genre, in that it's resolutely story-based and no expense has been spared in the production. Every single line is voice-acted and the experience is undoubtedly cinematic with interactive cutscenes and set pieces, but the question for me is, does this make it a better game? More on that later...

Here's where I am so far: in the last two days of play I've rolled a Bounty Hunter and a Jedi Knight and levelled them up to level 12 and level 11, respectively. It should be said at this point that the Bounty Hunter/Imperial Agent starting area on Hutta is fairly terrible. Dull, ugly, not much variety in terms of enemies or scenery, it's a fairly depressing place to spend your first half dozen or so hours in the game. While that's more to do with the planet itself than the game engine (which is impressive for an MMO - at its best, it's really quite pretty and expansive indeed, not nearly to the level of Skyrim of course, but the game engine is a quite massive step up for those familiar with WoW) - I'd question the decision of the designers to have you start one of the more iconic character classes on such a horrible little muckball. Tython, the Jedi Knight/Jedi Consular starting planet is much prettier by comparison, so it's a bit of a shame that it takes ten levels for you to earn your lightsaber (in itself, wearily predictable) and that the prologue is beset by the main enemies you fight (the ludicrously named "Flesh Raiders", which sounds like a rejected Russ Meyer film title) lack variety and are spectacularly tedious.

I'm not convinced by the presentation, either. The cutscenes are obviously given a greater level of graphical fidelity than the main game engine, so while the story cutscenes (which take place in instanced Story areas, so you don't get munched by mobs in the meantime) are immersive and quite well done, the biggest issue I have with them is that the time you spend watching the cutscene is time you could really be spending doing something productive in the game. At least the cutscenes can be subtitled and are skippable, so if you're a very swift reader like myself, you can read the exposition, rather than listen to it being drawled over in Star Warsy mock-British accents. Don't get me wrong: I'm all for story in MMOs. One of the key things I play World of Warcraft for is the story and the world lore. But the game doesn't try and force it down your throat - you can take it at your own pace and access as much detail as you like. I suppose, in modern Star Wars style, The Old Republic is caught up a little bit in its own gravitas, by focusing on delivering an "experience" rather than just being a game to play.

It's easy to see why, because mechanically speaking, The Old Republic isn't really pushing any boundaries. Combat is an MMOtastic blend of cooldown management and quick-button mashing (just like WoW, then) and if you look too closely at the ability descriptions, you can see the class balancing at work. That is, all the powers are essentially identical in effect, they just have different animations. So while, as a Bounty Hunter, you can do pretty much everything that the Bounty Hunter in the Deceived trailer can (only in rather more crappy armour), somehow it feels a little empty. Again, this is more of a criticism of the genre in general than The Old Republic in particular, but if you're really trying to make the definitive statement in MMORPGs, you shouldn't really just be repackaging World of Warcraft in Jedi Robes.

This isn't to say that the game is bad. I don't think Bioware have truly created a bad game yet - an average one or two, perhaps (Neverwinter Nights, anybody?) - but I would be lying if I said at this point I was blown away by the game. I can see myself giving it a chance for a few months to see what kind of direction Bioware take it, and see how the game changes as you get characters up past level 20 and 30, but can I see myself playing it in five years time? Not really. Not unless it goes free-to-play, which I expect it (and WoW too, incidentally) will do in the next couple of years.

My most memorable experiences with the game so far have been with playing with small parties in Flashpoints - the story-based instanced missions - which are effectively The Old Republic's dungeons. Having smaller groups for instances (with gaps able to be filled by the surprisingly effective AI Companions), makes the dungeon content more accessible to everyone and the Social Points system actively rewards you for not playing the game solo. Obviously, it's early days yet for the game and I've not played any of the PvP content yet, but at this point, if there's one thing that's going to keep me motivated to play the game, it's going to be the flashpoints, because the world design isn't open enough to really reward exploration for the sake of sightseeing and the story so far isnt doing anything beyond what I'd expect of a Star Wars game - it's diverting rather than utterly compelling - doing enough to keep me interested without totally grabbing me by the lapels and forcing me to want to sit down and play.

So is The Old Republic a game changer for the MMORPG genre? Not from what I've seen. Not by a long shot. Is it a failure? Again, no - with the amount of polish and backing from Bioware and EA, The Old Republic will be a success, at least in the short term, though that's not to say that it's bug or glitch-free. Also, reports of the horrific server queues (2 hours plus) experienced by some players are not what you'd want to be hearing about a game in launch week. I've not experienced any queues myself - the PVE server I'm on isn't completely barren, but has a healthy population to be getting into groups easily, without having to wait to get onto the server. I'd say that it's an interesting experiment in terms of exploring how to tell stories in MMOs, but I think that the storytelling emphasis has gone too far. Players play games to be in control, not to watch cutscenes. There's a balance to be struck somewhere in telling a personalised story and allowing the player to do stuff without having to wait for hours and hours of exposition to play itself out. Star Wars is at its best not when people are sitting (or standing) around mumbling incoherently about midichlorians or the Living Force, hokey religions or ancient weapons, but when the Tibanna Gas hits the fan and the action starts and doesn't stop for half an hour.

I'll be interested to see what happens to the game over the next six months, particularly if they do something with the obligatory, godawful standard GUI (for Yoda's sake, someone show them the Bartender mod for WoW!), and how Bioware reacts to what I expect will be pretty vociferous feedback on how they should improve the game. I'll give the game a few months, but with WoW's next expansion around the corner (which I can't say I'm too fussed about, frankly) and Guild Wars 2 due next year (which I am most certainly fussed about!), The Old Republic's got its work cut out to keep its head above the murky waters of Hutta's polluted swamps... I'm calling it here and now: Free-to-play within two years, three at most.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Byte: Five days in Skyrim

I think I'm going to have to re-write my Top 5 favourite videogames. I've stuck in over 120 hours in the last month on the PC and Xbox 360 versions of Skyrim and it's only now I really feel that I could really go about reviewing it.

Obviously, a game this big is not going to be as flawlessly polished as a single-player game with an eight hour, linear campaign. Some people are quoting Skyrim as having at least 300 hours of unique gameplay for a single campaign, and I can well believe it. I've got over 120 hours logged on Steam playing it, and I've just finished the main storyline quest threads (the defeat of Alduin and the Liberation of Skyrim), and while I've completed about 50 side-quest chains, I've not finished any of the main faction quests (Companions, Dark Brotherhood, Thieves Guild, etc), and despite having finished the main storyline quests (and just in time, given that Star Wars: The Old Republic goes live in a couple of days), I'm still motivated to keep playing. In the 120-odd hours of game time so far I've experienced some spectacular bugs - from random crashes to desktop, dragons that don't know which direction they should be flying in, purple placeholders instead of real textures, giants launching mobs into orbit with a swing of their warhammer, and many, many more.

The key to the success of any game isn't whether it's buggy or not, but whether the bugs deter you from playing or not. As with an old favourite of mine, Vampire - The Masquerade: Bloodlines, Skyrim's bugs and glitches don't kill my desire to play the game. They're annoying, for sure, but I'm always straight back, clicking at the shortcut on the desktop to launch the game again, always wanting more frosty, Nordic fun, punching dragons in the face.

The thing I really love about the Elder Scrolls RPG system is that the character classing doesn't really limit your options to a single character class. So my PC character (with whom I've stuck in the vast majority of playing hours - though I've dabbled with the 360 version as well, which is likewise awesome) is almost a Baldur's Gate style multi-class Fighter-Mage-Thief, given that he's specialising in Heavy Armour, Archery, One-handed weapons and Destruction Magic. He's also a world-class Enchanter and Blacksmith, and a decent lockpicker and sneak. Now that my character is knocking about in the mid-to-late level 40s, I'm mildly surprised (after the utterly broken level-scaling in Oblivion) that I'm still able to compete fairly with scaled enemies in the game world. One thing I like to do is imagine the conversation my character has with dragons as they battle; my character fully clad in Dragonbone armour.

"Hoy, Dov! I'm wearing your Mum! And now I'm going to punch you to death!"

I was pretty fond(ish) of Oblivion (despite its many, many flaws), but the changes to the levelling and the addition of a Fallout-style perks system has really improved the character-customisation aspects of the game. Skyrim doesn't restrict your choices of what skills you can level up - whatever you use the most, you end up specialising in - so you can become a genuine Jack-of-all-trades if you so choose. It's one way of giving the player genuine freedom in terms of play style, and not only that, it works: a heavy armour-wearing ninja-assassin-sneak-thief is a viable possibility, if you're willing to put in the time earning the necessary skills.

One thing that's surprised me, looking at the Steam Achievement stats, is that less than 20% of the player base have had their characters get married. Now, I don't necessarily believe that responsible adults should get married as a matter of course, but in game terms, it's a no-brainer of a decision, given that your spouse opens a shop earning you a tidy profit of 100 septims a day. And also, why would you NOT want to marry Lydia? (Note to trolls: DON'T answer that in the comments... I have a Daedric Sword with 32 bonus points of fire damage...)

It's difficult to know where to start when trying to talk about Skyrim and just how good it is. It's graphically one of the most gorgeous games I've ever played, with stunning scenery, handsome NPCs (Hello, Hroki! Hello, Fastred!) and it's just as pretty at night as it is during the day, if not more so. The aurorae you get to see at night while wandering in the high north are spectacularly good. There are also some lovely set pieces, such as the taking of cities or forts during the Skyrim civil war, as well as some challenging random encounters (it's always fun when a cave bear turns up in the of a dragon battle!), but what I like the most is that there's genuine variety in the quests. Your interaction with the game world isn't limited to killing other people. On the contrary, you can help people find true love or help solve murder cases, deliver messages or carry out errands... the game world is just so rich and diverse and all the better for it. The open worldliness of Oblivion always felt a little directionless, to me. In Skyrim there's always something interesting lurking around a corner. There's just so much out there to be found and played with; and yet, even though I've completed the main "save the world" and "save the Nords" quest threads, I still don't feel like I've seen everything the game has to offer. The flexibility in the character customisation is enticing in the sheer amount of play styles the game can offer you. I've discovered 17 different Shouts, (including - SPOILER WARNING! - the one that calls in your own personal close air support dragon to sort out anyone who's giving you too much trouble) though I haven't really played about with most of them in combat yet. When you can Shout people off the top of towers and watch them ragdoll pathetically down the side of a mountain to their deaths, it's not really motivating you to try out all the others...

I think the game I've put most hours into (barring World of Warcraft) over the last couple of years is Dragon Age: Origins (171 hours, according to my Steam stats). I can easily imagine that being doubled in Skyrim before I start being bored with it. Skyrim is such a compelling game world that I'm even dreaming about it - a sure sign of dangerous levels of obsession. There's just so much more I still want to do, even with my 100+ hours main character. It's not even about getting the "achievements" - that kind of thing doesn't make me want to play. No, I like setting my own targets, such as topping out skill stats in all of my main "class" skills - so in the case of Cathal, my fighter-mage-thief, I want 100 in Archery, Destruction Magic, One-Handed Weapons, Heavy Armour, Enchanting, Smithing, Sneak and Lockpicking. As leader of the Thieves Guild, one "achievement" I do actually quite want is to restore the Thieves Guild to its former prosperity. (Incidentally, if you are playing a Thief/Assassin type character, make sure you do the Nightingales questline as soon as possible - the armour you get for it is awesome - not just in terms of stats; aesthetically it's fabulous.) It seems only fair that under my leadership, though by "leadership" I actually mean "doing all the jobs that Vex and Delvin can't be arsed to do themselves"... after all, I sold my soul to Nocturnal in order to oust Mercer Frey, so I might as well get the Thieves Guild up and running. And then once my Sneak skills are up to scratch, I can make a start on the Dark Brotherhood jobs.

I also want to own fully upgraded houses in all the Skyrim holds that I can (I already have houses in Whiterun, Riften and Windhelm) and give legendary dragonbone armour to all my housecarls. There are just so many things I still have to do. So I guess I better stop writing and just do it...

Friday, December 16, 2011

Bark: A final Project Werewolf update

Big thanks to everyone who donated to my MoSpace page or gave me cash in person to support a very good cause. All in all, I raised £123, which is a whole £23 (or 23%, statistics fans - not adjusted for inflation!) better than last year. I'm hoping to raise even more next year, potentially by looking even more ridiculous and outlandish.

The Shaving Of The Mo was met with a mixed reception at my school. While some claimed I look far younger without the Mo, lots of people also said it really suited me and that I should have kept it. Of course, the deciding opinion was that of my girlfriend, who only tolerated it because it was to raise money for charity. She'd chuck me out of the house if I even tried to keep it permanently. Either that or shave it off in my sleep (possibly with my eyebrows as well). So I'm back to being (occasionally) clean-shaven. I don't miss the itching of the facial fungus, but I do miss the opportunity of looking enigmatic and wise when the occasion arose to stroke my Mo thoughtfully whenever I was asked a question...