Monday, 29 August 2016

Last Call For The Burning Legion : WoW

So that's that then. Another few hours and all the demons will pile into their wedge-shaped spaceship like so many clowns ramming themselves back inside a clown car. All the yelling and screaming and dying will stop, the skies will clear of fel green beams and fluttering wings. Peace will return to Azeroth once more.

Or so we assume. They are going away, aren't they? It's off to The Broken Isles for the Burning Legion and the legion of Legionnaires alike, isn't it? I do hope so. I'd hate to think we've got two years of random demons, who missed the pickup, wandering aimlessly around The Barrens, Dun Morogh and Tanaris like a cross between ET and the journalists who were still drunk when Saigon fell.

On balance it's been a decent pre-launch event. Azuriel thinks it might be the best an MMO has ever had. I wouldn't go that far although I'd have to do some thinking to put up an alternative candidate. These things, intense though they are, tend not to stick in the mind for long, or so I find.

I do have some very long-lasting memories of lengthy world events in EverQuest. I think often of (and not infrequently refer to) the multi-month sequence that began with the arrival of some Rude Individuals in Qeynos Hills and ended with an attempted annexing of the city by the followers of Bertoxxulous, the God of Disease.

Somewhere in the middle of that one came the death of Cros Treewind, the now largely forgotten partner of the much better-remembered Holly Windstalker. Holly unlives on even now as a ghost in the Antonica of EQ2, while all that remains of Cros Treewind is his staff, somewhere in one of my countless Norrathian bank vaults.

Like the current WoW Invasions, those EQ events drew swarms of players seeking exceptional opportunities for experience and loot. I fondly remember the Dark Elven invasion of Firiona Vie (the city and zone, not the character, as if I needed to explain) and the darkening of Lesser Feydark, a demonic invasion of its own stripe.

In retrospect it occurs to me that those all may have had some connection to a forthcoming expansion. If not that, then to the opening of some new zone. Expansions and new zones came so thick and fast in those days it was hard to keep up. Down at the low-mid levels, where I lived, things were done to you not for you. You made the best of it, or tried to.

So, I wouldn't rate the recent incursions of the Burning Legion as highly as other interruptions to the norm of days gone by, but then I'm not playing up my first character in my first MMO. I imagine if there is anyone still doing such a thing in WoW in 2016, this last month has blown the top of their head right off.

Legion launches for me tonight at 11pm. According to this handy chart I could be among the first to take the fight to the demonic horde. I don't even have an early start tomorrow. I could perfectly reasonably stay up for a couple of hours, say I was there. All that.

But I won't. I'm not even going to buy Legion yet. I'm going to heave a sigh of relief that the excitement is over and go back to questing and exploring at a less frenetic pace without the crowds and the hysteria.

I'll sub for another month and take a wander around the lands the Cataclysm wrecked. I'll potter through Pandaria. I'll even see what Garrisons are like from the inside, assuming someone's still handing them out.

I might even look into the possibilities of earning enough gold to pay for a sub with play money. I used to be half-decent at earning platinum on the broker in EQ and EQ2. Maybe I can do the same in WoW.

One way or another I'm going to stick around for a little longer. I may get to Legion eventually. It'll be waiting when I'm ready, I'm sure. I think WoW could be around for a while...

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Are We There Yet? : WoW, GW2

Legion draws ever nearer and I still haven't bought in. It's looking very much now as though I won't. Not at the start, anyway.

This first month of re-subscription has been...odd. When I hit the payment button on a whim my main concern was whether I'd get any use out of the subscription at all. That's proved to be an unnecessary concern. I've played every day.

The quality and nature of that play, on the other hand, has been both enlightening and confounding. I've played no more, no longer, each day than I had already been playing on my free account but I've had less fun.

The pattern has been to log into WoW only after I've done all my dailies on all three GW2 accounts plus the Bloodfen dailies on the one that has Heart of Thorns enabled. (I still haven't allocated my half-price HoT to either of the others).

Even after I've done the dailies I tend to stay on in GW2, often running around in WvW at least until Mrs Bhagpuss calls it a night. There was also rather good new Current Event added with last Tuesday's update, although it stalled very quickly as we all waited for the NPC to move to a new location (which, apparently, she did yesterday!).

This way, guys!

There's also the mysterious cat thing, which I spent some time noodling at while speculating why someone might have been allocated time to add this apparently purposeless piece of fluff when supposedly time constraints at ANet are so rigorous on everything else. Either it's something to keep the interns occupied or someone is testing some mechanic, either for later in LS3 or for the mysterious second expansion, that would be my supposition. Enhanced housing, anyone?

Daybreak Games threw their spanner in the ring with a big update and free Level 95s for all, so that took up some more time. I also took advantage of their generous All Access sale to put my main account on twelve-months pre-paid for the first time ever. I have to decide today whether to do the same for Mrs Bhagpuss's account, which, ironically, we had just agreed to cancel, due to her not having logged in for four years.

With all that going on, nothing else has really gotten a look-in these last couple of weeks. I did find time to check whether I needed to migrate my Dragon Nest account in the face of the imminent transfer of Nexon's North American version. Fortunately it turns out mine's DN: Europe, which appears to be staying on Steam for the time being. I'm aware that I better get on and play some Dragon Nest soon, though, or there may not be any Dragon Nest left to play.

The upshot of all this activity is that for several weeks my entire paid-up membership activity in World of Warcraft has consisted of running demonic invasions and occasionally sorting my bags into the bank. Most evenings I give it about an hour. I managed a couple of slightly longer sessions over the weekends but how people like Stargrace have managed to stick at it for hour after hour, day after day to level up whole armies of characters defeats me.

Aw, heck...where did everyone go?

As time's gone on the structure of the invasions has become a lot clearer. They seem less chaotic because, well, they aren't. There's some randomization to create a small sense of variety but the same bosses and sub-bosses appear at each location every time and the phases and cadences within  the phases are always the same.

My difficulty doesn't come from the repetition, something that all MMORPGs share as a core value. Nor does it come from the ridiculous number of seemingly unavoidable instant deaths (I had to repair to full twice in an hour last night) although the ability of some of the bosses to insta-kill without warning is intensely annoying.

No, my difficulty comes with the combat itself. It's bloody awful. I have never had any major complaints about WoW's combat in general. I have always found the solo, duo and single-group mechanics to be perfectly fine. On the evidence of what is now many hours of large-scale eventing, however, I have to say the in-event combat is the single worst MMO experience of its kind I have encountered anywhere.

There is no feedback worth the name, neither visual nor aural nor textual nor tactile. Everything floats.

I have no lag whatsoever and excellent ping. Technically nothing is standing in the way of a smooth, streamlined experience. What I don't have is any sense whatsoever that the character I'm controlling is involved in the action.

Thanks, but I had a shower earlier.

People talk an awful lot about "rotations" in WoW. I have it in mind to write about that in some depth but for now I'll just say that as far as these invasions go any "rotation" is entirely superflous. Meaningless. Worthless.

You don't need to be able to play your character to do Invasions. Perhaps there's something you might do to die less that requires player skill or class knowledge but other than that all you need to do is hit one button. Any button will do.

I hit all of them as they come off cooldown so as to have something to do but I am painfully aware that I would be better off tagging each boss once then withdrawing well out of range so I don't get insta-gibbed by some invisible AE. Still, stubbornly, I fight and more than occasionally die.

The other required skill is flocking. After each boss dies there's a moment's hiatus as everyone finds whatever button they hit to mount up and then the entire zerg takes to the skies. If you happen to be looking the wrong way or, calamity, still waiting at the graveyard, you're stuffed.

There's some arcane logic to the order in which the bosses are killed that, I'm sure, becomes second nature if you're grinding them for hours and days and weeks. It's beginning to seep into my consciousness now, just as it reaches the point when it will never, ever matter again. Meanwhile, if I miss my place in the flock it's five minutes of aimlessly flying around, looking and hoping. This is when I realize what a truly under-appreciated innovation Commander Tags were.

You fellas carry on without me. I'm just going sit here and moonbathe for a while.

In any other MMO the general channel would be buzzing thorough all these events. There would be banter and chatter and jokes - mostly very bad jokes but still... In WoW there is radio silence. People speak just often enough to let me know my chat channels aren't actually broken - maybe someone says something once every five or ten minutes. Oh, and there's a flurry of "INV" now and again, the most pared-down jargon for "Can I get an invite?" I've ever seen anywhere.

WoW has changed a lot since I last played back in the WotLK era. Then the problem with chat was the never-ending squall of noise, much of it very offensive. Now it seems no-one has anything to say at all, which adds to the strange, alienating "alone in a crowd" feel of these massive public events.

Coming from GW2, where every day is a series of large-scale events, I'm used to a constant surf of chatter as I play. I'm also used to feeling a solid, responsive, physical connection between my fingers on the keys and mouse and the actions of my character on the screen. Demonic Invasions in WoW have none of that.

What they do have is incredibly fast leveling and very useful loot. Just one of those two factors, as is well known, would have most MMO players sitting in an empty room pushing one button for hour after hour. At least the invasions are visually spectacular. There's always something to goggle at.

Hey! I can almost tell what I'm doing here! Almost.

In the end, though, after the novelty of seeing gigantic demons drop from the sky wore off, which took no more than a couple of sessions, it's all about the rewards. That's why I've stuck at it. I wanted to get my Hunter to 90. He was 69 when I started and now he's 92.

I've moved the target to 95 by Legion's launch A couple more sessions. The Warlock went from the high forties to 61, where he's going to stop. He got flying and that will do him for now. As for buying Legion, I think the odds are now better that I'll cancel my sub.

Or I might do neither. I might take another month and go and play the game normally. Level up some characters the old-fashioned way. See the broken world. Flying over those Cataclysm-shattered zones I see a lot of very interesting-looking landscapes worth exploring.

One thing I am sure about: WoW's engine is not made for these big open-world extravaganzas. The utter weightlessness of everything is enervating. I feel tired just thinking about it.

I've never raided in WoW. Do raids feel like this too? Maybe I'll do some LFR and see for myself.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Free Level 95s! Get Yer Free Level 95s! : EQ2

It's very rare for this blog to act as any kind of news source but just in case anyone missed it the lovely people at Daybreak Games have succumbed to an unaccustomed fit of generosity.

Today was the day of the Big End Of Summer Patch (not the official name). Since I was at a bit of a loose end, what with ArenaNet having broken GW2 (okay, really broke it...) and me not being able to stomach another WoW Invasion after the half dozen I'd just done, I thought I'd patch up EQ2, collect my 500SC and see what was up in good old Norrath.

Quite a lot as it turns out. In addition to the deluge of new content including new Public Quests, the entire Fallen Dynasty expansion converted to Fabled status for max level fun and a bunch of Level Agnostic dungeons added for (almost) all levels to enjoy together in a spirit of harmony, there were several rather significant Free Gifts.

  • The Altar of Malice expansion is now free for everyone. Yes, everyone. Not All Access payers, not current level 95s and above, everyone.
So, how's that going to work, then? I mean anyone under level 95 is going to be a splotch on the dockside the moment they log in, right? Those mobs are tough. Well, how about this?

  • Everyone gets a free Heroic Character and the start point for those is now Level 95.
And when I say everyone, once again, I mean everyone. Don't I? Okay, maybe I don't exactly mean everyone but I do mean everyone who's ever played EQ2. And not got banned.

Here's the small print:

"You must have had an EQ2 account in good standing on/prior to 12:00PM PT on Tuesday, August 23, 2016 in order to get the free Heroic Character. If you create a brand new account, it will not be eligible for the promotion, unless the account has membership."

It's pretty darn near everyone, amiright?

Now I would say those are two very generous giveaways. Of course, the previous expansion always goes free when the next expansion comes out but there's not even a firm date (or, as far as I know, name) for the next expansion yet. And although we already got given a free Heroic Character when they were first introduced, when they upped the level from 85 to 90 it was only those free HCs that got an upgrade; no-one got a second one.

Well now we do! What's more, that character will start in The Shattered Seas, which in my opinion is one of the most manageable, enjoyable and attractive high-level zones you could hope to find. Apart from the really depressing first few  minutes with the horrible miasma hanging over everything, that is. Just try to ignore that - it gets wonderfully light, bright and airy just a few yards further in, after you do the first few quests.

If anyone reading this is sitting on an old account and fancies seeing some of EQ2's higher-level content this really is a great opportunity. It's only going to be around until September 6 so don't miss out. Yes, I know Legion. All you have to do is log in and claim the Heroic Character before then - you don't actually have to play her.

You'd think that would be enough but there's more. Not much more but it is a significant little bonus for a particular and quite unusual reason.  For the next week everyone gets

  • Double Personal Status, Double Guild Status and Double Alternative Currency
Hey! There's that word again! Everyone! And once again it means what it says. Double dibs on all those things that you probably don't want but are going to get anyway even if you are a rotten cheapskate freeloader. For a long while the practice has been to limit bonuses like this to paying customers only but for one week starting today it's a free for all that's free for all.

So there you have it. Or you will if you log in. Now pardon me while I go and make a bunch of level 95s I'll never play on a bunch of old accounts I haven't logged in for years. It's free stuff!

Which Way To Kalimdor? : WoW

After reading the helpful suggestions in the comments section the directions given by Netherlands and Tyler jogged my memory. I remembered taking the boat from Menethil Harbor although where it might have been going was another question.

My recollections of setting sail from Booty Bay were a lot clearer. I was reasonably sure that ship came to land somewhere off the Barrens Coast.

Looking at the map showed Invasions taking place in Northern Barrens and Tanaris. I was in Dun Morogh at the time, closer to Menethil than Booty Bay. I spoke to the Griffin Master and took a catbird across Wetlands.

Since The Cataclysm I've scarcely set foot outside of the various racial starting areas. I don't have a picture of what's changed or how. Arriving at Menethil I found the town flooded but the docks still seemed to be in operation.

Typically, the only ship in sight pulled away from the pier just as I arrived. I hopped on my griffin and tried to catch it up but it outpaced me and vanished. I turned back to the docks, where a bunch of pirates were standing on the dockside, staring morosely at the masts of a sunken ship poking out of the water.

I listened to them talking among themselves for a while. Then I left them to it and settled down to wait. It was only a few minutes before the big ship returned. I boarded it and waited some more. I was the only passenger, which should have set off warning bells, but I was just happy to be on board and I didn't think anything of it.

The captain didn't hang around. In a couple of minutes we were under way. To Northrend.

In retrospect I probably should have guessed the destination from the appearance of the vessel. Like the gnomish icebreaker that used to ply the waves between North Ro and Iceclad Ocean, this was a ship clearly designed for northern waters.

The trip was a scenic one, with the great cliffs looming above as the captain navigated a narrow channel between. I stood at the rail and watched as we maneuvered alongside the dock of a settlement. I made a mental note to return when the Burning Legion retire to lick their wounds or whatever bested demons do. Then I let the boat carry me back to Menethil.

Standing once again in the hammering rain it occurred to me that the wreckage of the "pirate" ship in the harbor might well be all that remained of the old ferry to Kalimdor. Certainly it seemed no other ship was going to come.

I squelched back through the rain to the Griffin Master and took up the reins once again, this time for Booty Bay. It was a long flight but at least it gave me the chance to dry out.

As the griffin swooped down over the planks and rigging of the goblin city I felt a rush of nostalgia. I'd spent many lively hours running up and down the confusing ramps, racing in and out of huts, doing ...something. I can't quite remember what. I know I did a lot of it, though.

This time the deck of the goblin-crewed ship was crowded with adventurers, all waiting impatiently astride their motley mounts for the journey to begin. We didn't have long to wait. The ship sailed promptly, there was a flash of the map and within just a minute or two we came in sight of the ramshackle port of Ratchet.

No-one waited for the boat to dock. With a flurry of wings and scales the whole contigent of passengers took to the air, myself among them. The lurid green sky-rent that told of demonic invasion was all the signpost we needed.

So, now I know how to get to Kalimdor. It's not difficult but it does take a while. The views are stunning so it's time well spent, in a way. You certainly can't fault the worldliness. Still, and even though my forty-year old self would be having conniptions at the thought of the lazy bum I've become, I have to say that I'd take GW2's waypoints or even EQ2's bells if they were offered.

Anyway, I've now sampled all six invasion sites and I can put them in order of preference according to how well-balanced they are between fun and profit. The running order, from least enjoyable to most enjoyable, from an Alliance perspective:

Hillsbrad Foothills - a pain to get to from anywhere; awkward to fight among the buildings; graveyard annoyingly far away; Horde NPCs re-agro soon after event ends and kill you if you hang around sorting your bags.

Azshara - A long flight; annoying geography; disturbingly close to Ogrimmar; the Goblin Trade Prince's "encouragement" is predictably infuriating.

Dun Morogh - Very easy to get to, especially when you have your characters bound in Ironforge like me; fighting in the village of Kharanos is claustrophobic and the NPC chatter is distracting; trees get in the way in phase two; dwarven exhortations can be an acquired taste, especially with the Brigadoon Touring Company accents.

Westfall - A very short flight from Dun Morogh, making these a good pair to do in succession; reasonably open fighting area; good options to solo demons in phase two.

Northern Barrens - Easy access from Ratchet; good, flat, open landscape makes it easy to see and get to bosses; Crossroads is an iconic destination and defending it feels "important" (that might just be me...)

Tanaris - Straightforward and fairly quick trip from Crossroads making them a good pair; by far the best area to kill bosses in phase two because of excellent line of sight and very flat, uncluttered desert landscape; Gadgetzan is a full service hub with a bank; goblin yelling is funny.

Having finally got all this straight no doubt it will all change again in today's update as we go into the final week. Whatever, I'm having fun!

Monday, 22 August 2016

Don't Make Me Get My Main : WoW, GW2, EQ, EQ2

The imminent arrival of WoW's Legion expansion has spurred a flurry of concern about what class to play as a "Main". Rowan, Belghast and Syp have all been pondering the problem, which is compounded by the extensive, some might say draconian, changes to the Talent system.

Some, like Chestnut, have already made their choice, while others prefer to defer, avoiding the difficult decision of which class to make their focus for the expansion by attempting to level everything to the cap before the demon army gets here. Stargrace and Tyler are working on that.

Then there are those who've seen it all before and don't feel the need to jump in any particular direction just yet. Wilhelm and Keen are sitting back and thinking, taking the long view.

Me? I find the whole thing a tad confusing. In all the years I've played MMORPGs I've never really accepted, far less adopted, the notion of a "Main Character". I remember being introduced to the concept quite early on in my EQ career and finding it problematic from the start.

When I first stepped out into Norrath it was as a half-elven ranger who promptly fell to his deat h from the platforms of Kelethin and was never seen again - or at least his corpse was never found. He was followed, not precisely in this exact order, by a human warrior, a dwarven cleric, another half-elf ranger (starting this time in the re-assuringly ground-based caves of Surefall Glade), a troll shaman, a human druid and eventually a gnome necromancer.

As I was trying out different classes and races and starting areas, coming to grips with the game and the fresh concepts that came with it, each of those was, for a time, my "main" character. The necromancer eventually made it into the twenties, pulling ahead of the pack, but I didn't stop playing any of the others.

The Great Test Wipe debacle shifted the emphasis from my necro to the druid, who made Kunark her home when the expansion launched. As the weeks and months rolled on I continued to create more characters, trying out all the classes and races and several combinations of each.

That was a period of amazing growth for EverQuest. New servers opened often and I developed the habit of making new characters on all of them. When the Scars of Velious expansion appeared, around a year after I first began playing, it turned out you needed a character in the low thirties to have much chance of joining in with the action in the lowest level of the new zones.

At that time I played every hour I could manage. I was working part-time and had plenty of opportunity so I'd always get in at least forty hours a week, often more. Despite this major life commitment my highest character, the druid, was around level 28 or 29.

The reason I was so far behind the leveling curve was simple. I had literally dozens of characters spread across more than half a dozen servers and on any given day I would probably play at least four or five of them. My established practice was to play a character until it hit a milestone of some kind - and a milestone back then might be one yellow bubble of experience, twenty per cent of a level. Then I'd swap.

Playing mostly solo this wasn't any kind of a problem. On the contrary, it meant the game stayed astonishingly fresh. Not for me the sad ennui of the bored fifty. Or sixty as it became with the coming of Kunark.

It did become something of a problem after Velious, which was when my grouping and guilding days really began. In order to function in a group, particularly in a responsible role like main healer or tank, the two positions I ended up taking most often, there is something of a requirement for the player to be, at least, competent with the class he or she is playing. If you play dozens of characters that competence can be harder to acquire.

People recruiting for groups tend to ask awkward questions. Questions like "is that your Main?".  The subtext being "...and if it is, why are you so bad at it?" Guild leaders and officers can be even more pointed. For administrative purposes they almost always want to know which characters are "Mains" and which "Alts". That was a question I could never answer.

The result of all this was the building of a network of open-minded, laid-back, non-judgmental friends and acquaintances, a list of people who genuinely wanted you to bring the player not the class. It also meant joining what used to be known as a "family guild", giving up any thoughts of participating in the then-cut-throat world of raid progression.

The compromise I made back then was to have a small number of "focus" characters. I played my Cleric and my Shadowknight - and later my Beastlord - enough to keep them at the level cap through a couple of expansions as well as to develop the instinct and muscle memory I needed to be effective in tight situations. At the same time I continued to play a whole slew of other characters, day in, day out, most of whom rarely met the rest of the people on my friends and guild list.

In the decade and a half since then not an awful lot has changed. The main difference is that, as MMO developers have chosen to make their games hugely more friendly both to playing solo and to raising a horde of characters, the choice of "who to Main" has become less and less of an ordeal.

In the old days a serious player would generally have a Main and an Alt. Just the one. The Alt would often be chosen to complement the Main, would always be in his shadow, often only coming into his own in the dog days towards the end of an expansion cycle, when the Main had Done Everything and the player was Bored.

These days, as can readily be seen in the current Invasion Frenzy, it's probably more normal for the average player to keep a stable of characters at or near the level cap. In GW2, where even at launch it barely took two weeks to hit cap, and where now you can make an Alt and level it to 80 in five minutes while standing at the bank, everyone plays everything.

And yet people still talk about Mains and Alts. The concept is deeply ingrained in the genre. It may never go away. And with good reason, because the fact remains that, no matter how swift and easy the journey becomes, there's really no short cut to becoming competent at your class. In the end you have to put in the hard hours, whether you do that leveling up or after you boost.

I don't have a "Main" in any MMO I play unless it's one that only allows a single character. That's for the same reason I don't have "Toons". All my characters, in every imaginary world I visit, are individuals. They're people in the same way the characters in a book or a movie are people. They aren't extensions of my ego or tools for me to use - or, perhaps I should say, they are much more than that.

All the same, I have to recognize that, in any MMO, there are only so many classes or builds I can play competently. In GW2, currently,  that's Tempest and Druid. In EQ2 it's Berserker and in EQ it's Magician.

For WoW, while I'm there this time around, it's most likely going to be beastmaster  Hunter and demonology Warlock. At the moment I have virtually no understanding of, let alone competence in, either but it will come if I keep playing.

It won't make either of them my "Main" though. I don't do Mains.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Getting There : WoW

The current demonic invasion of Azeroth has been both profitable and revealing. The more I play World of Warcraft the more I realize it isn't and probably never has been precisely the game its public image would suggest.

When WoW launched, all the way back in 2004, I'd already been playing MMORPGs for half a decade. I'd been playing video games for a lot longer than that, right back to the very early 1980s, but I had never played a Blizzard game so the hype around the upcoming Warcraft spin-off meant very little to me.

Even so, it was impossible to be involved in the genre and not hear something about what was coming. During the six months or so before WoW launched all my attention was focused on EQ2. Who would or wouldn't be moving there from EverQuest and what the arrival of a second MMO set in Norrath would do to the fortunes and health of the first were topics of far greater interest to my coterie of online friends and acquaintances than the prospects of some vague wannabe contender.

If I knew anything at all about WoW it was that it had something to do with that easy-mode rpg Diablo that no-one I knew had ever had anything much to say about. That, indeed, was the one thing everyone I talked to agreed on about WoW - it would be an MMO-Lite experience at best.

My impression never really changed in the five years it took before Mrs Bhagpuss and I finally got around to trying WoW. It was an impression reinforced by comments from people we met in the MMOs we played. Some, like us, had never played the game, forming their judgments from the odd screenshot or review they'd seen or read. More influential were the reports from people we met in guild or groups, who had played WoW and stopped.
It's okay, you all go on and have fun without me. I'll just sit here...

Especially telling was the main reason they tended to give for not playing it any more: "It's okay but it's too easy. I got bored". That tended to be the gist. When we finally arrived in Azeroth at the butt-end of a prolonged MMO slump I think both Mrs Bhagpuss and I felt we were slumming. I can remember the short discussion when we decided to give WoW a try - it went along the lines of "well, we've tried everything else..."

WoW turned out to be very different from the simplistic, even childish experience we may have been imagining. It was somewhere around the middle of the Wrath of the Lich King's reign and the word among the cognoscenti was that WoW's Golden Age was already over, Blizzard's current development team keen to dumb things down for the vast, casual crowd that had turned the game into a cultural phenomenon.

I was astonished to find a much slower-paced, thoughtful, full-bodied MMORPG than anything I'd heard or read had led me to expect. I could only imagine how much more so it must have been in earlier years. I kicked myself, gently, for missing it but gave myself a pat on the back for getting there in the end.

We only lasted six months as subscribers. Neither of us leveled a character to the cap. I forget now where we went when we moved on - probably back to EQ2, I imagine. Mrs Bhagpuss has never returned but since the Free-to-20 endless trial appeared I've pottered around, on and off, here and there, now and again.

It's hard to tell, though, playing a very low-level character under the restrictions of a glorified free trial just how the game as a whole stacks up to modern expectations. This week, with the chains off and some higher-level characters to run around, I've been able to take stock and once again the facts turn out to be surprisingly different from the reputation.

Smartest he's ever looked.

I'm not going to say WoW is hard but boy, it's a lot harder than you'd expect. Than I expected.

Yes, there's that crazy leveling speed at the low end but stack that against what's been going on this last couple of weeks. The demonic invasions as they began gave huge boosts to xp for character of all levels. It led to vast armies of players afking alts under the xp hose to soak up those free levels.

Blizzard took objection and slammed down the nerf hammer. The intention was to make players work for their levels but way they chose to do it was highly instructive. Rather than merely cut the xp they split up and multiplied the invasion sites, reducing their duration and increasing their frequency.

This had the effect of forcing players to move their characters around the world if they wanted to carry on raking in the levels. Coming from GW2 and EQ2, I didn't foresee that being a problem. Until I tried it.

Moving from place to place in Azeroth is almost as awkward as it is in Old Norrath! Possibly more so. Having opened my map and found invasions marked in radioactive green on two continents I found myself stumped. How to get to any of them? I had no clue.

Thinking it to be ignorance and lack of current game knowledge I turned to Google. Wowhead had a comprehensive guide. My hunter was in Dun Morogh. I tried to follow the directions to Tarren Mill.:

"Tarren Mill, Hillsbrad Foothills:
  • Alliance: Fly from Twilight Highlands, take Cataclysm portal in Stormwind to Twilight Highlands"

Cataclysm portal? What the heck is that? I had no idea but Reddit did. So now I need to do a quest to open a portal?

Let's step back a second.

I just don't know what I'd do without my griffin.

Here's the sequence. My Hunter used his Hearthstone to get back to Ironforge. From there he took a Griffin to Stormwind. In Stormwind he had to find the docks and get the quest from the Hero's Board (first enabling lower level quests so he could see it). After that there'd be a trip to the throne room of Stormwind Keep and a jaunt through another portal to Moonglade.

A bit of quest business and he'd have access to the Cataclysm Portal...back in Stormwind. So, a trip back there on a griffin, I guess, or re-use the hearthstone, if it's off cooldown, and come back round. That would get him as far as Twilight Highlands after which he's on his own - the guide ends there!

I did try but I gave up when, after about twenty minutes, I still hadn't even found the Hero's Board. Instead I flew all the damn way from Ironforge to Hillsbrad Foothills on my slow Snow Griffin. That was after I spent a third of my entire savings on a Flying License, which apparently I'd never bothered to do back when I was playing last time.

At least the Hunter has that option. The Warlock, at 50, has to take a scheduled flight or ride his goat. He's not going anywhere. I have him parked in Westfall and he's staying there. As for the possibility of even seeing an invasion on Kalimdor I've pretty much given up on that one for the time being until I can work out how to get there. Didn't there used to be a boat...?

No, I have no idea what's going on either.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how old school WoW still is. It's much more old-fashioned than anyone lets on. If leveling was really so log-falling easy then why would so many people be so keen to jump on any opportunity to speed it up and so cross when they're told they can't?

If the game is such a great fit for casual players with tight schedules and real-life pressures, why is it so difficult to get from one place to another? Something doesn't add up. What about the hoops you have to jump through to get the look for your character that you want? And this Transmog is the improved version?

It seems to me that there may be more reasons for WoW's declining subscriptions than mere ennui among its existing playerbase. It just might be that, compared to almost any MMORPG of the last five, six, seven years or so, it could be coming across to new players as a tad...harsh.

It's not just the inevitable accretion of systems and content from a dozen years of operation that makes all older MMOs daunting for new blood. It's the surprising disconnect between WoW's reputation as the grandfather of casual gaming and the reality of some highly complex and rather demanding basic gameplay. It makes you think about just where Mike O'Brien's notorious manifesto snipe at games that "make you spend hours preparing to have fun rather than just having fun" was aimed.

None of which is meant as a complaint. I am certain sure that, were I to be playing WoW as my main MMORPG, I would relish the granularity and texture these legacy systems and structures support. Bring it on, I say!

For a drop-in, hour-a-day, casual MMO experience, though, it's not quite what you might expect.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Buyer's Remorse : WoW

Last night, after months of toying with the idea, I re-subscribed to WoW. It happened suddenly and almost on a whim. I don't know quite yet whether I'm happy about that or not.

Playing on the excellent Veteran version of my old account means I've been looking at all my old characters idling away on the character select screen every time I log in. There's a big "Reactivate Now" button right in the field of view but until last night I've had no problems ignoring it.

These days every MMO's doing it, flashing up an offer or demand. Get this expansion, visit the cash shop, upgrade. GW2 is particularly determined to have everyone on the same HoT page; Daybreak Games really would like you to know they have an All Access plan you could be enjoying. It's visual noise. My brain automatically tunes it out

Here's a clue...
So what happened? Well, this. And this. And this. Need I go on?

Stargrace is musing over why her friends are all playing one game one minute and another the next and Syl is pondering the power of trends. So there's a lot of that going on but then there always is and yet I don't jump every train that passes through the station. What's different this time?

There's a theory to which I have long subscribed that says you can't con a satisfied mark. In order to sell someone something that person has to be feeling a lack. If they're happy with what they have then you need to spark a little fire of greed first before you can fan the flames.

 I've been meaning to check out the pre-Legion invasions ever since they began but somehow I couldn't find the time until last night. That somehow added a sense of urgency, a feeling I might miss out if I didn't get with the program.

Miss out on what? I wasn't quite sure. The first reports I read left me feeling it was a high-end event for people with max level characters but as dispatches from the front filtered in it became clear there were things happening at all levels. People kept making comparisons with Rift's rifts and GW2's zergs, talking about gaining levels and getting geared. My buttons weren't just being pressed: they were lighting up.

Please fasten your seat-belts. We may be experiencing some turbulence.

So last night, when my level 20 Gnome Hunter flew through Dun Morogh on a griffin to see the Imperial Battlecruiser of the Legion burning up the winter sky with green felfire, I felt more than a frisson of excitement. Excitement turned into exhilaration as the Mechanostrider carried her clanking down the long hill from Ironforge, straight into battle alongside the hard-pressed dwarves.

Blizzard have taken their own sweet time assimilating the changes to the genre brought about by Trion and ANet over the last half-decade but someone has clearly been taking notes. The Demon Invasion has all the classic hallmarks of the revolution in open access, non-competitive MMO gaming I for one have come not just to enjoy but to expect.

The huge demons scaled exactly to my young hunter's level. They stomped and stormed and raged in a most impressively raid-like fashion, attracting suitably raid-like swarms of players to oppose them. The air was filled with explosions, the sounds were ear-shatteringly loud. Dwarven NPCs, some of whom I actually recognized, rallied the troops with voice-acted exhortations. I fought, I died, I got credit.

Remind me who you are again?

For once WoW felt...modern. Well, modern-ish. I found it impressive, exciting - even immersive, despite the incongruous ubiquity of motorbikes.

I was having a great time but that doesn't explain why I decided to flip the switch and subscribe. Sadly, that can be explained in a single word: greed.

The first invasion rewarded me a smattering of the new currency and two Legion Chests, one small, one large. I wasn't sure what to expect when I opened them but out popped several Blue items, all of which were useable for my Hunter and all of which were huge upgrades. She put them on and I started to think. Always dangerous.

As I fought and died through a second invasion wave, watching the big xp numbers melt to nothing against the immutable bar of my Veteran Account Level 20 lock, I started to worry about waste. Yes, I was having fun. A lot of fun. But if I was playing my old Hunter who retired at 69, wouldn't I also be having fun but filling my leveling boots at the same time? And if getting great gear at level 20 feels good wouldn't getting great gear at level 70 feel even better?

Nunney Castle - what's left of it.

You'd think so, wouldn't you? And what does a WoW sub cost, after all? Ten quid. Mrs Bhagpuss and I went to Nunney Castle yesterday afternoon. It was a beautiful summer's day and although we hadn't planned to have lunch there it was so nice we grabbed a coke and a ciabatta at a pub. That cost exactly the price of a month's WoW sub - each.

So cost isn't a factor. I don't have any regrets over spending the money. Why, then, did I go to bed feeling I might have made the wrong decision?

It just might be that I really do prefer restrictive rulesets to "having it all". It's not a new concept for me. I definitely felt that the best balanced gameplay I ever experienced in EQ2 was on the revised version of the F2P "Silver" account. Having some restrictions tightened everything up in a way that felt both more manageable and rewarding than the full, Gold version seemed to provide.

Getting the gear upgrades from the Legion pre-event on the level-locked Hunter felt somehow as though I was winning a prize. Turns out that getting equivalent upgrades on a just-turned-seventy character, or on the high-thirties Warlock I woke up afterwards, feels a little bit like cheating.

Why's everyone in such a hurry?

Those characters took six months to get to where they were when they woke up. To have them almost instantly acquire better gear than they have ever seen, in a matter of seconds, didn't give me much of a buzz. If anything it came as a bit of a down.

Instead of going to bed excited at the thought of another session the next day that might power those characters through a few levels and see them smartly dressed in new armor, I found myself wondering  whether I should just write off the cost of the subscription, mothball the account for a month and play on my other, free account instead.

I'm not going to do that, although I might play the free account as well, if time permits. The decision's made and I'll carry on and make the best of it. I expect the negative feelings will dissipate quite quickly as I get back into the swing of having characters who can progress past twenty.

One thing the whole experience did emphasize for me is just how much I would like slower leveling in WoW. I loved playing my Gnome Hunter up to twenty but it probably took not much more than three or four hours, if that. It's not just too fast - it's insanely too fast.

Umm...can I get some back-up here? I'm only level twenty.

What's needed is variable, player-controlled leveling speed. That's something I would pay a subscription to have. In the meantime I'm thinking of taking my Gnome Hunter to talk to Behsten in Stormwind to get her level locked at 20. That way I can enjoy the invasions, gear her up and also have her earn gold, all the time knowing that when I cancel the subscription she can return to her Veteran status and still be able to come out to play.

Meanwhile, I might make another Gnome Hunter to level up further. If there's one thing Blizzard isn't stingy about it's character slots. And leveling up another character certainly isn't going to take very long. As to whether I buy the Legion expansion, I'm still undecided. Let's see how much use I actually make of this sub over the next couple of weeks.

Right now, though, I'm going to log in and kill some Demons. I can feel that Buyer's Remorse fading already.
Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide