Category Archives: Review

Black Desert Online Mediah Patch is live! And: The Joys of not being a Frontrunner

A month into official launch Black Desert Online already released the Mediah patch today with all sorts of goodies, ranging from new quests and items to a 30% world map increase. You might have guessed that last point makes me especially happy and I itched all day to jump into the game and ride around for hours chasing genies, collecting cherry blossoms and getting my screenshots fix. It rocks being me – Black Desert Online is already my game of the year!

Black Desert Online Mediah Patch Altinova

Altinova Entrance

Black Desert Online Mediah Patch Altinova

Because there weren’t big cities in the game yet..

While the official BDO forums are still trying to come to terms with an expansion so shortly after original release, because you can have too much to do in an MMO or something, I had a blast so far exploring Tarif and Altinova. As most of the town names and NPCs in Mediah suggest, players heading East from Heidel are in for a veritable pilgrimage to the Black Desert’s Middle East (or alternatively North Africa) – exotic magic, camel caravans and shishas included. Heck, there is even an innkeep lady stationed in Altinova with my real life name, that’s one MMO-first for me!

Black Desert Online Mediah Patch Altinova

I need a camel mount!

Black Desert Online Mediah Patch Altinova

It’s the orient, alright.

It is a bit surprising Daum decided to launch this first expansion as quickly as they did but then there’s absolutely no reason why anyone outside of the most hardcore circles should feel rushed just because Black Desert Online got even more content. Maybe we shouldn’t even think of it as ‘content’ but rather treat it like an actual place; a world that’s vast enough to remain mysterious to the average player for a good while yet. I take comfort in that. Without endgame or linear progression, worrying about your individual pace, the best competitive gear or alchemy gems need not be a thing. And for those on the self-imposed fast lane who are ever a millisecond away from boredom, more frequent updates should seem like a boon too…but then this wouldn’t be an MMO if a vocal minority wasn’t unhappy with the way things are done, would it.

I am still nowhere near level 45 and now I really need to figure out how to buy a camel. Also, this thing creeps me out! –

Black Desert Online Mediah Patch Tarif

Uuuuuhhh…..??

P.S. Daum published a Mediah patch trailer without corny voice overs this time, let’s be grateful!

Black Desert Online as a PvEr? Round Two: YES you should play!

Two weeks ago I asked the pressing question of whether Black Desert Online is actually a game for PvErs out there, including information we had on how PvP flagging works in the game and how it affects the later gameplay experience. I did make it clear in my post that when talking about PvE, I am referring to that established definition of “player versus environment” the way we’ve come to use it thanks to MMOs such as WoW, Rift, GW2 and many others. That means player versus quests, player versus dungeons, player versus raids and all associated and preconceived progression. Black Desert Online has little of that, plenty of quests and dailies aside; what it does have however is an incredible sandbox appeal, so much that it very well may be the game many jaded MMO veterenas, on both sides of the spectrum, have been craving.

Now here’s the important bit of news that requires this update: as it turns out, some of the previous information regarding PvP was in fact wrong. It’s frustrating how hard it is to find much corroborated information for the NA/EU installments of the game but basically, PvP is a little different for us at the present time, as was finally confirmed to me ingame by guild mates who are way past level 50:

  • PvP on NA/EU servers starts at level 45 (not 50)
  • While becoming eligible is still non-consensual, this does in fact not extend to any lowlevel alts (also goes for the Russian version of BDO)

In lieu of any contrary news or things planned for the game, this in itself is pretty huge if we understand how BDO works. The game is all about your different characters working together, sharing whatever progress you make but having separate energy pools to invest in various undertakings, such as resource gathering or crafting. The great news about this: you don’t have to level past 45 to access any of Black Desert’s huge non-combat content. If you opt to be a crafter, gatherer, trader, breeder, house decorator, farmer or candlestick maker – you can do it! Most of the quests related to these activities yield no life/skill EXP, only kill quests do; 50 hours in, I am still only level 21 because I started crafting and thus my character has basically been stagnant while I keep progressing in other ways.

And if  I should ever in fact require one higher level character, I can always use my “main” for that sort of adventure and switch to my alts for the rest. Right now, they are located in different towns and already assisting me a great deal. This is a big point about BDO, to conquer the world for yourself, decide where to make temporary or longterm homes and how to make best use of your different characters.

The game has no level cap either which to me proves it’s not about a set progression or reaching certain levels to unlock content. You can truly make your own adventure and if you ever need to venture anywhere with a level 45+ toon, wear the ghillie suit from the store and you’ll be next to invisible to other players (or just switch server channel if there’s any PvP, problem solved). For the amount of content BDO offers while not requiring any subscription, I am more than happy to put up with that.

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The cities are madness

Yes, you should play in this sandbox!

After a considerable learning curve, I finally start feeling like I am “getting” into the flow of things (and there’s more and more guides for everything else). Now to be clear, I am still scratching the surface of BDO but I’ve finally managed to establish some resource nodes, I am training workers who bring back goods of my choosing every hour, I am gathering EVERYTHING I want to, I am crafting to the most satisfying animations and I am riding from place to place for hours because there ain’t any shortcuts. I tamed a wild horse two days ago and felt spectacular. Oh and fishing, just because my alt does that on her own when I go /afk. All of this is going on without obnoxious gold seller messages or botters due to the way PA handle the economy and regulate your ability to binge-craft, farm, fish as well as trade and sell goods.

The world of Black Desert is mind-blowingly beautiful in a Witcher 3 kind of way. More importantly, in this MMO the world truly is the player – you are not, you are just a lowly peasant that gets to do things in it. I could tell you about Calpheon city (Eri has done) and how ridiculously gorgeous, lively and huge it is, easily the most beautiful and largest city ever in MMORPGdom. The scale, the authenticity of how its crafted, the busy streets, they will break your heart. And yet none of it is the highlight of the game; there are so many regions, so many towns and hubs and little things, with individual economies and resources for you to engage with, I could go on for hours! Don’t get me started on the different funky fantasy races you encounter as you go along, I should probably dedicate a next post just to them

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Cooking, brewing, drying, grinding, shaking, thinning…

I also got a new home in Velia now and am completely over the moon by the way Pearl Abyss have solved player housing. The fact that you own different, physically existing houses all over the world that let you phase in to perfection, is nothing short of a stellar job. Fancy a small hut by the river? A three-story apartment building with a cellar? A windmill with a fireplace? You can have it – you can have them all to do all sorts of useful things. Or you can just decorate to your heart’s content, open the windows and watch the view outside. In the Korean version of the game, there’s even big-style automated farming via NPCs and personal shop vendors. Every time I cross one of my own workers during my travels, it puts a wide smile on my face because they too actually “exist”.

bdo madness

I don’t know what I’ll be doing in two weeks time or three months from now. All I know is that I’ll still be playing Black Desert Online and doing 19347262094 things that have absolutely nothing to do with combat (and that require no cooperation other than from your own alts if that matters to you). I may build a cart for my horse and start trading for reals. Maybe I’ll get into making my own furniture or clothes. Or I’ll learn how to sail, build a boat and sail away forever, to make a new camp somewhere else.

Did I mention Black Desert Online has tents and campfires to pitch in the deep black of night? Yep.

If you’re at all into any of the things I have described above, just do yourself a favor and play this. (I have one 7 day guest pass for the first person who’d like one)

Black Desert Online: Heidel City and Climbing the Top of the World

Yesterday concluded the last beta test for Black Desert Online before launch this March 3rd. I made the most of the time, looking at as many features of the game as I possibly could without spoiling myself entirely. And there is so much yet to grasp, it feels like I hardly scratched the surface. After my brief initial impressions, it was time to find out just how well the virtual world of Black Desert was crafted – would I be able to immerse myself in it entirely and explore to my heart’s content?

I named him Fred, he did not approve.

I named him Fred, he did not approve.

But first I got a donkey from the stable master, thinking it would speed up my travels. The beast felt awkward underneath me and even after I figured out a reluctant gallop, other players kept running past us on foot. Unwilling to deal with further humiliation, I decided to tie Fred down and let him feed on the surrounding grass, which he clearly preferred doing anyway.

I also had a brief flirt with the market place and my first ever encounter with transaction captchas in an MMO. Apparently this is PA’s answer to mass-playing the AH via macros. Since I had almost run out of cash over my unfaithful ride, it was time to blow the rest of it on housing which is a fairly involved affair in Black Desert leading to many different options for crafters. After acquiring a small shack in Velia, I had enough money left to turn the place into a residence and choose some wallpaper, flooring and a bed. Granted, it wasn’t much but it was all mine!

One can also just sit in a boat.

One can also just sit in a boat.

Onward to Heidel City

As I traveled ever further east from the original starting point, it was time to begin the ultimate litmus test of exploration and turn my UI off to allow for aimless wandering. Black Desert Online is beautiful and there are ways to make your screenshots look even more fantastic, so I made full employ of the various ingame options. On high res settings the textures are sharp and terrain is fully accessible, climbable and diveable. A sudden thunderstorm or gush of rain makes noticeable impact on your environment.

Before long, Heidel City crept up on the horizon. I could wax lyrical about what a genuine, lively and bustling place this was, but pictures say more than a thousand words in this case –

From the narrow, crooked cobblestone streets, to the lively feeling created by NPC behavior and the finely crafted details in an old archway or fluttering pennant, I loved everything about Heidel City. It is possibly the most beautiful place I’ve visited in an MMO/RPG next to GW2’s Divinity’s Reach and Novigrad in The Witcher 3. There are nooks and crannies to explore, chairs to sit on and NPC conversations to overhear (although there could be a bit more of that). It is an incredibly well-designed site as far as an authentic medieval-feeling city goes and I have been to a fair few in real life. And hooray, for once scale is working! I can only hope there are more cities like this in the game.

Climbing the tallest mountain around

Recovering from city shock, I wandered off and followed the river south of Heidel until a tall mountain range showed up. I had not really experienced forests yet in the game so it was time to find out if it could rival LOTRO’s Old Forest or Eorzea’s Black Shroud. I am not sure I actually found a forest proper but I found woods along the foot of the mountain and was generally pleased with the textures and shrubbery. There wasn’t the same atmosphere as in the other two MMOs though; the noticeable lack of critters and other creatures puzzled me. When I didn’t manage to “find” anything much, climbing the mountain to see how far I might get became a thing.

And it went on and on! I must’ve spent 15 minutes running and jumping over rocks, dodging one very angry stag lord materializing out of nowhere, before I got close to a finish line. I made it past the treeline and still further up things only came to a halt shortly before the mountain peak, where I was allowed to go no further. The view below was stunning, opening far and wide with recognizable landmarks in the far distance.

Invisible barriers are one of my pet peeves in MMOs. Black Desert Online appears to have very little of the sort and allows for an almost entirely persistent experience. I’ve yet to plunge into a thick, dark type of creepy forest but it is safe to say that my enthusiasm for the game was greatly improved by my two exploratory missions. Even if “endgame” should prove not to be my cup of tea down the line, it will be worth the journey on account of all the sights and places I have yet to see. Just send me that horse with my pre-order mail, please!

#Listmas: Best videogame soundtrack! Top VGM of the Year 2015

For the third time in a row, I am taking this final listmas opportunity to spread some annual VGM love around the MMO blogosphere. In lieu of many MMO releases, 2015 was still a year for new video game music and a few standouts on other platforms, albeit fewer than usual. Maybe it’s just me but this year it seemed harder to come up with a list but judge for yourself.

Since my teaser compilations on youtube have been appreciated in the past, I am once more presenting my top VGMs in both written and audible form, featuring two personal favorites per game:

My Top VGM of 2015

10. Fallout 4
9. Swordcoast Legends
8. Don’t Starve Shipwrecked
7. Crypt of the Necrodancer
6. Ori and the Blind Forest
5. The Witcher 3
4. Undertale
3. There came an Echo
2. GW2 Heart of Thorns
1. FFXIV Heavensward

As you may realize watching the youtube summary, my MMO soundtrack of the year Heavensward is missing; this is due to the circumstance that Square Enix put silly restrictions on players using even partial soundtrack and have been dealing with their fanbase in most dismissive and aggressive manner in the past (followers of Angry Joe will remember). My youtube account is currently under bad standing because of two strikes I received by SE earlier this year – both of which I wasn’t given a chance to react to and which have limited my ability to upload videos longer than 15 minutes. I have therefore decided not to feature and promote any of their soundtracks on YT anymore. There is however a Battle Bards episode on Heavensward upcoming soon, for those who are interested and are following our podcast.

Let me know which soundtracks you enjoyed this year! And as always, spread the VGM love – Happy New Year everybody!

On the Telly: Great British TV Shows

It’s Blizzcon weekend and I feel rather indifferent about that. It’s exciting times for fans of WoW or Blizzard’s other IPs and it should probably interest me as a general MMO blogger, only it really doesn’t. I see the attraction of cons in terms of meeting friends and having a geeky good time (collecting swag!), otherwise it’s a queue and bathroom hell I’ll happily skip for youtube summaries later on. I remain mildly attracted to Overwatch – other than this, I’ve only one thing to say: TOLD YOU SO in case that Legion launch date will indeed fall into September 2016!

Because all gaming news is overshadowed by Blizzcon this weekend and I’ve been watching a couple of awesome British TV shows lately, I decided to take this opportunity to highlight a few you might wanna check out on Netflix or elsewhere!

Cliffs are bad news

Cliffs are bad news

Good: Broadchurch (2 seasons, to be continued)
I’ve binged on both seasons of Broadchurch this past week and would describe it as a very gripping, emotionally intense crime drama, sporting half of the Harry Potter cast. While this is not exactly a rare breed of genre, Broadchurch is intriguing for its grey areas and constant twists and suggestions; anyone can be made suspect and will be as they get swallowed by the whole machinery of investigation and court procedure. There’s the saying “it takes a village to raise a child” – in Broadchurch the entire village will pay because they didn’t. Until the very last episode, it remains unclear who the killer(s) is(are) or why they did it. Broadchurch isn’t very graphical but the topics are dark and gritty, contrasting with the English smallville beach idyll that is the beautiful setting for the story. Since child abuse is a central theme of the show, it’s probably too heavy for some.

No show is perfect. There was a major twist at the end of the first season I didn’t enjoy and I felt the second season lost some speed, introducing annoying characters. On the other hand, there’s some great acting in Broadchurch with David Tennant’s delightful Scottish accent for you to enjoy all the way through.

Better: Peaky Blinders (2 seasons, to be continued)
Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy, need I say more? A gangster drama set in Birmingham, Peaky Blinders is violent and gritty, grandiose and flamboyant as it follows the rise to power of one particular local clan inspired by historical record. The show is as much a story of three brothers (and one more insignificant sister and baby brother) raising themselves and coping with First World War related PTSD, as it is an early 20th century mafia romance with great period settings. It portrays rising social and class issues, complex family themes as well as the psychology of addiction, both to drugs and power. The acting and writing are superb once you got used to the heavy accents.

There’s not much I got to be annoyed with while watching, other than maybe the show’s great antagonist chief inspector Campbell (played by Sam Neil), who is as immoral as the fiends he so passionately pursues. There are no good guys in Peaky Blinders, only broken people.

The lost boys

The lost boys

Best: Sherlock BBC (3 seasons, to be continued)
Several have tried to put a modern hat on Doyle’s classic which can be tricky business but it’s the BBC’s rendition of Holmes and Watson that has managed to do so masterfully and with great respect. The complex technical writing, the outstanding acting by both Cumberbatch and Freeman who have crazy chemistry (tangentially Bilbo and Smaug) together with the modern settings and tools all seamlessly create one fine mystery drama. Oh and the humor! That’s what I appreciate about this show, no matter how gruesome a case there is comic relief usually delivered by Holmes’ bizarre take on the world or then, the quirky interaction between Watson and him which had me roaring with laughter at the best of times. I don’t think anyone else could play that “highly functional sociopath” quite the way Cumberatch does.

I will say that season 3 was a bit of a low point for me as the show became increasingly off-beat and all about the complicated relationship between its two protagonists. I enjoyed it nonetheless and look forward to the next season and the Christmas Special (which is set in the original time period)! BBC rocks the Sherlock Holmes biz, nuff said!

Goofballs

Goofballs

Happy weekend everyone, now with extra TV show inspiration in case you needed it! I already want moar – what is it with British series only ever doing 8 episodes per season, hellou??

OTC – Big Deals Edition: The Challenges of Virtual Poop, Undertale and DPS Meters still suck, thank you!

You guys, I actually used “poop” in a topic title! *Achievement unlocked!*

otc

The big deal that is pooping in ARK

I’ve been playing some ARK over the past weekend after finally upgrading my old graphics card to a 970. The game is beautiful but also rather straightforward and boring, to the point of where I am calling over-hype. Coming from the suspense that is 7 Days to Die, ARK still has a long way to go before it catches my survival fancy – “just surviving”, as in making sure you’re not starving, isn’t a good enough reason to sink hours into a game and build fortresses for me. That’s all well though and I will return to ARK once it received more content love and fixing.

Of course one very under-reported, hilarious feature in ARK is your character’s defecation mechanic which has caught many an unsuspecting player by surprise. It also spawns fantastically comical forum threads such as this one which was my main inspiration for looking into the topic. For those who don’t know how it works, just a brief summary: player characters in ARK randomly poop all over the place with a “you defecated” message popping up on your screen and an overly realistic bowel sound effect going along with it (eww). Also, you can pick up player poop and do things with it! There’s apparently a way to initiate pooping yourself (I did not know this), rather than being taken by surprise when your character relieves himself in the middle of your base like he’s part of the livestock.

This is noteworthy because most games never dare venture into the no-go zone that is human poop, no matter how high their authenticity bar is set otherwise. I only remember encountering virtual pooping in the Sims and Conker’s Bad Fur Day myself in the past. Even toilets as part of game settings are kind of a big deal, as was recently deliberated in this RPS article. Cross-reading different ARK forums, there’s plenty of players utterly aghast at this, nevermind all the violence and moral decay portrayed in videogames otherwise but…..poop? No way! I actually got a buddy of mine to play ARK and he is turned off so much by the defecation thing, he’s already stopped playing. I couldn’t stop laughing after it “happened” to his character the first time around!

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So many places to do your business!

Now, I am possibly the last person to ask for poop mechanics in videogames, or any simulation of mundane bodily functions for that matter, since I’m all for the idealized, stylized and aesthetically pleasing fantasy environments! The fuss over something as trivial as poop in a game like ARK cracks me up though; I guess I’m okay with the fact that my human body does that sort of thing and so does yours because y’know, we’re part of nature no matter how fancy we dress and talk. We tend to be fine with “manure” (different word for poop!) from beefalos when playing Don’t Starve, so let’s try be a little less Martha Steward about the whole thing, shall we?

The Tunes of the Undertale

Undertale, a successful Kickstarter project that’s been created for the most part by one guy named Toby Fox, has recently been released on Steam with a bang. Not only is it difficult to find anything but raging reviews from players and journos alike, the fact that many would go as far as calling it the best RPG they ever played or at least among the best, got me curious to check it out myself. Only about 1 hour in and without wanting to spoil anything, I think it’s safe to say that lovers of the (J)RPG genre will find this to be an interesting journey for its toying with player expectations, tongue-in check approach to classic tropes and unorthodox approach to round-based combat. That is, if you can get over the minimalistic graphics. I’m not even sure how much I like Undertale yet myself but there is something about it I need to get to the bottom of.

What’s already won me over is the game’s soundtrack – a whooping 101 tracks of oldschool goodness composed by Toby Fox again (that guy!), and available for only 9.99$ on his bandcamp site. If you’re at all into retro VGM, this is for you and one great deal for the buck!

And MMOs are still better without DPS meters

Most players who have ever spent a decent amount of time in FFXIV: A Realm Reborn will at some point talk or write about its incredibly friendly community that seems at odds with the current WoW-based MMO standard. I have mused on this not too long ago and so have other bloggers, and it requires no great leap of logic to grasp that FFXIV’s lack of (acknowledged) DPS meters, as well as its very forgiving dungeons for the most part, have a lot to do with it. FFXIV relies heavily on social engineering in many different ways and pugging is as essential to the player experience in this MMO as it is in WoW and other games, toxic hells that their LFGs have become. I have lamented the state of pugs in WoW as well as in Guild Wars 2 in the past and Eri did in fact recently write a similar review on returning to Tera.

Now Rohan linked an interesting experiment from reddit in his post yesterday, in which some guy parsed both the harassment and the DPS for pugs in both FFXIV and WoW. Bottom line: the jerks in WoW are often also the “good” players (no doubt using meters as their justification). In FFXIV on the other hand, in case of a bad pug it’s more likely that the loudmouth is also a bad player (that’s simply never detected). So far goes the result of the experiment.

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More dps whyyyy…look I have a pretty angel!

It’s easy enough to believe this data. Like Rohan, I fail to see how any of the two options are superior in theory because well, I generally don’t want any jerks in my pugs. Doing well on meters doesn’t entitle you to be a jerk. Where I disagree slightly is the bottom line that the two approaches to meters are on the same level / cause equal inconveniences; in reality I am a lot less often subjected to harassment in FFXIV than I am in WoW by virtue of how the FFXIV devs handle meters. And this is a big deal.

Would you rather deal with a 5% chance of getting ebola or a 70% of getting SARS?  The 5% suck but are preferable to the 70%! Naturally, these are my uncorroborated percentages to illustrate approximately how often my pugs have been awful in FFXIV vs. WoW. Source whatever you like, it would surprise me greatly if you didn’t end up with a huge disparity between these two titles. I must have done a 100 runs myself in FFXIV by now and I recall precious few group disbands either, outside those 2-3 single raid boss encounters everyone seems to loathe.

Of course the question of whether bad players matter much towards outcome, factors into this and once more FFXIV appears to be more laidback and forgiving where the majority of its puggeable content is concerned. I mean look….the 4-man dungeons aren’t exactly difficult. I am still undecided whether WoW’s dungeons are truly that much harder to warrant meters – I’ve a feeling this is not the case. The amount of harassment in WoW happens because meters are readily available and because people can. So, I’ll take a few loudmouth players in FFXIV who are “also bad” any day, if it means a much friendlier overall community.

First Impressions: Dragon Nest Europe

This weekend I finally found the time to check out Dragon Nest, a game that’s been eluding my radar successfully until I encountered some screenshots over at Bhagpuss. What was initially a very mixed bag of feelings ended in 8 hours of playtime counting today and yesterday, trying out different classes and spending a wee bit of cash on the ingame shop.

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I didn’t like the sorceress but at least she started off in a snowy area!

Dragon Nest was released 2010 in Korea but took another three years to come to Europe. That makes me feel a little less late to the party. My initial reaction to this free-to-play hub/lobby-based MMO (think Vindictus or GW) was rather critical: heavily instanced content and a cross-hair action combat, somewhat similar to Tera, that takes some time adjusting to. The translation seems rather poor in places, with one of the major story NPCs referring to my female character as “he” already in the introductionary questline.

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First hub!

I spent the first 10 levels playing a sorceress and that almost made me quit for good. I did not enjoy the controls at all, maybe the ranged glass cannon just doesn’t lend itself so well to the intended playstyle or I was doing it wrong. Luckily, I tried the hunter and blade dancer from there and that last one made a world of difference. The fast-paced smashy melee combat is loads of fun once you got the hang out of combos (which happens quickly enough). Combat feedback is very satisfying on the blade dancer and so I decided to stick to her. The whole active combat approach against multiple packs of foes reminds me of Mini Ninjas on XBOX 360 (or PC), a game I have fond memories of.

What impressed me from the beginning were graphics. I love the picturesque anime style of Dragon Nest, which looks like a successful fusion between Lime Odyssey and Fable. The game is cute, colorful and hilarious in places but it has its creepy moments too (yikes!). I won’t lie though, I miss a persistent world like crazy – at the same time, all the quest-based dungeon/instance content (which comes in different difficulty levels) is rather quick and rewarding, meaning it lends itself particularly well to casual play. Your standard MMO furniture is present and easily navigated by genre veterans: skill trees and trainers, quest and achievements logs, bank and auction house, mounts and minipets etc. What is somewhat bewildering at first are all the different currencies and marks that have started dropping after level 10 but since I have no lofty goals for Dragon Nest, I feel safe to ignore them.

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Crazy Neko

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They have airships!

As far as the free-to-play factor goes, Dragon Nest is no more intrusive than Allods or LOTRO, in fact I find it a little less annoying. There’s a banner on top of your screen talking about promotions and stuff like extra bag or bank space will need to be purchased, however I’ve not come across any game-breaking or particularly vexing features or money-gates thus far. What is very lackluster is character customization at the initial character screen; there’s little to choose from for eye-colors and hairstyles, no body types and the classes are gender-locked, yes really! That said, there’s more variety on offer on the shop including costumes, which come as “rental” or permanent purchases. I have never encountered an MMO that makes you pay real currency to rent costumes for 7-30 days but there you go. It ain’t cheap either.

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Being a sucker for individual looks I ended up spending a few bucks on some unique class pieces (which I am keeping!) and also some extra bag space for which I received temporary rookie discount. I’ve decided to spend some more time with Dragon Nest in the future (I hear there are expansions), so I’d rather not keep looking at a half-naked character that looks just like everybody else. Cartoony or not, this MMO is still very Asian at its core which means a lot of silly gear and emotes for the ladies. I am kinda cool with my Blade Dancer now in her oriental outfit. I called her Symmetra.

Dragon Nest first look verdict: Better than expected and a nice addition to my standard MMO menu. I’ll be back!

MMOs we don’t like but never played [#Blaugust 6]

We’ve all been struck by profound MMO disappointment at some point during our gaming careers. I would be hard pressed to remember every MMO I have tried and disliked after a few days or weeks but more recently, SWTOR, TSW and ESO have let me down for different reasons. Age of Conan too was a game that I actually was subbed to for quite a while but ultimately failed to impress me. For most games that I played and quit, I always tried to elaborate why:

I don’t claim my judgements are always comprehensive or final or a 100% fair, if there’s such a thing. I focus on other aspects in MMOs than the next person. First impressions matter and like most of you out there (not Syp!), I won’t play every MMO for weeks and weeks until that magical moment arrives when it “gets good”. Sometimes your timing ain’t right or your expectations ruined the experience. Sometimes you’re spot on an the game is just garbage.

There’s a pivotal time during the first few days and weeks after launch in which MMOs have to win us over, especially the ones of the subscribing persuasion. It may take very little to put us off or rather, a lot to draw us in. Players are fickle too…..and why aren’t there any cute minipets for me to hug in this game, huh?? Kthxbai!

MMOs on our “bad” side

It gets interesting when we dislike games in lieu of personal experience. You might discount such opinions altogether but we are all influenced by our environment, if not the gaming press then certainly our trusted peers and their tales of horror. There’s MMOs I know I don’t need to try, because I know my friends and I really know myself.

One such MMO that I never actually played but dislike not only for comic relief on Battle Bards, is ArcheAge. Yeah, a lot of people certainly don’t speak favorably about ArcheAge by now but I had this early impression of just another great-looking Korean staple grinder. Then I saw the silly upside-down gliders people were riding and as if that wasn’t enough, pictures like this one –

archeouch

Can you imagine going through the horror of ordering Starbucks coffee in an MMO? Fun farming feature or not, non-medieval setting or not, I don’t need this in my face either while enjoying my leisure time. And don’t get me started on the cars everywhere.

It is entirely possible that ArcheAge is currently in a different place. In my case though, that ship has sailed. Once I made my mind up about an MMO, that’s final *cough*.

MMO Masterclass: Storytelling in FFXIV – A Realm Reborn

Tamrielo from Aggrochat has recently been looking at storytelling in FFXIV in his two-part post, where he’s analyzing the different content seasons and story archs in the game, how they have improved over time and immersed him as a player. If you’ve been playing a Realm Reborn for any decent amount of time since FFXIV’s relaunch, you know that there’s no way around the main storyline in Eorzea. In fact, there is probably no MMO out there right now that is more dedicated to its storytelling than this one. The narrative is front and center and accomplishes the remarkable feat of including its audience. After Yoshida took over the reigns for ARR, the player character was brought back into the narrative fold.

Naturally, many MMOs turn the player into a nearly omnipotent hero of the story and much has been criticized in regards to that particular trope. However, FFXIV does it in such an unconditional, dedicated and traditional way, that it’s kind of a big deal. Telling stories has always been the forte of the FF franchise and finally, there is a classic MMORPG that not only manages to rise from the ashes but combine the linearity of JRPG storytelling with an MMO environment. As much as I tried to care about the politics of Azeroth or Tyria in the past, no other MMO has managed to include me, make me care about NPCs and the greater course of events, the way FFXIV has done.

The Great Final Fantasy Formula

Ever since the early beginnings of the FF franchise, Squaresoft’s much beloved JRPG titles followed a very clear and narrow path: the player gets to control a powerful hero, more often than not a person of unknown origins or obscure past. The hero is not the player, since the player has no real agency over the character’s story and there are next to no choices. An equally important ingredient to this formula is “the party” which is one of the most central aspects of all FF games; your very own gang of specialists, distinctly defined by their class and different abilities that will mostly align with a holy trinity concept, despite the fact that FF is all about round-based combat. Down the line, you and your gang will probably find out that you are all related or were raised in the same orphanage. You are never truly alone in a FF game.

Cloud and the gang

Cloud and the gang

Add to this very straightforward setup a linear storyline with next to no branching; the point is not to write your own story or find your own path but rather, to immerse yourself in a tale told by an invisible puppet master. The tool you’re given to accomplish your goals is a customizable, complex round-based combat system with random encounters. Your driving force is a world struck by tragedy or impending doom that only you and your A-Team can save (most likely by help of some sparkly crystal or other). Along the way, you will face one or two ambivalent villain figures as well as lots of wacky side-kick characters.

Now imagine all of this being crafted with an outstanding sense of aesthetics on a graphical and musical level, and the result will always be the same: your next FF title. In the past, Squaresoft have consistently pushed narrative RPG standards for at least 15 years, during a most pivotal time for gaming and not just with the FF franchise either. A Realm Reborn, although set in an online world where choices and interactions with other players are possible, follows most of this old textbook to a fault.

Intricate Politics and Overwhelming Stakes

A great many heroic tale comes with a doomsday prophecy: it will be the end of the world as you know it, or alternatively the end of the world full stop, unless significant obstacles are overcome and evil is vanquished. While this can be a tiring setup in RPGs and MMOs, it is still popular enough in getting audiences engaged. I don’t really mind this trope personally, what I really care about is execution. Am I presented with an uninspiring tale of clear good vs. evil or a much more complicated world where loyalties and intentions change constantly?

Squaresoft JRPGs have often introduced such nuances, despite their linear plot. Over the course of a playthrough, you’d learn about the background stories of your adversaries. You would have to rely on characters of questionable allegiance, you’d see mercenaries turn altruistic or allies turn traitor. Faced with warring factions unwilling to unite for a greater cause, you’d find yourself drowning in petty schemes and side-politics. Even villains may be worth saving in the end.

MMORPGs have a hard time delivering such complexities, given that they try to achieve a certain degree of open world freedom and accommodate various playstyles. A Realm Reborn doesn’t compromise much on that front; players who want access to dungeons or endgame, will need to engage in the story. But since the story is the driving force behind the entire game, rather than an afterthought, things feel different.

refugees

Unwelcome refugees in wealthy Ul’dah.

Now I’m with Liore in that there’s still some “goofy MMO writing” and delivery going on at times, the cutscenes sure can get tedious while your character is silently nodding along. But I’m impressed at the different issues the story has touched on thus far – from immigration poverty and class warfare to interracial politics (and racism) and even environmentalism. That’s just to name a few themes. Down the line, you realize how you’re being pulled into twisted intrigues and machinations by multiple players on a chess board Game of Thrones-style, while SE take full opportunity to send players all over the world (including so-called old zones and dungeons) to chase their story’s tail, simultaneously serving the social engineering of the game. For an MMORPG, that is one noteworthy use of narrative.

Joining a band of brothers of sorts, the player soon establishes a steady home-base to return to in between missions and before long, gets attached to the NPCs that share the story with him. It’s safe to say that not many an eye was left dry at the conclusion of ARR before the expansion.

The Heavensward Trailer and The Adventurer

The official launch trailer for Heavensward is another example of storytelling done right. Instead of the usual showcase of random locations and encounters without obvious connection, the trailer takes over from the moment your character finished his/her main story. The Adventurer, an unnamed character who represents the player in FFXIV is back, while the ending of the Seventh Astral Era as well as some future events flicker over the screen. The trailer concludes with the player arriving in Ishgard, which is where your journey in Heavensward begins. Talk about trailers bridging content.

In Conclusion

While I am praising FFXIV’s storytelling here, that doesn’t mean its delivery isn’t without issues. As mentioned above, the cutscenes and loading screens can get too long and it’s a bit of a tragedy that SE didn’t invest in more voice acting for Heavensward. For your daily grind, uninspired fetch&delivery quests are a dime a dozen. When it comes to the main storyline however, ARR has achieved greatness by virtue of omitting branches and player agency. This might present a bit of a downer for some players but in my personal experience, most consequences in MMOs come down to an illusion of choice rather than the real thing anyway.

If there is one advice I would dare give to game developers in charge of big franchises, it would be to play to their strengths and also, not to fix what ain’t broken (okay, that was two pieces of advice). You can mix up some things and you should definitely improve on your weaknesses, ARR is a prime example of that – however, it is a mistake to abandon franchise-defining elements and to throw your greatest virtues overboard for the sake of innovation. Too often have we seen over-hyped sequels crash and burn because they strayed too far from the established path, rather than to widen it just a little. FFXIV has conserved its JRPG traditions and legacy masterfully and for the most part, with little compromise. Storytelling is this developer’s strong suit and they have had the good sense to embrace that.

Ironically, other developers never overcome their struggle with the fourth pillar in MMOs: how to include the player while not making him the center of attention? How to manage that balance of player agency and choices versus narrative chaos and insignificance? Square-Enix’ answer to that would be, not to go there at all. Better to have a solid, engaging and linear story the way it’s told in a book or movie, than to fail epically with the best of intentions. I can’t help but agree with them on that one. The proof is in the pudding.

[FFXIV] Happy Heavensward Launch and the Evolution of Me

This fine Tuesday June 23rd, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn got its very own, first expansion, an event which begs for a moment of recollection. For such a long way this title has come: this ship that had almost sunk into the morass of disastrous MMO launches, somehow managed to do the nigh impossible and turn its course around, establish ARR as a brand new title with over 2mio subscribers to date, and release an expansion packed with new content. It may have been a rocky road, yet across the finish line shines a title rivaling all other fantasy-themed MMOs currently on the market. Chapeau really, to all the folks at SE who made this happen!

Heavensward_2-01

Despite their ever fussy account-management, a thing that will surely never change, I somehow managed to get my early access for Heavensward running this past weekend and ding lvl 53 before official launch day. From what I’ve seen so far of the new zones and quests, I’m more than satisfied. The story picks up the pace from the Seventh Astral Era where it left off, the zones are beautiful if not slightly annoying in terms of navigation (apparently SE’s idea of making their audience desperate to fly), the new professions look interesting and the Au Ra aren’t nearly as dull as anticipated. In fact, I found myself surrendering to story pressure and swallow yet another bottle of Fantasia to transform myself, but more on that later. I also managed to get my chocobo off the ground for the first zone so far – a feat that doesn’t come free or easily in Heavensward for flight must be earned, again and again for each new zone. I should’ve known.

Isghard is as impressive a city as it’s cold and uninviting, which goes with the social, political context and icy weather. Naturally, I was delighted to hear the city music come in four different variations with some lovely day and night themes, just the way the other capitals got them. It will be a while before we see any Heavensward soundtrack release, I fear (but in the meantime, some of us will find ways to listen to it anyway).

Heavensward at a first glance, fulfills all the promises of novelty. What I am somewhat disappointed in is how SE never seem much interested in improving the existing. Gripes like the quest tracker not allowing you to uncheck old quests, or the fact that for some reason you may not use a companion pet together with a mount, persist and have not been addressed. I realize that there are technical restrictions sometimes; I still expect some effort towards improving the mediocre, whether the player base (grudgingly) goes along with it or not.

Me, Myself and I

I’ve never changed a main character as often or as drastically as I have in FFXIV, an MMO which is very liberal in its re-customization options. I started this journey few months ago as Sylberry Goldwink, a delightfully sunny Lalafel with odd eyes and a cheeky face –

I still love that character to bits, in fact I believe SE have done a fantastic job on the race design of their smallest citizens. I usually don’t gravitate towards shorties in MMOs but next to the Asura and Gibberlings, Lalafel are truly my favorite people.

Unfotunately for them, armor design on higher levels doesn’t agree so much with Lalafel proportions (maybe less so on females than males) which is why I decided to give a more mature and darker type of character a go after reaching lvl 50. Yes, yet another tall human female called Syl, with raven black hair and a sardonic smile –

Human black mage Syl feels like the most accurate ‘real me’-condensation in an MMO since ever, so I was really happy with the outcome. Furthermore, I gave the character some distinct Lulu-attributes (I don’t have purple eyes for one thing), that aloof sorceress from FFX that has been resting on my desk for over 10 years in figurine-form, hugging her Mog companion. I may also have a T-shirt.

Needless to say I adore this character, yet I’m not perfectly happy with the way SE have treated Hyur females. Their movement seems graceless, as if not enough time had been invested in studying the anatomic female form and how that would affect motion. Maybe it’s the same for male Hyur, I don’t know. Few armor sets aside such as the above one, I often found myself standing around in baggy garments, which gave my character an almost buffoonish look. Bleh.

Granted, these are smaller details; for the most part SE character design and animations are top notch and beat most of their competition, armor detail certainly does too. Still, the launch of a new expansion was a great opportunity to check out the Au Ra, with their strange horns which are more or less obtrusive depending on the face you go for. It is a tragedy that SE decided to bundle face and horn types together – a most curious decision that greatly reduces your choice in different looks. You might really dig one of those four faces on display but if it comes with the huge lobster-shaped horns, tough luck! Seriously, this needs fixing.

In the end, I managed to create a character that I really enjoy and that probably feels the most Japanese/manga of the lot, while also reminding me of my old Rift Kelari mage. I went with a painted face look in honor of Harle, beloved jester figure from Chrono Cross. I could do without the tail thing honestly, but I absolutely love the idea of my character being partly dragonkin now, given that Sylvara, my online name of many years, has been taken from a special character in the Dragonlance novels who is also a dragon. This meant a name change was long overdue too since Sylberry Goldwink has by now expired its date of appropriateness.

A smart business model

It seems weird to switch character race as often as I have in FFXIV and yet, it’s always fun creating new looks for yourself. Be it Sylberry the sunny and funloving Lalafel, the dark human femme fatale with the stern face or the mischevious Au Ra jester – all these characters are a facet of my own personality. Many MMO players probably roll alts for this exact reason, which isn’t something particularly beneficial in FFXIV. Relying heavily on their main character, players are more likely to pay for character re-customizations whenever new features are introduced. At the same time, there’s already a lot of customization and job freedom in the game by default, as well as the odd Fantasia freebie once or twice a year. That’s more than fair in my book, even if I already spent some extra cash on my looks in the Mog Station. What can I say, I do like me my MMO character creation!