Mists of Grindaria

November 25, 2012

I’m drowning in content.  So much so that I have had more than one moment of reflection where I considered deleting my characters, cancelling my account, and smashing my authenticator.

In the last two expansions for World of Warcraft I have not had major trouble finishing the pre-raid grind.  For Mists, however, Blizzard decided to slow down the rate at which some elements, notably faction reputation and the cooking skill, of the pre-raid grind can be finished.  Other elements, such as 5 man instance gear and standard professions (Blacksmithing, Alchemy etc), were trivialised (it takes about three hours to gather the materials to maxamise a profession).  For a progression raider, it feels like you have to finish the reputation grinds in order to gain the raid quality rewards that they drop.  But then you find four hours a night, every night, for months, as you slowly finish off the reputations.

When Blizzard announced that in patch 5.1 they were doubling the rate of reputation gains once you hit Revered status, I immediately stopped doing all non-enjoyable dailies.  That pretty much left just some of the August Celestial daily hubs, and the Tillers.  Even then that is two hours of my life every night.  Its hard to find time to do anything other than World of Warcraft, and although I find the game fun, I do actually want to do other things with my life.

So far the grind has cost my raid group two members, as they have found they simply don’t have time to play the game at the level they would like to play it.

Lucky Charms

Lucky Charms are a new currency for Mists.  Complete  a daily and you get a Lesser Lucky Charm.  Get 90 Lesser Charms and you can, once per week, get three Lucky Charms from a quest-giver in your faction city in the Valley of Eternal Blossoms.  These charms can be used for a chance at a bonus loot item (or bag of gold) each time you kill a Boss in LFR or a Raid.  Extra loot is cool, but the chance is low, so its often frustrating to use a charm and get just a bag of gold.  The charms take note of your spec when selecting what bonus loot you might gain, so f you want tank gear, you have to go tank the fight.

Charms have a cap of 10.  One thing I see happening prior to future content patches, is that raiders will have a choice between using charms now for upgrades, or stockpiling to ten for the new content.  I prefer stockpiling.  In a new tier of content, your first few upgrades are usually going to be the most important in terms of survivability and throughput increase.

Charms are democratic, in that any raider can acquire them.  They are not, however, transparent.  No one can force you to grind out the charms, and no one can require you to use them.  Well, they could ask, but short of requiring you to video all your fights, they have no way of proving whether you used a charm or not.

Remember the grind?  Well, a raider will be doing 13+ dailies every day, forever, in order to make sure they always get their three bonus rolls each week.

Here are some basic strategies for using charms:

  • if you can only kill three bosses a week, use your charms on those fights
  • if you kill a boss for the first time, use a charm, as this is when you are least likely to get a duplicate of an item you already have
  • if the boss drops a weapon upgrade, use a charm because weapons are always the biggest throughput increase for damage/healing
  • as the tier progresses, you will have gear gaps, so use the charms for an extra chance on the boss that has been holding out on the item you want
  • for a new tier, save ten charms, spend three charms, hand in the weekly quest … now you can spend a total of 13 charms in the first week of raiding.

Lucky Charms favour pure DPS classes.  Its always easier to gear up with only one spec, but a pure DPS class gets three charms for one spec, while the hybrid gets three charms for 2+ types of gear.  Nothing new about that scenario.

Valor Points – The Reputation Grind That Never Ends

In Patch 5.1 people will be able to spend 750 Valor Points to upgrade an items iLevel by +4, purchasable twice for a maximum of +8.  While I would like the cost to be cheaper, that would undermine the value of the VP gear from vendors (which cost 1250-2250 VP for what is usually a +26 ilevel boost over 5 man gear) to the point where no one would want to waste VP on it.

This means that Raiders will feel obliged to grind 1,000 VP every week, forever.  The chances of a character not having an item that could be worth upgrading are vanishingly small.  While the grind will get easier over time, right now that is a commitment of 10+ hours a week.  While you can make a judgement call, that for you as a player that is asking too much, if everyone in your raid group makes the same choice, then your progression is going to be slower than it is in guilds where people do make that commitment.  AT least with faction reputation grinds, the grind does end.  Once you are exalted, that is all you need, especially now that most titles and mounts are shared across characters.

Most characters have 17-18 items that could be upgraded, each requiring 1500 VP.  That will cost 27,000 VP for one gear set, 54,000 VP for a hybrid.  Even if there is a year long gap between content tiers, I don’t actually imagine anyone will finish fully upgrading multiple gear sets.

While I will enjoy making my gear better, I’m not going to like the obligation to cap my VP each week.  I used to enjoy the lulls between raid patches, where I had time to explore old content, level alts, or go do other stuff with my life.  Now I’m going to be struggling on Tuesday nights to muster the enthusiasm to grind out the last couple of hundred VP for the week.

My strategy for VP upgrades is similar to Lucky Charms:

  • first upgrade is for BIS gear (like my 509 boots)
  • next priority upgrade is a Sha Touched weapon, could be a while before I get one of those
  • trinkets are upgraded next
  • tier gear is upgraded after that

While charms help mitigate bad luck with gear, VP upgrades will help too if you get unlucky with raid drops.  If I had not purchased the Ward of the Red Widow shield on the AH, I would have used a crafted 359 shield all the way into Dragon Soul.  Even there I was using the LFR shield until Mists was released.

Current Progression

4/6 MV 10, yet to enter any other raid instance.  Elegon is a progression block for us right now, the fight hinges too much on execution for us to power through.  I’m not enjoying it at all as a tank, its okay as a healer, just completely and utterly unforgiving of errors.  If we don’t actually get the fight down soon, there is going to be trouble, in that neither Elegon nor the Will of the Emperor encounter have useful gear for some squishy DPS characters, and they will want to move on to Heart of Fear for its tier gear and weapon drops.  I can’t say I blame them either.  Wiping on normal mode content when you think you could be getting upgrades elsewhere is a demoralising feeling.

Legendaries for almost Everyone!

The Black Prince’s quest chain will be continuing in patch 5.1.  One part of the quest chain that caught my eye was a requirement for ten Battleground victories.  I’m not fond of PvP content in WoW, but this means I’ll have to do some at least.  On the plus side, it looks like you wont have to PvP flag for most of the quests in the Karasang Wilds, and I’ll eat a loss in reputation rate of gain if it means I can avoid the 5:1 open world pvp battles that occur on my home server.  While I have crafted some PvP gear and done a few random BGs, its reminded me just how much I dislike the running/capture the flag style games of Warsong Gulch and Twin Peaks.  I far prefer just plain capture the flag games.


Mists of Pandaria: First Week Impressions

October 2, 2012

Launch

I took Tuesday off work, as well as the following week.  I had a nice brunch in town, and did some book shopping.  By 5pm I was home and logged in, mucking around.  There were frivolous shenanigans going on outside the Warchief’s Hall, and I took part in an impromptu display of Azure Netherwing Drake mounts, while someone mounted on a scorpion rode back and forth making inspirational speeches.

Eight minutes to the hour of seven, Mists went live, the quest popping up earlier than expected.  I quickly trained my professions, handed in 20 daily quests, then took the zeppelin to Pandaria.

The next few hours was like a D-Day movie.  Intense action based quests, zeppelin crashes, wiping out an Alliance stronghold, then the breakthrough and penetration into the Jade Forest … where all the locals were nice and friendly.  Quite a change in tone from the starter zones of Cataclysm and The Burning Crusade, more like the Wrath of the Lich King zones.

Skipping the instances, I relentlessly ground through the quests and harvested as much Ghost iron ore as I could grab.  then I pushed on into the Valley of Four Winds (Level 86), where quests and following the lure of yellow gold dots on the mini-map took me over a cliff edge and into a jungle.  Then I headed north into the mountains of Kun-Lai Summit (Level 87), which was an endless wasteland of quest hub after quest hub, going ever higher into the mountains as the sun rose outside my bedroom window.

From the top of the mountains I headed down into the Townlong Steppes (Level 88), which ends up in a peninsula island chain (the islands will probably end up as content hubs in future content patches).  I hit Level 89 here, managed to solo one of the rare elite mobs that drop useful loot, and found one of the random grey vendor relics that is worth 100g (and 300k xp) while exploring some caves.  That’s when it really struck me how different Mists was from Cataclysm.  While the quests provided direction, it was not the linear freight train of most of the Cataclysm zones, and there was just so many interesting caves and pathways to explore.

Ding

A bit before midnight on Wednesday I hit Level 90 in the Dread Wastes, as I was freeing one of the insectoid Klaxxi Paragons from being trapped in Amber.  My flatmate with his Warlock beat me by about four hours. I chatted with my flatmates for 20 minutes, then fell asleep after 30 hours of gameplay, and 41 hours up in the waking world.

Graphics

I was amazed at what Blizzard have pulled off here.  While WOW is starting to look dated compared to new games (e.g. SWTOR) in terms of graphics, they have built a beuatiful landscape that is recognisably oriental in themes and still a continuation of WoW.  The zones are nicely different, with the established motif of corruption being veiwable in the landscape as elements of Sha corruption turn the ground soil black.  Perhpas the only tiring zone is Kun-Lai summit, which has a lot of dreary brown landscape before you hit the snow white mountain peaks.

Some of the monsters look like liquid smoke, very cool, and some monsters have spray attacks which look very liquid as well, and a side effect of the changes is that “force” can be exerted on characters , e.g. wind/water currents, pushing the character around.

There is a lot of audio in the game too, the audio team has expanded from 3 to 40 people, and it shows. The insectoid Klaxxi sound a lot like the insect race in the prequel Star Wars movies, full of clicks and humms in their speech.

Cut scenes are much improved over Uldum.  They are used sparingly, and to great effect.

The Pandaren character models are beautiful, and make the vanilla models look crude.  I hope the pull off a revamp of the older model skins someday.  Monks in action are also very cool, lots of soothing green animations.

Story

Both Horde and Alliance tell the story of “The other side got here first, we got here accidentally, then pushed them back and established a defensive position”.  Sounds a lot like the propaganda element of a casus bellum.  After the Jade Forest entry zone the Horde/Alliance conflict takes a back seat to learning more about Pandaria.  You meet the various peoples and learn about their history and culture.  Some of the quests and dialogue are laugh out loud funny, others are heartbreaking – one quest chain dealing with a death in childbirth brought tears to my eyes.  Anyhow, current bad guys appear to be the Sha, the Klaxxi, and ourselves.

To start getting a handle on the Sha menace, the dungeons help bring it out.  Its a focus on inner feelings of a negative nature: fear, hatred, anger, violence, and these show up in the fights.  One fight in ShadoPan Monastery has a Hatred meter, the more you do in the fight the more Hatred you build up, until you take a time out ad chill down options (or go crazy, I decided not to let the Hatred bar max out…)

As a bonus for finding a lot of lore objects, you can buy the nifty flying disc (see picture above). It makes a windy swish swish sound as you fly around.

The Monk starting island was good, but very linear.  Just follow the story to its end, then wave goodbye to the island forever.

Gameplay

On the whole, I am a huge fan of the “less is more” approach to the new Talent system.  A lot of bloat and useless decision-making has been eliminated, and I expect future iterations of the talent system to make it stronger.

Hardest boss is still the Elevator Boss, every freaking time!

Paladin DPS: having more holy power generation made leveling much easier, as self-healing was stronger.

Holy Paladin: healing has changed, and damage in dungeons has changed.  People either take almost no damage (say a 20k hit off a 300-400k healthbar) or they get hit like trucks (usually on trash pulls gone wrong). Debuffs that need cleansing also suck the mana bar dry.  I have healed all the “heroic” 5 mans, and the difficulty bar is much, much lower than in Cataclysm.  A few wipes here and there, but a few instances I managed without the mana bar going below 75%. Absolutely nothing is like the hell that was Heroic Stonecore.  That said, Blizzard has given us the tools for the job, but its built around our free heals.  Because the free heals are free, the heals that cost mana really hurt to cast.   Today I got asked if I wanted to raid with another guild, based on my healing with a pug group I chain ran three instances with.  A nice compliment!

Blood DK: I started with Unholy spec for leveling (perma pet has its uses in grabbing herb nodes) but switched to Blood spec – its just so much more stronger a solo spec in terms of its self-heal ability (I can self-heal about 80% of my 200k health at level 87 using two DK powers and the 60k heal of the Life Spirit that drops from Herb nodes).  Tanked the first two normal dungeons easily enough.

Warlock: I found Affliction too complicated for me, Destruction was better, I like the Ember resource system. Load up on trash, drop four nukes at thet start of the boss fight, rebuilt during the fight, drop four nukes at the end of the fight.  My flatmate in 463 gear and glyphed for +20% health runs around with 500k health in 5 mans, often 100k more than the tanks…

Gearing for dungeons: completing the quest chains in Dread Wastes should reward in three iLevel 450 blues, then do the Arena quest from Monastery of the White Toger for a 450 weapon, and you should be in dungeons a few minutes later.  A hotfix has also made Justice Point gear much more reasonable to obtain (seriously, Exalted rep for JP gear, what was with that!?!)

Note the Dalek on the shoulders… I’m liking the look of this armour set very much.

Reputation Grind

Hoo boy.  There are a lot of reputations, and some have to be completed to exalted before the next one in the chain starts. Very gated … but as there is no longer a limit on daily quests, I think it will help stop people over exterting themselves in the game.  Still, the quests are new, and many of them are fun.  I like the fact it won’t all be done in three months. A lot of opportunity cost decisions, so I’m sorry Tillers, but Farmville in WOW will have to wait a few months.

Crafting Professions

Getting your skill to 600 is easy.  The hard part is that a lot of the good patterns require exalted reputation, sometimes with two factions.  Its going to be harder to make gold from Alts.  Blacksmithing is an exception here, most of the patterns are obtainable after you complete Dreadwastes in exchange for Kyparite ore (easily mined). Possibly this was done to make it easier to gear tanks.   The primary block to mass crafting is all the good stuff requires Spirits of Harmony, which are bind-on-pickup and mainly drop from mobs.  When doing a full round of dailies you might get one.  Most of the crafted epics requires 5-8 of them.  So I managed to finish some epic gloves for my Paladin yesterday, but its likely to be another week before I make another.

I was worried that the JC metagem cuts, which are BOP world drops, would be hard to get, but they are dropping like hot cakes, my Level 86 Warlock already has half-a-dozen cuts.  JC used to require a huge time commitment to daily quests to learn cuts.  The new research model speeds up cut acquisition by a factor of three to five times, so I’m expecting medium term gem prices to be low (just as soon as the price of Golden Lotus drops to allow cheap rare gem transmutation).

Archaeology was surprisingly useful: its pulled up three 463 BOA items (Healer off-hand, Agility Polearm, and Mastery trinket) which I have put to immediate good use.

A big change is that Darkmoon Faire cards require a Scroll of Wisdom, which has a 24 hour cooldown.  This means by the end of the first Faire, most scribes will have made less than 20 cards.  So the old technique of make 60 cards and hope to get the eight card deck you were after is not going to work.  people are going to trade, haggle, and then finally scream and pay thousands of gold for the cards they need to complete their sets on time.  Wish me luck!

Auction House

The Black Market – boring.  So far it only has 2-3 items listed, and they are pets or PVP gear.

AH prices are all over the place. Green gems selling for 3-300g, blue gems for 100-500g, metagems for 1000-3000g.  I’m selling healer/tank shields at a steady rate and a few metagems, and a bit of spare change from the new glyphs.  My flatmate has done well selling cloth PVP gear.  Mats are cheap as cloth is dropping at a much greater rate than in Cataclysm or Wrath, and a lot of people are buying the PVP gear.  I just don’t feel like parting with the Spirits of Harmony required to learn the PVP patterns.

I blew 120k on mounts (see picture below), but have made around 70k from questing and the AH.  Totally worth spending the big bucks on the vanity mount as it is now  account bound.  The Reforger on the Yak is a nice quality of life feature. Finish a 5 man, hop on the mount, and reforge your new gear on the spot!

Well, that is enough for now.  Back to work tomorrow, but its been a fun week.


Gaming recap

September 14, 2012

Just some short bullet points today, although I hope to finish a longer write up on the Cataclysm expansion for World of Warcraft and what I thought of it all now that Mists of Pandaria is ready to launch.

Guild Wars 2: levelled a Guardian to level 20, world is pretty, weapon skills are fun, craft skills are a tedious grind that sucked all the fun out of the game.

SWTOR: I let my sub expire.

World of Tanks: currently playing mostly tank destroyers (Renault UE 57, Jagdpanther, Hetzer, and SU-85) plus the T-34 and KV1-S medium tanks.  Have about 54k XP saved for when the British Tech Tree is released – I’m keen to play the fast British mediums like the Crusader.

Roleplaying: still running my Dragon Age game, players are getting close to level 10 and have reached the ancient capital of decadent elves and their dark secrets.  One of the players managed to kill next year’s warm weather, so the party has to enter the Phoenix Games (the winner of which will be sacrificed after ruling as king for seven years).  I need to read through RQ VI again and write a proper review.

Boardgames: had some good ideas for “Keep the Galactic Empire Alive as Long as Possible”game  and a “Barbarian Hordes Loot the Empire” game.  Will try and have prototypes ready for Big Gaming Week.

Grand Startegy: Pax Victoria is going to be run at BOD 2013, plan is to have pre-game, a draft map, and combat mechanics ready for Xmas playtesting.


Unsubscribing from Star Wars the Old Republic

August 1, 2012
About a month ago I made the decision not to renew my subscription to Star Wars the Old Republic (SWTOR).  Today I learned that its switching to the free-to-play model in “Fall”, which will tie in with the release of Mists of Pandaria for World of Warcraft on September 25.  So, what were the main factors in choosing to unsubscribe:
  • Time commitments, feeling tired, had to stop doing something.
  • It stopped being fun and started being a chore.
  • I didn’t log in for a month.
  • Then I found I could only find time to play once or twice a week.
  • It was always offline on Tuesday nights, one of my free nights.
  • I noticed that I’d rather play World of Tanks for 1-2 hours a night than SWTOR. 
  • Then I started playing the WoW AH to fill in time…
TLDR: other games were more fun for me.
So what made SWTOR less fun than it could have been?
Major stuff
1. Inability to complete class quest solo.  I simply ended up hating my first class, which was the one I had spent months wanting to play.  I found myself unable to tank content. First I could not hold aggro on mobs, and I couldn’t figure out why due to the lack of information in the game system and the lack of feedback provided by the game system.  Second I lacked defensive cooldowns, compared to mitigation buttons I could push in WoW I had options like regenerate 6% of health, which felt underwhelming.  Third, playing the assassin class required constant focus on two different parts of the screen (buffs and mobs) because if buffs dropped you died, and if the mobs ate the healer, you died.  Finally, the class just didn’t look as good in actual play as the preview videos had made it seem.  In my feedback to Bioware I described it as “like a fly buzzing against the window”.  There is something broken in MMOs when it comes to stealth classes – same problem as I had in RIFT – I could stealth past mobs, but it was pointless to do so because the game was balanced around me killing them to level up.
2. Large Zone size, dullness of terrain variety (all worlds were mono-worlds, all ice, all sane, all city), the colour palette, combined with the sheer time to complete mid-high level zones (you would spend days on the same planet), meant that after finishing each zone I was utterly sick and tired of it.  A downside of this is I quickly stopped wanting to level alts.  The early zones were good, but Tattooine onwards … ugh.
3. Loading screens, moving from world to world was a time consuming chore that required active attention – unlike the flight paths in WoW which allow you to AFK and make a coffee.
4. The auction house interface was cumbersome.  In the end it proved easy to vendor gear than to try and sell it on the AH.  This devalued the crafting system – why bother building stuff when you can’t sell it?
5. The ship combat, initially interesting, it quickly turned into a painful grind requiring hair trigger reflexes to avoid failure.  Combined with 3 above, I now feel that having player ships was a mistake.
6. Combat – killing mobs was tiresome.  A typical fight involved using 15-20 different abilities, pushing each button 2-3 times.  Companions are fragile and easily killed, at which point you die too.  Every pull required cooldown/crowd control and companion use, which contributed to making me feel that my class was less than heroic in power.  After trying various tank, heal, and DPS class combos I ended up enjoying none of them and felt forced to use the ones where I spent the least amount of time dying.  In other words combat controlled companion choice, there was always a right choice for your companion, and all other choices felt wrong.
7. The guild/party chat bug at release.  Made playing with others impossible.  Other bugs were merely annoying, this one wrecked my chance to be an effective guildmaster, and contributed to my feelings that I could not cut it in group content.
Minor Stuff
1. Never able to actually max out light/dark side while levelling, unless you forsook all attempts at roleplaying.
2. Voice acting, good, but a lot of conversation options were meaningless.  I never earned enough social points from group content to actually do anything interesting.
3. Each world had two quest chains, and it was easy to miss a step, and then find yourself travelling back through completed zones to finish something.  While you could drop the world chain, if you dropped your class quest you could end up unable to progress further.
4. No macros/addons.  Going back to a 2006 style UI felt … clunky.  Slow.  
5. PvP required grinding in warzones that were not fun.  I took one look at it and skipped PvP entirely.
6. Too many companions – no clear reason for some of them to be around.  I wanted to shoot some of them, or sell them for spare parts.
7. No LFG tool at launch, when implemented it was only available on a server pool of players, so wait times varied from 30 seconds to three hours, and if anyone dropped from your group you were screwed.  I disliked the fact that after finishing the LFG instance you were marooned away from where you were questing previously.
The good
1. Aoe looting. (WoW has stolen this idea)
2. Adjusted loot tables in instances so that gear drops were mainly for the classes present in the instance. (I wish WoW would steal this one)
3. It was Star Wars!
4. Pre-Tatooine worlds were good (so levels 1-24 are fine).
What did I learn?
1. Don’t try and be a guild GM if you have commitments elsewhere.
2. I don’t have time to play more than one MMORPG at a level of competency that satisfies me.  WoT is okay, because I can ignore clan wars and still enjoy compelling gameplay at lower levels of play.
3. I don’t think anyone will replace WoW with a WoW style game, until Blizzard unveil Titan.
4. Don’t obsess about games before release.
5. Never play a melee/tank toon again.
6. I’m not a companion/pet player either.

Beer with the Chieftain

June 24, 2012

Last Wednesday I had a few beers with The Chieftain, a US community rep for Wargaming.Net, who was in New Zealand to present a cheque to the RSA for $30,000.  There was some media coverage of this:

http://www.stuff.co.nz/technology/7139244/Gamers-donate-30-000-to-RSA/

http://tvnz.co.nz/national-news/rsa-donation-concerns-peace-advocate-4939435

There were about eight people at the Wellington meetup, Auckland had a larger turnout.  Most of the conversation was about wargaming.net’s various games.

World of Planes

This is going to require a joystick to play, and the gameplay is significantly harder than in World of Tanks.  Unlike WoT, commands are executed server side, not client side.  This means that NZ connections kill planes as lag causes you fly into hills.  People do need to remember that an Alpha is not a finished game, but the people at the meetup who had playtested it were skeptical that WoP would be as popular as WoT.

World of Battleships

Don’t expect anything before 2013.

World of Tanks

English tanks are perhaps two patches away.  We said it would be nice to have a Bren Gun Carrier option, and someone mentioned the Bren Gun Carrier at Tobruk that had an Italian fighter plane’s 20mm cannon attached to it.

There was quite a bit of discussion of Clan wars.  This is not something I do but I was struck by how much like WoW Raiding it is.  Its endgame content – i.e. must have Tier X tank to take part, must have VOIP, must pay for consumable gold ammo, must have minimum performance (500 xp/battle average), and must make time commitment.  ANZAC clans need unemployed people and students to compete effectively against other clans overseas.  It would be nice to have a bit more social interaction with the game, but I can’t really commit to a clan, not while I’m still raiding in WoW.

Other bits and pieces:

  • we got a bonus card for some gold and the Tier II T2 Light Tank (which hits 70 kph at top speed)
  • don’t expect the T-50-2 to stick around
  • hacks: don’t really happen, the system is pretty secure
  • screenshots/fraps, yes they really help when dealing with abusive behaviour (pity the poor person charged with looking up what the words mean)
  • Team Killer system, has to be automated.

A difference between WoT and most MMOs, is hardcore realism (to a point), e.g. critical hits, players don’t understand the physics of how module damage does not always lead to big HP losses.  But they whine because games like WoW have conditioned them to expect BIG numbers when they score a critical hit, rather than just equipment degradation.  As well as being a US Army Captain, the Chieftain comes from an old school gaming background full of charts and tables.

Hearing that the next Tank Destroyer up from the JgpzIV is fun to play was good, not so much that the Ferdinand is a long grind to get its good gun.

The training tip I learned: if you buy a premium tank, you can swap similar crew (i.e. heavy tank crew in a heavy premium) to take advantage of the accelerated experience gain for crew in premium tanks.  A related tip: don’t train perks first, as they require 100% skill.  Train something of immediate use, like Repair.  After mastering Repair to 100%, then drop and retrain the Perk.

Patch 7.4

I am really enjoying the new assault and encounter scenarios.  They liven up the old maps.  Assault is significantly harder than defence, but not impossible.

I am really enjoying the Renault UE 57 Tank Destroyer (pictured above).  Its tiny!  It can travel forward reasonably fast (30 kph) but it turns very slowly.  The small size is an advantage in some encounter maps, like El Halluf, where it can nestle under the big rock next to the flag, safe from most enemy fire while scoring flag capture points.  The exception is if a clever artillery goes all the way down the east/middle side for a flanking shot, or the enemy hold the western hill.  Fragile, but packs a big bang that reloads quickly.  Already had one player in a Tier IV tank call BS on my killing him…

I also treated myself this weekend by buying the IS-3.  I sold the IS and transferred the crew across, paying gold for immediate 100% skill proficiency.  Then I installed Gun Rammer (10% loading speed bonus), Vertical Stabiliser (faster aiming when moving) and Improved Ventilation (5% bonus to all crew skills).  Its a lot of fun, faster than the KV line, a nice low profile and sloped armour turret.  Like the IS, a good urban brawler.  Even without the upgraded 122mm BL-9 gun its doing a lot of damage.  Like all high tier tanks, a bad game sucks for repair bills.


Star Wars the Old Republic MMORPG Review

June 19, 2012

TLDR: initially promising, ultimately disappointing.

(Original feedback to Bioware in plain text, tonight’s reflections in italic)

Biggest problem: on minimum graphics the game causes my two year old Gateway P-79 laptop to shut down from overheating.  This has damaged the graphics card.  At best I can get 20 minutes of play now, which is insufficient to do group activities.  So I’m choosing to play less demanding games instead.  Ultimately I went out and got a new gaming laptop, but it would have been nice to have held off from that purchase for another 6-12 months.

Launch: pre-launch guild creation was good, however the chat bug which disabled Guild, Party, and Officer chat on my account was vexing to say the least.  I didn’t feel well served by customer support in resolving this.  This bug prevented me from leading my guild, or engaging in group content.  Lesson learned: do not try and set up a guild when you still have an ongoing guild commitment elsewhere.  Its hard to find time to do both justice.

World design: the lower level worlds are the best. By the time I reached level 40+ worlds, the design was feeling stale and repetitive.  When I reached Corellia, I was forcing myself to finish quest lines just to see the next bit of my class story.  Playing the game had become a chore, rather than fun.  On Corellia, being surrounded by buildings I couldn’t enter, made the game feel fake.  Also, it feels weird that I am not sharing the same game universe with the both Empire & Republic players on all the worlds.  Levelling my second toon into the 40s, the process feels a little easier, but I’m still dreading Corellia.

Travel: is tedious.  First, running through starports is really dull. I often reach a starport, think about the long run ahead of me, and then log out of the game.  Second, speeders look weird, travel slowly, and don’t let me bypass mobs that I dealt with on earlier quests. Being constantly pulled off my speeder by mobs I defeated in earlier quests ruined any sense of progress and accomplishment in the game.  This has been slightly improved in terms of travel through Starports now being possible while mounted on a speeder.

Grouping: I don’t have time to waste hanging around the fleet hoping to find a group for instances.  Watching trade chat is not compelling gameplay.  If I’m waiting longer than a few minutes, what I want to do is log out of the game and switch to a game where I can do stuff.  They still don’t have a good Looking for Group tool, consequently you will mostly miss out on heroic (2 or 4 man world content) or instanced content while levelling.

Starship mini-game: the low level scenarios were interesting.  I was able to identify mistakes in my gameplay, and correct them.  When I realised that completing mid-level scenarios required grinding commendations for ship upgrades I stopped playing them.  Three months later – its still tedious and I’m still avoiding it.

PvP: I have avoided this entirely.  I don’t find WoW-style pvp gameplay compelling.  I play World of Tanks for an hour or two each night instead.  None of the scenarios available at launch appealed to me, and the concept of not being able to avoid Hutt Ball was a big turnoff.  World pvp looks broken to me, and I was quite surprised that you made it so broken, given that the problems Blizzard has had with designing open world pvp zones are so well known.  My flatmate put it best “I’m grinding through gameplay I don’t enjoy playing to get better gear that will enable me to be more effective at gameplay I don’t enjoy.  Why don’t I just stop grinding…”

Endgame: I started the questlines on Illum and the prison planet and died of boredom.  When I looked at the amount of grind required to acquire upgrade modules, I rebelled, and just said “No” to daily missions.  I also found that I just didn’t enjoy playing my class, so once the class storyline was done I was finished with it.  I still have not gone back to the Assassin.

Companions: I don’t regard the robot that comes with the ship as a companion.  Companions have been a big disappointment.  Levelling an assassin tank I really wanted a healer companion, but had to wait until Hoth.  Levelling a Bounty Hunter healer, I really want a tank companion, but I don’t have one yet.  I was really disappointed at the companion story for the Inquisitor’s medic companion, maxing full affection resulted in …. some obsequious dialogue.  I remember sitting in front of the screen thinking “That’s it?!”  Once the Bounty Hunter got its tank companion, it was far superior to the Assassin tank player character + companion.  Maxing out companion favour does now result in a small in game boost (+20 presence with other companions).

Talent trees: design feels old and dull, the approach Blizzard is taking in Mists of Pandaria just blows the SWTOR talents out of the water.  Choosing talents that boost my effectiveness in a single ability by 1% really doesn’t feel like an interesting choice.  With the Bounty Hunter, perhaps 3-4 of your talent choices result in gameplay changes, the other 35 odd choices just make you 0.5% better at what you do.

Abilities: at low levels I got abilities too quickly to figure out what I should be doing with them.  For the Inquisitor, signature abilities that make the class cool either looked dull in tank spec (force lightning) or were worse than useless as tanking tools (overload). Visually it ends up being a really dull class to watch in combat. Stab. Buzz. Stabby. Bzzt. Yawn.  Ability overload is a little easier to deal with now you can adjust how the UI displays action bars.  I still think having 30-40 abilities you use frequently is on the order of 10-20 abilities too many.

Music, Sound effects and Voice Acting: all good/excellent.

UI: I know you are overhauling this. My main feedback here is that I find it really hard to identify the abilities my opponents are using. I see strange coloured symbols and I’m not sure I should interrupt or not, and then its too late to interrupt anyway.  The setup for healing also feels awkward.  After years of using Healbot, Grid/Clique or Vuhdo in WoW, going back to pushing function keys to target party members feels painfully slow and prone to error.   I still find it impossible to determine which ability I should be interrupting.

Sith Inquisitor/Assassin feedback: This is the class I really wanted to play, as the storyline pitch of a slave rising to power really appealed to me.  In tank spec I was unable to complete the class questline solo, requiring help from other players on Voss (the dream boss) and Dromund Kaas (the fight with Zash).  I was unable to identify what I was doing wrong in these encounters, and after the second set of armour repairs I gave up all hope of figuring out what to do as I simply couldn’t afford the credits to keep experimenting. This made me feel incompetent.  The assassin does not feel heroic or awesome, when I fight mobs they die very slowly, and in an unspectacular fashion.  In play, I found myself forced to watch a small display of buffs right above the action bars, rather than being able to focus on the onscreen action. I’m still sad about this, and I screwed up the characters name when doing the server transfer when Dalborra was launched.

Specific turnoff points in the Inquisitor story line:

– I liked Khem Val, until I realised a tank companion was useless to a tank spec class

– I liked Zash, and I felt the betrayal came too early

– Not being able to defeat Zash solo (I never felt competent to do anything challenging again after this)

– Not being able to choose a more useful companion to face Zash with

– I did not like Zash/Khem Val in one body

– I didn’t feel like I earned the big ship superweapon, I just had some NPCs walk up and say “push the button for us, please”

– last act confrontation just felt like grind, grind, grind, I was always reacting to the bad guy, never setting the initiative.

The Bounty Hunter storyline has been better, at least insomuch as that I never been forced to beg other players for help in finishing my class quests.  It’s the Bounty Hunter that I will be doing a few more instances with, and trying to see some of the endgame content.  In the end I’m just too comfortable being a healer than trying to be a tank in a system that makes it really hard to know what the hell your tanking abilities do, and forces you to look away from what the mobs are doing on-screen so the buffs that keep you alive do not expire.

Many things are executed well in the game, although the Auction House is painful to use.  It looks good, and sounds great … but I struggle to want to play it more than 1-2 times a week.  So it’s not going to replace WoW for me.  It is nice that they launched servers based in Australia … but the maintenance schedule is such that they are offline most of Tuesday night, so its only a game ANZACs can play six nights a week.


Can Elves be fat?

June 19, 2012

Thinking about the next tabletop RPG campaign I could run when my current Dragon Age game has run to a conclusion, and I find I am ruminating a lot of the standard fantasy races.  There are some definite clichés out there, and I know my own background of early and sustained reading of Tolkien means that for me Dwarves, Elves and Orcs will always look in my mind like how Tolkien described them.  Part of my ruminations are thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of hewing close to genre convention, and whether or not a wide array of fantasy races helps or hinders the campaign.

Interestingly, in my current campaign, only one player chose to be non-human.  He chose to be a Telchari – a hairless Dwarf with a reputation for poison and treachery.  No one was interested in Elf (three exciting flavours), Half-Elf (created in a way similar to Alexander the Great’s marriage of Persians and Macedonians), Goblin (a quirky underdog), or Vargr (Viking culture bipedal wolves imported from Traveller).  Everyone else is human, although two of the characters emphasise the two of the different human cultures I designed (and the other two don’t make much of their background).

Uses of Race for a GM

Fantasy races come pre-packaged with useful sterotypes in way that pet cultures do not.  An elf is an elf, in any world, although I might have to say, these are elves with the following twist that makes them not like everybody else’s elves.  But if I told you the main human cultures in my current campaign were Talian, Ostian, Musorian, Kamarian, and Mandanese … well there is no short cut to knowledge there, you would have to go do some background reading or pay attention to what I have the NPCs say in-game.

So in a sense, the cliché is a useful short cut for rapid world building, in much the same way as the corrupt republic, fanatic caliphate and the remnant empire are (those are terms I think from the Rough Guide to Fantasyland).

Uses of Race for Players

Lets pretend … races often have appealing attributes for lets pretend games, such as Charisma for Elves and Toughness for Dwarves.  People might also want to indulge in flavour of the month make believe – I mean, who wasn’t tempted by the wood elf ranger template after seeing Orlando Bloom as Legolas in the Lord of the Rings movies?

Niche: when you’re the only pointy eared, scaly, whatsit in the party, its easier for the other players to remember who you are, or to at least make reference to you.  This suggests that there are diminishing returns from designing more races than players in your campaign, unless one or more of the races are intended as significant enemies.

Languages: different races often have access to a wider array of languages, which can be useful for investigation, research, diplomacy, bargaining and other communication related endeavours.

Friends: being the right race can mean access to exclusive areas (such as the Elf-Queen’s bath house), and might mean that accompanying heroes are not executed on sight.

Enemies: and the Elder races usually come with roleplaying hook baggage of a long list of other elder races they have pissed off over the millenia.  A little animosity can be a good hook for roleplaying interactions between characters (although too much can break the party).

Themepark Dungeons: Elven ruins are different from Dwarven Ruins.

Is Race Just a Stat Sticker?

Most tabletop RPGs happily modify characteristics based on race, a +1 bonus here, a -1 penalty there.  Definite emphasis on nature, not nature, in how characters start games.  Your parents are more likely to influence skills and initial wealth, and their ability to buy oranges during a famine has no effect on whether or not you reach your full height.  Gender differences also tend to be underplayed, and its rare for a lot of sexual dimorphism (the Drow come close, with the favouring of women over men, like their Spider Goddess Lolth) so you don’t get 7 feet tall male Ogres and 5 feet tall female Ogres with different CON and DEX modifiers.

Both Dragonquest and Empire of the Petal Throne were two early RPGs that established their worlds were sexist, but had a cultural out for women to behave like men.  Some RPGs also have lifepath systems for background, and these could take into account influences other than racial background to make characters more varied. Partly I just think the natural bell curve of differentiation within a race is more important than the difference between races.

The mechanics of racial modifiers, bonuses and penalties are important to me, because in order to be able to GM a gaming system, I have to be able to translate ideas and concepts into game mechanics. A major reason I could not run 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons was my inability to understand the mechanics they gave player characters in that ruleset.  I just could not fit all the options into my head.  Dragon Age on the other hand, was simple and old school, easy for me to develop campaign material for.

The Problem of Origins

In an evolutionary paradigm, how likely is the co-existence of multiple sentient species in close proximity to each other?  We don’t have a lot of evidence on Earth, although there is an overlap between early humans and Neanderthals.  An awful lot of fantasy backgrounds just handwave it by saying the Gods did it.  Empire of the Petal Throne did well by saying its a terraformed world that was a luxury resort, so the inimical aliens are the natives and everything else settled there before the world fell into apocket universe.

Interbreeding … just what exactly is a half-Elf?  Notice you hardly every see it referred to as half-Man?  Miscgenation is okay for Elves, but something about being less than 50% human makes people twitchy.  Somehow in RPGs, half-races only tend to appear when they have some kind of cool factor, like half-Dragons.  You don’t see half-Dwarves/Gnomes or even half-Halflings very often.  If such hybrids are a bit like mules, should they be sterile?

Some possible reasons for lots of different sentient species:

  • outsiders from the otherworld/fey realms
  • exiles from Heaven/Hell/the Moon
  • alien invaders from elsewhere (via ley line gates perhaps)
  • created in ye olde God wayes
  • first people (only works for the first race you design)
  • long-lost cousins, separated by vast distance and now reunited
  • not dead, just sleeping
  • occupied very different environments (water/land/poison vales/carnivorous forests/underground)
  • dying out/last of its kind, being replaced by upwardly mobile species.

So, How About Those Fat Elves?

Webcomic The Noob is one of the few places I have seen overweight elves depicted – in part because the portrayal of the avatar characters in the online game is made to resemble what I presume is the real world person.  Doing a quick google image I found exactly one non-Christmas elf image of a fat elf at: http://sleepless-katith.deviantart.com/art/Fat-Elven-Warrior-v-01-77252912.  So fat elves is not a common idea out there.

So why would elves be fat?

  • Perhaps its a comedy moment in an otherwise fairly straight fantasy (thin elf, thin elf, thin elf, fat elf, thin elf …. wait a moment…)
  • In a world wracked by famine, being overweight would be a sign of wealth and power, and could also be seen as a sign of beauty (as was I think the case in some late medieval/renaissance paintings)
  • It could be a sign of sin, such as gluttony, in which case the overweight elf is also a fallen elf
  • Magic curse “Cannot Resist Cupcakes” (probably the weakest idea here)
  • Lotuseaters, the elves eat food that makes them indolent
  • Perhaps the Elves simply appear fat due to good nutrition, unlike those poor malnourished humans.  This implies some degree of wealth for the Elves, so perhaps they are prosperous merchants
  • Habitat: maybe they live in a nice food rich swamp, unlike those wasteland forests where their poor thin cousins dwell
  • Supply and demand, not many Elves, and a whole lot of elf berries in the forest (“Yes, its tragic, last of our kind, fading out, but got to keep our strength up  – would you like another crumpet?”)
  • Body chemistry, if the elves are outsiders to the world, they may have trouble digesting its food properly (“If only we had an appendix like you cursed humans!”)
  • Oppression of the Elven Tyrants: they eat cake, while the serfs eat … nothing.

Kitset Package

I think I need to avoid woodland feral Elves, remnants of an ancient Empire, as I am seeing a bit too much of them lately in Witcher 2 or the Dragon Age computer games.  When I build a race I do like a couple of varieties, perhaps an 80/20 split between dominant culture and subversive culture, or some kind of triumvirate (good/bad/ugly or rich/poor/MIA).  So let’s have a few different types of Elves:

  • Fat Merchants: with their mastery of languages and natural charisma, aided by the odd strategic marriage, these elves survived the fall through trade, and with prosperity comes a degree of girth and belt expansion usually associated with Dwarves.
  • Feudal Fanatics: remnants of an age of chivalry fading in an age of gunpowder, devoted to their lost Queen, and at war with the Black Prince. Not as overweight as the other two types of elves presented here, but their prediliction to chivalric charges against overwhelming odds mitigates their toherwise healthy outdoor lifestyle.
  • Yakuza Clans: urban elves surviving in the underworld of the human hegemony, their diet is ruined by awful human junk food.  A fat urban elf is a very dangerous elf, because they will be the high elf in the local crime clan.  Notched ear initiation symbols and freaky tattoos optional.