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Bless Me, Gamers, For I Have Sinned

Electronic Arts, we have to assume, hates their customers. The litany of their sins is well-known, from "Roster Update 2009" to "The Sims 2, Expansion Pack 42: Electric Boogaloo" to their brilliantly bass-ackwards plan for making sure people actually paid for Mass Effect and Spore (the latter of which already had a perfectly good antipiracy measure inherent to its design, since pirating the game shuts you out of ninety percent of the available content and a much, much higher percentage of the apparent replayability value - but I digress), so I will not go on at length.

If anyone in the industry's earned a boycott, it's them, and yet I (well, we), have proceeded to buy not one, not two, but three of their games this year. Consequently, I am part of the problem: they know they will lose nothing but goodwill from their antics, and goodwill balances no better against filthy lucre for the corporate publishers than principles balance out against hot new games for their customer base. Quite frankly, we deserve each other.

I've already talked briefly about Mass Effect, though I hadn't beaten it at the time: now that I have, I can say more or less the same thing I did then: keep the setting, come out with a slightly less predictable storyline, bring all the sidequests and uncharted planets up to the DLC standard, FIX THE INVENTORY SYSTEM, iron out some of the technical problems, find some way to copy-protect the game that doesn't require voodoo to actually run it more than one time out of three, and it would be the epitome of its genre. The main quest basically nails the sci-fi movie feel, and when I end up replaying it I'll likely dispense with the sidequests as much as possible, the better to stick to it (well, except for wanting the ally achievements, aaaaargh).

Spore was more for the girlfriend than for me, and as it turns out, I haven't played it at all: not that I didn't like the idea, but a) the reviews and my watching over Sam's shoulder suggest that there's really little depth there, which is a shame, and b) the copy protection doesn't like my computer and refuses to play an uncracked version, so I can't really be arsed to waste even more of my spare time to sort it out in order to play a game that I already started as meh about.

As for Warhammer Online? Well, this entry was going to be about how they screwed over most of their pre-orders by cutting the grace period to receive shipped retail copes and activate keys from four days to 16 hours, but since they reversed that after an Internet Outcry and I actually got to play this weekend...well.

It's basically what you would get if you took World of Warcraft's usable and moddable interface, then destroyed the underlying game and rebuilt it from the ground up with a different emphasis and some influence from Dark Age of Camelot. WAR is not just an acronym, but a theme: the war between one half of the populace (though more like one third: seriously, roll more Order) and the other is the entire premise of the game.  No "mysterious third power forcing both sides to bind together while staring angrily at each other", no "cold war".

There's more background writing attached to the game than even I've had the chance to read yet, and for someone like me who's always liked Warhammer but never liked the idea of buying and painting miniatures (mostly the former), it's very enticing. The whole "Tome of Knowledge" thing helps here: in addition to keeping track of your quests, it collects the background to each narrative chapter in an easily accessible place, and also keeps track of your various Tome Unlocks (basically achievements, but there are a ton of them in categories ranging from "killed X of this creature type" - Lantha, my current Dark Elf Sorceress, has a kill count of approximately 1,000 PC and NPC High Elves in the week I've ben playing her - to "completed X quests while unarmoured" to "fallen to your death X times", most of which come with appropriate and amusing titles that appear under your player name.

There's PvE, and it's not bad: then again, when I think "bad PVE", I immediately think of EVE, and so my scale may be irretrievably broken. The Public Quests (basically, constantly resetting scenarios that can be run through by any group that happens to be in the area or spontaneously form to complete the objective) and Open Parties (click a button in your UI, and a list of nearby groups that are open for you to join, an option to join any of them, and a general idea of where they are and what they're doing) are particular innovations that deserves to be refined and copied, but on the whole it's stuff we've seen before. Mythic do get points for not repeating the "what, this boar doesn't have a heart?" drop-rate shenanigans from WoW, and making the various quests easier to find by marking general areas on the world map, but all in all there's nothing groundbreaking about the PvE specifically, besides the Warhammer flavouring to the setting (which is enjoyable in and of itself, see above).

But PvP (RvR, Mythic always say, as in DAoC, which makes a fair point: this war is a team war) is where Warhammer shines, whether it's in instanced scenarios or in the various main open-world battlefields. They've managed to create twenty classes that all draw interest from players, each with their own neat little mechanic (though some of these get mirrored between sides, like the Order Bright Wizard's Combustion versus the Sorceress' Dhar), that manage to balance pretty well against and alongside each other in the team environment, slowed down fights enough that getting two-shotted is rare and there's actually time for tactics. Further, you get rewarded for it: it's entirely possible to level only through PVP, especially since the scenarios (and in-world battlefield zones on Core servers) will give players below a certain average level for the tier a temporary level boost, and players actually have their own loot tables (though killed players don't lose any of their own gear: the death penalty is more an annoyance than a loss, which I'll get back to.), in addition to the gear you get for gaining PVP points.

The endgame is here, in keep raids and city sieges (complete with siege engines and boiling oil), and the incorporation of true LOS (more or less: players don't seem to block it, but terrain features do, and I'm sure there are some kludges to help with lag)) and collision detection (again, more or less) greatly improve the experience. Tanks can do their jobs by physically blocking chokepoints (in addition to abilities to split a guardee's incoming damage, and snares to halt people trying to do end runs around them), healers can (and usually should) be doing damage in addition to healing, and fun is had by all, in my experience.

The game, however, isn't perfect. Because of its focus, it depends heavily on population (and since areas are tiered by level, it depends on widely spread population: will there be sufficient people  <L12 six months after launch to make public quests and RVR in newbie areas interesting?), and because of only having two sides, it depends heavily on balanced population or something resembling it, and (predictably), early signs indicate that most servers are leaning Destruction. To an extent this is self-correcting, but we'll see if that's enough.  Further, while I'm told that MMO launches are usually worse than this, playing this weekend's had more than its share of annoying technical issues (mostly population-related lag on my server, Ulthuan - that'll teach me to try and play with forum guilds again.)

So whither EVE, for me? Those whom I talk to about these things (mostly Andrew and Nathan) know that I'm going kind of "bitter vet" about EVE these days, given the less than stellar job it's doing of meeting the potential of its concept (to be fair, a fair bit of this is due to technical limitations). But WAR isn't going to replace it, nor is it trying.  There's barely a death penalty, there isn't much of an economy, there's not even a hint of Eve's glorious (and inarguably more fun than the actual game) political/intrigue metagame.

The last time I blogged about MMOs, I ended up in a far-too-long debate with some guy I knew in high school over my characterisation of World of Warcraft as a theme park and EVE as a sandbox. I'm one of those guys, I think, that plays RPGs because I don't have the sheer drive to write actual fiction, so I could really have phrased my categorisation (and gotten it across much better) this way: where does the game's ongoing narrative come from? The devs, or the players?

This is not a "two answers and ONLY TWO ANSWERS" question. Any MMO is going to have an element of player narrative, of players and groups of players making their own stories. But in some games, the devs' story is a starting point and the players proceed from there (or, like in EVE, the parts of it on rails occur in the background and very few people actually pay attention to them). In others, developer storylines have more influence. Since a continuum exists, and since my preference for which end to aim for is not widespread, I'll happily settle for at least the occasional compromise in my direction.

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Comments

( Walk among 2 shadows — Cast a shadow )
precia
Sep. 22nd, 2008 06:01 am (UTC)
My views on games tend to be more of a simple flowchart:

Am I having fun? ---> Yes ---> Keep Playing
|
v
No ---> Stop Playing

So I guess the most important issue with Warhammer would be the fun factor. Of course things like sensible UI and well designed PvP/E encounters factor in, but I believe it can be boiled down to that. For me, anyway. Not for those dopes on the forums whining that they're only playing WoW until Warhammer comes out. Seriously, if I could smack them in the jaw...

However, current levels of fun aside, I will offer that WoW is introducing frickin sweet motorbikes with the expansion. I think I peed a little when I first saw that.
paleshadow
Sep. 22nd, 2008 01:47 pm (UTC)
I agree that in the end, it all boils down to whether it's fun - but different people find different things fun, so there'll always be room for ridiculously long descriptive pieces laying out where the fun is.

As for the WoW general forums and the various "fuck all you n00bs, I'm just waiting for a real man's game like Age of Conan Darkfall Warhammer"...well, someday we'll be able to stab people in the face via the Internet, and then so many problems will be solved once and for all.
( Walk among 2 shadows — Cast a shadow )