Category Archives: Reviews

IGDA Does Obsidian: An Evening With Feargus Urquhart

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It seems I joined IGDA — the International Game Developer’s Association — at an absolutely amazing time.

If you’re unfamiliar with the organization, it’s a worldwide group that allows students, professionals, and newcomers to the gaming industry to network and get their voices heard.  Each chapter hosts its own meetings and events that can be anything from a deliciously nerdy social event to the sharing of invaluable information and advice.

On the evening of July 23rd, Feargus Urquhart, CEO of Obsidian Entertainment with over twenty years of experience in the industry, gave a very special presentation for IGDA members where he discussed the ins and outs of project management as it relates to making good games.  You know Obsidian if you’ve played Fallout: New Vegas, Neverwinter Nights 2, or KotOR II.  Though these games are not without their flaws (a fact which Urquhart admitted in a very tongue-in-cheek manner during his presentation, something that gave an immediate +10 to respect for him on my stat sheet), they make it readily apparent that Obsidian and its myriad teams have a good grasp on how to build a game with a solid core.

I heard about the presentation through the IGDA Orange County Facebook group and arrived at Obsidian Entertainment’s headquarters in Irvine, alone and extremely nervous.  I’ve had a few encounters with other members of the game industry, and while many of them were incredibly positive and enjoyable, I’ve also found a lot of resistance and coldness towards newbies like myself who are trying to get their career started.  If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been told that my dream of getting into game design and story development is stupid and that I’d probably never succeed (despite none of the naysayers in question ever having seen my work), I wouldn’t need to have a career.  As I stepped through the double-doors into the breakroom where the presentation was to be held, all I could think of was a scene straight out of some 80s teenager movie where the conversation stops and every head turns to glare at me until I drop my notebook and run, weeping, back to the car.

Instead, I found a huge group of some of the kindest and most engaging people I’ve ever met.  They were happy to answer my questions and showed genuine interest in who I was and what I’m currently working.  I had beginning development tools suggested to me left and right.  I may have started the evening hiding in a corner with my bunny earrings and a can of diet Coke, but I ended it laughing and shaking hands with incredible individuals who I hope I am one day able to call my colleagues.  I have to admit that for the past couple of months I’ve had so much snark and nastiness dumped on me that I was beginning to seriously reconsider whether or not I should keep trying to break into the industry.  After my fantastic experience at the IGDA July event, however, I find myself with a renewed hunger and strength towards achieving my goals.  I am encouraged.  I feel, with one hundred percent certainty, that I am on the right path, partially due to the other IGDA members, and partially from discovering over the course of Urquhart’s talk that my own mentality and development principles match up quite neatly with the tried-and-true lessons he was teaching.

A video of the approximately hour-and-a-half-long combined presentation and Q & A session will be available to the public on YouTube in the near future, but for the time being, I’ve got a Hello Kitty notebook chock-full of notes to share that will hopefully illustrate how incredible this event, and the opportunity to attend it, was.

Feargus Urquhart on Project Process

Throughout the presentation, Urquhart used real-world examples from Obsidian’s development history to explain each point and make them simple to understand, even for someone like me who has never worked for a studio.  His witty delivery and willingness to answer questions kept the experience engaging; by the time he had finished, it felt like mere minutes had passed.

Urquhart began by listing some of the terms you might hear when talking about the style of development used in a particular project:

  • Waterfall
  • Agile
  • Traditional
  • Modified X
  • Gant Charts
  • Jira
  • SharePoint
  • Scheduling vs. Tasking

I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t supply brief definitions of each for those of us who’d never heard those terms used in a development context before, but there is now this amazing thing called The Google to give an opportunity for some self-study later on.

“No one thing works,” Urquhart emphasized, “and it won’t work for the whole project.”  Hard work and attention to detail are the catalysts needed to ensure an awesome end product, and part of that is asking yourself at various intervals whether or not the original plan is really working.  Determinations like these are easier when using smaller teams with clearly-defined goals for each along with, of course, passion for what they’re doing.  When each group knows exactly what they intend to accomplish, project process can only lead to good things.

The main focus should be quality rather than adding more stuff, which can be said of many creative endeavors, including cooking — add too many spices to your dish and they won’t enhance the flavor, they’ll clash and turn what could have been an amazing dinner into a confusing mess of tastes.  Urquhart cautioned that RPGs are perhaps the trickiest types of games to develop while adhering to this mentality, and that in the case of sandbox games like Skyrim, the scope and expansiveness of a game does actually become important, but even here, it’s important to remember that players want an overall experience from a game, not just more “stuff.”

Quality should also be the focus when selecting development tools.  You’ll know you have a good set of tools in use if you can use them to make as much game content as possible in an efficient manner without having to deal with a ridiculous amount of bugs.  Smart usage of tools with a small team as previously discussed will allow more development without having to sacrifice quality.  Reviewing, verification, and adjustment when needed as a project progresses will ensure that everything shapes up nicely in the end.  Even if everything seems to be going great, “make sure what’s done is done,” Urquhart says, verbally triple-underlining the last word in his sentence.  Don’t just assume that a task is finished, verify it to prevent as many last-minute scrambles and crises as possible.

This is actually the point in the presentation where Urquhart said the one thing that made me absolutely certain that I was heading in the right direction.  “If you review and verify something, you can adjust it to make it better.”  Sound familiar?  It’s only the Overlord Bunny Official Game Design Motto.  And if Feargus Urquhart agrees, then… well, I must not be too far off the mark.

The next point focused on the importance of moving forward — not just talking back and forth about something until you’re blue in the face, but actually doing it.  Communication is, obviously, an important part of the design process, but there comes a point when everything constructive has already been laid out and any further discussion is just killing time.  Choose either option A or option B and try it out, which is usually a cheap and easy process even if the first choice ends up being a bust, Urquhart assured.  Only by taking action can a team move forward and allow the project to progress.

Urquhart suggested that the first approach to any project should be a simple question: is this fun, and does it feel good?  If the answer is “no,” find a way to bring it up to speed.  A project should be analyzed piece by piece before adding any more content.  “Developer debt,” as he called it, must be avoided — if the first part is lacking, there’s a debt that the developers have to the players to make up for it as the game continues.  Get too far into developer debt by settling for lower quality or fixing it later, and you’ll be hard-pressed to crawl out of that hole.  This is why Urquhart stresses the importance of a hearty alpha-testing process, using Blizzard Entertainment as an example of how an extensive alpha leads to an incredible and much more polished product.  I was very impressed by this praise and respect, since it seems that trash-talking Blizzard has become the trendy (and incredibly unprofessional) thing to do, but Urquhart quite clearly proved that he has the ability to see the entire picture and recognize the good without succumbing to the kind of juvenile “rivalry” bias that seems to plague the industry.  Yet another reason to listen intently to the words coming from this man.

From here, Urquhart gave us a more visual context for the concepts of simplicity and a manageable start.  Start with one room, and once that’s been reviewed, verified, and adjusted as needed, add another room and a hallway.  If you begin your project by delving right into the sprawling metropolis that houses your single room, you’ll be doing yourself — and your players — a great disservice.  Only after your rooms are built should you determine how to build and render the rest of the world.  By building outwards from the core in the manner, you’ll ensure a solid foundation for the rest of the project.

We were reminded of the importance of using good developer tools, but also that good does not necessarily mean complicated.  Urquhart recommended that a toolset should only be as complicated as it absolutely needs to be, and that even if it means fewer options overall, being able to do them well, quickly, and without constant crashes is still the most important aspect of your selection.  Decide what to make and find a way to do the smallest amount of work in order to answer the most questions.  Though games are a modern way to tell a story, they are not the written word; they’re a unique animal entirely.  What would work in a novel won’t necessarily translate well to the screen, and, as Urquhart points out, your game is only as good as what’s in front of the player.  Promising that something is going to be great carries less weight than providing something tangible that is already good.

Before moving to the next stage of production, there’s a series of questions that must be asked:

  • What core gameplay needs to be done?
  • What do we want to learn?
  • What doesn’t need to be final?
  • Are there too many people involved right now?
  • What can we cut?

Urquhart illustrated this by explaining how voiceover work does not necessarily need to be finished for alpha testing.  Small cosmetic changes can be made at a later date rather than delaying the entire process and possibly leading to a higher cost for the studio.  Involving fewer people doesn’t mean firing them, merely switching them to other projects once their work has been completed, like an assembly line.  The example given here was that you don’t fire the programmers once the code is done, you hand them something else to do and continue on with the other teams whose work is not yet complete.  Again, he stressed, critical review, assessment, and adjustments are needed to figure out when “finished” really means finished before moving on.  The development stages look something like this:

  • Prototype: Focuses on core gameplay, nailing down pipelines, samples of game art, and figuring out a development toolkit.
  • Vertical Slice: Similar to a demo (but not usually released publicly, or at least not at E3 or similar conventions), this is a fully-finished section of the game that shows off the game’s tools and features.
  • Production: Making the smallest game you are comfortable with.
  • Alpha: Making it better (and sometimes, bigger).
  • Beta: Fix any bugs.

A game design document, or pitch, is typically just a couple of pages long and is less a listing of features than it is an explanation of them.  This means that rather than saying “two levels with monsters and traps,” you’d start off with something like “The player will start on the Ice level, and, moving forward…”  The player experience is what will define deliveries; later, you can go ahead and list all of the parts for assignment and tasking.  Tasking should be used for short term goals, scheduling for long term.

In short, it seems that project process could be summed up with “keep it simple,” but what’s the real “Secret Sauce,” as Urquhart put it?

  • Discipline.  Stay on target, use your process, and remember that more does not necessarily mean better.
  • Communication.  Talk about your goals and your progress, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • Pragmatism.  Realize that something that’s new, hard, and unique won’t necessarily be good.  Making a game means making people happy, not exhausting them.

Urquhart pointed out that while creativity and passion are obviously important as well, these three principles are absolute requirements for a successful project.  “Games are fun to make, hard to make, and a collective, creative endeavor,” he stated, earning more than a few chuckles of agreement from the veterans in the audience on the second item.  The presentation itself ended on this note to thunderous applause and the floor was opened for questions.  Urquhart seemed not just willing, but eager to answer every single question, and in fact had to be reminded that time was running out, at which point he proceeded to answer three or four more, ensuring that no one went home unacknowledged.

I couldn’t be more pleased with my experience, and I’m glad that I struck up the courage to attend despite currently being just another freelance dreamer.  If there was any downside at all, it’s that I was able to see enough of Obsidian’s processes and viewpoints to be even sadder about recently being turned down for a job on one of their upcoming projects — they don’t just make great games, they’re also some of the most down-to-earth and visionary people you’ll find in the industry, exactly the type of people I want to work with, especially on a long-term basis.

Special thanks to the IGDA Orange County chapter and their sponsors for putting on such an amazing event and, of course, to Feargus Urquhart for giving up his evening for all of us who attended.|

EDITED: The video has now been made publicly available — I highly recommend that even if you’ve read the article, you give it a watch, as it’s much more entertaining and I’m sure I haven’t done justice to the concepts prevented by Feargus Urquhart.

 

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Swinging Sharp And True With Diablo: Sword of Justice

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Back in 2011, Blizzard paired up with DC Comics to produce a five-issue miniseries called Diablo: Sword of Justice, set a couple of decades after the Lord of Destruction expansion to Diablo II (but still before the events of Diablo III).  It follows Jacob, the fugitive son of a mad northern king, and his desperate search for answers to a strange plague of violent insanity that threatens to overtake Sanctuary completely.

No, not THAT far north.

Not THAT far north.

Sadly, not even the epic writing of Aaron Williams and brutal art by Joseph LaCroix couldn’t save us from a far greater threat than any epidemic: General Usage Comic Decay.  It happens to the best of us; a favorite comic, after multiple reads, lending to friends, and being crammed onto the shelf between much sturdier-bound books begins to show wear and tear.  The corners of each page bend.  Colors fade.  But Blizzard and DC are both in the business of making heroes, and just as it seemed we’d have to retire our individual issues to the world of bag-and-board, they showed up to save us all with the Sword of Justice trade paperback, available to preorder from Amazon and Barnes & Noble in both physical and digital formats for a July 16th release date (or hardcopy purchasable as of July 9th via the Blizzard Store).

Besides being a lot less fragile than regular comic books, the trade paperback contains a fascinating appendix of preliminary sketches for each issue cover, main characters, and some of the more intricate interior panels.  It also looks badass on a shelf or left laying around for your friends to drool over, and much more “grown up” than a bunch of comic books stashed in a shoebox, if you’re one of those “adult” things I keep hearing about.

LOOK.  LOOK AT IT.  IT'S SHINY. (Seriously, though, high-quality gloss finish paper for the win.)

LOOK. LOOK AT IT. IT’S SHINY. (Seriously, though, high-quality gloss finish for the win.)

It’s also significantly cheaper and easier to purchase the trade paperback now if you missed the original release of each issue or are just now discovering the rich lore of Diablo.  At just under $15, that’s only $3 per issue, versus the inflated prices I’ve seen for the individual comics — if you can even find them, that is — often hitting as high as $50 or $60 for the complete set.

Newcomers to the Diablo games need not fear being hopelessly lost with the content of Sword of Justice, either; being a lore expert is not a requirement to enjoy the story, which stands tall on its own even with limited prior knowledge of the series.  It begins with a short recap of the fall of Arreat given in by Bahman, a blind storyteller who seems to be just another peddler swallowed up by the bustling marketplace he calls home.  A hooded figure has listened intently to his words and now, as the tale ends and the crowd disperses, steps forward to impart upon the old man his own recollection of the horrors surrounding Arreat’s destruction, but is cut short when Bahman whispers to him that he has seen a man following him in a vision, and if he wishes to escape death, he must move quickly to seek what lies beneath a mountain peak in the northwest.  Somewhat shaken, the mysterious traveler sets off in the direction indicated, and thus begins the story of Jacob…

Jacob’s homeland has been overrun by a terrifying madness that imparts an unquenchable thirst for blood and flesh upon its victims.  Even his own father has fallen beneath its scythe, ordering that his own wife, the Queen, be executed for some imagined treason against the throne.  Jacob can only watch in horror as his mother is beheaded for crimes she did not commit.  He confronts his father in his chambers, but what starts as a simple accusation quickly turns to a fight for his life, ending with his sword buried deep in his father’s gut.  With his dying breath, the King, in a moment of lucidity, cryptically warns his son that “the blood will mark” him.  Now a wanted murderer, Jacob must stay one step ahead of the soldiers chasing him if he intends to find a cure for the madness that has destroyed his family, and may soon leave all of Sanctuary in ruins.

And that’s all you get, because the story laid out in Sword of Justice is so rich that it has to be experienced for itself.  Spoilers just can’t do it… justice.

YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH

YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH

Jacob’s last name is never given, nor are his parents ever named beyond their royal titles, but the Queen’s execution seemed so familiar that I initially wondered if they weren’t intended to be the Mad King Leoric and Queen Asylla.  Asylla, however, wasn’t even a part of the lore until Diablo III (although her execution took place during the time of the first Diablo game), and her death was at the hands of the treacherous Archbishop Lazarus, who does not appear in Sword of Justice either by name or by inference, thus the similarities are likely coincidental.

One thing I really appreciated about the series was the portrayal of the two main female characters, Shanar and Gynvir.  Both are written as strong of mind and body, and neither of them are toting around breasts bigger than their heads.  Compared to most other women in fantasy environments, their costumes are pretty reasonable, as well.  Any midriff exposure is actually far more conservative than anything you’d see on a summer day in Southern California, and their breastplates don’t appear to be in danger of triggering a nipple-slip should they lift their arms too high.  Though Shanar’s costume features some pretty steep slits up the side of her skirt, there’s no side-butt or sheer panels.  Gynvir’s armor looks like it could actually withstand a decent battle, although the bottom half shares some similarities to Shanar’s; to be fair, these designs are identical to what appears in much of the game art, but I’m just grateful to see that no further artistic “liberties” were taken to hold male readers’ interests.  In the sketch appendices, there are actually a couple of proposed versions for the cover of Issue #2 that would have had Shanar in what I like to call the “Slave Leia” pose, but they were scrapped in favor of a side-view that actually has her towering over Jacob, rather than at his feet making bedroom eyes.

Shanar, a wizard with a wit sharper than any sword, only relies on Jacob’s support in the most basic of ways, such as needing his help to stand up after unleashing a particularly strong spell twice in one battle, which she makes clear is not a spell that’s intended to be used so rapidly.  It isn’t because she’s a female, and thus weaker; from her explanation, even the strongest male wizard would find himself drained in the same situation.  It’s also worth noting that she is of Asian descent, as is the wizard class in general according to Diablo game art, but not fetishized or marginalized by the use of offensive stereotypes — her dialogue does not indicate any accent or broken English, and she proves to be anything but demure.  She doesn’t throw herself at the male characters to try and get out of tricky situations; she throws it down.  In fact, at the end of the comic, one of the soldiers refers to her in a manner she finds offensive, and she happily calls him out on it.  When he continues to try and insinuate that she really wants him despite protestations to the contrary, she doesn’t back down, but makes her displeasure and disgust over it known.

The tactically skilled barbarian Gynvir is similarly independent and unwilling to take on her “traditional” gender role, shown in a later part of the story taking over a group of soldiers and chastising them for their lackluster performance just as well as any male leader would.  Nor is she written as uneducated or typical “barbarian-stupid”; she speaks just as eloquently as Shanar and Jacob.  She is fearless, and shows a great mind for strategy without which the group of adventurers would have been unable to progress.  Would Joss Whedon approve?  Absolutely.  And then he’d probably stab Jacob through the heart with space debris.

We’ve already established that Aaron Williams does amazing things with words, but artist Joseph LaCroix is not to be forgotten.  The stylized “sketchy” style fits in well with the battle-filled storyline, and the often bleak color palettes lend to the sense that evil and ruin is really lurking behind every corner.

I hear goat is actually quite delicious.

I hear goat is actually quite delicious, you know.

Continuity in each panel is typically good, with only a few errors, the most noticeable of which is a panel in which Shanar’s eyes go from brown or black to a vivid shade of blue and it doesn’t appear to be due to lighting or magical invocation.  There are plenty of bloody clashes, but none of them are overly gory to the point of ridiculousness, and LaCroix manages to capture the frantic movement of the battlefield in a way that has to be seen to be believed.

Whether you’re a long-time Diablo fan or just getting your feet wet, or even if you’re just a fan of awesome comics, Diablo: Sword of Justice cannot be overlooked.  Sanctuary — and your bookshelf — needs you.

 

 

 

We Have RIFT-Off!

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Not too long ago, Raptr ran a promotion granting players using their desktop app a free copy of RIFT, the Storm Legion expansion, and 30 days of free play time for logging x amount of hours (if memory serves correctly, it came out to about 28 hours’ worth of play) in the trial version of the game.  I had been mildly interested in RIFT when it first came out, but at that time didn’t really have the time to invest in another MMO, so I was hesitant to drop $60 on it.  But here I had a chance to try it out in exchange for a few hours of my life as an unemployed bum, so I figured why not give it a shot now?

Since obtaining my copy, RIFT has gone free to play using an admittedly generous model.  Those who owned the game before the subscription change but do not wish to continue paying a monthly fee miss out only on some extra +XP and Notoriety (reputation) potions without having to lose out on character slots or zone access.  Had paid game time at any point in your account’s history?  Enjoy your heaps of Loyalty points, rewarded for each month you’ve ever paid, that can be traded in for vanity items from the cash shop.  It’s worth pointing out here that, as with Ragnarok Online 2, nothing you’ll find in the RIFT store is game-breaking.  Perhaps it’s even a little too generous, since the first week after the switch was a nightmare of crashing servers and extreme lag as curious players flooded the shards (servers), sending customer service wait times soaring from days to weeks for a response.  I don’t think Trion was expecting to gain so many new players, and as a result, got caught with their pants down; to their credit, however, they’ve been working diligently to solve problems that have arisen as a result of the population boom and kept the player base abreast of each issue with in-game announcements.  It’s actually somewhat hilarious, since their first ad campaigns for the game featured mild pokes at World of Warcraft, such as “you’re not in Azeroth anymore,” and Blizzard is in a prime position to troll them straight back with a “YOU WERE NOT PREPARED.”  Everything comes full circle, folks, especially on the internet.

The “Clone” Wars

Everyone I spoke to before I started playing insisted that RIFT was a World of Warcraft clone.  I went into the game expecting such.  After five minutes, however, it became abundantly clear that none of these people had ever played EverQuest 2, because if they had, they would have seen that it has far more in common with EQ2 than it does with WoW.  In fact, about the only similarities between RIFT and WoW’s current incarnation is that there are two factions and the talent trees are set up kind of like they were before they changed with Mists of Pandaria.

“But the UI is almost the same!” I’ve heard people insist, and while that’s true, EverQuest2 came out well before World of Warcraft with the same core UI that pretty much every MMO uses to this day.  And why?  Because it freaking worked, plain and simple.  A few people have asked me what I thought of RIFT, and my response is always “like EverQuest 2, but with much more polish.”  And that’s not a bad thing, because I’ve been having some serious nostalgia boners since my paid EQ2 account was cancelled (their free to play is not quite so inclusive, sadly).  Thanks to RIFT, I can relive…

Player Housing

Sweet mother of God, player housing.  I’ve had it on my wishlist for World of Warcraft for as long as I can remember, but it’s an opportunity that a lot of MMOs seem to miss.  Take a bit of instanced space, grant players the ability to add furniture, plants, pets, accessories, et cetera, and bam, you’ve got a fully-customizable mini-game.  RIFT offers dimensions of varying scale and complexity that fulfill the same purpose, both for the individual player and for guilds.  Each character can take on a very simple How To Dimensions quest just a few levels in that rewards them with the key to a small hilltop dimension called Warden’s Point and a treasure chest full of some basic dimension items to get them started.  Further dimension keys can be earned with special reward tokens, purchased in the cash shop, or bought for various amounts of platinum.  Once you feel you’ve dressed up your dimension to the very best it can be, you can choose to allow other players to tour your house, and even rate it, all much the same as EQ2.

But RIFT actually overtakes EverQuest 2 as far as player housing is concerned.  In EQ2, you can only rotate house items vertically or horizontally without having to use a third-party mod, which is sort of a bummer because it means you can’t easily turn a stained glass floor tile into a stained glass window by rotating it to fit on a wall.  RIFT, however, grants the ability to rotate in three dimensions by default.  Scaling, movement, and rotation are all further simplified by the use of arrows as visual aids so that you can more easily see what you’re doing with regards to these modifications.

Whereas EverQuest 2 featured a robust community centered around these digital dollhouses, it seems to be more of a niche aspect in RIFT.  Part of this may be due to the fact that after getting the key to your first dimension, RIFT pretty much leaves you to your own devices.  Want new items for your dimension?  Either purchase the finished product or find out where to buy the appropriate crafting recipes.  A few items can be randomly fished up if you’re lucky enough.  Unlike EQ2, you won’t find them as quest rewards or in reward crates from turning in artifact collections (more on those in a bit), nor can you set your companion pets to roam around your dimension as part of the scenery.  All in all, it seemed like they picked up on this great idea and just kind of let it drop.  The most recent RIFT patch, Empyreal Assault, introduced over one hundred new dimension items available for purchase, so I’m hoping that this is just the start of great things to come in the area of player housing.

Artifact Collections

In EverQuest 2, you will occasionally stumble across mysterious shiny patches on the ground.  Clicking on them will reveal a collectible (and tradeable) item that can be added to a particular collection.  Complete a collection, and you can receive special collectible items that are only available as collection turn-in rewards, companion pets, dimension items, gear and weapons… the sky is the limit.  In essence, it’s a worldwide scavenger hunt, and your worst nightmare if you’re obsessive-compulsive like me.

RIFT’s artifacts are nearly identical, with the exception of the rewards.  Each turn-in grants a Lucky Coin, either as a stated reward or tucked away inside of a larger reward crate, which can then be turned in for companion pets, dimension items, mounts, or other vanity items.  The crates themselves are pretty lackluster, typically consisting of a couple of  potions and buff scrolls and a handful of coin besides the aforementioned currency token.  Some collections consist of the pages of a lost book; retrieving all of the pages and turning them into the collection vendor will grant you a completed copy of the book that you can click on to learn, which will store the text away for later perusal.  The books are almost like artifacts themselves, except there’s no achievements that I’ve been able to find that center on them, a seemingly missed opportunity for those with a love of lore and item collection.  EverQuest 2 offered a number of books that could actually be stored in player houses, many of which started quests or were rewards for completing them, but in RIFT, they are merely supplemental notes.

Art Style

I’ve heard several people complain that World of Warcraft’s art style is too cartoonish for them.  If you share that opinion, then you’ll probably like RIFT’s graphics.  Like EverQuest 2, it relies on a somewhat realistic style, eschewing unnaturally bright and vivid color palettes in exchange for tones that are much more likely to be found in nature.  Character features and proportions are also more in line with what would be actually possible in real life (assuming, of course, that elves actually exist).  Of course, since it’s a much newer game, it’s a bit more visually appealing than most of what can be found in EQ2.  Want to know how long an area has been in the game?  Look at the cheese factor of the graphics, and you should be able to figure it out.

That’s the main problem with realistic graphics — they go out of date much quicker than extremely stylized game art.  Look at L.A. Noire, which upon release was heralded as a breakthrough in photorealistic animation and design, and just two years later is much less impressive.  Hell, I remember picking up SoulCalibur III on release day, thoroughly beating it while freaking out over how realistic the graphics were, and then a few days after finishing SoulCalibur V going back to it for nostalgia’s sake and being totally confused as to why it now looked like a blocky, embarrassingly outdated mess.  The technologies behind creation and rendering are constantly improving, which is great, except that without doing a massive overhaul of a game’s visuals every six months to a year, the aesthetic aspect is left behind.  A cartoony art style may make some people roll their eyes, but it stays relevant for a heck of a lot longer than its more realistic counterpart.  RIFT looks decent now, but is already starting to look a bit dull in some areas, and as its visual stimulation becomes more and more lacking, Trion may find it difficult to keep some players’ interest.

Alternate Advancement vs. Planar Attunement

NOTE: Explaining these systems is a daunting task in some ways, so I’ve done my best here to go over the basics.  I highly recommend using the links below to do your own study and let people far more skilled at detailed explanations than I handle the finer points!

EverQuest 2’s Alternate Advancement and RIFT’s Planar Attunement are similar in that both are earned alongside regular XP and use skill trees separate from the regular talent trees to add supplemental buffs and abilities.  But where PA is used to grant small buffs and abilities related to completing elemental rift challenges, AA is a hybrid of both supplemental points and what would be considered normal talents in other MMOs.  The amount of regular experience gained can be lowered in favor of obtaining AA more frequently or raised for powering on through the levels.  Whereas you can only spend a limited amount of AA in each sub-tree, those used for Planar Attunement will limit you only by there being a finite number to choose from.  Dedicated RIFT players could, theoretically, earn enough PA to max out every single elemental attunement.

Planar Attunement can also be increased using consumable items that occasionally drop from planar rifts and are granted as rewards for achievements that require completing a set number of quests in each zone; higher-yield versions can be obtained by completing certain quests in the Storm Legion introduction line for Queen Miela and completing planar rift challenges for the Torvan Hunters faction.  No PA can be earned from any source, however, until level 50 (the original level cap), unlike EQ2’s Alternate Advancement, which unlocks at level 10.

But In General…

The story in RIFT is surprisingly unique, blending some sci-fi elements with the expected fantasy bits.  You are one of the Ascended, a hero resurrected and sent back in time to stop Crucia from destroying the world.  Rather than having factions warring over cultural expansion, the Guardians are those who choose to still follow organized religion and the Defiants are basically Atheists.  Neither side is particularly good or evil, but merely clash over their spiritual beliefs.  In fact, guilds and parties are not faction-exclusive; that is, you can have Defiants and Guardians playing and communicating together on PvE servers (PvP servers maintain their separation simply because, well, you know, that wouldn’t work out very well for PvP).

The Starting Line

The character creation screen offers a ton of options with which to customize your new hero, something that I love seeing in MMOs.  Though it does still rely heavily on presets, there’s enough of them in each category to allow for a good sense of individual identity, although the differences between a few of the facial presets were so slight that they were barely noticeable even on high settings.  I do like the fact that for dwarves, there are non-stereotypical features available (i.e. not everything is a square jaw and a bulbous nose).

I enjoyed the lore in RIFT so much that I was a bit disappointed upon discovering that there’s only two possible starting areas in the game — one for each faction — which means that leveling alts of the same faction becomes monotonous very quickly.  With each faction having only 3 races to choose from, the designers could even have added in a “shared” starting zone for two of them and had a separate one for the third if they didn’t want to design three separate areas; the story is definitely rich enough to support delving a bit deeper into the backstory and culture of each race.

Souls, Abilities, And Migraines

There are four classes to choose from — Mage, Rogue, Warrior, and Cleric — which can be further specialized using the Souls system, essentially an “oldschool” (read as: before Mists of Pandaria) talent tree where you can select the three paths available to you, either by choosing from a long list of available souls to create your own combination or, if you’re not a number-cruncher, from one of the many presets offered.  Your souls can be reset at any time for a pretty nominal fee, which is a good thing, because you’re going to be using the everliving shit out of that feature.

The theory of souls is neat, but in practice, it’s overwhelming and much more complicated than it needs to be.  You don’t learn new spells by leveling your character; you have to spend points in each of your soul trees in order to unlock them, and there are a lot of them to contend with. Many of them are identical (or at least nearly identical), which gives any rotations a sense of monotony further enhanced by laggy controls.  The global cooldown, or GCD, is supposed to be 1 second, but it ends up being more like 2 because all too often there’ll be an additional second’s worth of delay between pressing your hotkey and the spell’s execution, even on instant-cast abilities.  I’ve checked my connection during the worst of it and found no problems on my end, but from talking to other RIFT players, it seems to be a common problem.  Spell cast times for my Cleric have a baseline average of about 2 to 3 seconds with no “haste”-type mechanic available on gear while leveling, even well into the Storm Legion areas for the high 50s.  The only mitigation I’ve been able to find so far for cast time is in the various soul trees, and then they only affect specific spells.

The soul trees themselves feel bloated, with plenty of lackluster or PvP-oriented abilities that really aren’t useful to someone wishing to stick with PvE.  You could trim out three tiers from each tree and greatly improve the entire experience of speccing a character.  Options are great, don’t get me wrong, but there comes a point where the player is presented with so many of them that it becomes an information overload.  Creating a viable spec on your own, from what I’ve encountered, practically requires a Masters degree and a burnt offering to one of the Elder Gods.  Talents that sound great in the tooltip barely make a difference in your survivability or damage output.  Pick even a slightly wrong combination, and you’ll find yourself unable to face off with mobs of your own level.  There seems to be exactly one, maybe two viable combinations to use during leveling, though it’s admittedly not so bad before hitting level 50.  Once you do ding with the old level cap, however, prepare to frantically respec again, because…

These Aren’t Your Average Mobs

Ember Isle, previously the highest-level zone in the game, recently had its difficulty nerfed to fit in better with the rest of RIFT vanilla.  Storm Legion, on the other hand, is an exercise in frustration.  The disparity in hit points between regular mobs and yourself is nothing short of discouraging (you may have 11k HP, but a mob of your level will have around 57k) and they hit like trucks.  There were times that I felt as if I were trying to solo an equal-level dungeon, and that’s while using a spec that’s been confirmed viable for Cleric leveling.  If you have to take on more than one mob at a time, you’re probably going to die a horrible death.

Storm Legion is about the time that I stopped logging in regularly to play.  It’s been almost a month and I’m still stuck at level 57 because I got tired of being unable to complete even the most basic of quests on my own — The Fiance is always happy to jump in and help me out, but I don’t want to have to rely on him being around and take him away from what he’s doing just to finish a simple kill quest.  In Mathosia (the “vanilla world”), I could solo group quests.  Once I hit level 50 and left for the Storm Legion continents of Brevane and Dusken, I was quickly humbled.  The spec that you use from 1 to 49 is not going to cut it from level 50 to 60, and even when you find one that does work, you’re still going to feel terribly gimped rather than like you’re the badass hero selected for resurrection that the story claims you are.

It gave me the feeling that Trion expects you to have run vanilla endgame content and geared up that way before starting on Storm Legion, which is a bit unreasonable considering the flood of new players coming in now that they’re free to play.  The vast majority of players are not going to go back and run this old content.  It’s unfair to expect them to do so.  My fingers are crossed that we’ll soon be seeing the same level of balance brought to the Storm Legion content, which could be achieved one of a few ways:

  • Nerf the hit points of regular mobs by about 15 to 20%
  • Cut enemy mob damage output in half
  • Buff player damage output by 50%

At this point, I can say that the original RIFT is a pretty decent game.  Storm Legion, however, is discouraging.  Challenges are great, but if you set the difficulty of the challenge too high, people are going to eventually hang their heads and give up, especially when they discover what kind of quests they’re going to be devoting most of their playtime to.

Carnage Quests

In Mathosia, you’ll run across a few carnage quests, which are grind quests (“kill x number of mobs” or “kill these specific named mobs”) triggered upon killing a relevant mob and featuring an auto turn-in.  Most of them are easily discernable by a gold sunburst at the beginning of their nameplate.  RIFT recently hotfixed these to require fewer kills — quests once requiring 16 kills now only require 12 — which was appreciated, because at this point in MMO development history, mindless grindfests are painfully outdated.  All in all, the carnage quests in Mathosia aren’t so bad.  There’s not too many of them, but there’s enough to give you a little XP boost from time to time.

Then you go through the portal to Brevane and Dusken.

Suddenly it seems as if a developer at Trion Worlds stood up in the middle of their workday and screamed “HAY GUISE, I LEARNED HOW TO CODE QUEST TRIGGERS!”, snorted his body weight in cocaine, and then spent the next week with no sleep cranking out carnage quest after carnage quest.  If there are 112 quests available in a zone, 60 of them will be carnage quests.  They come at you with such frequency that it borders on abusive.  And from a quest design perspective, they’re lazy.  There’s no storyline associated with them, you just kill a random mob, the quest auto-accepts, and you’re given an objective to complete.  Once you’re done, you can automatically turn it in, take some gold, Sourcestone tokens that can be turned in for decent (as long as you’re no higher than level 54) gear, and an amount of XP inferior to what you’d get doing regular quests, and stumble right into another one.  It’s a cheap way to pad out a player’s quest log without having to actually put much effort into doing so, and that is a real shame because the story behind many of these zones is absolutely fascinating, but gets cut short or, at times, even eclipsed by this cheap filler.

Cartography Woes

Here’s a question for all of you World of Warcraft players out there: remember Azshara?  Not the shiny, easy-to-navigate Azshara that was totally revamped with Cataclysm.  I’m talking about the Azshara of the olden days, when level 60 rogues would still farm those never-present slimes for the tablet fragments with approximately a 1% droprate and figuring out how to get from one side to the other was an hour-long ordeal.

Pretty much every zone in RIFT is set up like that, and there are no flying mounts.  Enjoy.

On the bright side, dungeon layouts are very intuitive and efficient.  Take a linear route through to each boss and quest area, and you’ll end up right back at the beginning for easy departure.  They should have let that guy work on the zone maps.

Hope You Like Rifts!

Possibly the most unique thing about RIFT is… well… the rifts.  As you’re questing in the various world zones, you’ll come across rifts in the dimensional fabric full of planar invaders aligned with a particular element, and I swear it’s not as Captain Planet-y as it sounds.  Defeating each round of invaders will lead to a new stage, and completing them all will close the rift and give you a hefty chunk of Planarite, which is used as a currency to purchase special abilities related to rift-hunting.  Lucky players may even find themselves rewarded with randomly dropped mounts, pets, and Planar Focuses (special equippable items that give passive buffs to stats and resists).

It’s a neat idea, but outside of the starting areas, these rifts are probably not going to be soloable for you at the appropriate levels.  The first couple of stages are easy enough.  The bonus stages, however, are timed, and if you don’t satisfy the kill objective before time runs out, the rift will disappear but not count as “closed” and cause you to miss out on loot.  Timed quests are one of my least favorite game mechanics, and this doesn’t help my opinion of them.  It’d be nice to see the timer removed, which would make closing these rifts a lot easier for solo players, especially since some of them will spawn roving packs of planar invaders while open that apparently have the same ninja skills as the Devilsaur of Un’Goro Crater and will thus murder you before you even realize they’re nearby.

Every so often, zone-wide invasions will crop up that grant everyone in the afflicted zone a list of objectives that must be fulfilled in order to end it.  Ending the invasion is in everyone’s best interest, as not only are the rewards usually pretty decent, but those traveling caravans of death I mentioned before?  Yeah, they’re everywhere.  They run roughshod over the landscape and, if left unchecked, will even take over main quest hubs, rendering turn-ins and safe travel impossible.  Unless there’s enough people in the zone to shut the invasion down quickly, or the objective is failed quickly enough (letting towns be overrun, wardstones destroyed, etc.), your best hope is to basically leave for a while and come back later when it’s over, although even after the invasion ends, invader footholds and mobile packs don’t disappear until they’re killed off.  It’s still very possible to return in 20 minutes and find five or six packs’ worth of invaders have taken up residence in a town you need to access.  What starts off as an innovative feature quickly turns into a massive pain in the ass.  A simple fix would be to set these invasions to only occur when x number of appropriately-leveled players are present in the zone; if this is already how it’s been set, then some serious tweaking of that variable needs to occur.

Crafting Is Pretty Okay, Though

I love crafting in MMOs, so upon finding out that I could have three main professions in addition to Survival (essentially Cooking and First Aid rolled into one) and Fishing, I did a little victory dance.  Despite RIFT’s similarities to EverQuest 2, they mercifully did not borrow the crafting mini-game.  Click on the item you want to create, stand near the appropriate forge or workbench, and let ‘er rip!  For smelting and refining lumber, you can eventually learn spells that will allow you to craft 20 bars or planks at a time, which cuts down on the time required by a huge amount.  Some crafted armor, weapons, and accessories can be improved by using special Augments that add a bonus to a particular stat, though even without them, they usually outclass quest gear by a small amount, meaning that YES, you actually have some incentive to level them as you go rather than waiting till max level!

Every day, you’ll have a random list of work orders that can be completed using your professions and turned back in to the crafting quartermaster in exchange for Artisan Marks.  These tokens can be used at certain vendors to purchase recipes you won’t otherwise learn from your trainer.  Each profession can also craft special items for dimensions, the recipes for which can also be obtained this way.

At crafting level 300, you’ll be able to do a weekly work order that requires some higher-end items to make a consumable lure that opens special crafting rifts.  These crafting rifts function like the planar rifts you’ll find across the world, but enemies will drop crafting items.  With the expense of the items required, however, I was a little disappointed to find out that each lure could only be used once rather than giving you a permanent spell with a 24-hour cooldown.

Fishing is, as in every MMO offering it as a learnable skill, boring to level.  Much like fishing in real life, I suggest cracking open a beer (or soda) to enhance the experience.  What makes it slightly less painful is the fact that it uses targeting circles for casts.  Remember when I got all Dickensian Orphan levels of wistful over changes I’d like to see in World of Warcraft’s professions? Yep.  When I wrote that, I hadn’t yet started with RIFT, but apparently I’m on the same wavelength as someone on the design team.

RIFT is, at its core, a good game, and holds a lot of promise, but perhaps what’s so frustrating about it is how many of its flaws are simple balance issues.  I give their development team a lot of credit for the rapid and consistent release of hotfixes that are finally starting to address some of these issues, but they’ve still got a little ways to go before achieving their full potential.

I Have Replaced My Social Life With Civilization V; No Regrets

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down in my new super-deluxe computer chair with every intention of writing something — some character backstory, a compendium on how to properly brew tea, anything at all — and ended up taking over the world.

During Steam’s Summer Sale (henceforth referred to as “that goddamned sale”) last year I dropped a pretty hefty load of cash on games since, you know, I actually had a “real” job and could afford to do so.  Among my many purchases was the Civilization pack, which contained Civ III – IV and all the DLC, and what I believe was a separate pack specifically for Civ V.  I had played Civilization Revolution for 360 and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I figured it was a pretty logical purchase.

Except then World of Warcraft happened and it sat in my Steam library for like a whole year, untouched, until a week or two ago I got bored with MMOs and decided hey, why not?

I quickly realized how horribly rusty I was when my first game lasted ten hours and resulted in a pretty staggering defeat at the hands of England.  Revolution was probably the worst installment I could have chosen to start with because compared to how much micro-management is required for the PC titles, it’s an utter cakewalk — I was playing on the hardest mode in Revolution, but failing miserably at rank 3 or 4 in Civ V.  I did not have my Warglaives of Azzinoth.  I was not prepared.  I cranked the difficulty down a notch and then the next thing I knew several days had passed and I had conquered the everliving shit out of half the leaders.

Civilization V is a remarkably pretty game.  Zooming in on the map revealed a level of detail on buildings, tile improvements, and troops that I honestly didn’t expect to exist.  Whereas some RTS games out there might cut corners on the aesthetic details in favor of focusing more on gameplay, Civ V proved to be a rather well-rounded experience on all fronts.  The in-game help encyclopedia answers just about every question you could think of.  If you choose to enable tip dialogues from your advisors during the game, you’ll see how dedicated Firaxis was to making sure that the game was accessible to players of all skill levels without being patronizing — the advisors will explain core mechanics as they are introduced during the game, but ultimately any decision-making is left up to you.  They simply offer information; you can choose to use or ignore it.

The biggest issue I found with it was that the AI for workers building roads can often be a bit stupid.  Did another civilization’s Scout move in front of them?  Is there a building in the way?  Instead of being able to work through or even around the “obstruction,” they’ll throw their tiny hands into the air and give up.  The “Route-to cancelled!” message quickly became a source of jaw-clenching for me.  I can understand being unable to go through mountains (although Dynamite has to be discovered before learning Railroads, so technically they could just blast tunnels through it), but if you’ve got an Open Borders pact with another civilization, why not be able to build roads through their cities?  You can do it with city-states; why not other cultures?  As for troops blocking the path, let’s look at applications to the real world — if you consider the map to scale, there’s no way one group of Warriors or Archers is going to take up every square inch of a hexagon of land.  You’d ask anyone standing in your way to kindly step to the left or the right so you could continue building the road.  Previously established trade routes within my own empire would occasionally become broken, as well, but there was no indication of exactly where the break had occurred or what caused it.  Clicking on the message wouldn’t center on the problem, despite functioning for every other message in the game.

It also seems like successful trades and diplomatic discussions with other world leaders bore relatively little weight in deciding whether or not they’d become friendly with your civilization.  The general demeanor of the leaders appears to be randomly generated — some are warmongering from the very start and will hate you no matter how diplomatic you are in your relations with them, others are friendly right off the bat — but for those whose attitudes hover around neutral, it seems like there’s a mechanic missing to improve their opinion of you.  Even choices made outside of the discussion window, such as alliances with city-states and other civilizations, don’t seem to be as important as they should.  In most cases it seems like nothing you do matters, which is either a tongue-in-cheek commentary on real-life politics or an oversight.

Regardless of any perceived flaws, Civilization V is a solid gaming experience.  It takes a special kind of strategy game to be able to keep the interest of a casual RTS player like myself.  Most entries in the genre bore me after one or two games, unless they’re particularly story-driven like my beloved StarCraft and Warcraft III, but even without a plot beyond “take over the world,” I find myself with a frequent craving for more.

And perhaps it is that desire for more, more, more that’s led me to think of a few features I wish Civilization V offered as part of the core game experience, as awesome as it already is — although seeing them in a future update, or even in a Civilization VI, would probably mean I’d never leave my computer again, so maybe it’s better that they exist only in my imagination.

To begin, I’d love to see an in-game map editor.  Upon setting up a new game, you can tweak some basic geographic features, such as the general type of landmasses (everything from Pangaea to a world of tiny archipelagos), sea level, and worldwide temperature, but any finer control over landmass shape or topographical features is not available within the game itself — a quick perusal of available mods shows that there are some players who have made their own highly-customized maps using the SDK, like this amazing Westeros map pack by Supermull, but I’d like to see the map and scenario creation tools contained there merged with the game itself, as well as the ability to upload it straight to the Mods Workshop.

Players can also make their own civilizations using the SDK, but the process to do so is not terribly user-friendly.  That’s the main reason that I prefer to have customization tools built into the games themselves; many of the development toolkits require a level of technological knowledge that the average player just doesn’t have.  Being able to create your own leader by customizing their appearance and essentially building a civilization from the ground up is something that I feel could be appealing to anyone, even those who don’t necessarily have experience with development kits.  Hell, I’ll admit it — I’d make an Overlord Bunny in a heartbeat (although I’d end up using the SDK myself to replace all human troops with squads of attack bunnies, because that’s just how I roll).  The current mod community for Civ V seems small compared to other games, and I wonder how much of it is due to the often prohibitive complexity of its development kit, and the fact that it only appears to allow development for DirectX 9.

So let’s say Firaxis did add a Create-Your-Own-Civilization component to the game itself, one that didn’t necessarily allow in-depth tweaking of the game art (think more along the lines of a slightly simpler and more specialized version of XBox Live avatar creation) but still allowed player to tap into their imaginations and really become a part of the game.  It’s Quick-And-Dirty-Mock-Up Time!

civ5mockup

Obviously, the color palettes used there are just placeholders/approximations.  Any sort of customization like this would require a decent bit of extra work from the art department, so although I think allowing unnatural colors for skin tones would be a pretty sweet thing to have for anyone who’s ever dreamed of playing through an Ancient Astronauts scenario, the final shades would likely be much more traditional (and thus require a lot less work).  The same could also be done to eye and hair color if absolutely necessary, though I would mourn the loss of ability to make slightly more alternative — read: totes Goth — characters.

Features would be preset and specific to each available race.  For example, Caucasian 1 would be structurally different than African 1 or Asian 1.  I tried to make sure that all of the typical feature types were represented, but if I left anyone out, I apologize profusely, because I was just going off the top of my head.  Ideally, I’d love to see very in-depth facial manipulation controls, similar to what’s available in the Elder Scrolls game, but I’m not sure if it’d be possible to fit that neatly into Civilization just due to the difference in genre; some players just looking for a non-RPG experience might find complicated controls a bit daunting.  The option for more advanced control could be offered alongside the presets to make the best of both worlds.

A key note I’d like to make about the Weight control would be that I want it to offer not only muscularly thicker options, but also curvier ones.  It’s nice to see my own body type represented in games and I imagine there’s other chubby gamers out there who feel much the same way.  Civilization does deal with some historical events, after all, and many years ago being of the squishy persuasion generated envy, rather than ridicule, since it meant you could actually afford to eat regularly and properly.  But more importantly, it’s a great opportunity to really make a group of people that often are underrepresented in gaming in a positive light, rather than saving their depictions for cruelty-tinged comic relief or not including them at all.

The Age control would not only open that spirit of inclusion to older gamers — keep in mind that most original D&D players are still gaming despite being well into their 40s and 50s — but give players a chance to represent real historical figures who ruled as children, such as Tutenkhamun.

On the next page of customization controls (which I am far too lazy to mock up in Photoshop because this one took me like two hours to do), players would be able to select from preset themes for their empire, including those already found in the game as well as some specifically added for customization.  National Colors 1 and 2 would be reflected in troop garb as it is in the regular game, and by selecting from these various themes, players could alter the actual clothing style, too.  Who wouldn’t want to pick a Spooky theme and sack Rome with… a bunch of Goths?

I am not sorry for that joke.  Not one bit.

There would also be a list of special passive perks to choose from, maximum 2 per empire, much like the benefits offered depending on which of the preexisting civilizations are chosen.  Players could also choose any combination of 2 special troops or buildings for their civilization by selecting from a preset group of icons, naming them, and picking their role or benefit, respectively.  And of course, there’d be the opportunity to write up a brief history of their glorious civilization and leader, limited only by the number of characters used (because let’s face it, you get someone like me in there and you’ll end up with an entire textbook’s worth of material).

The ultimate dream would be to have these customized civilizations usable for multiplayer matches.  Balance wouldn’t be much of an issue, since any perks or benefits able to be chosen for custom play would be no different from the ones already in the game as far as mechanics are concerned.  If anything, it would add a whole new layer of strategy as players scramble to find the most helpful combination for the victory type that they seek.

Going back to what’s already in the game itself, I think it could be surprisingly fun to have a play mode where you’re the only civilization (city-states could be allowed or disallowed, depending on user preference), but can settle as many cities as you’d like and develop them until 2050 AD.  Challenge objectives could be given, such as to build a city in a particular area or produce x amounts of a particular resource per turn, all of which add to your end score.  I’d also like to see the ability to buy out city-states — you can purchase cities from other civilization leaders if they like you enough, although I’ve noticed that immediately after doing so, they tend to suddenly go from “friendly” to denouncing me — and to gift or trade troops with friendly civilizations to sway their opinion of you, although the latter aspect would have to be developed carefully to avoid giving off any slavery or prostitution vibes.

There’s already a whole slew of leaders to choose from, especially if you’ve purchased all of the DLC for Civ 5, but how about seeing an Inuit civilization?  Allow them bonuses to production from Whales and Oil resources, and give them the ability to manufacture and farm on ice and snow tiles.  The top and bottom of each map is covered in impenetrable ice that can’t really be settled; why not change that?  They could also produce a special caravel unit that can cut through the edges of the ice, making world exploration and navigation easier for them.  Arctic foxes and polar bears could appear on snow and ice tiles for trapping, not only by the Inuit, but also by any other civilizations brave enough to venture that far north (or south), although these other civilizations, except perhaps Siberia, would find it much more challenging for themselves to farm the inhospitable frozen tundra.  Sure, you could probably use the SDK to mod a civilization like this, but it’d be nice to see the often-forgotten Inuit and their rich culture represented.  The same school of thought could apply to the Aborigines of Australia, who would receive bonuses in desert-like climates.

In the meantime, I’ll be tinkering around with the SDK for Civilization V, seeing what I can come up with.  I’d like to make mod packs based on Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, Warcraft, Diablo, StarCraft… the sky’s the limit.  It’s just a question of how well I can learn the software, which is proving to be quite a challenge.

But before I get started, I think I’m going to try for that Domination victory.

Patch 5.3: Well, That Escalated Quickly

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I’m a little delayed, I know, since Escalation, World of Warcraft’s third content patch for Mists of Pandaria, was released about a week ago, but I’ve been a bit distracted by other things.  The bright side is that it’s given me a week to really delve into the content and see what the community at large thinks about it.

The first two patches were pretty expansive, introducing new areas, new factions to earn rep with, and taking several days or even weeks to complete.  It was almost overwhelming the first time I stepped into the 5.2 content — the mobs were a bit challenging, even with my shadow priest’s excellent gear, and the list of Things To Do was as long as my arm (granted, I’m kind of short and stubby, but you get what I mean).  Just when I thought I’d finished it all, I discovered the Isle of Giants and honestly at that point was so winded by everything else I said “screw it, I’ll go back and do it later.”  I still haven’t even gone into LFR for Throne of Thunder.  I was actually a little nervous once 5.3 was released so quickly, thinking that I was going to be hopelessly behind until at least 6.0.

Yeah.  Totally finished 5.3 in a day.  Hot damn.

This is where the first grumbles I’ve heard come in — compared to its predecessors, Escalation is really small.  Yesterday I heard someone say that she hated it because “there was no climax” to the story.  Let’s look at the definition of “escalation”:

es·ca·late  (sk-lt)
v. es·ca·lat·edes·ca·lat·inges·ca·lates
v.tr.
To increase, enlarge, or intensify: escalated the hostilities in the Persian Gulf.
v.intr.
To increase in intensity or extent: “a deepening long-term impasse that is certain to escalate” (Stewart L. Udall)

And things in the story are definitely increasing in intensity.  The Darkspear leader, Vol’jin, has the backing of both Horde and Alliance to take over for Hellscream and his harsh, often irresponsible rule.  Voices of dissent are becoming louder.  How long will it be before a real move is made against Orgrimmar and Vol’jin is declared Warchief?  Is he truly a better option than Hellscream?  Are there other players lurking in the wings?  The answers, presumably, will be coming in 5.4.  With a couple more planned content patches still being worked on, bringing the story to a major pinnacle now would mean that everything to follow would either have to match in epic scope or would be a steady decline back into “blah,” and that’s really not the most engaging way to tell a story, especially in an interactive form of media like a game.  Rocketing straight to “ULTIMATE BADASS OF ULTIMATE BADASSERY” without any real build-up is cheap and unfulfilling, especially when there’s so much to look at with regards to lore.

Speaking of lore, complaints have also been rolling in about how it’s dumb that the Alliance would be helping to put Vol’jin on the throne… wait, is it a throne?  Big spiky chair?  Place where the Warchief sits?  Whatever.  But Hellscream has already crossed lines that Thrall would have avoided altogether.  Remember the fate of Anduin Wrynn at the end of 5.1?  Under Thrall’s rule, the Horde and Alliance didn’t exactly have a truce, but Hellscream has proven himself to be a steamroller of destruction not just for his own people, but for the Alliance, as well.  It is in everybody’s best interests if the proverbial loose cannon is replaced by a more reasonable leader.  Given the Darkspear tribe’s main goal of just trying to rebuild their home post-Cataclysm versus command-and-conquer, a little cooperation from the Alliance (entirely possible, given Anduin’s tendency to seek peace rather than war) could mean that these two factions might even be able to reach a cease-fire.

It’s also been said that Blizzard is showing clear favor to the Horde with 5.3 content and that the Alliance don’t have as immersive or enriching of an experience on their side of the fence.  I haven’t brought an Alliance character through, but I will just point out that since the beginning of World of Warcraft, the Horde have been claiming that the devs are favoring the Alliance while the Alliance claim that the devs are favoring the Horde.  I played both sides of the same server once and let me tell you, the arguments were exactly the same except for the faction names being switched around.  Even if there really was “favoritism” going on in this patch, I can almost guarantee you that 5.4 will shift focus the other way and ultimately balance everything out.  Mists of Pandaria is proving to have one of the most intricate and expansive storylines yet, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer, it’s that there’s always a method to the madness.  I have complete confidence that by the end of the Mists content, everyone will be sitting in there chairs going “OHHH!  That’s where they were going with it!”

In addition to drawing out the dramatic tension in the storyline, 5.3 is also serving as a great catch-up for those who don’t have regular access to raids, are trying to gear out alts, or who have just started playing.  During the Battlefield: Barrens event, players can complete a weekly quest to gather 100 each of four different materials and turn them in to receive one Radiant Mojo.  When combined with a piece of Latent gear, which has a decent chance to drop off of the very mobs being killed to complete the quest or can be purchased in exchange for more materials, the Radiant Mojo will create a piece of item level 489 gear specific to the player’s spec and class (489 is on par with Valor gear).  In one week, I ended up with three sets of shoulders, a pair of pants, and a belt.  Before combining them with the mojo, the items aren’t soulbound, meaning you can trade with other players for pieces you need, sell them for profit, or send them to alts.  It’s an amazing alternative to having to grind out the “oldschool” Pandaria reputations and run heroics ad nauseum to get Valor points — the payout for heroic runs in Mists versus Cataclysm is incredibly small.  With each patch, Blizzard has been making it easier for players to get caught up with their rep.  In 5.1, we got commendations that would allow all characters on our account to receive a major boost to rep gains as long as one character had received at least Revered status with the faction that the commendation was purchased from.  5.2 gave us work orders on our farm and the ability to “star” reputations while running dungeons for extra reputation towards that faction once per day.  Golden Lotus rep is no longer required to serve as a gateway for Shado-Pan and August Celestials quests.  The Latent gear offers an alternative to the grind so that new or hopelessly behind players can focus on newer reputations that offer higher item level rewards.

That’s the beauty of 5.3 — it offers multiple ways to achieve a goal.  Besides the alternate path to 489 gear, which is easily enough to get players into LFR, there’s also several ways you can get the materials needed to complete the Battlefield: Barrens weekly quest.  Mobs in the highlighted areas on the map have a 100% drop rate of the items you need.  There’s also physical objects that can be gathered, like barrels of oil or crates of meat, and have a chance to yield more materials than individual mob kills.  Occasionally a caravan, laden with the precious materials you require, will start out from one area in The Barrens and require your protection from raiders on the way to its destination.  Keep the caravan safe, and you’ll be given a crate of bonus supplies that contains a fair chunk of each of the kind required to complete your quest objectives.  If a caravan is overturned, those who get to the site quickly enough will find its contents strewn through the wreckage for yet another quick burst towards completion.

Arguments are, of course, being made that Blizzard is rewarding players who are one or all of the following:

  • lazy
  • noobs
  • casual
  • scrubs
  • (insert colorful accusation of homosexuality here)

Still others are sitting around in their gear from heroic Throne of Thunder and complaining that it isn’t fair because none of the gear offered in Escalation is an upgrade for them.  So essentially, those ranting about the Latent gear are either elitist or greedy, and definitely selfish.  These are the kids on the playground who want first pick of the swings and don’t mind pushing the smaller kids down into the dirt to get to them.  If they’re not having fun, then why should anyone else be allowed to have fun?  I imagine they’re also the type who, when losing at a board game, scream “I WIN” and knock all the pieces onto the floor.  As a funny sidenote, I’ve also noticed that most of these same kids claiming to be “oldschool” players who remember what the game was like “before easy mode” started playing World of Warcraft a full two or three years after I did.  If I really wanted to be a jerk, I could give these bullies a taste of their own medicine, but I’m more concerned with watching the player base grow rather than trying to impose some sort of social restriction that if you started playing after x date, you’re not allowed to do anything.  Oh noes, the purples are accessible to everyone!  The Legendary questline still isn’t.  Hell, I still need like 15 of the Sigils from the first part; I just don’t have the time or the patience to get them, and I’m fine with that.  So is every other casual player I know.  The hardcore and progression-based raiders are going to make up the majority of the I Haz Orange Weapons club.  The devs are not vomiting max-level gear all over everyone quite as freely as the vocal naysayers would have us believe.  It’s going to be okay, guys.  I promise.

Beyond the gear and the inevitable controversy surrounding it, we also get six heroic scenarios!  Hurray!  They are definitely more of a challenge than the original batch — bring your best game and halfway-decent gear if you want to succeed — but they’re still a quick and enjoyable way to get Valor points.  Even with the alternate path to Valor-quality gear, the Upgrade ethereals are back, and with reduced Valor and Justice costs.  Pet battles have been retooled a bit with regards to hit chance, and tooltips will now reflect this as a way to help battlers decide which attacks to use.  A new chapter of Raiding With Leashes has opened up with the obtainable pets dropping off of Burning Crusade-era raid bosses; finally, an excuse to go back to Karazhan!  There’s also one obtainable from turning in a Radiant Mojo to the Darkspear quartermaster at Razor Hill, a handful now available off of Throne of Thunder bosses, some Isle of Thunder and Isle of Giants drops, and a new wild pet for Northrend, which has the misfortune of being called an Unborn Val’kyr and looking like a baby angel.

There’s still a lot of value to Escalation, even if it doesn’t have the same epic scope to it as the other content patches.  The Battlefield: Barrens quest, however, is being treated as a world event, which means that it’s quite likely to disappear at some point, so get it done while you can!  My recommendation to avoid burnout (400 total materials is a pretty steep order to grind out, even if it is only once a week) is to split it up over 4 days.  With no new batches of dailies or factions to grind to Exalted, the general theme seems to fit right in with Vol’jin and his Darkspear trolls: “Take it easy, mon.”

Congraturations, A Winner Is Ragnarok Online 2

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A little less than a week ago, The Fiance drew my attention to Ragnarok Online 2.  Since I played Ragnarok Online back in my high school days on the EuphRO server, there was a momentary prickle of nostalgia-based interest, but that was quickly snuffed out by my desire to get my death knight to level 90.

“It’s free to play,” he pointed out.  With how amazingly my last experience with a free-to-play MMO went, this was not convincing me of anything.

“If you hit level 30 by June 1st, you get a special Founder title.”

Well, shit.

Despite how much fun I used to have with my friends crawling through 2D dungeons in the original Ragnarok, I honestly expected to play the sequel for about ten minutes before saying “meh” and going back to World of Warcraft.  We never got farther than level 10 in the first game, mostly because the terrible localization made understanding what the Hell we were supposed to be doing at any given time too hardcore of an adventure for a bunch of 15-year-olds.  I figured it’d be more of the same, endless grinding, right click to attack Porings until you vomit out of your eyeballs, blah blah blah.

Then I actually fired up the game, and my semi-long absence from blogging or doing much of anything has been because Ragnarok Online 2 is freaking amazing.  Or at least mostly amazing.

Ragnarok Online 2 launched their English-language version just on May 1st of this year, so it’s still pretty fresh out of beta, and with any MMO you’re likely to experience a few hiccups with the servers at the beginning.  I can’t speak as to server stability for the standalone client, since I chose to nab mine through Steam, but the first couple of days were riddled with connectivity issues that seemed to be exclusive to communication between Steam and the account service, Warp Portal.  The Ragnarok team, however, was quick to address these problems and has offered a couple of small freebie items from their cash shop to players to make up for the interruption, a move that’s especially awesome on their parts since players aren’t losing paid time from server outages.  From what I’ve seen of their community-facing team, I’m impressed.  I am slightly confused, though, as to why they’ve chosen to take the servers offline for regularly scheduled maintenance on Tuesday evenings, typically starting at 8pm and coming back up at midnight PST.  Blizzard also runs on Pacific time but handles server maintenance starting in the wee hours of the morning, when fewer players are likely to be on.  It just seems like a poor choice to me to shut players out during what could still be considered “peak” play hours.

(Admittedly, I keep referring to them as “servers” when there’s really only one server, Odin, broken down into 20 different channels which players can zone in and out of as long as they’re out of combat and not in a dungeon.  This comes in handy when trying to find a pick-up group for a dungeon or “elite” mob — I tend to do my regular questing in low-population channels so that I don’t have to worry about tons of competition for kills, but switch into the highest population channel to set up my personal shop and find groups.)

After the Scarlet Blade debaucle, it was really nice to go through a character creation process where the female characters were actually clothed, especially compared to what they typically end up wearing in fantasy games.  The worst I saw was a midriff top and short shorts that my character switches to when she’s crafting as a blacksmith, but since the game relies on an anime art style anyway, it didn’t seem out of place.  I’ve seen more offensive costuming in Sailor Moon.

45% more flesh coverage than the Sailor Starlights.

45% more flesh coverage than the Sailor Starlights.

The whole game is insanely cute.  Even the “dusky” areas use a fairly bright color palette, and the monsters all look like something the children of Sanrio executives would draw on their school notebooks after snorting Pixie Stix.  I think the handpainted environment textures might actually be better quality than the ones used in World of Warcraft — the ones in RO2 seem to lack the distortion and pixelation that can sometimes occur in WoW.  The music was also a pleasant surprise; it can tend towards “generic RPG” at some points, but there’s a few parts of the score that feature gorgeous vocalizations.  I haven’t turned off the background music since I started playing it.  And how cool is it that you can actually select your character’s voice?  For a free-to-play MMO, they’ve definitely poured a lot of love and effort into the graphics and sound.

But therein lies the catch, right?  The game costs nothing to download, and there’s no monthly fee, so the cash shop must be full of game-breaking armor and weaponry that means “gg” if you can’t afford or don’t want to spend the money on it.  Except that’s not the case at all.  The Kafra Item Shop is full of vanity items like appearance-only costumes and mounts, with a couple of consumable boost items that are nice, but won’t wreck your game experience if you choose not to buy them.  The broken English descriptions, however, mean that making a purchase requires some very careful reading.  Occasionally you’ll find what appears to be two entries for the same item, but closer examination reveals that one is a 30-day item and the other is permanent.  One very useful item I’ve noticed is a Card Album, which will store all of the equippable stat boost cards you find during your travels without taking up precious inventory space, but it costs $5 and only lasts for 30 days — still cheaper than paying for a monthly subscription, but I feel like the value for the non-permanent items isn’t really at that cost level.

Now, as far as the English is concerned…

This wasn't even the worst offender -- I actually had to close out of that one immediately to prevent my brain from exploding.

This wasn’t even the worst offender — I actually had to close out of that one immediately to prevent my brain from exploding.

The localization for RO2 is, to put it delicately, pretty bad, although a recent patch has introduced several fixes for the most noticeable mistakes, such as the now-ubiquitously quoted announcement of “Congraturations!”.  Many of the quest descriptions are useless when trying to figure out exactly where you’re supposed to go and what you’re supposed to do.  There’s a couple of quests that, on acceptance, drop a funny mallet into your bags that apparently you’re supposed to equip and use when killing the specified mobs… but the quest text doesn’t explain that part.  The mallet itself also does very little damage on its own and makes your typical attacks completely unusable, meaning you’re stuck auto-attacking and hoping that the mob’s health reaches 0 before yours does, which is occasionally impossible without relying on health potions in the meantime (side note: using a health potion turns off your auto-attack, something I didn’t notice right away the first time I got stomped into the ground).  When the terrible translations and missing information aren’t upsetting gameplay, they’re torpedoing the fairly decent lore that the Ragnarok series is based upon.  Character conversations that should advance the storyline in the player’s mind are instead stilted, confusing messes of generic statements that could be so much better with a few rewrites.  Coupled with the typical Korean game mechanics of “grind your face off,” it can make for a very dull experience at times.

There’s also the matter of certain NPC and city names not being kept consistent between the original Eastern release and its English-language counterpart.  Sometimes it’s just a letter or two apart, but several other times the names have been completely different, and only by making educated guesses and using the map to check for turn-ins can you guarantee that you’ll end up in the right place.  Some cultural differences have also not been accounted for — one of the first quests you’ll receive is to retrieve “wet crib sheets” for a fallen knight.  I’ve never heard anyone use the term “crib sheet” in this country to describe anything except what babies sleep on, but apparently it can also refer to schoolwork or notes on a certain subject.  Before I figured that out, however, I spent a couple of hours thinking that the knight got his ass kicked so hard that he wet the bed and that the game was calling him a baby for it.

A really neat feature I’ve managed to get addicted to is the way that RO2 handles titles and achievements, utilizing a system called “Khara”:

CLEAR ALL THE THINGS

Also known as “We hate people with OCD.”

Unlike most games, where titles are strictly for vanity and/or RP purposes, here there’s actually a method to the madness.  Each title, which can be earned by completing Khara missions, offers different stat boosts to give your characters an extra edge.  In addition to receiving titles, most Khara missions also reward players with Khara points that can be used to unlock special missions, chunks of job or character XP, and money.  Some require reaching a certain level either with your crafting profession or your character themselves, while others ask you to consume a certain number of potions or kill specific mobs.  Accepting quests will sometimes unlock access to more Khara missions, as will leveling regularly.  They are inexplicably divided into “Episodes,” which correspond with absolutely nothing in the game itself, and with so many available missions figuring out what’s open for completion at the time can sometimes be a daunting task.  I’d rather see them separated into tabs by zone or mission type.  There’s also mild annoyance when a Khara mission opens up that requires you to backtrack and kill 80 of a certain mob that you had to kill anyway earlier on in the same quest chain — some streamlining is needed here to reduce aggravation.

Some of these Khara missions can only be completed in dungeons, which in this game cause me to grind my teeth simply because completing them and the regular storyline quests for each one require multiple runs.  Rather than asking you to kill a boss just once, the game forces you to run each dungeon at least twice for completion, and given the generic nature of each boss encounter, that can be mind-numbing.  Every boss I’ve encountered thus far requires the same strategy: don’t stand in shit, and kill the adds that the boss spawns.  Recent dungeons in World of Warcraft have been at the butt of plenty of “don’t stand in fire” jokes when it comes to their strategies, but RO2 takes monotony to a whole new level with their encounters.  Waiting until max level (at this moment, 50) and coming back to wipe out lower-level dungeons isn’t a possibility, either, due to the damage output and defense levels of bosses being out of balance with the strength and fortitude gained by players.  I don’t feel more powerful when I level in RO2.  Stat gains are incremental at best, and as in the case of Vitality, worthless at their absolute worst.  Each point spent in Vitality only gains 6 HP, meaning that in order to make a real difference in your character’s health pool, you’d have to sacrifice placing points in any other stat, which just doesn’t work.  These mysterious “points” are only granted each time a player levels up, with the number rewarded and the number required for +1 to a stat increasing over time, meaning that opportunities to beef yourself up are limited to begin with.  Crafting the best possible gear for yourself and augmenting your stats with the appropriate title and equippable cards are absolutely necessary in order to offset the lackluster baseline improvements.

With allocatable stat points also comes the chance to learn new skills, which rely entirely on the old talent tree model that World of Warcraft used to offer before switching to their weird Everquest 2 trees.  Localization again becomes a problem, with awkward and unhelpful skill descriptions that are enough to boggle the mind.  I sometimes feel like I’d be better off just downloading the Korean-language client and using Google Translate to try and comprehend exactly what I’m reading.  For example, the Warrior ability, Bowling Bash:

Which, coincidentally, appears identical to three other skills in the same tree.

Which, coincidentally, appears identical to three other skills in the same tree.

Upon first reading the tooltip, it sounds to me that this ability works like a single-target Heroic Leap, when in fact it’s just another melee-range sword attack.  I wasted a skill point to find this out, and the only way to reset skill trees that I’ve been able to find so far requires making a cash purchase from the Kafra Item Shop, otherwise I’m stuck deleting the character and starting over from scratch.

At level 25, characters can change to one of two specialized classes that differ based on which class you chose to start the game with.  It reminds me of the Job system in Final Fantasy Tactics (although in RO2, “job” refers to “crafting profession”).  The problem is that there’s very few viable builds out there, and I’m not talking just for endgame — pick the wrong option, and you’re going to have a tough time just leveling by yourself.  My character started out as a Swordsman and transitioned into the Warrior class, which I assumed was the DPS build versus the Knight tank build, only to find that I’d gimped myself in a very big way by making this choice.  Instead of there being clearly defined roles for each specialization, it seems like there’s an Awesome Specialization and a Crap Specialization, and that’s about it.  I’ve verified this not only with my own playthrough, but also by talking to several more serious players in the game itself and reading through forum posts.  If your’e a WoW player and have ever tweeted Ghostcrawler with complaints about nerfs or insisting that your class needs a buff, come play RO2 for a few days.  You’ll be sending the man fruit baskets by the end.

Take whatever strength and survivability you can, though, because the respawn time for mobs is literally a matter of seconds.  Unlike World of Warcraft, which gives you a few seconds’ grace to run away from a mob that’s just popped on top of you before grabbing aggro, you’re fair game the second its model phases into the area.  Rather than mowing through pockets of mobs as you would in other games, it’s much safer to find one of the specific type of mob you need that’s far away from larger pockets and just spawn-camp the everliving crap out of it.  If you play a class without ranged abilities, such as Swordsman, you’re relegated to body pulls, which get dicey considering that mobs do enough damage versus your own damage output that using a health potion every 10 seconds is very nearly a requirement, and you’ll be stopping to regain health with regeneration foods every three to four kills in some places.  By the time you finish killing one mob, you’ve barely got enough time to loot it and run away to avoid aggroing a new spawn.  For this reason, questing can be a slow and nerve-wracking process.  The respawn rate doesn’t appear to be linked to how many players are in the area, since I’ve been the only one around on a low-population channel and still experienced the same near-instantaneous speed, unless it’s taking into account the number of players across all channels in that area rather than limiting itself to the active one.  It could also be the simple fact that most Asian MMOs tend to be more difficult than their Western counterparts; fans of that style of gameplay are undoubtedly pleased, but for the rest of us, it’d be nice to turn the dial down a bit from “holy shit” to “happy medium.”

In place of hearthstones for quick escapes to your home point, the Kafra Service NPCs located in most major quest hubs will allow you to select that city as your “Save Point,” accessible  every few minutes using a consumable Butterfly Wing, an item which they also will cheerfully sell to you for a nominal fee.  These same NPCs also offer personal bank storage which can be expanded with a real-money purchase from the Kafra Item Shop.  Transportation via flight point seems oddly expensive when compared to the rate at which Zeny (the RO2 version of gold) is earned, but upon further reflection, the ratio is no worse than World of Warcraft was back in the day of mounts at level 40.  Speaking of mounts, they’re available for purchase in the main city of Prontera at level 15 for 10 Zeny, which if my calculations are correct is equivalent to 100g in other games — rather than there being 100 rupees to 1 Zeny, it’s actually 1,000 rupees.  No special riding training is required, but there’s only one mount available, so without spending actual cash, there’s not much in the way of choice.  There’s also some sort of Food Bag sold by the mount vendor with a tooltip that claims it may make your mount faster, but I have yet to figure out how to use it to this end.

By this point, it probably sounds like Ragnarok Online 2 isn’t that great after all, but I can assure you that despite its flaws, the game has a lot of promise.  Just fixing up the localization errors and smoothing out some of the translations would make a huge difference in polish.  I commented to The Fiance that I wish they’d hire me, or Hell, even let me volunteer to sit down with all of the quest text, titles, and NPC names and bring them up to snuff, and I absolutely mean it — I see that much potential in the game.  I’d love to write a mod that fixes these problems, but I’m not sure that the built-in anti-hacking program would appreciate it enough to not permanently ban my account.  Thus far, I’ve been seeing daily updates and hotfixes to the game, meaning that their English-language team obviously has a great deal of dedication to and enthusiasm for their product, a feeling that’s definitely contagious after just a couple levels of play.  I stuck around for my Founder title, and to be honest, I don’t want to quit playing there like I expected I would.  It may not be a contender for World of Warcraft (at least not in the Western market), but it’s still enjoyable enough that I’m excited to keep playing on my Swordsman, and even to try out the other classes.

Especially if you’re a gamer on a budget, RO2 is well worth the download.  I’ve yet to experience another free MMO as well-crafted and fun to play as this, and I have serious questions as to if I ever will again.

Crossing The Design Line: An Indignant Review of Scarlet Blade

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OPENING DISCLAIMER: Some screenshots and links used in this article may be considered NSFW.  Proceed with caution, and also, stop surfing the internet at work.

Yesterday a friend of mine mentioned that they’d been participating in the open beta of Aeria Games’s new free-to-play MMO, Scarlet Blade.  Though my design goals really lie within snagging a spot on the World of Warcraft team, I figured I write enough about Blizzard games as it is and may as well take the opportunity to apply my creative eye to another title for once.

Then said friend begged “Please don’t tell anyone I’m playing this game” and I became mildly concerned as to what exactly I was getting myself into.

I knew from the get-go that there would be boobs.  Scarlet Blade’s official website features artwork of two female characters with only a few pixels meaning the difference between “barely covered” and “nip-slip.”  This didn’t really bother me, because I will happily play a scantily-clad lady character as long as she still kicks a significant amount of ass.  And to  be honest, boobs are awesome.  I actually like wearing low-cut shirts from time to time to show off my cleavage.  It makes me feel sexy, beautiful, and strong to know that I’m showing off for myself, despite what some other people may think about women in revealing clothing.

Launching the game was a moderate pain in the ass, since you can’t go directly to Scarlet Blade from your program menu — you have to fire up Aeria’s Ignite client (similar to EA’s Origin), sign in there, start Scarlet Blade, sign in a second time, then enter in a six-character numerical PIN on a keypad within the game itself where the numbers randomly shift around with every click.  You can’t accuse them of being lax in security, I guess, but their log-in procedures were dangerously close to becoming the stuff of internet memes.

Okay, Character Creation!  Pretty standard — choose your faction, then choose from six different classes and tweak appearance.  My unnamed-and-ashamed compadre mentioned that I might want to check out the Whipper class to satisfy my desire to play a curvy character for once in a game.  I took their advice and moved on to outfit select…

...Okay, well, yes, she IS curvy, that wasn't a lie.

I’m unsure if the game artists for Scarlet Blade have ever seen an anatomy textbook.

I still haven’t figured out what purpose choosing an outfit serves.  There are two “normal” outfits and two “lingerie” outfits to choose from and to be honest, they could have all been classified as “fabric scraps haphazardly glued to a sketch on the back page of a teenage boy’s homework” and fit together quite nicely.  When I started gameplay, my character wasn’t even wearing the outfit I chose.  From what I can tell, these fancy censor-bars are seen once on the creation screen and then never again.  But okay, whatever.  I mean, it’s not like they’re offering panty-shots on ambiguously aged character mo–

In my dedication to this review, I have now placed myself on a government watch list. I hope you're happy.

In my dedication to this review, I have now placed myself on a government watch list. I hope you’re happy.

But it’s not like you could buy something from the game’s cash shop that basically lets any character model you choose run around the game bare-crotched, right?

ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME, GUYS?

Oh, and that aforementioned hypersexualization of extremely young/innocent character types isn’t just in-game.  Check out the artwork in this blurb for Scarlet Blade:

SHE NEEDS AN ADULT

NO.

At least this one actually has large enough breasts to deter Chris Hansen for another day, but they still infantilize her by giving her a cute little stuffed animal to cuddle with.

The text on the blurb talks about “womankind” fighting to save the future as if it’s some kind of girl-power game.  Well, yes, it is, in that you can only play female characters.  The handful of male NPCs offer “sexual harassment” and “thinly-veiled double entendre” as the only dialogue options.  According to what’s outlined in quest text, you’re not even playing a real woman — they’re glorified Realdolls.  You’re controlling an “Arkana,” a mostly-naked, completely obedient (and demure, to the point that your character will blame, chastise, and belittle herself for everything that goes wrong), and anatomically impossible avatar to do your bidding.  Oh, and if the dialogue is to be believed, they all want to have sex with each other.

And now the name of the Whipper class makes sense.

And now it’s all clear to me why they chose to name this class “Whipper.”

That’s not even the most eye-rolling innuendo in the game.  The female NPCs you interact with will constantly accuse you of checking out their butt, admit to checking out your butt, ask you why you’re not checking out their butt… a good chunk of the script reads like it was written by the same teenage boys who designed the characters.

You had to phrase it that way, didn't you?

You had to phrase it that way, didn’t you?

Some of it honestly makes me wonder how many anime girl-shaped pillows were rendered too sticky for use during the game’s creation.

...wait for it...

…wait for it…

They seriously tack it onto every line of dialogue that comes out of a female character’s mouth.

......

……

And then this happened.

I can assure you that any grown man calling them "ta-tas" is cause for me to put my pants back on and leave the room.

200% done.

This is just within the first four, maybe five levels.  I started out trying to take screencaps of every ridiculous innuendo or tidbit of sexual harassment and I had to stop, because I was pretty much screencapping the entire game.

It’s pretty clear that Aeria is not trying to tell a story with this game.  The “lore” offered on the website is essentially the bastard child of Avatar and every single post-apocalyptic/mecha anime ever created.  The three spells I started off with used identical icons and I could not, for the life of me, tell you what was different about their effects beyond the fact that they had different titles — I think, anyway, the tooltips were so poorly designed that they could have been giving me a wealth of information and I wouldn’t have known.  Talent trees are massive and offer you the chance to put skill points into various spells without clearly explaining the benefits of each.  I didn’t even see a clear indicator of how to tell what oddly-named stats boost what aspect of your play and which are best for your class.  There’s no traditional stamina-strength-intellect setup; the stats in Scarlet Blade read like the Results screen of a Dance Dance Revolution battle.  Combat doesn’t have any real strategy beyond targeting an enemy and mashing a button until it dies.  Movement uses the WASD control scheme or click-to-move, but the camera is less than intuitive and requires the player to manipulate it themselves if they want to actually be able to see where they’re going, which can be awkward to do while moving.  Even the voice actresses sound unhappy to be involved in this game, with the audio quality making it seem like the entire sound department is using Windows Sound Recorder at best.

The entire point of Scarlet Blade, based on my experience with it, is to inappropriately touch yourself while staring at fake women (one-handed play made possible by the “click on the quest to auto-travel to the NPC or area you need” feature).  They’re marketing it as a regular MMO with an M rating, despite the fact that it’s basically an ecchi game with slightly higher production values.  I feel like if one of your armor sets consists of criss-crossed ribbons on top and what I’m pretty sure is nothing but a landing strip on the bottom (protip, character designers: a thong actually has sides and a back, otherwise you’re drawing fancy pubes) you’ve crossed the line from being able to market your game as a “mainstream” MMO and smack-dab into “seriously why don’t you just admit this is an ecchi MMO” territory.  As it stands, they’re not labeling their cheesecake, nor do they seem to have a terribly effective age verification system in place.  A precursory glance through the official Scarlet Blade forums in an introduction thread reveals profiles and photographs of players both male and female who, like the Sentinel class, do not appear to be anywhere near 18.

It’s also frightening to think of how many players out there may not be able to grasp the concept that the portrayal of Scarlet Blade’s women is completely mired in fantasy and should not be carried over to the real world.  The route of association goes like this: here is an anime-style character that you can treat like a sex doll, who shows nothing in “brains” but everything in the “genitals,” and now you go to a convention where you have real women dressed as anime or videogame characters, potentially scantily-clad.  Now look at how frequently cosplay harassment occurs and wonder to yourself, is this helping by being an outlet for these animalistic urges, or hindering by creating some very terrifying links in our minds?

I uninstalled Scarlet Blade after a couple of hours.  I just couldn’t deal with it beyond that.  I wanted to actually give it a shot, for it to just be a fairly generic MMO that happened to feature cleavage, but what I got instead was an example of how game designers and developers can so easily cross the line of “good taste.”