Busy start of the year in the MMO scene

Hehe. well it seem the gaming goods have conspired and made the start of 2007 really busy to make up for a frankly disappointing 2006 (at least when it comes to MMOs). As I noted before there are several games I am looking forward to playing this year. And just last week in my inbox was another invite to beta one of them.

Okay so it seemed to be an invite to a stress-test the coming weekend. But the mail did say something about the account will stay open if I use it then. Pretty cool even if it does somewhat expand on ‘currently played games’ since I am currently playing Vanguard ‘open’ beta too. And in a – presumably – not so distant future I should be in yet another beta… Well I have mentioned that one before since it’s been more that two months since I was accepted into it. But there is now talk about slowly letting in the people selected. So perhaps I will be testing that soon too. And finally I figured out how to get into the Myst Online open beta.

If this keeps up I won’t have time for the day job =)

On the Vanguard front I’ve been playing on and off for about two weeks now. But it is a bit of a strange game in some areas. It’s not that is a particular tough game to play. But it does take a lot of times to do most things in it. Other first impressions are that there is no doubt these guys also made EQ. The graphics are similar. While some people rave about them – don’t fanboys always? – I think they are somewhat bland and nothing new. Not I’m running in 1920×1200 on just one GeForce 7950GT (other one is in for replacement – again) so I can’t really turn up to the max for playing. But even doing that don’t really seem to display graphics like other games that are supposed to come out. Frankly I think WoW does a better job even if they have ‘cheated’ and made ‘blocky’ part of their cute/friendly cartoonish style.

The UI layout looks a lot like the default WoW one (“If it works…” I suppose). And at least they didn’t take the EQ2 one. What I don’t understand is that they seem to not have gotten the memo that people like intuitive UIs with good information layouts as opposed to small – static sized – windows that show half the info of what you might want to see. I suppose it can’t get any bigger on 1024×768. But it is not like there is a HUGE marked on that resolution anyway. And too many of their windows just waste a lot of space on nothing useful.

The class selection is, like EQ2, put into a 4×4 grid meaning there are four variations on four different ‘generic classes’ (defensive tank, offensive tank, healer and nuker). While the classes are not a direct EQ2 rip-off. The underlying idea definitely is.

The races look familiar too. I suppose it is hard to come up with new fantasy genre races anyway. But most of the EQ lore animal-people are back with new names. Elves have the same three types. But that is really more something of a given in the genre.

The game is supposed to have three separated progression lines – or ‘spheres’ – to play on, each independent of the others. I am not sure I would see it quite like that. I mean progression axis are ‘Adventurer, ‘Crafter, ‘Harvester’ and ‘Diplomat’. The first one is the usual stuff about killing mobs and leveling up your fighting skills. The second is supposed to be crafting. But harvesting is just as independent as crafting. Sure crafting is more involving, but they are still separate… Guess ‘four spheres’ didn’t work for the marketing people. The fourth is diplomacy.

Crafting seems to be the most innovative in the game – at least in implementation. They have gone hardcore on it and made it almost completely resistant to macroing. I mean of course it COULD be macroed. But the effort required to do so would be more than most people would be willing to waste their time doing… But if it gets big enough I am sure there will be someone who will do it anyway. The nice thing about crafting is it seems to be actually worthwhile. Most games have it one of two ways: “Crafted items are pointless because loot will always be better” – like WoW – or “You won’t want anything that wasn’t crafted because those are just pointless trinkets put in the game to make sure you are never without at least SOME gear”.

I am not quite sure where Vanguard lands on this. I know that there is better loot than what I have seen crafted (not a whole lot). But even simple crafted items have bonuses on them too. But how can you beat a game where you can make anything from handles to boats and houses? Not too likely you will loot a house on a dungeon raid. Now is it? At least I really really hope it won’t happen. Apart from the dreaded ‘potential’ crafting it is – like most other things – hampered by an almost impossibly bad set of UI windows to manage it in. And a good addition of several screens showing the same info and looks the same. But don’t show the same details… Well done! Call up Apple and get some UI lessons (before they sell out the last shreds of consistent UI design people).

Now diplomacy is a novel idea. It’s basically a bit like social XP in Dark and Light except here it is a simple card game versus completely inept NPCs. It is a little odd that this part is considered a sphere when harvesting isn’t. It’s not much more involving. But I guess it IS build a bit more into the game… or will be… whatever. One of the problems with this is that while the game is simple it has simply not been worked a lot on. At the beginning of the beta the High Elves capital didn’t have any of it at all. It was only added last week. And consistently it has been broken somewhere in the initial quest line ever since. Each new patch released fixes something only to allow players to progress a couple of steps – if we are lucky – and get stranded again. The carrot here is that we get the first horse free as a reward from this quest line.

As said diplomacy isn’t very hard. It is a basic card game in the line of all those collector games like Magic The Gathering. You build a deck of cards and select what five you want to play any given session with. In the beginning you only have 6 cards that you had no choice in. You then get a couple of quest rewards with where you can choose between a couple of cards. But you are still not able to build a very flexible deck. And this becomes a problem when you suddenly meet an NPC that only have cards that never benefit you while anything you deal benefits him. Unless this happens the NPC AI is too simplistic to be any real challenge. And some of them are outright broken so badly that you can easily beat much more ‘skilled’ opponents. As I see it diplomacy is a gimmick. It will only be used because it is supposedly what allows you to influence towns – and possibly build your own. But that might be a rumor. And for now you can’t even duel against other players. So making it a meta-game for the Magic addicts isn’t really what it is about either.

Frankly I have not all that great hopes for Vanguard. While the last weeks show the developers can hack together something in a hurry. I am somewhat puzzled what they have spend the last years doing. Several areas are supposed to get major overhauls soon. Some of the ‘spheres’ are badly broken and half implemented. And at least one class is getting a lot of changes… It’s two weeks before launch guys. Why didn’t you do this earlier? Also it is clear that the ‘seamless movement’ isn’t quite as seamless. It is very obvious when you are moving from one ‘chunk’ (aka server/cluster) to another… at least the fact you freeze up for around 30 seconds (and sometimes longer) is a nice little hint.

But Age of Judgement is going to play it. And maybe some of the people from SDA too. So I have pre-ordered the collectors edition – I am a sucker for those things. In the end it’s only money. And perhaps the people I play with can make it worth while. But enough about Vanguard for now.

The other game is somewhat better implemented. I cannot say much about it – with the NDA and all. But it does seem remarkable stable and solid for the stage it is in. I can’t remember if I have seen a release date for it yet. But I am relatively confident it is not supposed to be out for a couple of months at least. But while ‘stable’ and ‘solid’ are nice properties of a MMO. It is not what make games fun. And from my current time spend in the game I am not impressed. There is hardly anything new in it. And maybe I am just dumb. But it quickly becomes rather hard to figure out what people actually want you to do in quests. Or rather, how you are supposed to go about doing it. Oh well… I get bored of it after playing less than an hour. So I doubt I will spend a lot of time doing that. But I supposed I gotta milk the opportunity to try it out before release so I can see if I would want to pay for it. Who knows? It may improve!

I also tried out the Myst Online experience a bit. I’ve been a fan of the series but I can’t really see the point of this installation. Basically they moved the the single player experience online and added a bit of interaction with other players. And that SEEMS to be it. There is no real social interaction encouragement as part of the gameplay. So people are just milling around solving the ever increasing number of ages. All this while speaking with friends and helping each other figuring them out. I donno… It’s not what I want out of an MMO. And I LIKE that Myst games have historically had a set story that played with the vision Rand Miller had for the world he created. I can’t see how this can be anything but a step away from that, a bit like Lord of the Rings Online really. I heard there is going to be a new book tho. I think I’ll just read that one.

Of course there is always WoW to fall back on. Can’t really see myself buying the expansion with my current involvement in it. And it is not like it really offers any radical changes to the brain dead endgame of the thing. So I’ll just trot along and see what happens on that front. Blizzard is supposedly already in gear for an expansion for next year tho. Wonder if that will liven things up. While there are some interesting games coming this year. I doubt anyone will knock Blizzard off the throne anytime soon. It’s becoming like the Counter-Strike of MMOs: Lots of people are playing it because it don’t require all that much skill or hardware. But you can still become a ‘big guy’ doing it.

Well perhaps the Lord of the Rings MMO can threaten it a bit. But WoW don’t live on brand recognition alone I think…

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