Tuesday, 22 August 2017

The Secret World: GW2

When GW2 started it looked for a while as though it might follow the development model I've always preferred for MMOs; one where regular, permanent content is continually supplemented by one-off, never to be repeated, "you had to be there" events. It used to be close to the norm for the genre but as commercial success moved MMOs further and further along the mainstream curve, this particular expression of "exclusivity" fell out of fashion.

I consider this not just to be a mis-step for the genre but a fundamental change in its function. Unrepeatable content that yet left an impact that could be seen years later by players who weren't there when it happened was one of the defining features of playing online - that and talking, competing and co-operating with strangers. The shared experience of such events, events which had a beginning, middle and end and which left lasting changes to the landscape or structure of the game, contributed hugely to the sense of MMOs as Virtual Worlds as opposed to merely games.

Mrs Bhagpuss's Charr Mesmer modelling the Catmander Tag
ArenaNet struggled on with this concept for a long while, even after the very first flagship event, The Lost Shores, crashed and burned. The entire first season of The Living Story relied on content that appeared, hung around for a while, then vanished. Often it left the physical environment altered, sometimes in ways that now appear mysterious and strange.

I sometimes wonder what new players make of locations like North Nolan Hatchery or Cragstead, which seem to exist without any in-game purpose. That thought came back to me last night, when Mrs Bhagpuss ported me into the hidden area behind the waterfall in The Desert Borderlands so I could buy my Catmander Tag and Mini.

It occurred to me as I explored the cave behind the waterfall that someone at ANet, possibly a lot of someones, have never given up the fight, even though an increasingly intransigent, demanding segment of the audience, arguably although not necessarily the majority, has, over the course of the last five years, driven the developers into a corner.

The requirement is that everything that's added to the game must remain - at least theoretically - available to everyone forever. It can be gated by whatever means you like - real money, time played, luck - but the possibility that anything there ever was can be yours, whether you've played since launch or started yesterday, is sacrosanct.

A young quaggan misunderstands the Pirate Ship Meta

The most recent example and probably the most cynical (because acquisition is gated by lockboxes purchased through the Gem Store) is the addition of  a vendor that sells signature items from Living Story events that can no longer be replayed. Some of those, like the Selfless and Thoughtless potions, once the rewards for lengthy grinds, remained until now badges of honor - or at least effort - for those who displayed them. Others, like the Minis from Lost Shores, were increasingly scarce, highly valuable trading items on the exchange.

Now you can have them all - in theory, at least. This is ANet's "if you can't beat 'em, exploit 'em" response to the barbarians at the gates. There is, however, a much more subtle, almost subliminal faction quietly at work beneath the surface.

Yellow Catmander puzzles over the futility of life.

As The Living Story limped on into its third season, bound both to instances and a funereal cadence, it began to be supplemented by something known only as "Current Events". These were patched in much more frequently, with no fanfare other than one solitary, enigmatic line in the update notes and sometimes not even that.

They spread by word of mouth (and Dulfy, of course) and they only began to appear in your Quest Journal Achievement List after you happened to stumble across them in-game. I found them to be reliably and consistently more interesting, enjoyable and thought-provoking than the Living Story content itself.

Caution: Moving Parts
These, too, have now been consolidated and codified, hardened into the game as official Achievements accessed through their own tab. Like everything else, they must always be there for anyone who wants them, evermore.

And that's fine, provided there are more unpublicized pleasures to come. ANet have arrived at a bizarre state of doublethink, in which the entire landscape of the game, both in and out of instances, is now, by canon, snapshots in time. Every Map is frozen in stasis. How we as players figure in that or where we can find the part of the game that occurs in "the present" escapes me but I'm sure someone, somewhere understands it.

Against this chaotic, incoherent and unmistakably fudged backdrop, the struggle continues. The weapon of choice for this insurgency? Cats.

I forget exactly when collectable cats began to appear in the game. It was earlier this year, I think. Tyria has always had a lot of cats, along with rabbits, owls, hawks and various other "ambients". They never interacted with players in any way until, suddenly, they did.

Who would notice that a cat had an interactive speech icon when targeted? Someone must have. Then Dulfy knew. Then  we all knew. Knew to speak to cats, to feed cats, to find cats installing themselves in our Home Instances.

Can we watch another channel? I'm bored!

After that, Catmanders. As far as I can tell, this wasn't documented in the Update Notes but somehow, someone knew and word spread fast. There are two Catmander Minis (vanity pets), two Commander Tag Variants (with cat ears) and two Catmander Home Instance spawns, which come with kittens, who do battle with each other.

The Blue Catmander can be purchased near the end of the Alpine Borderlands Jumping Puzzle. The Yellow Catmander is in a hidden cave behind the waterfall in the Desert Borderlands. Dulfy has everything you could possibly want to know.

Television is all very well but you can't beat the thrill of a live performance.
Everything, that is, except anything at all about the amazing cave itself. I always wondered why there was a huge waterfall and an idyllic lake in a hidden corner of what was a) a desert and b) a battleground. I've wandered around there several times, exploring and, naturally, I'd gone behind the curtain of the waterfall, looking for secret caves, because that's what you do when you see a waterfall.

I'd never found one but there was one there. You have to drop down from the top, edge along, drop again, go behind the water, jump up, edge along some more and finally do a little dink and you're in. After I got ported inside, after I'd gosh-wowed all round and taken my screenshots, I came out only to realize I'd forgotten to feed the cat some chilli to get the house pet, so I had to find my own way back in. Even with the video to follow it took me half a dozen attempts.

Catmander inspects the troops at a training session.
What I'm wondering, after all that, is this: was that cave always there? Did some designer, some artist, create that back in 2014/15, just to let it sit there, unknown until now? Was it always filled with quaggans and cats or were they added when someone came up with the Catmander pun and thought it was too good not to use?

There's more: why are all the quaggans children? Where are the adults? Why are the cats being trained to fight? Why are the training dummies all frogs and why do they have buckets over their heads? Why is the quaggan working the puppet theater dressed as a ghost?

Is that a television that quaggan is watching? What does that orrery represent? WHY DOES THIS GAME NOT HAVE A FULLY FUNCTIONING HOUSING SYSTEM?

There is more going on here - more that makes me think, makes me feel I'm somewhere real, for a given value of reality - in this hidden cave than in all the episodes of LS3 put together. Much more.

This is what we were promised. The fight goes on!

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Bleedthrough : GW2

A couple of weeks ago, while I was hanging around in Krennak's Homestead, an NPC dive in Wayfarer Hills that I like to use as a surrogate home when I'm in the area, I was startled to hear a conversation strike up behind me. The Norn family that live there, none of whom I'd ever paid  much attention before, began to run through some kind of comedy routine.

It was a pretty funny little skit and quite a long one, too. I laughed out loud a couple of times but my amusement was heavily outweighed by my confusion and surprise. I mean, I doubt I'd be exaggerating much if I said I'd spent a dozen hours in that hut over the life of the game. I camp there almost every time after I've done The Frozen maw and I frequently afk there to web browse or write a blog post.

Since I have the sound of the game set to continue playing while I'm tabbed out, I can absolutely guarantee that, had the Norn Family piped up, I'd have heard them. I never had until then.

Since then I've heard them exchange the same banter so often I could almost recite it by heart. It starts up every time I enter the lodge and replays often if I stay there. It's gone from amusing to annoying to "I really have to find somewhere else to afk".

It would seem very strange for ANet to have paid writers and voice actors to add this kind of flavor to
such old content so my best guess was that it had long been bugged until something in some patch nudged it working. That explanation didn't entirely convince me but it was the best I could manage.

Anyway, I soon stopped wondering about it as the dialog became part of the soundscape of the game. Then today I happened to be in Plains of Ashford when something happened that surprised me even more.

I'd logged in my Free to Play account to take the screenshots for my Elite Spec Beta post (because reasons) and since I had it logged in I thought I'd check whether F2P accounts are allowed to claim the free promo item currently in the Black Lion Store (yes, they are).

After that I thought I'd just do the Dailies and one of them was Plains of Ashford Events. My F2P ranger is a Charr and I used to love doing my dailies in Ashford so much I once wrote a guide on the subject (albeit the long-lost and much-missed "Kill Variety" kind), so that was too tempting to ignore.

First I went to the cave under the waterfall to spawn the Rampaging Skale. As I was standing there waiting, I thought I faintly heard a sound I'd almost forgotten: Drottot Lashtail demanding devourer eggs.

Drottot is a Charr given the unenviable task of teaching cubs how to catch and raise devourers for the Legions. His charges are sassy, the work is tedious and as far as I knew he'd given up trying about three years ago. Not his choice: he was retired as part of the New Player Experience patch that, among other things, strove to do away with many non-standard events that supposedly sent delicate new players into a tail-spin.

This particular event required you to activate some small devices that look and sound like old-fashioned gramophones in order to distract female devourers so you could break into their nests and steal their eggs. It was fiddly enough that a three-year old child might have taken five or ten seconds to grasp the mechanics so it had to go.

Well, it's back! I did it this morning. It was joyous. So good, in fact, that I did it twice. With other people. Still busy in Ashford on daily day I'm happy to confirm.

Of course, now I'm beginning to doubt my own memory. I can't find any sign that I, or anyone else, ever wrote about the event going away, much less anyone commenting on it coming back. If it wasn't for that absolutely, definitely, for certain sure new to me after five years, dialog in Wayfarer Foothills I'd think I was losing it (whatever "it" is and always assuming I ever had it in the first place).

Oh, and there's this, which does prove things get changed under the hood now and again without ANet coming out and making a big fuss about it.  I note that was also a belated acknowledgement of mistakes made in the New Player Experience.

Co-incidence? I think not.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Playing It By Ear: GW2

Last weekend ANet threw open the gates to the Crystal Desert. Metaphorical gates only. Not, sadly, the actual, huge gates that stand so imposingly and implacably outside the city of  Ebonhawke.

Those massive gates were constructed on the orders of Queen Jennah to bar the route southwards through the desert to Elona, after Destiny's Edge's attempt to kill the Elder Dragon, Kralkatorrik, failed. A more egregious example of bolting the stable doors after the dragon has bolted is hard to imagine.

It takes some beating in the desperate face-saving stakes, too. Having wrecked a perfectly good plan that would have worked if she'd held her nerve, having gotten Snaff killed and half of Ascalon Branded, Jennah apparently thought a big public works project was all it would take to restore confidence in her judgment and authority.

Even as I write this, I find it quite astonishing how annoyed - almost angry - I get just thinking about it all, particularly Logan's desperately poor decision-making and Jennah's imperious arrogance.

Herein lies one of GW2's huge problems: the much-maligned story has huge emotional heft if - and only if - it has been experienced in media outside of the game. By the standards of genre literature (far less those of literature per se) the novel in which all this happens, Edge of Destiny, is little more than a classic potboiler. The prose style is professional in the way of competent work made for hire and it zips along like the shooting script for a movie. No claims could be made on its behalf beyond efficiency and purity of function but those are claims that far outstrip anything ever seen in the story within the game itself.

Nevertheless, I have a strong and lasting affinity to certain characters in the milieu, purely because I read that unexceptional novel. It's why I share Rytlock's deep distrust and suspicion of Logan. It's why I do not trust Jennah in any way, shape or form. It's why I feel Zojja's entirely justified bitterness and anger and it's why I have more faith and affection for Caith than anything she's ever been seen to have done in the Living Story could possibly support.

It goes on. Others, who played through Guild Wars Campaigns over the years (and no doubt read and absorbed a deal of out-of-game lore and story, too), have had little patience or sympathy with the raft of new characters introduced to supersede the familiar faces from that era. The emotional attachments they developed to the characters and lore that ANet, apparently intentionally, chose either to ignore or, worse, to trash in favor of an entirely new cast and direction remain far stronger than any bonds the new, in-game material has been able to forge .

It's taken years for even a grudging affection for one or two of those new actors to build. Possibly only Taimi has a real following, even now. Canach, maybe. The best the rest achieve is tolerance. Maybe some curiosity. Jory and Kas, for example, have one of those soap-opera relationships that make you feel guilty for wanting to know how it's going to turns out (badly, of course). You want to look away but you can't.

All of that keys in to why it is that I've wanted to go through those Ebonhawke gates ever since I first saw them, barred to me, five years ago. When we learned the Path of Fire lay in the same direction I thought we might start our journey there but it seems that's not to be. Instead, we're set to take yet another cut-scene trip on yet another unfeasibly buoyant airship.

All of this went through my mind as I sorted the screenshots from this week's Path of Fire beta. Yes, there's another one. You may have missed it. I nearly did, albeit intentionally. For this one no airships are involved, let alone any opening gates.

It all takes place in either PvP or WvW zones, where you can trial the new Elite weapon skills and specifications for each class. I wasn't going to bother with it at all until I read Jeromai's post, in which he tells us he's not "super keen" either, then goes on to write over two thousand detailed, insightful words about his experience. My interest very mildly piqued I thought I might as well at least take a quick glance...

The first surprise was the loading screen, shown at the top of this post. I'd completely forgotten that ANet recently revamped the entire PvP lobby. Instead of a long-familiar scrubby afterthought it's now as visually sumptuous as any other GW2 location, It has waypoints and POIs and everything. Make GW2 another one to add to Massively OP's list of MMOs obsessed with floating islands.

Distracted, I wandered about exploring for a while looking at the old new stuff before getting around to looking at the new new stuff. I am not going to say much about the PoF elites in any detail - Jeromai covered that already - but I am going to echo his tone, when he says

... the prospect of having to learn too many new tricks is a little scary and intimidating, and not a little depressing...

Yes, it's all a bit much, isn't it? I mean, I love the chaotic rush of a new MMO expansion, when all the old certainties get thrown into the air and come down in tatters and for a brief, breathless while no-one knows any better than anyone else, but there's always a hangover after that party..

That iconoclasm is the good part (the best of which I will miss this time round because the pot will be four days off the boil by the time I get a taste). The less-good comes with the construction of the New Certainties that have to last us for the next two years, or at least until some nervous dev pulls the nerf alarm.

At some point, probably a lot sooner than I'd like, there will be a new Meta for every class. In GW2, that's not merely a metaphor: there will actually be an official New Meta. It will be posted at MetaBattle and you will be asked by any number of authority figures (Guild Leaders, Raid Organizers, WvW Commanders) to go read it and apply it to your character.

Therafter, if you choose to ignore such advice, you will be "off meta" and can expect to be treated accordingly. If you want to get old-style groups - although probably the only place that happens nowadays is for Fractals, I guess - or if you want to raid or do ranked PvP or run with a "serious" WvW guild, there will be homework. And practice.

Fortunately, GW2 remains an extremely open, forgiving environment for mavericks, self-starters, bullheads and slackers. If you solo, you can forget the Meta - any Meta - entirely; it means absolutely nothing to you; carry on as you were, no-one cares. Also, if you play GW2 as originally intended, hot-joining Dynamic Events, being a good ant, very little will change there, either. In the Zerg no-one knows your name - or your build.

The anonymity of crowds doesn't just apply to PvE. In five years of increasingly obsessive WvW play I have never, ever, not one single time, been called out for having the wrong build, class, gear or playstyle. People say it happens but I've never seen it happen to anyone, let alone experienced it myself.

It's not that there's no drive for efficiency. Commanders frequently ask for people to swap to, say, Guardians or Eles because they don't have as many as they'd like. And people do swap, willingly. I've just never heard any Commander ask a specific individual to change when they didn't want to anyway.

Certainly no-one has ever whispered me to suggest I stop running around as an Engineer, firing my Flamethrower randomly in all directions (as I do on my third account sometimes) and swap instead to a class or build that might actually be useful. Or even, failing that, swap to a class I have at least the shadow of an inkling how to play.

Consequently, I'm not going to go as far as Jeromai and say I feel intimidated or depressed by the new elites but I did find myself feeling a little ennui as I tried to read through the new Elementalist line, The Weaver. There's such a lot there to take in. Really, such a lot. I'm not sure I remember signing up for extra tuition.

Recent discussion on GW2 in this part of the Blogosphere has circled around how much more complex an MMO it is than it first appears. You don't by any means have to know or understand anything more than the absolute basics; you can play the game enjoyably without knowing much at all about builds or synergies, but it's becoming ever more apparent that if you do know those things, the game gets quite a lot easier.

There's a nuance to this that we all seem to miss. Jeromai alerted me to it when he described playing an Elementalist or an Engineer in GW2 as being "like playing the piano".

When we argue about what "playing" MMOs means, as we often do, the discussion tends to focus on the balance or imbalance between the dual concepts of play as "fun" and as "game"; no-one ever seems to notice that "play" has that third meaning.

Playing almost any video game is directly analogous to playing a musical instrument. It only takes a few minutes to pick up the basics but countless hours to become a virtuoso. Just to achieve basic competence requires dedication and practice and if you want to play in a group - well, you'll need to rehearse together.

Raids in MMOs add the possibility of playing in an orchestra and require the same degree of discipline. GW2's huge, sprawling open map events are more forgiving. Like the Rockin' 1000, the zerg can carry a few passengers and if one or two are off the beat, well, who's ever going to know?.

At a glance, though, getting to grips with a new PoF Elite spec doesn't look so much like learning a new tune as picking up a new instrument entirely. I don't know that I'm up for that. I can knock out a few tunes on the old elementalist joanna but I'm not entirely sure I'm ready to take up the harpsichord just yet!

Which isn't to say it doesn't all look rather intriguing. In the detail of The Weaver I see a lot of Stability uptime as well as some 50% super-speed and a lot of auto-condi cleanse. As someone who specializes in being slippery and not getting caught, that has real potential I'm keen to explore.

Just not yet. I'm going to skip this beta. I'm interested, yes, but I'm in no hurry. I think I'll wait until the music starts - for real.

Monday, 14 August 2017

From A Distance : GW2

After yesterday's mammoth post and chunky comment section I'm going to attempt to keep this short. We'll see how that goes...

Jeromai has an excellent piece up about GW2's failings when it comes to introducing new or returning players to its particular mechanics. As I was reading it I had a small epiphany about just why I don't seem to experience the same difficulties others do when traveling through Heart of Thorns maps.

I posted a lengthy reply and came here feeling all clever and wise, only to read some of the comments that appeared overnight, after which I realized that my so-called epiphany was in fact a case of me not having been able to see some very obvious wood among a number of extremely large trees.

Here's the thing: I don't melee in GW2. Never have. Not on any character, not on any class.

It's not that I have anything against melee, aesthetically, conceptually, practically or any other adverb. I melee non-stop in EQ2, where I usually play a Berserker. I tanked for years on a Shadowknight in EverQuest and on both a Disciple and a Dread Knight in Vanguard.

Before I ever played GW2, though, I read a lot about it and all the talk of active combat and dodging worried me. I did a bit of research, asked a few questions and when the first beta weekend arrived I rolled a ranger.

Without me he's nothing!

That worked incredibly well. It removed all my apprehensions about GW2 at a stroke. I realized I would be able to play GW2 just like I played EQ or WoW or LotRO, if that's what I wanted, because GW2 had a class with a pet that tanks.

I wrote about it at the time, concluding with this advice: 
I would encourage anyone who found the whole action combat hype too daunting to make a Charr ranger next beta [and] let your pet tank pretty much anything you're likely to want to solo.
That advice still stands (the details I've cut out of the quote, about hunting drakes to craft your own armor and equipping Troll Unguent and Signet of the Wild...well, MMOs change over time). There's a reason why "Bearbow" rangers are looked down on and even laughed at - it's because playing one is choosing to play GW2 on Easy Mode.

I haven't played  a Bearbow ranger for almost five years. I rarely play a ranger at all these days, although Druid is my go-to class for story instances. The thing that carried over from that initial experience, the thing that has stayed with me ever since is this: if the mob can't get to you it can't hurt you.

In GW2 I play ranged. On every class. One of the big advantages of the way the game is set up is that every class can play ranged. Whether every class can also play melee I'm not sure. I haven't tried. They probably can, with the right build.

Jeromai astutely points out that prior to the arrival of Heart of Thorns, the GW2 dungeon meta was Berserker build, stack in a corner, melee cleave. I didn't do dungeons then (I was ahead of my time - now no-one does) so that particular meta passed me by. GW2 is a game very much prone to having "metas" and most of them pass me by so nothing unusual there.

Come here! Yellow stuff bad!

Consequently, when HoT intentionally and by design shattered that meta into a thousand pieces I barely noticed. I arrived in Verdant Brink ready to play the way I always play - stand well back, drop a lot of AEs at maximum range, be ready to get out of Denver at a millisecond's notice.

As I examine this playstyle choice I begin to see just why I find some of Jeromai's detailed accounts of what Mordrem and other mobs actually do to be so surprising. Vile Thrashers, apparently, leave acid trails. Leeching Thrashers heal up to full if you melee them. Who knew? Not me, that's for sure!

And why would I, since I never get close enough to any of them to find out? If I'm traveling I avoid everything I can avoid and use all my tricks to dodge anything I can't. I'm not going to stop and fight any of them. Why would I do that?

If I'm doing events then either I do them with others, in which case someone else can jolly well eat all those CCs, or I pick only the events I can complete comfortably at range. I don't really recall many - possibly any - events that I had to solo.

And yet, soloing is arguably what Heart of Thorns was made for. Certainly I argued that. I wrote about it at some length at the time, in a post wittily entitled "Soloing in Heart of Thorns". In it I suggested that

To me, "soloing" in MMORPGs means having complete freedom to do whatever I choose, while having that choice meaningfully progress my character. It means walking out of the city gate into adventure, alone, and returning, who knows how much later, still alone but stronger, wiser, battle-scarred and proud.
That's not everyone's definition but it's mine and I found HoT matched it perfectly. I summed it up thus:

So, yes, this is solo heaven. For me, anyway. It can be for you. Pick the right class and build. Take your time preparing. Explore until you feel you know how the land lies. Learn your escape routes. Practice your tactics... It's a classic interpretation of the MMORPG solo experience and classics never go out of style.
 And that's exactly how I still feel about it. Only with this caveat: pick ranged.

If you love to melee, if you're never happy unless you 're getting all up in the mob's grill, maybe HoT isn't the best fit. MMOs generally don't come in one size fits all, though. You do need to adapt.

Stick to what you know.

That's where builds and all that jazz come in. Again, Jeromai has some pertinent observations and good advice. You really should have some kind of stun break loaded and these days a condition cleanse too.

Tyler comments 

 "I don't think I've ever even had a stun break equipped on any of my characters. There's nothing in the game that says you should, and in most MMOs such things are considered to only be relevant in PvP, so it never even occurred to me it might be necessary".

He's right. I never used to have one either. I do now but it has nothing to do with Heart of Thorns.

I hate changing builds and I hate changing spells/abilities. I like to set my characters in stone when they hit max level and by preference they would never change after that point until the game closes down. I might not like changing builds but sometimes I have to.

The last time was when the big Condi change happened. World vs World became almost literally unplayable without a condi cleanse and a stun breaker loaded so I put some in. If I didn't play WvW I wouldn't have bothered but it turns out that choice has also stood me in good stead for Heart of Thorns.

Never mess with those who carry round a fire hose.

In this, GW2 is like every other MMO: it changes, sometimes radically, over time. It also changes across different game modes, at different levels, on different classes and on different maps. What worked in Wayfarer Foothills might not work in Frostgorge and what worked there could falter in Verdant Brink. Tactics that work for a Guardian might not have the same happy outcome on a Necromancer.

So far, though, in five years, in the open world, at every level, on every class and every map, what's worked best for me is range. Range and perpetual motion. Put those together and you'll stay alive longer. Probably.

Somewhere down the line some smart ANet dev may decide ranged classes are having it far too much their own way. We may get an expansion that favors the good old axe to the face approach. If so, I'll have to deal with it. Until then I'll be the one at the back, throwing fireballs.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Taking It Easy : GW2

The Path of Fire demo kicked off a very interesting discussion at Endgame Viable and Why I Game. It followed on, in a way, from another conversation about GW2 that was already going on over at Aywren Sojourner. Some of the insights, explanations and observations in the various posts and comments helped to  clarify a few things I'd felt or suspected about the game but hadn't quite been able to put into words until now.

It's long puzzled me that GW2 can both have a reputation as one of the most casual mainstream MMOs, demanding a low level of player skill and little in the way of dedicated discipline and organization, while simultaneously being castigated for the unforgiving difficulty of almost all of its high-level open world content.

As soon as the first cohort of players started to trickle into Orr, five years ago, the complaints began: the mobs were too tough, there were too many of them, they didn't play fair. Orr got a good few thumps with the nerf bat and the complaints quietened down, only to return with just about every new piece of max-level content or large-scale, open world set piece event we've seen since.

Karka Queen, Molten Core, The Marionette, Tequatl, Three Headed Wurm,  Scarlet's Invasions, The Battle for Lion's Arch... you name it, it had to be nerfed then nerfed again before the mass of GW2 players would accept it. Usually then only with very bad grace. Meanwhile, even as ANet developers found themselves routinely de-fanging the content they'd just provided, the forums were filled with seemingly endless complaints that the game was "too easy", that what it needed was "more challenge".

Come round. Come round, I say! I never had this much trouble with the glider...

Out of that morass of disconnected discontent a tainted flower grew: Heart of Thorns. GW2's first expansion managed to satisfy almost no-one. It was perceived by many as being far more arduous and challenging than they either expected or wanted. The inevitable nerfs, when they arrived, served mostly to alienate the minority who found the difficulty, for once, tuned to their own more rarefied tastes.

By the time HoT had been knocked, dragged and pummeled into shape it was all but too late. Players from both camps had already left, in droves. The lasting impression was of a botched and misjudged attempt to turn a casual game into something more "hardcore". There was a change of leadership and with it a change of direction. Path of Fire will be the biggest test so far of whether that change has worked in favor of the long-term health of the game or run counter to it.

All of which is fine and dandy but how and why did GW2 in general and HoT in particular manage to acquire such a mismatched set of reputations in the first place? If you scan the current #3 thread on GW2's General Discussion forum, which looks forward to the forthcoming expansion and asks: "Has ANet Remembered the Casuals?", you'll find a wealth of comments like these:

"I took a year off too because how terrible HoT was and how I hated every minute playing in those maps".

"HoT made it clear that Anet was moving away from it’s casual base to cater to other gamer demographics"

 "Gw2 is one of the most casual friendly mmos".

"GW2 is the most casual player friendly MMORPG I ever played"

It can't be both great and terrible for casual players all at the same time, can it? Well, yes it can, not least because, as one of the most lucid and well-written comments explains, "while you may self-identify as casual, there is little agreement among all who so identify".

"Are you sure you're the Pact Commander? You look awfully small..."

Talking about whether a particular MMO is or is not "casual friendly" isn't going to get us far when we can never agree on a definition of "casual". That's always been a stumbling block to my own understanding of why it should have been that I, playing with what I would self-identify as a casual mindset, experienced Heart of Thorns as a liberating, exhilarating explorer's paradise, while others, similarly self-identifying, found it a constraining, frustrating turn-off.

UltrViolet, returning from a long sabbatical from the game to give the demo a run, found it confusing and frustrating in a whole number of ways, most of which I heartily endorse. As an advertisement for the game it has all the welcoming warmth of a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. What I found particularly interesting, however, was his description of the combat experience:
"It is a typical GW2 fight–totally chaotic, a million bad guys throwing a million AoEs and other effects at you all simultaneously."
Exactly, in other words, just what I love most about combat in GW2. It's explosive, colorful, exuberant and above all utterly chaotic. It's the kind of combat I think many of us dreamed about back when we were root-rotting treants in West Karana, standing motionless, casting a spell every thirty seconds or so then sitting down to meditate so we'd have enough mana to cast another thirty seconds later.

GW2's frenetic, rolling, dodging, mayhem, where everyone is healing herself and everyone else, where buffs last seconds and part of the gameplay relies on battle-rezzing anyone who goes down, is exactly the kind of free-rolling, liberating fun many of us could never even have dared to imagine, back when we were huddled together in the corner of a dank cave beneath the Crypt of Nadox, shaking with fear as we prayed our tank could hold agro and no roamers would wander along and add.

Okay, we're here. Now what? And remind me - who are you, again?

So why isn't everyone loving it the way I do? Jeromai can explain:
"The number one killer of people used to other MMOs – staying stationary or facetanking mobs in GW2. Every time.

You can observe this phenomenon on Twitch or if you watch newbies in the lowbie zones and so on. They lumber up and just STAND THERE because that’s what they do in other MMOs to attack. They expect a tank to deflect the aggro and a healer to take care of their health.

You’re thinking, “OMG move move too much damage incoming you can’t heal that up with your self heal OMG red circle why u stand there still plz MOVE”

Couple minutes later, they fall over. RIP."
Well, no wonder. No wonder people are finding it hard. No wonder they aren't enjoying themselves. I had no idea.

After all, why would I? Here's my description of how I play, from my own comment at Why I Game:
"My tactics, if you could flatter them with such a name, are to fire off every ability on my hotbar as often as it becomes available, while moving constantly. I don’t just dodge all the time, I run about, jump on objects, strafe and generally behave like a toddler on a sugar rush who just peed up against an electric fence".
It's a slight exaggeration. I don't always do that. If the situation requires it, I can be more tactical and anyway I do have a few channeled skills that require me to stand still. In general, though, I like to keep moving.

It's not a new thing for me. I didn't just start playing like this when GW2 came along. The first MMO I remember allowing me to cast and move at the same time was Vanguard; I believe it was one of the key reasons I loved that MMO so much and still do.

Since Vanguard arrived a decade ago I have wanted, even expected, my characters to be in almost constant motion during combat. It's the MMOs that don't allow it which seem somehow off-kilter.

Don't ask me. I just got here.

Once I began to think about this I realized something. Although I shy away from "Action MMOs" that use center-screen or reticule targeting systems and rely on pounding the mouse keys for attacks, it's not the "action" part I dislike. Not at all. Yes, I really hate not having proper control of the mouse and I can't abide having to hit keys for specials, but it's the method I'm objecting to, not the intent or the outcome.

GW2 has all the flexibility, all the dynamism of that kind of set-up and yet I can play it exactly the way I prefer, using the keyboard for nothing but movement and conversation and the mouse for the purpose God intended - clicking hotbars. It feels somehow natural - right - in a way no other MMO has, probably, since Vanguard.

On a slightly different but related topic, commenter Athie said something pertinent in a thread following the post by Aywren I linked right at the start. Referring to Auric Basin, she said

"...this isn’t an RPG zone. It’s a team action game. The story of the zone is: we win or we lose... GW2 is now a grindy action game with great casual grouping and wonderful art."

That description does have a ring of truth about it. Certainly, the "story", such as it is, has less and less relevance: as Jeromai says:
"I think regular GW2 players are starting to block out the story instances out of self defence..The narrative is prosaic and not very memorable, involves some chatter with some NPC you kinda knew once and see every six months when a new story instance is released, and some fight or other. Plot? Eh, whatever, it’s just a cardboard reason to get us from point A to B".
The thing is, I never wanted a story to begin with. And while I was nervous about playing an "action" MMO, it turned out I took to the particular mechanics of GW2 like a quaggan to water. I love the dodging and running and the constant movement. I love the self-reliance and I also love the big events that demand a lot of people, organizing spontaneously, to complete.

GW2 gives me the excitement of action rpg gameplay without the annoyance of action rpg controls. It gives me the camaraderie and sense of satisfaction of raiding without the inconvenience and responsibility of raid schedules or guilds. No wonder I find the game so exceptionally casual friendly.

For a particular value of "casual", that is. One that just happens to have my number.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Path Of Fire Preview - Color Me Impressed

Beta weekend. Demo. Preview. Call it what you will, the doors are open. Last time we did this, when we caught the beta bus that was bound for Heart of Thorns, you needed a pre-order to board. This time you don't need a ticket at all. Just jump on.

Okay, it's not quite that simple. Before you grab a raptor and roam the desert you have to jump through a few hoops. First you have to make a new character. Then you get to watch a rather nice cut scene while you take an airship ride from Lion's Arch to Crystal Desert.

I got the feeling I was missing some plot here. Maybe there's a pre-expansion lead-in we're not seeing. I hope so . If not it seems a bit of an abrupt transition form the end of the last Living Story. The view's nice, anyway.

Next comes what is presumably the first segment of the expansion's storyline. There's a lot of fighting, a lot of fire and it's all very orange. You get a mount. It was easy enough but I could have done without it. I just wanted to get to the real map. 

Once the flames die down you begin to see just how gorgeous this thing is going to be. The scenery is astonishingly lovely - and we're only in a quarry!

I wanted to explore the mine workings but this is one of those story instances that warns you you'll be summarily ejected if you deviate from the program. I hate being on rails. I don't have that kind of tunnel vision. Okay, I'll stop.

After a bit of business with Kasmeer and Rytlock, which I found very interesting and amusing enough that I laughed out loud, twice, the story segment concludes and the real doors open.

Blimey, Charlie! It was night when I arrived and it stayed night until I left which seemed like about an hour but can't have been, can it? The city, Amnoon, is stunning. It's mostly the color palette and the lighting, I think. I just gawped.

And gawped. And took screenshots. And ran around and gawped some more. The desert sky at night, the stars and the moon, the sea, the clouds... I'm not sure you even need gameplay with visuals like these.

There is gameplay, though. Plenty of it. And it's the same as you're used to if you've played GW2 in the last year or so. There's something to do in every direction, some event to complete, heart to fill out, Mastery or Hero Point to get, Champion to kill...

Or all of them at once. Here's a snapshot I took mid-battle. Someone had triggered a Djinn at a Hero Point and while we were killing him a Champion Hyena for one of the new Bounty Hunts got involved, so we had the two of them on the go, when a Veteran (or maybe it was a Champion) Hydra wandered over the hill and thought he'd have a go at us as well.

All good fun until someone loses a head, as I think I heard the Hydra say. And enough for me for a first look. I saw enough to know that I'm going to have a great deal of fun exploring and I'll probably need to buy a new Hard Drive just to store all the screenshots.

Not sure I'll be doing any more of the "beta". I don't want to take the edge off and there's always that niggling terror in the back of my mind - this might be the time a precursor decides to drop.

Looking good, though, ANet. Looking really good.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

I'm Looking At The Big Sky : Guild Wars

After all the fuss and bother it took to get Guild Wars up and running again, I thought I ought to buckle down and play for a while.

I'd already logged my Dervish in for a few minutes to take screenshots for yesterday's post, which briefly entailed a trip into an "explorable area" as instances are called there, and it only took a few seconds of combat for me to remember how much I disliked the class. The question was whether to make a brand new character or go with someone I already had sitting around.

I recalled that there was a fairly long slog through an extended tutorial to get to Kamadan, the starting city for Nightfall, which put me off the idea of starting fresh. Plus, the whole point of doing this is supposed to be to run quickly through the storyline to get up to speed before Path of Fire, which, you'd imagine, would be easier to do on a max-level character.

The account I have linked to my GW2 account is a new one, though, not my original Prophecies account, so I didn't really have a lot of choice. Or any. There's the Dervish (level 4), a Necromancer (level 1) and a Ranger/Elementalist and that's it.

The R/E, fortunately, is level 20 and ranger and ele are two of the three classes I vaguely remember how to play (the third being Monk). She was last seen taking an extended vacation in Lion's Arch so I woke her up she and wandered around LA aimlessly for a while trying to work out how to get from Tyria to Elona.

That turned out to be mindlessly simple. Click on the Ship icon on the map and take the Travel option. I'd forgotten that GW1, like GW2, uses instant map travel. As Telwyn says, when you return to an old MMO, sometimes getting started isn't so easy. It all comes back as you play, I find, but it can take a while.

For me the first problem is often my bags. They are always full. Chances are, one of the reasons I stopped playing the last time was that I ran out of storage space. What's more, if there'd been an easy way to fix it I would already have taken it.

Starting an expansion with bags already crammed just isn't an option but luckily there's one big advantage to a short visit to an MMO where you know you won't be staying: you're free to be ruthless. I sold everything the merchants would take, which wasn't a lot because GW1 merchants are pickier than most. I salvaged some of the rest and sold the salvage and what was left after that  I destroyed.

Which still left me with a bank full of minis, elixirs and other stuff I didn't want to lose. So I fell back into the age old trap; I had a lot of free character slots so I made a bank mule.

The salient fact I'd forgotten when making this stellar decision is that the starting village has no bank. Can there be any creature more forlorn than a bank mule with no bank to lean on? At least I found the option to skip the tutorial - a weaselly option, which still requires you to do some of the tutorial anyway, but I got that done in a few minutes. A couple of swaps back and forth between characters and I had my R/E with plenty of bag space, ready to go.

Only... go where? No-one wanted to give her any quests. Nothing seemed to be showing on the map. I leafed through my quest journal but I didn't see anything in there. So I did what I always do - set off into the countryside to see what trouble I could stir up.

Guild Wars is an odd duck as MMOs go. There has always been a debate over whether it's really an MMO at all.

It has a lot of non-combat hub areas - cities, villages, camps, halls - where players can mingle in true MMO style but everything else happens in "Explorable Areas" - instances by any other name. You can form a group in a hub and enter an EA together or you can go in solo (which in Guild Wars means surrounded by NPC henchmen, heroes, pets and other hangers-on; see someone playing "solo" in GW1 and you could easily think you were watching a raid).

Explorable Areas differ from instances in other MMOs in that they form a genuine open world - of a kind. They are geographically contiguous, by and large, and if you can fight your way through them you can eventually explore your way across the entire map.

I did that for a while, getting as far as Jokanur Diggings before I decided I was wasting my time. Okay, not really, because I was having fun. Explorer archetype - represent! It just wasn't getting me anywhere with the whole "follow the storyline" project, since no NPC anywhere I went wanted to give me anything more than a paragraph of flavor text.

At this point I felt I needed outside help so I went to the wiki. Just as well I did. Even with the full walkthrough for Nightfall to refer to at every stage I got stuck several times. NPCs didn't seem to be where the quest text suggested. The green asterisk that marks the place you need to go next on the in-game map sometimes seemed to lead to a dead end. When I did get to where I needed to be I couldn't always work out what I was supposed to be doing there.

All in all it was one of the more confused, less coherent starts to a campaign that I've seen. Not unenjoyable, though. Being level 20 and fighting level 6 mobs, with Ogden, Jora and MOX, Heroes all, alongside, certainly made things zip along. I'm not sure I'd have had as much fun if I'd been level six myself, as presumably it was intended I should have been.

In a couple of hours or so I got as far as the final quest in the first region, Istan. By then the mobs were in the high teens and it wasn't a cake-walk any more. A few retro-familiar names cropped up - Kormir, Varesh, Abaddon. No sign of Palawa Joko yet. I think he'll show up in the next region, Vabbi.

For a twelve-year old game, Guild Wars looks remarkably good. The graphics, which were generally well-received back in 2005, have aged well.

Elonia, the game's Africa analog, is impressive. The Elonian landscapes are attractively sparse, geologically and environmentally varied and occasionally stunning. The skies are particularly fine. I'm quite pleased we're headed that way in GW2.

I took a lot of screenshots although the perennial GW1 photographer's problem persisted, namely all those myriad companions, restlessly jogging from hither to yon, spoiling every composition. I figured out some workarounds for that and managed a few uncluttered vistas. Getting the team to pose for a group shot, though... you might as well ask a dozen monkeys to form an orderly line.

I was struck by how much, visually, GW2 has taken directly from the older game. The wooden scaffolding along the Cliffs of Dohjok, for example, is almost exactly like the scaffolding used in the reconstruction of Lion's Arch after the Scarlet War.

This does make me feel the attempt to run through Nightfall before Path of Fire arrives is worthwhile. Given that the current development team is actively promoting the idea that there will be nostalgia triggers baked in, might as well give them something to trigger.

Now I just need to rally the troops and it's onwards to Vabbi we go!

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