Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Over, Under, Sideways, Down : GW2

Over the years, one of the regular criticisms I've heard about GW2 is how the very concept of "Map Completion" undermines any genuine sense of exploration. How can it be a game for true explorers, the argument goes, if every Point of Interest is marked on the map - literally?

The truth, of course, is that map completion isn't for Explorers at all - it's for Achievers. Those people who love ticking things off a list and getting a badge at the end to say they ticked them all.

If Explorers complete maps it's by default. Sheer nosiness leads them into every last crevice, cave and corner and if those little boxes tick themselves along the way. well that's how serendipity works. I came across an excellent example of this yesterday in Crystal Oasis.


I hadn't set out to explore anything. I was actually looking for one of the new ranger pets. For Path of Fire I've been trying to look up as little as possible out of game and although I've had my eyes open for them since day one, so far I have only spotted one of the Juveniles, the Jacaranda.

Then one day, while I was following the storyline on my Elementalist (something else I hadn't planned on doing but which just somehow happened while I was meaning to do something else) I caught sight of the Juvenile Sand Lion as I was running past. I made a mental note of where it was and a couple of days later, when I next logged my druid in, I took him over to get it.


Should have taken me a couple of minutes. Turned out to be more like three hours. First I got caught up in some events, then I saw a chest up a cliff in a cave, then I noticed the huge "haven't been killed in a while" bonuses on the mobs in the caves so I farmed them, then I began bunny-hopping up some nearby cliffs to see where they went...

An hour or so later, as I found myself flapping along on my griffin, I spotted something below me that looked hauntingly familiar. Swooping down, I landed on a rope and bamboo bridge that looked for all the world like something out of The Bazaar of the Four Winds, the long-lost, much-missed home of the Zephyrites.

At this point I got all excited. Was this where the remnants of the Zephyrite airship fleet ended up after the debacle in Dry Top? It's always been clear that not all the ships came down there but we've had no news of where they might have gone.

First I climbed to the very, very top of the bamboo structures, poking into every nook, using my griffin, my glider and my bunny to get as high as I could. I saw paper lanterns and familiar platforms. This had to be Zephyrite work.


Nothing I found explained how it might have come to be there so I descended again to see if there were clues at ground level. Which is where I discovered not only clues, but NPCs talking about the mysterious people who'd built these structures and how they'd left en masse in a flotilla of airships, never to be seen again. I also learned how the abandoned town had become a home for refugees fleeing the conflict in the South.

And finally, right at the bottom, beside the road, I found a Heart, one of the pieces of busy-work that GW2 uses as a quest substitute. Also one of the things required for Map Completion, marked on the map, pointed to by NPC Scouts and pinged to your attention by the UI whenever you get close.


What's more, I'd been in the town before: several times. With my both druid and my elementalist. What I had never done during any of those visits was what Telwyn so astutely recommends we should all do when we come to a place we've never been before: look up.

Thus it was that I came to discover the original home of the Zephyrites, before they took the winds in their unfeasible wooden craft. It was an evening of discovery, excitement and above all exploration. Yes, I left with a box ticked but the session was anything but a box-ticking exercise.

That's how GW2 works best for explorers: if you come at it sideways. Or from above. Or below. Any damn way but by following the map.


And then I went and got my pet!

Three more to find (I think). Might have them by Wintersday at this rate.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Travel Across Norrath Fast And For Free! (Conditions May Apply) : EQ2

All MMORPGs are fiendishly complicated. Even the newest and freshest can be confusing and overwhelming but once you're a few years in and a few expansions up you don't just need an instruction manual - you need an encyclopedia.

Fortunately, most MMOs that generate even the smallest degree of traction with an audience soon develop just that: a wiki. Wikis are great. I rely on them. They have one big shortcoming though: you can only look something up on the wiki if you know - or at least suspect - it exists.

As the responses to my post about GW2's LFG tool demonstrated, you can be a very experienced and knowledgeable player with high level characters and hundreds, if not thousands, of hours played yet  still be unaware of significant mechanics and systems in the MMO you're playing. I seem to find some new thing I didn't know about, but which has apparently been around for months or even years, every week or two.

My latest revelation comes from EQ2 and since I know there are a few people reading this blog who play I thought I'd share it. It was a big surprise to me and it's something that's going to come in very handy indeed.

With EQ2 Wire going into retirement and the Zam network having mothballed its EQ2 site, one of the few news sources still up and running is Niami Denmother's venerable and invaluable EQ2 Traders. It's always been the go-to for information and news on everything to do with tradeskills and decorating but it often pops up nuggets of more general interest.

One such is yesterday's post on Fast Travel. Now, I did know that EQ2 has a form of fast travel that's almost identical to GW2's waypoint system but I'm guessing that even that may be a surprise to some regular players. For a while now, since 2013 I believe, it's been possible to open your map, click an icon on the map and be transported there instantly - or as instantly as loading times allow, anyway.

Even though it's the exact same system I use every day in Tyria I've never used it in Norrath for one simple reason: it costs Station Cash each time. Not much SC, just a smidge, but still. It's always seemed like a bit of a waste, although given that I acquire SC far faster than I ever spend it I'm not quite sure in what context it would be "wasteful" to use it even on such a minor convenience.

Well, as of this evening, when I read the EQ2 Traders post, that concern is flipped on its head. It seems that unlimited, free use of the Fast Travel system has for some time been one of the perks of  All Access membership. Which I have.

I just logged in to try it and it works just fine. Simply open the map and click the rightmost icon at the top of the screen, the odd thing that looks a bit like a feathered head-dress but which reveals itself on mouseover as "Quick Access Teleport". From there you get another map to select the zone you want.


Next the zone map appears with the same orange feather thing marking every available travel point - bells, spires, druid rings and so on. Click the location you desire and confirm you really want to travel and off you go!

Couldn't be simpler. Except apparently it could, because according to EQ2 Traders there's a command you can macro. Only I tried it and I can't get it to work. And even if I could, then I'd probably need to explain how to make Macros in EQ2, which is a whole other post entirely...

Anyway, there it is for what it's worth: free Fast Travel for subscribers Members. No more using my Anchor of Wanderer's Dock to get to a bell, then using that bell to go Dropship Landing in Moors of Ykesha if the final destination is somewhere you can only get to by Spire or Ring.

Wish I'd known that before I did all nine of Yun Zi's quests!

Friday, 13 October 2017

Using GW2's LFG Tool For Fun And Profit

Guild Wars 2 is an MMO which, by design and intent, relies more heavily than most on co-operation between players. In large part the underlying ethos of the game rests on the assumption that players will help each other as a matter of course. For that to happen they need to be able to find each other.

Almost all content in GW2, from the smallest local event to the mightiest of World Bosses, scales to some degree but by no means everything is intended to be soloable or even single-groupable. Many major events or event chains, like Tequatl, Triple Trouble or the Orr Temples, call for the equivalent of a raid force, while map-wide metas, found in just about every map added in the last three years, are most successful when everyone on the map joins in.

Click me!

Back in 2012, when the game launched, the expectation seemed to be that there would just somehow always be enough players around to get things done in a busy, bustling world where "Dynamic Events" popped all the time. That worked well enough for a while but when the first wave of explorers reached Orr they soon discovered that more organization was needed to succeed in the increasingly lengthy, complex event chains they found there.

Some of these are more useful than others...
At that time, the population was spread across a large number of individual servers but even then there were provisions for players to server-hop using "Guesting", a now all-but-forgotten feature of GW2 that ANet promoted heavily before launch but didn't actually get around to adding to the game until 2013. Guesting was intended to allow friends to play together even if they happened to be on different servers but players soon worked the system into a de facto group-finder for large-scale or hard-to-find events.

For a while that worked well enough, albeit in a make-do and mend, Heath Robinson fashion. There was even an out-of-game website that monitored which Orr Temples were open so players could readily Guest to servers where the vendors they needed were available.

All that changed in the spring of 2014 with the coming of the Megaserver. Server identities were
retained for World vs World but in every other respect all GW2 players occupied the same gamespace. Except not really.

We don't know how many people play GW2 or what the concurrencies are. Neither do we know, exactly, the population capacity of the individual maps. We do know, however, that even before the base game went F2P, sales were numbered in the millions, while the cap on an individual map is in the low hundreds. Added to that, the population doesn't spread itself evenly: it clumps.

This is the one I use most
To accommodate increased demand when a World Boss spawns or a popular event chain begins, the Megaserver technology spins up extra instances of specific maps as required. It also closes them down when players move on to the next feeding frenzy, warning those that remain that the map is underpopulated and bribing them with an experience bonus if they choose to be redirected to a busier instance.

You can sometimes see the evidence of just how many instances of a popular map are available at once if you hang around after whatever big event drew people there finishes. I've been redirected up to five times from instance to instance of Frostgorge Sound as the The Claw of Jormag is defeated slightly out  of sync by succeeding maps.

While Guesting still works and although there are a few arcane ways to influence which instance of a map you spawn into, Megaservers effectively put an end to elective map-hopping. Fortunately, ANet moved to replace the system players had evolved with an increasingly sophisticated and effective Looking For Group tool.

Three in the morning on the West Coast
but there's plenty happening in Vabbi
Unfortunately, it appears from comments and questions I often hear, both in and out of game, the LFG system doesn't seem to be nearly as well-known or understood as it should be. That's a shame, because, after several years of iteration, it's one of the most flexible, effective LFG systems I've used in any MMO.

It's so good, in fact, that knowing how to use it can be a game-changer, literally and figuratively.  There's a detailed explanation of how it works on the wiki but it makes it sound more daunting than it actually is. Instead, I recommend logging into the game and playing around with it.

Just click on the second icon from the left on the row at the top left of your screen, the one that looks like a bunch of heads. That opens the "Contacts and LFG" window. Then click on the second icon down, the magnifying glass, which opens LFG itself.

From there you can see a list of categories, each of which opens into a further list of sub-categories. Most of them are self-explanatory, although your guess as to what "Adventurers Guild" or "Fountains of Rurikton" might mean is as good as mine.

I don't know who Aerl the Silent is
and it appears no-one else does either.
The relevant one for most casual players trying to find active maps for big events is the very first on the list, "Open World". It lumps the base game into two categories, which is where you'll find groups or squads doing the Orr Temples (yes, people still do them), Champ Trains (yes, they still exist) and the like. Below that comes "World Bosses", very useful if you want the biggies like Jormag or The Shatterer, or to find where the WB Train is right now (there's always one running somewhere).

After that you'll see a separate entry for every map added to the game since Dry Top. With all those maps having some form of mapwide meta, finding a currently active map can be essential if you're doing more than just pottering.

The LFG tool is easy to understand and intuitive to use but there are some important aspects that won't be immediately obvious. Firstly, don't worry if, like Aywren, you find initiating contact with strangers stressful. In LFG no-one expects you to socialize. Or speak.

Things can be as specific as you like
Indeed, they don't even expect you to stay grouped. The primary function of the Open World section of LFG is to allow you to find an instance of the map where people are trying to get a specific thing done. Groups or, more commonly, Squads, are formed first and foremost to bring people to that map, a practice known as "Taxiing".

The LFG entry will often say "Taxi" in the  description. The idea here is that you click and join the squad and use it to transfer to the active map. You may then leave the squad. Sometimes the description will even ask you to leave when you're safely in the map because the map can hold more than one squad's worth of people and the squad is merely a conduit to be used until the map is filled.

The key thing to remember here is that when you join the squad you may not immediately arrive in the right instance. If, for example, there are 30 people in the squad but the little icons for 25 of them are greyed out, you're in the wrong instance.

LFG is mostly LFS these days
That's normal. You just need to right-click one of the greyed-out icons and select the option to join that person in their map from the drop-down menu. (Remember that whilst you can join a squad from anywhere, you have to be in the relevant map to swap to another instance of that same map - if you want to do Tequatl you must be in Sparkfly Fen, for example).

You may have to do that more than once to find the right instance because players in the squad may be spread across several at the time you join. Keep going until you hit the one where most of the icons in squad are active not greyed-out.

You may also find that the main instance is full and won't let you join. If you really want to do the event, don't give up. Keep clicking on one of the icons in the full instance, especially if you can see from squad chat that the event has begun. People go link-dead and drop out or have to leave for whatever reason all the time; in events lasting anything from ten or fifteen minutes (Tequatl) to an hour or more (Dragon's Stand) there's a good chance you'll get in eventually.

If you open LFG to look for a map for a particular event and there isn't anything showing, don't be afraid to start a party or squad for it yourself. Just click on "Advertise Your Group" at the bottom of the window, write a description and off you go.

It pays to advertise
Anyone can form a party or a limited squad of up to ten people (technically known as a Raid Squad). For the full 50-strong squad you have to own a Commander tag, which costs 300 gold. It's not worth considering unless you play a lot, I'd say. I have one and I've found it very useful on occasion but it's far from essential.

Obviously if you're starting a party for something small and specific you may have to run it as well, just as you would in any MMO but if its a big event then, as before, don't worry that it will mean you have to lead or organize or chat if you don't want to - you can make it clear in the description that you're just taxiing people in to get things started. Once a critical mass of people forms, some born leader will step up and take over - they always do.

I'm sure there's more about LFG that I've forgotten so please chip in with a comment if I've missed something important or obvious. The main thing is to be aware that the LFG tool exists and that, to a considerable degree, the community uses it to make the game work.

If you're finding it a struggle to get content done, if you're not seeing the events you need or there don't seem to be people around to join in when you do find them, it's entirely possible that the solution to all those problems is just a click or two away.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

The Catbird Seat : GW2

The main reason I pushed forward to the end of Path of Fire's story so quickly was to get my griffon mount. That's not to suggest the griffon is a reward for finishing the storyline. It's not. Would that it were so simple.

No, completion of the main story is merely the prerequisite to open the first Collection that begins a sequence of what any other MMO would call "quests". And they are quests; of course they are.

Seriously, at this point in GW2's development the insistence on avoiding the Q word is nothing less than a fetish. The "Achievement" list is the quest journal, the events window in the upper right corner of the screen is the quest tracker, anyone asking questions in map or guild chat talks about "quests". Only Anet themselves cling to the tattered fig-leaf that supposedly hides the all too plain fact that in this respect at least their game did not break any molds or shatter any paradigms. Rather, after a brief and huffy bid for individuality, it turned around and meekly followed the herd, pretending it wanted to go that way all along.

The Griffon is the fifth of four Mounts in the expansion. Its existence was kept under wraps throughout the short beta and never mentioned in the PR blitz leading up to launch. Once the expansion went Live the existence of the Griffon mount remained a secret for, oh, nearly a day. Inside a week twenty-five thousand players owned one.


I had to wait a little longer than that but I have one now. In theory my quest (yes, I'm going to call it that) should have begun when I came across one of the clues that only begin to appear when your account gets flagged as Story Complete. The appearance of mysterious items in your loot, things like "A Strange Feather" or "A Strange Pellet of Bones and Fur" is supposed to lead you to Beastmaster Ghazal in the Garden of Sebhorin in Vabbi and thence to the Remains of the Last Spearmarshall, a talking corpse on a plateau, where the whole thing really kicks off.

In practice, since I already knew about the mount and the quest from numerous discussions in both guild and map chat, I didn't wait for the feather to drop. Instead I called up Dulfy's truly excellent guide and went straight to the fallen spearmarshal.

I didn't think to note down exactly how long the whole questline took to finish but I did it in several sessions across most of the week so it must have lasted several hours. I imagine it would have taken a lot longer without the guide to follow but the in-game instructions are reasonably clear and once you get the feel for the kind of places the eggs are hidden it's not exceptionally difficult to predict where you're likely to find them.


I have previously described the Path of Fire expansion as one giant jumping puzzle, which is kind of true and kind of not. It would probably be more accurate to describe the entirety of the open world covered by the five new maps as one giant Vista. There's little need for the kind of precision, dexterity or nerve sometimes required to complete GW2's official Jumping Puzzles but doing almost anything, anywhere, requires the kind of loose scramble previously confined to filling out those little map flags.

It turns out that suits me fine. I always loved Vistas. I've loved climbing in MMOs since the days early in the century when I discovered you could scramble across the roofs of Felwithe. There used indeed to be almost a cult of climbers within MMOs, people who would spend hours trying to find ways to reach places the developers never intended them to find, just so they could take screenshots and post them on forums to prove they'd done it.

That kind of organic, geographical, architectural exploration seems to me to be fully in tune with both the spirit and the history of the genre in a way designated Jumping Puzzles are not. Incorporating climbing into a quest seems fair and proper, whereas insisting on completion of an actual JP very much would go very much against the grain.


The many eggs you need to collect for the Griffon quest are placed atop pillars and cliffs that require some thought and ingenuity to reach. I loved it. Even with the guide to follow it necessitated a deal of creative thinking and puzzle-solving. Perfect explorer content in other words. Just as I enjoyed the Ascended Weapon quests in Heart of Thorns a lot more than I appreciated the main story quest, so I had a deal more fun getting my Griffon than following the plot that led to my being able to begin the quest in the first place. It was also in quest of my Griffon that I began, grudgingly, to learn to rely on my lesser mounts.

Path of Fire is an expansion designed around a single feature: Mounts. They are required in a much more intense and sustained manner than its predecessor Heart of Thorns ever required Gliding. It's not only that some areas are literally impossible to access without a Mount (specifically those that are accessible only via Jackal portals); it's more that although you can get to most places by clambering or gliding, it's so much easier to bounce on a bunny or glide on a skimmer; you feel you're wasting your time trying to do it any other way.

I'm getting used to the mounts but I still dislike them. I don't suffer from motion sickness using them so that's not an issue for me. I just find them annoying, clunky and badly designed. They are, however, unavoidable. It's not just the otherwise difficult to access locations: it's becoming increasingly apparent that any activity that isn't undertaken entirely alone is going to demand a mount for the simple reason that mounts move at twice the speed of a player on foot. If you don't crack out a mount you simply can't keep up. Given the size of the maps, if you try to go it on foot, by the time you arrive at an event it's likely to have ended.

I finally had to admit that to myself last night, when I joined a Bounty Train for the first time. Bounties are PoF's answer to Core Tyria's World Bosses,  legendary monsters that drop decent loot and take what would in other games be described as a pick-up raid to kill. Unlike World Bosses, Bounties spawn when players take the bounty from a board in various settlements. This makes them ideal for one of GW2's favorite activities - the zerg train.

I was criss-crossing the Elon Riverlands searching for Mastery Points when someone announced they were tagging up and starting a train to do all the bounties on the map. It took about an hour and it made for a pleasant, entertaining and profitable session. It occurred to me that what Anet have effectively done here is to refine and institutionalize a player invention, which they previously disapproved of so heartily the nerfed it into the ground, the old Champ Train. I guess that's what they mean when they say they improve the game by "iteration".

After I missed a kill because I couldn't keep up with the zerg I caved and mounted up. For general overland travel I'm leaning towards using the Jackal. It's small, it doesn't lurch about and the triple-portal zips it forward at incredible speed. The Raptor yaws and sways like a yacht in a gale, the Springer is useless for anything but going straight up and the Skimmer gets stuck on hip-height ledges. The jackal it is.


For now but not for ever. The unmastered griffon is of limited use for ground travel, launching itself  in short hops then falling back to earth like one of those failed nineteenth-century attempts at powered flight. Once I have all those Masteries done, however, it will be tantamount to a fully functioning flying mount, as you can see in this lovely video.

Lest I give a false impression, I should emphasize there's a lot more to the Griffon quest than just collecting eggs. You have to visit all five maps, complete some specific Events, some of which can't be soloed, some of which have their own pre-reqs. You also need to complete two Hearts on each map to open the vendors, from each of whom you need to buy an item that costs 25 gold, giving the Griffon a monetary cost of 250 gold, which, in GW2, is not pocket change.

All that done you then have to complete an instance set in Kormir's Library, familiar from the main story but now overrun with demons seeking to reclaim it for Abaddon. Dauntingly, you need to kill ten Elites to get ten keys to open ten chests. There's a lot of angst about this on the forums because Elites can be a tough ask solo but I found it to be easy and enjoyable. I also found the chests easy to find. I only had to refer to Dulfy's guide once.


Finally, when you return to the fallen spearmarshal, a boss mob spawns and there's a big fight. To my considerable surprise it's fun and it lasts about as long as a fight should before wearing out its welcome.

All in all I found the Griffon quest to be just about ideally tuned for my personal tastes, preferences and abilities. There's a particular sweet spot for GW2 content that this exemplifies, along with the Caladbolg quest and the HoT Ascended Weapons collections. Curiously, this is also the content that comes with some of the rewards that I find most desirable. I wonder if the same team is behind the design of all of them?

The Griffon quest is definitely the most fun I've had in Path of Fire so far. Now it's back to the steady work of finding those Mastery points and filling out that experience bar. Which, if I'm honest, is pretty good fun too.

Onwards and, eventually, upwards!

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Path of Fire: First Impressions Part 2 - The Story

 

There will be spoilers. Major spoilers. 



UltrViolet has been writing about his experiences as he plows through GW2's Living World Season 3 storyline, the one that leads directly into the main narrative of the second expansion, Path of Fire. I've found his posts most helpful in codifying how the style and execution differs between the content we're used to seeing drip-fed into the live game and the great dollop that's been served up to us in the expansion.

The Guild Wars franchise has always been unusually narrative-driven for an MMORPG. Of course, there was never any real consensus over whether the original GW was an MMO. Arguably, it was more of a series of single-player/co-op RPG campaigns strung together around a limited multiplayer hub and as such, it relied very heavily for its PvE content on linear storylines.

That was something ArenaNet attempted to expand and adapt for GW2, first with the Personal Story and later with the Living Story/World "seasons". It hasn't always worked nor always been well received. The way narrative is handled in Path of Fire could be seen as a reversion to what worked in the older game.

As UltrViolet's account emphasizes over and over again, the live game's storyline is frequently muddled, confusing and unclear. There are a lot of characters. They come and go with huge hiatuses between appearances. It's an approach that requires and expects both a good memory and an extraordinary amount of background knowledge from the player.

Never mind the plot, look at the scenery!
Even if you have both the thread can still be difficult to follow. The plot frequently involves endless digressions and discursions, some of which can only be explained away as filler, serving no narrative function whatsoever. It can feel exhausting and many players wonder if the effort can be worth it.

The Path of Fire's story isn't like that. The central storyline of the second expansion is possibly the most straightforward presentation of a narrative we've seen in the lifetime of the game.

It begins with The Commander (that's you) hot on the trail of the rogue god Balthazar and it ends when Balthazar dies. Along the way just about all you do is chase the god, fight the god's minions, catch the god, lose the god, chase him some more, finally catch him and then kill him. Then you have a party, there are fireworks, a dragon roars, the earth shakes and you get to wonder whether it was worth it after all.

The cast of characters is heavily reduced from the usual entourage to a small posse: Rytlock, Canach, Kasmeer, Taimi. There are a handful of cameos - Ellen Kiel, Marjory - and a smattering of walk-ons, whose names I forget, none of whom make much of an impression or seem likely to return.


Cannach distances himself from Rytlock's views on religion. Literally.
It's easy to see how the cast was chosen. Kasmeer is there to provide a Greek chorus on the retreat of the human gods. Taimi (who mostly appears as a disembodied voice until the end) is too popular to leave out - plus she's the only one who understands what's going on.

Rytlock and Cannach are both major crowd-pleasers. They spit out sarcastic one-liners like they're auditioning for Larry David and there's a great dynamic between the two of them. The actors who voice them are excellent.

I laughed out loud several times, especially at Rytlock's take on religion, but perhaps the most memorable moment wasn't funny at all. The scene where Rytlock comes across Snaff's ruined golem is beautifully handled and genuinely moving. Or, at least, it is for those of us who read the Guild Wars novelization in which Snaff died. And there's the problem.

It seems much of GW2 is now being written and designed with longtimers like Aywren in mind. The whole expansion relies on call-backs to people, places and events, not from the five-year lifespan of GW2 itself but from the much older heritage of the franchise. Without that emotional anchor you might well feel detached, adrift.

Along with a smaller cast and a linear plot comes significantly simpler gameplay. There's a deal of fighting but it's mostly of the same difficulty you'd encounter solo in the open  world. Actually, I found it easier than that. As for the infamous boss and sub-boss fights, they're widely spaced, fewer in number and uniformly less awful than usual.

Is that an Archbishop fighting a lobster?
Playing my high-survival druid, I did not die once in the PoF storyline, at least not until the final climactic stand-off with Balthazar, and even then I died mostly because I was struggling to figure out the precise mechanics of the fight rather than through any innate difficulty thereof. In the whole of the rest of the story I think I was downed twice but rallied or revived myself before anything finished me off.

I heartily approve of the reduced level of difficulty although I'd prefer it to be easier still and if not easier then certainly faster. The fights may not be as arduous as before but some of them are still mightily tedious. Still, it's a major improvement over the Living World, which itself has been getting easier. Perhaps by next expansion we'll be back to where we started in 2012 although I fear there will be a counter-insurgency at ANet before then and we'll lurch back towards "challenge" once again.

When I say I didn't die I'm leaving out one very major event: the Death of The Commander. It makes absolutely no difference if you're the best raider in the game or the most inexperienced of casuals - you will die in this story at least once. You have to or you can't proceed. It's a huge (and hugely ill-judged) plot point.

The evident drawback to chasing a mad god across a desert is that you might catch him. That happens and along with it the inevitable. He's a god. You're a midget in a romper suit waving a stick. You die.

Oh go on. Just a little one. He likes it really.
Except in Tyria no-one dies, do they? Everyone comes back. Doomsday weapons can destroy your entire nation (Ascalon, Orr) but the next day the entire population returns as Ghosts or Risen. In Elona, you can work all your life for a tyrant-king then the day after you die you find yourself back in the same job, Awakened, only now you don't need to sleep so you get to work nights too.

In the storyline, when Balthazar incinerates you (he's the god of fire as well as war) you wake up in a green-hued purgatory with amnesia. This does not appear to be intended ironically.

You do a bit of business with the locals, fight The Eater of Souls, the worst-designed sub-boss in the entire story (I cheesed him with a strat I read on Dulfy but he's now been nerfed and nerfed hard after numerous entirely justified complaints so you should be able to beat him legit) and then it's back to business as usual.

The reactions of your friends and companions when you literally return from the dead might seem understated - or underwritten - at first. Mostly along the lines of "Oh, you're not dead? Great, well here's what we need to do next". Taimi suggests someone pokes you to see if you're real in what is probably not intended as an hommage to John 20:25.

Then I thought about it. Really, why should anyone be surprised? Or care? The whole of Tyria is designed on the model of The Cat Came Back. And that's a problem. It's not that I'm advocating permadeath or even a harsh death penalty but there has to be some sense of jeopardy, doesn't there? If annihilation by a god is something you can just shrug off then what does any of it matter?

Add to that the the illusion of choice or rather the lack of any such thing. I'm not big on the concept as it applies in video games but a lot of gamers, particularly BioWare fans, find it compelling. Well you can forget it here.

Take the example from Chapter Two, where you spend some time talking to the Amnoon Council about a supposedly crucial decision. I was highly critical of what that implied about ANet's agenda concerning democratic responsibility but I needn't have worried: I was not in possession of all the facts.

Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, let me say this: we're all doomed!

The choice the council appears to dump eagerly in your less than capable hands turns out be nothing more than a pat on the head for the funny foreigner. Yes, they wanted to hear what you thought, but they knew you had no clue what you were talking about and they never had any intention of doing what you suggested. The fact they went along with your idea was a complete co-incidence.

I was so taken aback by that little sidebar, which occurs in small-talk at the afterparty, that I forgot to screenshot the conversation. I highly recommend talking to all NPCs at every opportunity, both before and after every event and even during them if you get the chance. Some of the most interesting stuff is hidden away in that incidental dialog.

Lack of agency is a serious problem throughout. Choices that don't matter, deaths that don't mean anything and a final fight in which the Commander seems to play a supporting role to both a magic sword and a baby dragon risk leaving the player on the sidelines, doing all the grunt work but barely sharing the glory.

Just me, then?

Enough detail: how good or bad is the Plane of Fire story, when you put it all together?  Hmm. Hard to say.

That's why these are still first impressions even though I've completed the whole thing. I'd want to do it on a couple more characters before I committed myself as to whether it's an improvement on the Heart of Thorns central story. It's certainly shorter. And easier, although I think the fact that I chose to open all the maps and get all the mounts ahead of time sped things up.

There were some parts I really enjoyed. The visuals, obviously, but the gameplay too. A variety of mechanics, most of which were easy to grasp and straightforward to implement, kept me engaged. I enjoyed controlling an army of Awakened at one point; catching the scouts before they reported my presence was satisfying. There were enough moments like that to keep things entertaining, mostly.

Everyone else comes back, Scarlet. Why not you?
It was interesting to return to Glint's lair and Kormir's library is spectacular. I was very happy to find you get to revisit it towards the end of the Griffon quest collection. A tip: when you get to that part, don't forget to go back to the hidden room. You'll find something there you won't expect. Or someone. I was also very surprised how happy I was to see and hear Scarlet again. I really miss her.

On balance I enjoyed the story for what it was even if, in hindsight, it didn't come to all that much. I could go into a lot of nitpicking detail about what doesn't make sense but the tale's a thin weave that won't stand up to much poking. It has holes enough already.

Best accept it for what it is and keep moving. If there's not all that much to the story itself, at least I did think the way it was told was noticeably superior to previous attempts and that's very welcome.

What I miss most, though, is the mystery. Yes, the narrative through-line since GW2 launched has been chaotic, disordered, incoherent and sometimes insane but I've never found it boring. This wasn't dull but neither did it set me puzzling, the way the Seasons, for all their many, many flaws, tend to do.

When facts are hard to come by speculation thrives and speculation is the lifeblood of never-ending soap-opera stories like this. Unsurprisingly then, it was the enigmatic ending I enjoyed most of all. Where did Aurene fly off to in such a hurry and why was she looking so very pleased with herself? What is Kralkatorrik planning next? Have we saved the world or merely set the stage for some new drama of destruction?

And talking of trailing plot threads, trust me: taunting Palawa Joko through the bars of his cage before returning to the land of the living, leaving him supposedly imprisoned there "for eternity" was not the Commander's smartest move. In Tyria "eternity" lasts about five minutes and Joko is not a forgiving kind of psychopath.

He'll be back and he's going to be mad. Madder. Something to look forward to for next time.

Friday, 6 October 2017

This One Goes To 11 : EQ2, GW2

There are reportedly more than three hundred developers/designers/artists working on GW2. I very much doubt there are thirty working on EQ2. If you asked me which team was more productive I'd have to say the Daybreak squad wins, hands down.

I play both of these MMOs week in, week out. I spend far more time in GW2, partly because of World vs World's endless replayability, partly because it's the most fluid-feeling MMO I've ever played and partly because it's the game Mrs Bhagpuss plays.

Well, it was. She's going through something of an MMO malaise at the moment, not really playing at all. The Path of Fire expansion certainly hasn't fired her enthusiasm. She logged in once, played through the first chapter, logged out and that's the last the game has seen of her since.

I've played GW2 almost non-stop since we got back from holiday but already, only a week and a half or so in from where I started, my attention is wandering. I finished the story on my Druid at the weekend and I have absolutely no desire to do it again on anyone else for a good long while.

I got my Jackal mount two days ago and I'm about halfway through the lengthy "quest" for the Griffon. I've picked up 180 Hero Points without thinking about it and I guess by the time I have the flying lion I'll have filled out the 250 I need for the new Elite Spec.

I don't even know what the spec called, that's how uninterested in the new Elites I am. The only one I've read up on is Weaver for the Elementalist, which sounds horrible and by general consensus is not as good as Tempest from HoT.

I barely used the Hot Elites. Most of my characters are still in whatever build they took when they hit 80, which for many of them was the best part of five years ago. I use Tempest for the overloads and Druid as a heal-based survival build but other than that I don't think I've even tested the rest, let alone learned how to use them. The last thing I need is another lot.

Two nights this week I logged in after work intending to carry on with the Griffon quest and instead ended up defending keeps in WvW for three hours. Then I logged out and went to bed.


It took 300+ people more than two years to come up with this stuff. I'm not saying I'll be done with it in a month or two; there's a wealth of long-term, background material in PoF that I'll be picking away at for years, just as I'm still picking away at Heart of Thorns and the base game.

What I am saying is that the amount of entertainment on offer is not ten times what I'm getting from EQ2, nor is it an order of magnitude better, or deeper, or wider.

Massively OP irritate the heck out of me with their coverage of Daybreak. It's relentlessly, grindingly, dismally negative. I dislike the editorial tone and attitude so much when they ride this particular hobbyhorse that I'm not even going to link to an example. Why encourage them?

Still, it doesn't do to be complacent. Feldon deciding to throw in the towel at EQ2Wire hasn't helped dispel the image of a floundering ship and the astonishing and inexorable rise of PUBG, damming what was presumably a major income stream at H1Z1 is a worrying factor.

As Wilhelm summarized, two and a half years after the sale of SOE's portfolio to unknown quantity Columbus Nova, we're really none the wiser about either the commercial viability of the MMOs or their stability in the medium-term. We don't even know the intended direction of travel.


Gossip persists that DBG is not a happy ship. Some known names have left, including a few of the biggest. Communication between the company and the players, while informative and ongoing, tends either to be formal and undemonstrative or inappropriately truculent.

And yet, for all that, as a very long-term player, fan and customer, I cannot remember the games themselves ever feeling better cared for. Looking specifically at EQ2, the DBG game I play the most these days, updates aren't just regular and reliable, they often weigh in at well in excess of anything that might have been expected.

Each holiday adds new content and Norrath has a lot of holidays. In Spring we got a major addition to the game with Familiars and Summer brought a whole season of Ethereals, something both valued and expected by the hardcore audience.

Familiars have, I think, been well received and the way Ethereals were handled this year seems to have avoided some of the problems of the past. The enormously rewarding, eight week Days of Summer quest has been almost universally praised, as has the decision to remove the time limit and keep it as permanent content.

As Autumn rolls in it brings with it the traditional pre-expansion warm-up. The ever-welcome Gear up, Level Up event is back and along with it the first of the quests that will introduce the theme of the expansion.

I ran through Strange Sensations with my Berserker earlier this week. It took me about ninety minutes and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's very well-written, with characters that immediately feel convincing and a plot that intrigues. I particularly enjoyed the nuanced, metafictional philosophizing.

I love the writing in EQ2. Like GW2, the writers put words in my character's mouth but for once they're the kind of words I believe he would say. Some of the things that came out of my Druid's mouth as he worked through the plot of Path of Fire had me swearing at the screen in irritation. Not so in EQ2.

The Strange Sensations quest also follows what appears to be an enthusiastically embraced practice at Daybreak these days - user-friendliness. There's a lot of traveling involved but the dark elf wizard with whom you mainly deal opens a handy portal every time to send you just where you need to go. I really appreciated that, especially after the lengthy tours the panda had me running (which were, of course, entirely appropriate to, and indeed the essence of, that quest).

I was surprised just how delighted I was to find Lendinaria waiting for me in Skyshrine. Lendinaria is a dragon and I've met a lot of dragons over the years but she's one of my favorites. She's certainly one of the dragons I remember best. It did genuinely feel like unexpectedly running into an old friend.

When someone from my supposed past crops up in GW2's storyline I generally struggle to remember ever meeting them before. When I do remember them, as in the case of the execrable Ellen Kiel, I mostly wish I could let them take a really close look at the business end of a big stick.

Then there are the rewards. In GW2 you're lucky if you get a mini. Okay, let's be reasonable: in Path of Fire you almost always get a mini. Not one you're ever going to use, and because everyone gets one they trade for a few silver on the markets so there's not even much point selling it, but still, it's a mini. Plus a load of crafting mats, some armor you can salvage into more crafting mats, some skins you'll never wear and some bits and pieces that you don't really know what they're for.


In EQ2 you get stuff you want and stuff you need. Stuff with value. Days of Summer was like winning the lottery. Strange Sensations only gives you two items but they are excellent: three 25-day Research Time Reducers, always most welcome, and an Ascension Level boost from what I thought was the max level (10) to 11.

I confess I don't understand Ascension Classes. I have one levelled up to halfway through Level 4 so far and I have yet to use it. I have it pigeon-holed as End Game Stuff, nothing to do with me.

If you read the official EQ2 forums it seems Ascension is Pay to Win and everyone hates it but then if you read the official EQ2 forums everyone has been saying that about everything since about 2004. I'll learn about Ascension if and when I find I can't do stuff I want to do without it. So far, not happened.

It's October so everything's turning orange. According to EQ2Traders Norrath's Halloween Holiday, Nights of the Dead is back, with a ton of new items to craft or buy, new achievements, a new quest and a load of tweaks and improvements to the plethora of existing spooky stuff.

We don't have a release date yet but the expansion will most likely arrive in November. DBG pop one of these things out every year like clockwork. Some are better than others but they're all solid and entertaining.


I have a good feeling about this year's; the EQ2 team have really been on a roll these last few months and for all the relentless Eeyoring of the community I do sense a glimmer of grudging appreciation behind the scowls, here and there.

It may well be that Norrath's days are numbered. All the MMOs are aging. The prospects of attracting new players must be vanishingly small and hanging on to those who are left must get harder every year. Nothing lasts forever but in this case we don't have any certainty that Columbus Nova even wants it to last.

For all that, the games feel in great shape. For my money, EQ2's small team does every bit as well as GW2's large one. If the ship goes down it won't be for lack of expertise or effort from the crew.

I'm just going to enjoy what we have while we have it. And if Mrs Bhagpuss turns out to be done with GW2, I may well find I have a lot more time to spend in Norrath. There's so much more I want to do there, still. 

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Path Of Fire : First Impressions - Part One

It's been a week now. I must have logged well over 30 hours. I've finished the storyline and explored a good deal of all five overland maps. You'd think it was past time for first impressions but it still feels like very early days indeed.

There will inevitably be spoilers ahead. Although I don't plan on getting too far into specifics it's not possible to give any kind of coherent overview without letting some detail slip. Beware.

Graphics

The first thing to say is that Path of Fire is a stunningly impressive visual feast. In five years the brightest star in ArenaNet's firmament has been its Art Department but this is spectacular even by the standards they've set. As I've observed before, if there's anything to be said against the visuals here it's that they risk becoming too much of a good thing. The sheer magnitude of splendor filling the screen in every direction, all the time, can overwhelm the ability to appreciate it as fully as it deserves.

That said, we have seen a lot of this before. Kormir's astonishing library, for example, is unmistakably reminiscent of the library in the Durmand Priory. The detail and design throughout are mesmerizing but it did occur to me, as I was taking screenshots by the score, that I wasn't seeing much, if anything, to outdo the sights of Divinity's Reach or The Black Citadel. It's stunning but by and large it's nothing new.

Still, such consistency and coherency sustained at such a high level over the life of the game can hardly be considered a criticism. If GW2's artists peaked early at least it left them stranded on the highest of plateaus.



Sound

The sound in GW2 gets a lot less attention than the graphics but the standard once again is high. The ambient background hum of the world going about its business adds a good deal to a sense of immersion. There are some subtle indications of changes in the weather here and there, the sounds of wind and shifting sand and there are animal sounds somewhere in the mix. It's atmospheric enough. It sounds like you're somewhere.

The non-storyline NPC dialog is uniformly strong. What they say is interesting, revealing, thought-provoking or amusing. I'm including this under "Sound" because of the the voice acting, which is of high quality, offering some excellent line readings.

I thought it showed a very distinct improvement over both Heart of Thorns and LS3, where it was often sub-par. It's true that the repetition of certain speeches and routines can be irritating but there's a setting in options to hear audio only once, should you wish to use it. Personally, I like to hear the voices loop.

The music I was less impressed by. Nothing particularly stood out. When I did notice an arrangement it was mostly because it sounded either Arabian Nights cliched or I thought I'd heard it before, elsewhere in the game.



Maps

Huge. Really, really big. Also complex and varied.

There are only five overland maps, which is one more than we got in HoT, but they probably represent more than double or more explorable land than the same number of maps would provide in the base game.

As discussed previously, the terrain and environments offer far more than the endless sand and rocks a desert theme might suggest. I was delighted to find a substantial portion of the Deldrimor Front, a snowclad mountain range included, along with a rich river valley. There are pockets of all kinds of different environment hidden in corners and caves and crags. Something for all seasons.

In terms of explorability I was surprised and satisfied to find that the terrain has not been over-tuned for mounts. Yes, there are specific locations required by the storyline, for particular collections or just for map completion, requiring one or other of the mounts, but 90% or more of the landscape seems to be accessible to nothing more than a glider and an inquiring mind.

There's one way in which I feel the new expansion has been badly misrepresented: verticality. Much was made of the "verticality" of Heart of Thorns and there has been a deal of praise for PoF's supposed flatness. Twaddle!

In HoT, the z-axis was almost always a question of glider mastery: Path of Fire is one giant jumping puzzle from end to end. Flat is the very last word I'd use to describe it. Expect to hop, scramble, climb and glide a lot more than you ever needed to do in the jungle. Especially if you want that Griffon mount.



Gameplay

This is the sticking point, isn't it? There's an axiom in the hobby that gameplay trumps graphics every time. Doesn't matter how pretty it is, if there's no hook people won't stick around just for the view.

You can see the doubts emerging in this comparison between the two expansions as well as in the official feedback thread. The problem is replayability: its possible lack is a function of the perceived return to core values that's been so praised elsewhere.

It is true that Path of Fire feels a lot closer to the original base game than Heart of Thorns ever did. Perhaps the main reason is the way the large, sprawling maps once again feel stuffed to bursting with GW2's signature "Dynamic Events". They pop all the time, everywhere. These are mostly small, local stories told in standalone events and short chains. They're fun but they lack function.

To many players they are quite likely also unfamiliar as a concept. The gameplay model to which they hark back ceased to be the norm in GW2 so long ago that players who must consider themselves veterans by now may never have experienced it at all - especially if they used a boost to hit 80.

With the piecemeal introduction of Dry Top back in July 2014 open world gameplay moved consistently to a mapwide meta-event structure. Players have become habituated to every map having a timed, repeatable, predictable event chain that builds to a climax, provides substantial rewards and then resets. Map metas even have their own real estate in the UI, providing a visible prompt that ensures everyone knows what stage is active and what the objectives are.


Path of Fire maps don't do any of that. There are some large chains that players are calling "metas" but they don't run on an obvious timer and don't flag in the UI unless you happen to be where they are when they start. We're back to calls in map chat like it was 2013.

I quite like the retro approach but it very clearly lacks the organizing principle not just of of HoT but of every map introduced in the last three years. Map metas can be dry but when they work they're compelling content.

Countless players, myself among them, repeated the Verdant Brink, Auric Basin, Tangled Depths and, especially Dragon's Stand meta chains over and over for a full year and more. Not just for profit but because they were a lot of fun. Reliable fun you could find on demand. It's hard to see the equivalent in Path of Fire.

Then there are World Bosses. There was some talk of that feature making a return in PoF but it hasn't really happened. Core Tyria maps almost all serve up a genuine World Boss, who spawns at set times and always draws a crowd. Instead, PoF maps have Bounties, which are player-triggered and unscheduled. Already, at this very early stage, even when a Map Bounty features as a daily, it can be annoyingly hard to find anyone doing them.

Genuine explorers will continue to get entertainment from the new maps indefinitely, I'm sure, but less than half a month into the lifespan of this expansion population seems oddly sparse. It's not because of a lack of players - there's just no particular focus to draw them together and the maps, as observed, are massive. Everyone's busy about their own business.

How long most people will hang around once they have their story done , their achievements ticked, their Griffon collected, their Hero Points earned and their maps completed remains to be seen. If steps aren't taken to prevent it, though, I could easily see these being some of the least-visited maps in the game a few months from now.



Difficulty

I pulled this out of Gameplay to discuss it specifically because I feel it's another aspect of the expansion that's been badly misreported. I've read numerous comments that suggest Path of Fire is a lot easier than Heart of Thorns. This runs directly counter to my experience so far.

I have not found the maps any easier to navigate than HoT's. I would say they are roughly on a par. As I posted I am not a fan of mounts while I'm a huge fan of gliders. That becomes more true the more I use the mounts and the more mount masteries I acquire. If I can avoid using a mount I do so. They are clumsy and awkward where the glider is subtle and elegant.

Movement modes aside, I do not believe that PoF mobs provide any less of a roadblock than the Mordrem. They seem to me to have much the same repertoire of irritating crowd control tricks, which they employ liberally at every opportunity.

Mob density, contrary to comments I have seen, seems to me to be, if anything, worse than HoT. There are mobs everywhere.  Traveling the Path of Fire is like running an endless gauntlet, assaulted at every turn.


I've found it nigh on impossible to do anything at all without two or three unnecessary and unwanted fights. Last night, as just one entirely typical example, it took me literally five solid minutes of fighting to clear dust mites just so I could mine a single node. The aggro range on many of the mobs is huge, they are almost all highly aggressive, they are social and the respawn times are very fast.

As for the idea that they are mostly "normal" mobs - pfah! I can't begin to count the number of Veteran mobs I've had to kill just because they were in the way. Every encounter seems to have at least one veteran - often several. Some areas even have multiple Elites.

It's entirely possible that the difference in perceived difficulty comes from class or build, as we eventually established was the case in HoT. This may be intended as the melee-friendly expansion - certainly a lot of mobs seem to be tuned against ranged attacks.

Mostly, though, I think the reports of reduced difficulty come from people's early experience of the first areas of the first map, Crystal Oasis, which rather lives up to its name. Yes, it's quite relaxing and unstressful around Amnoon. Wait 'til you cross Devestation and push into Palawa Joko's territories before you make any sweeping assumptions about overall difficulty levels, that's all I'm saying.

Aaaaaand... I think that's enough for one post. Going to split this in two and do the story and the class stuff another time. There's a griffon out there somewhere with my name on it and I need to find it!

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