Path of Exile: First Impressions

Shiny! Such shiny! As shiny as it gets in shadowy Path of Exile...

I’m finding it nigh impossible to blog about Path of Exile.

Every time, I start the game going “Ok, today is the day I will take some screenshots and, during gameplay, try to formulate some coherent thoughts with which to begin a blog post…”

…I end up surfacing nearly three hours later with nary a thought in my head beyond having played inventory tetris, trying to figure out the complex barter/vendor system currency to determine if I should identify items before selling or sell them unidentified, plotting the next target skill I want for my character after having explored the next tiny offshoot of PoE’s crazy skill tree, desperately trying to stop myself from the “just one more map, one more quest, one more waypoint” compulsion because it’s way past midnight already.

And barely any screenshots either, because there was just too much action going on.

Really now, be honest, would you stop to screenshot, or would the first thing on your mind be to check out all that shiny loot?
Really now, be honest, would you stop to screenshot, or would the first thing on your mind be to check out all that shiny loot?

Also, Path of Exile is dark.

As in, the aesthetic is grim n’ gritty, grimdark, shadowy dark, and downright gloomy.

It is as filled with black and mud brown and shades of putrescent green and grey as Wildstar explodes with cartoon rainbow laser light show effects.

This is a stated preference by the devs, so it is what it is.

Neither aesthetic is a problem for me, but it might be for you.

And it certainly doesn’t make the game very screenshot friendly.

It sort of reminds me of the period where I played a Dark/Dark defender in City of Heroes
It sort of reminds me of the period where I primarily played a Dark/Dark defender in City of Heroes and through all my spell effects, became a connoisseur of all things dark: darkity dark, dark tinged with green, dark tinged with purple, black tinged with purple, dark lightened with grey, absolute black, and abyss.

My very first few battle encounters in Path of Exile were mostly of the “I can’t see shit, or what I’m hitting, or IF I’m hitting at all” variety.

During my graphics tweaking for performance, I turned off shadows and think it’s a much better visual improvement to not have even more monster-shaped patches of black moving about obscuring the action.

Your field of vision also drops as you lose health, so things can get claustrophobic in a hurry.
Your field of vision also drops as you lose health, so things can get claustrophobic in a hurry.

Despite the lack of photogenic appeal, Path of Exile has a powerful draw in other ways.

Its Diablo roots, for one.

The general gameplay of these types of games involves lots of clicking, lots of mobs that die in a few hits per encounter to make you feel powerful, and waterfalls of loot.

Which you then sift through, learning to ignore the lower tier items and leave them on the ground in short order, and being thrilled to make out like a bandit when you get a lucky desirable rare drop from RNG.

Growing steadily more powerful from leveling, picking up skills and loot with better stats, so you can go to harder areas and kill bosses, which usually have a much higher reservoir of health and more interesting attacks and patterns to learn and overcome.

Plus, the ‘trash’ mobs start their own ramp ups in power, skills used and start using various sorts of movement tactics, etc.

Unsoweiter, challenge and difficulty rising to unimaginable levels, and you eventually finding your way to a comfortable, profitable level of challenge and trying to push  it a little higher when you think you can.

Path of Exile does this very well.

I earlier criticized Neverwinter for being simplistic in its combat, because it mostly involved clicking (or clicking and holding) and waiting for mobs to die.

In Neverwinter, there was very little discernable difference in the pattern while killing kobolds, orcs, magical zombies, or human bandits. There were always little groups of minion health mobs which could be cleaved through using autoattacks or a wide aoe sweep skill.

Periodically one or two medium health melee mobs that would use a three-quarter AoE attack hitting front and sides (solution: dash through mob to get to its back, turn around, continue hitting.)

Periodically one or two medium health caster mobs that would use a targeted AoE attack, centered either around the player or itself (solution: dash out of the AoE field, continue hitting mob when safe to do so.)

Periodically a large slow attacking big telegraph ogre-like mob that would take eons to swing (solution: treat much like melee mob, dash around to its back and whack while it is stuck in a slow frontal attack animation.

The most complex thing I encountered in Neverwinter was attempting to solo the starting five-man dungeon The Cloak Tower with just a cleric hireling and me. This mostly enforced understanding of the above tactics as each mob had larger health bars and so took longer to whittle down.

The trickiest and main cause of initial repeated death was the first boss, who was a caster type who would summon two medium melee types when it got down to 3/4 health, creating overlapping zones of serious damage that became tricky to avoid.

Eventually, I powered through one melee mob using healing potions to get rid of the overlapping kill zone, and proceeded to learn in depth how to best avoid the caster boss – swing three times, completing one attack animation chain, start moving one quarter of a circle clockwise or anticlockwise to move out of the way of the AoE it would cast, swing three times, move again.

In Neverwinter, the skill tree mostly involves increasing percentage damage, or percentage defences. Lateral viable options are lacking, reducing depth.

I have an AoE skill? Well, use it when I have multiple mobs, and just keep spamming it for extra damage because it doesn’t cost me anything to use it regardless.

I have a skill that does damage and heals me for a bit of the damage done? Spam whenever off cooldown.

I have a skill that knocks an enemy prone? Oh. For once, I actually have to think about timing. Let’s use it on vulnerable mobs (aka non-bosses) when they’re starting their aoe telegraph attack so that I have more freecast attack time then! Still spammed whenever off cooldown.

In Path of Exile, you do click, or click and hold, and wait for mobs to die…

…but you probably would have done well to think about exactly how you were planing on getting them to die in the first place.

poe_skilltree

It begins with the crazy looking skill tree – of which this is only a partial shot.

On character creation, you get to pick one of six different classes. (The seventh class, the Scion, unlocks after you’ve nearly played through the standard game once, I believe.)

Three classes are aligned with the major attributes Strength, Dexterity and Intelligence as pure representatives of that attribute. The Marauder is the Strength brute, bringing to mind something hard-hitting and very tanky and armor/resistance based. The Ranger is your Dexterity rep, conjuring images of something fast-hitting, nimble and evasive, possibly using bows or dual-wielding weapons. The Witch is the Intelligence based spellcaster.

Then you have the hybrid classes. A Strength-Intelligence hybrid, the Templar. A Strength-Dexerity hybrid, the duelist. And finally, the Dexterity-Intelligence Shadow.

Each class begins at a different position on the crazy skill tree, so they have easier access to certain traits over others for cheaper skill point cost.

The Scion, of course, sits at the very center, open to all possibilities, inviting massive theory-crafting for those who have finished the initial game and want something even more complex but flexible and high potential.

It’s a little insane to try and grok it all the moment you begin, so I decided not to make the attempt and just settle on focusing on learning about the tiny area my character started out at, and had more immediate access to.

poe_shadow

I picked The Shadow, which is something a little uncharacteristic of me. I tend to like the tanky melee Strength type classes, but thought it might be interesting to see how the other two attributes would fare, as a hybrid.

Turns out, bloody well.

Even in the immediate area, there are options. You could choose to go the intelligence path and bump up stats, or the intelligence route and increase spellcasting attack speed or elemental damage percentage (implying you’re a more caster type of Shadow), or you could go the dexterity route and increase projectile damage (implying shooty Shadow) or one-handed melee weapons (the more up-close-and-personal type) or straight dexterity increases.

From there again, casters could branch into lightning, cold or fire type of improvements to their spells. Melee folk could choose increased one-handed melee weapon physical damage (which also  applies if you’re dual-wielding two one-handed weapons) or dual wielding bonuses.

And nothing whatsoever stops you from going up or downward the tree to pick up some life and mana bonuses, and grab that caster or melee portion, even if you started on the other path to begin with.

On and on, making stuff very complex indeed.

Since I was just beginning and playing on the easiest normal difficulty, I opted to bother less with learning most optimal theorycrafting and just went the “pick what sounds fun” route. The first character can always be ruined in the name of learning the system, after all.

I generally just looked for the nearest big circles and decided what I wanted more of, and aimed to plot the best course towards those desirables.

In this case, I went a stabby style rogue dual-wielding weapons, attacking fast and trying to crit a lot.

I initially left it open in case I wanted to switch from daggers to swords or claws or whatnot, but as luck would have it, I got some rather decent dagger drops and I’m seriously considering specializing now and leaving the other weapons for another character on another playthrough.

poe_reave

Adding to the delightful case of options are the skills.

You pick them up via gems, they’re not automatically given to you when choosing a class or going down the skill tree.

Socketing them into your gear allows them to be used and assigned to various buttons, and again, there appears to be a limit for the number of skills you can have in play at one time – similar to nearly all newer MMOs of the TSW, GW2, Wildstar ilk so that you pick and choose those that best synergize and work for your desired playstyle.

There are additional support gems that can be connected to the skill gems, to give things like increased critical damage or more projectiles, and so on.

Each requires things like having the correct color socket, or connecting sockets, so a whole minigame of using orbs to alter sockets (and stats) as desired is formed to complement inventory tetris.

In this case, Reave became my bread-and-butter mind-blowing attack skill.

As a dual-wielding dagger rogue-alike, I can crit ordinary minion-type mobs for a heavy amount. This skill turns my single target attack into an AoE. That increases in size with  each hit.

A good chain with an onrush of hordes of small mobs becomes a delicious spectacle of mobs exploding in unison.

poe_reaveaoe

Some, pretty far away from where I was standing, even. (My reave has stacked up to 8 times, as indicated in the upper left corner.)

Naturally, I need mana to feed these, so it was natural to start exploring up the skill tree for stuff that gave back mana on kill.

And I started looking for gear that gave back life on hit or kill, because I’m lazy to quaff potions on a regular basis and would rather save them for PANIC situations.

Did I just ruin the game? Did I turn it into a mess of simple clicking to kill things?

Hell, no.

The next couple maps I went through started introducing mobs that leap onto you (necessitating evasive movement through clicking to avoid the leap)

…mobs that shot arrows and moved back when you tried to melee them (separating themselves from aoe attack damage)

…mobs that fired magical projectiles at you (kinda hard to melee kill things if you’ve just caught 10 frost bolts to the face trying to get close)

…mobs that raised a ton of minions (necessitating search and destroy, though the minions were easy enough to carve through with reave) and my favorite…

poe_explode

Exploding mobs.

I highlight this one because it neatly countered the strategies I had developed.

I’d taken to raising minions like zombies and skeletons, because I found it fun and they were handy temporary tanks to shift aggro to, while I ran about and amok in their midst stabbing and killing stuff. (I hear minions are much less viable in the late game, or at higher difficulties, but eh, I’m a ways from that yet.)

Well, exploding mobs blow up minions.

If I go and attack them by myself, they explode, and their explosion takes out other mobs that explode, or my AoE reave explodes them all at once, and guess what… surprise surprise, -I- explode.

This one totally forced a strategy change by learning to -not- attack on sight and let them run close, triggering their explosion animation, which one then quickly ran away from and let them explode by themselves, hopefully taking out all nearby exploders as well.

Boss fight strategies are also different, due to the amount of health they have.

I usually end up stacking a DoT poison-like venom strike, along with ordinary attacking, and running around evasively and quaffing potions like there’s no tomorrow.

I’ve also tried an animate weapon strategy, where I bring in my zombie minions, raise skeletons, and prepare in advance weapons which get thrown onto the ground and turned into animated minions to add damage and deflect aggro.

(Animate weapon is an interesting skill as it sort of makes all the white throwaway loot on the ground relevant again. If it’s a melee weapon, and under the level of your gem, you can sacrifice it and turn it into a minion instead – but you lose the loot drop.)

I have also been dying to try my new situational skill out on a proper boss.

poe_vaalskeleton

This is a Vaal version of Summon Skeletons.

Vaal gems are corrupted forms of a skill gem, that are quite a bit more powerful than the normal version. They’re obtained via little side maps that have additional conditions (eg. increased size of mob spawns, shocking or frost patches on the ground, etc.) to make encounters harder.

For example, the normal Summon Skeletons conjures two skeleton warriors at a time, and limits me to 4 of them in play at once.

The Vaal version conjures an ARMY.

A whole bunch of warriors, a few archers and mages and a general that gives them buffs.

The catch is that Vaal gems require souls to work.

So essentially, you run around killing stuff on the map, building up soul power for your Vaal gem, charging it up for one glorious unveiling – hopefully at a good time.

Sort of like a situational elite.

On a big and populous enough map, you can do it more than once, of course. Just depends on souls… Death death murder kill nom more souls.

And the beauty of it is, not all Shadows need to play how I play.

If I chose differently, I could have been a bowcaster. Lots of shooty, maybe some AoE cold spells to help slow things down for more pewpew. Maybe I would still throw in minions as mobile tank pets.

Or I could have jumped down a sword and shield route and visited the strength and armor side a little more (though perhaps ignoring the intelligence portion may be less effective than beginning a str/dex class indeed, but I -could- do it if I chose.)

Or maybe a dual claw evasive life regen Shadow channeling Wolverine for all he’s worth.

Needless to say, this doesn’t even scratch the surface of the other five classes that I still haven’t played nor seen much of their skill gems or tree yet.

Frankly, the only negative thing I can think to say about Path of Exile is its connectivity issues.

On starting the launcher, it occasionally pops up with a “Connection Failure: Unable to connect to patching server message.” One has to repeatedly launch the game and -hope- that one will eventually contact the patching server at some point.

Strangely enough, I don’t really face disconnection issues once on a map (though some do, according to forum reports, and I’ve had it happen once in a blue moon), but more often face problems during the transition from one map to another.

Sometimes, the server(s) just seem to lose hold of my client and go, “Nope, not talking to you anymore” and I get dropped back to the login screen while changing zones.

This happens on both American and Australian server gateways, so I dunno… Seems like the game just gets temperamental sometimes.

Other times, I play with nary a hitch at all.

Your mileage may vary.

The good news is that the instance states save.

For around 8-15 minutes, even if you leave via portal to go to a town, or unexpectedly fall off the map via disconnecting, what you’ve already cleared stays cleared, so you can run around, travel and make progress with exploration without having to wade through unending hordes.

If you WANT the unending hordes, then ctrl+clicking and zoning in will renew the instance on demand.

Best of both worlds, really.

Payment model-wise, the damn thing is free.

Really. Honest. And the devs hold to what they call “ethical microtransactions” in their store.

Which generally means costuming and visual and vanity perks… like shiny wings and shiny armor.

They do also sell character slots and bank/stash space, but imo, this has been an acceptable ‘convenience’ microtransaction in play for a long time now in assorted games.

You are apparently also allowed to make multiple free accounts to ‘mule’ if you’re unwilling to drop any cash on the game, but I suspect by the time you find the need for that many characters and stash space, you’re committed enough to the game to give them $5-$15 for the peace of mind and convenience of not needing to juggle multiple accounts.

(Still, if you’re a broke and starving student or artist or unemployed, the option is there!)

Conclusion?

I will be playing Path of Exile.

I will be playing it a lot.

Sneaking in time between all the other games on my plate.

It will have a place enshrined in my list of games to play along with Torchlight (and if I ever got around to it, Torchlight 2) where Diablo III did not even get me to buy a copy.

And I suspect a couple months down the road or sooner, alt-holic me will be paying Grinding Gear Games for more character slots because two is never enough, and everyone will be happy…

…living happily ever after in the grimdark land of Wraeclast.

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Neverwinter: First Impressions

First Impressions

If Dungeons and Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online had a baby, that baby would be Neverwinter…

And when I say “baby,” I mean exactly that.

As in, it seems to be the much more simplistic version of either game named above.

The default UI is remarkably reminiscent of LOTRO with its text font and tiny size with elaborate button graphics on the skills you can barely make out at the default size.

nw_miniui

I mean… really? Can’t see nuthing.

It joins LOTRO as being the second game where I felt the need to bring up the UI beyond 100% and magnify it to like 1.3x.

nw_largerui

I may have overcompensated a little, but at least I can see some of the icons now.

(Somewhere out there, the dev that spent their time coloring in the icon graphics and backgrounds is celebrating.)

Quest gameplay-wise, it feels like a version of DDO where you talk to NPCs, get quests, then run to ye olde dungeon or adventure instance where you then get your own personal dungeon crawl.

nw_sewercrawl

Or sewer crawl.

The good news is that these personal instances are great on FPS.

Even on my ailing computer, I can hit 40-60FPS in these places.

The bad news is that I managed to pick the day some new update dropped to try the game, so the central city of Protector’s Enclave – where the game first drops you right after completing the tutorial (kinda neat in that you don’t have to go through numerous starter zones to get there) – was an utter rubberbanding lagfest of epic proportions.

I'm sure it's a nice city... if the textures loaded in, and if I could actually move...
I’m sure it’s a nice city… if the textures loaded in, and if I could actually move…

Framerates alternated between 9-1o FPS if I was lucky, and this is probably the first MMO I’ve encountered whose FPS indicator bothered to show FPS below 1 in decimal points. (Yeah, 0.3FPS, such awesome!)

One pretty neat thing that Neverwinter has is the ability to adjust graphics card-dependent and CPU-dependent graphics separately.

Landmark’s FPS indicator taught me that my CPU tended to be the weaker of my pair, so I cranked it down to near minimal, giving up view and draw distance, and was able to get my GPU settings  up to a nice looking medium. This at least gives broader options for people to adjust what they can or can’t give up for smoother gameplay. (I generally don’t need shadows or a gazillion physics particles flying around just to make things look ‘better’ and more busy, for example.)

Tradespam was running rampant in the big city, being spammed faster than I could move, along with cryptic LFGs of strange abbreviations for content I assume was for super max leveled elder game players.

Welcome to gibberish edition.
Welcome to gibberish edition. Let’s see: goldseller spam, high-end microtransaction trades and holy trinity/need correct class and gear for group problems of some sort or other…

One generally ignores those and lets them scroll by as stuff I won’t understand as a newbie vacationer anyway, but everyone’s personal mileage for tolerating those is different.

Along with the ubiquitous lockboxes, whose drop rate is fairly insane.

It's all rainbow colors, it must be neat stuff, I guess!
It’s all rainbow colors and much blue and purple, it must be neat stuff, I guess!

Fortunately, I have no idea what any of those words mean, so it’s eminently ignorable for my vacationing purposes.

(I did manage to sell off 8 of them on the auction house, so -someone- out there is buying them…)

Others may find it more difficult to ignore, similar to how I personally have trouble ignoring the existence of raids in traditional MMOs being heralded as the pinnacle of existence and all the good gear being available only there.

The difference to me is that I’m paying $15 a month in those games, same as everyone, and would rather not have my preferred playstyles treated like second class citizens.

Here, I’m paying a big fat $0, so little inconveniences are to be expected. (The trick is to have the inconveniences not be game-breaking and encouraging quitting out of frustration over maybe sometime converting into a paying customer.)

I guess it may boil down to essentially a difference of philosophy. Traditional sub-based raid games say, “We start at an egalitarian playing field of $15/month, and it’s what you choose to do with your time that determines how far up you go. Take the game rules for what they are and put up with any inconveniences and annoyances to get there, no two ways around this.”

Free to play games say, “You can come try out our game with no obligations whatsoever, though you may have to put up with some inconveniences and annoyances along the way.”

Bad ones continue, “If you want to get rid of all the nuisances and get far up in the elder game, you’re going to have to spend X sum of money, no two ways around this.” Where X is a substantially larger sum than $15/month.

Good ones say, “You can do it with money, or you can do it with time, up to you, the choice is yours.” And usually the average X is ballparked around $15/month.

(I’d talk about buy to play too, but that usually just means “Kindly pay us the sum of a normal single-player game up front for the work we’ve already put in, and you can enjoy the basic game more or less feature complete.”)

I tend to prefer “the choice is yours” games over the “no two ways around this” games.

Back to Neverwinter and the baby analogy.

Said baby appeared to have been stolen from its crib by Cryptic Studios, who really wanted a kid of their own and tried to do nice things for it, but seemed generally confused about bringing up a child, and who eventually threw up their hands and gave it to foster parents Perfect World International, who are at least giving food to the kid and keeping it alive, but only insofar as it can work for them in their sweatshop.

The hand of Cryptic Studios can be seen in three things: the character creator, the combat system and the foundry system.

Character Creation

nw_charactercreator

While not as expansive as City of Heroes, the character creator affords a very decent range of options while still keeping to an immersive thematic feeling that keeps half-orcs looking different in skin tone and bulk from elves, and so on.

Hair, faces, eyes, scarring and tattoos, numerous sliders for tweaking face and body shapes, Neverwinter’s got it.

There’s even a flavor option to choose your place of origin, a la LOTRO’s characters hailing from various regions, and to take your pick from a number of Forgotten Realms deities to follow. Plus an optional biography space to add your character’s bio that will be visible to other players, similar to City of Heroes.

It did really help to bring out the lore aspect, aided by my personal familiarity and love for the Forgotten Realms setting (if a generation or two before the stupid Spellplague – repeated apocalypses conveniently timed to coincide with new editions get old fast) and utilized that prior IP knowledge to garner a bit of quick buy-in with the game.

Quest writing-wise, it also reminds me of City of Heroes. Decent enough, very wordy, recreating some of that tabletop or singleplayer RPG feeling in talking to NPCs and getting a long story about why you need to go here and there, kill ten kobolds, pick up ten crates or play through one instance or another.

A considerable amount of the text appears to be voiced, for the main storyline anyway, which adds an interesting touch – though I must admit to rather rapidly running out of patience hearing a voice read the text to me and quickly clicking through to continue.

Combat

The combat system feels very simplistic.

Even more basic than City of Heroes started with, if that can be believed, as if they ran out of game designers that could manage spreadsheets… or were maybe setting themselves up for a console MMO.

Left click for basic quick attack, right click for harder hitting drawn out attack, maybe a handful of extra skills more to be earned slowly as you go up in levels. Six classes or so. with some of the most awkward sounding names I’ve ever heard – Control Wizard, Great Weapon Fighter, Hunter Ranger and three others I barely recall, a rogue, a tank and a cleric type, I think.

It’s like they had to specify, oh no no, you can’t actually play a full out wizard… you only get a wizard stuck in the role of cc.

Or guess what, not only can you pay an extortionate amount to become Drizzt Do’Urden, ride a giant spider and have a cool panther, you get to be a ranger and a hunter all rolled into one! Because WoW hunter is cool. LOTRO and Forgotten Realms Ranger is cooler. And naturally Neverwinter HUNTER RANGER must be the coolest!

(Struggling not to die from laughing here…)

Having just come from games like Guild Wars 2 and Wildstar, the active dodging they tried to implement in Neverwinter feels decidedly sluggish in comparison.

It’s not as responsive as either game, for one. You have to hold down shift+direction a lot longer to maybe dash somewhere, if your keypress registered at all.

There didn’t seem to be any way to quickly move out of range of regular melee attacks, nor was circle strafing a very good strategy to avoid getting it, because your attack animations rooted you in place for a couple seconds (an old City of Heroes thing that seemed to be have been carried over in the engine.)

Dashing or dodging out of the way seemed to be only mostly useful for the super slow and very obviously telegraphed attacks – either big red AoE circles or large bulky giant types moving a big club in freeze frame slow motion in an attempt to hit you.

While this seemed rather retardedly obvious to avoid, I learned why they couldn’t make the animations any faster… because the dashing doesn’t respond any quicker than that.

It might be latency at work again, but I had a 5o-75% chance of getting out of the way in time of any of these very blatantly obvious telegraphs – either because the dash key wasn’t responding the instant I pressed it, or because I was locked in a basic attack animation (well, I have to try and do -some- damage to it, right?)

Neverwinter uses an always on mouselook style, which I suppose is a change from having to hold down the right mouse button all the time, and targeting consists of moving your reticle over the mob you want to hit.

The process of doing damage mostly felt like one button click spam, with some extra odd attacks on cooldown later as you gain levels and skills.

Damage mitigation as a Great Weapon Fighter mostly appeared to consist of kill things fast, try not to soak too much damage and quaff healing potions when necessary. There are presumably some gear stats to help and a blocking mechanism for the tankier Guardian Fighter (was that the name?) and Cleric people probably can stand in as mobile free healing potions for your health bar (hey, some weirdoes like that kind of ‘support’ role.)

It did raise some questions in my mind of how necessary or costly it would be to buy healing potions later on in levels if I didn’t own a cleric in my back pocket, but for now, difficult fights do seem to drop them, so it ended up more or less evening out. Use one, kill things, get another.

The overall feel is still very slow, and rather turn-based, in comparison to GW2 or Wildstar. If either of those MMOs feel too fast, confusing and chaotic, Neverwinter may be the more sedately paced combat you’re looking for.

May. Because it’s still really awfully simplistic.

And seemingly based a lot on vertically progressing gear stats. My basic broadsword damage jumped from 32 to 86, for example, moving from one piece of quest reward to another.

Which personally, doesn’t bode very well for its PvP being on any semblance of an even playing field.

I’ve heard rumors that Neverwinter’s PvP is pretty pay-to-win, so I’ve not even bothered trying that part of the game yet. That might be a breaking point for anyone who enjoys PvP and is thinking about the long term prospects of Neverwinter, but I’ve never been that kind of competitive sort and it doesn’t bother me from enjoying the rest of the game if it’s segregated off in some private arenas.

Questing – Dev and Player Created

The foundry system looks promising, and seems to be Neverwinter’s saving grace.

For a free game, the design respects immersion a lot, even if overall player behavior doesn’t.

Starting players are led in an extended tutorial via a whole sequence of quests given story flavoring. Here, after a sequence of your main story quests chasing some miscreants, you’ve found some intriguing treasure with writing on it that looks culturally interesting to a kobold. Go talk to the kobold in the main city who also happens to be an auctioneer and see if he’ll take it off your hands. (Voila, we find the Auction House – even if we haven’t already figured it out via the UI buttons on top.)

The auctioneer doesn’t want it, but recommends you take the curio to a lady who deals in wondrous goods and you’re shown yet another Bazaar / shop / trading thing. Maybe it was the gem store. I sorta blanked it out because trying to survive in the main city at 3 FPS and lower means you’re sitting in the graphics options menu tweaking that far more than paying attention to any other bit of UI popping up and you just press whatever keys necessary to get the quest done, your reward collected and your next quest picked up that preferably ain’t in that lag ridden city.

I haven’t tried a Foundry quest yet, but they introduce it in a very similar fashion. Some NPCs that are part of the world will actually point out Foundry quests that occur near the area you are in. Talking to them brings up that portion of the UI, so you get just that subset of foundry quests to choose from.

Innovations

Quest-wise, I’m also rather impressed by how smartly and smoothly the quest tracker shifts quests up and down based on the NPCs and regions you’re closest to, with optional glowy sparks that lead you directly to where you’re supposed to go. This is something that I’ve seen from a WoW add-on, but never by default in any MMO before Neverwinter.

I do like the whole guided beginner experience they’ve set up for Neverwinter.

Similar to Runes of Magic, you get a gift box that you open at certain levels for free stuff.

With every level, your UI will tell you just what else is new and has changed, so that you can go and upgrade the thing or check out this new feature.

Even the auction house NPC will recommend some gear for you (though I’m sure veterans will laugh at it for being inaccurate or whatever, but newbies are content with basic handholding, thanks) and this is pretty much the first time I’ve seen an auction house actually tell you that you can get the gear via doing a quest instead.

Nope, I didn't know!
Nope, I didn’t know! I’ll get around to it after this sequence of quests, I guess!

Everything that threatens to be overwhelming when you take it all in at once, is staggered and parceled out slowly so that you can take in each feature on its own. The quests introduced me to Skirmishes – some kind of quick cooperative group experience fighting off waves of enemies, PvP – which I chickened out of trying, and presumably will get around to Dungeons at some point.

Crafting, or Neverwinter Professions, amuse me to no end.

They’re different from most bog-standard MMOs, for one, and a bit more like SWTOR in style, if I’m not mistaken. Instead of gathering all the materials, clicking a button and  stand around waiting for a progress bar, they take a page from the mobile or facebook game genre in terms of more long-term time management.

You set up some task in queue, walk away while the timer ticks down, and come back after 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 2 hours, 4 hours, a day, or whatever, to collect your goodies and start the next task. At least you can be playing the game or offline while it does its thing.

Playerbase

Well, the good news is that the game looks exceedingly busy. And lively.

That’s the beauty of a free to play game. The barrier for entry is notoriously low, so folks jump in and begin any time, and there’s that constant influx milling around with the veterans.

However, the barrier for entry IS notoriously low, so you have bots, AFK accounts of various sorts taking up room in queues, players who may as well be bots for all the interaction they do, people speaking assorted languages in a Tower of Babel style chat that gives me new sympathy for what the GW2 EU servers had to deal with under megaserver rule, tradespam worthy of GW1 Spamadan and so on, mixing in with people looking for others who might actually chat intelligibly in English and join groups, amidst the rampant stubborn soloist types (guiilty!)

If you’re looking to play Neverwinter as an MMO in a social setting, you’re in for sifting through a bit of crud to find some treasure. Though the treasure does seem to be out there – there were some comprehensible guild messages, and a few veterans answering newbie questions and seemingly willing to help out – probably because it’s so rare to find like-minded similar-playstyle players.

Conclusions

Will I keep playing it?

Well, I might.

For the moment, it’s free. There’s a lot of new systems I’m curious about, which always draws me like a magnet, and I really like the newbie guidance system so far.

The big minus to Neverwinter is its ridiculously boring combat. Click click click swing sword click swing again, oh the big attack reservoir has filled up, hit big attack button to do lots of damage, click click keep swinging.

Alternate with dodging forward and backward through mobs as needed for telegraphs, and seeing how many swings you can get in before the AI figures out it needs to turn around.

The story wrapper is a decent plus.

If you’re just looking for an hour or two to wind down after work, with no necessity to turn brain on too much, getting a few quests done in Neverwinter ain’t bad in terms of mild entertainment experience.

Long term-wise, I dunno. It looks like it’s setting itself up to be a vertically progressing, massively grindy token buy game for good gear, with the option of spending real money to speed one’s way through the grind. I might be wrong, but that’s my lowbie perspective looking upwards at the moment.

Worth playing up until the point it gets tedious or demands cash, I suppose, which is a far sight more than you can say for other games that demand regular payments of money up front for you to eventually learn the same way down the road that the long term elder game isn’t for you.

Picture of the Day

nosteamthatwasthelengthoftheinsall

No, Steam, that was the length of the install time.

I haven’t actually played it yet.

P.S. As you may be able to tell, I’m going on an MMO / side game hopping vacation week!

Gotta get it all done before the Festival of the Four Winds in GW2, where the Bazaar and Crown Pavilion make their return! Like nearly everyone else, I’m wondering just how many things will be repeated from the last go around, and how many things will be improved or new.

I’ve got my eye on sampling Neverwinter and Path of Exile (as recommended in Missy’s “Over MMOs?” comments section.)

Path of Exile nearly didn’t make the cut due to some weird form of region-locking going on with Steam – I can’t see it on the Store page because I’m based in Singapore, and apparently Garena has gone “nom nom” over Malaysian and Singapore PoE players.

On the bright side, Gear Grind Games took pains to assure on the very front page on their website that this was NOT A RESTRICTION if you actually wanted to like, play with people beyond your tiny region of the world, and that you could download the standalone client from their website to do so.

So I’ll be trying that after a few days of Neverwinter.

And it does sound nice in theory to have the option of switching to a Singapore server for the latency I ALMOST NEVER GET TO ENJOY when I want to, too.

But enforced region-locking sucks. It’s like not being confident enough in your value-added services and wanting to force a group of players to play here only.

Options are the way to go.

If I’m soloing, why not use a Singapore server?

If I want to play with friends that aren’t based in this region, I’d like to be able to too, and will willingly brave the 200-300ms lag monster to do it.

Back in a few days to report if and just how well that works in practice.

That MMO “Feeling” – What’s Missing? A Purpose? What’s My Motivation?

Destiny's Edge + 1

Ever had a thought that just refuses to lay down and die?

It rattles around in your brain, tossing and turning, gnawing and worrying while you spend days trying to pin it down and articulate it to some degree.

It began with Syl’s post about a lack of purpose in our MMOs of today.

There was something to it, especially in regards to Landmark needing to link some kind of functionality and give reasons to do their various activities (for certain subsets of players anyway, who don’t seem to find the existing framework motivating enough), but it sounded… off. Not quite right. Especially when extrapolated in a general sense.

Further questioning in the comments revealed that Syl meant something like a “shared purpose.” A united vision, a commonality of purpose across players, to work hand-in-hand towards… something.

Be it taking down a raid boss together, or perhaps contributing towards building a project in Glitch (RIP Glitch 😦 ) or a monument in a Tale in the Desert, or maybe even Tarnished Coast and Jade Quarry’s dastardly goal of making sure Blackgate doesn’t just easy mode cruise into a WvW Season 2 win. 😛

Then it continued on across various Reddit and forum posts trying to express why some players really want to like GW2 but can’t seem to deal with the leveling process.

There’s no reason for it, they say. No purpose. Something’s missing, and it’s just not lack of direction or guidance. They’re running from one point of interest to another, connecting the dots, but somehow feeling disconnected with the world. Like there’s no story for the players to be the center of and our characters just wind up around the periphery clearing wasps and helping groups of NPCs do something or other.

Personally, I never had that problem when the game first launched. Everything was new and shiny and unfamiliar. There was something AWESOME to see around every corner, and something novel and cool to discover. Even after hitting level 80, I held back on 100% world completion for a long time because I was terrified by the thought of officially consuming all the content and making the world familiar. Known. Habitual. Boring.

In the lull between Living Story seasons, I have been taking my time and leveling a charr engineer the old fashioned way. While I’m still having no problems keeping apace with levels, probably because I kill everything and am not above popping a food and wrench (20%), and occasionally a 50% XP booster to go with the 18% account bonus from achievements, I started feeling…

…what’s the word… Bored, maybe.

Like something was missing.

In my case, I suspected that I was meta-gaming way too much. I’ve seen all these maps before, several times. I know their schtick and what the NPCs are up to in each of them. I could probably find each jumping puzzle entrance unaided by a wiki, going from memory alone. The personal story from the orders on is SO SO DONE before.

Always on my mind is the possibility that I could log in on one of five other level 80s to do something -else-, and by god, are there a lot of something -elses- to do in GW2 – world bosses, TTS runs, WvW, a dungeon, gather or farm stuff, etc.

Except that I’ve also repeated a bunch of these activities… if they’re not quite to the point of being nauseating, they’re at least to the point of “having been done before.”

Strangely enough, a temporary cure for this malaise was serendipitously found when I saw the “Fear Not This Night” video and decided to watch a series of all its Youtube variants in the other screen while I went around leveling.

Between the stirring music and watching all the fantastical cutscenes and incredible art and rekindling that sense of potential GW2 had when it was new, I think I recreated some of that sense of wonder and awe that I personally CRAVE like a thirsting man needs water.

theworldisjustawesome

I started feeling more like a hero, more immersed into the world again, rather than my character acting as Tool #6 for Future Experimentation with AoE Spam in WvW and Condi Builds in PvP.

There was still one more thing missing though.

And this was where I really started missing the Living Story. It was -hard- to find a story, a linear narrative that my character could get involved in.

In GW1, this was front and center. Every story mission you went on, there was this one big overarcing story that we traced.

In GW2, the stories are fractured and scattered. Yes, I could chase the Personal Story. It’s the most linear narrative we have. It’s spread out geographically though, and with level gaps that enforce pauses and breaks in between.

I could do dungeons and follow Destiny’s Edges’ story – assuming I don’t get kicked out of impatient PUGs for daring to watch cutscenes – but again, the story is broken up by dungeons and levels. Anyway, we know the story. They squabble a lot. Our character tells them they’re being idiots. They eventually wise up, kiss and make up.

The open world itself has teeny tiny storylets that are unfortunately caught in time. They’re interesting, no doubt. I enjoy the Fields of Ruin for instance, the tension between the charr and the humans and the peace treaty and the characters that are still clinging on or struggling to get rid of old prejudices. But we can’t progress those stories in any meaningful fashion.

A narrative needs a beginning, middle and end. A line. Not a closed circle that continuously loops.

So I end up stuck waiting for the Living Story – our last, best hope for narrative in GW2.

Thing is, what’s missing for me, may not what’s be missing for you.

Which led to a fevered attempt to brainstorm motivations and reasons for why people play MMOs.

(Which has, of course, been attempted multiple times by others – some far more scientifically than me.)

In no particular order:

  • To feel like a hero – to be at the center of a story, or to be unique or stand out in some fashion, via prestigious cool-looking armor perhaps?
  • To feel like one is improving oneself, eg. via increasing stats or levels, or demonstrating competency via overcoming challenges
  • To be validated or acknowledged by one’s peers, eg. earning social respect via leadership or game skill, defeating others in a competition, etc.
  • To experience a shared purpose, commonality of goal, ‘teamwork’
  • For self-expression – customisation of a character and its looks, or to tell a story or build a home or express creativity in some other form
  • To experience a microcosm of life – MMO as a ‘flight simulator’ of life, test running and learning life lessons about social relationships and interacting with people within the game (a role also fulfilled by reading fiction or otherwise experiencing stories)
  • To feel like one is in a world – interconnectedness, have real people be doing stuff all around you or roleplaying, playing someone you’re not
  • To experience constant change and bursts of novelty, “new content”
  • To discover and learn new things
  • To master mechanics and optimize for efficiency
  • To experience a story – which segues nicely into the dev-created narrative or player-created narrative debate
  • To experience emotions, such as awe and wonder from seeing fantastic landscapes or large-scaled monsters in comparison to yourself (see WoW raid bosses and Shadow of the Colossus), or triumph and victory from defeating a difficult challenge, or a sense of belonging via falling in with a community of like-minded people

I’m sure there’s more.

And of course I noticed that a bunch of these were overlapping, so to speak, and I struggled to try and categorize them in some fashion.

We could fall back on Nick Yee’s main categories of Achievement, Social and Immersion.

Things to do with advancement, power, ambition, improving of self, mechanics and efficiency, perhaps competition might fall under Achievement.

Anything to do with belonging, relationships, player interaction, shared goals, teamwork and cooperation, perhaps even competition might fall under Social.

Immersion being the grab bag that then covers things like escapism, wonder, awe, curiosity, discovery, story-seeking.

Though we end up with a last hanging thread that I might end up terming as Self-Expression – being creative, enjoying customisation, being unique, storytelling and roleplaying (which overlaps onto Immersion), standing out (which overlaps back onto Achievement)

But then I noticed that maybe, just maybe… there was something even more universal at play here.

Note the many repeats of words like “feel” or “experience” or the various emotions that get named.

We say we play a game “for fun.”

We know that this “fun” means different things to different people, and we keep struggling to neatly delineate even more and more subcategories of “fun” in an attempt to get at what we’re really after.

Perhaps we’re really playing a game to feel -something.-

Preferably not boredom.

Many don’t like to feel anger or frustration in their games, but a few others do crave some of those negative emotions, if only to make the opposite emotion the sweeter when it finally arrives after a long struggle.

Different people crave certain feelings over others.

Different games feed certain feelings over others.

(GW2, as is, is pretty good in the Achievement and Social and Self-Expression categories – they keep pushing those agendas anyway, with a stress on cooperation and community organization rather than competition or elitist domination – but they’re kind of dropping the ball on the Immersion one and I think we’re seeing some of the repercussions in the recurring complaints about stories, lore, new zones, lack of caring about roleplaying, etc.)

If we end up feeling nothing or an overall lack of excitement in a game, that apathy becomes a problem which seems to eventually lead to the game being dropped.

Thing is, who’s in control here of our own emotions?

Do developers have a responsibility to entertain and feed us some of these emotions via their game design, since we’re choosing to play their game, after all?

Will it work if we ourselves are determined to not feel anything, having already been there and done that?

Perhaps an awareness that these things are in play is what we need to cross that divide of feeling and not-feeling.

At any time, perhaps we should be picking and choosing to play games (and do activities within a game) that do reward us with the feelings we’re craving.

It’s not a one-time life choice, after all.

We can swap them in and out like watching a comedy movie when we want to laugh and watching a horror movie when we want to be scared and thrilled.

We just need to remember to do it.

The MMO Cycle – A Cento About Missing the Magic of MMOs

Beauty in a swamp...

Gaily bedight,
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.

The happiest day — the happiest hour
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
Oh, from out the sounding cells,
What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!
How it swells!
How it dwells
On the Future! how it tells
Of the rapture that impels

And yet that spirit knew – not in the hour
Of its own fervour – what had o’er it power.

chievos

But he grew old —
This knight so bold —

Ah, dream too bright to last!
Ah, starry Hope! that didst arise
But to be overcast!

And o’er his heart a shadow
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.

For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.

forums
And the people — ah, the people —
All alone,
And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in
To the self-same spot,
A play of hopes and fears,
It shall not be forgot!
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”

suchzergmuchpower

And round about his home the glory
That blushed and bloomed,
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.

And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow —
“Shadow,” said he,
“Where can it be —
This land of Eldorado?”

anya

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were — I have not seen
As others saw
That motley drama- oh, be sure
In spring of youth it was my lot
To haunt of the wide world a spot
The which I could not love the less-

fountain

‘Twas noontide of summer,
And mid-time of night;
And stars, in their orbits,
Shone pale, thro’ the light

grove

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
So lovely was the loneliness
Of a wild lake, with black rock bound,
And the tall pines that towered around.

wildlake

At midnight, in the month of June,
I stand beneath the mystic moon.
And the mystic wind went by
Murmuring in melody-

moon

For the heart whose woes are legion
‘Tis a peaceful, soothing region —
For the spirit that walks in shadow
‘Tis — oh ’tis an Eldorado!

bamboo

cento is a poem made up of lines from poems from other poets.

Long time readers may be familiar with my complete and utter adoration of Edgar Allan Poe, though I leave the precise poems from which I have “borrowed” the lines an exercise for the reader.

I use GW2 out of convenience, since it’s the MMO I’m currently playing and most readily accessible to me, though I believe the poem is relevant to MMOs in general.

In no way should you assume anything about where I am on the MMO burnout cycle with regards to GW2 from this poem…

…though I will say that I -was- bored with the lack of change and Living Story, going through the motions seemingly out of habit, still a little turned off by the megaserver’s effect on the community I was used to…

…and that watching the Chinese “Fear Not This Night” music video that they’re releasing in preparation for the launch in China (the first video embedded above) and going pretty screenshot hunting suddenly reminded me of some of the things I truly love about this game.

This poem was also brought to you by the letters S Y L via the poetry slam sponsored by the Newbie Blogger Initiative 2014.

(Which I hope to talk about more later this month, but just haven’t had the time to get my act together yet. Long story short: Wanna blog? Blog! Now is good!)

It’s stretching the theme of magic by a considerable amount, but well, it’s what wanted to be written.