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.

GW2: Traditional Quests? Hell, No…

WoodenPotatoes makes an argument that Guild Wars 2 needs traditional quests to fill up a gap that dynamic events can’t cover, because the racial cities (and the world) somehow feel hollow.

Personally, I think he’s conflated two issues together and grasped at the old standby of traditional quests to attempt to solve it.

Point 1, which I heartily agree with, is that the racial cities are full of unexplored potential and as of right now, feel extremely empty and hollow.

When I too ran around to explore the Black Citadel, I kept coming across all manner of interesting locales and intriguing NPCs that I would have loved to hear say more than a few automatically scripted lines on interacting with them.

Coming across an NPC that said a few words of “fluff” that added to the lore was nice, if you’re the sort to actually read such things, but that’s about as good as it got, besides stumbling across the various merchants that sold different kinds of food and so on.

Sure, keep pacing. Maybe one day I'll get to join you in a gate defense holding off invaders from the Asura gates.
Sure, keep pacing. Maybe one day I’ll get to join you in a gate defense holding off invaders from the Asura gates. Too bad it’s not right now.

Point 2, is that he thinks this empty feeling can be solved by strewing a whole bunch of traditional quests across the landscape, alongside dynamic events.

I disagree most heartily.

Perhaps this is just semantics, or perhaps my most recent experience with “traditional quests” in SWTOR has left an extremely jaded taste in my mouth, but when I hear the word “traditional quests,” I imagine players running off alone by themselves on Fed-Ex errands moving things from one NPC to another, there and back again, just to get it ticked off a list and done with, preferably for xp or some other reward.

Being led around by the nose in Kass City on a traditional quest that was apparently meant to be an extended city tour did not actually serve to show me much of the city besides endless running along empty corridors, and all I could think of was that I wanted it DONE. Done and over with.

Now, of course we can argue that the map design of GW2 is a whole lot better than SWTOR in that there’s almost always something intriguing to see after just a couple of paces, and it wouldn’t ever devolve into endless jogging across barren landscape…

But to me, the entire design of a traditional quest is counter-productive to what GW2 is trying to achieve.

A traditional quest focuses you on the end reward, on the destination, not the journey. It’ll end up a race to swiftness as much as possible from NPC A to NPC B for the shiny. Repeat ad nauseam x how ever many alts you have, because of course, all of them want the shinies. That shiny is linked to the quest, see, so you can’t do another quest, you gotta do -this- quest.

A traditional quest is often done alone, by yourself. It wasn’t until later that all the fancy shared questing and shared item collection technology got shoehorned in, because folks suddenly realized that it was really stupid to have to kill 12 rats x 3 players when in a group so that everyone could get their proper share of rat intestines, while the guy who did it alone raced off blowing raspberries at the slowpokes who dared to be social.

No, no, you say, we will assume that we have learned from the past and all this technology will be implemented… but are you saying then that every player who wishes to do the quest together must first run to NPC A to pick up the quest? If you don’t have the quest in your quest log, then you can’t get the quest complete, even if someone in the area did it while you were standing nearby. That’s traditionally how it goes, no?

No, you scream at me, MMOs have solved that already. It’s called sharing quests. Any player who’s picked up the quest can share it with others in their group (or maybe even, in the area) with a press of the button. They don’t have to run to NPC A to start the quest. That’s old-fashioned.

Wait a sec, why do we even have to press the button to share the quest?

And suddenly we are in Warhammer Online and RIFT territory with public quests.

Add the question of why we have to physically form a group by ourselves (Warhammer) or click a button to join the group by yourself (Rift) and suddenly we are back to square one with Guild Wars 2’s dynamic events.

The beauty of the dynamic event system is that they are both solo and multiplayer friendly. If you’re alone, you can do it by yourself (assuming it’s not marked as a group, and even then a lvl 80 probably could) and anyone in the area can come by to help out – and they can only do so if they see those admittedly-immersion breaking orange marks on the minimap.

In truth, what you may possibly be irked with is the following:

a) Dynamic events feel very random and beyond one’s control to start.

A lot of the dynamic events are on some kind of timer, or linked in a not-so-obvious chain where a prior DE may have to be completed before the whole thing cycles again. To most players, the events just seem to pop up at random.

But they don’t have to be.

There are dynamic events that can be started by talking to an NPC, and they are often helpfully marked with a symbol over their heads and a conversation option with another symbol.

Here's a dynamic event that's started under player control.
Here’s a dynamic event that’s started under player control.

b) Dynamic event rewards feel all the same. Woohoo, xp, karma, 1 silver and however many copper pieces…

Maybe GW2 missed a beat here by not sending a thank you mail with a shiny item attached, so that it feels more traditional quest-like.

Alas, they were trying to think outside the box and offer players the option to choose their desired reward from pretty much anybody.

Talk to your karma vendors, people, there’s where your quest rewards are. Toys, equipment, and so on.

c) Dynamic events repeat too often and thus feel predictable and cyclic, and shortly thereafter, boring

Well, this I’ll give you partially, but the devs are human and can only make so many events at one time.

And we tend to only see the most obvious dynamic events run on repeat cycle because that’s the ones most people find.

Just today I did an extended Zho’Qafa Catacombs dynamic event chain that I’ve personally -never- seen before because so few people bother to find and run it. Straits of Devastation is somehow so oddly avoided an area. But it was extremely fun, with a number of champions along the chain. We had formed a group to go Final Rest hunting, and it seemed almost dungeon-like, where we were cooperating as a synergized team – boons, conditions and all, just in the open world where others could join up too.

It’s not really the fault of the dynamic event system per se, because it is also quite capable of sophisticated surprises. I wouldn’t dismiss the system just because the big event chains follow a predictable pattern.

Fer instance, a couple days ago, I was just waffling along on my lowbie Asura Guardian in Brisban Wildlands and I came across a chest next to a Veteran cave troll, flanked by two minion cave trolls. Recognize the setup?

The chest -was- on the right, along the wall. I've gone back twice now and haven't seen the chest again.
The chest -was- on the right, along the wall.

Kill veteran, pick up blue piece of loot from chest, right? Or if you’re sneaky, bypass veteran and grab loot from chest. But I’m a bloodythirsty sort, so I kite the cave trolls and kill them, feeling awesome and bounce over to the chest to grab my reward…

…and suddenly this slimy Skritt thief hops out of the chest, cackling madly and runs off with the loot. (Cue dynamic event popping up – stop Skritt thief from reaching destination)

Caught completely by surprise, I snap off my scepter’s immobilize, but it’s short lived and the skritt is off.

STOP, YOU THIEVING RAT, I want to yell, but that’s a waste of breath when my Asura is already huffing along on super short legs.

I didn’t have any swiftness skills swapped in at the time, and I fling myself after it with greatsword leap, trying to get in range for binding blade, but it’s a little too late, he’s got a head start and my guardian is slowed down by having aggroed all the mobs in between him and me.

The skritt does drop one piece of blue loot in the chase, but I fail that event, and now my Asura despises those little thieving buggers (he won’t even call ’em bookahs – those are for tall stupid people) even more now.

What was different about this dynamic event? Player-triggered, for one. Out of a goddamn chest, not by talking to an NPC like you’d expect.

As for the timer, well, I keep wanting to do it again and challenge the Skritt to a rematch. I’ve gone back twice now and haven’t found that chest again. Maybe there’s an in-between event I’m missing somewhere. Maybe it’s a long timer.

And Lost Shores proved that the dynamic event system is even capable of one-off events. (Though just because it’s capable of it, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea to do it.)

Well, maybe, someday I’ll get that scrawny Skritt…

You know what I think GW2 needs? To fill up those empty-feeling areas?

What those places need is -content- and -stories-.

We want to have stuff to do in the cities, aka content.

As for stories, well, even across the open world, some of the dynamic events may feel more generic than others – nameless bandits, centaurs, Inquest, Risen, whoever, just rushing to the slaughter.

But I remember Rhendak the Crazed pretty well, mostly because I keep joking he’d have to be crazy to sit all day underwater waiting for people to come by. I remember the ghosts in Barradin’s vault VERY well, because Ivor Trueshot kept pwning my lowbie and Horace still tears up my downleveled 80 and I recall them as people from Guild Wars 1. I even remember the Bane warband going on their regular ghost patrol, if only because they and my character share part of their surnames.

(I even remember that most useless group of almost-pacifist ogres that need their hand held with everything – even if I don’t remember their names.)

I think what we’d really like is to get to know some of the characters in the open world a little more. Learn their names. Hear their stories. Get involved in meaningful ways. Bring a little more personal story into the world story.

Ditto with all that potential in the racial cities. (I remember enjoying the public quests in Warhammer’s cities.)

But you don’t need traditional quests to do it. That’s a cop out. That’s the “I don’t have time to show you these stories, so I’ll just tell them to you in a big wall of text format” solution.

Based on the dynamic events already in game, add on what we’ve seen in end-of-beta events and the monthly updates, the dynamic event system is capable of filling those in just fine.

Given some time.

GW: The Villainy of Galrath, Then and Now

Continuing on our Wayfarer’s Reverie tour of Tyria, we have a representative image that never fails to send a little thrill of memory through me:

What? A swamp? Yep, along with the shrill neighs of Necrid Horsemen, and the ominous robed skeletal silhouettes of Zombie Warlocks and Damned Clerics.

You see, I’ve always thought of Villainy of Galrath as one of those oldschool fiendishly epic marathon quests. The problem stemmed from its introduction. You can get the quest in Lion’s Arch, the moment you arrive in town somewhere near the first third of the Prophecies chapter. You’re probably not even level 20 yet. Certainly not Ascended nor done with the main story yet.

And if you were as ignorant as I was, you’d never even heard of the Temple of the Ages – which is the best outpost to hit the Wizard’s Tower with.

No elaborate Guild Wars wiki to explain everything in those newbie days either.

And like a trusting fool, you assume that if you can get the quest, that means the game and MMO think you’re ready for the attempt. And so you collect your henchmen (heroes? what are those?) and follow the green arrow directly out of Lion’s Arch. (It’s where you got the quest from, after all.)

And it turns out that if you do it that way, you have to cross North Kryta Province, Nebo Terrace, Cursed Lands and the Black Curtain, before even hitting Kessex Peak where Galrath is.

With only five level 10 henchmen to assist you.

And in those days, your skill bar only had Core/Prophecies skills available to you, and probably only half of those since you hadn’t even gotten through the entire chapter or skill captured much yet. (There was the old way of skill capture too, where you had to wait for the mob to begin casting the spell you wanted, and then and only then hit the signet of capture.)

In other words, it was a grand adventure of epic proportions and much death penalty.

June 2005 – Ranger/monk with ridiculous random build, and henchies – doomed to fail

The pastoral countryside was never really much of a problem. Yeah, there were many accidental aggros of Tengu hordes since one never had the patience or the knowledge to wait for patrols to separate. There was the occasional whupping by fire imps (damn elementalist dps.) But one got through it.

It was in the swamps of Cursed Lands that things started getting hard. Crossing two zones was already quite marathon-y, and now one plunged into the slough of grim plague green despair. Trying to fight undead with levels all in the mid-teens with level 10 henchmen is not the easiest thing in the world. No such thing as flagging the party either, so one ran ahead and hoped for the best.

Many a time the attempt to reach Galrath died stillborn in those black marshes.

Gritting one’s teeth and steeling oneself, one would force oneself to run through the two precursor zones again, wondering when it would ever be possible to push through the fog of this swamp, and how many more zones it could be before reaching the tower?

I honestly don’t remember if I ever reached it that way.

I do remember once teaming up with another player or two and we got much much further into the Cursed Lands than I had ever gone by myself. At the time, it was an absolute thrill to be exploring virgin territory, so to speak. We may even have made it into the Black Curtain. Where I think we subsequently got lost, turned around and wiped. The group broke up shortly after, and I was back to hitting my head against the mud with too low level henchmen.

Several years down the road, after conquering Thunderhead Keep which I had stalled at, running through various chapters, I must have taken on Villainy of Galrath and succeeded. With heroes, better skill builds and knowledge, it was a non-event, I don’t even recall any specifics, just getting it done and marveling at the difference between then and the old beta days.

And then there is now.

Map to Temple of the Ages, load up on 7 heroes, tapdance through Black Curtain and jog through Kessex Peak, fondly remembering trying to pop Shadowy Essences off Fog Nightmares for Nicholas the Traveler.

This corner turn is etched into my memory. Too much farming, I’d say.

See the horde of red dots on the radar.

Shrug and charge like a madman into the whole morass shouting “There’s Nothing to Fear!” and “Save Yourselves!” while flinging Pain Inverter left and right and let the heroes do their thing. Normal mode, after all.

Their reaction? “!!!” (Thanks, Gwen.)

Then proceed to happily rotate 360 degrees on the hilltop like a National Geographic cameraman, wondering what the best angle would be and whether a panorama shot was possible. (Alas, it wasn’t. GW imposes some kind of perspective angle when looking up or down, making it impossible to overlap screenshots in its entirety. This and the featured image above will have to do.)

Runescape: Quest For Bread

Recently, Runescape lit up my radar in a big way.

I always had the vague intention of giving it a try but never found the time till now. It was probably for the best, as I am given to understand they recently did a graphical update in the last two years (I was never really impressed with Runescape pics previously, but now they have a very decent cartoony polygonal cuteness to them) and just in February 2012, redid their new player experience.

Well, it worked. After a bloodstirring soundtrack while the client updated (absolutely classic, reminded me of Guild Wars 2 and Skyrim gets you into the mood for adventure), my new character was given a 14-day free “members” trial, then thrown into a town under siege by rock-like trolls, and some conversation and story later, introduced to the basics of combat, and step by step walked through the process of how to level most of the skills in a helpful twin town setting of Bunthorpe and Taverley. One nice touch, the storekeepers had freebie samples which were more than sufficient for a new player to learn the ropes, but not enough to go crazy grinding with.

Take note, this is how to sell a game. Give the player a taste of the good stuff, explain clearly what is for members and what is not, show ’em all the nice skills members have, get them used to having them, let them have a good time, and then show them EVEN MORE loyalty rewards you could stand to accrue if you continued with a membership, and then OFFER them a ludicrous 75% off your first month subscription then and there.

Whoever Runescape has for a marketing director, he is an evil genius. The barrier for entry was so low it eroded away any resistance I could put up. So I put down the equivalent of a buck ninety five in USD and am now subscribed for a month to Runescape.

One of the most common critiques I hear about this game is that it is an awful grind to “skill up.” I can see the potential for it to become such if getting to the end of the progress bar was all a person cared about, because it involves considerable repetitive clicking action.

But then again, through a browse of the Runescape wiki, I see the game as more of a long-term sandbox. Yes, I said sandbox. There seem to be a million and one different minigames and activities that you could be doing in Runescape. Choose what you want to do, develop laterally as you do that activity, and swap activities when you’re bored, seem to be way to play Runescape, similar to how one might attempt Guild Wars or A Tale in the Desert. Certain crafting activities are meant to take time and involve repetitive action, because in that way, lazy people can pay crafters to do it, and voila, you have an economy.

One of the things that attracts me most to Runescape is the quest content. It is oldschool. As in, slightly more Everquest or MUD inspired than the WoW sort. You talk to the NPC, you have a conversation that doesn’t comprise of two summary sentences, there is some humorous banter back and forth, and horror of horrors, you may even need to check a map to plan your path because there’s no automatic waypoint arrow. 🙂 That said, the new tutorial DID have waypoint arrows, and was very helpful in explaining to a Runescape newbie that other quests may not be so simple.

And did I mention the humorous banter? It reminds me of Quest For Glory and its ilk. I found a Thieves’ Guild in the older tutorial town of Lumbridge, and had many flashbacks to the old Sierra game while I helped the Guildmaster “procure” a treasure chalice. Afterward, I was laughing with great amusement as my character ribbed the Guildmaster, “Are you sure you have a buyer for the chalice?” “Sure, why wouldn’t I have?” “Well, the chalice wasn’t where you said it would be, and wasn’t with who you said had it, so maybe you don’t have a buyer either.” So far, many of the conversations with the NPCs go like that, fairly lighthearted, not taking themselves very seriously and occasionally gently poking at the fourth wall. It’s good fun.

Also impressive are the crafting options in Runescape. They are pretty deep. A piece of bronze armor involves mining copper and tin, finding a forge to smelt it into bars, finding an anvil to hammer it into shape. So far, not too dissimilar from regular MMOs. But then while mining copper and tin, lapis lazuli ore pops out, and you can craft and cut it into a polished gem. And then you need to chop down trees, which may yield a knot of wood, which then gets worked into a brooch setting, which you can pop the polished gem into. And speaking of those trees you cut down, the logs can be lit on fire, which you can then cook with, or turned into wooden materials to craft with further, including arrow shafts… which then need to be fitted with bronze arrowheads (see mining and smithing) and feathers (enter hunting for swifts by laying traps and chicken slaughtering). And those dead chickens? Well you can cook them. And those bones that all mobs drop? Buryable for piety skill increases.

Two main differences I can detect from most normal MMOs. One, you can do it all. Yes, no artificial “choose two professions, now make more alts to get the other crafting professions.” It’s just going to take you a really long time to grind up to very good in all of the skills if you really choose to do it all, I guess.

And two, I really like the “Use X on Y” ability command. This is an adventure game thing. The sense of immersion goes way up if you can opt to creatively combine or use verbs on various items.

Here’s me attempting to make bread:

Step 1 – Open gate to wheat field. Pick wheat. Each stalk is an interactable object.

Step 2 – Proceed to flour mill. One of the nice things about having less taxing graphics is that we can have buildings that cutaway to reveal interiors without needing to zone to a new instance.

Step 3 – In the ground floor of the mill, there is the receptacle the flour will eventually end up, a convenient empty pot for picking up the flour with, and an optional miller NPC you can talk to and exchange pleasantries as well as ask how to grind flour. Yes, you can find things out from NPCs, not just a third-party wiki!

Step 4 – Climb the ladder and head two stories up. Use wheat on hopper. (Did I mention I love that “Use X on Y” command?) Operate hopper lever controls. *grind grind*

Climb back down ladder.

Step 5 – Take empty pot. Use empty pot on flour bin. Hooray, you have obtained FLOUR!

Here’s another nice thing about Runescape and their introductory experience. There’s a ding practically every step. There are seemingly a thousand and one simple tasks, that you can either follow and do via the task list, or even just wander the world talking to people and doing random stuff, and voila, a Task Complete pops up to surprise you and give you that warm fuzzy feeling of virtual achievement.

Every tiny increase in skill is made a big deal of by treating it as separate levels and giving it the whole level fireworks shebang. This is such a contrast to say, something like Wurm Online, where you are told in no uncertain terms that your skill is something like 6.7% and you’re going to fail repeatedly at making misshapen lumpy objects while you increment it to 7% and then 8%. You’re left feeling inadequate, and wondering if it’s worth the time, especially since each attempt takes up several boring tens of seconds watching an identical progress bar move.

In Runescape, let’s face it. Going from level 1 to level 99 is mathematically still the same thing as trying to get from 1% skill to 99% skill. But the semantics is different, and the way it’s dealt with is different. Most actions you attempt will succeed. If you fail, you either automatically keep attempting it, or you can repeat the action. Each successful action gives you a visible XP popup, indicating your gradual progress. And when you cross from midway through level 6 to level 7, wow, does the game celebrate your teeny tiny achievement. Hurrah, you are one level higher! It does make a difference.

Ok, back to bread. After flour, one goes looking for a source of water like a well to wet the flour and turn it into bread dough. I got lost, couldn’t find a well, eventually stumbled into a spooky little town called Draynor Village which was all shadowy and looked way too high level for me, found a water pump, successfully got bread dough, couldn’t find a working oven range to bake said bread dough into bread, wussed out and teleported back to the newb village of Lumbridge, where I couldn’t find a working oven range either because the cook at the castle had me traipsing off on another half-completed quest, and got totally distracted with the Thieves’ Guild questline instead.

I ended up wandering through a swamp where I decided to kill not ten, but a few, evil-looking giant rats for the fun of it, picked some nettles from outside a hermit’s cottage (swiping his leather gloves in order not to get stung by the nettles), and lighting fires outside the poor man’s hut in order to distract him, pickpocket the key he was carrying, in order to get at the treasure the Thieves’ Guild wanted.

There will be other days for breadmaking. Adventure calls!

You know, if only more people would try stuff outside their comfort zone (and click to walk with no WASD movement is probably Runescape’s biggest hurdle to regular MMO players), they’d find that sandboxes are already out there.