Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Read Lately: The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb

  • ...or at least the first one and three quarters thereof. And I'm really not sure if I want to keep going.

  • I started reading The Farseer trilogy based on the recommendation of a World of Warcraft guild mate. I haven't read any fantasy since the last George R. R. Martin book and I'd been getting restless for another. Since my wonderful wife had a number of Robin Hobb's books in the To-Be-Read warehouse, and I'd enjoyed one of her short stories before, I thought I'd give it a shot.

  • I got through the first book okay, if a little slowly. It was nice to read a well written fantasy (and Hobb is a good author), though the plot did not have the drive and excitement that I look for in a fantasy. As a matter of fact when I finished the book, I did not have much desire to continue with the series, even with many dangling plot threads. Like so much fantasy now, the book was written to fill out a trilogy, never intending to make a satisfying standalone experience. Instead I went on to read other things.

  • However that same guild mate eventually asked me if I'd finished the series. Instead of saying what I felt about it, I just said I was about to start the second. I wish I hadn't. I got three quarters of the way through the book before my anger at the characters got the best of me. The entire plot drives on the fact that no one will do act against the interests of a demonstrably evil character due to their personal strictures, insecurities, and just plain idiocy. By the three quarter point, I was so frustrated by the characters that I could not take it any more.

  • I turned to the last page of the book.

  • I know that doing so is blasphemy to a serious reader, but I couldn't help it. I wasn't doing so because I couldn't take the suspense. I just had to know if I was right all along and my frustration with the characters was justified. Turns out I was right. As a note to the authors out there, I don't want to read a book about a character that fails due to inaction! Thus, the book is stuffed in my desk (bookmark still in place, just in case) and going unread. I've read a few things since then, better things. Hopefully better reviews will follow.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Played Lately: Everquest 2

  • Every time I start this post, it takes on the tone of a confessional. I'll just have to go with that.

  • Everquest has always held a strange fascination for me. As the first massive RPG to bring in huge numbers, I could not help but wonder what it would be like to join the adventure in an online world. Of course, I didn't have the computer for it and struggled under the burden of a dial-up connection, so playing was out of the question. But the time I had the resources to barely meet the requirements to play, I discovered that barely was not really enough. Additionally I discovered that in an online RPG that is years old, the areas dedicated to new players become a barren wasteland. I played long enough to know the phenomenon had passed me by. I cancelled my account and looked for something else.

  • But the fascination was still there. I bought a Playstation 2 for the sole purpose of playing Champions of Norrath, the Dark Alliance inspired game set in the world of Everquest. I bought several pen-and-paper role playing game books for the same reason. And just recently, Sony released an online card game called Legends of Norrath. I love collectible card games, though I don't play them. I was immediately hooked on this.

  • Then a funny thing happened. My excitement for the Guild Wars expansion had come and gone. And as I've already chronicled here (and here) my love for World of Warcraft had waned substantially. So I was looking for something new. So I thought, "What the heck? Why not Everquest 2?"

  • I started doing some research and discovered that EQ2 bit the bullet and created several quest series that would take a solo player from start to maximum level, much like WoW. Even better, it looked like they had done one better by including solo instances, something WoW is sorely lacking. Since the game was a few years old and had three expansions under its belt, I thought I might as well give it a shot.

  • In the pro column, it was a new experience for me, but familiar enough that I did not feel lost. I started my adventure in Kelethin, the latest expansion zone, and was soon overwhelmed with the number of options available to me. Thankfully, that was overwhelmed in a good way. I was never at a loss for things to do. That includes the inventive crafting system. With WoW, you kick a button and the thing done. In EQ2 you can do that, but you won't produce nearly the quality of product. I would not mind seeing this system emulated in other games.

  • However there are a few negatives that I should cover as well. Although the game will run, I have to run in in High Performance mode for it to run with any chance of smooth play. Thus I'm missing out on what should be a very attractive game. Also, I've suddenly hit a level of difficultly in my missions where the quest have outpaced my level. Now I'm faced with grinding for experience so that I can outlevel the quests, just to bring them to a difficulty where I can complete them.

  • One final problem I have with the game is that there is direction is limited. You get a great feel for how expansive the world is, but the quests are not very explicit in guiding your experience.

  • So while I've enjoyed my time playing, it has only made me appreciate WoW more. It's nice to have a competent alternative, though.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Top Five: Comic Book Series

  • Astonishing X-Men: I'm already writing an article about AXM but I'll indulge in a few words here. If you like Joss Whedon, if you liked the X-Men in any prior form, or if you just like beautiful pictures, there is something for you here. If you fit all of the above, try not to drool on the pages of this series. This is the only costumed super-hero book I read anymore.

  • Criminal: I told myself that I wouldn't choose this series since Sleeper already appears in my top five. That was seven months ago when I first started writing this post. (Yes, I'm a winner.) Criminal is a pitch perfect crime drama with tough and evocative writing by Ed Brubaker and subtly expressive art from Sean Phillips. I can't recommend this book highly enough. Criminal is the one comic book that I absolutely have to pick up on New Comic Wednesday.

  • Mage: When I was young, comics were all about superheroes and toy licenses. I read my Spidey and my G.I. Joe. Then along came Mage. A retelling of the Arthurian legend in modern times, it captured my imagination like none before. This was the comic that taught me that comic books don't have to be for kids. Matt Wagner, if you're out there, isn't it time for you to get started on book three?

  • Queen & Country: If you told me that I would end up liking a comic book series about a British secret agent, the various politically charged missions she goes on, and the turmoil that brings to her life... actually that sounds really good. And it is. Greg Rucka even got a couple of great prose novels out of the deal. So if you want espionage without the movie cliches, this is the book for you.

  • Sleeper: Like all good things, I got into Sleeper late. But the old saying applies here: better late than never. Sleeper is the story of a deep-cover agent in a criminal organization. His problem is that his handler is in a coma, so no one knows he's undercover. He constantly has to balance maintaining his cover against sinking to low into the moral quagmire, knowing all the while that there may never be anyway for him to get out. And while the story is set in a superhero universe, this is a story about good and evil and the thin line between the two. Anyone who likes action and espionage will like Sleeper. A bold statement, but true nonetheless.

Played Lately: World of Warcraft

  • Just a short update to geek out a little. Last night while playing my blood elf, Ashlynh, (while I should have been asleep), I was happily questing along when I found a Jack O'Lantern. Amazingly, this item is an 18 slot bag, a size which is very hard to come by in the game. If you know anything about MMORPGs, you know how important it is to have big bags for hauling all your loot around.

  • I know it's silly to be happy about replacing a 16 slot bag with an 18 slot, but it's the little victories that keep you going.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Played Lately: World of Warcraft

  • Wow, that last post went so long, I forgot that I had a second point to make. Which is funny, too, because I'd worked up a whole head of steam over this topic and then spent all my time blathering on about the daily quests. In retrospect, I didn't know how pissed off I was about that. However I remember exactly how pissed off I am about this. Welcome to "Kicking the Hell out of World of Warcraft: Part Two." Let's start with a couple of stories:

  • When I play WoW lately, it's as my Blood Elf mage, Ashlynh. Just recently, she made the final grind to level 58 and ran for the Dark Portal. Everyone else seems to have the same idea because suddenly there were actually other people around to interact with. And all of them want to run the Hellfire Citadel dungeon instances. Which is cool because the instances can be fun and provide excellent rewards if you get a good group.

  • Did you catch what I did there? I feel like I should go back and highlight, bold, and underline that phrase.

  • "If you get a good group." This is the crux of my problem. The very first instance you encounter, and presumably the easiest, is Hellfire Ramparts. There is nothing particularly difficult about this dungeon. There are no difficult pulls as long as you watch for patrols. The bosses aren't particularly tricky as long as you stay on the ball. But for some reason, I can't find four other people that know their class from a hole in the ground.

  • As a mage, my role is pretty straight forward: 1) blow stuff up and 2) keep one bad guy "sheeped". The only thing I have to worry about is doing too much damage and therefore causing enemies to charge me. I do a pretty good job of that because, honestly, it's not that hard. But a bunch of kick ass mages does not an instance group make.

  • Unfortunately, WoW requires that all groups subscribe to the "Holy Triumvirate" setup or you will never, ever take down a boss. (The Holy Triumvirate for those of you just joining in is Tank/Healer/DPS. DPS is a damage dealer; the acronym is Damage Per Second.) If you don't have a tank, everyone dies. No healer, the same. No DPS and you can't kill things fast enough before the healer can't keep the tank from going down and you're back to everyone dies. Me, the mage, fall squarely in the DPS catagory. But like I said, my part is the easy one.

  • What I keep running into over and over are tanks and healers who don't wear the proper gear, don't use the correct talents, and don't really know how to do their job properly. The problem with these dungeons is that the learning curve is pretty steep at the end. Sure, you can get away with some half-assed pulls as long as there is enough crowd control (that's me with the sheeping) to focus on one bad guy at a time. You can't do that with the boss and hope to survive. Nazan, the dragon-like thing at the end of Hellfire Ramparts, killed my group five times before we decided that enough was enough.

  • I have been trying to get through Shadow Labyrinth with my human paladin, Kyralahn, for a couple of months now. My professed goal in the game has been to step foot into Karazhan with a raid group. Unfortunately for me, "SLab" has proven unbeatable. As a paladin, I have dedicated myself to being the best healer I can. I've collect the best healing gear I can find (so far), I've set my talents to optimize my ability, and I have practiced. But still, the dungeon is unforgiving.

  • I suspect I'll never complete my Karazhan key. This feeling is part of the reason I turned away from WoW recently and started looking for other games to occupy my time. I really like to have fun in my games, and these frustrating instances do not meet that need.

  • On a side note: Kyralahn just recent completed another level 70 instance, The Botanica. Amazingly enough, a decent group with an exceptional tank got us all the way through the dungeon with only one wipe and a minimum of deaths. A good time was had by all. If only all my groups were that lucky.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Played Lately: World of Warcraft

  • And now, I beat the hell out of World of Warcraft.

  • Well, you know, sort of. It's still World of Warcraft, so any criticism I make now has to filtered through the lens of "I've played and enjoyed this game so long that it actually counts the amount of time played in total days because the number of hours and minutes won't fit in the little chat box". But anyone who has played for that long also knows exactly what it is that pisses them off. Here, then, is the picking of the nits.

  • If there is one thing that WoW is renowned for (and maybe reviled in certain camps) is that they gave it a solo option. You can literally raise a character from level 1 to level 70 without ever relying on the assistance of another player. Sure, you'll miss out on the group quests and their nice rewards (though going back at a higher level to solo them is an option). You will miss out on all of the instances as none of them are turned for a solitary player. And you'll never see the inside of a raid encounter. But there is never a time on the trip to the level cap when you lack for options.

  • So why does Blizzard hide solo content behind a barrier that requires a group to unlock? Really, what is the point? Are they saying, "We'll give you this fun new stuff to do with great rewards, but only if you choke down this bundle of crap that we know you hate?" Is that it?

  • Specifically what I'm talking about is the daily quests in Outland. One of the quest chains, the Sha'tari Skyguard, is accessible just as soon as you hit level 70 and buy a flying mount. But for some effing reason, the Orgi'la and the Netherwing factions are unavailable unless you complete a long series of group quests. And these aren't the kind that you can wait until you get more powerful, then go back to solo later. These are hardcore, 5-man level 70 bosses you have to fight. While the Netherwing only force you to complete one of these quests, you have to down five of these idiotic quests to get into Ogri'la. That may not sound too bad for the Netherwing, they also require you to have a 300 Riding skill at a cost of 5000 gold. If I play every day, I'll probably make that much in about half a year.

  • Someone please explain to me why this is fun?

  • Look, I like people just fine. However I want to do my own thing in my own time. Making friends and interacting with a guild will give you a different online experience. But at the same time, the game goes from fun to an obligation just as soon as I have to subvert my goals at the behest of others.

  • Plus I'm really tired of that one guy asking me to help him out every time I log in.

  • Maybe I won't ever see the inside of Karazhan, the noobist of the noob raids. I won't ever get a purple that I didn't craft myself. But I don't really care that much. If you're going to give me an anti-social option, expect me to want to see all of it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Played Lately: Guild Wars

  • I finally succumbed to the inevitable and started playing Guild Wars again. It's become my latest excuse for not posting regularly/at-all. The Eye of the North expansion was released at the perfect time, i.e. just when I got completely bored with World of Warcraft. (Complaints to follow.)

  • I got warmed up for playing (and Guild Wars needs a warm up) in the week prior to the preview by, of all things, farming the Ferndale region for Kurzick faction. I don't think I stepped outside of the area bounded by Lutgardis Conservatory at the south and House zu Heltzer in the north the entire time, except to peek into my guild hall. I did enough to earn the first level of the Kurzick Allegiance title, and with it access to the PvE-only skills.

  • Why not leave the dark environs for Echovald Forest, you might ask? Well, it comes down to the fact that I can't stand to drag another character through Nightfall again. I got my Kira through the game once and a paragon got all the way to the Realm of Torment before giving up on the game before and I sure as hell aren't going to do that again without a seriously imbalanced build. After playing the first half of the game, which includes the Istan and Kourna regions, I thought Nightfall might be the best game yet, with the Consulate Docks mission as one of the best in all three games. Then I hit Vabbi and the game started to suck. The Desolation lived up to its name and the Realm of Torment was more horrific to me than the god it was built to imprison. Don't even get me started on the Domain of Anguish. What a complete failure of a game!

  • Sorry about that rant. Turns out things look up with this expansion.

  • With the preview weekend only one week prior to game's launch, I didn't feel too bad about exploring as much of the expansion as I could. Especially since all accomplishments would carry over, unlike prior previews. So my brother and I (who long ago surpassed me in Guild Wars fanaticism) plunged head-first into the Far Shiverpeaks. It was like returning home, in a way. The Shiverpeaks were always one of my favorite areas in the original campaign and this excellence was only amplified by the years of experience the designers have accrued since the originals were made. While this branch of the storyline was the only one available for the preview, it was more that this was game I loved playing returned to me.

  • The Norn introduced me to the first reputation track of the expansion and I was hooked by the mechanical, just as I'm sure they expected it to. Ingeniously, you can take a challenge that earns you a single reputation for your earliest kills. If you hurry through an area, you won't earn much. However, it seemed to me that just when you got to where you wanted to go, the challenge increases its reward, earning three points per kill instead of one. Something goes off in my head at that points that says, "I can't stop now! I'm getting triple points per kill!" Further improvements to four points soon follows just when you think about turning back. Then, as is my usual luck, the final five point version usually happens far too late to matter. By then I've killed everything in the instance and have to move on reluctantly.

  • This is also where I earned my first PvE-only skills of the expansion. For my ranger, these Norn skills have proven to be the most useful. "I Am The Strongest!" and "You Move Like a Dwarf!" quickly found a home on my skill bar, adding much needed knockdown ability and additional damage. Once the preview weekend was over, I knew it would be a long week before I could get back the abilities I was now so enamoured with.

  • The Norn lands were also the setting for my first dungeon experience. In this case, that was the Sepulchre of Dragrimmar. (Okay, I had to look up the spelling, but I was close.) It was at this point that I realized the expansion was a winner. Here was something that, though not new by any stretch, gave the rush of anticipation like I had not felt for the game in about a year. I can see myself returning to those challenges often in the future.

  • Eventually the expansion finally launched and I got to play through to the end. Beyond a couple of very hard bits (clearly marked as Master level, so I was warned), there were no missteps with the difficulty as were found in Nightfall. I played through to the end and enjoyed every step of the way. If Eye of the North was Arena.net's way of bridging the gap with Guild Wars 2, I can't wait to see what they come up with next.