Friday, March 27, 2009

Played Lately: World of Warcraft

  • My adventures in PuG raiding continued last Sunday with an evening raid into the Naxxramus Construct Quarter. I know I said I wasn't going to raid, but the invite was right there. How was I supposed to say no? Actually, pick-up raiding is just about the most I'll be looking for. No raiding guilds for me!

  • Back to my story. Much like the Sartharion raid, I asked if there was a gear requirement and instead of an answer I received an invite to the raid. I took off from Dalaran and flew for the first time to Naxxramus. It's hard to describe the combined feeling of unease and excitement as I flew over. Joining a raid means there are a bunch of other people who need you to carry your weight, something I haven't done much of since The Burning Crusade. In a ten player raid, there is even less slack for failure. Also Naxxramus is a huge icon in World of Warcraft. It has gone from the pinnacle of raiding in basic game to the starter raid here. But what player hasn't heard of Patchwerk or the Four Housemen or Kel'Thuzad? It reminded me of my first time in Karazhan, my first and favorite raid.

  • When we finally had ten players together, we started on the construct quarter, a wing full of abominations and slimes. There was very little trash to kill, evidently an improvement since the level 60 days. Then before long, the first encounter with Patchwerk. I was so excited to have such a famous boss as the first on our list. Food buffs and elixers in place, I did my mage thing, slamming Frostfire Bolts weaved with the occasional Scorch, Living Bomb, or Pyroblast. One thing I love about raiding is that I have to use so many more spells than just blasting the baddies down. It took a few minutes — long mana draining minutes — but we downed Patchwerk and I got my first Emblem of Heroism from Naxx.

  • The next fight was the less notable but more interesting Grobbulus. This monstrosity took four tries before people got the hang of not standing in the clouds. The way I typed that sounds silly, but there is a lot more going on with these clouds that takes some getting used to. One interesing mechanic in the fight involved Grobbulus hitting people with his Mutating Injection. That is another way for him to spread his clouds around. I got a couple compliments on my ability to drop clouds in nooks between other clouds then blinking out of danger. It was very nice to hear.
  • Grobbulus was also where I got my first piece of Naxxramus gear. I won the roll and received the Handgrips of Turmoil. Even without socketing a gem, they are better than the previous gloves I was wearing. It stuns me that a PuG raider like myself can end up with three epic items. (Come to think of it, the socket is still empty. Wonder what I should drop in there.)

  • From Grobbulus, we moved on to Gluth. His fight isn't hugely complicated. He has an enrage ability that a couple classes have the ability to dispel. That seemed pretty easy. He also can eat zombies to heal himself. That was much more interesting. Someone in the group (not sure who it was) collected all the zombies, then we blew them up as a group when they tried to get to Gluth. Lots of fun and we did it on the first try.

  • The final fight was with Thaddius. We made several attempts, only one of which could be thought of as an actually attempt since people either missed the jump or didn't get into tanking position in time. The one good attempt went well until we discovered one of the healers didn't understand the charge mechanic. That wipe pretty much ended us for the night. So I didn't get to finish a wing or see the proposed Military Quarter. Killing three bosses on my first night was a lot of fun and I hope to see the place again sometime. Mage LFG for Naxx 10 or 25!

  • As an aside, I just discovered that one of the new pets available in the new patch will be an enchanted broom. Ever since I rolled my first blood elf, seeing these brooms sweeping up Silvermoon was one of my favorite sights in the game. If this is true, I'll never need another pet again.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Watched Lately: Dollhouse

  • The mythical sixth episode of Dollhouse that would make everyone fall in love with the show finally came out in Friday. Since I was already enjoying the show, this episode essentially proved my belief that it is building toward, you know, something. This must be what if feels like to be vindicated. (Yay, me!)

  • From here on out, I'm jumping feet first into Spoilerland. The way is treacherous for those of you who are not prepared (i.e. haven't watched the episode). Feel free to turn away now, this post will still be here when you're done. Anyway, there were a lot of things about the episode I particularly liked.

  • So there's someone on the inside? That's really cool. And it's not Alpha? That's cool, too. Twenty Dollhouses in the world is cool, if mind blowing. Actually, everything about this sequence was cool. Eliza Dushku and Tahmoh Penikett completely sell their fight. It's probably one of the best in recent memory. I loved having the girl Ballard wants to save trying to kill him. And the big reveal about the tampering with Echo's imprint caught me by surprise. I almost didn't know it what was happening until she was halfway through her speech.

  • I think we all suspected that Ballard's cute but strange neighbor was a doll, but Joss really had me wondering there for a second. For just a moment when the scene started, I really thought she was going to die. Which probably would have been horrible and cool and sad. But then she kicked major ass and it was even better. Actually, thinking back, I knew she was a doll the moment DeWitt showed the picture of the target. Joss would have hid the picture if he wanted us to think Ballard was the target. At least, that's what I would have done in that case.

  • Finally, Patton Oswalt was awesome in his role. The sad sit down with Agent Ballard, telling his story, actually made you feel bad for a guy, even if he's paying to use a person for sex. Creepy and touching all at the same time. I understand why the Dollhouse subject matter makes people uncomfortable. I think making people uncomfortable might be a larger point to this show. I'm looking forward to seeing where the show goes from here.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Played Lately: Drakensang

  • I don't play many single player computer role-playing games (CRPGs) anymore, partially because of World of Warcraft, partially because most CRPGs are pretty boring. I've actually liked very few CRPGs since Baldur's Gate bastardized the genre. It was a surprise to me, then, when I discovered Drakensang from Germany's Radon Labs. Thank goodness to Germany and Eastern Europe for fostering the types of games American publishers have largely abandoned.

  • Based on Das Schwarze Auge, a pen-and-paper RPG popular in Germany, Drakensang is similar in style to Neverwinter Nights 2. You create one template-based character that you can adjust to some extent, then you collect other teammates over the course of the game. The rules system is very esoteric to an outsider, though anyone taking the time can tease out what's going on under the hood. All the numbers and skill checks remind me of older RPGs like Rolemaster or Top Secret, games that fervently rejected the streamlining of later editions of Dungeons and Dragons. If that sounds like a complaint, it's not. I love how crunchy rules like that inform the playing experience, especially in a computer game where you don't have to do all the calculations yourself.

  • The game starts with one of the most intelligent design decisions I've seen. Radon Labs used the first loading screen to present a letter from an old friend asking for your help, dragging you into the story instead of showing off the concept art. It's an effective way to make you ignore the progress bar crawling across the bottom of your screen. From there, you launch directly into character creation and the first quests. There has been a lot of talk on the web about less than stellar graphics or poor voice acting, but I was immediately charmed by the game. Any rough edges I've found only give the game a unique character.

  • The wagging tongues also decry the cliched setting and plot. While I might bash a Bioware or Bethesda if they do not push the boundaries (especially Bethesda), Drakensang makes all those cliches feel like a warm blanket instead of a straitjacket. The world is very inviting, the characters are attractive, and the quests, though they don't rise above the norm, tell a fun story.

  • And that, more than anything, is what I've taken away from this game. It's just fun. An indefinible quantity, to be sure. I promise to come back to wail and bemone the game the moment I'm not having fun anymore. But for now, I'm glad to have a new world explore.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Read Lately: The Dead Man's Brother by Roger Zelanzy

  • Roger Zelanzy may be better known for his fantasy and science fiction novels, but The Dead Man's Brother proves that he was apt at writing any genre he wanted. When this came up as the monthly release from Hard Case Crime, I was apprehensive about the selection. From what I know of the publisher, I should not have been.

  • The book starts with a murder. I feel comfortable telling you this since it happens on the first page and it is not want to book is really about. The Dead Man's Brother is the story of how that murder propels Ovid Wiley, an art thief turned art dealer, to investigate the theft of millions of dollars from the Vatican. If you're wondering those two things connect, you start to understand Zelanzy's take on the genre.

  • The novel's prose has the standard clipped noir overtones that, thankfully, never devolve into parody. The writing is so spare that some passages almost read not like an outline. While this shook me the first couple times he employed the technique, I quickly got into his style and the effect he was striving for. Zelanzy does a good job of making Wiley an interesting and likable character. Since he is the protagonist, he is the most fully realized, but the surrounding characters are not neglected.

  • When I finished the book, I knew that I enjoyed it. However, it is plain to see why it was never published in the author's lifetime. It is the good work, but I suspect it did not meet with his personal high standard.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Played Lately: World of Warcraft

  • It was just recently (Sunday, in fact) that I mentioned that I was no longer raiding in WoW. My, how time flies. Monday night, as I was winging my way across the Storm Peaks, polishing off the last few available quests, then I saw a notice in the Looking For Group channel: "lfm dps for 25 man OS."

  • At first, I ignored it because, well, I wouldn't take me to a raid. Why would I force myself on someone else? But when the request came up a couple more times, I wondered if this might be the opportunity to play tourist on a raid I wouldn't have an opportunity to see again. I sent a whisper to the recruiter asking how well geared they wanted their recruits? His response was to send an invite to the raid. I quickly joined and flew out to the Wrymrest Temple before they could change their minds.

  • Upon arriving in the Obsidian Sanctum, I was greeted with a mostly full group and large dragon standing in the middle of a lava field. I was immediately struck by how similar this seemed to Onyxia's Lair, which I first visited only recently. The three attendant drakes had already been killed, so I was here only for the main event, but that didn't matter much to me. I was just lucky to get the invite.

  • The main event was actually really cool. There isn't a lot to the fight. Without the drakes up, it's a simple tank-and-spank with the occasional flame wave you have to watch out for and dodge. I made it through the whole fight without getting hit with a wave, though I did take one Tail Swipe from Sartharion. I also noticed that a bunch of fire elementals jumped into the fight at various times. Sometimes I'd drop a Blizzard on them and sometimes I just kept on the main target. Only a couple people died during the fight and no one complained, so I didn't feel too bad that I wasn't one hundred percent sure what I was doing.

  • Sartharion went down on the first try. I didn't win any loot, but I got the Heroic: Besting the Black Dragonflight achievement, an Emblem of Valor, and a couple screenshots to commemorate the evening. It wasn't a bad way to spend a half hour. Especially for a non-raider.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Played Lately: World of Warcraft

  • After a couple of months of WoW boredom, I have returned to Azeroth to continue my trek through Northrend. Not that I've gotten bored with my other games, but it's hard to give up on World of Warcraft permanently.

  • When I logged in after my recent hiatus, I found my recent level-capped mage on the doorstep of Zul'Drak, this expansion's troll kingdom. WoW loves its trolls, and this time they give them an undead flavor. When I initially left, I couldn't stomach another zone full of trolls. This time I could appreciate the stark desolate version of architecture that's usually surrounded by jungle vegetation. I also got into the very enjoyable quests helping the various fallen troll gods.

  • When I finally cleared the Zul'Drak quest achievement, I was happy to move on to Shalozar Basin. In comparison to the bleak, gray troll lands, Shalozar is lush and full of life. The first place I ended up was the Nesingwary Base Camp after being shot down by the Venture Company. As one would expect, I got a bunch of quests to depopulate the local wildlife. This time, though, the kill quests led to quests to track down the more dangerous prey. Overall, I think this is my favorite implementation of the Nesingwary hunting quests yet. It only took a couple days, but I was able to finish up in the basin and move on to the Storm Peaks.

  • Beyond questing, I've also spent a lot of time in Lake Wintergrasp. The most recent tweaks have changed the flow of the battle, leading the defenders to actually sally out of the fortress to make a counterattack on the southern towers. This is probably the most fun I've had in PvP outside of the occasionally good round of Alterac Valley.

  • This has also led to the only raiding I've done since Wrath of the Lich King launched, in the Vault of Archavon. Archavon the Stone Watcher is a PuGable (i.e. just about any group can do it) raid boss that can drop the tier 7 raid PvE or PvP set pieces. That's the actual gear, not the tokens. What that means it the odds of any one item appearing are crazy small. But getting a piece of gear here is like hitting a jackpot. On one lucky 10-man run where I was the only mage, both the Heroes' Frostfire Robe and the Heroes' Frostfire Leggings dropped. Considering that I am not likely to ever find my way into Naxxramus, I couldn't be happier.

  • With patch 3.1 on the horizon, I'm hoping to have cleared all the quests in Northrend so that I can be ready for the new content. Here's hoping Blizzard will actually have some worthy solo content in the patch to make all the effort worth the trouble.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Played Lately: Warhammer Online

  • Blogging has slowed for various reasons. But one of them, at least the one I think is interesting enough to blog about, is that I've been playing Warhammer Online again. I know that I just wrote about resubscribing and recanceling the game, but I have a good reason. I finally took the plunge and upgraded my computer. Everything is lights and rainbows in PC land again.

  • Since I still had time left on my last subscription, I wanted to see if the game was any better on a system that can play it dependably. The first thing I noticed was that I had no idea how to play my primary character, a Dark Elf Sorceress. So I deleted her and started over at level one. Although I might miss the renown ranks I'd earned back when scenarios were more reliable, I knew it would be easier to learn the class again by starting from the beginning. I was surprised to discover that I quested so fast that I reached the same level as my prior character within only two days of play. Either my old system was holding me back a lot or Mythic did something to speed up the leveling process. Whatever the explanation, it was kind of awesome.

  • For the most part, I stuck to the questing game, avoiding public quests except to grind for influence. I never saw more than two other people at a time, which makes PQs impossible to complete. Not that I think public quests are the grand advance everyone was hoping for. The extreme number of them and their grindy nature leave most feeling like shallow experiences. Any future game that wants to try this game mode should focus on fewer PQs with greater diversity and, hopefully, dynamic scaling. Of course, I'd like scaling for any group content. Note, I'm not asking for free loot, just the chance to do something epic even if there is no one else around.

  • One thing I missed was the lack of scenarios being played. Every time I would log in, I queued up for all three tier scenarios and hoped for the best. Over the course of the two weeks I played, I was able to play a total of three: once in Tier 1 and twice in Tier 2. The Open RvR areas were pretty quiet as well. I never saw an opponent in Tier 1, though I did get to siege a keep in Tier 2. Of course everyone bailed out when opposition showed up, so that was a massive failure, but I did get to kill a few people. Outside of these few instanced, PvP seems like an endgame goal.

  • When my month subscription lapsed (after two weeks of play), I was disappointed to see it go. I did enjoy my time, but my return to World of Warcraft has limited my time for other games. I may give it another try now that patch 1.2 has launched, but I'll only be taking it a month at a time.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Read Lately: Killing Castro by Lawrence Block

  • The January 2009 release from Hard Case Crime was Killing Castro by Lawrence Block. This is the fourth book by him I have read and it is very different from the others. Originally published under a pseudonym he never used before or since, it is an odd little book that had me wondering straight till the end.

  • Killing Castro is the story of five men hired by Cuban dissidents to murder Fidel Castro. Instead of a single mission, the group splits into three and make their way to Cuba. As we follow these separate tracks through the book, we learn about where these men came from and how they ended up as assassins. Since the novel is the standard pulp length (in this case, 204 pages), we do not delve all that deeply into their pasts. We also don't get much build up as each thread only gets a few scenes to build toward the climax. And those scenes only take up half the book!

  • The other half of the novel, and likely its saving grace, is taken up by a history of Fidel Castro's rise to power as a revolutionary figure. It begins by describing his seeming noble intentions and leads to his eventual despotism. While it would not serve as a biography of the man, these chapters help ground us and help explain why we should be cheering for five potential killers.

  • By the end, I could see this was not a novel about action or violence, but a tale of the extremes to which people will go. Unfortunately, the turns of conscience and emotional revelations don't have much room to grow in this short book. There is so much going on, though, that it is hard to argue about the depth of the novel when there is so much variety between the plot lines.

  • Lawrence Block is still an author I enjoy following even if Killing Castro was not a masterpiece. It was fun and light and I enjoyed reading it.