The Very Best of Themeparks

Ironically I may be blogging more now that the semester has started and I have less time to game. In any event I continue to play Guild Wars 2 more or less exclusively for the time being. I’m keeping my eyes on a couple of other games, including EQ2, but at the moment GW2 is a good fit for my limited playtime.

What I have managed to do, though, is to complete the exploration of Kryta — although the achievement still has an annoying 1% missing that I have to assume is some kind of minidungeon or off-map PoI. I’m at 63% world completion and working in Lornar’s Pass and Timberline Falls.

I also fooled a bit with “structured” PvP, which I found insanely frustrating, as I couldn’t seem to get on a team that didn’t instantly scatter in all directions while 100% of the opposing team was focus-firing on me. It’s the same kind of thing I hated about WoW battlegrounds. Thankfully, World vs. World, which I’ve also recently revisited, runs better for our server. Granted, that means zergs, but zergs are preferable to everyone running off own his own like a jackass. This too is ironic, because WvW actually supports wandering about the zones doing stuff by yourself while avoiding the zerg just fine. I’ve gotten a bunch of the exploration points that way, and it’s not like Tarnished Coast is hurting for my help.

The current Living World event is called Clockwork Chaos, and it’s certainly chaotic. I managed to get in on one run in Lornar’s Pass over the weekend and got more loot than I could easily carry. The event is less amenable to playing for 15 minutes, so I’m not sure how many of the achievements I’ll be able to get before it ends, especially since I’m not really going out of may way to get into the invasions.

Finally, I tried working my way out of three different crafting tiers on three different characters and failed each time due to lack of mats. I think I am maximizing discovery XP but I just don’t have enough of anything despite passing through (by which I mean completing and gathering everything I see) multiple zones in each level range. I won’t say it’s insanely frustrating, but it is weird that crafting seems so miscalibrated in a game that is otherwise very carefully designed. Again it comes down to maybe me doing it wrong, but if so, I don’t see it.

This, though, is a minor complaint. I’m having a fine time overall in this second serious trip into Guild Wars 2. At this point I’m considering that it may be the best themepark world in MMOs. There is very, very little sandbox there but it manages, a lot of the time, to feel like there is. Plus the world is wide open in comparison to more heavily level-gated games, and even aside from the regular content there is an ongoing story progression, some of which stays in the game and some of which rotates out. Too bad that it’s shit because it doesn’t charge $15 a month, eh?

Life at the Level Cap

When I first hit the level cap in WoW I wandered around befuddled for a bit and then unsubscribed. It wasn’t that I didn’t know that there was anything to do, or that I hadn’t given it any thought. I just wasn’t terribly interested in the options available, and those couple of things that I did want to do seemed locked behind a wall of grinding.

The level cap game in Guild Wars 2 isn’t any less grindy, but for a game without much of a traditional instance-driven MMO endgame there’s a lot of options. One oddity is that even after reaching the level cap you still continue to accrue XP and even “level,” but you gain skill points instead. I personally am a couple of points away from buying the very last Ranger skill, but at some point there are sure to be new skills.

There’s also exploration, which GW2 probably does better than any other themepark MMO. I have a vague goal of getting 100% world completion, which isn’t happening anytime soon. At level 80 and having gone out of my way to get as many exploration points as possible, I’m at 57% and working through more zones as I try to complete the last two Queen’s Jubilee achievements. In fact, for most of the last week my personal mission has been running Queen’s Jubilee events, mostly to farm up enough gold to buy an extra character slot. I managed to hit that goal yesterday. On the way, though, I found myself shooting for the Living World achievements as well, and I’ve gotten most of the Crown Pavilion stuff done and a few of the Queen’s Gauntlet achievements as well. This is the first chunk of Living World stuff I’ve done, and it’s very much the same kind of content as you’d see in WoW’s holiday events… but in this case it least it’s fun event content. I found the majority of WoW’s holiday events to be forced, grindy and generally not enjoyable.

As usual for me, crafting lagged behind my leveling, but I’ve been trying to increase crafting levels on multiple characters as well. Perhaps there is some ultra-efficient mode for leveling crafting that remains undiscovered by me , but I’ve found that, with the exception of cooking, in order to level though a tier of crafting I need far more of all types of crafting materials than I actually gather leveling through that range. And I gather from every node I see. It’s possible that I’m doing it wrong, or that it works smoothly if one meticulously plans the whole leveling run in advance or something.

That annoyance aside, and while I am fooling arund with some alts to try to find a second character class to level, I’m enjoying playing at the cap.

Capping Guild Wars 2

300px-Normal_gw2logoI’m a great tryer of MMORPGs. I tend to move between games frequently, often sticking around only for a week or two, only to come back in three months of two years or whatever. It’s easy to do especially in these days when freee to play ios the rule rather than the exception, and I can play for even just a day or two before moving on or becoming tied up with real-life things.

On top of that, I tend to play with alts a lot, usually quickly filling all of the available character slots, and sometimes more if you can buy them separately. In EQ2, for example, I have crafting alts in every tradeskill, plus a couple of extra characters in classes that I just wanted to play. For the last three years or so, EQ2 has been my primary game during summer and winter breaks, and I’ve been making a conscious effort to level my main there.

Even in EQ2, though — a game I have put hundreds of hours into — I don’t have a character at the level cap in either adventuring or crafting. The only game to date that I’ve capped a character is WoW, in which I managed a sustained run of about 8 months in the WotLK era. Even there, I only capped my main, although I came close with a couple of other characters before the cap shifted further out of reach.

Yesterday I hit the level cap in Guild Wars 2, which took (as a guess) maybe 110 hours. There’s still a lot left undone there, of course — offhand, my gear is shit and I still have about 45% of the world left to explore, to say nothing of the running series of events that GW2 has been rolling out pretty regularly since its launch. I have also done little — very little — PvP despite this being one of the game’s strong points. I may have another try at that in the limited time I have left (just one week) before school starts again.

Over on the MMORPG.com forums, the running narrative among the nitwit set seems to be that GW2 is a big faceplant. Personally, I don’t see how that’s the case unless the metric of success is causing the downfall of World of Warcraft — which frankly no game except World of Warcraft is going to do (although it is managing it.) Sales were strong (over 3 million copies sold as of this past January,) and there’s still plenty of people in game; every North American server is at at least High population even at obscene hours.

Granted, it’s not a flawless game and we know sales have started to flatten, but at this point it’s fair to say that it’s aging fairly gracefully. Its trinity-less combat model hasn’t turned out as well as we all hoped; I think it works fine for play in the open world but in dungeons and against bosses it’s both screwy and dull. Too, the “living” world works well enough for the most part, but it’s not as organic as it sounded before launch, and frankly after 80 levels of it everything seems pretty stagy. Although I have been nominally leveling by exploring, and GW2′s open objectives are indeed a novel alternative to strictly linear quests, I haven’t felt like I was really discovering anything new for at least 40 levels.

It is also in some respects a frustrating game… although not nearly as frustrating as its predecessor, in which I tried (I really did) to finish all three campaigns, multiple times, only to eventually get stuck. It’s odd how similar the two games are, and yet how different, with GW being a true departure from the MMORPGs of its day and GW2 bringing the series much closer to the mainstream, but both sharing similar support models and art direction.

GW2 is getting good support but I wonder how wise ArenaNet was in opting for the current scheme of live support and regular updates instead of a dedicated (and marketable) expansion. I can see playing quite a bit more of it myself, but I’ll get shunted away into schoolwork in a matter of days… and I think we can already see some dwindling of interest that would be rekindled by an expansion.

Back From Break While I’m On Break

Over the last several weeks the stress has been grinding on me to the point where I’ve been incredibly on edge and have not held it together 100% of the time. There are about a dozen sources of this stress that I won’t go into, but one of the big ones — the mounting pressure as finals loom — is now over with, and I have a couple of weeks of only full time plus work in which to unwind. It’ll feel like a vacation in Hawaii.

That’s more or less the reason there’s been so little in this space for the last two months; I have gotten a little writing done but almost no gaming, and thus just haven’t had much to talk about on what is still predominantly a blog about MMOs.

Traditionally my main game during any extended break has been EverQuest II. This time around I’ve been fooling with Guild Wars 2 and Vanguard, plus I may hit the Age of Wushu Beta that opens up to basically everybody on the 20th. And more Planetside 2 is always a possibility.

I was tempted by the shocking news that Turbine has resurrected Asheron’s Call 2 on a single server, but trying that would be subbing to AC1, and watching a couple of videos of the revived game cured me of the impulse. It’s an interesting artifact and I wish it well (and wonder about Turbine’s motives) but I can do without it.

So yeah, I’m back for the time being.

Moving Right Along in Guild Wars 2

Another weekend has passed and again I spent as much of it as could be managed in Guild Wars 2. Which wasn’t that long, actually.

I’m still working on Lornar’s Pass, which contains a staggering 43 points of interest; I’m nowhere near done with it, although I’m closing in on the hearts, skill challenges and waypoints. Meanwhile I’m pushing through the personal storyline; I elected to join the Vigil in the 20-30 arc and have not gotten much past that.

One thing I’m noticing is that the overall difficulty of the game ramps up a bit around the high 30s. There are a number of possible explanations for this, the obvious one being that my gear is mostly crappy. But also while Lornar’s Pass is a 25-40 zone, at the southern end there are a fair number of mobs in the neighborhood of level 42, and I was hitting them at 39. I did do some gear upgrading via the Trading Post, which did seem to have helped. But just as likely I need to get better at playing my class, too.

Another thing that helped was that I had a large pile of trait points sitting around doing nothing, waiting for me to get the second-tier mastery tome. I’d thought this was supposed to happen at level 20 (maybe it was so in beta, I dunno,) but was just nearing the necessary amount of money around level 40. Turns out you’re not eligible for it until level 40 anyway, so if you scrimp your coppers until then, you should have enough. And these extra points and the talents that came with them also seem to have helped.

Another gear upgrade occurred when I ran Caudecus’s Manor. This is the second of GW2′s eight dungeons that are currently in the game; I haven’t run the first (Ascalonian Catacombs,) yet and it’s said to be longer and more difficult. I’ll buy this, as even the allegedly easier Manor was a lot harder than the typical WoW 10-minute faceroll. I got a new piece of head armor and two new weapons out of it — both aquatic, alas, but they were significant upgrades — and a barge load of XP. Probably 80% of a level, in fact.

Some bloggers have expressed doubts that GW2′s scaling will work as advertised, but so far it seems to me to be utterly airtight. However, gear scales as part of the system, and characters who are at level 80 for any length of time are likely to have a full set of “perfect” gear (remember, there’s just the one level of endgame gear in GW2,) while leveling characters may well be undergeared, especially as fast as you can progress if you’re working all of GW2′s many XP-granting levers. So I do expect this to loosen up for 80s, at least to the point of being noticeable.

Our guild already boasts no less than thirteen level 80s, by the way; I dont feel like too much of a sluggard, given that I seem to be moving along more or less along with the pack of bloggers, most of whom (with one unsurprising exception) are also in the middle of the pack, so I don’t feel too badly about being level 42 and moving along rather nicely. For a game out only a couple of weeks, this is for me a thunderous pace. I imagine I have been moving so quickly due to not becoming bored or frustrated enough with the game enough to fritter away time trying to find an alt that’s fun. Not that I’m not tempted — I do have my four alts as well, but the highest of them is level 10. I’ve decided against buying another character slot (all the classes in GW2 are very tasty,) until I hit 80 with my main. Hell, that may happen by the time the first expansion comes out.

A Guild Wars 2 Status Report

Over a week into Guild Wars 2 play I’m just as impressed with the game as ever… possibly more. Although there are some niggling problems and the occasional bugged event, the biggest issues appear to have settled out, and with the Trading Post finally up and running an in-game economy is starting to take shape.

So far, though, good gear is dirt cheap while fine crafting materials (the ones you actually need to advance and can’t simply be harvested) are going for a pretty penny. And money seems dreadfully short; I’m level 34 and nowhere near being able to afford my level 20 mastery tome. Granted that I have blown some money on finally pushing crafting skills into the second tier, but still.

Otherwise, the game is going swimmingly. I’ve been largely untempted by alts, although I’ve been playing a few in the low-level zones just for the sake of getting more of the aforementioned crafting mats. None of these are above level 10 at this point, and I’m not likely (I think) to get past the starting zones with any of them. With my main, I am having a blast exploring the zones to their fullest and playing the zone completion minigame; I have seven or eight at this point and am at about 25% map completion.

One of the best things about Guild Wars 2 so far is that this content isn’t invalidated by leveling past it. I’ve been able to do full clears of three of the starter zones so far and intend to get my main as close to 100% map completion on my main as possible; right now I’m at 23% or so but have only done one of the second-stage zones. Right now pushing upward is a slightly higher priority than pushing laterally through even or lower leveled zones, just due to the money issue.

I’ve been moving along the personal storylines. These tend to come in discrete ten-level arcs as far as I have seen thus far, and are pretty variable in quality. The 1-10 and 10-20 Norn stories, for example, are pretty cheesy as hell, although they solidify after 20, and in any event the specific story path you get depends on the choices made during character creation. Others, like the human noble 1-10 story that I played through in beta, are quite enjoyable in my opinion. The 20-30 Norn story is pretty involving and contains some really quite tough encounters.

Due in part to the Trading Post being down so long, I was having a devil of a time leveling even one crafter out of the first tier of materials, becuase fine crafting materials are needed for discoveries, which are in turn needed for efficient leveling, and you just don’t get enough of them in the course of normal leveling. Once you start learning what mobs they drop from you can start farming them, though, and it really doesn’t take much to get a nice stock on them, enough to level a single tradeskill through the tier. But you can have two tradeskills and you need these mats for every crafting profession except for cooking.

Once the Trading Post came back up I was able to drop about 30 silver on various ingredients and power both of my skills (Hunstman and Leatherworker) to the 100-120 range, where I’m able to make relevant gear for myself again… although better gear than I can make can be found, typically for mere copper, on the Trading Post. That may settle out as crafters start to max out and stockpiles of mats start to build, however.

One of the benefits of getting Leatherworking up was larger bags. Inventory management in Guild Wars 2 is a struggle; some items don’t fit neatly in the bank’s collections section and the general vault is pretty small. You can allegedly buy more bank space, but I’ll be damned if I can find that in the store. You cna definitely buy at least one additional bank slot, but at 400 gems per slot on a single character that seems steep to me. But at some point I figure money will be more plentiful than it is right now, and it may not be much of a big deal for a level 80 to pick up the extra slot just by trading gold for gems. But a currency-rich economy may alter the exchange rate drastically, too, so we’ll see ow things develop as the game evolves.

Guild Wars 2 Launch Wrapup

Guild Wars 2, as of just a bit ago, is officially launched. I’m not sure I’ll do a “review,” but here are some thoughts with quite a bit of time invested in the headstart plus more in beta.

The Good

  • The game overall is very strong. Barring the occasional bug or borked event, all of the essential progression elements (tasks, events and other means of gaining XP) work great. The leveling curve is steady but long, which is fine with me.
  • Scaling works reasonably well in most circumstances, and this opens up a lot of content that would become trivial or not worthwhile in a more conventional design. It’s not just that you can downlevel and play with your friends, it’s that all the game’s content scales up to you, so there is effectively more doable content than it might at first appear, and the loot and XP scale to your actual level. It’s one element that gives this 100% themepark game something of a sandbox feel — more of the world is open to you at any given level, and a lot of it is interactable.
  • Combat is fun while not being too fussy. As in the original GW, most of complexity is loaded into the building aspect of characters but there is a lot more to do with regard to positioning and mobility. The pacing is fast but not so fast as to make it unplayable for those of us with old man reflexes.
  • The game world is beautifully designed, and the flow of gameplay encourages you to explore it. Is is the best themepark MMO I have seen for exploration.
  • The overall level of nimrodism seems low compared to the original Guild Wars. Part of that is surely that there is much less reason for players to interact until they’re of a level to run dungeons, which happens around level 30. Part of it is also probably that headstart players are a bit more serious, and we may start to see things trend downhill with the influx of people from the actual launch. Find a good guild, is my advice, but that applies in any MMO.
  • I have not yet explored WvW as much as I would like, but it looks like it has the potential to be a real wonder. The interesting thing is that the WvW area isn’t just a big zone with PvP objectives and PvP enabled, it’s four huge zones — a whole continent, really — with both PvE and PvP stuff to do. You can fight other players and go for PvP objectives, but the size of the place means there’s plenty of open space as well, and you can wander, as I did, for some time without necessarily encountering hostile players. There’s also harvesting to be done, PvE events and other stuff. It’s a very complete experience, and the closest thing I’ve seen to the old school DAoC scheme where the distinction between PvP and PvE starts to blur. In this sense having one character level that you happen to be able to advance via PvE, PvP or crafting, makes a lot of sense.

The Bad

  • There are a number of annoying but relatively minor issues. At this point lag is one of them except in WvW.
  • The still-out-of-commission Trading Post is a major but not critical issue. It’s certainly hampering my ability to level crafting.
  • The Overflow system isn’t all it could be. It is, on the one hand, a very clever method for avoiding login queues, but on the other it doesn’t support groups at all. Because the Overflow is by zone instead of by server, you can get constantly kicked into it when you zone, potentially cutting you off from your group, and there is at yet no way to port to the instance your group is in. This last would be an effective workaround, but there’s no word on it that I’ve heard. Even so, playing while you wait is clearly better than tapping your foot trying to get into the game in the first place, so all in all I call this feature a net positive, even though it could be improved from where it is now.
  • The instanced PvP battlegrounds are much less interesting than WvW; compared to the amount of craft that went into the rest of the game they seem like an afterthought. I sincerely hope that this is so, and that people don’t start to overwhelmingly gravitate toward them as the fastest way to level, as they did in WAR much to its detriment.
  • You now learn weapon skills so fast that the whole mechanic is kind of meaningless. I have a feeling that this whole thing is going to be iterated away at some point.
  • Crafting is tough to level up. In principle I am fine with this, but in practice it means that my crafting ability is way behind my actual level due to a shortage of mats for insignias and such, which are vital for discovery and thus good crafting advancement. This sets up a problem similar to WoW crafting in which I cannot craft any item remotely worthwhile for myself. It might be possible to work around this if the Trading Post were up and running, but using alts to gather won’t help, since all tradeskills save cooking use the same mats for these kinds of components, as far as I can tell.
  • My RP-heavy server will likely not be a WvW force to be reckoned with, but that’s where I have chosen to roll.

Guild Wars 2 Launches Dirty

Pointing out the problems with an MMO launch makes one a hater, of course. But despite the label I am enjoying Guild Wars 2 thus far, no matter the issues — at least once the dealbreaking issue of not being able to log in was fixed. That’s the one unforgivable issue you can’t overlook.

And some people are still reporting it, although it’s hard to say how many of those folks have issues on the user end. A lot, to read ArenaNet’s note on the subject, although I would like to think that folks read the fine print when they elected to reserve a copy using the traditional method rather than pre-purchasing… but then, some retail outlets, notably Best Buy, were very unclear about how this whole thing was going to work.

Other, lesser issues abound. Lag is still sometimes an issue. The event in the Charr starter instance is stuck on the stage before the boss. Players are getting kicked from guilds randomly, and guilds can’t send invites. The Trading Post is still down. The forums are still down. This launch cannot yet be called a catastrophe, but it’s been far, far from clean.

There are excuses to be made, of course. And maybe everything will be cleaned up come the true launch on Tuesday. But if I had to guess I’d say the problems will get worse when that happens. I have little doubt that things will sort themselves out eventually, and I personally am inclined to be lenient when the game is fun and novel and the difficulties aren’t game-breaking, and they aren’t at the moment.

I have my main up to level 18 and did my first brief batch of WvWvW, and it was a lot of fun. I can definitely see the great game design at work here through the swarm of bugs. When it’s working it really does sing.

More From The Guild Wars 2 Headstart

Lest I go another several days without posting and leave everyone thinking that Guild Wars 2 was a crate of ass during the whole prelaunch, here are some additional points gathered so far.

  • The servers have been up, as far as I’ve seen. since about 11 AM Saturday. Some people are still having launcher or login issues, but I have had no additional problems in that regard.
  • Lag is still an intermittent issue, but Saturday afternoon (for the two hours I played) and Sunday morning (for another four hours) nothing became unplayable. I do expect to see issues in this department come Tuesday and lasting for a few days after that. Hopefully I’m wrong and everything is now worked out.
  • Other issues exist. The big one aside from login issues is that the Trading Post (think Broker or Auctioneer) has been working on and off, but mostly not working. As a general rule it has been working when I don’t want to buy anything, and undergoing maintenance when I do.
  • I and a number of other people complained in the beta about there not seeming to be enough XP in the early zones. That does not seem to be a problem now, very possibly because I am now doing crafting and gathering, both of which grant XP but which I wasn’t bothering with in the beta. The XP rate may have been tweaked but it’s just as likely skipping those two things was the culprit. This may indicate that the progression rate is tuned overly tightly, as some people won’t want to participate in those activities… but then I didn’t do any PvP, either, and you get XP from that. I any case I retract this complaint; unless you’ve got a pretty weird play style or just don’t get the flow of Guild Wars 2 I don’t think it’s going to be an issue.
  • In relation to that point, I did zone completion for Hoelbrak and the Wayfarer Foothills (which is the Norn starting zone,) and about level 1-10 of the personal story. Having done all that, with aggressive gathering and some lukewarm attempts at crafting but no PvP at all, I am level 16.
  • The rewards for zone completion, which I didn’t hear anything about until relatively recently (as in the last week) are significant, so don’t skip them.
  • I feel like I am doing something substantially wrong with crafting. I’ll have more to say on this later after I have worked it out.
  • More later, of course. I am enjoying it thoroughly now that the game is running.

Joe’s Problem With Guild Wars 2

Let’s take Joe. Joe’s not a night shift worker used to staying awake at all hours, but he wants to get as much Guild Wars 2 in as he can. So he opens up a can of caustic energy soda and sits down at his PC right before midnight. At midnight sharp, the earliest time for the servers to have possibly been up according to ArenaNet’s previous announcement, he logs in with relish and delight. He picks a shard, makes a character and arrives in a world of lag. He tries to play as best he can figuring that things will smooth over, but he keeps getting stopped by lag freezing interrupted by disconnects. Every time he restarts the client to try again the wait is longer.

Finally, after an hour, Joe throws up his hands having gotten nowhere in the game. He goes to bed and wakes up at 9, eagerly grabbing some toast and sitting down at his PC again. But the login servers are down. He taps away for another hour, vainly trying to get in, but no luck. By this time Joe’s better half is up and about and they’ve things to do, so off he goes for errands.

Later today Joe will sit down again and try to play Guild Wars 2. What will happen? From Joe’s perspective the launch has been total shit and a whole day is on the verge of being wasted. He prebought the game more or less just for access to a three-day headstart, and from his perspective 100% of it has been wasted so far.

Nota bene: This wasn’t my experience; I got in, made two charcters, had some problems but they did even out. I played one character for roughly seven hours and got him to about level 10. But it’s not Ardwulf the night shift guy that will set the narrative, it’s Joe the conventional employee. When the narrative turns sour, the damage can be immense, especially for a game large dependent on box sales for its revenue.

Is it just Joe’s rotten luck that at the times he could play, the game was down or otherwise non-functional? Sure, but MMO service providers need to plan for players playing at different times; their games need to be up and running smoothly as close to “all the time” as they possibly can. Are some problems at launch inevitable? Again, sure (although you might get a different opinion from Trion,) but shit needs to get sorted out pretty quickly, and they need to stay sorted out, or Guild Wars 2 is likely to be another one of “that game with the bad launch” in the minds of many.