What’s Up

No, I am not playing Mass Effect 3. It’s taken a back seat to the tabletop project I mentioned earlier. I will absolutely get to it, however – but probably when the price has dropped a bit. As much as I liked the previous two, I waited until they were $20 to buy them.

The Guild Wars 2 preorder goes live on April 10. I’m totally going in on that. The Collector’s Edition is again a ridiculous $150, which seems to be the new price point for such things. The regular edition will be fine with me.

Spring Break is here. The Winter quarter was very trying, but Spring should be better. Mrs. Ardwulf and I are planning a little trip (which my G+ circlers will probably get updates about) to celebrate our anniversary (actually later in the month,) but I will have a few idle days (comparatively – I still have to work, but just having to go to work feels like a vacation,) at the end, which I plan to drop on an MMO.

I have done little more than check in on any MMO in about three months and haven’t even done that for probably six weeks. I have a standing offer from Bioware to check out SWTOR for 7 days free, and I may take them up on that. Or I may just play EQ2 or LotRO. Haven’t decided yet.

Now Playing: Mass Effect 2

I mentioned the other day on the Twitter feed that in the last couple of weeks of the year, I’ve finally obtained my personal “most anticipated” game of 2010. That game is Mass Effect 2.

Now, I love Mass Effect 1. I think it’s one of the best titles to come out in this generation, and I felt it was a perfect blend of action and RPG. For me, it’s almost like getting to enjoy another couple of seasons of my favorite sci fi TV show long after it ended, with better special effects. (Correct guesses as to the identity of the show will get props from me.) Not every part of the game is universally strong, of course… the cover mechanic is pretty shakey and the vehicle parts of the game mixed bad controls and bad terrain in a generally displeasing way, but at least gave you a honkin’ huge cannon to make up for it.

I don’t finish a lot of games. Partly this is because many of the games I play aren’t the kind with a discrete finish line. But it’s also because I find few games compelling enough to drop 25 or 50 hours into them. I either lack patience or have a low tolerance for frustration. Mass Effect I finished twice.

Mass Effect 2 somehow slipped off my radar for much of the year, despite my being all pumped about it when it came out, and despite the near-universal acclaim it accrued. Just about everyone seems to feel that it’s a significant improvement over its predecessor.

But my first instinct is to like it less than ME1. I’m only a few hours in and the jury’s still out, and a number of aspects are indeed greatly improved over the first game. Cover is basically fixed and level design is better, and there are generally more options in the dialogue trees. Plus the graphics are a mite better.

However, ME2 also changes up the action/RPG mix, mostly by de-emphasizing the RPG parts. Charcater development is streamlined to the point where I’m not sure why it’s even there anymore, there’s essentially no “inventory” per se, and the story seems more episodic and the world less open.

Of course, Mass Effect 1 was not an open-world game in any meaningful sense of the term. It did sometimes give me the illusion that it was, which is enough. Maybe I just haven’t seen that part of ME2 yet.

Don’t get me wrong, though – I’m not saying that it’s rotten or that I hate it. I’m about 5 hours in at this point, and I’ve just not fallen in love with it yet.

Jedi Are Not Enough

Keen has a post up today about Star Wars: The Old Republic, and it sounds like he’s about where I am on the title, for different reasons.

I am not a really huge Star Wars fan. Sure, I loved the movies as a kid and as an adult looked back on them with immense nostalgia. But the dreadful prequel trilogy (while it did have its bright spots,) soured me on the whole property, now that I look back on it. In the world of computer games, I never played either KOTOR or did more than dabble in Star Wars Galaxies, so while the franchise may have a well-deserved rep for germinating solid video games, I was really never a part of it or indeed much interested in it at all. So in the end the Star Wars name really doesn’t do anything for me one way or the other.

My preferences in video games lie largely in the field of MMOs. I dabble with other stuff (mostly Rock Band, really,) from time to time, but the great majority of my gaming time goes into MMOs. And my preferences in MMOs would seem to help unsell SWTOR to me. Namely, persistent, seamless, non-instanced worlds, which it sure looks like SWTOR will lack, although I don’t think we’ve yet seen to what extent that will be true. Conventional wisdom says that the game will be very heavily instanced, but although conventional wisdom is sometimes wrong, Bioware has said nothing to disabuse us of the notion, and has shown us and said a great deal that implies heavy use of instancing.

As I’ve said in the past, I think instancing is a crutch used to plaster over holes in a game’s design. Ultimately, I think the practice is antithetical to what MMOs are all about: the shared virtual massive space.

But on the other hand, there’s Mass Effect. Back in the day when people were still speculating about what Bioware’s big MMO project was going to be, I was publically hoping that it would be Mass Effect Online. I really liked Mass Effect, and it certainly looks as though a lot of what Bioware did with that game will be heading into SWTOR. That alone is enough to make me interested. But it’s not enough to make SWTOR an MMO, at least by my definition, and while I would very much like to see and try the finished game, I’m not at all sure I’d stay interested in a SWTOR that’s not.

Game vs. World

I haven’t listened to the latest Shut Up, We’re Talking yet, but one of the topics covered is SWTOR and the alleged 50 novels worth of content Bioware is saying will be in the game. While I don’t doubt that it may be true, and while I expect SWTOR to be a very good game (ironically, it was Mass Effect that sold me on SWTOR more than any residual love for the embattled Star Wars IP,) I have to think that all this structured content misses one of the points of an MMO.

Any MMORPG is a synergy of two main threads, the game on the one hand and the virtual world on the other. Largely due to the overwhelming (and misapplied) influence of World of Warcraft, whose great leap forward was equal emphasis on the game part of the product, we’ve seen almost all new titles de-emphasize the virtual world, while neglecting to notice that World of Warcraft didn’t.

EverQuest’s big flaws tended to be on the game side of the equation – as a virtual world, one of the key appealing aspects of an MMO, it was spectacular. Newer games, citing better gameplay as their reason, add restrictions as to what you can and can’t do, thus limiting their worlds and marginalizing the ability of the player to inhabit the virtual space. This started with WoW, but WoW launched with an extremely solid foundation for a virtual world (at least partially a relic, I suspect, of the early, more “clone EQ” phase of development,), and later development hasn’t undermined that much – although Cataclysm might.

There are exceptions – SWG was one before the NGE, and EVE Online remains one today. Fallen Earth (whch I still haven’t tried) might fall into that category, and one hopes that Darkfall will take that direction. Gameplay will only take you so far – players will eventually get tired of it even in new guises. It’s the virtual world that keeps players involved. But these (with the exception of EVE, which cannily markets to a wider audience than other MMOs) are all deeply niche titles. There are partial exceptions like CoH, EQ2, LotRO and AoC. But many mainstream, triple-A games like Warhammer and Aion, as well as things like Runes of Magic and have truncated, shallow virtual worlds – Warhammer in particular might as well not have bothered. The trend seems to me to be in this direction, and maybe it’s unalterable at this point, but I have to think it’s one reason why people fled from those games in droves after the first month or two. It’s not so much that they cloned World of Warcraft (neither game is a true clone of WoW in my opinion, and both actually have better-functioning gameplay insofar as PvP is concerned,) but that they missed the hook that keeps players in titles like WoW, and even EverQuest after 10+ years.