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Odd Thoughts: Reward Cubes

Be they Loot Boxes, Prize Crates or good ol’ fashion RNG Containers, there’s nothing quite like the topic of Reward Cubes to bring a heated boil to the gaming community at large.  Are they pay-to-win?  Are they gambling?  Do they belong in full price $60 games?  Do they belong in anything beyond Free-To-Play games?  Should they exist at all?

Recently, the controversy has boiled up a bit thanks to some rather ahem… enthusiastic reaches by companies like WB Interactive and Electronic Arts in their big fall titles (Shadows of War, Star Wars Battlefront 2) and I’ve heard that even the sports games have decided to dab their quills into the ink as well with the latest installment of 2K sportsball and Forza something or other.  I will admit, the practice has gotten admittedly scummier since my first encounter with the loot box scenario when they were added when Star Wars The Old Republic went debatably free to play (two hot bars, a 250k credit limit, and can’t equip any epic loot but hey it’s free to suffer through!)

Now you have loot boxes that are tied directly to player progression, offering new abilities and ability boosts in Battlefront 2 or simply being able to skip the grind and have a medley of legendary orcs spring forth from a chest like clowns from a car.  And yeah, that’s B.S.  I’m not even gonna sugar coat it.  Optional or not, cash should not be a way to skip the game you just paid sixty bucks for.  It definitely shouldn’t let you be able to quickly overpower players that don’t shell out for it.  I’m glad there seems to be at least a majority consensus on THAT at least.

Personally, the only way I’ve really “enjoyed” loot boxes – not that I’ve ever enjoyed them.  Put up with them? – was in games like Overwatch.  Where they don’t give you anything BUT random visual flair to add to the game.  And you earn them when you level up. Nice. But hey, then they went above and beyond and added ADDITIONAL ways to get free crates in the Arcade. So not only do you not have any tangible reason to get them beyond looking cool but they also keep giving you more ways to get them? Not a half bad model.  Still would like just ways to unlock the skins and whatnot on my own in the game maybe.  Not banking on random chance from a box every few hours.  Maybe some sort of unlock systems based on in-game achievements? You know like you already do with certain sprays?  Bah. Oh well.

Of course, there are still down sides to Overwatch’s model too. The whole thing is psychologically angled to make you want to spend.  You see someone with the cool thing? You want the cool thing. Better go pay money for a chance to get the cool thing.  A covetous model of persuasion is exactly what Activision’s recent patent for Microtransaction-based Matchmaking is built on. Instead of matching players on skill or win ratio, it finds the ‘Haves’ and then pairs them against the ‘Have Nots’ and then after you lose to their Cash Shop Super Weapon while donning their Ultra Rare Skin, you offer them the chance to get the same cool stuff from these handy dandy cubes o’ stuff we sell for real dollars.  Psychology is a dangerous weapon when paired with greed.

For no better example of psychology being used to line the pockets, look no further than gambling.  Oh, I hear the screams of forums back in TOR echoing through to the youtube comments of today of ‘It’s not gambling – you always get something!’  And that’s true. Sort of.  Loot crates are a weird legal loophole where since you always get something out of it, it’s not gambling. But you also always get nothing – nothing tangible with an attached dollar value that can resold – so it’s also not gambling.  HOWEVER, from a psychological standpoint and not a legal one, Reward Cubes are very much gambling.  They scratch that same itch, provoke the same reaction, and still drive you to swipe your credit card over and over chasing an elusive jackpot.  Heck, why else would the crazy Kylo Ren-style lightsabers be introduced as a new ultra-ultra-ultra rare platinum item in SWTOR?  It’s the hot new thing. It’s only comes from the cash-only loot boxes.  It’s got a 1-in-10,000 chance to drop! Didn’t get it in this box? That makes it MORE likely to be in the next, right? (Not how that works at all by the way.)

Loot boxes CAN be dangerously addicting to those with a pension for such habits.  And sure, there are non-loot box ways you could get it. Someone could sell theirs in the in-game market for in-game currency.  But that still means SOMEONE paid cash for it. And to be honest, I casually played SWTOR for years – played every class at least once if not twice or three times – and I STILL never made enough credits to buy one of those Kylo Ren sabers for what they were going for on the market.  Eventually just decided that was one thing I was never gonna end up getting. Like PvP achievements.

Overall, I think what I was going for with writing about this was that I’m used to seeing people take a very hard line stance on this issue. Understandable since it’s a very passionate issue.  But I don’t think there’s really a good hard line stance to take.  Loot boxes can be a fun addition to a game.  I do think Blizzard is getting a knack for what a good balance of what should be in the crate, how easy it should be to get free crates vs paid crates, and definitely figured out a good way to make them feel fun.  However, left unchecked the whole system begins to turn corrupt.  You see pay to win become an incentive to buy crates, you see things being designed to nudge players toward crates to speed up or skip parts of the game, and you see the effort being put in to continue to make more alluring jackpot items to drive that addictive quality in wanting to keep buying to get the best stuff.  Heck, I’ll even say that Overwatch could be improved.  They gave away loot boxes for Overwatch, Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone for Twitch Prime that had guaranteed rare items like legendaries or gold cards.  I’d love to see that sort of thing be added to the game as a reward for major achievements.  Get 100 wins? Get a gold box.  Unlocked all of a character’s achievements? Get a gold box.  Complete a limited time holiday quest? Get a gold box so you will at least get ONE of the legendary skins during the small holiday event windows.

I wanted to approach it all rationally.  I don’t think reward cubes are going anywhere.  I think that as the industry pushes more to perpetual monetization over pay-once-and-your-done tactics with games we need to start really critically thinking about where we as consumers feel comfortable drawing the line.  All or nothing approaches may be admirable, but so is throwing yourself on your sword and none of it accomplishes much.  There doesn’t have to be a universal approach either.  I want to encourage everyone to find their own personal line on the topic and then work with that.  Let that be a personal factor in your buying decisions.  It’s one of the reasons that despite looking amazing and fun, I didn’t buy into Battlefront or Battlefront 2.  It’s why I remain hesitant about Anthem.  It’s one of the major reasons I decided to stop playing SWTOR.

But I am not going to presume to tell you to do the same.  All I’m gonna ask is that you think about it.  Think about what you want and what you are comfortable with.

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Just Deicide: Lightning Returns (Final Part)

So we’ve talked gameplay and we’ve talked plot & characters – I think it’s time we wrap up the Lightning Trilogy with discussing probably my favorite part of Lightning Returns: the ending.  Not because it’s finally over oh sweet Noel Kreiss it’s over, but because I found it to be a satisfying conclusion to the overarching themes of the trilogy, even when the explicit details of the plot got a bit weird from game to game.  Let’s just go ahead and say that since we are talking the ending of a trilogy and then discussing said trilogy, there will be SPOILERS.

Alright, so as we previously discussed:  God is gathering up souls of the chosen using Lightning as his ‘Savior’, he will then usher those new souls to a New World and remove their hearts/chaos/emotions, then he will let the old world and all the souls of the dead there perish so that no one remembers any of them – the world or the people who died there – all so he can have HIS perfect world.  I don’t think it needs to be said, but Lightning and her friends do not exactly like that idea.

The ending to the game and the trilogy as a whole is done essentially in four parts.  There is the final dungeon, the final boss battle, the cutscene where you actually beat the final boss, and then the final final cutscene.  To get to the final dungeon on the last day (that’s Day 13 – or if you ran around and did 60+ side quests it will be Day 14), you show up at the church in Luxerion to bust up the ritual with Fang. Lightning holds back the guards while Fang talks down Vanille from doing the deed.  Luckily back up arrives in the form of Snow who proves that despite being a dummy at times is still able to deliver an epic smackdown. Snow is joined by Lightning’s other friends as it becomes one last stand as Vanille and Fang come together to guide all the lost souls – not to their destruction as the Church wanted but to Hope’s Ark to go be reborn on the New World with all the others.

Lightning’s job is not done however.  There is after all a god to deal with.  She enters the final dungeon which to be fair is essentially four monster filled corridors and a door leading to the final fight.  I’m not even sure you have to do the corridors – or ‘Trials’ – but I always do because they reward you with the Ultima Weapon and Ultima Shield, the two items that will not carry over to a new game+ because they are “story specific” to Bhunivelze’s temple.  Unfortunately, they don’t get any kind of cool unique appearance.  The Ultima items are pretty much just your starting sword and shield upgraded to have INSANE stats and abilities that will help immensely in the final boss fight.

Speaking of which, it’s time to show down with Bhuni-boy who is in an otherworldly realm dubbed ‘Cosmogenesis’ where he is putting the finishing touches on his New World and you finally get to see what this guy looks like:

LRFFXIII_Bhunivelze_Full_Render

Oh…  oh wow.  For the record, that checker pattern ‘skirt’?  Yea, that’s the ground.  He’s literally wrapped the world around himself.  It’s at this confrontation that the truth emerges to reinforce the theory:  Bhunivelze wishes to remove all the old souls and the bits of chaos that make up people’s hearts and emotions so that the New Humans on his New World will have euphoric peaceful lives without the burdens of sadness or pain.  They’ll be boring emotionless drones, but hey that’s the cost of never having to feel bad: never feeling at all. I honestly don’t know if I would take that offer.  I can imagine some who would argue that it’s a good thing and that God is kind to give us such a blessing.  Then again free will is nice.  Like SUPER nice.  He also reveals his plan to establish Lightning as the ‘New Etro’ to guard over the Unseen Realm and keep it in harmony with the Seen Realm.  Again, Lightning being someone he has a leash on as compared to his mother or Etro, both of which kind of had reasons to hold a grudge and good old Bhunie just loves to assume the worst.  Finally, it’s revealed that the Serah ‘soul’ that Bhunie has been dangling on a hook in front of Lightning this whole time is just a mocked up simulacrum.  Since God has no way of seeing into the Chaos, he legitimately has no idea where Serah’s soul actually is but is perfectly willing to offer the soulless copy of Lightning’s sister for her to dote on.  This pretty much where Lightning draws the line.

Lightning flat out declares her intent to kill God.  To perform one suicidal action to throw them both into the Chaos and free the souls to live in the New World without gods or fal’Cie masters.  Since Bhunivelze made her the savior with the intent to become a replacement for Etro, she may not have the power to kill Bhunivelze but she is finally strong enough to do this one desperation act.  But the Serah Simulacrum speaks to her and tells her that the real Serah IS still out there, and does still need her.  So thus begins the final battle, as Lightning abandons her suicide run in favor of just flat out trying to murder God.  Oh boy. When was the last time in Final Fantasy we actually killed God?  Not like a god-like being, but the actual creator of the universe capital-G God?  We’d have to go back a ways I think. I know we did in Final Fantasy Legends.  Kefka is debatable whether he was god like or actually ascended to become God proper but you do fight and kill the actual Gods of Magic.  Dissidia has you fighting Gods. But yea, it’s been a while since we did this.

The fight is massive and spans four different phases, each with a unique strategy to them.  Easily up there with Barthandelus and Orphan from XIII as the toughest non-Super Bosses fights in the Trilogy.  Not only that, but his fight has a ton of references to previous Final Fantasy games such as some of his attacks referencing the Emperor’s Starfall from Final Fantasy II, Almagest as used by Neo-ExDeath in Final Fantasy V, Hypernova based on Safer Sephiroth’s Supernova from Final Fantasy VII, several attacks including ‘Dancing Mad’, ‘Wings of Destruction’, and ‘Heartless Angel’ are inspired by either the abilities or even theme song of Kefka from Final Fantasy VI, and finally Bhunivelze’s pose in the final phase is based on the pose struck by the Cloud of Darkness in Final Fantasy III. He also draws several abilities and strategies from other bosses in the Lightning Trilogy. He’s immune to every status effect including poison, so forget using the poison and defend strategy from Orphan in the first game. Finally, he has several abilities that will drop you to either one or close to one HP regardless of your defense.  And all that is just on the normal version.  Oh yes, there’s a hard mode incarnation of this guy named Bhunivelze+.  I haven’t even tried that one yet.

So after four whole phases on intense fights is God finally dead? Oh heck no.  Bhunivelze created the universe (well along with his Mom), do you think four measly back to back fights will stop him?  It will knock him on his ass, but he crawls back ready to kill Lightning for the sheer insolence she has shown.  Luckily, Lightning has the one thing that Bhuni-boy doesn’t: Buddies.  Yes, this pen-ultimate cut scene has the entire assembled cast of the entire trilogy: Snow, Sazh, Dajh, Hope, Vanille, Fang, Noel, Caius, Yuel, and even Serah appear to help Lightning strike down God while utilizing all of the Souls of the Living gathered by Lightning and the Souls of the Dead gathered by Vanille as a giant sword of light to strike down Bhunivelze once and for all in an epic final blow worthy of Dragon Ball Z levels of sheer ridiculous epicness.

Bhunivelze’s death chimes in the death of the old universe however as the Unseen Realm and its tides of chaos begin to consume all that is left.  Caius and Yuel, both tired of their eternal struggle and cycle of life and death have agreed to stay behind and together serve the role that Etro once served.  But because Noel also wants a happy ending, Yuel gives him the last of her line – the final incarnation of Yuel in her cycle of Rebirth to take with him to the new universe.  With a new keeper of the Unseen Realm appointed, all that’s left is for the remaining team and all the souls to go to the new world in a brilliant stream of green lights and streaks that sort of looks like something that once helped stop a meteor from crushing a city (Yet another homage to an earlier game found here.  They really seem to enjoy the send ups.)

This brings us to the real ending of the series.  Claire Farron, the women once known as Lightning in another time and place, riding a train through what appears to be modern day France to go meet up with her friends once again.  It’s never flat out stated what this new world is, but theories have been as far flung as Gaia from Final Fantasy VII (Which considering there’s already a theory about Gaia is futuristic Spira from FFX, how does that work?) to Our Real Earth to the more modern and realistic setting of Final Fantasy XV.  Any and all are somewhat valid ways of viewing things, but the Real Earth seems to be the most likely since they do establish this as a world with No God, and No fal’Cie.  The FF7 connection is really reaching because all that connects them is the vaguely lifestream-y looking stream of souls, which has less traction then FF7 == FFX because Spheres are Materia idea.  We know that XV will have its own ties to the Fabula Nova Crystalis legend and that Etro will play some role in the story, so the No gods/fal’cie thing makes that one hard.  Plus… the signs are in French.  Like actual French.  Not even French sounding gibberish.  So that’s my best bet for where the ending takes place.

So with the story now finished, was it really worth it to play some 180 hours of game to reach that conclusion?  Well… yea. For me it was.  For all the game play issues, which really were improved on heavily after the feedback and criticisms of the first game (and even then most of those were – in my opinion – excusable to the nature of the story being told but admittedly flew in the face of what many people would expect from a Final Fantasy title), I found the story to be an incredible interesting and character driven narrative.  To the point where it utterly baffles me when I hear people say the characters are boring or bland.  There’s a difference between bland and subtle.  This is very subtle.  Not to mention the characters and their development is incredibly well rounded compared to many of the more popular Final Fantasy entries where the characters were almost defined by a single personality trait.  Optimisitc! Bad ass loner! Angry!  Moron!  Where as in the XIII trilogy, there were a lot of nuanced performances built around knowing these characters back stories and motivations.  Vanille is not a ditsy airhead.  She puts on a ditsy act as an act of denial about the immense guilt she feels, something that is quite noticeable if you contrast how she behaves around the others versus when she’s by herself.  The scene where it begins to dawn on her that her traveling companion, Sazh, has lost his son because of her actions and very existence, that she goes out and stands in the rain under the excuse to feel it on her skin but if you look, she’s trying to mask the tears coming down her face was a real punch in the feels.  Even Snow, the king of bravado, is dealing with the tragedy of his curse and the loss of his fiance by blindly marching forward like a hero to save the day, running from his problems.  But eventually, when he has lost Serah completely and the world is dying around him, he succumbs to depression and begins to slowly kill himself with a final silent noble act of absorbing the Chaos into his own body to try and give the people of Yusnaan another day of happiness before the end. Something he couldn’t do for Serah, despite all his trying.  The characters are THE reason to play through these games.  Just remember that the subtext is just as important, if not more, than what they are actually saying and doing.

The trilogy also has a great overarching theme of the desire for free will and fighting against your fate, and the need to preserve it even if free will means doing something stupid, or getting hurt by your choices or actions.  In the first game, the message is very direct.  The fal’Cie have literally stripped the main six from having any autonomy in their actions.  It’s complete the focus or be doomed to be a cie’th for eternity.  Even if you complete the focus, all it means is getting stored in crystal until the fal’Cie want you to do something again.  You become a slave to these god-like creatures for all eternity, or suffer a fate worse than death. The reaction to this is each character walking their own path to try and preserve their free will – be it by running away to do whatever they want to actively trying to kill their new ‘masters’.  Ultimately, the sheer strength of their freedom overcomes the chains.  Something that seems weird but makes perfect sense in the context of the mythology: humans are the only creatures capable of Free Will thanks to Etro.  It’s an X factor that the fal’Cie literally can’t comprehend and only out of fear, myth, faith, and sheer power have managed to control their thralls to this point.  There are thousands of years of stories about the fal’Cie and their l’Cie and what happens.  Your promised eternal life and happiness in a crystal dream for completing your focus.  To many it’s consider a downright honor to be chosen.  Why? Because that’s the belief the fal’Cie have worked to create in humans so they obey.  When these six broke that control and killed Orphan, they proved that the fal’Cie only have as much power over the human spirit as we let them.  That in the end, our focus and our destiny is for us to decide.

In the second game, the nature of free will and even more so the concept of fighting destiny is explored through the idea of time and the question of is the future set in stone?  Serah and Noel each want to change something.  Serah wants to change the past, and Noel the future to get what they want.  However, it’s shown that their actions do have a very real cost in the end.  Changing the future, striking out and making your own path, is what is killing Yuel and ultimately Serah as well.  Serah chooses to risk death to get a future where everyone can be happy.  However, with each life of Yuel’s reincarnation that gets extinguished the Chaos also grows and threatens everything.  It becomes a question of risk vs. reward.  Are you willing to put it all on the line to get what you really want?  You have free will to make your own destiny, but that can come back and bite you.

Those repercussions are fully explored in Lightning Returns, which feature’s the titular character faced with the decision of asking which is preferable: Euphoria with no free will or free will with suffering? You are constantly bombarded with stories of loss and misery through the side quests and main story, but are told that this can be avoided by simply casting aside your emotions and freedom and living in peace for all eternity.  But you also see stories of love, compassion, and those who despite facing the end of all things choose to keep pressing on and living their lives to the fullest.   There’s a kid who just wants to pass his hunting trials and become a man of his clan before the end comes.  What does it matter? In the grand scheme it doesn’t but to him it’s everything.  Fang is fighting to save her friend, Sazh to save his son, Snow to protect the people – all knowing that there are only 13 days left, they still choose to fight to live.  Lightning’s ultimate choice is that freedom is more important than a guaranteed happiness.  To that end, she kills God and frees everyone to have whatever life they choose to have.  Even Caius who was given no choice in becoming a guardian, no agency in whether he lives or dies thanks to the Heart of Etro or the Yuels, finally gets to choose to stay in the Unseen Realm.  Really, there was no need for him to go, but he didn’t want the Yuels to be alone.

The only thing I do wish they had done was keep the song from the first game going through the whole trilogy.  While only included in the western release, Leona Lewis’ “My Hands” is a song that strongly resonates with both Lightning and Serah that only strengthens as the trilogy goes on.  The song’s solemn lyrics of longing and missing another person while having to go on without them becomes even more poignant by the third game when you start coming face to face with just how many people are now trapped in time, forced to live eternally, after losing loved ones to the slowly dying monster ravaged world and expanding chaos.  Sadly, the song is only featured on the first game where it sort of resonates with Lightning’s quest to get her sister back but doesn’t live up to its full potential.

So is the Trilogy a flawless masterpiece?  Hardly.  The story is confusing and told is a jarring all-over-the-place style that requires copious amounts of reading extra content to follow any of the over arching narrative. The gameplay – especially for the first game – can be boring and tedious and will definitely be a huge turn off to fans of the previous games (even though I’ll admit that the ‘run a straight path and fight monsters’ is pretty much the exact same style as the critically and fan adored Final Fantasy X).  It is a flawed trilogy of games and I will admit that.  But that doesn’t mean I think it should be tossed aside and forgotten to the annals of history.  There is a lot of great content here: Wonderful stories, brilliantly well rounded characters, and a fascinating mythology behind it all. The second game explores a lot of the same ideas that Chrono Trigger fans would find very much right at home and the third game has a truly engaging time-based system and active combat system that has a ton of optional stuff to explore and is short enough to encourage multiple playthroughs with a new game+ feature.

My recommendation is while I can’t wholly endorse these games at $60 a pop, if you can nab them used or new at a decent price (I only paid $15 for the first two, and got Lightning Returns new at release) I would recommend nabbing them.  If you really want to skip the first one, I can’t blame you. There’s a decent enough recap in the Extras menu of XIII-2 that will bring you up to speed but you will miss some excellent character writing that comes later in the first game.  These games also serve as a firm full exploration of the Fabula Nova Crystalis mythology and covers everything from Bhunivelze to his fal’Cie, Pulse, Lindzei and Etro, the concepts of the Seen and Unseen realms, and of course the idea of the l’Cie that plays a big role in Final Fantasy Type-0 and assuredly in the upcoming Final Fantasy XV.  Remember, the mythology is the only thing shared between the three and you’ll get no better crash course in that than from the XIII trilogy.

So that’s the end of my look at the hated XIII trilogy.  I don’t know if I changed anyone’s minds but hopefully I showed that there’s a bit more to these three games than what appears on the surface.  I know I discounted the games pretty harshly at first when I first rented the first one to give it a go back in the day, but after a second look was quite impressed with what I found.  I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank all my readers and oddly enough Noah ‘The Spoony One’ Antwiler whose incredibly biased albeit hilariously entertaining reviews of the Final Fantasy games he doesn’t like inspired me to look deeper into these games and see if they were truly that bad.  They’re not in my opinion.  Hell, not even Final Fantasy X.  I mean, I didn’t like X as much, but it wasn’t garbage by any means.  Anyway, if you want a chuckle with someone ripping apart the games and riffing a lot of the admittedly silly parts, check it out.  I’ll be here finishing up class reviews for SWTOR, replaying Metal Gear while waiting for my PS4 to get repaired and trying to finish out Type-0 HD.

Stay weird, folks.

The Sky is Falling: Day One with the Inquisition

Inquisition_membersAir…  I need…  AIR.  *deep breath*

Okay. Now that I’ve come up for air, it’s time to talk a bit about what I’ve been doing down in the gaming depths.  The past two days have been filled with little else other than one. Singular. Activity.  That being Dragon Age: Inquisition.  Now, of course, I’m known for my somewhat heretical enjoyment of the “Not cool to like” Bioware titles – Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3 – so my opinion is going to be a bit suspect on these things, but I have to say that Dragon Age: Inquisition is probably one of the more addicting games I’ve played in a long time.

The story is pretty simple at first.  There’s a giant hole in the sky where the veil between the magical Fade world and our world have been torn asunder and now demons are pouring out like it’s a Necronomicon Spring Break in Transylvania.  You also fell out of the hole, being the sole survivor of the explosion that caused it and with a weird glowing thing on your hand that can actually close the smaller holes dubbed Rifts.  So now it’s up to you and your buddies to close the hole! At least at first that’s what is going on.  I have a sneaky suspicion after 15 or so hours of game play that something else is waiting in the wings.  Considering I know there’s a place called Skyhold and I haven’t seen it yet, but we’re already marching to close the big hole… yea.

The characters are diverse but there’s none that I immediately latched onto as favorites like I did in Dragon Age 2.  I’ll admit that the characters were the big selling point for the second installment for me.  From Merrill’s innocent quirkiness and dark reveals to Isabella’s love of life and even Anders and Fenris and their opposing view of the mages.  Here we are treated to a veritable menagerie of characters and sadly to say only a handful of likeables thus far.  Cassandra comes off as a cross between Miranda from Mass Effect and an ill tempered drill sergeant. Solas (pronounced Soul-less) feels pretty much soul-less due to having that elven “I’ve lived more than 100 hundred lifetimes and am all knowing and all seeing and thus don’t need to care much” thing going on. Varric is… Varric, I can’t really describe the fast-talking, double dealing, best example of a bard in gaming I’ve ever seen any other way.

About the only character I actually dig thus far on a personal note is Sera and that is because she is completely bat-$#!* insane.  Her introduction can be boiled down to she has just killed a lot of people and stolen all their pants for absolutely no reason except maybe to sell them.  Too bad my first playthrough is a lawful good mage.  My Chaotic Neutral rogue playthrough however is gonna love her.

There insane amounts of little things to explore, collect, and unlock but each of these little things will help you in some way.  Seriously!  Either by granting experience to your character, giving you more power which you use to send people on missions, or giving you Influence which is kind of like XP for the entire Inquisition and lets you unlock overall power boosts like being able to open harder locks or getting extra XP from codex entries or kills.  I spent the first day doing absolutely nothing with the main story quest and just wandering around the hinterlands doing little odd jobs and finding doodads and resources.

Yes, resources.  Because crafting in this game requires an insane amount of resources.  But it’s not all annoying.  See unlike MMOs where you need a certain kind of metal and a certain kind of wood to make an item, DA:I boils it down to just need 10 metal and 2 wood.  Any 10 of one type of metal and any 2 of any kind of wood will do.  Now which metal and wood you use will affect things like bonus stats or color and pattern of the item, but the fact that creating things requires categories of items instead of specifics is much easier.  Especially when you will need specific crafting materials to fill requisitions from your army, essentially researching things to help your forces and thus help yourself like better weapons or gear.  For instance, I don’t know how much of this was me clearing up territory and claiming it protected by the Inquisition and how much of it was me filling up requisitions but as I kept playing I noticed that a pair of Inquisition soldiers would just appear in random spots with chests of a few useful items for you.

On that note, another great thing about this game is that it actually feels like you make progress.  You know how in Skyrim you would do something insane like almost blow up Winterhold but then afterwards no one pays even a single thought let alone any lasting effects? Or in well ANY MMO you can clear out an entire fortress of baddies and kill their leader only to have them all just waiting for you in a few minutes?  NOT HERE.  If I bring a band of bandits under my command, every bandit in that company of rogues is now an ally and will no longer attack me.  If I clear out the mage and templar strongholds, suddenly the mages and templars go from open war breaking out everywhere to nearly gone save for maybe a random pack wandering the wilderness.  Yea, those strongholds and camps you clean out? STAY CLEANED OUT.  You control that territory now. It’s yours.  Oh geeze does that feel good.  Because that means you can clear out the major conflicts in areas and then have nothing to contend with exploring except beasts, demons, and the occasional highwayman or Carta team (dwarf thugs) to deal with.

So thus far this game has been so much more addicting than Skyrim ever was.  It’s that right blend of basic to use but expansive to master mechanics, a truly consistent world, and engaging characters that I might not instantly cling to like in previous installments but are interesting enough for me to want to see where their character paths take them while we try to save the world.  Except Solas.  He’s kinda just boring.  Screw you, Solas.

Going Galactic

Thus far in my MMO career I’ve primarily bounced back and forth between two games: World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic.  Oh sure, I’ve dabbled here or there in other games.  Occassionally I still jump in and have a swim in the waters of Dungeons & Dragons Online (Less so now that they’ve decided to abandon Eberron for Forgotten Realms, but I could write a whole other post – and might – about that beef), and my copy of Guild Wars 2 still sits firmly installed for when I just want to wander and have fun.

So now the pendulum has swung back and I’ve decided to wander back into TOR for a bit.  Why?  Well, I won’t speak ill of patch 5.4 for World of Warcraft because by no means do I feel it was bad, but for the moment there’s not a lot of time investing fun to be had beyond leveling alts.  The Raid Finder (aka the only raiding Vry does anymore because every raiding guild I’ve ever run with boils down to petty drama bulls*&%) is more frustrating than anything when the wings are just opening.  People rushing in like cattle to the slaughter.  Best to wait until everything opens up and people start getting used to the mechanics and fights before wading into the thick of it.

WoW vs SWTOR: The Metaphor… I guess?

The Timeless Isle however IS content I can sink my teeth into.  It’s fun and open.  I like just wandering in circles and seeing what I can find.  I LOVE the trivia daily as you can imagine.  But the problem with the Timeless Isle right now is that it’s pretty much the ONLY thing to do outside of Proving Grounds (Solo) and raiding (slaughter house), so the Island is PACKED.  And the problem with the island being packed full of players running around and killing everyone and everything in sight is that the place becomes so ridiculously overfarmed the only chance to do anything is just to chest hunt.  Hey! A rare is up! Oh, it’s dead before I can reach it because 100 people were camping it. Oh another one! Hurrry scurry murray hurr-  Oh, dead again.

Then if you’re lucky to find the Island at a time when it’s NOT busy as hell, good luck having the killing power to take down the big game.  I mean, I enjoy the fact that I can at least kill my 20 elites in peace, and maybe actually tag an albatross, but at the same time it seems like some of the bigger mobs require a group effort to bring down.  So when the island is bare, you’ve got yet another problem.

Really, the only solution I’ve come to with the island is that it’s great fun, and will continue to be great fun when I’m killing things on it next expansion when I’m 95 in bad ass gear cutting my way through it solo because no one needs to gear up alts anymore.  AKA the “How Vry plans to do the Isle of Thunder achievements” plan.

However I don’t plan to just abandon World of Warcraft for months on end.  Oh heck no.  I’ve been having a ball just going back and leveling my alts.  My monk just made it to Northrend, and for the first time in a good long time I get to explore the Alliance side stories in Northrend. Which despite all the talk of Horde bias in recent years, the Alliance stuff in Northrend is REALLY good story-wise.  The Cult of the Damned infiltrating their ranks in the Borean Tundra, recovering the Ashbringer for Tirion in the Howling Fjord, reuniting with the Westfall crew in the Grizzly Hills…  there’s a lot of good stuff there.

Meanwhile it SW:TOR there’s a lot to catch up on.  I came back to just miss the bounty hunter week so I’m curious to try that out. I just finished up my Makeb reputation and am currently setting all my 55’s to complete the Section X one before moving on the new Czerka area.  And I’ve started a bunch of alts fresh to try out some new experiences in the game (Light side inquisitor, good guy agent, bad guy jedi, greedy bounty hunter) as well as have a refresher for the class storyline reviews.  Which for those who haven’t seen yet, you can find spoiler-free paragraph long class storyline summaries here now. I’ll be doing more reviews soon hopefully.

I know TOR has gotten a ton of crap over it’s short life, but I still find it quite enjoyable to play.  Okay, not every aspect of the game is amazing.  The cartel market constantly swings between “That’s AWESOME” and “You’ve got to be kidding me” for one.  But they’ve also done some pretty cool things.  Like the new flashpoints, while devoid of fun conversations, are designed to be done with any combination of classes and roles.  3 tanks and one healer? Cool.  4 DPS? Fine.  (On the Hard mode, it’s still the typical 2 DPS/1 Tank/1 Healer arrangement, but that’s fine)  This is pretty much like WoW scenarios.  Which I love.  Like a lot.

But when it comes down to it, the stories in TOR is what keeps me coming back to it over something like Guild Wars 2 or DDO.  I had 10 – TEN – different playthroughs of Mass Effect 1 & 2, 6 characters in Dragon Age 2, and yes, I loved ME3 ending and all.  Is it any shock that playing through the class stories and seeing how different choices play out is really fun for me? Even if there’s a ton that’s the same every time?  Plus they’ve done a great job of fixing up a lot of the annoyances in the game that were there at the launch.  The group finder works great, the later worlds seem to be retuned a bit, and the legacy unlocks and new travel consoles make getting around much less of a head ache.  The only thing that still drives me nuts is that with F2P or preferred, you only get 5 on-site rezes per character.  Then you have to go back to the med center always unless you buy more.  Really?  Can’t you just put a ridiculous cooldown on that one instead?  Like you can only on-site rez once per 4 hours for F2P, or 2 hours for preferred if you don’t have a medi-droid contract (first 5 is free, then you have to purchase further medi-droid contracts in the market. Or else you go on a wait list – aka long cooldown).

So if you happen to be on Begeren Colony, keep an eye out for the Vrykerion legacy running around.

What Is A Game?

Not sure what's wrong with this...

Not sure what’s wrong with this…

I was recently reading an interesting article about the amount of harassment from the internet game developers face on a daily basis.  It was a good read.  A reminder about the utter savagery some people face when exposing themselves (or in some cases, forcefully dragged out into) the anonymous hordes of the internet.  I haven’t had a lot of interaction with developers myself online, but what little I have had has been nothing but courteous and helpful. Heck, even Xbox Live support (Not a developer, I know) always went out of their way on Twitter during my numerous rants about how Xbox Live refused my credit card (The problem has been fixed.  Turns out the solution was: Switch banks).  I have spoken to Ghostcrawler at least once with some questions about Pet Battles, and he actually answered them.

And while the way we treatment game developers who wish to have an open dialogue with their players is a very important topic, that’s not actually what I wanted to talk about.  Actually, what I wanted to say came from a comment to one of those articles.  Among the comments of support and comments of “Well if they don’t wanna be harassed they should stop making ****y games.” there was one comment that really stood out to me.  It posed an idea that I think is at the heart of the divide of much of the gamer community.  Not an issue of hardcore or casual. Or console versus PC.  But an issue of mentality over what a game actually is.

The comment was (and you’ll have to pardon me for paraphrasing, I wasn’t able to find it again): “What developers don’t understand is that it’s about working to become better, overcoming difficult obstacles, crushing the competition, and proving you’re the best. If you don’t have that, you are not a real game.”

Not a real game?  Interesting.  Because that description can probably only apply to maybe a handful of the “games” in my collection.  And they are surely not the ones I play regularly.  But I bet you’ve seen something similar to one of those requirements in the forums of nearly every game you’ve played.  I know I have.   So let’s take a look at these a bit closer.

Become Better: This is pretty much the most universal concept.  You become better by doing over and over.  From jumping over pits in Super Mario Bros., to grinding levels in MMOs.  Honestly, I think a lot of people overlook how universal this is in gaming.  I see that a lot in WoW, when people talk about how “easy” the game has become.  That for a lot of people just starting there isn’t much to point them along the right road, which skills to use and when, or how to build a decent rotation.  Of course, folks respond with crap like “That’s what the internet is for”.  Look, I didn’t have to go to the internet to figure out how to jump over pits in Super Mario, why is that such an easy solution for MMOs?  /sigh.  I don’t know.  But we were all noobs once, right?  But now we’re all bad ass.  So we had to have become better.

Overcoming Difficult Obstacles: If the last requirement was the most universal, this one is probably the most subjective.  What constitutes difficult?  If one person struggles with beating a boss on easy mode, but eventually kills it, is that less overcoming difficulty than someone who beats it on the hard mode?   This is probably the most common thing I see in MMO discussions and it’s one that I doubt that will ever be solved mostly because it’s so subjective.  Of course, as we’ll see, the application of the later requirements tends to create conflict when applied to the subjective one.  Like if you can overcome the hard mode, and the other person has a hard time overcoming the easy mode, you are clearly a better gamer than them.  I don’t really agree with that.  But that’s probably the reason I personally steer away from games that thrive on competition.

Crushing the Competition:  And hear the lamentatiooooons of da wooooooomeeeeeen! Yea, no.  This is one of those concepts that seems to be derived from old school board games and probably more likely sports.  But it DOESN’T apply to as many games as it does apply.  Arkham Horror for instance is a cooperative board game where players work together to defeat the game itself.  And there’s lots of board games like that.  Or how about single player games?  What is the competition to crush?  The NPCs?  The Bosses?  Wouldn’t that fall under the ‘Overcoming Difficulty’ portion of things?  If this is a REQUIREMENT of gaming, then there’s a lot of Non-Games out there that people enjoy.  Or are you gonna tell me that Skyrim isn’t a REAL game?  Really?  Now you’re just being stubborn.

Proving You’re The Best: This one kind of walks hand in hand with the crushing the competition, except that it really can be done on some single player games.  After all, there’s a world wide competition for speed runners for games like Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Wind Waker.  And while yes, you technically can “crush the competition” with that too, the game is not designed around that.  It IS designed with the ability to prove you’re the best (or at least the fastest).  This is where I personally think the main split between gamers actually lies.  Do you play to prove your the best to others, or do you play just to play the game (I’d say ‘have fun’ but if proving you’re the best is fun, then well, both options would be ‘have fun’.  After all, there is something fun about punching your initials into the high score…  spot…  my god, I just realized how old I am…)

So are these THE requirements for a game to be a game?  No more than Chuck E Cheese’s being the only place where a kid is allowed to be a kid (Except in Alaska.  It’s actually a law there.  Sorry Alaska Kids.)  I can see why some people would put emphasis on these aspects of gaming.   They are all great ways and reasons to enjoy a game.  But I don’t think they are the only reasons, nor do I think it’s fair to say these are the criteria developers should be judged on in the Court of Internet Popular Opinion.  We all like different things.  I’d be perfectly fine with a game that you can’t lose, don’t have anything to overcome, but told a kick ass interactive story.  Sadly for me, things like Japanese Visual Novels was never a concept that caught on in the United States, so for the most part my selection there is parsed down to hentai options.  And while I love a good story as much as the next person, I’m not playing through a 20+ hour game to look at pixel porn.

That’s what Mass Effect is for. HEEEEEY-OOOOOOOO! (Just kidding. I loved the ME Trilogy.)

So what about you?  What do you think the requirements of a game to be a “Real game” is?  Graphics?  Narrative?  Online play?  A Blue Fairy, a cricket and a giant whale?  You tell me.  I’d love to hear some other thoughts on the subject.

TREEK!

So there’s been a bit of a hub bub about Star Wars: The Old Republic’s newest companion, Treek.  While a lot of the talk is mostly about how Treek is acquired (requiring 1 million credits AND a Level 40 legacy or just shelling out 2100 Cartel Coins with no legacy requirement at all) I personally find the companion to be worth the trouble and/or money.  Why you ask?  Is it because for a measly 700 CC I can unlock Treek on all my characters? No.  Is it because Treek is the first companion that can switch between tank and healing modes? Nuh-uh.

Treek is the best companion ever because Treek is an Ewok.

treel-healing-companion

It’s like the universal answer to any question involving Treek. “Why will I be getting Treek?”  EWOK.

treek_swtor_banner_0

“Why should YOU get Treek?” EWOK.

swtor-ewok-treek

“How much does Treek cost?” EWOK! DOES IT MATTER?! EEEEWOK! DID I STUTTER?

SWTOR_Treek-buffed

“Pfft. Ewoks are stupid.”

Treek? Eat them.

sddefault

(Never forget that the ewoks were getting ready to cook Luke, Han and Chewie before C3PO got all god on them.  Do not #$%& with the ewoks. Yub yub, mutha #$%&a)

Of Death and Ironmen

Honestly, I’m still completely shocked that the completely silly Ironman Challenge idea that we brewed up on Twitter all those years ago is still kicking around.  Now we’ve got our brand new level 90 Immortal Ironman.  For those who haven’t visited the OddCraft Archive’s Ironman page, the Immortal Ironman is the much, much, much, much, MUCH more well-known No Deaths variant of the challenge that the World of Warcraft Community came up with months after the original rules were posted.  (No, I’m not still sore about this all. I swear. I’m NOT! Stop saying it.  I do not protest too much.  And I’m not a lady, bub…   Sorry about the bub comment, Ma’am.)

But I was thinking about the Immortal Ironman version of the rules, and the past World Firsts that made it with no deaths, and I realized that there was an aspect of that whole challenge that really bothers me.  Something I think kind of undermines at least what I personally sought to see with the original Ironman Challenge and one of the reasons I didn’t WANT a ‘No Death’ rule in the game.

It makes you play it safe.

The 85 Immortal Ironman? Dinged doing level 80 dailies.  The 90 Immortal Ironman? Questing in Hyjal.  Are you kidding me?  I mean, yes. You did something amazing, hardcore, bad ass, all that. But come on people.  You can’t even do it in the current expansion’s content?  You could just do damn dailies over and over until you ding.  That’s…  borderline cowardly!

In my mind, Ironsally did it right.  Ironsally went into Hyjal and Deepholm and did battle against things that were compared to trying to solo raid bosses.  That is awesome.  And yes, she died.  But survival wasn’t the goal.  Conquest – VICTORY – was the goal.  And victory she achieved.  She killed them.  She waded into hell wearing her skivvies and emerged bloodied, beaten and victorious.

I really don’t want to diminish the victories of those who decided to undergo the Ironman Challenge with the no death rule.  It’s still an amazing accomplishment.  But in my mind, to play it safe is the undermine the true goal of the challenge.  To face the forces of darkness with nothing but barest of essentials.  To see if you could do it.  To see if you can even HIT or KILL a level 85 monster at level 84 with nothing but your underwear and a wooden sword.  That’s where I was going in my mind when the initial conversation on twitter took place, that’s still where the REAL challenge is in my mind.

But that’s not what the community wanted.  They made the challenge they wanted.  They took our framework and modified it.  That’s fine.  They have their champions, we have ours.  But if they want a challenge.  A REAL Ironman, best of the best, Ironman challenge.  Allow me to offer one additional rule to pair with their hardcore ‘No Death’ one:

14. No Daily Quests.

I’m asking you to show me how ‘Iron’ you are. I’m saying drop your safety net.  I think we’ve shown that Ironman is doable and Immortal Ironman is doable.  Now I’m upping the ante.  Show me what you have, WoW community.  I’m eager to see how tough you are.

Beware the Bunnies

So it’s Noblegarden time again, and tradition dictates that I make some kind of post about a rabbit. Luckily, I’ve got a doozy of a hare-raising tale that keep you hopping.  Oh I’ve hinted at it, and I’ve mentioned it, but now it’s time to actually talk about.  In the heart of Forsaken territory, beneath the still waters of a small pond, lies an unimaginable terror beyond comprehension:

A GIANT BUNNY SKELETON! No, seriously.  Take a look at that thing.  Look at the bones!  It’s a bunny.  With giant pointy teeth and huge dangerous claws.  I mean, this thing is probably was the most dangerous critter in the history of Azeroth and I am INCLUDING the Darkmoon Rabbit in that.  I mean, Thrall’s balls, that is one big bunny.  Where do you think it came from and how the hell did someone kill it?

Well, I wouldn’t be posting if I didn’t have some theories now would I? The first piece of evidence is quite possibly the location of the Devil Rabbit.  Tirisfal Glades is home to, well, a number of weird things.  From the ongoing fan theory that an Old God dwells beneath the surface contributing to everything from the corruption of Prince Arthas to the slow maddening descent of the current ruler, Lady Windrunner.  The Old God’s ability to twist living things to their needs can easily be witnessed in the “Faceless” and the Qiraji.  However, I am not one hundred percent on this idea. Simply because it seems unlikely that an Old God would choose something like a rabbit to be its minion to bring destruction amongst the living.  Unless the Old God happens to be Sheogorath.  Then it makes perfect sense. Because it doesn’t make any sense.  Who wants cheese?

I suppose there is some merit to having a giant bunny become a tormented bringer of the end times.  For one, just imagine the utter confusion it would cause.  No one would come to anyone’s defense.  I mean, would you send your military forces to aid a neighboring city or land because they’re claiming a giant devil rabbit is slaughtering everyone? No. You’d think they’d gone mad and stopped returning their owls.  Second, is that if the bunny is some horrible nightmarish lovecraftian nightmare, people might hesitate about killing the giant adorable death machine.  Even a seconds hesitation is enough to give beelzebunny a chance to devour you and your kin!

Another possibility lies in the fairy ring that lies in the western hills of Tirisfal.  Perhaps the fairy ring is a link to the Emerald Dream, where nature rules supreme! Ages ago, a living terror burst forth from this ring into the unsuspecting lands of Azeroth.  From deep within the dream, a simple bunny grew massive and powerful and…  okay, honestly I have no idea if there’s any backing to this Emerald Dream theory.  That fairy ring is weird.  A giant bunny is weird.  That’s about the extent of the link.  But you have to admit, I’ve had further reaching theories in the past.

For all we know, this thing could be ancient.  Possibly even pre-dating the titans.  Unless we find out in an expansion or two that rabbits were only made of stone and blah blah blah.  Unlikely.  This thing could be a prehistoric bunny.  Possible an ancestor to the weapon carrying death critters that dwell north of Mulgore.  Which would mean that this thing would pre-date the Shattering!  Or the Sundering.  Whichever of those is older.  Cause let’s be honest, the Sundering was more of a Shattering and the Shattering more of a Sundering really.

Our Hero!

The other thing is how the hell did it die?  I mean, did someone kill it?  Did they use a spear and magic freaking helmet to do it?  Did it drown in some ancient quicksand hole?  Did it drown in the tiny pond because giant death bunnies can’t swim?!  The possibilities are endless.  Though likely it was something along the lines of the quicksand idea because its head and one arm is apparently higher than most of its body. Seems like it was trying to flee from being dragged under.  I still really like the spear and magic helmet idea though.

Really, the biggest question is why no one in the Undercity is trying to come up with a way to ressurect it.  While they seem to have had only success raising dead humans (even cursed humans like worgen are impossible), it’s not out of the absolute range of possibilities.  After all, the Lich King had the frostwyrms.  They were raised dragons.  So there must be SOME way to bring back a giant bunny o’ killomatic from beyond the grave.  Heck, you can do it with archaeology!  So someone get the Royal Apothecary Society on the job! And while they’re at it, they can slap a saddle on that thing. I wants me a new mount! Mwa ha ha!

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