Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Azh's WoW Adventures: Karazhan

My guild is pretty casual overall. And relatively small. So while we do a lot of 5-mans and PvP and other various events, we haven't experienced any of the Outlands raid content until we hit Zul'aman a week ago. We went to Zul'aman mainly because it didn't have any prerequisites for entry. We knew that Karazhan was officially the entry-level raid instance, but making sure that everyone did the 12-step quest that involves no less than three 5-man instances to get their key (which for some unknown reason, everyone needs), had been problematic.

However, we were emboldened by the turnout and tenacity displayed in our Zul'aman trip, so we got things together, ran those without keys through the required instances and made plans for a journey into Karazhan.

I've read a little about Karazhan, and I had stepped inside previously just to take a look, but we were basically walking into this adventure blind, which is really a lot more fun. I knew that Attumen was in the stables and that he appeared with his horse, and I also knew that a less-powerful boss-type creature lay in the cellars, but beyond that, it was new for everyone involved.

Unfortunately, there were only eight of us. We had a couple of friends of the guild who expressed interest in joining us, but I really wanted to do an all-guild run for the first time through. So we stuck with what we had. Our group consisted of two arms warriors, one restoration shaman, one holy/discipline priest, one beastmaster hunter, one rogue and two warlocks.

Both of the warriors were functioning as tanks (without a respec). Since pretty much everything we encountered was a ghost or a creature, our crowd control was limited to the priest's Shackle spell and the hunter's Ice Trap.

We decided to head into the stables first. The horses and the stablehands proved to be pretty easy to tackle. Shackle, trap and tank the others. We even had a point where we pulled the patrol along with the static mobs and still emerged victorious. The only tricky part was having the Chargers charge and fear the healers. But that didn't seem to really cause too much trouble.

When we got to Midnight, the plan was for the other warrior to take her and I would grab Attumen when he appeared. We would try and damage them both equally so that when Attumen hopped on Midnight, he would hopefully be almost dead. This didn't work out so well. We just weren't able to damage them quickly enough. Also, I hadn't realized that Attumen had an aura that decreases hit chance, so we were keeping them grouped near each other, which likely decreased our damage output quite a bit.

Lesson One: Keep Attumen away from the rest of the raid.

Wipe, soulstone, ressurect and we're ready to try again. A couple of party members had already run back in the front door and discovered that the spectral horses were respawning. No problem, we simply summoned them over and prepared to engage again. As soon as Midnight entered combat, ALL of the other horses ran over to help. Needless to say, it was a quick death for us all.

Lesson Two: The stables need to be clear before engaging Midnight.

Humbled and more experienced, we ran back and decided to check out the cellars. The creatures here consisted of spiders who would spawn spiderlings and large numbers of bats. These were all defeated easily and we came to what was looking like a dead-end in the back of the cellars. I was wondering where the boss was as I pulled the final group, and almost immediately found myself near death! Luckily, the other warrior was on the ball and grabbed the attention of Rokad the Ravager, who was with this final pull. He looked just like his demon-dog companions so I hadn't even noticed he was there! After recovering from that near fiasco, we easily defeated him and found some bracers for our enchanter to melt.

Having passed a narrow staircase on the way to the back of the cellars, we returned to it and made our way upstairs to the marbles halls filled with ghostly citizens. Took out a couple of the groups in the hallway then turned right into a large open space. The large groups of ghostly citizens weren't too tough, there were just lots of them to control. One of our warlocks seemed to draw a lot of aggro and went down a couple of times.

Then we hit the Skeletal Ushers who wiped us a couple of times. Their immunity to taunt was an unexpected discovery that led to one wipe, and then another as we accidentally pulled a patrol and had three of the Ushers on us at once! But once we figured that out, defeating them was easy enough and we cleared the entire room in front of the opera stage. We then talked to the organ player but nothing seemed to happen. Someone in our group pointed out that there was a passage behind the stage, so in we went right into a large number of ghostly actors. We were approaching the two hour mark at this point and one of our warlocks had to leave. But luckily we had another shaman login so we decided to make another attempt at Attumen.

Since we now knew about that Midnight would call for help if there were any other horses around, we really only had one shot before the respawns would start. We cleared the stables easily and quickly enough and then faced our nemesis. The plan this time was for me to keep Attumen occupied while the other warrior would keep Midnight focused on him and everyone would work on bringing the horse down. This has to be done carefully as both Midnight and Attumen are immune to Taunt. Things went pretty well, though slowly, since we were still short two players. Attumen mounted his horse and the second phase began. The other warrior ended up being the one grabbing aggro and seemed to be doing an excellent job of keeping his attention so I pulled out my two-hander and switched to fury stance. I was still wearing my tanking gear, so my damage was greatly reduced, but it was still a significant improvement. This phase also went slowly, and I was starting to get worried near the end that we would have respawns before we were done. But luckily, that didn't happen, Attumen fell and we searched his corpse to find a piece of paladin plate armor (no paladins with us) and leather gloves that our rogue didn't want! Alas, our enchanter had been the one who had to leave earlier so were left with taking the items to sell for a small pittance of gold. But we did all get two Badges of Justice (one from Attumen and one from Rokad, though somehow our rogue manged to get three total!) and enough Violet Eye reputation to get the first version of the Violet Eye rings.

All in all it was a fun and educational trip. I had no idea how big the place was. For some reason I thought it was a lot smaller but we have obviously only seen the very beginning of this instance. But our success with a short-handed raid was inspiring and gives us hope for further progression.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Orange Box: Initial Impressions

So I picked up the Orange Box before the turkey-based holiday. It was getting nothing but rave reviews and since I hadn't played anything new since the last Civ IV expansion, I needed something different.

Installed on Wednesday night and have played for about 15 hours total.

Portal is neat game. It's definitely nice to see an innovative game that is willing to take a chance on new ideas. And it's basically a very simple concept at heart. You are given the ability to make an entrance portal and an exit portal, and you have to somehow use these portals to solve various puzzles. Portal does an excellent job of easing you into the gameplay by introducing the game concepts as well as suggesting solutions and different ways to use the portals before ramping up into the more difficult situations. Even my girlfriend wants to play it almost every night!

I'm also really enjoying Team Fortress 2! I'm not much of a standard FPS player. Of course I played Quake and such games back in the day, but now I tend to lean towards the slower-paced Day of Defeat instead of the over-the-top, explosion-filled frag fests that most FPS games cater to. But I think they've hooked me this time around.

I was a little dubious at first, and my initial evening of playing didn't completely bowl me over. But I went back to it again the next night and put at least one effort into each of the different classes, testing out their various abilities. And somewhere in there it all clicked! Once I had a basic understanding of each class and what it was capable of, my enjoyment of the game skyrocketed!

Every class has its use. And a team that doesn't have a good selection of all the classes will find itself at a disadvantage.

The cartoon graphics are great, and perfect for this sort of Acme Inc. inspired mayhem. And as I've talked about before, I think these sorts of graphics give the developers more freedom. When you're going for the realistic look, you're very constrained in what you can do.

I haven't played the new Half-life 2 episode at all, but I already feel like I got my money's worth from the two games that I have played!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Azh's WoW Adventures: Zul'aman

With the recent release of patch 2.3 comes the first raid content since Upper Blackrock Spire that doesn't require crazy attunement/key quests.

Since out guild is very casual, we've never been to Karazhan and have only done a handful of heroics. So this was our first chance to try out a raiding instance in the Outlands. I'm speaking of the troll-infested Zul'man of course.

We knew going into it that Zul'aman was supposed to be the next progression after Karazhan, but I wanted to try it anyway, both as a guild bonding experience and simply to see some new content that none of us had seen before. It was an exploratory expedition of sorts.

So we gathered up: eight level 70s and one level 69. Two warriors, one priest, two shamans, one hunter, one rogue and two warlocks. We have a decent amount of epic PvP and arena gear, but given our lack of high-end PvE experience, no tanking epics. Both of our warriors were not protection specced and we both were wearing various blue items as defensive gear.

The first thing that happens inside is that you talk to an NPC who tells you to bang on a gong to open the gate. You need several people to bang on it at the same time and it takes a good 30 seconds or more of doing so before the gate will open. The NPC immediately runs through the gate, gets killed and aggros the first guards onto your party! This first group seemed to consist of two elite trolls and a number of non-elites. Nothing too troublesome, though we weren't expecting it.

And in fact, that is a big theme in this instance... triggered events. It seemed that around almost every turn we were hitting some invisible marker that called down the troll forces on us. Which is probably a lot of fun once you know what you're doing, but for first-timers it was hectic and crazy.

After that initial battle, you come out onto the grand staircase and get a nice panoramic view of the instance as well as plenty of space for resting. A patrol of two trolls is at the bottom of the stairs, one of them a 'Medicine Man' who drops totems. Kill the totems first! Especially the Protective Wards! They make the trolls invulnerable, which makes it a little tougher to kill them.

Turning right at the bottom of the stairs we see the bear boss, Nalorakk, up on a nearby ledge. At this point you have to start being careful about moving up before your party is ready. If you approach he calls out and sends his three guards after you as he moves farther back into the instance. This is a bit tricky as its hard to mark these trolls before they reach your party. And, as an undergeared tank with almost no protection talents, I couldn't take the hits from more than one of them at a time. Both times we fought this encounter I died before I could even get off an Intimidating Shout! Luckily, the second time around, the warlocks and priest managed to keep two of them feared while the second warrior occupied the third and the rest of our party took care of business.

Next up were the Amani Bears. These beasts came in pairs and hit like a two-ton bear (which they were!) After the first encounter with them we worked out a method of keeping one feared constantly while everyone chopped up the second for dinner and easily defeated the second group of bears without any losses.

Up some more stairs to confront Nalorakk again. And again, you have to watch where you step. As you approach the steps he sends more guards after you, this time it's four trolls of various kinds. We managed to defeat them by mind-controlling the Medicine Man, fearing one and tanking the other two. Then things got tough...

Up some more stairs and you have to face two Amani Warbringers. These are the Amani bears with trolls mounted on them. They hit extremely hard and have a roar that both increases their damage dealt and increases the damage taken by those affected. And, to top it off, they can both stack this debuff on you! Needless to say, they need to be tanked away from each other, but that's easier said than done. They both will aggro on the first person they see.

So after several unsuccessful tries we decided to see what lay in the other direction. We took a left at the bottom of the main stairs and saw a 'lookout' waiting up the slope. We figured he would call for some kind of help, so the plan was to charge in, hamstring him and try to take him out quickly. Unfortunately, we discovered that he is invulnerable and away he ran up the ramp. Two guards stood ahead of us. But as we prepared for the encounter, a wave of eagles flew down and assaulted our position. They were all non-elite, but their numbers made them hard to control. And, to top it off, two elite warrior trolls came up from behind us. We got things under control and took all of our foes out, but before we could rest another wave was arriving, and another and another... We must have defeated four or five waves before we were finally exhausted and overwhelmed. Apparently we needed to push forward through the attacks.

Back again we went, though this time we tried sapping the lookout, which actually worked! Sort of. He still ran up the ramp to summon the eagles and warriors, but it did buy us a few seconds with which to engage the first pair of guards. Unfortunately, we just didn't seem to have the firepower to defeat them fast enough and were again overwhelmed by the unrelenting assault from the trolls and their animal companions.

At this point we had been at it a little under 2 hours and decided to call it a night.

All in all, a very interesting instance. It's almost all scripted encounters, so if you're visiting for the first time, be prepared for lots of confusion and a steep learning curve. Though we ultimately met with defeat without even getting a shot at any of the bosses, it was great to have some 10-person content that was immediately accessible without having to jump through a lot of hoops.

I suspect that we will try to get some gear improvements before heading back, but I also think that simply having the experience and knowing what to expect next time would make a big difference as well.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

WoW Patch 2.3: First Impressions

So the new patch has now been out for two days and I wanted to give my initial impressions.

A lot of the class changes I wont have any comments on since 90% of my WoW play time is spent on my level 70 orc warrior. But I have had a chance to investigate the new Daily Quests, the Guild Bank, the changes to Alterac Valley and more! Keep reading for details.

The Daily Battleground quests are great! A couple of guildmates and I picked up the Arathi Basin quest on Tuesday, fought and won, and I had over 1200 honor from that victory alone plus the bonus honor from the quest. And getting paid for it was just icing on the cake! This also helps to promote the various battlegrounds on days other than the bonus weekends, which is nice for those of us who like to PvP.

I also discovered that you can hold on to your daily quest and complete it at a later time. I did this last night with the Shattered Halls daily quest that I picked up on Tuesday. However, once completed, you can't get another until the next day. But it's still something useful to know.

I noticed that the Heroic versions of the daily quests give 2 Badges of Justice on completion, which is a nice bonus, especially for those of us who don't do a lot of dungeon runs. Getting three badges a week makes for a really long trek to acquire the Badges of Justice items! And the reduction of reputation requirements for entering heroic dungeons has dramatically increased the number of groups looking for heroic adventures!

The warrior changes are just all around good for me. I was already a nearly pure Arms warrior (46 points in that tree). Death Wish is pretty sweet, I just need to remember to use it more often. But then change that I really, really like is having access to improved intercept! With the additional cooldown bonus from my gladiator gear, I find that I almost always have intercept available when I need it. I'm eager to try it out in the Arena!

Alterac Valley is pretty sweet at the moment. It's almost all PvP now and Horde has won 3 out of 4 matches that I've played. Bonus honor total at the end can be as much as 500-600 if you keep your opponents from razing any towers. Unfortunately, losing an AV match that way can result in very little honor gain, which would be pretty frustrating. But the changes seem good at the moment. We'll have to see how things play out as different strategies develop. In the meantime it's nice to see towers and graveyards actually being defended!

The experience gains for under-60 quests have increased significantly. I've only played a little of that part, but easily gained most of a level by completing a handful of quests. I was also able to go back to Silithus and solo the Emissary quest that I had been carrying around in my quest log for eons since his difficulty had been significantly reduced (it was now listed as a two-player group quest rather than a raid quest).

The Guild Bank is awesome. This is a great guild tool and a useful community feature that should have been available two years ago!

There are quite a few UI changes. For example, when you mouseover an NPC, the icon will change to reflect what they can do for you. It changes to a question mark for quest givers, an anvil icon for those who can repair, etc. Also, questgivers are now marked on the minimap for you. Another change is that interactive quest objects have little sparkly glows around them. While not very immersive, it does make it a lot easier to find that elusive lost backpack or chest without having to run the mouse over everything. Since so much of the WoW world is non-interactive and simply just there for show, I have to give this change a thumbs-up.

Overall, I have no complaints at all, though several of my addons have been throwing errors due to changes with the User Interface API. Hopefully the mod authors will fix those soon.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Elder Scrolls Online: Harshing the Buzz

So the latest buzz on the MMO scene is about the possible development of Elder Scrolls Online.

While a lot of fans are overly excited about this announcement, Bethseda is either going to have to seriously water down their worldy gameplay or accept the fact that they'll be a relatively niche game. There is no way that they'll 'challenge WoW' as some pundits are proclaiming.

Why? Well lets look at what makes the Elder Scrolls games so interesting and engaging and see how that translates to the MMO world.

1. Open character development based on skills: Very few MMOs have tried this tactic since UO. Eve is the notable exception, but their model is time-based rather than use-based. Not only does a use-based skill system lend itself to macroing or other such similar behavior (such as jumping constantly to increase your jumping skill), but then you also have to worry about keeping players from making the 'wrong' choices when it comes to skill selection and the potential for abusive skill combinations (for example, the tank-mage of old UO days). The latter is a development migraine, and the former a fear for many players.

2. Choices affect your character: One of the defining points of the Elder Scrolls was the ability to choose which factions to join/help. And those choices would have permanent effects on your character's development and future access to quests and other factions! I can just envision the number of GM calls now...

3. NPCs have lives too: MMO players aren't going to be happy that they can't sell and repair just because they happen to online while the shopkeeper NPC is asleep.

4. Open-ended world: The wide open variety of paths a player could take was another defining part of the Elder Scrolls games. But, one of the many complaints that newer MMO players have about UO is the lack of direction. There were no quests or introductions when UO was released. You just chose your starting skills and town and were plopped down in the world and expected to fend for yourself. While this is great for stimulating exploration, creativity and imagination, MMO players expect to be led by the hand these days.

Now I do want to state for the record that I personally would love all of the above features in an MMO. I can handle the fact that choosing to slay someone rather than talk to them permanently affects my faction standings. I can also handle that NPCs are completely unavailable at certain times. But for the millions that flock to WoW, RF and other such games, these features would be unacceptable. WoW didn't become the MMO giant by making things difficult for their players, in fact, its gone in the exact opposite direction!

But that's not to say that a really awesome Elder Scrolls MMO that was true to the source couldn't be made. But it would take a lot of work. More on that in a future post!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Minor MMO Idea #4: Meaningful Quest Text

One of the common occurrences in online, quest-based games, and WoW especially, is the fact that veteran players tend to skip reading the quest text, instead simply focusing on the pertinent parts, ie, who do I kill and what rewards do I get! I find myself even doing this with new quests that I haven't seen before. Just a quick skim to see who needs to be eviscerated and where they live and what my phat loot will be when I return with a bloody head as a trophy.

But why does this happen? Why is some quest designer's hard work ignored? Well, because its mostly just fluff! The details of the quest text have little to no impact on your character and oftentimes, don't even correspond to gameworld events!

A prime example is one of the early Blood Elf quests in WoW which is designed to teach you how to use the special racial abilities. It's called Thirst Unending.

Part of the quest text reads:

"If there is only one lesson you deign to remember from your time on Sunstrider Isle, let it be this - control your thirst for magic. It is a thirst unending, - you must absorb energy to survive via Mana Tap, and you must control how you release it via Arcane Torrent. Failure is to become one of the Wretched... hopelessly addicted and insane."

But is any of this true? Not at all! I can spend my entire WoW lifetime without ever using Mana Tap a single time. And if I do use it, I can release it whenever I want. There is no side-effect. I don't have to ever worry about becoming "one of the Wretched". All of the quest text above, while suitably ominous, is completely irrelevant to any actual in-game occurrence.

So why would should I want to read fluffy quest text that isn't even consistent with the virtual world. If it gave me some new insight into the land, that would be something. But, as it is, I, like most other players, simply scan for location, required objectives and the available rewards. Anything further is just a waste of time.

And this reminds me of Shadowbane. During development Shadowbane hired a writer to create incredibly engaging and detailed lore for the background of the game. But, when it came to actual gameplay, the lore was nowhere to be seen. This was a disappointment to a lot of players and left the game feeling extremely shallow (which it was).

It's kind of like the whole anti-drug propaganda that talks about the evils of marijuana. I bought into it when I was young. But then I met people who smoked casually, and I tried it myself, only to discover that all of those crazy tales my PE teachers related to me (why we were taught about drugs by the PE teachers I have no idea) were completely false! If you want to tell me about the dangers of inhaling super-heated smoke into your lungs, or the propensity for glassy-eyed TV viewing while under the influence, then I can accept that. But marijuana stories about friends trying to crack open car-sized rocks with their heads is just ludicrous. Are we still buying into Reefer Madness? But I digress.

My point is, if you're going to go to the trouble of creating interesting lore or NPC speech, tie it to your gameworld!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Dwarf Fortress Update

So the latest version of Dwarf Fortress has finally been release. You can find it here. It has been in development for quite a while and includes a z-axis, alterations to temperature exchange and water flow and more!

Unfortunately, the game's interface is still pretty horrid. But for those who are put off by the ASCII graphics, there is hope! First of all, take a look at this mockup! Pretty sweet! Here's a link to a thread about the development of these isometric graphics. I recommend that any Dwarf Fortress fan lend their support to those efforts!

I haven't had a chance to delve into the new gameplay yet, but I expect to have some commentary on the subject soon!