Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Warhammer Online: Preview Weekend Thoughts

Played some over this weekend, though I tried out a lot of different classes using my newly patented Smash 'Em leveling technique (queue for scenarios constantly as soon as you log in, doing quests while waiting in line. I hit level 5 and renown rank 5 in under an hour using this technique).

Here are some random thoughts and comments in no particular order.

I noticed that a lot more low-level items come with slots these days. I assume this is to give the as-yet-unreleased Talisman Making profession a use from the start. I just wish they would patch it in so we can see how it works.

It seemed to be very popular to level up to 11 (the max for the Tier one scenarios) and queue for scenarios. That way players could feel powerful by tearing through the lower-ranked opponents. But, since PvP gives experience gains (and pretty significant ones at that), at least these putzes will eventually level out of that Tier, which is a godsend in my opinion. None of that perma-twink BS that is the bane of low-level WoW battlegrounds.

I took some time to stop in one place and just look around, taking in the action that was going on. Even though WAR is a themepark MMO, they do an excellent job of making it feel alive, with NPCs fighting it out, reinforcements running around the camps, explosions and artillery combat happening at a steady pace. It would add some flavor to the game if these bombardments actually caused some damage (not a lot, just something to keep you on your toes).

Every class plays differently. I haven't played them all, but I've spent at least a few levels with Shaman, Squig Herders, Ironbreakers, Engineers, Bright Wizards, Marauders, and of course, lots of time with the Black Orcs, and they all have different mechanics or styles of play. Add this on top of the ability to PvP right out of the starting gate, and replayability becomes a huge draw for WAR (at least in the early levels. The grind might get more tedious as you get to Tiers 3 and 4).

Scavenging is a very useful money-maker. Butchering not so much, since animals are less common than humanoids.

Still no functioning banks, guild or otherwise. Same with the auction house.

The polish is definitely in progress. A lot of people seem to be complaining about the clunky feel of combat, but for those who have been in beta previously, the new system is much improved (though it can still use more improvement). The low-level game just seems a lot slicker and tighter than it did a month ago.

I haven't played all of the starting areas, but the Greenskin area seems to be a lot more compact. I felt like I was running around a lot more in the Dwarf, Empire and Chaos starting areas.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Warhammer Online: Guild Beta Impressions - Part III

Phase 3.3 saw the opening of the Tier 4 zones, along with character wipes and the ability to make level 31, templated characters.

Seeing the Tier 4 zones and getting a chance to try and push the zone control so that your side can assault new zones was interesting, but it also revealed some flaws with the system.

For example, its possible for your side to gain control of all the objectives and keeps in an area, but still lose control of the zone. I know that PvE and Scenarios also have an effect on the zone control, it just feels kind of weird to have physical control of a zone, but the magic meter tells you something different.

Keep combat is very one-dimensional. Attack the front gate, run in, attack the keep lord. The only difference with the higher tier keeps is that they require you to bust down two doors. The keeps look fancy, but 90% of the area is never used. It's also odd that there are no NPCs on the walls. You would think they could stick in some static archers.

Tier 4 areas have a bit of an interesting setup. In the middle there is a zone that is 80% RvR, flanked on either side by two PvE zones that feed into the middle zone for control purposes.

Thunder Mountain is the central Tier 4 area for the Greenskin/Dwarf pairing. It is a badlands type area, with a volcano in the center. Very cool atmosphere, very crappy for actually getting anywhere. Due to large chasms dominating the landscape, you often have to take a very roundabout route to get to where you need to go (note: this is for the RvR area. The PvE areas of the zone don't have this issue), resulting in a lot of running around. This is especially annoying because it is the RvR area. I don't want to spend more time running back to the combat than I do actually fighting.

The Empire vs Chaos area of Praag on the other hand, is a great RvR setup. Almost the entire zone is encompassed by the town, which each side having a warcamp on the outskirts to give them easy access to the interior. Objectives are on a general line through the middle of town, with one keep at each end. This is much more fun than running around on windy paths in Thunder Mountain. It also gives more of a feeling of an actual war, since you're fighting in a city instead of out in the middle of nowhere at some random spot.

I really think that Mythic will have to revisit the RvR zones for the other two pairings to make them as interesting. Currently, 90% of the outdoor PvP action happens in the Empire vs Chaos areas.

Another thing that really bothers me is zone control resetting periodically? I find this feature a bit odd. Apparently, you are under a time limit in regards to gaining control of zones. Otherwise, the zone resets entirely. Pretty lame design, IMO, but I guess it goes along with the theme park style of gaming. After several posts about this issue, I finally got some details from a Mythic employee. Once you start a keep assault, you have 60 minutes to win before it resets (though I'm not sure what exactly causes the timer to start. Hitting the front door? Destroying the front door? Attacking the keep lord?). Also, once one of the final fortresses is taken, you have 36 hours to take one of the other two, which will then open up the capitol for attack. If you don't beat the time deadline, the Tier for which the fortress was taken resets back to its default values. All objectives in that zone become neutral and the keeps revert to initial ownership. I find this to be a pretty lame mechanic. Maybe if they had an NPC spawn that retook the keep, that would be interesting. But as it is, it just suddenly pops back and you have to start all over from the bottom. My preference would be to leave it in the hands of the players to retake the keeps. Make the players actually fight for what is theirs rather than just resetting the pins for another round. But, I guess that goes along with the themepark MMO.

Leveling is definitely slower post 30. But its still not too bad. Definitely much quicker leveling than any of the other fantasy MMOs on the market.

I continue to be impressed with the whole open party concept. It works very well, with most successful open Warbands being formed around a small core of guild players. There are a few issues. The main one that bothers me is that I cant always see where everyone in my warband is on the map. But, this is a bug that affects all warbands, not just open ones.

Talisman making is still not in game yet, but drops for it have begun to appear. Some items have enhancement slots, so I am assuming that Talisman making will create items for these slots, kind of like Jewelcrafting in WoW.

Got a chance to play with some of the dye options. The colors seem to be a lot more apparent on the higher-level gear. And it does make your avatar stand out. Unfortunately, there are only a dozen or so color options, and some of them are priced differently. I've seen some hints in-game that they plan on letting Apothecaries create their own dyes, but it seems that this feature isn't fully implemented as noone has managed to actually make any.

The game has improved quite a bit over the last month. Things generally seem a lot smoother, particularly client-side. I still get occasional graphics lag, but it is vastly improved.

And before I finish up this post, I suppose I should talk a bit about the guild system. Forming a guild in WAR requires a full party of 6 players to gather at the guild registrar in Inevitable City. You then pay a fee, pick a guild name and you're all set. The guild window has several tabs, including one for managing alliances. The UI has a few issues, but all-in-all, its well laid out and fairly comprehensive. One of the more unique aspects of WAR is its Living Guild system, whereby your guild gains levels. Each level opens up something new, from standards, to special access to the guild area in the capitol, to designing your own, personal heraldry (which has quite a number of options to choose from). This system seems to work pretty naturally, and quickly as well. We had to remake our guild several times during the beta, but we were always able to gain back the early levels rather easily. The highest level our guild achieved was 9, so I cant comment too much on the details above that, but it definitely was a source of pride for us to see our guild growing as a result of our efforts to bash in some stuntie heads!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Warhammer Online: Guild Beta Impressions - Part II

Here is the second of my beta impressions from the Guild Beta. This post is kind of short, since this phase only lasted a week. This was labeled Beta 3.2 and opened up the Tier 3 zones. My random thoughts are below in no particular order.

Note: This was written in mid to late July.


In addition to continuing to play my Black Orc, I also played a bit in the starting zones for the Empire and Dark Elves as well as playing a Squig Herder up to level 10.

I noticed that the Tier one objectives for Empire/Chaos were a hotbed of activity. Likely due to the fact that they are all of 10 seconds outside of the camps, and sit smack in the middle of both sides. On the other hand, the objectives for the first two Greenskin/Dwarf zones are tucked away in a corner of the map that noone ever goes to. So those objectives usually switch hands with no conflict whatsoever. Of course, it was mostly a mindless zerg (if you played WoW before they implemented battlegrounds, this is akin to the mass Hillsbrad/Southshore fights that used to happen on a daily basis).

Beta 3.2 saw the opening of Tier 3 zones, but they seemed strangely empty. It also seemed that the racial pairings aren't as in your face as they were in the other zones. The only times I saw any enemies in the two Greenksin/Dwarf Tier 3 zones was when they were riding by to go to the Gunbad dungeon.

Speaking of dungeons, I believe this is the first dungeon available for Destruction players. It's called Mount Gunbad and is designed for mid-20s players. It involves delving down into a cave to take on some goblins that are breeding super squigs. Though you have to go through a portal to get inside, the dungeon itself is open, which means that everyone is in the same instance. I think it's divided by faction, since I didn't see any enemy players inside, and all of the quest givers were goblins. There is no party-size limit, so you can take as many players as you want. Unfortunately, I crashed soon after entering and was unable to get back to my non-Guild group due to respawns, so I didn't get to see much of the place.

Some of the scenarios are pretty lame. For example, there is one King of the Hill scenario that is actually on a hill. Unfortunately, a number of classes get a knockback ability, which they will use to knock you off the top of the hill, forcing you to run back up. Another scenario requires you to grab and hold an artifact. The usual result is that one side gets it first, then camps below their spawn with it. Sometimes I have fun, sometimes I don't, usually revolving around how well my side is doing. If you enjoyed WoW's battlegrounds, you'll probably enjoy WAR's scenarios. Though sometimes you might end up waiting a while to get into a scenario, one good thing is that once the scenario is done, you're returned to the exact spot you were in before you entered. Makes it easy to continue on with questing or activities while waiting in line.

This phase also saw the push of the Realm War 'leader boards' which are pretty dumb at the moment. For one, they don't update and still have info from two weeks ago. For two, they're really not that interesting. For three, I don't see any info about the actual war. That is what I want to know! Which keeps are controlled by who, where has the fighting been going on for the past couple of hours. What objectives are available for attack. How close are we to pushing the gates of our opponents' city? This is the sort of info I expect to see. I could really care less about who spent the past 24 hours grinding renown points. But, I'm assuming they have plans to make it more interesting.

Next Up: Part III, which includes info from some time we were given in the Tier 4 zones with templated characters.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Warhammer Online: Guild Beta Impressions - Part I

Note: These are my initial impressions from the Guild Beta and were written a month ago. A lot has changed in the game since then. More recent thoughts will follow over the next couple of days.


I'm not going to be able to post this before the NDA is lifted, but I wanted to gather my thoughts together from Day one onwards. This initial writeup was made from my experiences playing exclusively as a Black Orc with an established guild (Shadowclan) for the first 10 days of Guild Beta (July 15th - 24th).

First things first. The ambiance of the Greenskin starting area was good. You start out in a fungus-lined cave and emerge to beat on some dwarfs as your first quest. Initial leveling is quick and painless (I was 30% through level one before even fighting anyone). Since I logged in on the initial day of Guild beta, the starting area was quite crowded. I didn't really have issues with completing quests because of the crowd, it just resulted in a lot of extra lag.

The User Interface is very customizable, though they still have some work to do. You are given the option to go into layout mode and move, hide and resize all of the various parts of the UI. Unfortunately, you don't have control over text attached to the various panes, so resizing sometimes makes the text unreadable. But, all in all, having this functionality straight out of the box earns lots of bonus points from me.

Public quests are awesome! Though the roll for loot is more random than you might expect (and generally leads to initial shock and griping after you finish 1st in contribution but then get a bad roll and no loot), it seems to work out in the long run. It really works best if you have a group that will run through the same public quest a couple of times. Public Quests are centered around the various Chapters on quest progression and participating in them gives you influence points for that chapter. Each chapter seems to have three or so public quests associated with it. Oftentimes the one closest to the camp is the busiest while those further away are mostly empty. Some public quests are also labeled as difficult, but in exchange, the rewards are better.

While on the subject of public quests, I should probably also talk about grouping. In particular, WAR's open group system. By default, all new groups are open, meaning with a couple of mouse-clicks, anyone nearby can join. By far, this is the best grouping system I have ever seen. I've joined open groups for everything; from Public Quests, to assaulting Keeps.

It also helps that no quests (at least as far as I have encountered in the first two Tiers) are hindered by being in a raid/warband. I can complete quest objectives no matter how many players are in my group. In fact, many of the public quests encourage large groups (some of them require killing 100 mobs to advance to the next stage). Being able to complete all quests in a warband (WAR's version of a raid which allows up to 24 players), also negates the pressure many players feel to only allow certain classes to join. It just really doesn't matter that much. This might be different in the high-end content, but that sort of stuff will likely be organized ahead of time anyway.

It's kind of interesting to think about the ramifications of this open group concept. WoW received a lot of praise for its solo-friendly content. WAR takes that a step farther, but in a kind of sideways manner. Most of the standard quests are easily done solo (and in under 10 minutes), but it is so simple to join a group, that you tend to find yourself grouped for pretty much everything else. You're still solo in a sense, in that you're not with a specific group, but you're also being social by grouping. Hard to get my point across in words, but trust me, its a beautiful concept that works extremely well, especially in this sort of RvR environment.

Joining an open group is as simple as two clicks. One click opens the group window displaying the list of open groups in the nearby area, how far away they are, who the leader is, how many players are in the group and what the group is involved in (PvE, RvR). You click the join button and voila! You're in the group! So it manages to meld the soloist into group play in a very smooth manner. The only issue is getting the word around about this feature and how to use it. It's very common to be involved in bashing something and have someone come up and ask for an invite when your group is already open and they can just join whenever they want to.

There are options for kicking troublesome players and banning them from joining your group, but I have never seen that used in beta. Even if a player just goes AFK to leech, it usually doesn't really matter than much (and its a rare sight in my experience). Instead of walking into a mob area and seeing several players doing their own thing, you walk into a mob area and see several players fighting together. Even if they're not working directly together (IE, everyone is beating on a different mob), they're all working towards a common goal.

Its also nice that quest drops happen automatically. You often don't even have to loot. You can just kill the required mob and immediately get a notification about completing a quest objective. I've even finished a number of quests without realizing it due to groupmates completing the required steps while I was nearby.

Mythic has definitely raised the bar on ease of access with public quests and public grouping.

One of WAR's taglines has been War is Everywhere. And I have to say, that is pretty much true so far. Not only are a lot of the quests in the first 4 zones of the Greenskin area based around smashing stunties (Hoowah dat!), but the scenery evokes the feel of a WAR in progress and a number of public quests are shared by both sides, though working at opposite goals. While these are technically PvE areas, they often result in heavy PvP fights when both sides show up. And in these sorts of PQs, there are usually NPCs fighting it out even when no players are involved!

Collision detection does indeed play a role in PvP, especially when you have narrow stairs or other choke points. And there have been a couple of times where I've managed to hinder someone's escape by blocking their path. It seems that slipping around someone blocking you isn't too difficult, but it can delay and confuse players enough to make a difference. I haven't yet had a chance to really coordinate on forming a wall, but I guess that it is possible.

Now for the low points.

First off, I'm curious as to how Mythic defines polish. They have said for a while that they were in the polish phase, but yet there are lots of major bugs and missing features. While major things such as combat, movement, creating guilds, are in place, other things aren't; banks for example!

Secondly, the much-lauded Living Cities, the system who is at fault for loss of four out of six capitol cities.. In current beta, the two existing cities are supposed to be at their peak level, and to be honest, I really see nothing special that I haven't already seen in every other MMO. They have vendors, they have trainers, they have a banker (not working), auctioneer (not working), a mostly-empty guild hall, a couple of quests and a dungeon or two inside the city. Whats so special about all of this? This is what I EXPECT from a capitol city. If a lower-level capitol doesn't have these basics, then its not much of a capitol at all. And why cant they shove this stuff into four other cities? Maybe there is more secret features that aren't in-game yet, but currently, I am thoroughly unimpressed. The graphics are very pretty, but I was expecting something different and special with the Living Cities system.

Crafting, well, at the moment, all we have are the gathering skills and apothecary. And really there's not that much new about either. Apothecary is very much a grind to gain skill, despite the claims in the crafting videos. You still have hard skill limits on everything, so you end up standing near a vendor, making the same potions over and over again to increase your skill so you can use the higher level components which have skill requirements. They should really just remove the hard skill limits on raw materials and allow players to use everything from skill level 1. The user is presented with a success meter showing their chances of making the potion. If they want to use up their higher-level materials on low-chance mixes, that should be their prerogative!

Single-race viability certainly seems possible, though I don't think there is enough faction-specific symmetry to preclude a guild from taking the best classes from 3 races and combining them into a force that could easily dominate any equal-sized single-race group. But, if you're not worried about dominating and just want to have fun, you can certainly do everything, including PvE and RvR, as a single-race guild.

RvR seems too isolated from the rest of the world. The RvR areas in the first two Tiers are rather large, but there is nothing there besides the battlefield objectives and keeps. So, what generally ends up happening is that one side runs through and captures the points, then everyone leaves because its boring in the RvR when no opponents are around. Then an our later, the other side comes through and does the same thing. Rinse and repeat over and over. And this rut certainly isn't helped by the fact that the announcements about objectives/keeps being attacked are either non-existent or way too short. For example, the objectives give the previous owners three minutes to respond when they're taken by the other side. However, it takes a good minute (or more) to run there from the nearest flightpath. Add by the time you get to a flight master, fly down there and hopefully join an RvR warband, you're already too late. Keeps don't send out any defense warnings until the keep lord is under attack.

This all basically makes RvR a round-robin game of taking turns on capturing objectives. I can only hope that there are more points of interest or things to do in the RvR areas in the higher Tiers.

I upgraded my CPU over the weekend (from an Athon 3500 to an Athlon X 64 5200) and the difference was just astounding. I went from having low graphic settings at 1024x768 and still getting lots of graphics lag when too many models were on the screen, to running at 1440x900, high graphics mode and only occasional slight stutters when loading new graphics content.

Next up! Some looks at the game from a different faction's perspective and hopefully insight into missing features and higher-level tiers (Mythic willing).