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).

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