Setting vs system (DDO & Neverwinter)

I’ve really fancied some Dungeons & Dragons themed gaming after last weekend’s tabletop sessions, so I’ve dipped back into both Neverwinter and Dungeons & Dragons Online over the last few days. They’re very different games, although both feature on the more ‘action’ end of the combat spectrum for MMORPGs. As I’ve thought about them, I’ve been pondering the tension between setting and systems and the very different qualities presented in these two games.

Of settings

By settings I mean the setting for the action in each game’s story, the fantasy world used by the developers as backdrop to the game. DDO bases much of its levelling content in my personal favourite D&D campaign setting, the magitek themed world of Eberron. The game does a very good job of capturing flavours of the setting, elemental ships flying overhead and some very good sound design to capture the hustle and jungle-choked ‘exoticism’ of the distant frontier town of Stormreach. Later content, that I’ve never reached, does a cross over with the Forgotten Realms – Neverwinter’s home turf. The problem I have always had with DDO is the highly instanced nature of the game, the lack of “open world” exploration leaves the world feeling disjointed and the focus on action combat dungeon-delving leaves the areas we do see lacking depth.

Airship over Stormreach

Neverwinter, as fans of D&D will know from the title, is based in the Forgotten Realms. Arguably the best known of D&D’s campaign settings, it’s had considerably more promotion via books and computer games than any other. The game does an excellent job of bringing this particular version of D&D and the Realms to life, for example the spellplague; such themes are tackled in-game as part of quest-lines. It’s easily missed if you’re unaware of the lore behind the game but some care was taken over putting details into the world, there are even lore objects to collect as you adventure.

The variety of landscapes in Neverwinter is impressive

Of systems

Systems here refers to the gameplay, especially the combat, again there’s a split because of the significant differences between 3rd and 4th editions of D&D upon which the games are loosely based (DDO and Neverwinter respectively).

DDO has possibly the best character creation system I have ever come across, the layers of customisation are numerous. Of course, I’ll state up front that I actually really like 3rd edition D&D as a ruleset, so it’s hardly surprising I like this very careful translation of tabletop rules into a real-time combat 3D system. Some of the most fun fights I’ve ever had were in this game because the heady mix of class abilities, magical items and iconic monsters works so very well. Movement abilities, a myriad of weapon enchantments and effects, multiple resistances and status effects, tactical and utility spells of all kinds; there are so many options on how to play a character and how to defeat challenges. This complexity can be overwhelming and fights can seem unfair as “come prepared” is a bit of mantra for this game’s content. For example if you don’t have fire resistance and are fighting fire elementals, then you’ll probably need a good amount of healing on standby.

Feather fall is your friend

Neverwinter is loosely based on 4th edition, but with a heavier action-combat MMO design brief. You only get seven abilities at a time, selected out of combat from a much wider pool. Most if not all of the powers have varied effects and some have truly satisfying graphics (Arcane Singularity is one of my favourite spells ever in any game). That allows for meaningful character customisation decisions as you level and develop a character, but it keeps combat a simpler more timing-dependent vibe. Combat in Neverwinter is less about exact solutions to known problems and more about well-timed dodging and interrupting the bad stuff.

Arcane Singularity!

Other thoughts

A proper comparative review of the two games would be multi-part and very long as there would be so many aspects to look at. I do think interestingly, despite the age gap in the two games release (2006 and 2013), that both games are very grind-oriented. DDO has very slow leveling and not enough content to avoid repeating the same dungeons, indeed with the difficulty level selector it positively encourages repetition. By contrast Neverwinter has pretty rapid leveling (at least until level 60-70), yet it has monumental grinding in the Asian MMO inspired enchantment and gear-upgrade systems.

For all the criticisms of Neverwinter as a MMO (grindy, cash-shop focus, lack of class balancing, etc), I do find it a very fun game to play casually. That’s probably the important point to emphasis, since I’ve never heavily invested in the endgame, I’ve not needed to engage with the gearing to any serious extent. Leveling up an artifact or two and refining some enchantments isn’t that hard to do with the materials that you get by just playing. But I’m well aware that there are layers of grind beyond my experience. Massively OP has an article about lockboxes this weekend, Neverwinter is oft cited for its ‘lockbox spam’, but I can happily ignore that aspect of the game. I have three characters in the level 60-70 range, so getting at least one to the 70 cap is a goal for the summer this year.

DDO is an old-school MMO yet has satisfying and in some ways modern-feeling combat. It’s a game I’d love to play more but really grouping is such a big part of the game’s design, it feels wrong to solo in DDO even if it’s much more possible now. Casual grouping isn’t so easy in DDO, the group content tends to be more complex and potentially longer than the equivalent in other MMOs (Neverwinter included). I’ve shied away from PUGging over recent years in all games, but it’s something I’m considering more just to get past progression blocks, so maybe I’ll get my Paladin past level 10 in DDO finally, some day…

Posted in DDO, Gaming, Neverwinter | 2 Comments

Giving MMORPG second chances

Zubon over at Kill Ten Rats has a post on giving games a second chance, it’s mostly about single player games but does mention MMORPGs at the end. The post asks if you give a game a second chance, and contemplates how much time investment is a factor.

For most of the MMO games that I have bothered to return to, I would say I’ve at least levelled half-way to the level cap (at that time). In fact for the games that successfully drag me back in with promises of the latest update or expansion, I normally have actually one capped character. That represents one measure of my commitment to the game, and my enjoyment of the games basic content and mechanics. I’ve made capping characters a bit of a focus in more recent years, indeed if I revisited this post now I’d score somewhat better (now 7 of 15, soon 8).

Games that I have never returned to would match well those that I didn’t progress deeply into: for example Aion, Blade & Soul, Diablo 3 to name some. This isn’t to say that not playing long enough first time around is the only reason I wouldn’t return to those games, I have differing reasons for each, but it does show I didn’t take that long to either decide against playing further or to grow tired of the gameplay.

Posted in Gaming | 1 Comment

Neverwinter: scratching that D&D itch

After running some tabletop D&D last weekend I found myself wanting to play a D&D game last night, and for me Neverwinter is the easier MMO for me to jump into should that particular itch need scratching.

Cleric main

My Cleric main is part of a long-standing leveling duo so I didn’t want to play him alone; so I looked at my alts that are more progressed and picked, almost on a whim, my level 60 Hunter Ranger. I leveled this character the normal way until about level 30, thereafter solely by invoking and running Leadership crafting missions as I was too busy playing other characters to play him.

Protector’s Enclave

So coming back to a level 60 who has been pretty badly neglected I had a moment of panic that he’d be unplayable. However jumping into the level-scaling Tyranny of Dragons campaign, I quickly realised I needn’t have worried. For the first section in Neverdeath Graveyard he was downscaled to level 30 again, so his poor gear was no issue at all. Playing the class is rather interesting – a real mix of melee and ranged, damage and support. The core mechanic of swapping between melee and ranged seems solid enough, although playing level-scaled content isn’t much of a test of the build I had from when I last played him. I’m certainly enjoying the mobility and self-healing inherent in many of the classes abilities though.

Neverdeath step of Tyranny of Dragons

Returning to the Protector’s Enclave main hub I had bags full of level-appropriate gear that had dropped at random. That plus a paltry few hundred astral diamonds in auction house purchases fully upgraded his gear to basic level 60 stuff. I also grabbed the free second and third artifacts unlocked for all characters because I’d reached max level previously on various classes. So all gear slots are now filled and every item is enchanted. I can carry on with the Dragons campaign, or maybe try something new, I read on the (yet again) redesigned campaign interface that the Maze Engine campaign is for level 60 characters – that’s something I’ve not ever played…

Posted in Gaming, Neverwinter | 1 Comment

LOTRO: Mordor beckons

I was surprised this last week by the announced timing of the Mordor expansion for Lord of the Rings Online – it is coming soon, possibly as soon as the 31st July. Although I’ve been rather focused on Norrath for a few weeks with the Fallen Gate server and other activities, it seems I shall soon be back in Middle Earth as the main focus on my gaming.

Expansions are always a big draw for me, a very good reason to go back into a game and to concentrate on that game for  some time. A big dollop of new content, maybe some new or altered mechanics to learn, oh and the general excitement of the playerbase does all help to revitalise the experience of playing that game.

There’s been some controversy over the expansions pricing, others have covered this already in great detail: Ravalation’s post in particular is well worth a read for its comparisons with other MMORPG expansion pricing (I do so love a good comparative post). The pricing isn’t that much of an issue for me as I invariably only ever buy the base edition of any game or any expansion, since cosmetic fluff isn’t for me, and in this particular case I’m more interested in the new content than the new race or other extras.

Sometimes Minstrel, more often farmer and chef

Although in recent months I’ve done some leveling of a Runekeeper alt in LOTRO, and worked on crafting on two other characters, I do still feel the draw of playing my original and much beloved Champion. More perhaps than in any other MMO, I identify playing LOTRO with playing my main character as a focus. So having an expansion’s worth of new zones is well worth getting excited about! I moved him into a new and more active guild recently so I feel it’ll be a rather different experience going into this expansion compared to previous ones – my original guild hasn’t been active since Mirkwood or maybe Isenguard times.

One feature of all three versions of the expansion is a new insta-boost for a character as a “level boost to Mordor”. I guess that means bumping a character up to the current level cap (105). That’s a feature I’ll need to put some hard thought into. I have wanted to have a ranged dps or healer character in LOTRO for guild group content, my preferred roles in any MMORPG. But I’ve had issues in several games where level-boosting a character leaves me feeling less connected to him or her in the long-term, perhaps this time it’ll work out for the better?

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Getting me interested in a new MMORPG

As the years pass and tastes seemingly change I find myself not actually looking forward to any specific upcoming MMORPGs at the moment, I find that kind of sad as the first few years of this blog were notable for the eager anticipation of some new games (SWTOR, GW2, FFXIV: ARR) and the unplanned discovery of others (BDO, ESO).

Syp has a post on his blog discussing what game developers should do to interest him in new titles. The list doesn’t directly address the things that encourage or discourage my interest in new games, so I’ll discuss my own points here. I’m much more interested in a specific style of MMORPG, one that apparently is out of fashion thesedays. I have more games than I can play at any given moment, and more content spread across those games than I could probably finish if I weren’t working and had all the free time in the world to commit to them. That’s not a bad thing, I’m not a completionist in any sense so my time spent playing any of the games on my computer’s hard drive is just that, time well spent enjoying virtual worlds.

Cool stuff to find exploring LOTRO’s Middle Earth

Yesterday evening we happened to have a group of four online, but my WoW sub is inactive now, so we needed something to play for an evening’s “straight into the action” fun. Other than repeating the same Legion dungeons add-infinitum we’re kind of running low on stuff to do in Azeroth at this stage of the expansion. Thankfully someone suggested Shadowrun Chronicles as an option – we’d played the game months ago as a new set of four characters so it was an easy fit to load up and carry on where we left of. Shadowrun Chronicles highlights very neatly one of the main attractions to games for me though – easy small group play. “Just let me play with my friends” should be a mantra stuck on the monitor of every MMORPG dev’s computer as they code. Some games do this better than others but fixed group sizes and levels being out of sync shouldn’t be a thing in 2017. Put in flexible dungeon grouping, put in mentoring or similar already!

I think the second most important criteria to me is for varied content. Give me stuff to discover in the game’s world other than just combat+reward. I played Tera some recently and I was struck by how pretty but empty the world is. There’s nothing much to find or interact with beyond monsters to kill and quest-related stuff. If I compare that to World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online it’s quite a contrast. Things to collect (shinies!), lore objects or story-snippets to read, exploration points, buildings or ruins that are more than just a quest hub; there is so much devs can do to make a world worth traveling beyond the leveling path. When I played Archeage early in the year I had that same feeling that the world, while interesting, wasn’t elaborated enough beyond the systems and features that focused on player-player interactions.

Archeage: beyond the player hubs it’s an austere world

A game that is super-focused on PVP or raiding may be the ideal design for many MMORPG players, and it is certainly the model for the crop of upcoming games, but for me they’ll likely seem shallow compared to the rich “do it all” game worlds we’ve had in the past. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the riches of content (in virtual world terms) that older games enjoyed.

It’s one thing that actually bothered me about Black Desert Online. The game has, on one hand, a wider than normal variety of activities for players, however I found my interaction with the beautifully drawn world to be rather shallow beyond the NPC reputation mini-game and the prospective of the rather byzantine trading-investment system. When I went out exploring and found ruins to climb or enemy forts to explore they seemed to be limited in scope to grind spots or empty architecture. The game makes a lot of NPC backstories but does nothing in the way of active exploration. I can talk to NPCs but can’t really interact with anything around me – there are no objects to find, and no hidden treasures.

Ruins in BDO are full of action but lack any secrets to uncover

So any upcoming MMORPG that makes something of its world beyond the basics is more likely to hook me: hyper-focus on systems or player interactions isn’t what I’m looking for.

Posted in BDO, Gaming, LotRO, SR Chronicles, Tera, WoW | 2 Comments

WoW: a fresh perspective

I spend most of my free time gaming with my husband, with friends or with family. That’s one of the reasons why I play MMORPGs as my main genre, all the infrastructure and systems are there for playing with a varying number of people.

This weekend my parents were down so we played World of Warcraft with my Mum in the evenings. My current WoW token expired after the first evening – we were down to two accounts and three people – so, I actually sat with my Mum and played with her. That’s actually how she normally plays anyway, with her twin sister – her on mouse (movement and clicking things), her sister on keyboard (ability bar and other shortcut keys). It was an enlightening experience to play a game that closely with someone. It made it much easier to see and understand the little interface, graphical or environmental design decisions that may confuse or confound a player. It’s easy as a (relative) veteran player of the game to just assume that things should be easy to pick up, but then actually seeing those issues played out gave me a fresh perspective.

For instance, it highlighted the unique skill issue that melee DPS faces in the game’s combat. For ranged casters/dps ‘closing’ is rarely an issue – the need to get into melee is irrelevant or even detrimental for most abilities. The twins have mostly played such ranged characters over the years (a Warlock, Hunter or Mage), but more importantly the only melee characters they do play are a Protection Paladin or (relatively recently) Arms Warrior. Playing this kind of tank means closing is rarely an issue – you hit things with your thrown shield and they run at you (even spellcasters as the shield silences them). For the Warrior likewise you can use the charge ability with abandon, so closing is a single button press with almost 100% accuracy. But we noticed in group dungeon runs, where another tank already has and keeps aggro, that they were not always close enough to said tank and current pack of monsters during fights; playing melee classes in dungeons does impose a need to ‘close’ with the tank frequently as his or her character moves during fights, if you just play such a character solo you’d not necessarily learn the importance of this basic.

I was also made more aware of just how complex and byzantine the user interface and graphics can be in MMORPGs. Trying to sort through the inventory on several alts with her, I was reminded of how much information the game bombards you with and how much unnecessary stuff there is – quest items, toys, crafting materials, artifact relics, artifact power items – Legion has actually made this clutter worse not better. I even confused things myself by initially referring to items in a non-obvious manner, when trying to indicate what should be sold to clear space. Without thinking, I referred to the quality colour of an item (“that green one” or “this purple one”) as the distinguishing feature, (i.e. the border colour of the inventory icon), when the actual item’s icon was mostly some mix of colours representing a greyish statue, a flaming horn or whatever fantastical treasure. It’s just something I’m used to doing when talking to my close circle of WoW friends, even though it’s counter-intuitive.

The complexity of the visuals of the game also can cause issues, notably in the latest content.  When you’re surrounded by dozens of players fighting some world quest boss monster, even I can find it hard to see what is going on, so for my mother and aunt it must so confusing. Knowing what to target and in what order comes mostly naturally to me as a veteran player, but playing with her I understood better how confusing the gameplay can be.

All this doesn’t detract from the very real joy that both my mum and aunt get from playing World of Warcraft. They have played regularly for ten years with no other games to distract them and no breaks to try the latest “3-monther MMO”. They have more level 110 characters than I, and had legendary items long before I had them on any of my characters. Some aspects of the game do confuse them, but when it comes down to it, they have a lot of fun playing, especially because the game allows us to play together on occasion.

Posted in Gaming, WoW | 1 Comment

The highs and lows of side quests

Syp of the Bio Break blog started a discussion, earlier this week, about the value of side quests, or indeed whether they still have any value at all. More prominent storytelling in many MMORPGs has caused a split between quests that advance the main story and tell of big and dramatic deeds, versus those smaller less consequential events or tasks that fill gaps in-between the main story.

I certainly agree that some games take side quests too far, Rift for instance when it added the carnage quest made the stereotypical “kill ten rats” type quest into a numerous and entirely narrative-free category of quest – one that you invariably had to do if you wanted to keep leveling at the required pace for zone progression. I guess I’m a sucker for story but I found such quests to be quickly boring.

Other games that I have played exemplify the other end of this spectrum, little quests that hold great value to me as a vehicle for telling non-essential, but equally enjoyable, stories as any main storyline. Two immediate examples spring to mind from two different MMOs.

Star Wars the Old Republic is bursting with side quests, although changes to the leveling speed probably mean that newer players would be forgiven for not even knowing they exist. Perhaps the most memorable for me, because I’m a linguist at heart, is that of the Gree chain of missions on Coruscant. These missions made me grin like the Cheshire Cat the first time I played through them, simple enough quests if you look at the mechanics, but they encapsulate the Star Wars universe: there are very strange things out there, not least the very alien Gree and their barely translatable speech-patterns.

Lord of the Rings Online also has very many side quests, completing some is likely needed to get the XP required to level, but you skip whole quest hubs or zones given the scope of the virtual world. I really loved the questing in Rohan in particular from a story perspective, but I’m going to mention a zone that has a surprising number of hidden-away side quests, ones that I’d never completed until a recent run through of a Year 9 anniversary quest. In Bree town there are more quests than I’d realised – several chains relating to residents that show a whimsical or mysterious side to this main settlement. As always I avoid detailed spoilers, but go check out hunt for uncompleted quests in and around the time if you have the time!

So I’m a fan of side quests if they’re done well overall. I don’t expect every single one to breathtaking storytelling but they should give a sense collectively for the zones and overall world that your character travels through.

Posted in Gaming, LotRO, Rift, SWTOR | 6 Comments