Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Dark Age of Camelot: The best PvE MMO that you probably don't know much about

For about the last year most of my MMO play time has been spent in Dark Age of Camelot.  Back in the olden days before WoW it was the second most popular MMO behind Everquest, peaking at around 250K subs (compared to the 500K peak of EQ).  According to Google it launched a boggling 16 years ago in 2001, and it's still going.  It was the first MMO I really enjoyed, though in it's early years the grind-wall to get to the level cap was slightly insane (par for the course back then).  It is largely known for it's unique Realm vs Realm PvP setup.  Three factions fight constantly in asymmetric battles where class balance is closer to rock-paper-scissors than what you find in more modern MMOs, and how many players show up to a fight determines the outcome more often than not. 
One of the front gates of Tir Na Nog, the Hibernian capitol city.  
What has kept me playing since I tried it on a whim last year is not the PvP (which is great, and I'll come back to), it's the the solo/ small man PvE.  There is an absolutely fantastic PvE game buried in DAoC, which you'd have no way of knowing even exists based on casual observation.  It's not something the developer really hypes.  In fact just the opposite.  Last year Broadsword set about half of the solo PvE game on fire, removing access to all of the Catacombs expansion for low level players so that the zones could be re-purposed.  In the process they removed hundreds of solo quests across all level ranges from the game.

The central chamber of the Labyrinth, a huge dungeon that almost no-one goes to any more. Funnily, the one time I decided to rely on this and go AFK down there an enemy player came along and killed me the five minutes I was away. You can spend a lot of time in the Labyrinth during an obscure but fun PvE quest chain that opens up at level 50.
It's also something you'd never guess existed from interacting with many of the current players. These days the vast majority level to the cap doing repeatable kill quests in PvP battlegrounds, barely setting foot in the PvE zones.  This play style has become so ingrained that there was recently a thread on the official "unofficial" DAoC boards where a player pointed out that you can still actually level doing PvE, and posted a guide for how to do it in Hibernia (one of the three realms).  The only response he got was pretty close to "Why the hell would you do that?" All of this is a shame, because there is a genuinely great PvE game to be had in modern DAoC if you look for it.

Swimming around underwater near the ruins of Atlantis.  If you level doing PvE, you will spend a surprising amount of time underwater.
It's an old school MMO in the vein of Everquest, but the grind-wall to see all of it has been sanded down to just the right level.  There is a PvE path through the game that will take you to level 50 in 10-20 hours depending on how much time you decide to spend on side quests.  You level quickly enough that you are never bored, but not so fast that you are getting new abilities faster then you can make sense of them.  You also steadily gain new and better gear, such that you always feel a strong sense of progression.  When you hit the cap, every class in the game gets a unique set of starter Epics.

Riding a nightmare steed in Volcanus.  As you go up in chamion levels, many different types of horse become available, ranging from normal horses to more exotic varieties.
Which leads into how replayable the entire experience is.  From 1-35 or so, there are entirely different "New player" quest chains for each of the three factions, and each faction has a distinct feel to it.  Albion is based on Arthurian legends, Hibernia on Celtic lore, and Midgaurd is inspired by viking myths.  The quest writing is also above average.  It's certainly not up there with heavy hitters like  SWTOR, TSW or LoTRO, but a lot of the stories on offer are entertaining.  Story lines vary from quite silly (e.g., minotaur tipping) to attempts at real gravitas (e.g., watching a NPC commit suicide to protest the political system you are working for).  On top of that there are optional Epic quest lines.  Depending on your class, you will have one of roughly a dozen epic quest lines available.  It's not very likely that any two classes you decide to play will share the same story, and each step in the chain grants a piece of gear uniquely tailored to your class.  Finally, when you hit the cap and get your shiny starter Epics, a challenging but rewarding quest chain that will push solo players of most classes to their limits opens up. 

Fighting a monsters for a repeatable kill quest in Cathal Valley.  Notice the position my character's sword is in.  That animation lets me know that he just parried a blow, which enables chain of reactive attack styles.  DAoC was the first MMO that I am aware of to implement reactive combat abilities, and still does a better job than most of telegraphing blocks, parries and dodges with sounds and animations.
However, that's not really why I find the game so replayable.  At this point I've played through every quest line so many times that I barely even read the text.  However, I'm still having fun trying out new classes.  DAoC has an absolutely absurd number of classes (something like 45), and each class can play very differently depending on how you decide to specialize them.  The class designs are also wildly varied.  You can definitely tell that this is an MMO that was designed before the genre had settled into the basic tropes that dominate modern games.  Yes, you will find fairly standard tank, healer and DPS classes.   However, on top of this you will find classes that vary from subtly different from what you'd expect to fairly gonzo.  For example, on the subtly different end there are three melee stealth classes, one for each realm.  Two of them are fairly standard sneaky stabby types (one dual wields, one uses large weapons), but a third (Nightshade) also has a line of ranged DPS spells.

An enchanter fresh out of the newbie instance wearing the gear he got there.  Notice that his pet, standing behind him, is better dressed than he is . . .
On the more bizarre end you have classes like Bainshees and Animists.  Bainshees turn into ghosts when you activate their abilities, and radiate a death aura that does very high damage to everything near them.  Animists are casters that specialize in summoning mushrooms and kamikaze willow wisps.  With an Animist, in any given encounter you have a lot of choices as to how to proceed.  You can summon a ton of explosive wisps.  They will slowly float towards your target and explode on impact.  By the time your foe even realizes it's under attack, four more wisps are already on the way.  Alternately you can set up a patch of a half dozen attack turret mushrooms and lure foes into it.  Yet another option is to send in your angry tank mushroom and use life draining nukes once it gets aggro.

A level 50 enchanter wearing the free set of epic gear he got at level 50 from the Hibernian King.  The steady trickle of gear that is both better looking and more powerful as you level gives the PvE game an addicting sense of progression.
Even classes that seem bog standard take a while to get the hang of, and for me learning the peculiarities of a new class is where much of the fun of the game comes from.  For example, the Armsman is the Albion heavy armor pure melee class.  Last week I decided to try it out after leveling a string of casters, and specialized in polearms because I had read that Armsmen can do high burst damage with them.  For the first 30 or so levels, I was honestly hating the class.  It did ok damage, but I was going though half of my endurance bar every fight.  However, I eventually discovered a strange two weapon ability rotation that does slightly better damage and uses half the endurance of the pure polearm rotations I was using to that point.  A class I wasn't enjoying suddenly became pretty fun.  DAoC is not a game where you can randomly mash buttons and play effectively, even in the easiest solo content.  Just getting competent with a class actually takes some practice.  Compared to many more modern MMOs I find it refreshing.

A fresh 50 Armsman in his King's Epics.  At level 50 every class gets a different set of armor with a unique look.  Across 40+ classes, that's a lot of different gear sets to discover.  You won't be using most of this gear for long if you decide to get serious about PvP.  However, it's certainly enough to get you started and a nice upgrade over the gear you are likely using to that point, particularly when you make it to Champion Level 10 and unlock the final abilities of the armor set.  
All of this brings me back to my original point, which is that there is a much better PvE game in DAoC than you would likely guess based on the complete lack of hype for it.  There is a pure PvE server, Gaheris.  Unfortunately, this server is also pretty dead.  I'd  be surprised if the entire population is more than 500 players.*  The regular server, Ywain, on the other hand is positively hopping . . .with PvP enthusiasts that don't really care about the PvE game.  For example, recently I was amazed to discover that a multi-year veteran I was running battle grounds with has never even done most of the glass quests (a PvE quest chain that rewards a ton of currency you can use to buy artifacts and master levels).  When you combine the lack of player or developer emphasis on PvE with the intimidating depth of modern DAoC, you end up with a lot of content that I imagine few will ever see. To try and at least make the learning curve a little less steep for new players,  I recently started a companion website where I am posting game guides.

*There aren't a ton of players, but the server does have more hardcore multi-boxers than I've seen in any other MMO.  On the somewhat infrequent occasions that you stumble across someone else, there's a good chance it will be  will be a single player running 3-5 characters.   

If you stray off the beaten path, there are a lot of interesting things to discover.   Some of it serious and hinting at deep lore, some of it quite silly. These gentleman, noticing that for whatever strange reason wild animals tend to drop money when you kill them, have decided to investigate what types of food produce the greatest amount of coin.
So far I am posting guides to things I think are important to know about but aren't well documented in game. Really basic items like where and when you can buy a fast horse or even what to do after the intro quest series runs out at level 35 are much more mysterious than they should be for new players.  So far I have have four guides up:

PvE leveling for new players.  Everything from how to set up your hotbars when you first start to a quest path to the cap and optional side quests as you level.  It covers all three realms and both Ywain and Gaheris.

How to get your first artifact.  Artifacts are powerful magic items that gain abilities as you level them.  The process of acquiring artifacts is a bit arcane, and the game itself doesn't give you much clue that they even exist on a normal play through.

Champion Levels.  This is an essential but poorly documented advancement system that opens up when you reach the level cap. 

Mounts.  Another really important system that isn't well documented anywhere else that I could find.

I have a few more guides planned, but it's not a project I have the spare time to support as much as I'd like.  The main reason I put the guides up is so that web search engines can find them.  A lot of the resources for DAoC currently available on the web are badly out of date in the modern game and/ or don't really help much unless you already know most of the basics.  Dated graphics and steep learning curve with nary a hand to guide you equals a game doomed to obscurity.  I hope my site helps out with the lack of guidance for new players at least a little bit.

Sheero Hills, Hibernia.  It seems to be set up as an end game PvE zone, but what if anything there is for a solo player to do there besides kill random mobs for dragon scales I still have no clue.  Even after playing for a year, there are a ton of zones I have yet to really explore.    
On the PvP game that you probably have heard of 

No post on DAoC is really complete without at least touching on the PvP.  There are a few MMOs that also offer three faction PvP, but none I'm aware of where that's the primary focus of the game and the player base.  One of the main areas where you can see this difference is in class balance.  Classes are designed to be roughly balanced with their mirrors in other factions (if they have one), and to make for a fun and varied PvP playing field.  No attempt is made to achieve balance among characters of different roles, or really to balance classes in PvE.  The PvP on offer is ruthless, very often completely unfair, and surprisingly fun.  Knowing what fights you are likely to win and being on the side that can get organized well enough to bring the most bodies is at least as important as gear or skill.  If you are a huge fan of well balanced battleground style PvP, it probably sounds terrible.  However, it really has a very different feel from PvP in most MMOs.  The persistent PvP areas feel much more like real places than an instanced battleground that despawns after a match ends.

It's also less hardcore then you might think. Death is pretty painless, there is no real penalty for getting killed.  It isn't EVE where one bad choice can make months of progress disappear like a fart in the wind.  Victory, on the other hand, is absolutely elating.  Hitting new realm ranks and earning realm abilities feels very rewarding.  The primary PvP map (Frontiers) is enormous, with tons of objectives to fight over.  There is also keep warfare complete with battering down doors, siege engines, and some classes being able to infiltrate keeps by climbing the walls.  All of this is embedded in a full featured MMO, with crafting, housing and fun PvE content ranging from solo quest chains to raiding.  Overall, I'd say that if you can get past the dated graphics and a steep learning curve, Dark Age of Camelot is absolutely one of the best MMOs on the market today. The main server, Ywain, is also extremely active and the players there are generally quite welcoming. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Project: Gorgon, impressions from the pre-alpha build

I have seen a lot of commentators state that they wish that someone would do something really different in with an MMO.  Make a game where exploration itself was largely the goal, and provided meaningful  rewards.  A game where players aren't straight-jacketed into some class role on the character creation screen, and where the play environment is more than a backdrop for quest hubs and crafting nodes.  Based on a few hours of play in the pre-alpha build, Project: Gorgon may be that game.

At character creation I chose my race and gender, that's it.  There's nothing else to choose because how your character develops is determined 100% by what you choose to do in game.  There was a bit of a surprise in that the story starts on the character creation screen.  When I first logged into the game proper I had a long conversation with an NPC that contained a lot of branching dialogue options.  I then tried to look at a book near him, and was promptly informed that it was his book and I should leave it alone.  I was allowed to eat some gruel from a bowl nearby on the floor, however :-)  

The room contained a lot of mushrooms, and when I clicked on one I was informed that I had gained one level in mycology.  At that point I had no idea what mycology was for, but figuring that more points in it must be good I ended up grabbing every mushroom I saw from there on out.

Mycology, cool!

At the entrance to the room was a corpse with a rusty long sword embedded in its back.  As it was far superior to the "no weapon whatsoever" I started with, I promptly equipped it.  I then headed over to the next room, which was swarming with skeletons.  A few swings later I gained my first point of sword skill, and a new attack ability (sword flurry).  After that I decided to start throwing in some punches as well.  This quickly earned me kick, a knockback attack which synergizes very nicely with sword attacks.  For example you can put an armor DoT on a mob with a big sword attack, knock them back with kick, and watch the damage tick down on them as they slowly run back to you.

 This is my guy after finding some armor and getting his first combat skills (the armor displayed is not what he is wearing, he just looks like that all the time).  As you can see the graphics are currently quite primitive.  Of course that's the whole dang point of the kickstarter campaign, to hire some artists.  Mechanically the game is extremely innovative, fun, and really rewards exploration and experimentation.  I can't say that about a lot of other MMOs I've tried.

Soon after that I got parry, which will prevent mobs from using any of their special attacks on you if you time the use well.  The cool thing about it is that it's pretty easy to see when you need to use it.  Mobs have these fist icons on them that represent their rage.  When it gets full, many of them can use attacks that will stun you and let them get some free hits in.  When that bar is full or near full, you just hit the parry button to empty it out.

Skill based systems where you use an ability to raise the ability have often been quite grindy in other CRPGs I've played.  Not at all in Project: Gorgon.  Skills go up very quickly, especially at first, and using a combat skill both raises related combat stats (such as health and power) and unlocks new abilities.  Just swording skeletons in the face to see what neat new sword abilities I would unlock was quite addictive.

The first time I died I was shocked to discover that "dying gracefully" is also a skill.  Every ten ranks you get in it, you gain five health.  From the skills I've unlocked so far, that's actually a decent boost.  For example, ten ranks of unarmed combat gets you only twice as much health and requires a lot more work then jumping into lava.  

Finally, after a good while wandering around picking mushrooms and bashing skeletons, I came to an odd looking side room.

Haven's seen anything like that before...

Nearby is a table with pages scattered on and around it.  Two can be read to learn more about what is going on and why snow is coming down from the ceiling.

In the room was a cot with an open book next to it.  When I read the book I learned three new recipes.  Two for mycology, and one for a new skill: Alchemy.   One of the mycology recipes was for spore bombs, consumables that can be used for a powerful (at least in the area I'm messing around in) AoE attack.  The other is for spore flakes, an item that is one of four ingredients for the alchemy recipe I learned.  Also nearby were some empty flasks.  When I later found a pond I was able to fill them with water, giving me another of the four ingredients.  Skeletons drop dust, a third ingredient.  All I am missing now is sugar, and I honestly have no idea where that is found.  The alchemy recipe is for a drug that will give me a some sort of stat boost, but become addictive if I use it too much.  I can't wait to see what it actually does.

I am one or two hours in to the pre-alpha and Project: Gorgon has already given me a more unique and intriguing experience than most of the MMOs I've tried in the last few years.  This game with decent graphics and animations would be an absolute winner.  Mechanically it's already as good as anything else out, and brings a ton of innovation to the table.  I really hope the kickstarter hits its goal.  The total pledged has started to move up again in the last few days, but it really is down to the wire and has a long way to go still. 55K to finish out a game that is already so far along is not a lot to ask.  

Edit (update): I am happy to report that the environmental graphics improve considerably if you make it out of the starting cave (as you can see below).

The character you see in the middle of the shot is me.  Through an act of willful stupidity (I was given three warnings to stop drinking the sour enchanted milk...but I kept going to to see what would happen), I got my self turned into a cow.   I think it's permanent until I figure out a way to reverse it.  To say I've never experienced anything much like this in any other MMO I've played is an absolute understatement. 


Monday, October 22, 2012

Project: Gorgon

I have been following the kickstarter page for Project: Gorgon mainly because it sounds like the game is going to  be really interesting.   How can you read about something like the lycanthopy system or the in-game geocaching system for player generated treasure hunts and not be intrigued?  I very much want the kickstarter to be a success, if for no other reason than just to see how all the bizarro/  innovative designs that one of the better game design bloggers has been posting about come together.  My take is that the game represents an attempt to address design issues that are arguably holding back MMOs as a genre, and not with digging through spreadsheets as game-play or FFA PvP and an atrocious UI.  With only 11 days to go, the kickstarter project has only gotten about 20% of the way to its goal.  This post is my meager attempt to try and refocus some attention on the project.  If innovative MMO design is something you care about, you really should consider heading over to their page and becoming a backer.

In other news, I am not dead, merely very busy with my work irl.  More regular posting will resume soon!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Issue three of The Secret World is going live tomorrow (!)

The next content update is going live in The Secret World tomorrow, and we know absolutely nothing about it save the somewhat evocative name, Issue 3: The Cat God.  Presumably it has something to do with Bastet.  Apart from that who knows?  Secret World indeed...

I'm a bit amazed the update is coming so soon, since we just got rocket launchers what seems like a a week ago.  Hopefully this means that Funcom is actually going to be able to deliver on their promised once a month content update schedule.   I expect to post an impressed or underwhelmed impression of the update later this week.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The fight for COH continues

You should check out this post by Sente if you haven't already.  If you care at all about City of Heroes/ Villians he gives a good rundown of efforts currently underway to keep CoX alive.  Though I am skeptical that online petitions generally do much good, there is one for CoH and signing it is an easy way to show your support for the game.  Plus, reading through the comments to the petition and seeing just how much passion so many players have for CoX is heart warming.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Noooooooooo! City Heroes is shutting down

Via Anjin in Exile and Bio Break I just got the news that City of Heroes is shutting down before the end of the year.  This is the most depressing MMO news I've heard in a good long while.   I really thought City of Heroes was doing OK given the steady update schedule.  The latest update (Issue 24) is even supposedly ready to go and sitting on their test server.

City of Heroes still has, to my tastes, the best character generation system of any MMO on the market.  The number of powerset combinations available to choose from is staggering, and the appearance generation system will let you come up with at least a rough approximation on pretty much any humanoid you can dream up.   There are also some really unique archetypes in CoH such as controllers (extremely powerful crowd control specialists) and master minds (pet users that are can summon swarms of pets) that don't really have close analogues in other MMOs. Finally, the game has one of the most robust systems around for letting players create their own content.  Some of the best story arcs to be found in CoH are in player crafted missions.

I will admit that City of Heroes is a MMO that I only ever seem to enjoy in one month stints.  I think my overall problem is that the pace of advancement seems to slow to a crawl by some time in the mid levels.  But those one month stints are always incredibly fun.  Dreaming up a crazy new character design and taking it out for a spin is simply more of a blast in CoH than any other MMO I've played.

The sad thing is that I suspect that CoH is actually still at least a bit into the black.  I don't see how Paragon could have put out so much content in the last year if it weren't.  If CoH was under SOE, Funcom, Turbine, or really just about any MMO company apart from NCsoft I doubt we'd be having this conversation.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Suckage is in the eye of the beholder (on a horse that never seems to stay dead)

This post over at Kill Ten Rats about The Secret World got me thinking about a more general issue.*  Most of the arguments we use to "prove" that a given MMO is better than another, or that a given MMO "sucks", are arbitrary and subjective.  The kinds of arguments I've seen commentators use to rank MMOs  generally fall into a few categories.  However, if you think about it there are clear reasons that none of these ranking schemes is a good universal metric of whether a MMO is "good" or not.  For example:

Popularity/ Financial Success: used by players of WoW to argue that WoW is the "best" MMO.  However, this leads to the McDonalds analogy (I stretched that one waaay too far in one of my early posts).  It's kind of elitist, but I think it's also a fair point.  How many folks reading this really think McDonalds has the best hamburgers that money can buy?

Innovation: used by players of EVE Online, TSW, and Guild Wars 2 to argue that their games are better than all the "WoW-clones" out there.  I do see the importance of innovation. Anything that pushes the boundaries of mainstream MMO space is overall a good thing, since it potentially expands the audience.  However, if we want to use innovation as our yard stick of what constitutes a "good MMO" then really bizzare MMOs with tiny audiences like A Tale in the Desert, Endless Forest, and Myst Online have to be considered the best MMOs.  Arden: the World of William Shakespeare was innovative as hell, and development on it eventually was halted because players didn't find it fun. 

Pooled ratings of Professional Critics:  used by players of WoW, SWTOR, and LoTRO (among others) to argue that their games are "good" in an objective sense.  On the surface this seems like a good argument, since it evokes the opinions of "experts."   However, when it comes to it this is just another form of popularity.  History is filled with examples of works of art that critics hated or ignored at first but later came to be considered classics.

Further, I don't find Metacritic scores to be a good guide to whether I personally will like a game or not.  Wrath of the Lich King got an astounding score of 91, and when I first tried it I didn't even last out the free month that came with it.  Diablo III scored an 88 and, at least among the bloggers that I follow, the overall consensus seems to be that it's a popcorn entry into the series with little staying power compared to Diablo II (no offense to Tipa!).  Warhammer Online garnered an 86, and we all know how that turned out.  Dungeons & Dragons Online scored an abysmal 74, and it's grown to be one of my favorite MMOs.  The Secret World did even worse, and I find it to be extremely compelling. 

Obviously what ultimately matters is whether a MMO is fun or not.  Just as obviously, fun is in the eye of the beholder.  What's perhaps harder to accept is that, like fun, suckage is also in the eye of the beholder.  Just because you don't like something doesn't mean that it sucks any objective sense.  Conversely, just because someone doesn't like an MMO that you like doesn't mean they have brain damage or aren't as perceptive as you.  All you can say for certain is that they didn't think it was fun.

Few of us run around screaming at people over whether they enjoy boardgames (love them), tennis (hate it), or hiking (love it).  I can list all the reasons I don't like tennis (I bite at it looms large), but I would never be tempted to claim that tennis sucks in some objective sense. Would anyone?  Why then do we get so worked up over whether other commentators "get" or "don't get" the MMOs we play?    And why do some commentators feel the urge to go out of their way to antagonize fans of games they don't like?  In a some ways MMO enthusiasts tend to behave a lot more like religious fanatics then hobbyists.  Do coin collectors and knitters have these kinds of debates? Well, maybe they do (thanks for the link Sente!).

I'm certainly not the first to comment on this phenomenon.  But to me this is an issue that keeps rearing it's head.  The internet: the great pit where the flamewars are not quenched and the horse dieth not.

*Note: the post I linked at KTR is absolutely not the kind of commentary that irks me.  It's a well written post that raises some interesting points.  Give it a read if you haven't.  The post is simply what got me thinking about these issues again.