Unsung heroes

Posted in Opinions on October 20, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

(Due to circumstances that will remain an enigma, this will be my last post on this space for a while. Moving forward, any posts I make will have to be ad-hoc as opposed to the 2-3 a week I’ve kept up for the past 5 months. What that will mean, only time will tell.)

We’ve successfully brought single-player aspects into MMOs, and with them has come the single-player mentality. It’s why I think Pokemon Go is the future of MMOs– not because it’s a technical marvel or a new frontier in storytelling or raids or whatever, but because it’s building on the original promise of the MMO: get out there and meet new people in this game, who will be your friends and allies on a great big adventure that YOU set the goals of.

– Tamrielo, Playing the Modern MMO (Digital Initiative)

I almost cheered at this post when I saw it a while back – until I reread that paragraph above. ‘That you set the goals of’?

My immediate reaction: what sort of multiplayer are we talking about here?

To most folks, I think, multiplayer in an MMO is about conquering challenges together in the world – challenges that everyone has a stake in conquering, be it dungeons, or group quests, or heart-crushing horrors like Guild Wars 2‘s infernal jumping puzzles. Counting one party member’s adventure among these is new to me.

Not new to veterans of Tyria, of course, since GW2’s Personal Story allows ‘guesting’. But said guests might as well be expendable NPCs for all the notice the story takes of their presence, and that’s always felt like less of an adventure to me than it could be.

MMOs all handle this aspect of the ‘adventure’ differently. Some, like GW2, cater to groups – this works where there is exclusive (race/class-specific) content, so everyone gets a shot at what they’re missing out on. Others, like The Lord of the Rings Online and The Elder Scrolls Online, do it the classic way, where the main story is something all players experience, on a global level, and with no distinction made between individual participants.

On one hand, the latter creates an environment where players have the freedom to tackle story content without any obligation to group up. Not something, I feel, that should be advocated, and yet it is – because on the other, this is also where the reviled solo-only quests come in, and no amount of rationalizing will do away with the fact that, you know, they’re solo-only.

Not only do they interrupt the all-important collaboration, they can be enormously frustrating to less skilled players who need that collaboration to survive the game’s mechanical challenges in the first place. I find myself recalling a friend, a casual who played a Lore-master in LoTRO’s Rise of Isengard days, and how he nearly dumped the game upon hitting the brick wall that was Saruman’s ambush of the Rohirrim in the Ring of Isengard. None of us could lend a hand – because it was his show. It was a textbook example of game mechanics interfering with the story experience.

The other issue is, again, that none of these approaches truly account for the presence of other players. In the context of the adventure itself, we’re still the protagonists, saving the world all by ourselves, and our friends are just extras. While functional, I can’t help feeling the emptiness of it.

If the idea is emergent gameplay, telling our own stories through spontaneous collaboration, the premise of one man leading the charge (leaving aside the joke of solo-only) works. But if we’re going to bring in the single-player side of the story (pun intended) at all, perhaps we ought to go all the way.

Like Zubon at Kill Ten Rats wrote, certain things in a game should not receive positive reinforcement. I don’t doubt there are many who consider MMO soloing one.

On MMO class difficulty and long absences

Posted in Opinions on October 15, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

The very existence of classes in an MMO forces us to let three factors guide our choice at chargen: what we enjoy doing, what we can be good at doing, and what’s practical.

There’s overlap between the three, to be sure, but still, the funny part is how we reconcile them.

What we enjoy doing is, perhaps, the only one of the three where romance comes into the picture. Lovers of knight and paladin tropes would certainly be more inclined to let that love influence their choice of, say, sword and shield or greatsword and holy magic. Folks who fell for Orlando Bloom in the Lord of the Rings films probably leaned more towards bows and pet classes for a while (okay, maybe not, but we all love our little prejudices).

I fall into this category (knights, not Legolas) and have a tanky, slow-killing, sword & board type in every MMO I’ve played. Am I good at it? Tanks only shine in group play, where I would say: probably not. Is it practical? Not if I’m just clearing content – but then, I did take a Protection Warrior from 1 to 70 in WotLK-era WoW, when the practice was to level in Fury.

Those devoid of similar romantic notions may opt for more pragmatic classes and roles. Play a healer if you have excellent peripheral vision and quick fingers. Roll as a DPS if you excel at rotations and have the time to invest in working towards epic gear. Et cetera.

At first glance, what we’re good at and what’s practical may appear to be the same (at least as far as ‘winning the game’ is concerned). But there is an added element to said practicality, which inspired this post in the first place. See the title.

Elvedui Eärendur

Class difficulty is something I first saw delineated in The Lord of the Rings Online. I was to swiftly learn that the devs’ appraisal of the Warden was no jest – absent cheatsheets and/or Guinness-worthy memory, I failed to see how a scatter-brained shmuck like me could play the ‘advanced’ class to even half its intended potential. It was even more brutal on the returning Warden players I saw, who invariably complained of having to relearn a hundred skill permutations just to perform at all. The friction this created was, I’m sure, enough to drive away some of them.

Which raises an interesting question – why roll as a difficult and ‘impractical’ class, if you anticipate long leaves of absence from the game?

I guess some of us don’t mind the friction. Or love the challenge of mastering and then re-mastering a class. Maybe others feel it’s the only class or role they enjoy, or are good at. And maybe still others just acted on instinct and picked a class at random. There can be any number of reasons beyond what comes to my mind just now.

But for those on the flip side of that equation, every incidence of friction may be one more step towards abandoning a character – or even a game. This is, of course, strictly a player-side problem, and nothing devs can (or will) do makes a difference. It stems from the choice we made at chargen – which, with our modern, jam-packed lives, may not be as simple as it once seemed.

Games of yore #7: Scarab

Posted in Random Thoughts on October 12, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

I figure I’ve talked enough about old games over the past few weeks. It never gets old (no pun intended), but I find myself missing the regular programming, so I’m going to cap this series off at lucky number seven – for the time being anyway.

Now, here’s one I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to hear anybody’s never played – or even heard of. This mech shooter from 1997 is obscure enough to not have a Wikipedia article, and I only dabbled in it myself a very short time, but it left enough of an impression on me to last the years.

Scarab was a product of, of all devs, Electronic Arts (is this where the ‘when EA was good’ jibes go in?), but in this case, that’s not a sin. It sticks in my memory first and foremost for the premise – which occupied a mere two paragraphs in the manual, and wasn’t even that well written, but whoever wrote it sure knew how to hook lovers of weird history. It’s reproduced here for your pleasure.

There’s only one video of it on YouTube worth showing – hours long, and narrated in Czech, but the game language is English so that’ll have to do.

Scarab utilized the familiar holy-trinity class layout of later games like Tribes. You had your agile, jetpacking lightweight, your all-purpose all-rounder, and your slow-ass juggernaut, with the corresponding pros, cons, and armament restrictions. As new as I was to gaming when I played it, it never occurred to me that these would be tremendous as a combined-arms effort – or even whether the game had any multiplayer. I recall I just picked the heavy mech, belted up, and prepared to kill before I got killed.

Except killing wasn’t the only thing to do in Scarab. With the Egyptian theme, it would be downright weird to not have the gods & magic angle realized as a key gameplay mechanic. This came in the form of towers, which were basically field generators of divine power for the mechs – and a crucial strategic element of winning matches.

As I recall it (I think I still have the manual, but it’s too far buried to dig out), you had to call your dropship to drop towers at your location, and then defend them for a few minutes while they incubated. Towers were finite, so placement was important – proximity to a friendly one bestowed advantages like shield recharging, and so on. And because establishing ‘influence’ over the map via your tower network was key, having one within the ‘zone of influence’ of an enemy one nullified both’s power, buying you time to undermine your opposite number. Like wrecking their network, or shooting down their dropship.


I remember the towers because they gave me an idea in another game: StarCraft.

Toying with SC’s map editor as I was at the time, I found myself trying to recreate Scarab’s simple ‘capture the map’ mechanic as a custom map. Goliaths stood in for the mechs and pylons for the towers, which were spawned at the goliath’s position by a crude SCV-to-beacon trigger mechanism (ah, the ingenuity of map designers of the day!). Might have made a neat little idea, had I followed through. But that’s a lament for another time.

All in all, I don’t think I spent more than a few hours in Scarab. It was too clunky and too difficult – and I wanted to shoot the dev in charge of the shielding system. The mechs’ shields were essentially bubbles made up of ‘panels’, each of which could be shot out – which both created frustrating blind spots and allowed hostile fire to slip through. The only way to deal with these in a firefight was to rotate the shield – via your numpad. I wasn’t savvy enough a gamer to look for key binding options or tweak .ini files then. All I could think was, which of my two hands was I going to use for that, heh?

I never played another mech shooter. Between Scarab and Titanfall, I’m sure there were a lot, known and unknown alike, but the concept of piloting giant walkers just didn’t take off for me after this one. (Except for another one-shot in Silent Line: Armored Core on the PS2 years later, and boy, was that one hard as well!) It remains in my memory as a mere oddity: a relic of the days I cared enough – and had time enough – to experiment with games far outside my sphere.

Games of yore #6: Hind

Posted in Random Thoughts on October 9, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

Revisiting my memories of Wing Commander IV reminded me of another flight sim from my gaming childhood. While WC4 was my introduction to space combat in the cockpit, Digital Integration’s Hind was my introduction to just how daunting and convoluted flying can be in real life. For that was one of its key selling points: brutal realism.

A contemporary of WC4, Hind put you in the pilot’s seat of the titular Soviet attack chopper – perhaps the most dreaded Commie war machine of the late Cold War. As the game’s richly detailed manual notes, the Mi-24 Hind was something NATO forces of the era had never dealt with: a helicopter built specifically for dishing out death, instead of conveying troops and supplies. They dubbed it the ‘bogeyman’ for its fearsome appearance and firepower. But as everybody knows, it’s not the weapon but the wielder – which makes you the real bogeyman.

(Happily, it’s available on GOG, and so is dat manual!)

The first thing you need to know about playing a game of Hind is that it had realism modes. Opting for full realism exposed you to a smorgasbord of accurately reproduced real-life dangers, practically all of which stem from less than stellar handling of the controls. This was dead serious. Push the stick too far forward during take-off? Your chopper would nosedive into the tarmac. Caught in a vortex ring? Take immediate action or crash. A what ring, you say? Lrn2read the manual.

Needless to say, the kid I was enjoyed the dumbed-down version far too much to bother with anal things like that. Oh, I read the manual. Loved it, still have it, even managed to understand a great deal of it. But did I want ‘vortex rings’ and ‘retreating blade stalling’ and all that headache in my game? Nope. I preferred to land my chopper the way Ace Ventura parks his car, thanks.

Another of Hind‘s key selling points was its multiplayer – which, of course, I never got to experience, since where I’m from, back in the day, it was probably easier to find flocks of white crows than a crowd that played obscure games like this. Hind had a unique co-op mode where Player 1 flew the chopper and Player 2 controlled the weapons systems, just like what I used to do with my dad at the keyboard in Incoming. (I haven’t played flight sims since the 20th century, so correct me if this has since become standard fare.)

I imagine this would have made for a rather different experience than today’s ‘gang up’ co-op. When both players share the same ‘body’, well, teamwork takes on new meaning!

Plus, according to the manual, players could even face the titular chopper of Hind‘s predecessor, Apache Longbow, in a rare case of cross-game multiplayer. I say rare because I’m sure I haven’t heard of any other such case – it’d be like Modern Warfare 3 players being able to join Black Ops servers, MW3 weapons and all.


Aside from the fun of piloting a flying Commie death machine, the two things about Hind that have stuck with me the most are the VO and the single-player missions. Maybe a true-blue Russian can tell me if the comrade the devs hired to narrate is true-blue or not, but boy, did he kill it – I can still hear some of those lines in my head more than 15 years on. Here’s a sample.

As for the missions, supposedly based on real Soviet operations in Afghanistan, Korea, and the like, they would have been like any other combat sim if not for the ability to manipulate the flightplans. It took me a while to notice, but as my handler droned on during briefing, I found out I could drag and drop waypoints on the map to customize mission objectives. As a test, I put the destination and the takeoff point together, and once in the field, simply lifted off and then touched back down. Mission accomplished! I remember how I chuckled, watching the rest of the squadron fly off towards the front lines. Best army ever. Talk about a fast-track to an Order of Lenin.

Of course, I did fly out to strafe me some mujahideen and capitalist pigs, and it was here that kids used to unlimited ammunition and a complete absence of combat systems management got a wake-up call. In the cockpit of the Mi-24, every other hit you took was a hard blow. Every time the chopper rocked, you lost functionality in some subsystem or other – night vision would break, radar would flatline, engines would catch fire, and that’s just scratching the surface. You weren’t an invincible war hero gunning down enemy fodder. You were very, very vulnerable, and running out of ammo meant an ignoble retreat, not pressing a panic button to summon a supply drop.

Perhaps that’s why I didn’t spend too much time in Hind. In fact, I remember more of the screwing around I did on the airbase (nothing like seeding the parade grounds with anti-personnel mines and watching toy soldiers drop!) than the flying in the field. I was young, and I wanted something different from my games. Brutal realism in a flight sim is great – it did give me plenty to think about – but ultimately, that sort of game is for a particular niche. One I didn’t see myself fitting in, and still don’t.

Games of yore #5: Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom

Posted in Random Thoughts on October 6, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

What better time to write about a Wing Commander game, with Mark Hamill back on the big screen? As Col Christopher ‘Maverick’ Blair, the ‘Heart of the Tiger’, Mr. Hamill has a significant role in my gaming history – which makes me one of that camp who attributes that role to something other than Star Wars.

Looking at my WC4 discs now, all 6 of them in their own WC-branded folder, it’s hard to suppress a chuckle. Those were the days of swapping CDs in and out to keep the damned game moving, and swearing at yourself every time you swapped in the wrong one out of eagerness to see what was next. The Price of Freedom did indeed have that effect on me, as I’m sure it did on many others approaching it as their introduction to the WC franchise.

It was also one of my first flight sims, and I’m really not cut out to be a combat pilot. Did you get stuck on the very first mission because you couldn’t even figure out where enemy fire was coming from? No? Then you’re Top Gun material in my book.

For its time, WC4 was about as lauded graphically as the first Modern Warfare was years later – I seem to recall superlatives like ‘photo-realistic’ adorning the box. Playing it on the cusp of the millennium, a few years after it hit the scene, I was impressed enough to stick with it to the glorious end, despite the frustration of my noobness in the cockpit. (Full disclosure: there was a god-mode toggle in the options – completely legal, no doubt added by some dev with a saint’s pity for casuals and psychomotor morons – and I made judicious use of it. Bite me.)

And of course, Mr. Hamill helped.

I’m positive I’m not the only one who saw the FMVs as the game’s biggest draw. While the plot branches, governed by in-movie dialogue options and critical mission outcomes, weren’t exactly game-changing, they certainly contributed to the game’s immersion and replayability factors. Who doesn’t want to see Luke Skywalker do a Renegade Shepard?

The devs did a good enough job with WC4 to hook players completely in the dark on WC canon. All you needed to know was that you were playing a war hero called out of retirement, and the enemies this time weren’t the aliens you had forged your reputation against – they were your own people. The old ‘humanity of monsters’ line, imbued with curiosity-stoking verisimilitude by a healthy dose of intra-series referencing and throwbacks.

4522042276_1fc20b2619_oTextbook, but it worked. Even out in the void, dogfighting behind the controls of warbirds from the series’s classic Hellcat to the new and terrifyingly lethal Dragon, I never once felt like I wasn’t deep in the greater adventure. The combat half of the game was integrated with its story half in a way I don’t think I have ever truly seen, even in the most lauded RPGs of our time. It was more than the unrelenting scrum of Call of Duty single-player, or the stage-play of Dragon Age‘s encounters. It was something else – a railroad that didn’t feel like a railroad.

Maybe the fact that it’s a flight sim has something to do with it – or maybe I’ve just got my rose lens on again.

The murkiness around the story of the game’s development, while not something I learned until years later, only embellishes its legacy. Till today, I still have no idea if the rumors of the production going massively over budget (12 million USD, according to Wikipedia) and getting Chris Roberts fired from Origin have any truth to them. Whether or not Star Citizen would exist today without that alleged financial debacle is a debate for another time (and more informed minds), though.

Colonel Blair is, of course, long dead. The devs killed him off in a sequel a few years later, sending him off in a blaze of glory and throwing the torch to some new, younger protagonist. But the star of a franchise like Wing Commander will never truly die in the hearts of the fans. Like mine – despite the fact that The Price of Freedom was my only WC adventure. That’s saying something.

Games of yore #3 and #4: Age of Empires, The Rise & Rule of Ancient Empires

Posted in Random Thoughts on October 3, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

This is an edited version of a post I wrote a couple years or so back, which explains the length and unbridled rambling. I had to chuckle when I saw the original, smartass title: Old is Gold (and Food, Wood, and Stone).

I hold Age of Empires as one of the defining titles of my formative gaming years. Civilization meets WarCraft. The game that forever cemented the bird’s eye image of Greek hoplites and Egyptian chariots running amok, getting shot at by rickety watchtowers and archers with funky hairdos, in the memory of thousands of strategy gamers.

But before AoE, there was another: a far more obscure strategy title that holds the honor of first stoking my inner history buff. The Rise & Rule of Ancient Empires cemented in my memory the satellite’s eye image of entire continents crammed with symbols of more cities than common sense dictates have any right to be in existence on a landmass that size.

Aside from the ludicrous graphical memories, there was also the indescribable feeling of starting either game in charge of a handful of bedraggled pioneers, all the world in primeval dark, and knowing this, your first settlement of Stone Age man-apes, is all that stands between survival and slaughter at the hands of the savages you just know lurk in their own little village on the other side of the mountains. Or just across that river. In which case you had better discover how to make something other than stone clubs damned soon.

No day. No night. No weather and no seasons. These early strategy titles made it all “simple orders, Hal: find the enemy… and kill him.”


Rise & Rule was a very different beast from the pressure-cooker, micromanaging-frenzy, real-time AoE. And it took a more macro approach, with cities and armies instead of buildings and soldiers. But the feeling of being strangers in a strange land wasn’t any different. Exploration was vital and every inch of forested, sandy, and mountainous terrain unveiled by your first intrepid scouts was an achievement; the first materialization of a foreign-colored dot on the global radar was no less poignant a moment than the lone Saracen horseman appearing out of the night to harangue the defenders of Jerusalem in Kingdom of Heaven.

The very simplicity of games like these gave them a charm that made me, for one, content with being a frog in a well and building my little idyllic civilization within the borders of the little kingdom I had defined for myself. Never mind the aforementioned savages. The gods will protect us.

Gamers being what they are, 15-year old graphics might have a good deal to do with it; 16 in the case of Rise & Rule, whose highly abstract representations of nation-building and war seem homely and endearing in an age of visceral, gut-twistingly realistic visuals. Back then, combat between armies was basically one stylized chess piece eating another in a tiny puff of smoke and a soundbite of clashing swords! What’s that compared to the panorama of, say, the Total War games where you can practically glimpse whether each individual soldier shaved the morning of the battle and hear which parent they’re screaming for as they get cut down in the front rank?

So much less, and so much more.


I don’t know if game engine limitations or ‘nobody thought of it’ is a more plausible reason, but the lack of a whole lot of things found in today’s strategy games could be what made those oldies so memorable and long-lasting. AoE didn’t even contain dialogue: the only instance I recall of the AI being scripted to break its eternal silence was a recurring demand for tribute in one of the story levels, and that was simply scheduling an existing random feature and setting it on repeat*. A light-years of a cry from the cutscene-studded battlegrounds of Warcraft III’s story levels where heroes and villains exchanged rhetoric and repartee every ten minutes.

* Compounding this was the fact that such tweaking was hardly something a click of a mouse away. For budding level designers crafting their own epic tales of conquest with the game’s beautifully conceived map editor, there was no native option for this kind of thing. It demanded they possess or acquire the technical savvy to make alterations to certain system files; in other words, something the devs did not intend you to do.

Well, Rise & Rule did, but only to the point of inevitably sending declarations of war after an early pretense of peaceful coexistence; it was a conquest-oriented game, after all. I can hardly forget my initial attempts at diplomacy, thinking the AI rulers would somehow respond to carefully worded overtures of military support and free trade. Such a lack of any real interaction, scripted or no, leaves a whole lot to the imagination. Perhaps that is why a good many folks enjoy such games more: they prefer using that to being led on rails by a pre-programmed sequence of events.


It takes a different sort of mindset to appreciate. I count myself among these folks, to an extent, and can sympathize; just as in AoE, building my paradisal fishing village on a suitably scenic plot of land with as much of a blissful lack of care for potential invaders as the dimmest Andean llama, I found myself coming up with plots and subplots on the fly to flavor the near-constant action onscreen. Freedom from preset storytelling actually provided opportunities to come up with some fine ideas as to why I was forming this militia, or raiding that town, or building houses around that granary there by the stream.

Yes, the outcome was the same either way. If the mission objective is to raze a certain edifice or kill a certain enemy leader, nothing but the fulfillment of that will enable forward progress. But I didn’t see units whittling down the enemy empire city by city in Rise & Rule; I saw an imperialist march, a retaliatory campaign, vengeance for centuries of unanswered coastal raids and assorted depredations, to say nothing of humiliations on the fields of battle. I needed no scripted ingame politics; in fact, those might have interfered with my perceptions of the war and its twists and turns.

As I’ve always advocated, it’s about the journey and not the destination.


Is it, perhaps, a tad unfair to attribute such freedom for personal storytelling to old games only? Try conjuring up your own rendition of what’s going on in the great adventure titles of yore, especially those littered with FMVs. Not a whole lot of room there. Modern titles may qualify as well, if not too restrained by script and cinematic; not a whole lot of room either in, say, Diablo III or Dishonored where protagonists are given so much background and exposition, players are made to feel less that they are roleplaying, and more that they are playing a role.

Players’ imposition of self-contrived personalities and happenings on mundane gameplay can have a powerful effect. Whether to fill a void created by devs’ omission of said elements or to accentuate their inadequate presence, it is personalization in a way unattainable by the best intentions of game writers and designers. That feeling of ownership of one’s ‘own version’ of a video game protagonist (Cmdr. Shepard in the Mass Effect games is a perfect example) springs not only from the pretty numbers and sprites racked up over untold hours of hurdle-jumping ingame. It often also owes much to the player projecting him/herself onto a loosely predefined mold and consciously making it his/her own.

It’s even more prominent in open-world RPGs and MMOs, where, despite all the freedom the devs try to give us, we often encounter awkward and unrealistic situations only external rationalization can address. Or decide we don’t want to be sticklers for norms and main quests, and roleplay our own way off the signpost-studded path. Such is, of course, the province of players truly keen on the immersion factor in a game, but using the game as a framework for constructing spurious, unguided adventures can make for a more value-added entertainment experience.

Plus, the feel of reenacting Jan III Sobieski’s charge of twenty thousand cavalry at Vienna, 1683, with a group of friends spamming mounted units is something that requires little imagination to enjoy.

Unless you happen to be Turkish and proud of it, that is.

Games of yore #2: War of the Tribes

Posted in Lore, Random Thoughts on September 30, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

Technically, this isn’t a game. It’s a StarCraft custom campaign – and anyone who played those and spent time on StarCraft Legacy in the day should remember it as one of the highest-quality works of StarCraft fan fiction ever realized as a custom campaign. I’ll let its page on Campaign Creations do the talking.

With Legacy of the Void now on the way, its premise of uniting the Protoss tribes got me thinking back to WotT and the exciting possibilities that stood for, in an era when StarCraft II was nothing more than idle conjecture and hilarious hoaxes. (Speaking of hoaxes, I wonder if anybody else remembers the ‘playable Xel’Naga race’ one, or the one about the hybrids being called the ‘Vanix’ – and playable too? Good times.)

Spoilers after the jump.

War of the Tribes was notable (in my eyes anyway) for working primarily with canon figures and lore, downplaying original elements. It continued Brood War‘s main story, building off the then-rampant speculation regarding Samir Duran’s true identity – and went a step further by casting him as only one of two ‘sleeper agents’ of the evil we now know as Amon.

The identity of the second might have made a nice surprise, had it not been revealed in the first few minutes. As I recall, you controlled Zeratul for the majority of the story, doing pretty much the same thing we’ll be doing in LotV – uniting the tribes and preventing a second Aeon of Strife. (The lore event, not the MOBA map, for all you pagans.) This continued up to a point near the end where, faced with the truth of what he really was, he accepted his fate and surrendered to Duran to spare his companions – leaving Artanis to take up the torch and lead the unified Protoss to a final, epic battle at the Xel’Naga temple on Aiur.

It’s a well-told tale, worthy of anything Blizzard has ever done – and the air of familiarity throughout, engendered by the creator’s deft repurposing of characters, locales, and plot elements already seen in the official campaigns, heightens rather than cheapens the gravitas.

I for one won’t be damned if LotV runs along similar lines. Making Artanis the protagonist, instead of Zeratul as was originally rumored, brings to mind WotT’s memorable epilogue, where he became a messianic figure called the ‘Gray Templar’, possessing the powers of both the Khalis and Uraj crystals. The Protoss are the one race in the StarCraft universe suited for the conventional savior role – and the switch to Artanis’s POV was no doubt (at least partly) for continuity’s sake, given that he was retconned into the Protoss player character in the original StarCraft. I would not be surprised if Blizzard gave the Hierarch the Jesus/Neo/J.C Denton treatment here.

StarCraft Lego

It’s good because it’s a proven approach, and gives the fans closure. It may not be good because it misses out on opportunities for fresh and possibly better angles – not to mention that said fans have done similar things before, to objectively high standards at that. Blizzard has become known of late for toying with their established canon, so we can only hold our breath with a certain ambivalence.

Many might say: what’s the big deal? WotT was just another piece of fan fiction, and that means nothing in the big picture. But the thing about these custom campaigns, these labors of love, is that they represent more than creative output. They are timestamps – snapshots of a media franchise as seen in its golden age by its most talented and dedicated fans. And for me, that is enough to give them a spot in said franchise’s history. Because games are ultimately more than the pixels and the devs.

Even without its production values (including its much-lauded intro movie, which was indeed a worthy effort back in 1999), War of the Tribes would still stand out for the scope of its storytelling and ambition. I did not hesitate to name it the unofficial sequel to Brood War – indeed, with further polish, it might even have made a strong contender for StarCraft II.

(I seem to remember I was in touch with its creator, Gabriel Sorrel, at one point, attempting in all my youthful enthusiasm to pick his brain on the creative process – Gabriel, if you’re reading this, happy to pick up where we left off. Microsoft ate all our old emails, though.)

I don’t know how the StarCraft custom campaign scene looks like now, 16 years on, but I reckon it’s going to be quite the task surpassing something like this – especially when you consider how times and expectations have changed. WotT hails from an era when the proverbial blank spaces on the map were, well, blank. Blizzard has filled those in – and in so doing, slain the dragons with all their mystique. Pretending they’re still alive, like children conjuring magic and mystery out of the everyday, is not quite the same as pretending they were never vanquished at all.

Games of yore #1: Incoming

Posted in Random Thoughts on September 27, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

Okay, maybe ‘of yore’ is an exaggeration here. But I only started gaming in the late Nineties, and completely missed the golden Gold Box age, so sue me. The titles I’m going to cover in this new series are ‘of yore’ enough for me, being the only ones I knew in my gaming youth.

First up, Rage Software’s Incoming. Seems you can download it here – although getting it to run on Windows 7 and above may be a different story. For those reading this who weren’t fortunate enough to play it back in 1998, this video has enough for a pretty good idea.

Incoming came packaged with my very first proper rig, which, coincidentally, I got the year the game launched. As such, it was the very first PC game I played – not counting the obscure Eighties titles in the antique Datamini my father had bought off a friend earlier that year.

Looking at it now, it’s not difficult to see why Incoming‘s visuals were considered cutting-edge for its time; they really haven’t aged that badly. Gameplay-wise, it handles like a gloriously 3D, open-world version of the old arcade shooters – and the kid that I was appreciated its simple, no-frills premise, most of which I only learned when I checked out its manual.

Speaking of the manual, since my copy of the game was just a disc in a wimpy plastic sleeve, I don’t have the printed version. I had the helpfile version, which I liked enough to save separately – which is how I’m able to reread and showcase it 17 years on, with the help of a little poking around Microsoft’s website.

Incoming Manual - Background

You never actually find out more about these aliens, or even see them beyond their tanks and aircraft. They’re your classic faceless, relentless foe – another endearingly simplistic thing about the world of Incoming. No deep thinking. No character development. Just rev up the engines and send the bogeys to hell.

The audacious counter-offensive spans four* battlefields: the first three in various countries on Earth, where your missions revolve around defending the NASA fleet’s preparations, and the last on the Moon, where you destroy the aliens’ base and their warp gate.

* In some versions I’ve read about, there are six stages: a fourth one on Earth and another after the Moon assault, set on the alien homeworld. There’s also talk of a ‘campaign mode’ where you control troop movements RTS-style in addition to the vehicle-sim missions. This isn’t the version I remember. A shame – it would have made Incoming the very first RTS I ever played as well.

My own fondest memory of these battles is playing them with my father at my side, me steering the vehicle and he the weapon systems operator (read: spacebar spammer). “You’re the navigator,” he would repeat over and over whenever I suggested we trade places. “You’re the navigator.” Always the driver. Never the guy who gets to blow stuff up. But then, I don’t blame him. Back in ’98, you’d want your finger on the trigger too, if you had an arsenal like this.

Incoming Manual - Weapons

Color-coded lasers. Old-school or what? And if you’re wondering about that foam gun, it’s not an easter egg – there’s a mission where you fly around in a Harrier retrofitted with it, extinguishing fires to save NASA space shuttles. As for the Designator, don’t let the lame name fool you – it’s a missile that literally ‘designates’ a target for the game’s equivalent of a tactical nuke. In the form of a big-ass blue laser (hence the icon).

I remember these so well because the shooting was such a huge part of the Incoming experience. What I knew of twitch gameplay in those days was Wolfenstein 3D and… well, nothing else comes to mind, really. I can still recall how blown away I was the first time I saw the realism of Counter-Strike in action in a LAN shop. Incoming was one of the first games – probably the first – that hammered home the concept that winning or losing in a game could be about my skill instead of my avatar’s.

The devs, Rage Software, went under in 2003 (according to Wikipedia) after a failed venture into publishing. Just another victim of the times, I guess. Got to wonder if anyone remembers them the way Sierra and Westwood are remembered!

I am overburdened

Posted in Random Thoughts on September 24, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

Without the quotation marks, that looks like the title of an existentialist venting post. Well, it’s not, although the gods know I have no shortage of material for that. This is about the omnipresent problem of inventory space in MMOs.

The two MMOs I’m on, TESO and GW2, have done a fabulous job of bringing out the pack rat in me. Most of my in-game gold has been sunk in bag and bank upgrades, chasing the elusive dream of having enough space to hold all the interesting and potentially useful loot I collect on my journey. And there’s the rub: ‘interesting’ and ‘potentially’.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Let’s see, what’s behind the decisions to store or scrap certain bits out of that vast shiny tide?

1. “I might need this later”

The bleaker the diagnosis of altitis, the worse the hoarding. Mine is stage 2 or 3 (that’s the number of active alts I usually roll), which is enough to overwhelm inventories when the unusable shinies start hitting the floor.

Rarely, this factor also comes into play when a usable but much higher-level shiny drops. Each drop is one more slot in the bank booked for up to the next few months. The net result? More often than not, resentment towards my own alts.

In TESO, for instance, my bank became so cluttered with runes I never intended my main to use, that I created an alt specifically for taking ownership of them all – picking a class and faction I hadn’t tried yet. And then found I couldn’t bring myself to level her. Not with her inventory already jam-packed in the starting zone. (Which also turned all the equipment I had stashed away for her higher levels into so many white elephants.) She now serves as nothing but a mule – a very far cry from the content-discoverer she was intended to be.

At least ArenaNet curbs altitis on F2P accounts by allowing only two characters. Add a separate bank for crafting materials (which even allows remote deposits) and a more brutal approach to evaluating alt equipment, and my GW2 hoarding experience has thus far been considerably superior to my TESO one. Chalk that up as something else GW2 does right, eh?

2. “This might be worth something”

I don’t play the auction house. To reap any real returns out of it, one typically has to be prepared to sink time into things I would rather be doing for a real-world job. (Not that I analyze market trends for a living, thank God.) But it’s hard to resist the feeling that someone else might find a shiny I just picked up valuable.

This is a problem exclusive to TESO, given GW2’s unfortunate F2P limitations on trading. My TESO bank is more than half full of bits and pieces from item sets (and some uniques too) – sets I’m hoping to complete and pawn off. Which, given the game’s itemization system, is probably not the best of ideas.

The root of such behavior goes down to a game’s gold sinks. I don’t know what GW2’s is yet, but TESO’s seems to be buying more inventory and bank slots (and repairs after those delightful dungeon fails). It’s not so much a vicious cycle as it is finger-plugging holes in a dam. Buy more space to store more stuff until the next time you need to buy more space to store more stuff. But eh, at least it’s better than Hellgate: London‘s astronomically expensive and laughably weak zone-wide buffs.

3. “I can’t bear to toss this”

Sentiment. Perhaps the one culprit I actually stand up for when it comes to overflowing bags.

We all see MMOs differently. But I’m sure a lot of us have attachments strong enough to the virtual worlds we roam in, for keepsakes to be a thing. Whether those keepsakes are related to personal achievements, or social experiences, or simply cosmetics.

In Defiance, I held on to Nolan’s assault rifle, the one he bequeathed to my ark hunter at the end of the first Episode Mission arc (even after figuring out that his story about it having ‘saved his life many times’ was just so much BS). In WoW and LoTRO, all my characters had a corner in their vaults reserved for items crafted for them by helpful Samaritans – and another for ‘meaningful’ loot, such as Tirion Fordring’s warhammer or Elrond’s charge to the defenders of the North. All of it, outgrown and useless from a gameplay perspective – and irreplaceable from mine.

Even if the pixels we hoard out of nostalgia will never be seen by anyone but ourselves, I think the mere act is some testament to a game’s ability to immerse us – as human beings as well as players. Or perhaps a testament to how we, as gamers, can be inclined to immerse ourselves at the expense of more tangible gameplay advantages.

Lost trails of LoTRO: Vol X

Posted in Roleplay, Virtual Tourism on September 21, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

The lonely ride of Redwine Eardwrecca, exiled Rider of Rohan, concludes. Retrace his hoofbeats from Vol I through II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, and IX!

It occured to me that it’s been nearly four months since I started this series, and that was just a while after I launched The Iron Dagger as well! I can’t help but feel a trace of wistfulness.

As such, while I know there’s plenty more ‘lost trails’ out there in Turbine’s Middle-earth to snap and show, I’ve opted to wrap on an especially nostalgic note by sharing my old screenshots of a place I’m sure many LoTRO veterans feel wistful about too – the Rift of Nûrz Ghâshu.

Lava keepI don’t recall much lore around the Eldgang in-game, so I have no idea who those statues represent, if indeed they represent anyone at all. But they do make for a pretty grand backdrop, and the lava helps further.

Drake-haunted townArguably my favorite view of the Rift’s interior. The forlorn, crumbled feel of the city streets, shadowed by that enormous coliseum and with drakes gliding eerily overhead, screams evil. Turbine will have quite the task, if they want Mordor to beat this for sheer sinister magnificence.

Unreachable buildingsSome of the Rift’s unreachable buildings. From this distance, they look almost ghostly – and occupied. First time I was here, I imagined the raid was being watched by dread eyes from way over there.

Colosseum exterior“Have you ever seen anything like that before? I didn’t know men could build such things.”

Colosseum interiorSadly, I think this is the only part of the Rift many post-Shadows of Angmar LoTRO players have seen – Norbar, where the Rescue in Nûrz Ghâshu Skirmish takes place. Oh well. At least Turbine repurposed it.

Fall of ThaurlachNeeds no introduction, eh? A dead Balrog is something you don’t want to miss screenshotting.

This was taken during the one and only time I found a raid that managed to slay Thaurlach. With all the water and the beautiful Elvish statues casting their light rays, this is really not that bad a place for eternal imprisonment.

Ferthu hál from Redwine

And with that, Redwine’s ride is at an end – on this blog at least.

(I wanted to snap him riding into the sunset, with Weathertop as a backdrop. Seemed appropriate, and doubly so given Imladris is going down soon. But you know what? That symbolism is far too cliched, so enjoy this pretty pink foredawn sky instead.)

What’s next for me in LoTRO? Honestly, I have no idea. Even though I have a surfeit of Turbine Points remaining – enough for an expansion and several quest packs at that – I no longer have a surfeit of time or interest. Returning full-time to play through the content is therefore as out of the question now as it ever was.

I could still log in now and then to look for roleplay, but on that front, I have no reason to expect anything different from the garden-variety stuff I’ve grown inured to over the years. Unless I join a guild, that is, and I don’t imagine most RP guilds want folks who only turn up sporadically. But who knows? Perhaps sometime in the future, when the mood strikes, I’ll get Redwine moved to Laurelin and look into fulfilling that age-old dream of finding him some dedicated Rohirrim RP. If you’re on that server and you spot him trotting around, give him a holler.

Ultimately, I can’t bring myself to uninstall the game and consign it to the trash can of memory, like all the friends who used to play with me have long since done. I remember talking about the good old days in Bree-land with one of them once, and mentioning how I missed running around on foot in cheap, vendor-bought hauberks and backpacks – and him answering that he thought I’d miss the teamwork (that you can get in any MMO) instead. They lack the predisposition for attachments to virtual worlds.

I don’t. And that’s why The Lord of the Rings Online is staying where it is on my desktop. Turbine’s Middle-earth is a part of me now as a gamer; not merely for the hundreds of hours I put into it, but for the enrichment all that playtime gave my gaming life.

The road goes ever on and on. Ferthu gamer hál!