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!

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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!

“Let them come! Come on! Come on!”

Posted in Random Thoughts, Virtual Tourism on September 19, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

That’s from Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, and the full speech is probably a mighty strong contender for Most Uninspiring Pre-Battle Pep Talk in film history – made even worse by the fact that it’s Orlando Bloom delivering.

I couldn’t resist using it to title this post. Because all I could think of was the movie’s depiction of the Siege of Jerusalem, the first time I found myself in the midst of this.

Violette Vienele and the trebuchets

There was no pretty-boy leader giving speeches, but even so, my maiden Cyrodiil jaunt proved, thankfully, much less uninspiring.

I’m not sure if it’s shone through strongly enough in my posts on this space, but PvP and I aren’t on the best of terms. Coming from a benchwarmer background in competitive FPS, and the freakshow that was The Lord of the Rings Online‘s Monster Play, I took my Breton Nightblade into the Alliance War proper with no expectations whatsoever. Beyond getting two-shotted ten feet outside the safe zone – if I was lucky.

The reason for even being there was simple. I don’t have the Imperial City DLC, but when a high-level acquaintance beckoned, I figured I wouldn’t mind just seeing its walls again for some TES4 nostalgia. Happily, she managed to pull in a couple of equally high-level friends, and off we went like veterans breaking in a privileged new recruit.

As is the way of things, we got waylaid – but by the wealth of things to do, instead of any two-shot nonsense.

Violette Vienele entertaining the troops

The first thing that struck me about Cyrodiil was that it was, as I should have expected, a giant rogues’ gallery. Memories of my time in Defiance‘s Shadow War came rushing back. There, it was ‘all cloaked swordsmen and imba DoT guns’, as I saw one disgruntled player put it. Here, it was Nightblades, Nightblades everywhere!

As my 4-man posse went about its leisurely business seeking Skyshards, destroying Dark Anchors and clearing Delves, the sneaks began to show up, attempting to sully the PvE and kill-steal us from the mobs. One unlucky Khajiit lost no less than three of his nine lives to us, in three different places, that evening – prompting me to dub our group the Dogs of War.

It was tremendous fun, and more so when we raced to join the Covenant warfighters converging on this or that keep. But with the realization that one is never truly safe in the Imperial Province came a second: I wanted to enjoy said Province, but couldn’t.

It hit me as I rode into Chorrol for the first time. I found myself, unwisely, slowing my gallop to look at the town in flyby, trying to connect it with the Chorrol I knew from TES4 – mysteriously weightless Honorblade and all. Perhaps it was the speed at which we were moving, or the distraction of constant high alert, but no such connection came. Likewise when our trip took us through the nearby Weynon Priory, that endearingly familiar first stop (yes, I used fast travel back in the day. Have at me) after emerging from the Imperial City’s dungeons.

The names from TES4 had become simply that – names. Decorative pieces on a map that now served an entirely different – and some would say, contrary – purpose.

Violette Vienele seeing the light in the Crypt of Hearts

But as I had learned to remind myself from the beginning, this is not Skyrim Online. Nor is it Oblivion Online. Hence, when the sieges began, I took them for what they were worth: transient collaborations between players who wouldn’t bother with each other otherwise.

That wasn’t a condemnation. It’s no different from any other truism – like there are no compacts between lions and men; wolves and sheep have no accord. Everyone knew what they had signed up for, and acted according to their interests within the common interest. Like any real-world war that wasn’t the American Civil War. My own interests were learning more, and experiencing more – and I got what I was after. I’ll be back as long as there are collaborations to lend a hand to.

And perhaps, somewhere between all the cross-country mobilizing and frantic dancing with cloaked swordsmen, I’ll rediscover the Cyrodiil that I seem to have lost.

On the runway lights in MMOs

Posted in Opinions on September 16, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

It took me a while to notice Guild Wars 2‘s map completion rewards.

Anyone with a few brain cells more than me would have picked it up right out the gate, what with all the Scout NPCs who conveniently show you where you can go next and what’s there to do there – and all of it neatly delineated on your world map. Those little golden hearts and red triangles and stuff might as well be so many checkboxes to tick, and there has to be something after ticking them all, right?

I hung around in my first zone to ensure I got every one. And then it happened. Heading into the next zone, I caught myself repeating an all too familiar routine: stopping, pulling up the map, and turning in place to orient myself towards nearby checkboxes. It helped that the game has a constant prompt on the top-right corner to lead you towards the nearest one.

In other words, I wasn’t exploring the labyrinth anymore. I was Theseus with Ariadne’s ball of thread, picking my way out inch by inch.

Many gripe about linear world & quest design in MMOs. But where so many leave most of the runway lights off, GW2 seems to have them on all the time, hand-holding players from point to point. Guidance – or pandering to completionism?

Every MMO has some sort of guidance in place to help players get un-lost in the world. ‘Signpost’ quests, in-character mails, map-marking through dialogue – even TESO’s annoying skyshard riddles. Given that I’ve encountered more than one MMO player who claimed they gave up on an MMO because they ‘had no idea what to do next’, any measure helping to refer people to new zones is probably quite necessary.

Unfortunately, the net result of such measures is, more often than not, a themepark atmosphere and mindset. Reducing player friction along the runway turns it into just a path to sprint along to reach the endgame. And what then? Cue all the age-old arguments around ‘old’ content getting devalued and neglected, and ‘new’ content never coming fast enough or thick enough or both…

But that’s the nature of any online game as a commercial venture. As has been brought up before, a large proportion of any MMO playerbase comes to a game looking for distraction – or gratification. (Usually both.) It’s far easier to bore or scare them off than to retain them. Thus, making the runway a path of least resistance becomes the only sensible thing to do from a financial standpoint. Save the resistance for the sideshows – like crafting. The leveling journey becomes just a means to an end, whether that end be raiding or PvP or fashion wars or hopping on tavern tables and soliciting the envy of the newbies and the undergeared.

Good for the devs, and not so good for the game.

I’m not asking why the runway – I’m asking why the lights. Leaving sandbox MMOs aside, your conventional MMO needs a structure for players to play through, but surely they need not be led by the nose. In GW2, for instance, I would have appreciated a toggle on the hand-holding, so I could discover new quests and locations on my own, Skyrim-style.

Perhaps not the best analogy, come to think of it, given that so many have chastised Skyrim‘s gameplay for being nothing but a giant to-do list – but there it is.

An early post-mortem: GW2’s Mordrem Invasion

Posted in Random Thoughts, Virtual Tourism on September 13, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

I was kind of stoked for Guild Wars 2‘s Mordrem Invasion. Perhaps I should have seen it coming – with a legend like the Battle for Lion’s Arch under its belt, I should’ve known ArenaNet would pull something of the sort before the game’s first-ever expansion.

As a newcomer to Tyria, it felt like a case of right time, right place.

It didn’t quite turn out that way, though. In fact, after just a couple hours of hard chewing, I could push myself back from the table and look at the pie for what it was: a preheated filling of grind mixed with hilarious frustration, wrapped in a thin crust of déjà vu.

So I made an early exit, and here I am rambling while Mordremoth’s minions continue to invade Tyria.

One of the first things that struck me about the event was the sheer amount of running. I still haven’t wrapped my head around the fact that there are no mounts in GW2, so the result is a good deal of amusingly cadenced mass cross-country. It looked more like a cosplay marathon than an army of heroes hastening to the front to repel an elder dragon’s assault.

Lady Lairyn Aurey joining the Mordrem warpathNow where have I experienced this before? Where have I run with dozens of random strangers in sight along the same route before? Oh yes. Defiance. All those hours of tyre-burning up and down the roads of post-apocalyptic San Francisco, rushing from arkfall to arkfall like the professional plunderers our characters there were. Which is what we’re doing here, innit? Just in a different context.

That was the déjà vu. Sinking my teeth past that, I tasted the grind.

Each zone-wide incursion lasted just half an hour, and reaping the most rewards within that window meant repelling the Mordrem twenty times throughout the zone. Wow. Having just made the connection between the Mordrem and Defiance‘s arkfalls, I immediately thought of Trion’s ‘who grinds wins’ contest.

I wouldn’t have committed to that, and neither did I feel inclined to commit to this – especially with the frustration mixed in.

Lady Lairyn Aurey arriving at the Mordrem battlefrontI’m not a fan of tab-targeting, and I was playing a melee-focused Guardian. Unlike in Defiance, where I could stand on the periphery of the big clusterbleep and pick my shots, the Mordrem incursions had me in the thick of said bleep, scooting back and forth like in a Keystone Kops movie, swiping ineffectually while Mordrem died in droves faster than I could blink.

Net result: I was introduced to that ugly gnarled stick called the scepter and its corresponding usefulness in a boss fight.

But frustration aside, resorting to ranged underscored something else for me: the tagging mechanic. I didn’t engage in it, but I certainly shook my head when I saw it surface in map chat. Back in WoW, it was ranged classes stealing mob kill credits from melee ones. Here, it was people bouncing off incursions like rabid London-in-a-day tourists, doing the bare minimum at each one to pick up credit.

That would be the dead insect in the pie, I guess. I hope there wasn’t something like this going on when Scarlet Briar invaded. Events like this are supposed to bring out the best in all the world’s citizens, not just on the game level but on the meta level as well.

Lady Lairyn Aurey facing the Mordrem

I don’t care much for the rewards, even though I could consider myself in the camp that thinks them inadequate. I also know this event is also a chance for older players to get a second shot at stuff they missed during Lion’s Arch. None of it matters to me. Looking at the Mordrem Invasion as a whole, I see only an underdone and unnecessary addition to an already sumptuous banquet table.

Good thing I didn’t get my fingers too dirty eating this pie.

More on MMO combat systems

Posted in Random Thoughts on September 10, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

Last week, I wrote about ‘mouselook combat’ systems supplanting WoW-style tab-targeting and auto-attacking as a necessity in MMOs. I thought I’d go further – especially since I’ve leapt from Tamriel into Tyria.

For me, Guild Wars 2 going F2P was the opportunity to see for myself just how wonderful this ‘paragon’ of an MMO really is. I’d be a rich panda if I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen it held up as an exemplar of MMOs done right. No holy trinity, epic PvP, the Living Story… everyone knows the drill.

What I never did pay attention to, though, was its combat system. And so I was rather dismayed to discover, in my first five seconds in the world, that I had to hold a mouse button to look around. Another minute spent in tutorial combat hammered the rest home. I felt like I was 2008 again and I was back in Azeroth – and it wasn’t the good sort of feels.

To be fair about it, combat systems like GW2’s appeal to a different sort of gamer taste. After less than an hour of play, I could see the appeal of skill auto-attacking (as opposed to ‘white damage’ auto-attacking). It adds a little hands-free to otherwise hectic fighting, and it’s not all too different from the channeled melee skills in any other MMO. In fact, treating skill auto-attacking as extended channeling makes a curious kind of sense.

When the skillbar extends past the 5 key, however, that’s when the hairiness begins. It’s not the finger-acrobatics DDR that was LoTRO’s skillbar, but still, reaching for 6 to pop a heal takes a smidgen too much time for comfort in a hairy encounter. (Yes, you can change keybinds, but this is how it shipped, no?) Plus, no mouselook means way too much tab-spam to lock onto the correct mob before unleashing a targeted skill. It feels clunky and constrained.

As for adding dodging to the playbook, while it was a good thought on ArenaNet’s part, this slow-mo diving & rolling is a far cry from the quick, slick evasion of Neverwinter’s Trickster Rogue. It’s a mechanic to simply negate damage, rather than to reposition my character to avoid said damage, and that makes all the difference.

Lady Lairyn Aurey vs the Shadow Behemoth

I wonder: given that different combat systems appeal to different player types, is there some correlation between them and their respective MMOs that I’m missing?

TESO is an open and shut case. It was designed to bring one of gaming history’s richest single-player experiences to the MMO field; thus, it makes complete sense to replicate that experience by incorporating the same pure ‘action-combat’ system. Ditto for LoTRO – I hear it was overhauled into a WoW clone late in development, which explains the identical combat system.

But what of Neverwinter, an ‘action-combat’ MMO based on a game with a hybrid turn-based system? I can probably answer my own question: cash grab. What attempts there may have been to draw on BioWare’s legacy sure sank quick beneath the tide of glitzy monetization and Asian MMOisms – making it also sensible for the game to run with a combat system that might appeal more to gamers who buy into that.

And GW2, which was designed with cooperation and community in mind? Why the 80% old 20% new blend? Were the devs, perchance, counting on the familiarity that 80% engenders to engender the best traits of earlier MMOs that use similar combat systems – with the 20% as a differentiator? Or was this done merely to follow in the footsteps of GW1?

What goes into the decision to make a combat system how it is?