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Worlds of Borecraft

World of Warcraft - a dull blade

Like most teenage video game addicts in the late 80’s, I fantasized about being able to play my favourite games online along with my friends and any number of random strangers. In those days doing such a thing on an average home computer was absurdly beyond the reach of technology. It wasn’t long before commercial multi-user games appeared though, such as Shades, a game I longed to try but sadly I was unable to convince my parents to invest in a modem for that sole purpose.

I eventually realised the dream while I was at university, where I started playing an obscure multi-user game called Nanvaent. It still exists, basking in the same text-based glory that it had back in 1996. I played Nanvaent and played it hard over the next seven years, eventually becoming a “creator” or coder. Indeed I suspect it was instrumental in my failing to complete my doctorate, and equally instrumental in ensuring I was able to salvage a career as a programmer from the ashes of my academic dreams. And once I’d made that switch, I never touched the game again.

I stopped playing partly because I became too busy to devote the proper time to it, but also because I grew to understand that the basic idea of a multi-user role-playing game was founded on a nonsense. Nanvaent, like all multi-user games before and since, was full of quests many of which chained together into a plot of sorts. But all those quests were open to each and every new character. You might go and kill Grimtooth and his relatives and earn your quest points but Grimtooth still returned to the bar of the Hole and Firkin every ten minutes or so for repeated slaughter by aspiring questers or, indeed, any powerful characters who fancied the xp and the loot. The same applied to every non-player character and every quest in the game.

This inconsistency fundamentally destroyed my suspension of disbelief in the game. It was categorically not what I wanted from a roleplaying game. I wanted story, narrative and the chance to role-play, to lose myself in another world, a fantastic place that I could nevertheless believe in. Text-based multi-user games could give me none of that. And as far as I can tell in spite of all the advances in hardware and software in the intervening 25 years their modern descendants, MMORPGs, still can’t. What both kinds of games can and do offer is the possibility of exploring a fantasy world alongside a very large number of fellow humans instead of the digital constructs that have stalked the corridors of computerised dungeons since the advent of computer games.

Yes, they really are that addictive

That is a big offering. Anyone who’s ever played a computer adventure game of any sort will have bemoaned the necessarily shallow interactions you can have with the characters and monsters in single player games. Multi-player versions of those games solve this by giving you lots of other real people to interact with. But it’s a trade off, because to gain that sense of reality, you have to sacrifice the reality inherent in a linear, single-player experience.

Which brings up the big question of “which is better”? To which there is of course no one answer as different people expect different things from their games. For me, narrative wins every time. For other people the powerful sense of community offered by jointly delving into a make-believe world is what pushes their buttons. It’s not to be underestimated: it kept me playing Nanvaent for seven years. And far be it from me to proffer judgement on what people should or should not enjoy in games. But here’s the aspect I do find puzzling: I get a similar sense of community engagement from participating in websites such as this one. What drives some people to choose a highly addictive source for their online chat kicks instead?

The clue is in the question. It’s not a choice, but an addiction. The response-reward model at the heart of almost all computer RPGs is incredibly addictive. It comprises basically the entirety of the appeal in the multi-million selling Diablo series. Likewise, the sense of instant connectivity offered by online communities is also oddly compulsive, as wryly highlighted by this famous XKCD cartoon. Computer interaction is inherently obsessive. So with MMORPGs, players are hit with a triple whammy of digital crack. And once you’ve tasted that sweet nectar, there’s no going back, even when you realise the sugar is poisoning your body and your mind.

Diablo 3 - game, or addiction machine?

Truth be told, knowledge of my own weakness and fear of enslavement is a large part of what originally kept me away from MMORPGs. But as I’ve aged, I’ve found the appeal of online gaming generally to have diminished. There was once a time when I’d cram in as much of the original Team Fortress mod as I could manage. But servers nowadays are too often populated by a hideous mixture of the repellently aggressive who’ll abuse you during and after every game, and the repellently obsessive who’ll put in hour upon hour of solo play to learn the maps and relentlessly thrash any lesser mortal who sets foot on their domain. Often these two stereotypes are both applicable to the same individuals. Playing against them isn’t fun: it’s the equivalent of choosing to stand up and be bullied.

Playing against your friends, on the other hand, is fun. It’s more fun if you can actually be in the same room, but given the time and space constraints of our modern, grown-up lives, I’ll take a network connection and a headset as an acceptable alternative. And of course the multiplayer component of most games allows us to create private, password protected realms for doing just that. But MMORPGs thrive on packing as many gamers as possible into the same realms. For them, it’s not an option and everyone is exposed to the trolls and the griefers and the obsessive-compulsive in all their hideous glory whether they want to be or not. Some multi-player games, such as Day Z, make a virtue of this, but the MMORPG needs a real sense of community and cooperation to function.

These then, are the reasons I find the allure of MMORPGs rather baffling. They offer no sense of coherent narrative. They are dangerously addictive. The communities they create have an unfortunate tendency to exclusivity. I find that a sufficiently elevated soap box to climb on and lecture other gamers on the deficiencies of the genre as a whole from a great height. But am only one individual. And surely, eleven million World of Warcraft subscribers can’t all be wrong. Can they?

War of the Roses Beta Signups

From the desk at Paradox:

NEW YORK – July 6, 2012 – Paradox Interactive and Fatshark announced that, after recently completing a successful closed alpha, sign-ups for a chance to participate in beta testing for upcoming medieval multiplayer combat title War of the Roses has now opened to the public. Starting today, players can enroll to be a Knight in the King’s army and help restore order to England by visiting the following link:

When signing up to guarantee their access to enter the beta, future knights will obtain a unique referrer URL from the King that can be shared across social media channels. When five friends use this player-specific link to sign up for the beta, the player who is linked to the URL will be granted a secure spot in the beta.

I saw this back in January in Stockholm and it looked pretty damn good, particularly if you were a fan of the multiplayer component of Mount & Blade: Warband.

Hybrid’s Many Questions

Last night I fired up the beta for Hybrid, the upcoming multiplayer only XBLA shooter from 5th Cell. You may recognize that name from Scribblenauts and Scribblenauts 2: Revenge of the Scribbler (not its real name) as well as the Drawn to Life series and Lock’s Quest. “Wait a minute”, you may be asking, “what do these games have to do with a multiplayer only cover shooter set in a persistent online world?” Beats me. Did I mention there are jetpacks? Not Tribes-style jetpacks, but jetpacks nonetheless.

I know you have questions. Trust me, I do too, many of which came about as I stared at deployment screen after deployment screen. Yes, I am terrible at Hybrid. No, this is not a surprise.

The game kicks off with a little speech about how at some point in the future we found something called dark matter. Really, Hybrid? That’s all you got? Dark matter? I know that there was a sentence on the screen about how the tutorial speech wasn’t finalized, but you can’t come up with something better than dark matter? Dark matter was first theorized in the ’30s so at the very least, don’t say that you discovered dark matter, say that you confirmed the existence of dark matter or you synthesized dark matter or better yet, come up with something original like Unobtainium. Ok, that’s not original either, but you get the idea.

In the process of finding dark matter, Australia was obliterated. The world then—wait a minute. Australia was obliterated? Like, gone gone? Is there a giant hole where Australia once was? If so, did the ocean rush in to fill that hole? If so, what did that do to the rest of the world? Speaking of world effects, what would the destruction of an entire continent do to global weather patterns, much less to the global economy? And why Austrailia? Why not North America, or South America. What does 5th Cell have against Australia? What are you not telling us 5th Cell?

The tutorial then goes on to say that the world was split into two factions, the blue guys and the red guys, who are exactly like the blue guys but more sinister. I don’t know what that means. Both are working to collect enough samples of dark matter to reverse the incident. What does that mean? Does that mean that Australia comes back? If so, how does one restore a continent to sinister ends? Killer koalas? Giant, rampaging kangaroos?

The tutorial finishes up by stating that you and the other guys are both trying to get 110 samples of dark matter. That’s a very concrete number. First side to get to 110 samples wins, but they don’t explain why. Is there a machine that both sides have that’s just sitting there, waiting to go, until someone pours 110 samples of dark matter into it? Why 110? And if you got to 109 samples and the other guys got to 110, wouldn’t it be worth trying your machine and not just going “Oh well. They got more samples. Last one out, turn off the lights.”

After the setting is established you’re dumped into the tutorial. Hybrid is a cover shooter that allows you to move from cover to cover via your jetpack. In fact, there’s no running or walking or any ambulatory motion of any kind. You select a piece of cover, hit the A button and jetpack there. You can strafe in the air as well as shoot and use a burst of speed. You can also change to a new piece of cover mid-flight by selecting it and pressing A, similar to how Batman can change direction with the line launcher. If you get to your new piece of cover and find that you’ve made a tactical error, you can hit B and immediately fly backwards to your old cover.

Like every multiplayer shooter, you level up your character and get shiny new abilities as a result. Also like other shooters, you get goodies for kill streaks in the form of drones. Kill one guy and get a drone. Kill three guys and get a better drone. Kill five guys and get a super-ninja drone. I’m not sure killing one person constitutes a streak but for incompetent players like me, it’s nice that I get to get in on the kill streak action too. Drones stick by your side and shoot whatever you’re shooting except for the ninja who heads to your enemy like a homing missile.

I went with team deathmatch and was dropped in a somewhat small map with cover both on the ceiling and on the floor. The jetpacks allow for ceiling based cover but it didn’t make a lot of sense for said cover to be there. I was fighting a battle someplace in South America but was I in a warehouse, a dark matter processing facility, a Brazilian Walmart? Why were there platforms in the air with barriers? It wasn’t a blown up ceiling situation. These were clearly floating ceilings with barriers for cover. Also, if both sides are desperate for dark matter, why are they agreeing to arbitrary “first group to 25 kills” rules like some sort of throwback to the 1700’s when civilized men fought only between 11AM and 3PM and not on Tuesday or if it was raining?

Remember in Battlestar Galactica when Galactica et al realized that they could kill skinjobs all the live-long day, but until they knocked out the Cylons’ ability to resurrect, it was a losing battle? Wouldn’t the smarter thing to do in Hybrid be to say “Screw this battle stuff, we’re winning the war” and try and take out whatever technology is allowing the other side to spawn in indefinitely until they reach some arbitrary kill count? A control point type of match makes sense in the context of this game, team deathmatch does not. While we’re on it, wouldn’t it be awesome if, as you progressed through the levels in Hybrid you could unlock a special Commando level that then allowed you to go on super difficult matches against the best players with the reward being some sort of game changing event that affects the entire world? Like, maybe you go on a mission where you knock out a respawn facility and if successful, for an hour everyone who plays in battles in Asia plays against enemies that can’t respawn or has limited respawns? And if you lose your special mission match, maybe you can’t take on special missions or defend against the other side’s special missions for something like an hour. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

While playing I kept asking myself why I couldn’t see my enemies, who the hell was making that giant blue globe that kept damaging me and why I suck at shooters so much. Then I began wondering if I could drop out or if that would be a dick move, leaving my teammates to go out it with 1/3 fewer players. Then I wondered if, given how many times I was getting killed, I would actually be doing them a favor by not giving the enemy so many free kills. Finally I stopped wondering things because the match was mercifully over. Then I asked myself why I wasn’t playing Witcher 2. Then I played Witcher 2.

I’m not saying Hybrid is a bad game, although I am completely unqualified to make that distinction based on how awful I am at shooters. I can say that the setting needs a little work as the framework it provides only makes things stand out as being “game-y”. Maybe most people don’t worry about these things because they’re too busy being awesome and they don’t have as much time staring at the deployment screen and wondering why 5th Cell hates Australia.

Think of the wallabies, 5th Cell. Think of the wallabies.

Nexuiz in Review

Review, Nexuiz for Xbox 360

The rebels were decked out in JNCOs, the cool girls were sporting The Rachel, and Fred Durst was doing it for the nookie. Back in the late ’90s, there were no cover systems, no lifesaving perks, and regenerating health meant grabbing a med-kit. When Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament dominated the scene, survival required breakneck speed and serious marksmanship, and maybe a rocket-jump for good measure.

Nexuiz (pronounced “Nexus”) aims to pull the sub-genre off life-support and give it a pulse. With no classes to choose from or ranks to work through, Nexuiz is going back to basics; way back. Without features such as balanced matchmaking, methods to boot idle players, or simple character customization, Nexuiz severely strains the divide between streamlined simplicity and under-development.

Team Deathmatch and Capture-the-flag are the only two modes available. That’s all I need to keep myself entertained, but players quitting and/or staying idle through multiple matches are serious problems, and there is nothing that you can do about it. Also problematic are the immediate respawns of flags in CTF (eg no 20-second cooldown after scoring), making it all too easy for a mildly coordinated team to steamroll the other.

Most of the weapons are of the techy-big-barrel-thingamajig variety. You’ll find the expected shotgun, rocket launcher, sniper rifle, and assault rifle. There are a few mild surprises though, such as a pistol that fires miniature missiles in rapid succession, and the reflective shots of the Crylink. Every weapon has a use, and I can appreciate the subtle strategy added by the alternate firing modes. The shotgun, for example, can fire a wide burst for close-range or a concentrated burst for long-range.

Although the nine maps feel small, they are packed with multiple levels, jump-pads, teleporters, and just enough crannies for more tactical-minded players. But, the maps are far too symmetrical. While this ensures a fair game of capture-the-flag, the symmetry makes for a less intense, and somewhat disorienting, deathmatch experience. Outside of capture-the-flag, what purpose does one half of a map serve when it’s exactly the same as the other half? It’s more space for the sake of space.

Mutators are the driving force of Nexuiz. As much as I enjoy them, they are the blue shells of shooters, and will surely repel many of the more serious-minded players. After picking up a Mutator, you choose from one of three random effects. It could be something as simple as shielding yourself or beefing up a particular gun, or as outlandish as turning the floors into slip-and-slides. You can spend points to increase the likelihood of getting a particular Mutator, but like it or not, you will get burned at some point.

Call me a traitor, but Nexuiz reaffirms how much I enjoy gaining ranks and unlocking new equipment. A good kill-to-death ratio doesn’t hold the same weight that it once did, especially now that I’m older and have more responsibilities, and less spare time to defend my online reputation. By no means do I consider unlockable content to be a prerequisite or a gauge of quality, but it is a major factor to consider. After all, I felt the nostalgic touch, the desire to recapture the days of hijacking the school’s computer lab for secret deathmatches, but the memories were better left untouched.

Despite all this talk of the old-school, the more I play Nexuiz, the more I realize that it really isn’t that far removed from the multiplayer in games such as Crysis 2, Halo: Reach, and numerous other games of varying quality. Has the genre really changed ‘that’ drastically that we need a homage? Where do we draw the official line between the old-school and new-school? After all, Halo launched in 2001, only two years after Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament. At least with the Halo series I get numerous modes to help keep the experience fresher for the long run.

Nostalgia is fine, but there are methods of merging classic gameplay with modern features. Nexuiz doesn’t so much as try, and, had it not been announced as a throwback, I doubt that we would be having a discussion about the old days. More likely, Nexiuz would only be seen as a competent FPS lacking the remarkable traits needed to stand out from the masses of generic sci-fi-themed shooters.