23 September 2014

A Weekend With WoW

So, almost a decade after the game's release, I finally did it. I actually tried World of Warcraft.

I've been mildly curious about MMORPGs as a phenomenon for a long time. A few years ago I even tried playing a handful of free games, but all of those turned out to be either uninteresting to me or suffered from poor performance on my system at the time. But that was a long time ago, and, on a whim, just for kicks, one boring Friday night I decided to try if WoW would run on my current Debian laptop, using Wine. I figured what the hell, it's free up to level 20, I have nothing to lose. Perhaps a little to my surprise, it actually ran. Not at huge frame rates or on full graphical settings, of course, but smooth enough to be perfectly playable.

A few days later I reached the Starter Edition's level cap. Those 20 levels... actually succeed at giving new players a fairly decent glimpse of the variety and scope of WoW. There's a vast world to explore, a variety of different enemies and quests, and loot to pick up. You can do solo quests, or even try out instanced dungeons with a group.

So those would be some of the pros of the game. The cons, however... Yes, the world is vast with a multitude of different environments, and there are tons of quests. However, a lot of that world is, to be honest, a little on the bland side, not exactly teeming with detail. (Well, the game is ten years old, after all...) And while there is some variety, a lot of those quests are hopelessly repetitive. Go here, kill X creatures, report back... The controls also seem a little awkward and I don't think I've still quite gotten used to them. (Perhaps this is partly due to my mostly console background—playing third person games with a mouse feels weird. And speaking of which, boy has my hand been hurting, I'm so not used to using a mouse these days...)

So my feelings about WoW are somewhat mixed. It feels like a world with a lot of potential, but on the other hand it could obviously be much more interesting. Still, just exploring the world and doing quests has been pretty entertaining for these past few days.

Then there's of course the social aspect of the game, which is a whole other story. And one I can't really comment on much. I only did one instanced dungeon before hitting the level cap, and it was fun, but kind of a hectic blur, and I didn't really interact with the other players at all. (I know some of my friends have played WoW in the past, but I'm not sure any are currently active, and I doubt they'd be on the same server anyway—I just picked the first one the game recommended for me, out of quite a few).

So the big question is: is it worth paying a monthly fee for? Right now, sure, I could see myself paying for one month and trying out the game a little longer. When you think about it, a month's subscription isn't a whole lot of money, if you actually play the game on a fairly regular basis. Compare it to, for instance, buying a new single player game. It'll likely cost more, and mostly I don't play a game like that after I beat it, which rarely takes much more than a month, often considerably less. But would I be interested in WoW in the long term? That... I'm a little sceptical of. I've never really played a single game for extended periods in the past. I'm always moving on to new experiences. Ideally I think it would be something to occasionally kill a little time with. But paying a not insignificant monthly fee for something like that just doesn't seem like a viable option.

One more observation, relating to a theme in recent blog posts: this game could really use a manual. If one is provided anywhere with the download or in-game, I haven't found it. And the guide at Battle.net isn't nearly as helpful as the one for Diablo III was. It doesn't really go into the basic controls and mechanics at all...

EDIT: Well, I actually found a downloadable PDF manual, in the account section of Battle.net under my WoW details. Wish someone had pointed that out earlier... Mind you, the file is very unoptimised for computer screens and quite hard to read...

I guess that wraps up my admittedly brief experience (so far) with one of the world's most famous games, so I'll just leave you with this: for the Horde!

16 September 2014

A Moment of Nostalgia with Heroes of Might and Magic III

I recently bought a copy of Heroes of Might and Magic III (1999) when it was on sale at Good Old Games. I was a little surprised to find it works almost flawlessly on my GNU/Linux machine using Wine. (I also installed an unofficial HD mod to make it run in bigger resolutions.)

Back in the 90s, I had a copy of Heroes of Might and Magic II. I recall it was probably one of the first games I bought after my family got a new Pentium computer. It was a cool fantasy strategy game, with pretty graphics and great music. Right up my proverbial alley at the time. Before that I'd been playing Master of Magic a little, but Heroes' more polished, modern aesthetics, and perhaps also the slightly more streamlined mechanics, quickly won me over.

But I was never very good at it, or should I rather say not patient enough. I never got very far in the campaign, mostly playing single scenarios on easy difficulty settings and sometimes hot-seat multiplayer with friends. (I never was very patient with games back then—I hardly ever 'beat' games until a little later when I got into more story-driven stuff, like JRPGs...) Even so, I might go as far as saying that Heroes II is the game I remember most fondly from the 90s (together with TIE Fighter).

So, I started up Heroes III, and I felt right at home. Even though I didn't play it back in the day, the game's similar enough to it's predecessor to feel instantly familiar and intuitive. I still love the aesthetics and feel of the game, so many years later. I started up a scenario, played it for several hours... and then I drifted off to other things and haven't been back since. Yup, that sounds very familiar as well.

It's a problem I've had with many classic games, and perhaps particularly strategy games. There would be a ton of content to play through in Heroes III (the GOG version includes the two expansions as well). But alas, it seems more like an itch that needs occasionally scratching than something I'd be really motivated to stick with. (I'd still heartily recommend it to fans of classic strategy games, though. Even when not on sale, the game's only ten bucks at GOG.com, which seems like a bargain.)

11 September 2014

Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition (Game Review)

Blizzard's Diablo and Diablo II are among those classic computer games I never played. Thus I was only vaguely aware of the hype surrounding Diablo III when it was finally released a couple years ago, and the maybe somewhat lukewarm reception it had. But when the expansion, Reaper of Souls, was released earlier this year, and people were saying how it improved the game, coinciding with when I was getting into watching more gaming streams and thus exposed to a wider range of games, my curiosity grew.

When the expansion was released for consoles recently, bundled together with the main game as the Ultimate Evil Edition, I decided it was time to finally check out the series and bought the PS3 version. (It's also out for PS4, but I don't have one yet...)

I'm sure many people reading this will already be aware of the Diablo series, but for anyone who's not, the games are isometric hack-and-slash style action RPGs, with a focus on randomly generated content and loot. The story is set in a dark fantasy world called Sanctuary, and deals primarily with the war between angels and demons, with the player taking the part of a human hero going up against the demon lords, particularly their leader, the titular Diablo. Diablo III takes place 20 years after the previous game. Diablo has supposedly been vanquished, but the remaining demon lords are again spreading evil in Sanctuary. You set out to investigate a mysterious falling star and the dead rising from the graves...

The gameplay itself is quite simple, on the surface. Basically you hit buttons until the monsters die. The console version, out of necessity, has vastly different controls than the PC version. Where the PC games have always been heavily mouse oriented, the console version plays more like a standard third person action game (you use the left stick to move, buttons to attack etc). The menus and inventory management were also completely overhauled to work better with controllers.

Despite the simple premise, Diablo III has a surprising amount of depth, for a hack-and-slash game. You can pick one of six different classes, each with unique abilities, which are unlocked as you level up. Most of the locations you explore are random generated. Each time you start up the game they change, so you'll never have the exact same experience twice, even if you go back to locations you've visited before. Difficulty seemed something of a mixed bag. I played much of the main game on the maximum allowed difficulty, and didn't die once, which was a little surprising. After beating the main game (i.e. up to Act IV) you unlock higher difficulties. Playing the expansion content on the next higher setting seemed more suitable for me, except now some of the bosses felt a little too hard, and I ended up lowering difficulty for them... But at least you can change the difficulty at any time, which is good.

The game's reasonably long, too. (As far as I can tell, there's no timer in the game that would tell me how long it took to beat it, which is a shame. I find that kind of information interesting.) It doesn't end with beating the campaign, either. After that you unlock 'Adventure Mode', which lets you freely travel the word hunting down randomly generated 'bounties', and exploring randomly generated dungeons. Character level is capped at 70, but after that you can continue to improve your character by gaining 'paragon levels'. I'm not quite that far yet, so I can't really comment on what that entails.

And then there's the loot. Dropped by enemies and discovered in chests, or bought from merchants, or crafted by a blacksmith... So much loot, most of which is also random generated, so you'll find an endless number of equipment with different combinations of magical properties. There are several levels of rarity in items. Though, honestly, this seems a little unnecessary. Not long into the game it became obvious that 'rare' (and above) items were much better than more common items, and plentiful enough to simply not bother with picking anything else up (except occasionally to salvage for crafting materials).

The game looks very nice, even on the PS3, which probably has lower resolution than the PS4 or higher end PCs (I noticed some occasional slight slowdown too, but nothing that really detracted from the experience). There are lots of different environments, and tons of cool monsters. The music, on the other hand, was... well, background music. It's well enough done and suits the atmosphere of the game, but not exactly what I'd call memorable.

Another aspect the Diablo series is famous for is the multiplayer. You can team up with up to three other players for co-operative play. In the console version you can even play local multiplayer. I haven't had a chance to try it out yet, but I'm sure it, together with the randomly generated content, greatly increases the game's replay value. (As far as I know cross-platform online play isn't available, and for local multiplayer I assume each player needs a local username and save file, which slightly limits the potential. But it's still a cool thing.)

Now, I've listed a lot of positive things about Diablo III Ultimate Evil Edition. I certainly had fun playing it on my first playthrough, and I'm still having fun checking out Adventure Mode. But when it comes down to it, the core gameplay is quite repetitive, and the story is hardly very deep or original. While in theory it's one of those games you could keep playing indefinitely, how long it can keep me interested after 'beating' it once is a question I can't answer yet. (My past experience with games with a lot of 'post-game' content doesn't exactly speak for me sticking with it. Always moving on to new experiences...)

One last complaint  I have (which I touched upon in an earlier blog post) is that the game came with virtually no manual, beyond a simple controller diagram. It turns out there's a game guide on Blizzard's Battle.net website, which answered some of the questions I had. But this guide was not mentioned anywhere in the packaging, as far as I could see...

2 September 2014

The Forgotten Art of the Video Game Manual

Blizzard's Diablo is one of those classic game franchises I never played. So, now that the expansion for Diablo III is out for consoles as well, and conveniently bundled with the main game as the 'Ultimate Evil Edition', I finally decided to pick up the PS3 version and give it a try. But I've barely started the game, so I'm not actually here to talk about it yet, but rather a related observation.

So I bought Diablo III, and opened up the box to check out the manual: a single folded sheet, featuring only a controller diagram and the usual warnings and customer service numbers.

Out of curiosity, I checked out the manual for Diablo II (2000) online. It's almost 100 pages long.

Another example. Some years ago I picked up a cheap second hand copy of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion for PS3 ('Game of the Year Edition', 2007). Its manual is over 50 pages, which is actually fairly impressive for a PS3 game. A little later I bought the then brand new Skyrim (2011): a 'quick start' guide a couple pages long. (In multiple languages—this was the Nordic version, I don't know if UK/US versions differ.)

The trend is obvious. The video game manual is a dying breed. There are many reasons for this, of course. Designing and printing manuals is an additional expense. Online distribution of games is growing. Many games these days have extensive tutorial sections and in-game reference guides.

But there's a certain feeling when you open your brand new game and flip through the manual for the first time that an in-game tutorial can't replace. At best, manuals of the past have been much more than just about teaching you the controls. They could immerse you in the world of the game, expand the experience, get you hooked even before you start the game...

And all that aside, there are still games even in this streamlined, hold-you-by-the-hand age complex enough to benefit from a detailed reference guide. (Dark Souls springs to mind...)

I'm sure there are exceptions to this rule, game publishers still making decent manuals. But for the most part the manual seems to be a thing of the past, and I'm not very hopeful of seeing a resurrection. Which is a shame.