Archive for November, 2009

Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Warm Milk

Saturday, November 28th, 2009


Pirates of the Burning Sea is a game for which I have some very conflicting emotions. I’ve always been a fan of the pirate genre. I even had pictures of Errol Flynn hanging in my bedroom when I was a kid, and I read every book about historical pirates that I could get my hands on.

Unfortunately, Pirates of the Burning Sea (PotBS) doesn’t exactly live up to my expectations of what an online pirate game should entail. Don’t get me wrong – the game’s environments are gorgeous, the writing is superb, and there is a lot of fun to be had. But the actual game play is painfully repetitive. The majority of the game is spent in ship-to-ship combat, which may be a lot of fun when you’re doing open sea PvP port battles with other players, but when completing the game’s PvE missions it gets dull quick.

One unique feature in PotBS is “User Content”. Players can create flag, sail, and even ship designs, that if approved, can be used in the game. When the game first launched, the approval process for the sail and flag designs was rather haphazard. Players would upload their designs to the PotBS website where other players could vote on it. If your design received enough votes, you were allowed to use it in the game. This resulted in a lot of goofy designs that were more than a little anachronistic. Eventually, a “Steering Committee” was created to review all of the player content before it was allowed to be used. At the same time, a lot of previously accepted player content was rejected. This leads to my rather sad mermaid tale.

Before

Before

After

After

When the game launched, I created what I thought was a tasteful, attractive and period-appropriate sail design of a mermaid (See ‘Before’ image.) My design was quickly approved and I was happily sailing the high seas in my pink Bermuda Sloop and mermaid-patterned sails. After a few months I quit playing the game and did not return for almost a year. Upon my return I discovered that my character had been moved to another server and my mermaid sail design was nowhere to be found.

Thinking that it was a simple error caused by the server move, I resubmitted my sail design. Which was promptly REJECTED! Flabbergasted, I sent a message to the Steering Committee, asking for an explanation. I was politely told that my design had been rejected because the ‘breasts’ on my mermaid were too ‘vague’. I would need to put a pattern on the design to indicate that my mermaid was wearing a bra, or remove the ‘vaguely breast-like circles’ completely.

WTF? My poor mermaid was deemed ‘offensive’ because her breasts were too ‘vague’?

In a fit of indignation I removed the ‘breast circles’ from the design completely and resubmitted it. My ‘breast-less’ mermaid was approved (See ‘After’ image.), but I lost a lot of respect for the folks at Flying Lab Software as a result of this incident.

I realize that the developers must comply with the ESRB’s standards, which are probably a bit arbitrary at times. But PotBS is not marketing itself as a children’s game. And the game is about PIRATES for cryin’ out loud! How can shooting, stabbing, burning and pillaging be OK, but round ‘breast-like’ circles on a mermaid flag design be considered ‘offensive’? How can we have such a pronounced contradiction in our culture, where violence is more acceptable than anything remotely resembling the naked human body?

I bet Edward Teach would have been amused.

Fourth Apathy

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009


I recently reconnected with a friend who I had not talked to in over 15 years. While doing the requisite ‘catching up’, my friend mentioned that she was playing an online game. Eager to share my hobby with an old friend, I asked, “Which one? World of Warcraft? Guild Wars? Everquest 2?”

“Last Chaos”, she replied.

“What’s the game’s full name, so I can look it up online?”

“That IS the name – Last Chaos.”

“But that doesn’t even make any sense! Chaos is a concept, not a tangible object. It’s not something that you quantify sequentially. That’s like naming your game ‘Third Havoc’, or ‘Intermediate Ennui’!”

I could tell at this point that my friend was becoming frustrated by my grammatical pedantry, so I agreed to download it and meet her in game.

I’ve been playing MMOs long enough to be able to assess a game’s enjoyability simply by viewing the in-game screen shots. I took one look at this website and groaned. A Korean free-to-play MMO ported to the US by Aeria Games, Last Chaos has ugly graphics, generic game play, an archaic-to-the-point-of-prehistoric user interface, and nonexistent localization. In a word – it’s BAD.

This is what passes for quest text in Last Chaos.

A quest journal entry in Last Chaos.


But the point of this post isn’t to discuss Last Chaos’ flaws, which would be like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel (with a bazooka). Rather, what alternately intrigued and disturbed me was its immense popularity. When I played Last Chaos a year ago, the 10+ servers were frequently filled to capacity. The starter area was as crowded as Stormwind City, and my friend’s guild was 20-member strong. Where were all of these people coming from? And more importantly, WHY?

I spent a month grimacing, squinting, and groaning my way through the game with my friend. Although I appreciated the opportunity to spend time with her, watching paint dry would have been preferable. Despite my efforts to convert her to a better game – I even offered to purchase a copy of Guild Wars for her – she would not budge. By her own admission, she spent hours a day playing Last Chaos and paid over $50 a month on items in the in-game store. She was never able to fully articulate why she liked the game so much. When I attempted to point out the game’s multitude of flaws she would shrug off my complaints with ambivalence.

It saddens me to see far superior MMOs flounder, or even fail (Auto Assault and Tabula Rasa come to mind) while dreck like Last Chaos survive and even prosper. Can this phenomenon be attributed to lack of knowledge? Poor taste? Or simply apathy?

Lost In Translation

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

Video game localization is the process of adapting a game to the standards of another country, and involves not only text translation, but also the cultural, hardware, software, and musical adaptations. With so many online games being imported from Asia, the need for localization has grown significantly over the past few years. A quick Google search will provide an entire list of companies that offer localization services to the video game industry.

Which begs the question: Why does it always suck so bad?

The Gates of Andaron is a recent MMO developed by the Korean company Zemi Interactive and published by GameForge, a German company. Perhaps it is this rather circuitous route to the American audience that caused this game’s localization to go so hilariously wrong. Whatever the reason, this game has quest text so pedantic, it reads as if it was written by Yoda!

Here’s another example:

I am the Kaos Monk, Rebsonsa. Beside me you see the border between life and death. It would be unwise for the living or for the residents of Horus to venture too near…

(I guess the residents of Horus don’t qualify as ‘living’?)

To add insult to injury, not only does the quest text look like it’s been fed through a Translation Party, but I’m convinced that the voice acting was purchased from the bargain bin at WalMart. Here’s one merchant’s greeting: [.wav file]. And here’s another merchant in the SAME VILLAGE: [.wav file].

Yeaaaaaaah…

Obviously, Gates of Andaron isn’t going to be setting the MMO world on fire any time soon, but if you ignore the rather bizarre localization efforts, it’s not really a bad game. The artwork is colorful and attractive. The tutorial section is surprisingly well done. And game play is your standard World of Warcraft knock-off.

Maybe I’m expecting too much from a free-to-play game. Don’t other MMO players out there actually CARE about the quest text, the storyline or the plot? Certainly I can’t be alone in my literary nerdiness.


* Actual quest text taken from the game.

Viewer Discretion NOT Advised

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

What do you think of when a game bills itself as “…a terrifying new horror MMORPG”? Maybe Gothic images of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos come to mind? Or perhaps something more modern, à la Clive Barker or Stephen King? I’m guessing that the first thing that comes to mind is NOT Korean peasants and cherry Kool-Aid.

Requiem: Memento Mori is a massively multiplayer online game for mature audiences that will immerse you into a dark world of bloodshed devastated by generations of scientific and magical abuse. Requiem Online offers a refreshingly new approach to the MMOPRG genre with its grim, dark atmosphere and tense, blood splattering action.

Sounds interesting, right? And it might be if it was actually true.

I think that both the horror and adult genres have a place in gaming, and have a great deal of untapped potential if done correctly. But if you’re going to advertise your game as being “adult” and “horror”, why not actually explore adult themes in an intelligent and thought-provoking way? And no, I’m not referring specifically to sexual content or nudity, either. Putting boobs in your game may garner you a ‘mature’ rating from the ESRB, but it doesn’t make up for poor writing or ill-conceived game play.

Requiem: Memento Mori (Where do people come up with these goofy names? Requiem: Memento Mori literally means “a piece of funeral music reminding you that you will die”.) thinks that throwing copious amounts of monster body parts at you covered in what looks like cherry Kool-Aid will somehow scare you. It doesn’t. They also think that making their female avatars half-naked is what passes for ‘adult’. It’s not.

Requiem is certainly not the worst MMO I’ve ever played – the interface is passable, the game mechanics are your standard MMO grind. But there is absolutely nothing “refreshing” or “new” about it. One of the very first quests in the game has you playing match-maker between two of the town’s NPCs. Yeah, scary stuff. And although the art direction for the game is somewhat unique, it’s not what I would consider pretty (and it often belies its Asian MMO roots).

Sadly, the most frightening thing about this game is all of its unrealized potential. EEKS!

The Apocalypse Will Be Confusing

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

I really wanted to like Fallen Earth. After the untimely demise of Tabula Rasa I longed for an MMO that did not contain haughty elves or magic missiles.

With its FPS/RPG hybridization, classless skill-based character advancement system, and real-world post-apocalypse setting, I was highly anticipating the opportunity to create a female Mad Max and make a name for myself in Grand Canyon Province.

Things started out well enough for Mad Margaret as I navigated her through the tutorial section of the game; a story instance that has the player running for your life from a “secret underground facility” as a disembodied voice gives you instructions on basic game play and story elements. Fun, informative, and what I thought was a taste of things to come.

Boy, was I wrong. Upon completing the tutorial you are dumped out into the starter area of the game where things quickly become buggy, bland and downright perplexing. Although the game’s graphics aren’t terrible, they aren’t exactly awe-inspiring either. For whatever reason, the interface was small, fuzzy and hard to read, no matter how much I tweaked my graphics settings. And it also wasn’t particularly intuitive, as I struggled to figure out how to switch weapons or access my character’s stat sheet.

The worst part of it all was how amazingly complicated the character skill system was. Skill attributes, that could have been described in just a couple of brief sentences, instead had paragraphs of text that looked like they had been written by an astrobiologist! When I play an online game I want to have FUN. Not feel like I’m preparing for a math exam!


* Actual text taken from the game. If anyone can explain to me in SIMPLE TERMS what all of that actually means, I will review the MMO of their choice in an upcoming post.

Good Help is Hard to Find

Saturday, November 14th, 2009

I’ve played Dungeons & Dragons Online since its early (rough) beta. With its click-to-swing combat and hand-crafted dungeons, DDO was unlike any other MMO I had played to date. Unfortunately, it didn’t make for a very good MMO.

At launch, the game didn’t have enough content to sustain you through all 10 levels, so you ended up repeating dungeons over and over again in order to advance. Add to this the fact that there was also an XP debt death penalty, and you had one grindtastic experience that caused many players, including myself, to completely lose interest in the game before ever reaching the level cap.

There was also the problem of grouping. The pen & paper version of D&D is by its very nature a group experience. In an effort to maintain this shared experience, Turbine made DDO solo-UNfriendly. In fact, it was downright impossible to complete any of the mid-level dungeons without a full group. Although I understand the developers’ intentions, I think they failed to fully appreciate human behavior in a virtual environment. Sure, it was possible to acquire a dedicated group of players, or guild, to adventure with. But people tend to honor their real-life game commitments more readily than their virtual ones. Trying to wrangle the schedules of 6 people on a regular basis to play an online game is no easy feat. This means that you must often resort to the dreaded PUG, which anyone who plays MMOs knows is like trying to play a game of basketball with a bunch of epileptic monkeys.

Finally realizing that the forced grouping was a detriment to the game, Turbine introduced the Hireling System. Now you can purchase NPCs, either in game or through the DDO store, to play through the dungeons with you. These hireling NPCs work similarly to pets in other MMOs. You can give them simple commands to react offensively or defensively to mobs, as well as cast spells or perform specific attacks. At least, that’s how they’re supposed to work, in theory.

I quickly discovered that controlling hirelings brought a whole new dimension to my DDO experience. I’m not good at pet management in any MMO. In fact, I avoid pet classes like the plague! Turbine advertises that each hireling has it’s own “distinct personality”. Yeah. That’s a fancy way of saying that their AI is more than a little screwy. I had clerics who refused to heal. Paladins who wouldn’t fight. And a fighter that would wade into battle completely oblivious to every trap in the room.

I’ve finally managed to learn how to control my hirelings (sort of), and even reached level 10 for the first time. Overall, the hireling system IS an improvement. But I still call my hirelings Team Retard.

Communication Barriers

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

I love Lord of the Rings Online. The pastoral quality of the game world makes me want to crawl inside my monitor and have a picnic.

Ok, maybe not in Angmar. But definitely in the Shire. They even have rainbows there.

Unfortunately, one of the game’s biggest assets – a rich and detailed game world that remains true to its source material – is also one of its biggest drawbacks. Transportation in LotRO is a giant pain in a blogmal’s behind. To their credit, Turbine has made improvements to the transportation and fast-travel mechanisms within the game since its launch. But LotRO remains a giant world that’s difficult to traverse. Which as a player lends a sense of isolation to the overall experience.

The game does provide personal mounts when your character reaches level 35. Having a mount certainly makes getting from point A(ngmar) to point B(reeland) a little easier, but there are some weird game mechanic quirks related to communication and transportation that, if not annoying, at least provide some unintentional humor.

One of these quirks is the inability to send more than one item through the mail at a time. I guess the entire mail system of Middle Earth is run by hobbits who have a low carrying capacity. This restriction is particularly expensive for crafters who want to move items around between their characters. Those postal hobbits have made a fortune off of me!

The second quirk worth mentioning is the inability to interact with NPCs – or do anything – while you’re on a mount. If you want to check your mail, turn in a quest, or sell that 20 pounds of sickle-fly filth that’s taking up room in your backpack for no apparent reason, you MUST dismount.

Why? Who knows. My guess is that someone forgot to tell them that the reins are supposed to go in the horse’s mouth – not yours.

The Virtual Glass Ceiling

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

I’m well known among my friends for being a feminist. I’m quick to point out a gender stereotype or inequality wherever I encounter it. And I champion equal rights with a gusto that borders on fanaticism.

Unfortunately, my chosen hobby/addiction has a LOT of catching-up to do in this particular area, and no place is this more evident than in Mythic Entertainment’s Warhammer Online.

Based upon Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy setting, Warhammer Online contains the usual fantasy races of Dwarf, Human and Elves, along with Greenskins (Orcs & Goblins), Chaos (a demi-human race), and Dark Elves (regular Elves who shop at Hot Topic).

The game has a total of 24 different classes to choose from – which would be groovy, except for the fact that 4 of these classes are gender-specific, with 3 of the 4 being available to male characters only.

Really? Seriously? Even in my fantasy games I can’t have gender-neutrality?

[insert grumbling and fist-shaking]

I’m not the first to complain about this, and there has been much speculation as to why Mythic Entertainment chose to make these class exclusions. My best guess is that Mythic assumed that their audience (primarily male) would not be interested in playing some of the ‘uglier’ classes as a female character and wanted to conserve art resources by excluding them.

Regardless of the reason, in retaliation for this obvious virtual injustice I decided to create the most effeminate, girly Chaos Marauder possible, named Peony. I insisted upon dyeing every piece of Peony’s armor PINK and would tell anyone who asked (and even some who didn’t) that Peony preferred to watch Oprah and arrange flowers, but had agreed to fight in the war because someone had stolen her entire Pink Pony collection.

Take THAT, Mythic Entertainment! Hell hath no fury like a Peony without her pony. (Or a girl gamer without a proper female Chaos Marauder.)

Paying Your Gravity Bill

Monday, November 9th, 2009

Oh, sweet Aion. How you wooed me with your gorgeous graphics and flawless interface. How you seduced me with limitless character customization and the promise of avatar flight.

How you dropped me like a lead zeppelin with your confounding game play limitations and your plethora of money sinks.

Initially, Aion had everything this MMO addict could ask for: a UI so flawless I could eat bytes off of it, localization that defied my attempts to find a typo or grammatical error, and a gorgeous game environment that elicited ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ at every turn.

But at level 10 my character ‘ascended’ – she acquired the ability to fly and progressed out of the starter area. And that’s when things started to go, well… south.

The first hint that something was amiss occurred when I arrived at the central hub city and discovered that despite my newly acquired wings, I couldn’t actually fly anywhere. Uh, ok? Maybe these new wings have training wheels, or something? Sadly, no. I later learned that although you can deploy your wings and ‘glide’ down any slope, you can’t actually fly in the main city. Ever.

The second hint came after I spent all my money on training, weapons and armor, only to pick up my first quest and realize that I couldn’t actually get to the quest location because I was broke. No problem, I thought. I’ll just walk to the quest destination. I’m a low level character. No shame in that. Uh, no – that’ ain’t happening. The game world is constructed in such a way that getting from your race’s central city to ANY location on the map requires that you teleport or fly. And there is no free public transportation in this game.

Actually, there is no free ANYTHING in this game.

Absolutely everything in this game costs money. Want to get a new class skill? Cough up the gold. Want to travel across town? Gotta pay for it. Want to work on your crafting? Yup, gotta pay for it. Just died? Yeah, that costs too.

I realize that almost every MMO has some type of in-game economy. That’s expected. But Aion makes it virtually impossible to play without having money, which turns the game into a giant grindfest. It also encourages gold farming, which became painfully obvious within the first few days of the game’s launch, when the chat channels were overrun with spammers.

Oh yeah, and the flying? That comes with a timer. That beeps loudly and expires in 45 seconds.

No Sexy For You

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

I feel a little weird complaining about an MMO’s lack of sexy, half-dressed female avatars. I mean, let’s face it; almost every Korean MMO on the market has squeaky-voiced, scantily-clad lingerie models who inevitably wear spikey high-heeled shoes. (Forget fighting dragons. How do you run through grass in those things?)

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a prude, nor am I opposed to adult content, or chain mail bikinis. I do think that female characters are often objectified in fantasy games of any stripe, so I appreciate MMOs that provide female avatars with sensible clothing, like Lord of the Rings Online, or Dark Age of Camelot.

But if there’s one game where I would not expect my female avatar to look like a refugee from an Amish commune, it would be Age of Conan. Sure, you start the game lying on a beach in your underwear, but your very first piece of scavenged armor or clothing is decidedly… conservative. And for the next 20 levels your character will bear an uncanny resemblance to your mom.