A Dalliance with MMOs

It recently occurred to me that I hadn’t played any MMOs recently, and so I corrected that. This is a story of how that’s gone, and how I learned a lot about game design in five minutes.

I don’t play MMOs regularly, and I never have. My first exposure to the genre was in my undergrad years, when I did a paper on MMO communities. The details escape me, and the paper is lost to time (I had posted it to the GameFAQs forums, but that was in the days before they archived everything – alas). At the time, I tried City of Heroes and World of Warcraft based on some arcane criteria – though I’m sure popularity had something to do with it.

I liked them. I played them for a very short while. A week, maybe two, maybe longer. I preferred CoH’s more realistic color scheme, the ease by which I could join parties, and beating up people with a sword as my alt, Overblade or something equally ridiculous. WoW was fun too, and I occasionally returned to play both of them at one time or another, but they didn’t stick.

Hm, but now that I think about it, perhaps I’d played Ragnarok Online before that; and I think there was an MMO that started with a “G” which I played back in high school, but which the internet hasn’t seen fit to record in its list of notable MMOs on Wikipedia. Oh, and there’s Maple Story in there somewhere too, but I couldn’t say when. I think CoH and WoW were, in any case, the first time I’d ever played MMOs for a significant amount of time, and the first ones to which I returned at any point. But I did leave them (and my level 40 Night Elf Rogue – but who doesn’t have one of those?) behind.

For a very long time, I did not touch MMOs. You can’t complete them, you see – or completing them isn’t the point. It’s the opinion I held at the time, and one which I’m inclined to return to, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Point is, MMOs are traditionally sinkholes for time, and I’d rather focus on games which can be beaten, or at least beaten in a reasonable amount of time.

Ah, but then I looked at the games I’m playing – chronologically, you see – and thought, well, I might as well give it a shot now. I’ve played some relatively long games over the years, become more experienced at games overall, and have a good understanding of what I want out of a game – so into the fray.

I began with Nexus. I tried Ragnarok Online again. I’m technically still waiting to hear back from the tech support for Maple Story, because their system wouldn’t let me make an account, but I’m not waiting with baited breath. Then there was Lineage II. CoH is defunct now, of course, and WoW… well, by the time I got to looking at WoW, I’d played those previously mentioned games, and become disillusioned.

Here are some sins that make oh-so-many MMOs unplayable.

… well, I don’t mean that literally, of course. There are entirely valid reasons for playing MMOs; not reasons that attract me, and not reasons to which I think MMOs ought to aspire – or at least, not new MMOs, but I’ve stacked enough bricks underneath my soap box for now, so let’s dive into it.

1. All of the “quests” are either delivery, fetching, killing, or collecting – and so break immersion.

2. The user interface is god-awful. Text is tiny. Menus are obtrusive. Navigating the map is awkward. The list goes on.

3. There’s no real sense of community, at least at the start. I can’t remember the last MMO I played where I felt it was important to interact with other players, either to team up or share something. Most quests: it’s like I’m in a single-player game where I get to watch other people also complete their single-player quests.

4. Some MMOs are gimmicky. Lineage II goes the “monty haul” approach, tossing tons of stat boosts, treasure, and massive XP gains at the player, and even has a chart about the monty haul gear they’ll qualify for at certain levels. And there’s another where their website has a webpage dedicated to the best exact locations for grinding.

There’s an assortment of other problems, like the bad – sometimes misspelled – English translation in Ragnarok Online; these individual problems just accentuate the general problems I have with many MMOs.

Now, some might say that these problems aren’t so big once you’ve really gotten into the game – but that’s the problem, isn’t it? You have to really get into the game to see past its flaws. These are flaws, or design conceits, that I find distasteful, and I’d like to see newer games do something different.

Planeshift resembles a concept I’d like to see, and I’ve heard that Star Wars Galaxies was on the right track before it went defunct. Planeshift, unfortunately, has been in alpha testing for about 13 years, and development is ongoing, but all work is volunteer.

Here’s what I’d like to see: a game where it’s more about community and exploration, where the quests are often player-driven. For example, suppose I play an explorer, and I go out into a cave. I might find a gigantic crystalline structure that isn’t marked on any maps – I want to mine it, but it’s too much work for one person to do by themselves, and the area is dangerous. I could then, on my own intuition, return to town, recruit several other PCs to come along with me, get some pickaxes and weapons from local PC merchants, or even sell the location of the mine to the highest bidder. Of course, such a system raises its own questions.

Pretty Colors, Pretty Lame – SaGa Frontier 2 Review

SagaFrontier2Illustration01
Oh, SaGa Frontier 2, why did I have such faith in you?

Maybe because SF2 is the last (I think) of those games from that era when I didn’t play games to completion; I played them to “SHINY NEW GAME RELEASED MUST PLAY NOW!”

To be fair, this game is terrible.

“But, Emperor…” you (not you you; I’m sure you’re a very nice person) whine, “it’s so – pretty! And the story! And the- the- stuff!”

Yes, it is a pretty game. Just look at that drawing at the top of this post; freakin’ gorgeous. I’d be lying if I said I don’t care about graphics, and the hand-drawn sprites and backgrounds of SF2 are the best part of this game. Similar techniques are used in Legend of Mana, and represent a (successful) attempt to show that games in the PS1 era didn’t need to be 3D to be pretty. … Of course, the PS1 had been out for about five years then, but better late than never.

The game has some memorable character models, perhaps best exemplified by Gustave’s eclectic outfit choices over the course of his life. Still, I found the graphics were sometimes blurry or otherwise instinct, and so some of the finer details were lost. This mars what otherwise would have been a gorgeous game, detracting from its beset feature.

Now, onto the meat of it…
This game is confusing. There is no tutorial, and no help screen to explain most of the terms. What are chips? What’s with the number next to WP and SP? How do you learn new moves? What’s the best way to learn new moves? What’s “Perfect Timing”? What happens to equipment when I switch between characters? When somebody goes away? I’m really only scratching the surface of questions you ought to be asking from the start of the game. I had to spend hours of research just to understand how the game’s basic mechanics worked, and it’s the kind of game where you really need that information unless you’re comfortable restarting a few times.

You are? Hah, no, you’re not. This isn’t Might & Magic or a rogue-like. You may recognize those as games with very light (or no) story; the kinds of games where you can jump in, die, and cover the past 30 minutes of gameplay in about 5 minutes. By contrast, SF2 is very story-oriented, or it’s meant to be anyway. It’s also a classic JRPG, where battles are going to take a lot of time, and you’ll be slogging through story. So, messed up? Well, hope you don’t mind losing all the tension you built up as you replay the last 10 hours. And if you think that’d be fine, well, I almost envy your naivete. Games need to balance their difficulty against the needs of the story, and SF2 does a poor job of it. By the time I had figured out how to actually play the damn game, I had lost my initial interest. Still, after a break, I slogged through it.

And the story – oh my god, it’s not that great. So, you have two different story paths you’re following: The legend of Gustave the king, and the Knights family. Superficially, these are pretty cool. The former follows the rise to power of an outcast, and the latter is a bunch of adventures. But in practice, they’re kinda lame. You will learn almost nothing about most of the characters in a game that is entirely driven by the personal motivations of its protagonists – this is inexcusable. Heck, the game actually skips over most of the lives of several characters. My favorite example is Johan the Assassin. Johan is, well, an assassin. He leaves his assassin organization because… well, I have no idea. We see the training he did to get in, but we don’t know why he leaves. He shows up in two chapters. The first is just him moving across a bunch of maps as he remembers his training, and getting picked up by Gustave at the end of the chapter. The second time he shows up is to die in a series of battles where you play as him, and him alone. Spoilers? Don’t care. You barely know the guy.

Now, there is an Ultimania guide that goes into massively more detail about the game, to my understanding. Ultimania is a series of guide books released in Japan which massively expand on the content of the games. They’re cool for getting the details that didn’t make it into the game, and packed with tons of information. But they’re in Japanese, and, more to the point, you shouldn’t have to read a 300 page book to find out salient and important facts about the video game you’re playing.

Because SF2 is so hard to get into, and its story is so disjointed, it fails to be a good game. It’s pretty as a painting, but you can get the whole picture just by doing an image search.

The Continuing Frustration that is SaGa Frontier 2

Last time I posted about this game, I said I need to work around the horrid growing pains of SaGa Frontier 2. Well, I think I’m past that point, but I am having a difficult time getting into it. I’ve tried playing other games and coming back to it, but I am hard-pressed to maintain my enthusiasm for it. Which seems odd: I mean, the story’s interesting. Still, something’s not clicking. Maybe it’s all just a little too prosaic. Or maybe the frustration of learning the system just sucked all the fun out of it for me. Or maybe it’s just that the combat is still painfully not fun. I am trying to get myself to stick with this game, but I am really struggling to maintain interest.

The Jade Cocoon Project

Recently, I reviewed Jade Cocoon. There, I mentioned that Naali_314, of GameFAQs, was a great help to me. When I suggested Naali might have some unique insights as perhaps the only person to go through 1000 levels of the post-game dungeon, he suggested it would be more efficient to link to a wiki he’s been working on. Fair enough.

http://thejadecocoonproject.wikia.com

The Wiki gets into a lot of technical details about the game, and has a catalog of some interesting art. It is apparently still in development, but I’m hoping it becomes a repository of information that just isn’t anywhere else. Sadly, the Jade Cocoon FAQs are sometimes sparse on important details about the game, and there doesn’t appear to be any academic research on the game’s development cycle. Maybe we’ll get something with this project.

The Frustration that is SaGa Frontier 2

SaGa Frontier 2 is one of those games that this blog was designed for. For those who don’t know, I started blogging about a decade ago on GameFAQs itself, before I knew about blogs (and possibly before blogs were a big thing, but I digress). At the time, I had about five dozen video games that I owned, but had never beaten (or, sometimes, never played). I would easily get distracted and go onto a new game.

That changed when I set down my blog and started to post about the games that I was playing, looking for community help when I got stuck, and just enjoying talking about the game as I was going through it. I started with Lufia III, which is a mediocre game, and I’ve played a variety of games since then.

So, SaGa Frontier 2. You know, I played its prequel some years ago, and that was a bitch without the community. The problem is that effectiveness in combat relies upon learning new attacks during combat, by using other attacks, and finding combinations that make two or more attacks go off simultaneously. If you don’t know which attack will “spark” which attack, or which techniques will combo, you could quickly find yourself behind the game’s power curve, and at least one quest is practically impossible to beat without knowing four- or five-person combos.

SF 2 takes that issue and amplifies it, and tosses in a bunch of others. Now, I’m not one to complain about combat complexity; in fact, I think it’s sorely lacking in a lot of RPGs. However, I will complain about clarity. SF2 dumps a lot of information and options on the player from the get-go with no explanation, and it is overwhelming. It is easy to give your party a bad setup, choose bad tactics, and even set yourself up for long-term frustrations. Because of that, I spent an inordinate amount of time pausing the game to ask the forums to explain to me every little detail about how the game works. And it’s brilliant – just, really, they didn’t need to hide the ball.

So I got frustrated. But I must continue. It’s a great game. I just need to work through these horrid growing pains.

Still Playing Games Chronologically

As you might recall, some time ago I mentioned that I am playing through video game RPGs chronologically. I’m still at it. I had a rough go of it over the past few months, as I was preparing for the bar exam, but now I can get back into the swing of things. I’m currently sitting around the year 2000, and switching between SaGa Frontier 2 and System Shock 2. I have some games on the backburner from earlier years that I still need to get to, such as Parasite Eve. Some games I’m holding off on, in hopes that another version will be released before I cannot stand to hold out any longer: Tales of Phantasia, for example. I’m upset that the latest PSP version never got released in America. Tsk.

I’ve tried a lot of video games, many of which were terrible. I’m thinking of someday making a post that gives a quickie review of several dozen games.

I Have A Sudden Urge to Play Fallout 3: the Fallout 1 Review

Fallout
Have you ever played a game, and suddenly wanted to play a different game, because of the first game? That’s exactly what happened to me when I sat down with Fallout 1. You need to understand that I played, and beat, Fallout 3 before touching Fallout 1. I can’t play this game without thinking about how much fun its distant sequel is.

I’ve asked a friend of mine why people think Fallout 3 isn’t a true successor to Fallout 1, and the answer apparently comes down to the tactical map used for combat. That’s fair, from one perspective, but I feel like the essence of the gameplay is basically the same. I mean, I really just see Fallout 3 as a first person, three-dimensional, version of the series. Same humor. Same universe. Same atmosphere. Same themes. Same gameplay (except, arguably, the combat).

I’m harping on this because I’d come into Fallout 1 expecting it to be different. Perhaps… better? I mean, I liked 3, but I was given some high expectations for this game that it didn’t meet. It’s kind of short and not so open-world as the game map makes it appear to be. It’s occasionally obtuse in the worst ways. There’s a nasty couple bugs that even the modding community hasn’t fixed in over a decade. I really hope I’m not surprising anybody when I point out the game has flaws, but I feel like it needs be said. It’s a good game, but I feel like 3 improved upon the formula.

As for the game itself, well, it’s Fallout. I think I ought to have a general “Fallout universe” review some time, because I don’t want to go through five reviews repeating how awesome power armor is or how horrifying super mutants are.

For now I’ll say that in spite of its flaws, it’s a good game. If you’re looking for a solid RPG, give it a go, especially if you like Fallout 3. It’s good to know your roots.