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MMOs I've Played

I've wanted to write about some of the MMOs I've managed to play in the last 4 years for a while now. Going through that exhaustive list would have been a really long post though, and it eventually hit me that it wouldn't make much sense to go into some of the games I tried. I mean, you probably don't need to hear about the 3 hours I spent playing Shaiya, wrestling with its grindy quests, horrible translations from Korean and looking at the pretty tall grasses. And as much as I liked the mind-control hamsters and undead Egyptian people in Allods Online, which has excellent translations, a great story (imperial Russia vs. socialist Russia in a WoW-like fantasy environment) but death-slow game mechanics-- No, you don't really want to hear about that either.

This post is about a couple of MMOs that I am deeply fond of, that, due to a series of unfortunate downscaling events, may not be around next year. I felt obliged to give them some love, because I've never actually said anything online about the games I've played, and they're a big part of my life these days.

Vanguard: Saga of Heroes

Pros: Interesting and immersive class options/mechanics, best crafting system ever made, great functionality in-game

Cons: Graphics are now deeply outdated, support is whittled down to a nub, bugs are everywhere

Out of all the MMOs I've played, Vanguard is still the game I'm wont to wax fondly of. It certainly wasn't the prettiest of MMOs, and I would get stuck in doorjambs and between rocks at least once per session, but it had a lot of little things that made it so much cosier than many newer games. This was the first and only RPG of any species I played a healer in. There's a good reason for that. Apart from traditional all-healing class options, Vanguard included offensive healer classes that I've never found replacements for in any other game. The class I played was called a Blood Mage. It combined damage over time stacks that triggered party buffs with crowd control powers to build heals. The class's basic premise is two-fold. First, you damaged enemies directly, which built points you used towards healing. Secondly, you cast direct damage/DoT spells in different sequences to harvest specific body parts from your enemy target. You then crafted different parts into different mind-control worms, which you used in battle to cast crowd control spells. These spells, some of which could run concurrently on different targets (making it great for a party of 2 to take on parties of 5 NPCs), had effects ranging from temporarily controlling an NPC as a pet, rooting and fearing, all of which to some effect buffed or healed the party.

The entire process of levelling and shaping a playing style with Blood Mages fascinated me. I was encouraged to practise different combinations of spell sequences to harvest the right parts, think on the fly about which control I wanted to use against different enemies, how I wanted to chain heals to keep the tank alive during battle and when to switch tactics. The real gist of it was that I felt like I had control over my character, and that I was always actively contributing to the party. Coming from games like WoW, where it was often expected to play a class according to specific chains and tactics, and performance was rated heavily by Recount and gear scores, the ability to just play the damn game was liberating. The battle mechanics in Vanguard are surprisingly robust, considering how much older it is, keeping players on their toes without resorting to tired chains.

Vanguard introduced a number of features I only saw in other better-supported and updated games much later. Target-of-target, for example, with automatic targetting for enemy NPCs and healing targets. Playing an offensive healer, it blew my mind to be able to concentrate my DoTs and heals without worrying about accidentally healing NPCs or myself. Target-of-target also applied to pets, which was important for a mind-controlling class. Imagine controlling a healer enemy NPC, who could help damage other NPCs and heal your tank at the same time. And using your other two hands to assist the tank and occasionally pop buffs.

Then there's summoning a mount while running. I hear you go, "What's the deal with that? It's not even realistic!" Well, look. Play enough MMOs, and however neat the little summoning animation may be, whether it's tooting a horn (WAR) or whistling (LOTRO), waiting around for your mount adds up. Those 10 seconds you spend waiting for your mount could be used for salvaging equipment, or having more time to play. Also, imagine that you see a group of NPCs about to crest a hill and attack you. You know that by the time you finished summoning your mount, you'd be attacked, and if you tried to move, you couldn't summon your mount anyway. If you could run and summon a mount, you'd be long gone before the battle even started.

Also, salvaging equipment. In some MMOs, only specific classes have the ability to salvage specific pieces of equipment for reagents to craft other objects. In Vanguard, anyone can salvage all kinds of equipment with a single, widely purchaseable tool from most vendors. The salvaged parts are useful to different crafting professions, and there is minimal wastage. Remember the ingredient angst that often plagues many a hardworking crafter because it only drops from X monster in dungeon Y? Doesn't happen much in this game.

And there's crafting! I like to craft in MMOs. It makes up for my utter lack of vocational skills in real life. Vanguard's crafting system is such that I still occasionally wake up in the mornings craving it. This is because crafting in Vanguard is not only it's own immersive mini-game, but also produces varied and fascinating results the more you experiment. You can, if you really wanted to, probably try to create the same 10 things in exactly the same way to level your crafting, but this is one game where that isn't the only option you have. Ingredients are graded by quality and effect, and have interchangeable counterparts depending on whether you bought it from a vendor, harvested it alone or with the help of your party (more about communal crafting later), salvaged it from equipment or found it on monsters.

Crafting is an involved sequence of accomplishing smaller tasks. Each set of tasks produces one part or stage of your final product. For example, to cut a gem, you started by splitting the raw stone with a series of cutting/grinding tasks. This was followed by cleaning, facetting, polishing and finishing tasks. At each stage, there was the chance (depending on your crafting skill level) of encountering a challenge. In the example of gem-cutting, you could easily slip and cut a facet the wrong way. This brought up another timed mini-game of using different options to fix the problem, where each response affected the overall product's quality differently. Maybe, I could use my tools to re-cut a portion of the gem. Or, I could use the solvents and polishes I had in stock. Or, I could ignore the issue and take a drop in the quality of the final gem.

Each task's success depended on what level crafter you were, what grade of tools you had equipped and what grade of ingredients you were working with. For some tasks, you might also have the option of either adding optional reagents to improve the grade/success of your product, or encounter a timed window in which to add special effects.

Apart from crafting items for your own use, Vanguard offered the option of crafting for city workshops, which facilitated levelling your crafting profession. Each city had a main crafting workshop, with foremen who gave profession-specific crafting quests. You started out by doing quests to make wooden toys, for example, and could progress to making wagon wheels and bed frames. The best part about this system was that all ingredients and reagents were supplied by the quest giver. If you wanted to, you could use your own ingredients to improve the quality of your product, which gave you better quest rewards, but that was entirely optional. This freed up your ability to harvest and save the best ingredients for your own items.

City crafting quests were randomised, so you always had a variety of different sundry goods to produce, each with different tasks to achieve. This made the crafting mini-game even more unpredictable and fun. For rewards, you got fairly generous amounts of money, reputation with the city's faction, better crafting tools and reagents, and recipes. If you wanted to, and I often did, you could basically sit in a workshop all day and pretend to have vocational skills you never had.

At higher crafting levels, certain recipes were community-based. For example, you could build ships that you could sail between ports on the different continents. Making a ship required the work of many different crafters working in tandem, bringing friends and guilds together for the crafting-mad person's equivalent of a raid.

I am, to this day, utterly flabbergasted that no other major MMO out there has picked up on this crafting system yet.

Vanguard's major flaw was ultimately that Sony, which runs it, largely treats it like some abandoned foster child. There's virtually no support for the game, and bugs of every stripe can make gameplay frustrating in certain areas. There is a 14 day trial, so all is not lost. Barring turning this game Free to Play, like Everquest II, the loyal but dwindling population on Vanguard could seriously see it disappearing in a year. If you like engaging and interesting class mechanics, and if you're a big MMO crafting geek, check this game out. The graphics are vaguely better than Everquest, but its old-school charm and little critter comforts are filled with heart. Link here: http://vgplayers.station.sony.com/index.vm

Warhammer Online

Pros: WAAAGH!, interesting and engaging class mechanics, comparatively balanced and interesting PvP, keep sieges, public quests, established lore, best-looking dwarves in an MMO

Cons: Poor support, lacklustre updates, mad bugs, pay-to-level progression at highest character levels, Tier 4 levelling is grindy and heartbreaking

When work stresses me out, and all I want to do is have 15 minutes of slaughtering other players, Warhammer Online delivers. WAR is a PvP-focused MMO based on the franchise of the same name, and in it, you control characters from the armies of Dwarfs, Greenskins, the Empire, Chaos, High Elves and Dark Elves in epic sieges across dark and gloomy landscapes. WAR is the PvP MMO that other PvP MMOs probably wished they could be. It had the right PvP gameplay to keep players engaged and interested, versatile PvP-focused classes, a quick playing style and realistic community-based sieges that when done right, helped all the players involved feel useful.

Prior to WAR, my only other PvP experience was in WoW. I've played WoW PvP obsessively before cross-realming and after, before Wintergrasp and after, and each time, the experience soured my desire to play more. To put it lightly, the large player base in WoW attracted an incredible amount of unsavoury behaviour. Whining is a hallmark of any PvP game, but WoW took it to epic levels. There was really nothing you could do in PvP that wouldn't have someone else yelling at you for something you did wrong. The high focus on gear score and recount meant even stepping into PvP for any reason was cause for the most elitist snobbery imaginable. Think of the healer who wouldn't heal you because your gear was too low-levelled. Or the person whose root you didn't see across the field and accidentally broke who then spends the next minute thriving on calling you a fucking retard in chat. PvP is competitive, but it shouldn't be avidly insulting.

The main attraction I had and continue to have to WAR is that the community generally is mature enough to tolerate people learning to play their classes in different situations. If not, there is a good ignore function. Announcements mid-battle, at least on my server, were usually about the battle. When questions are asked, someone will try to answer it relevantly. Folks try to help each other out, or if they're not into that, at least stay out of each other's way. The community-based PvE quests (called Public Quests) and PvP sieges encourage players to work together, forming ad hoc warbands to take objectives and complete stages of outdoor dungeons, which further drives down antisocial behaviour.

While no game can really claim to have perfectly balanced characters, WAR does a pretty good job of ensuring most players get a fair go at the kill shots. All individual classes feature some ability to damage, defend or heal in a PvP setup. The different builds allow players to focus entirely on one of those three roles, or mix and match them to suit different playing styles. Some chains of actions are better than others, but for the most part, there is enough allowance to play as you will that it doesn't feel like you're stuck repeating the same attacks over and over again.

My two favourite MMOs usually involve something I just don't do in other games, and in WAR, that is playing dwarfs. The two ugliest races in other MMOs are the most interesting-looking in WAR -- namely, dwarfs and orcs. Characters really look like they were lifted off the tabletop wargame. The dwarfs make beards and braids 'in', and the orcs are just bad-assed. Like the wargame, players are encouraged to customise their characters by dyeing (ie. "painting") their armour and adding purchaseable accessories to create their own look.

In-game, I play a Dwarf Engineer and a Witch Elf. The Dwarf Engineer is a kind of jack-of-all-trades DPS class, with build options centered around creating smalld defensible areas around the player from which to launch ranged attacks. My Dwarf Engineer is focused on attacking through engineering trinkets rather than direct shots. My specialty is proximity bombs and gun turrets that trigger damage to the adjacent area, and area effect grenades. The trinkets I have at my disposal can also benefit my party by increasing our defenses, rooting areas, or healing nearby allies over time. The Witch Elf is a rogue-like DPS class, stealthing behind enemy lines to ambush back row healers/casters/ranged classes. My original character since beta was a Witch Elf, whose combination of stealthy assassinations, crazy blood-drinking bikini armour and twinkly bottom made for fun times. Her focus was damage over time attacks vs. casters, so I had a lot of silencing/interrupt attacks that also combined some ability to heal myself off the damage I did.

PvP in WAR combines instanced scenarios with robust, real-time Realm vs. Realm objectives open to all players. Scenarios use a variety of capture the flag mechanics, and are roughly equivalent to what you'd find in WoW (or these days, RIFT). The key difference is that each Tier of player levels offers Tier-specific scenarios to play in. Once you level past a Tier, the scenarios in that Tier are locked to you, and a new set of scenarios open. This keeps gameplay interesting, as you then have new maps to explore rather than the same instances from Rank 1 to 40.

RvR lakes are located within larger PvE areas, and capturing them ultimately determines your realm's ability to besiege the enemy's city. Capturing an RvR lake first entails taking over small flagged objectives in the lake to gather resources. These resources are used to upgrade your realm's Keep in the RvR lake, which opens up new siege equipment, determines whether you can repair your current equipment and whether you can attack the enemy Keep. Different realms can steal away the other side's objectives at any time, leading to a dynamic tussle over resources. At Tier 4 (the highest tier), capturing all three areas in two Realms (dwarf/greenskin, high elf/dark elf and empire/chaos) opens up city sieges, whereby players can besiege the enemy's city. These are instanced PvP raids that mix public questing with RvR lake objectives. The goal is to take down the enemy's leaders for rare loot, and is the sum total of PvPing in WAR.

To help players along, entering either a scenario or RvR lake automatically bumps your level up to the maximum rank in that Tier, so your stats are technically on par with the opposition. This further results in no restrictions on when you can actually start PvPing, as there are options for every level starting from Rank 1. It also technically reduces one-on-one ganking, at least at the lower levels, since you have some buffers against a higher level character. Speaking of ganking, the tier system has an advantage whereby players from higher tiers are effectively locked out of PvP zones in lower tiers. I've already talked about scenarios, but RvR lakes are also locked to players over-levelled for them. Not all ganking has been removed from the game, but at least the ganking is generally reserved for the highest level characters against each other.

Because Warhammer Online is based off the established Warhammer franchise, it has a vast trove of lore to draw from. WAR actually encourages players to discover and read about its lore by unlocking novella chapters in-game about each race, finding hidden items in the landscape and special monsters to open random game trivia, and meeting objectives as you play, like killing a certain number of players. It's kind of like gradually unlocking chapters of the player's guidebook as you move around (helped by sketches that look like they were lifted right out of the Warhammer fantasy RPG), and that's cool.

Unfortunately, WAR really overextended itself during launch, with many of its servers being vastly underpopulated for a very long time. This contributed to its decline, as players left out of frustration at the long scenario cues and insanely unbalanced RvR lakes. Mythic recently consolidated its North American servers down to two, and the concentration of players has dramatically helped make gameplay interesting and fun again across the board, especially for T4. (Earlier tiers benefit from more players levelling alts, so they were often a bit more robust than the tier where everyone is stuck with each other.)

My Dwarf Engineer is currently at max level, which allowed me to see the highest level of content and skills for my class. Levelling in WAR is dependent on two things: your class's rank, which goes from 1 to 40, and your Renown Rank, which gives you access to progressively better gear. The problem with this system is that from T1 to T3, the possible combinations and differences of rank and gear still allow you to be relatively useful in battle. The dichotomy between gear and rank begins when you hit Rank 40, as Renown Rank currently caps at 100. This affects some classes (especially tanks) more than others (slightly less for ranged DPS). So at least until the recent server consolidation, being a max level character with lower-level gear was a very frustrating experience, where the stagnation of players meant you were very often facing better equipped players who could one or three-shot you on sight, even if you were a tank. Post-server consolidation, this has been slightly improved, as the mix of new players generally stops you from fighting the same people in every scenario... most of the time... adding a certain new excitement to knowing you may be able to do some damage to the player in front of you. They might not be that different an RR from you.

Where Mythic really shot themselves in the foot about RR is making levelling past RR 80 paid-only. Locking out most regular subscribing players from the content reduces the amount of fun they have, and especially in a hardcore PvP game, being able to pay more to give yourself a fairly significant advantage over your opponent feels like cheating. It kind of lessens the incentive to work towards personal game goals (in this case, better gear), more so since getting to RR 80 is already a gruelling and long process.

Because WAR's player base has had to shrink so drastically, support for the game has taken a real hit. There isn't a great deal of support -- many players are cynical that messages to support are even read. The focus on PvP means that PvE content is often heavily and noticeably bugged (like Public Quests that won't finish), and it doesn't feel like they will at all be fixed soon. I find the PQ bugs saddest of all. Being able to join PQs and finish them with other players during beta was actually one of the game's selling points for me. WAR introduced me to the concept of open parties/raids for Public Quests and RVR before I saw it in other games. For the most part, group quests in WAR are centred around Public Quest areas, so you aren't at the mercy of chatrooms to finish these quests. The basic idea is, if you have a group quest, or if you're entering a PvP area alone, all you need to do is hit a button to see which parties are open in the area and join one. Loot for participating in PQs and RvR objectives are calculated based on contribution too, so everyone gets a fair shake at good gear outside of the Need/Greed carnival. At higher tiers, which may not have been sufficiently tested during beta, the chances of running into bugged PQs increase. I can't tell you how much grief I've had trying to explore more of the plot, only to be stymied by a boss that can't be killed, or unclickable PQ objectives.

Currently, WAR has an unlimited trial restricted to Tier 1. For all its flaws, it is still a fun PvP game, and by far the most balanced and interesting PvP MMO on the market. For 15 minutes of slaughter, or 5 hours of keep sieges, it's great to just sort of enter the fray and play. Link here: http://www.warhammeronline.com/index.php


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 18th, 2011 07:18 pm (UTC)
My biggest sadness with WAR is twofold - one, by necessity, they had to largely walk away from the PVE element of the game, and two, with the recent changes, there's a huge gap between new lvl 38 and 40 players whose RR is around there, and players who are lvl 40 RR 100. If you're playing a frontline fighter, or even a tank, it's very frustrating to be melted down and do next to no damage around you. This doesn't seem to be a problem with ranged players in PVP, who can keep going.
Feb. 18th, 2011 08:35 pm (UTC)
WAR's lack of PVE element is really sad, since they do have good lore. The PQs add flavour to the pairing enmities, and the "main stories" give sense to all the fighting. From the start though, they did set themselves up for potential failure with even that. Because the stories are so pairing-dependent, it's really on rails regardless of whether or not you move to someone else's story. There's not too great an idea of *why* all these factions would even work together until you hit Altdorf or the Inevitable City.

The RR gap is possibly the real game killer, if PvP is their ultimate goal. The uneven payoff isn't as bad for ranged DPS vs. a tank, but a lot of it is also delayed. In a keep siege, ranged are often the only people really able to do any damage, whether you're defending or attacking. It's one thing to be an RR 40 ranged vs. an RR 90 melee DPS you can barely dent. It's another thing to be the only people who can damage in a siege, and be the RR 40 ranged against your RR 90 equal from the other side. Especially when servers are particularly imbalanced (so one side has even less chance of good RR), the demoralization is palpable.

The server merge has recreated that T1-T3 effect of varied enemies, with a higher mix of RR/gear, so it feels a lot less like ants against the elephant this past week. Not sure how long that will last. People do catch up. But there's been far less city sieges, and zones actually feel contested now.
Feb. 18th, 2011 07:22 pm (UTC)
As for Vanguard - fans seem to endlessly speculate it'll go to FTP but I'm not sure Sony will put in the time.

Which is a shame. The game has no players, and with a big playerbase, it'd have a good crafting economy, and a lot of the joy I had with the game could be shared. But I won't pay for it, with what SOE is doing to the game right now, and the lack of a player base.
Feb. 18th, 2011 09:17 pm (UTC)
I highly doubt Sony would put in the time for FTP Vanguard too. Everquest II had the benefit of being a popular game to begin with, however nostalgically, but Vanguard never really had that chance, I think.

I still waffle over whether I want to pay SOE just to get back into Vanguard. The crafting is truly amazing. I would play the MMO almost entirely to find new ways to craft. But with no player base, that limits options to actually play the game.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )