[Gaming] A look at The Old Republic

This weekend, I (like just about anyone who signed on but wasn’t accepted earlier) got a chance to try out The Old Republic in a stress test. Ever since I heard about this game, I told people I wouldn’t buy it if I didn’t first have a chance to try it out, however, I couldn’t help but secretly be a bit excited about it.  So now that I had this chance at was essentially a free trial, I took it with both hands and gripped it tight until my claws tore into its flesh and blood ran  down my arm into my sleeves.
Once I got past the insane (five minutes! Teh horrorz!) queue times, I did what every sensible person should do in my situation: I made a twi’lek. A smuggler by the name of Lynneiah, because if anything, I’m original as fuck when it comes to naming my RPG characters (guess what my Nord in Skyrim is called). However, I did get to choose the patterns on my brain-tails. Make of that what you will.
My journey took me from level one to level thirteen,  and from a planet whose name I forgot that was facing a separatist rebellion (Star Wars people are about as original with their names for factions as I am with RPG characters) to the planet-wide city (seriously, where DOES all the poop go?) of Coruscant. At that point the quest for my main story-line was too high level to solo, and I couldn’t be bothered with the sidequests, so I went back to Jorrvaskr to get piss-drunk on mead. Or at least my twi’lek’s namesake did.

Anyway, I do believe I have played enough to have a sufficient first-impressions of this game, and I’d like to share some points because I like ranting about video games about as much as I like playing the damn things.

-Dialogue choices? Voice acting? In my MMO?

More likely than you might think. Then again, this IS a BioWare game, and they seem to have grasped one basic truth: Quest texts are fucking boring. In TOR, people talk to you by actually talking to you. And you get to choose how you reply to them from a wheel with usually three options anyone who has played Mass Effect will be familiar with. Every line of dialogue is voice acted. Even better, every line is voice acted really well. And I was able to make some quips that genuinely made me giggle. However, while every line of NPC dialogue was unique, the player character sometimes used the same lines again. For example, if I had a penny for every time my character said ‘make me an offer and I’ll think about it’ in my 13 levels of playing alone I’d have… about seven pennies. I understand that coming up with new ways of saying basically the same thing indefinitely is tricky, though, so I’m not really sure how this can be fixed.

-Black and White morality, the bane of my existence.

I’m not sure if I haven’t said it before on this blog, though I would be surprised if I didn’t, but I believe the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are bullshit. “Every coin has a flipside, and now that you’re focusing on that flipside, don’t forget about the other flipside” is a phrase I’m trying to make more catchy (suggestions?), but basically sums up my life’s philosophy. Nothing is so bad it has no redeemable factors; likewise, nothing is so good it doesn’t have any drawbacks. If anyone tells you otherwise, they’re either naive or bullshitting you. This is true in real life, and I’d like the same to be true in fiction.
But this is BioWare, right? The guys who brought us Dragon Age, a setting with so many shades of grey you wonder if there are any other colours at all? Yes, but this is also Star Wars. And Star Wars has a clearly defined Light and Dark Side. And while it’s being presented as morally grey (there’s a lot of shit in the Republic, while some Imperials are actually honest people), and it is possible to play a morally grey character, you get punished for doing so. Why? Morality meters.
I fucking hate morality meters.
At many points in the game, you get to make a moral decision, and based on that decision, you either get Light Side or Dark Side points. These points move you up and down a morality meter showing you how Light or how Dark you are, essentially beating the concept of ‘shades of grey’ by quantifying good and evil, and having opposite-aligned actions cancel each other out like 1/1 and -1/-1 counters, essentially forcing you to pick one side and sticking to it if you want to reap the rewards of being ‘maxed out’ in good or evil. Now, to be fair, I haven’t seen any of these rewards yet, so I have no idea how desirable they are, but my main point is that morality meters stifle roleplay.
Yeah, I roleplay my character, okay? They may all have the same name, but they all have a background, a personality and a set of morals and ideals that doesn’t necessarily fit with what the game decides is ‘good’ or ‘evil’.
Anyway, I lost my train of thought here, but bottom line: morality meters are bad, and BioWare should only ever use Dragon Age’s morality system, because that’s the only one that made any sense.

-Why the fuck is this game an MMO?

What I mean is, why is this game not essentially a single-player game with multiplayer capabilities? You know, optional multiplayer capabilities? I can see myself playing this game with a group of friends, and enjoy my time. However,  I do not see myself enjoying having people steal my kills all the time, or clog up around an NPC I really need to talk to.
Or fucking take off all the clothes of their NPC companions and think they’re hilarious for having them run around naked.
Point is, the internet is filled with morons, and I don’t want to spend more time with morons than I absolutely have to. What I propose is how Guild Wars (the first Guild Wars, that is) did things: have a few public areas, towns and such, lump all players together there, where they can interact with each other through means other than whispers, and group up, and have the rest of the world instanced, so players who want to quest on their own can quest on their own. And I really see no reason why this isn’t the case. None.

-Isn’t shooting people supposed to be fun?

Maybe it’s because I ignored most side-quests and focused almost entirely on the main story-line, and because of that, my level became progressively lower compared to that of my enemies, but my fights became more and more tedious and less enjoyable as time went on. This is a bad thing, by the way.
However, part of the problem, I feel, is also that they copied WoW too much while at the same time being different from WoW. For instance, they took away auto-attacks, but they kept the action-bar-and-cooldown-based combat style. And I’m completely fed up with both. Why not make it, say, a third person shooter? With lightsabers! Or another system that makes the player’s skill just as important as their character’s level compared to that of the enemy they’re fighting. Something that doesn’t make me groan whenever I can’t run around a group of enemies and avoid them altogether.
This action-bar-and-cooldown-based system works in Dragon Age because the game is sufficiently challenging, AND you get to control four characters at once. And even then I’d gladly admit combat was DA’s main weak point.
On a somewhat related note:

-Have enemies level up with you

Here’s an idea (that I completely stole from The Elder Scrolls): have all enemies be exactly the same level as you. You level up? So do they. The game already gives several mobs several types of ‘eliteness’, making them harder than their compatriots of equal level. This is a good mechanic to make certain quests more challenging. You don’t need to lock a certain area, and thus all quests related to that area, to a certain power level, making it inaccessible to lower-level characters, but absurdly easy for higher-level characters. I think that’s an outdated concept, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it join the dodo. Preferably before the panda bear does so, so chop chop.
Of course, part of why I’m complaining about this is because my main quest line (which was the most interesting one by far) was artificially blocked off to me by having the next step require me to be five levels higher, frustrating me enough that I plain didn’t feel like playing the game anymore.
And I have to wonder, why shouldn’t I be allowed to follow just the main quest line? I found its plot almost forcing my character to only focus on it to the point that getting sidetracked by other business would seem illogical.
I will admit this one pretty much requires the previously mentioned ‘make everything instanced’ idea, but I don’t see that as a bad thing.

-While you’re at it, steal Skyrim’s level-up system as well.

Because WoW’s is shit, and stealing that is stupid.
Even Blizzard has (finally) realized their talent tree is an outdated concept where people find what is objectively the best build within days of any major update (and picking anything but that build makes you a poor player), and I don’t see how it would be any different having the (exact) same tree system in TOR.

Anyway, I have to admit I was growing really fond of my Twi’lek smuggler, and I’m still not sure if I want to pay for the final product, plus a monthly subscription fee to continue playing with her (or rather, start over). I enjoyed my time spent with the game, but I honestly don’t see it keeping me entertained for long enough. I also feel that there is too much opportunities to innovate BioWare just passed on and instead copied WoW. The story is, from what I’ve seen of it anyway, excellent, and dialogues are really fun, however it seems that that’s the game’s only selling point. To me, anyway. And I’m not sure whether that’s enough or not to warrant paying a monthly subscription. Mind you, there’s A LOT of story (eight times KotOR’s worth, I’ve been told).
I think I spent, in total, maybe eight or so hours on the game, and then I just turned it off because I wanted to do something else. And now, more than a full day after I stopped playing, I still want to do something else. However, I also want to know what happens next to my smuggler. I could watch a Let’s Play when they come out, but that wouldn’t be *my* smuggler.

Fuck you, BioWare. Fuck you.

[Gaming] Binary upgrades versus non-binary upgrades

Today I want to talk about something video game-related I’ve been wanting to rant about for a while: upgrades.

Upgrades are a system developers put in many games to make them more interesting. It’s also one of the few game mechanics that is easiest to not completely fuck up their goal (make (or rather keep) the game interesting), yet so often does get fucked up. The most basic example would be the following: You start with a gun that does X damage per shot. At one point in the game, you find another gun that does Y damage per shot, where X<Y. The second gun is an upgrade to the first one. This example is simple, easy to understand, and appears in pretty much every game that involves shooting people with guns. It’s also an example of how it fails at keeping the game interesting: it’s a binary upgrade.

What’s that, you ask? A binary upgrade is an upgrade in a game where no real choice is involved. You take the upgrade as soon as it is available. The upgrade is either ‘off’ (0) or ‘on’ (1) with no real alternatives. Reading a tome that increases your strength with +1 is not a choice. Of course, technically you could choose to not read the tome, but why? There’s no real in-game advantage to you not taking that upgrade. In fact, most games will ramp up the difficulty as the game progresses based on you reading those tomes of +1 strength, or picking up those guns that do Y damage per shot. Not doing so makes the game harder. Of course, some people enjoy putting artificial challenges in their game to overcome, like playing Dragon Age: Origins on nightmare without any party members, and without any equipment. But those people are also crazy. The vast majority of gamers do take every advantage given to them.

But there are other, less obvious examples of binary upgrades. Take Dragon Age: Origins, for example: Besides your active talents, which are your combat abilities and spells, you can also choose from a list of more passive skills. You get one point to put in these per three levels (two if you’re a rogue), and there are several options, including coercion, several crafting skills, combat training and tactics. This list is long enough to look like it makes for an interesting choice, but really it isn’t. There are typically two things you really want as a non-mage: coercion (which does what it says on the tin: lets you either persuade or intimidate NPCs in dialogue to do what you want them to do), and combat training (which unlocks the higher levels of combat talents). Mages don’t need combat training per se, as it isn’t required to unlock higher level spells (instead it reduces the chance of spells failing when hit in combat) so their only real priority is Coercion. Given the fact that every skill only has four levels, and thus only needs four points to reach max, there really isn’t that much choice involved. Quite often, you’ll be able to finish a game with all the skills you wanted, and some spare points to put in something that’s vaguely useful like Tracking. Add to that the fact that crafting is, overall, useless in that game, and that you only really need one party member per type of crafting to put skill points in there to reap the benefits (plus the fact that party members don’t even have the coercion skill -why would they?) and you have a very bland, rather binary upgrade system.

Let us next look to another game by the same creators: Mass Effect 2. ME2 sports examples of both binary and non-binary upgrade systems. The skill system is, funnily enough, both. There is no way you’ll get enough skill points by the end of the game to get all the skills to max level, especially since your character’s level caps at 30. Also, upon reaching max level of a skill, you get to choose between one of two possible upgrades: for example, you can choose to make your incendiary attack hit harder, or hit a larger area (and thus more enemies at once). This is choice. This is good. However, if you know what you’re doing, you’ll pick the useful skills out and leave the others be. As such this system can also be pretty binary. The research system in ME2 is also binary to the core: on your missions you find research projects to upgrade your weapons and armour, and back on your ship, you spend resources to make these upgrades. However, the only real limit here is the amount of resources you’ve gathered, and given the fact that there’s way more resources to gather than you can possibly use, it is possible to research every upgrade in the game. And other than arbitrarily limiting yourself to create a challenge (or the fact that you cannot be arsed to do the mining mini-game), there really isn’t a reason not to.
However, the weapons themselves are inherently non-binary. The first pistol you pick up at the start of the game, however, has a large ammo-capacity, and can be fired rapidly, but doesn’t do all that much damage per shot. Not much later in the game, however, you are given another pistol, which is the exact opposite: low ammo capacity, slower shots, more damage per hit. You can only ever carry one pistol at a time, but depending on your play style, you can decide for yourself which pistol suits you best. And if you feel like it, you can swap them around between missions and enjoy the feel of the other. The same is true for every type of gun in the game, and like that, you can costumize your character’s weapon load to suit your preferences. This is interesting, and allows you to vary up your gameplay as you go.
Rise of the Argonauts does something similar, but takes it to the extreme. Every weapon does the same amount of damage as every other weapon of the same type, and handles completely the same. However, apart from your starting weapons, every weapon has a passive ability that is completely unique, and there is no ‘best’ weapon of any time in the game. There’s a sword that can cause enemies to take bleeding damage, there’s a sword that deals more damage when used from behind, there’s a sword that has a chance to slow down enemies, etc. Which one you use is entirely up to you and how you like to play.

Another good example of non-binary upgrades is Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty. Blizzard Entertainment, who utterly failed to make WoW’s talent system in any way non-binary (you can’t take everything, but there’s always a ‘best’ choice, and picking anything else is stupid and, in all honesty, makes you a bad player), did a very good job in Starcraft II’s single-player campaign. During most missions, you will gain access to a new unit, and if you do all the missions, you will be able to have all the units, but that’s not what’s interesting. What is interesting is that you also gain cash for completing these missions, cash you can spend on upgrading those units. Every unit has two upgrades available to it, however, it is impossible to gain enough cash throughout the campaign to purchase every upgrade. You must therefor choose which upgrades to purchase, based on which units you like using best, and thus costumize your army to your playstyle.
Also, during the missions, you pick up research data on the other two races, which translates into research points. For every five points of the same race you’ve collected, you’re able to pick a research option that enhances your entire army in a certain way. However, each time you have a choice of one of two options, and choosing one locks out the other permanently. Again, this lets you tailor your army to your own preferences, and allows you to play the campaign a second time, but has it feel somewhat different.

Finally, I’d like to put forward my own idea for non-binary upgrades. The idea would be for a fantasy RPG. Say, you play a mage-type character, and you start out with a basic ‘fiery hands’ spell, which deals fire damage to enemies in front of you. As you level up, you can upgrade this spell into, say, a fireball spell, which can be thrown at an enemy further away, or you can keep it as a short-ranged spell, but widen the arc, and reach, making it engulf more enemies. Later on, you can upgrade the fireball spell to explode on impact, damaging a group of enemies clumped together, or you can upgrade it to launch, say, five fireballs, hitting up to five enemies who can be more spread out. Likewise, if you went the short-range option, you can widen the arc to encompass the full 360 degrees, damaging everyone around you, or focus your fire into a beam that fires out a certain range, and damages the first thing it hits for as long as the spell is maintained; and which can also be rotated to aim (anyone who has played Magicka knows what I mean). At this point you have upgraded your main fire spell twice, and already you have 4 unique options to choose from. And you can only choose one. I would like to see this system, or a system much like it be used in a game at some point. If it’s done properly, I might just play the shit out of that game.

My day at the hospital

Yesterday (or two days ago, depending on when this goes up), I went to the hospital to finally start my hormone treatment (yayzers!). I was also subjected to some tests to see what my body is like now, so it can be compared to what it’ll look like in about a year. Here’s a few interesting things I’ve learned while there:

-Watching the train you just ran your lungs out to catch ride away never stops sucking.
-I weigh 57 kilograms and measure 174 centimeters. This means my BMI is 18.8. Everything below 18.5 is underweight, so I’m officially no longer underweight.
-My right hand is stronger than my left hand, even though I am left-handed. Which was kinda weird.
-Questionnaires are still boring. Vital to researchers, but boring.
-5 centiliter of blood looks like a lot if spread over 16 vials. Also, having a needle punctured in the inside of your elbow for two straight hours kinda hurts after a bit.
-Sugar water tastes kinda good. I would’ve liked a sip of regular water to wash down the after-taste, though.
-There is a large amount of young, attractive women working in Belgian hospitals. I noticed this several years ago, when I had an accident, and needed to get my upper teeth repaired, but it again became apparent here. This is not just the psychologist I visit about once a month, or the doctor in charge of my tests. About three quarters of women in white coats I saw were young (younger than 35) and attractive (by my standards, at least). And this was not counting the students, who wear different coats. And yes, I did start paying attention to this after about half an hour.
-My bone mass is below average. This means I shouldn’t be partaking in  contact sports. So much for my sword-fighting lesson plans.
-To help fix this, there are three things I can do: consume more dairy products, get more sunlight, and get more exercise. Swimming is, apparently, the least advised form, because of the posture you adopt. Riding a bike is better, but the best are walking and running.
-Ever had a situation that looks a bit like this: you’re under a scanner, and the person in charge leaves for a moment. The scanner stops, without the person returning, and you’re not sure if it’s okay for you to get up and get dressed, or if you’re supposed to wait. I chose the latter first, and remained down for about five minutes, without any sign of the doctor returning. Then I figured that if more scans were due, she’d be back by now, got up and got dressed. Almost immediately after, I was told I wasn’t supposed to get dressed yet and that more scans of specific parts of my skeleton were forthcoming. So… yeah. There’s a reason you feel doubt in a situation like that, apparently.
-Other than the bone thing, I am in -excellent- health. There was nothing the doctor could remark that was off about me, given my physique. Nothing I didn’t know already. Other than an annual upper-back pain and a tendency to catch the sniffles more easily than most, my only problems have been emotional for the longest time.

All in all, a very interesting day. Also, I have pills. Yay!

Singular

First poem I’ve written in ages. I hope it’s not too terrible.

Singular

The moon, she cries a lonely tear
The stars having run off in fear
On the soil, a wolf howls back
Abandoned by her love and pack

Somewhere else a bell tolls once
With no sound in any distance
The tower itself stands also alone
Tall in a sea of low, lonely pride doth shone

A little girl sits in a chair
Love around her everywhere
Looking at the joy betweeen ma’ams and sirs
Wondering if any will ever be hers.