All roads lead to Rome (except when they don’t)

When one intends to talk about The Secret World’s strong points it’s hard not to start singing hymns of praise about its phenomenal quest design right off the bat. And I’ll get to that, promise, but as the quests weren’t changed significantly for SWL (as far as I’m aware) you don’t need to play a “dead” game to enjoy those. Since I’m talking about the original game specifically I’d like to start off with something exclusive to that version: the skill system.

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The skill wheel, aka every theorycrafter’s wet dream

The basic premise isn’t actually all that complicated. You get to wield any two out of nine available weapons at a time. These are (categorizations mine):

    • Blades (tanking / melee damage)
    • Chaos (tanking / melee damage)
    • Hammer (tanking / melee damage)
    • Assault Rifle (healing / ranged damage)
    • Blood Magic (healing / ranged damage)
    • Fists (healing / melee damage)
    • Elementalism (buffs / ranged damage)
    • Pistols (buffs / ranged damage)
    • Shotgun (buffs / ranged damage)

Once settled on a combo you choose a total of seven active abilities from the two corresponding skill trees, and additionally seven of all existing passives. Those fourteen abilities make up your build or ‘deck’.

However you need to unlock those actives and passives by spending XP first, and this is where things can get a bit hairy for beginners as there are something like 60 actives and 270 passives to choose from for every weapon-pairing. In a perfect world any combination of abilities that sounds fun would also be totally viable to use, but that’s unfortunately not the case. Since you can unlock the whole wheel eventually it’s not really possible to ‘ruin’ your character, but whatever you unlock first is what you have to make do with for a while.

We know that many people have given up on the game pretty soon after release, and one reason that I’ve heard quite often was that they’d run into a brick wall of difficulty in Blue Mountain, the game’s third zone, and that they either weren’t willing to repeat the first two area’s quests over and over to earn enough XP and fix their builds, or that they had no idea how to even fix them in the first place.

Me? I didn’t even get that far until I had the same problem. In Savage Coast, the second zone, I had my first encounter with a monster type whose appearance still gives me the chills even today: the Ak’ab.

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They are as annoying as they are ugly

Not only do these fuckers have a (very briefly telegraphed) dash attack that knocks you on your butt if you don’t dodge in time, they’re also extremely social. Attack one, and all of its friends come running posthaste from what feels like miles away. I just could not finish the quests in that wretched forest shown above, and it wasn’t fun.

I was in love with the game and not willing to give up though. The Builds & Decks-section of the official forums was, unsurprisingly, very lively at the time, and there I found a guide that was a game-changer for me. I actually only clicked on it because I liked the name, “Regen like Wolverine”, but its underlying idea seemed sound and once I’d unlocked the necessary abilities I became basically immortal indeed. I cleared all of Savage Coast with ease, and when I quested through Blue Mountain afterwards I couldn’t even imagine which area or monster type might have given so many folks a hard time.

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It’s such an…inviting place, after all

I guess the gist of this is that the skill wheel offers everything you need to succeed, but there’s not enough guidance about how to start and build an efficient deck. The game does have deck suggestions – they even have cool names and matching, quite fancy outfits you earn by unlocking every suggested ability – but unfortunately none of those decks is really that good in practice. In my opinion Funcom should have updated those early on by implementing tried and trusted community-made builds to help new players better understand what works and what doesn’t.

Wait a minute, I hear you wondering, didn’t he say at the beginning that the skill system is one of the game’s strong points?

Yes, I do think that it is. Because you know what? I had so much fun while taking the first few steps with it, and even more fun once I’d overcome that hump in Savage Coast. Using that build suggestion really opened my eyes for the vast possibilities this system provides. From then on there was no stopping me. I always poured over the skill wheel wondering what I should unlock next, which powerful combo I might have not yet discovered.

And the kicker is: once the whole thing had ‘clicked’ for me I was able to make almost anything work. It’s just like with everything, cluelessly flailing around rarely gets you anywhere, but once you got the fundamentals down pat you can expand, experiment and improvise around those and become more successful than ever.

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PARTY’S OVER! Oh, wait, that was a lawnmower, wasn’t it?

Later on even more complexity was added. You can now equip one of five auxiliary weapons (fun stuff like a flamethrower or that chainsaw above) in addition to your two main weapons and choose one active and one passive ability for it, expanding your deck to eight each. Also, various augments can be attached to the seven main active abilities for additional effects and bonuses.

The possibilities are pretty much endless, and I love it. Sure, it’s not easy to wrap your head around at first, but once you’ve ‘got it’ the freedom to play just the way you want is unmatched, which is something that has always been very important to me.

Of course, to make optimal use of your dream build(s) you also need the right gear to match. I’ll talk about that next time.

The condemned live longer indeed

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When Lakisa told me not long ago that she would very much like to play a scenario-mission or two in The Secret World sometime I had to remind her of the sad fact that this outstanding game doesn’t exist anymore as we knew it – at least officially, that is.

Granted, I’d never heard anything about the servers having actually been shut down, but since Funcom launched – excuse me, frankensteined Secret World Legends into existence in 2017 the game’s launcher unsolicitedly patches itself to that version, and the old servers can’t be feeling too well after three years of (presumed) neglect either, can they?

I wasn’t sure whether there’s actually still a way to play the original game, is what I’m saying.

However a bit of googling revealed, much to our delight, that the servers are still up and running indeed. I used my old DVDs to install the game files, prevented the launcher from patching itself to SWL following these easy instructions and soon the old, familiar log-in screen welcomed me.

Anxiously I logged in and found my character just where I’d left him, standing on Agartha’s main platform, which triggered all kinds of nostalgia right away.

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What’s remarkable – or at least surprising – about this picture? Exactly, that I’m not the only one on it.

Now, before anyone gets their hopes up, there’s obviously not a huge amount of players around. Compared to, say, seven years ago Agartha’s pretty much a ghost town. But whenever I log in I see anywhere between two and six other players there, and that’s about two to six more than I’d expected.

I’ve even been whispered to from players who were looking to fill up their respective group or raid twice already. Had I not been in the middle of a scenario-mission both times (what can I say, I really like doing those) I would have gladly obliged, and we added each other to our friends-lists for another time.

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There’s also a Discord channel for those who still play the game to group up more easily or just chat. As of yet Lakisa and I haven’t actually done any group content with others, but we will for sure.

As for the game itself, it looks and feels just the way I remembered it, as if no time had passed at all. It absolutely is in maintenance mode though. The last patch dates back to December 13th 2016, and there won’t be holiday, anniversary or any other events happening. Which means no world bosses to fight either. That’s a shame, however there probably wouldn’t be enough players to bring those down anyway.

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Not quite as many folks around anymore, no Sir

Other than that all the content is still there waiting to be played, and in my opinion that’s a hell of a lot, despite any claims to the contrary. More importantly, the quality of said content is off the charts in many respects, and although I’ve done it all before I’m enjoying myself immensely.

I can’t even decide what I love the most: the setting and atmosphere, the quest design, the great storytelling and voice acting, the music, or the extremely flexible and borderline addictive skill- and gear-systems.

I guess I’ll just have to rave about all of them, which is exactly what I intend to do.

Going after Goons again – EVE Online

A couple of weeks ago NCDot and Pandemic Horde deployed to Pure Blind, which brought us relatively close to space currently owned by The Initiative. They belong to the Imperium and thus, no matter how much they like to talk up their independence, are nothing more than another Goon pet-alliance to us.

Fighting Goons is always a good thing, however this particular deployment has left me rather cold thus far, which is why I hadn’t posted about it yet despite having partaken in several fights already.

The thing is, I don’t quite understand what we’re after here. I know, I know, getting fights and blowing up Goons should be more than enough to make me happy. I like to have at least a vague idea about our strategic objectives though, and while the average line member obviously doesn’t ever learn all the details we usually get to know what our grand goal is.

When we went after GotG last year we clearly knew our goal: to eviscerate and wipe them off the map completely, which we did. Clear objective, clear win-condition. Felt good.

Doing the same to the Imperium is out of the question though, they’re just too large for that. Also, if this was supposed to be an all-out offensive the whole of PanFam would’ve deployed and we also would’ve brought our Titans and Supers along. However Pandemic Legion didn’t join us on this one and we left the big toys at home. So, really, I have no idea what we’re actually trying to achieve here.

Anyway, fleets are going out every day, and I’ve been on a bunch. This is also the first time I’ve brought my alt with his Dreadnought along, and for most fleets I had him logged in and ready to go.

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Ferox battlecruiser on my left screen (zoomed in quite a bit), Revelation dreadnought on the right

Alas, I’ve yet to undock him as we haven’t actually commited our Dreads to a fight whenever I was around.

As is always the case in EVE, whatever does or doesn’t happen mostly depends on where and over what you’re fighting. If we stay in relative proximity of our staging system – meaning that we can drop Dreads and Carriers onto the enemy at a moment’s notice – and aren’t attacking something important like a Keepstar they mostly choose not to commit to a fight and let us shoot the thing uncontested, like these two Fortizar class citadels.

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Another one bites the dust…

If we dare venture further south however we find ourselves in range of their Titans and Supers, which dramatically shifts the balance of power in their favour and makes bringing our caps to a fight a very risky move as we might well lose them all without actually accomplishing much.

Determined to get things done regardless we set out on Sunday to destroy an Ansiblex jump gate and a cyno beacon in F7C-H0, the very system in Cloud Ring that serves as Goon Expeditionary Force’s staging at the moment, which is their We’re not officially at war but some of us still want to do PvP-stuff sig.

Horde went with Hurricanes, we brought Feroxes. I’m pretty sure the cheaper battlecruiser-doctrines were chosen because this was regarded a suicide mission from the get-go. A second fleet for our caps was formed and ready to go too though, so we would’ve been able to escalate quickly had the fight looked promising for whatever reason.

It actually didn’t look too bad when we arrived. Goons had a Sacrilege fleet, Init brought a sizeable force of Abaddons and Bhaalgorns. We were outnumbered, yes, but we’ve seen worse. Also, TEST showed up too, obviously wanting a piece of the action, and while some of us were shot by them they seemed to be mostly focused on Goons. We’ll obviously take reinforcements, whether invited or not.

As usual when we face off Goons I wondered whether I would meet Wilhelm Arcturus on the battlefield this time around, and lo and behold, there he was amidst the Sac fleet, flying logi as usual.

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Blue and purple: good. Red: bad! Grey…who knows?

He was never called primary by our fleet though, so I luckily didn’t have to shoot at him. He’s done his own report of the battle too, which is worth a read of course.

Anyway, the fight began with the usual dance where fleets circle each other looking for a good warp-in. It didn’t take long though, and once we warped right into Init’s fleet and bubbles went up all around us we knew that the slugfest was on!

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An Abaddon dies, next target already locked up, drones shooting the Ansiblex

From our perspective it even looked quite good for a while as we destroyed one Abaddon after the other while not losing much ourselves. As it turned out, though, that was because Horde’s Hurricanes took the brunt of the enemy fire at first. Meanwhile what we’d feared from the start happened: Goons brought their Supers and Titans to the field. At that point the fight’s outcome was decided, the only question was whether any one of us would make it out alive at all.

We lost all of our fleet boosters first, then they proceeded to decimate our logi wing. At that point the order came for everyone to align to the Alsavoinon gate and overheat our microwarpdrives. As Alsavoinon is a lowsec system no warp disruption bubbles can be launched there, so making it through that gate would probably mean getting home in one piece.

Only that we were still up to here in bubbles, and the still pretty strong Abaddon fleet was right in front of us…

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My Ferox heading almost straight towards all those baddies

Every time we got halfway near the edge of the last bubble a Goon interdictor landed right at that edge and dropped a new one, lengthening our path to safety by another 20-25 km. To conserve capacitor and keep the MWD running as long as possible I’d already disabled my shield hardeners a while ago, but no one aimed their guns at me yet. Others weren’t so lucky, and Lakisa was one of our last Basilisks to go.

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The bubble’s edge, so close and yet so far away

And then no more dictors came and some endless moments later I was free. I frantically hammered the warp-button until my client finally got the message that I indeed had entered warp. My sigh of relief was cut short however as the gate wasn’t far away and heavily bubbled too. Of course. Another 40 km to go, with an enemy fleet sitting right at the gate. Again I set my course and overheated the MWD, convinced that those ships would soon start to blink first yellow then red, heralding my demise. No one even locked me though, and soon enough I was in range and hit the jump-button. I was too excited to pay attention to alliance tickers at that point, but in hindsight I assume that fleet must’ve been TEST’s Zealots, which would explain (more or less) why they didn’t blow us to pieces.

So yeah, I truly survived and returned to our staging with a nearly burnt-out MWD but otherwise unscathed not long after. I guess that particular Ferox is my lucky charm as it wasn’t the first time I made it out of dire straits while piloting it. Astonishingly almost half of our fleet reached our safe haven intact, but, again, the enemy had probably just been too busy picking Horde’s fleet apart.

The funny thing is, although we took a severe beating Goons didn’t actually commit their big guns quickly enough to save their structures, and both the cyno beacon and the Ansiblex went boom. So, op success! Ha! Kind of, anyway. They obviously anchored new ones right after the fight was over, and the battle report shows, unsurprisingly, that they won the ISK battle by a fair margin.

So I guess in the end everyone won. Ain’t too bad of an outcome, really.

Time flies when you’re having fun

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As per tradition: moar cake!

Hard to believe, but today marks this here blog’s third birthday.

Had you asked me back then whether I thought I’d still be writing blog posts three years down the road…I really don’t know what my answer would have been.

One thing I do know for sure though. Had you told me at the time that I would publish 187 posts with a total of 156 thousand words, and still no end in sight, I’d called you crazy. But here we are.

The main reason, of course, is that it is a lot of fun. Much more so than I would have imagined. It’s also an ongoing learning experience. When I compare my first couple dozen posts with more recent ones it’s almost as if someone else had written the former. It’s remarkable how quickly human beings can learn stuff that’s rather alien to them and become at least somewhat proficient just by doing it over and over.

Along the way I’ve even learned a bit of HTML-code – I didn’t want to, but WordPress made me – which may come in handy…or not.

What didn’t happen was blogging becoming my true love and/or main driving force. Towards the end of Blapril Bhagpuss said that he’d rather write about games than actually play them, at least at the moment. To me actually playing the games is still much more important, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. After all the desire to chronicle my gaming adventures was and remains far and away the main purpose of this blog.

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Speaking of which, this third year has indeed been quite an adventurous one, not least due to the release of ArcheAge Unchained in October. Sucker for sandboxes that I am I’ve been deep-sea fishing, building a family empire with friends, trading, making music and generally goofing around quite a lot since then.

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Warframe was last year’s new addition to my gaming library, and a really great one. While it’s obviously neither an MMORPG nor a sandbox it has a surprising number of gameplay elements on offer that aren’t just about killing stuff. I’ve built a custom gun, went mining and fishing, composed deadly tunes, played Guitar Hero In Space and tried myself at parcours.

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The third game I’ve spent a lot of time with was EVE Online. I went back to nullsec, experienced my first Keepstar-kill, saw a faction Fortizar blow up and went to fight inside wormhole space. In April we would have finally made a trip to Iceland and attended the EVE fanfest too, but of course that didn’t happen. Maybe next year.

Finally, about a week ago Lakisa asked me, quite unexpectedly, about an MMORPG we hadn’t been playing for a couple of years. Honestly, I’d had heavy-heartedly made my peace with the fact that I’d never play it again some time ago, what with the reboot it got in 2017 that, in my opinion, was totally uncalled-for and ‘improved’ an outstanding game very much for the worse. Turns out, though, that the original version can still be played and even has a couple handful of players.

So yeah, we’re back.

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Looking stylish as ever…

Don’t be surprised to read some stories about a supposedly dead game around here in the near future. Year number four, here I come.

Should I be worried about ArcheAge Unchained?

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We’re closing in on eight months since ArcheAge Unchained’s launch and I’m still playing every day. When I look past the various screw-ups – of which there were many, there’s no way nor reason to sugarcoat that – I see a game that has pretty much everything I want in an MMORPG.

As such the game’s well-being is understandably of great concern to me. Alas, Gamigo’s and XL Games’ current plans make me wonder whether they actually want their game to be successful.

I’m not talking about the fact that the upcoming Garden of the Gods update will be a ‘paid expansion’ although they’d originally said that any future content will be free. Don’t get me wrong, it’s obviously not cool to announce one thing and then do the opposite, however in my opinion it’s actually good that they’ve decided to charge for it.

Why? Because they can’t possibly have made enough money with Unchained up to now to make the whole thing sustainable. Even if they hadn’t openly admitted as much in the forum post linked above it would’ve been obvious to me.

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The thing is, the original ArcheAge is very heavily designed to make money with buy-to-progress mechanics. Labor potions, premium houses and farms, vehicle upgrades, stuff to help with gear progression; you name it, they sell it for real money. It’s P2W at its worst. For Unchained they’ve promised not to do any of that – it’s the whole premise and raison d’être for this re-release after all – and until now they adhere to that, which is obviously a good thing.

What they’ve failed to do, though, is to give us enough cool stuff we can spend money on instead. It’s the same mistake Funcom made when The Secret World went free to play. I’ve said before that the ArchePass – now that it works – is too generous with its rewards, and I stand by that. Almost everything one could ever need or want can be bought with diligence coins, and as much as I hate it when games want me to pay through the nose for every little thing I think this really is a big mistake.

Example: mounts. Lots and lots of new mounts and their corresponding bardings have been added to the game in recent months. Each and every one of them went to the diligence shop. Why, I ask? At least half of those absolutely should have gone to the credit shop. They’re all equalized in terms of speed anyway and the skills they have don’t make much of a difference either, so it’s basically just the looks that set them apart. Put the fancier looking ones in the cash shop, and players who are willing and able to spend additional money on the game have something to buy and show off.

Pretty much the only thing you can exclusively buy for credits are costumes, and there’s admittedly quite a selection. The problem I see with those is that they’re too expensive (the baseline is around 30$, some cost more, some less), meaning that a lot of players won’t even buy a single one of ’em, and the majority of those who do will probably only buy the one they like the most and use that forever. Also, until a couple of days ago* you couldn’t have more than two characters per account, so an army of alts to buy costumes for is out of the question too.

*You can now buy a token that extends the maximum amount of characters per account to three. It’s still capped at two per server however, and the token is bought with, you guessed it, diligence coins.

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The other mistake they’re about to make hasn’t gotten a huge announcement as of yet as far as I’m aware, but the list of goodies included with the two pricier expansion pre-order packs contains this little nugget:

Fresh Start Server Access

Jeez, seriously? The game’s less than eight months old and we’re already getting one of those?

ArcheAge has a long history of such ‘fresh start’ servers, and for the P2W-version of the game they do make sense – in a perverse, demented kind of way. After all each player who chooses to start over has the exciting opportunity to pay hundreds (or thousands) of bucks for all those progression-enhancers and premium items all over again.

For Unchained it is, frankly, fucking stupid no matter how you look at it, and so very, very short-sighted.

The immediate benefit for Gamigo/XL is obviously that each player who wants to play on that server – why anyone would actually want that at this point is beyond me, but to each their own – has to buy at least the expansion’s 30$-package for each account they have.

And that’s it.

They won’t spend much beyond that because, again, there isn’t much to spend money on, fresh start or no, so in a couple of months at the latest we’ll again be where we are right now. Only that the new server may well have done irreversible damage to the playerbase as a whole until then, so we might actually be off much worse.

You see, of all MMORPGs I’ve played ArcheAge is the one that has the highest critical mass of players it needs to work properly. There’s so much content that doesn’t make any sense or can’t be done at all if you don’t have a certain amount of active players – actually encouraging the playerbase to segregate is an unbelievably stupid thing to do.

Their answer to dwindling populations on older servers has always been to just merge those together. Yeah, great idea. Server merges, already a pain in your plain old themepark MMO, are a whole different beast when you factor in open world housing / land ownership. How thrilled do they think will our little family be when they tell us we’ll lose the ‘hood we’ve worked hard for and get the “exciting opportunity” of a new land rush? Exciting opportunity my arse! There’s no doubt in my mind that people have and will quit over stuff like this. Hell, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back and made me quit the original game back in 2015.

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The publishers of the game’s western versions, first TRION and now Gamigo, have always gotten a lot of flak from us, but somehow I can’t shake the feeling that the main problem lies with XL Games, the Korean developer and publisher. Everything that’s happened since the game’s original western release in 2014 left me with the strong impression that they’ve always been a bit miffed about having to provide and support a western version at all. An annoying chore they’d rather not bother with. Now they even have to support yet another version, one without any kind of pay-to-progress no less.

Who do those stupid westerners think they are? Let’s just screw up every patch and marketplace update as hard as we possibly can, segregate the playerbase until there’s nothing left to do and generally make their lives miserable. Then we can shut the whole thing down already and call it a day.

I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong. But hell yes, I’m worried.