Aug 31, 2006

Back to WoW

So, after almost exactly a month, I re-started my WoW account. Sure, Oblivion has been a lot of fun, and Guild Wars wasn't too bad, but I guess I just missed Azeroth. WoW is like the video-gaming version of a favorite, comfy pair of jeans.

I'm still going to have to try to find things to keep me intersted until the expansion, but the new short battleground queues have me very curious about PvP, and I'm also exploring the two Undead starting zones (new to me) with Darkken the rogue, who's now level 10 and sleeping soundly in the inn at Brill.

Now, if I only had a murloc pet...

Aug 30, 2006

A Week in Paradise

I've been wanting to do a full-blast writeup of my thoughts about our vacation, but work has just been nutty since our return, and my post-work energy levels not at their peak. So, a synopsis:

We've never taken a real vaacation. Ever since starting college, I've always lived away from my Pittsburgh-area family. As such, "vacations" and hence vacation days from work have been spent on visiting our loved ones. This year though, I vowed that we would begin placing more of a focus on "getting away" and taking at least a few short immediate-family trips as our budget would allow. Gladly, we've been mostly on track.

Enter serendipity. My retired "big boss" from work owns a condo in Ocean City. He'd been having trouble finding renters, and as such offered it to his ex-coworkers at a (very) discounted rate. I jumped on the chance.

Let me set the stage. My friend's condo is on the 14th and top floor of a large condo building smack in the middle of Ocean City, right on the beach. His condo is the corner unit, and features a huge balcony that wraps the whole way around the space in an "L" shape, facing the ocean along the entire length of the Eastern end of the unit. Take the elevator to the 1st floor, and you're standing in the sand.

The view is absolutely breathtaking, the air is as fresh as it gets, and the ocean breeze never stops blowing. Luck was with us, and the weather was absolutely perfect. The humidity was low (very important to me), and the temperature at mid-day hovered around a comfortable mid-eighties.

My parents met us there, and the five of us spent the week sleeping in, cooking yummy breakfasts, swimming, sunning, reading, digging in the sand, flying kites, enjoying dinner with a beer, and in summary - relaxing!

We left all complications behind - no contact with work, no internet, no nothing. Zack did bring his GameCube, I my DS Lite, and Heather her laptop and beloved Bejeweled 2, but hey - the week was for relaxation. Even my workaholic dad managed to mostly avoid work. With a little kind badgering, we largely kept him off his dialup work access and kicking back.

We even had dinner with my ex-boss, maxing the relaxing with some killer taco salad and my scratch-made margaritas. (No sissy store-bought mixes here folks - fresh squeezed limes, tequila, and triple sec on the rocks. Sit down, drink up, and hold onto your chairs...)

Our week was simply amazing. Having never done so, I just couldn't imagine the whole-body and -psyche reset that a week spent doing absolutely nothing ina beautiful place could provide. I still feel more relaxed, even several weeks after our return. Viva la vacation!

We've got one more quick trip planned for the season, this a weekend of roller coastering at Cedar Point in Sandusky, OH. I can't wait! I think I've learned my lesson, and my family feels closer for it. Did I mention viva la vacation?

Aug 25, 2006

3-D Display Tech on the Horizon

Ugh - so many posts in my head, but work has been a madhouse since returning from vacation. I've no energy left to write when I get home...

Check out this Wired News article about Phillips' new 3D digital display technology. Apparently, this is no gimmicky, semi-functional tech demo, but rather a product that appears to be nearly ready for a commercial release.

I am so ready for some gaming on a 20' flatscreen monitor with this technology, even if it means I have to spring for a quad-SLI rig to power it!

Aug 3, 2006

Guild Wars - Initial (but Lengthy) Impressions

I picked up Guild Wars last weekend as another MMORPG to try during my WoW hiatus. I must say, I've been very pleasantly surprised.

A Different Kind of MMO

GW differs from most other MMO's in one notable fashion: as soon as you leave a town for the wild, you will be adventuring in your own private "instanced" copy of that area. The only other players you can interact with are those in your party. There are no random encounters with other players, allied or enemy, when playing PvE content in GW. This situation can be a boon, since there's no competition for spawns or goals, and the chat channels are blissfully free of idiotic banter. The only downside is that you'll never be able to solicit help from a passerby, but this seems a small concession. ArenaNet's unique MMO architecture also requires only one global GW "server", which means that everyone who plays GW - worldwide - shares the same space. As such, there will be never be the problem of a friend potentially playing on a different server than you.

The Gameplay

On the surface, GW plays like most other fantasy MMORPGs. One runs around exploring, completing quests provided by NPC's, fighting enemies and collecting loot. Note that GW does an exceptional job of making quests non-tedious. The game plot is seamlessly woven into the quests, and in this area I feel that ArenaNet's execution was even more effective than Blizzard's World of Warcraft questing, which I also thought an improvement over the sometimes-tedious grind of previous MMORPG's.

GW could perhaps be considered a bit "lighter" than many other MMO's. It could accurately be called a comfortable fusion of Diablo II-style play and a full-blown MMO. Still, it has a great deal of depth in its own right - make no mistake.

The time to level a character up to max level (20 in this case) also seems considerably shortened. I believe this factor was by design, as the main focus of the GW endgame is group PvP combat. This isn't to say that PvE content ends at level 20 - far from it. Most players will continue to quest in the PvE realms to gather more powerful gear and skills.

On that note, a word about the true innovation of the GW character framework. I am quite convinced that ArenaNet consciously took a page from the CCG and collectible miniatures book when designing this game. Guild Wars is all about designing your character, and a strategy behind playing it, just like the focus of a CCG or HeroClix is collecting and building an effective and interesting deck or army.

Before explaining my CCG analogy, I'll give a quick background of character creation in Guild Wars. Each character chooses both a primary and (eventually) a secondary Profession (GW-speak for class). Each profession has 4 or 5 disciplines called Attributes associated with it, and each attribute governs a list of Skills, which represent special attacks, magical spells and other abilities.

For example, the Ranger Profession has the attributes Marksmanship, Wilderness Survival, and Beast Mastery. Furthermore, characters with Ranger as their primary profession may also access skills and effects based on the Ranger's Primary Attribute, Expertise.

Each time a character levels up, the player receives more attribute points (AP) to spend to increase the effectiveness of all skills based on that attribute. Skills, on the other hand, must be acquired through adventuring - either by earning them from a quest reward, buying them from a skill trainer, or capturing them from a boss enemy in the wild. Collecting Skills is much like collecting new CCG cards - each one opens the possibility of a new potential strategy or powerful combination. Gotta catch 'em all!

Here's where the "deck building" aspect comes in. Unlike other MMOs, the choices of how many AP are spent on each Attribute may be rearranged any time a character returns to a town - there is no restriction, fee, or penalty associated with rearranging one's character configuration.

Moreover, even though there is an extensive list of 100 total skills available to each Profession, characters may only utilize a set list of eight while adventuring. So, from the potential selection of 200 skills from their primary and secondary professions, a character must narrow their choices to a measly eight before leaving town!

As you can now see, designing and choosing an effective "character build" for a given mission or PvP battle is paramount. The build encompasses choosing complimentary equipment, distribution of Attribute Points, and a strategic list Skills to place in one's eight available slots. Further customization follows when deciding which character classes, and more specifically character builds, to include within an adventuring party or PvP force. An incredible amount of synergy may be created via the hundreds of possible skills available to a group of characters - anything from a versatile, well-rounded group to a finely focused approach designed around a single strategy. The choices are virtually limitless. Bravo, ArenaNet!

Graphics and Sound

No question, this game is really gorgeous. The "realistic" approach to the art style is a refreshing change to WoW's highly stylized, almost cartoonish atmosphere. The game also runs very smoothly given the high levels of detail - it is clear that the programming was efficiently done. Note that the Prophesies campaign runs under a DirectX 8 architecture, while subsequent releases are DX 9. All are quite attractive.

Guild Wars' sound quality is also notable. The effects are crisp and likeable, and I immediately noticed that the volume levels seemed very polished. Sound in World of Warcraft always seemed harsh to me - it always felt like the balance between the effects, voice, and music was impossible to adjust properly - and my wife was forever complaining about the intrusiveness of the sound. GW, though, seems to get it all right. One can always tell what's happening from audio queues, but the sound is never overbearing. Even better, an always-excellent Jeremy Soule soundtrack completes the very-satisfying aesthetic package.

I also really like the content delivery system. After a quick initial download of the updates beyond what resided on the install CDs, one is immediately off to the races. Additions to content are downloaded a little at a time, so there's no big download with a new "update" arrives. Note also that when an update is released, GW simply politely reminds you to restart the game the next time you return to a town. No servers resetting or anything that interrupts play time - very well done. It should also be noted that the game loads *extremely* quickly, and one can also sign off at a moment's notice. Touches like this really help if one only has a few minutes to play.


So far, there are only a few game features that I feel are truely lacking. One is the chat and communication interface. GW characters have both first and last names, and there is no mechanism to simply click on a character near you and select "whisper" or group "invite" - one must actually type out the whole name. Rather annoying. The Friends and Guild lists are a bit more functional though - one can click on those names to create a new message or group invite. Also, once you've added a character to your Friends list, they will appear regardless of which one of their particular characters is online - a nice feature that puts the emphasis of identity on a player rather than a character.

Also, the documentation is fairly thin in several areas. The Prophesies manual neglects to even mention several very crucial aspects of the game - the concept of Salvaging, for instance. I did browse the .pdf manual for Factions online, and it seemed like ArenaNet did remedy several of these important omissions. From what I'm hearing, the newbie zones of Factions also consciously do a much better job of teaching new players all the basic play mechanics. New Prophesies players, however, will probably have to visit fan sites to truely learn all the important aspects of the game. Several notable pages are the GuildWiki, GWOnline, and GuildWarsGuru.

Lots of Versions - What's the Difference?

Specifically, I bought the Game of the Year edition of the original GW "campaign", which is subtitled Prophesies. Considering that this MMO is going for $40 at GameStop/EBGames stores and that GW requires no monthly subscription, it's quite a deal.

More on the different "campaigns", or "chapters". First off, GW promises to launch two "chapters" or "campaigns" per year. The first, Prophesies, was a traditional fantasy setting, although more Conan-like than Tolkein. The second, Factions, is a Asian-inspired setting. Shortly, a third campaign, Nightfall, will offer a North African-styled setting. If players purchase multiple settings, their characters can travel back and forth between those continents in-game.

The newer campaign releases are selling for $50, and Gamestop/EBGames is the only vendor where I've seen the original campaign for $40. Comparing ArenaNet's pricing to other MMO's, their model ends up being much less expensive, even for the hardcore player. A monthly WoW subscription would cost a player $180 annually, plus another $30 for the game. Even if one buys both campains that ArenaNet releases per year, Guild Wars will bring a $100 per year price tag. If a player is only interested in one of the GW settings, the cost is even cheaper.

One last note about the different versions of the Prophesies campaign. US players interested in buying Prophesies will want to look for the Game of the Year edition, since each character they create will have access to an exclusive, very powerful weapon for their class. These weapons do require a certain skill level to wield, however. For example my level 9 Ranger (the level cap is 20) will be able to wield this special bow, which rivals the power of many endgame weapons. A nice touch, ArenaNet!