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* W-A-A-A-A-G-H ! ! ! *

OK, I've been playing Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning (WAR) for a bit over a week now; there may be a couple of you who want to know my opinion. Caveats: I have no characters above level 11, severe alt-itis. So I'm having to take people's word for the end-game stuff. But then, so are most people. And at my usual rate, even once I do settle on a character and a server, I'm probably not going to care about the end-game stuff until spring at the earliest, so who cares? On the other hand, because of my severe alt-itis, I have at least one character at the end of what they call chapter 2, into chapter 3, of roughly 29 chapters (for each faction).

First of all, all of the stuff that I complained about is bothering me just as much as I thought, except for one. I really do hate walking everywhere to level 20. I am so, so tired (already) of the "plod plod plod plod plod plod" sound of my boots on the ground, and this is especially true for one of the six sides, the Empire side. Being glued to the pavement like a bug on flypaper also means that when I get frustrated by either twisty 3D mazes (I have poor dead reckoning skills, both in real life and in cyberspace) or by narrow passageways that are blocked by NPCs I just can't get past, there's no flying over them, and that sucks. There are no NPC instances, which means that nothing I "clean up" stays cleaned up for even 15 seconds before everything respawns right in front of me, which is frustrating at best. There's a limit to how interesting you can make generic MMO "kill 10 rats" and "fedex" missions, no matter how interesting you make the character models and animations and text, it's still repetitive as all hell; the single-player game in this game is the dullest I've ever played. I did get one surprise with regard to the stuff I predicted I'd hate: the background setting is so weird that I'm finding it easier than I expected to get past my ennui with the swords-and-sorcery genre, nor does it hurt that it's more "late European renaissance" than "dark ages."

I also found all three of the "good guy" sides really, really annoying. This is Warhammer Fantasy Battles; there are no real good guys. This isn't like Warcraft or City of Heroes, where the good guys and the bad guys just disagree. No, this is a world where the various sides really hate each other's guts, and have hated each other's guts so much for so long it's made them all into really nasty people. But the ones that most people would think of as the "good guys" are, while slightly "better" than the "bad guys"? A holy heck of a lot more unpleasant to be around. (I mean the NPCs, of course. But you'll spend a lot of time interacting with them.) The Empire has responded to the disaster with a wave of religious propaganda, religious hysteria (including flagellant cults), and witch burnings with the usual disregard for whether or not they actually get the right "witches" or not; the army practices a particularly nasty form of conscription, with death by torture for desertion. The Dwarves are, constitutionally, incapable of forgiving anybody for anything, and have spent so many centuries building up grudges that every single one of them sounds really, really angry all of the time. And the "high elves" should really be called the "sigh elves," because honestly, in their voice acting at least, that is all that they say: "*sigh.*" Over and over again. Four hours of that and I felt like a spoo rancher. The bad guys are just as deranged and/or psychopathic. The Chaos army are basically pro-alien quislings, people who've given in to a Cthulhu-like Elder God hoping that after they help him conquer the world (and slaughter any non-worshippers for him) there'll be a place for them in it. The Dark Elves, after being exiled from Atlantis to Canada, spent hundreds of years conquering and enslaving the native Americans and stripping the continent of resources; their High King worships the God of War, and his subjects have a nasty streak of perverted sadism. And the Greenskins are only barely sentient, if at all; what they really are is a self-replicating form of war machine that was dumped onto this planet by aliens by accident. But the "more evil" factions do have two things going for them. For one, they're on the offense, not the defense, which is more fun in games. And secondly, unlike the defenders' NPCs, their NPCs are mostly having a good time. It makes them a lot more pleasant to be around, in my opinion. So contrary to my earlier expectations, I was able to stand at least one of the factions; actually, I turned out to be more or less okay with all three of the Destruction factions.

On the other hand, I also discovered new reasons to hate it, ones that are specific to Electronic Arts and Mythic. The direct-download installer is the worst piece of software I've used in over 25 years. I could drink a bottle of ink and vomit better code than that. I wasted an entire day just fighting with the downloader and installer. It claims you need 15 GB of disk space to install it, but that's a flat-out lie. First, it downloads the game, compressed, and that download is about 13 gigs. Then it uncompresses it to another 20 gigs or so. Then it runs an install, which installs about 15 gigs of files. And only then does it delete the 33 gigs of crap. And it does all this without, by default, asking you where to dump the scratch files. Worse, if it runs out of partition space even after the download is complete, during the decompression stage (as happened with me), telling it to move to another directory doesn't copy the files over there and run them, it deletes everything and starts over. Then, once you get the game installed, you have to set up two entirely separate accounts (not all that unusual, one for the publisher and one for the game itself), and you have to log into both each time you log into the game. That's right, you have to log in just to run the patcher. Which is, itself, a piece of garbage. Then, once you get the game patched, and ready to log in, it takes a minimum of 54 seconds just to get to the 2nd login page. Why? Four slow, loud, flying logos, one to a screen. The last one, they even added annoying "camera shake" to. Then, once you pick an existing character and log in, you're in for another 30 seconds or more of loading time. And when you log out, it makes you sit there and watch your character do nothing for 20 seconds, to make sure you know that your character will be there and vulnerable for 20 seconds; it can't just warn you about this in a pop-up dialog box and then go straight to desktop. Then it freezes the screen and turns the current background noise into an annoying sound-loop for 10 more seconds.

Mythic claims that if you just want to log in for 10 minutes, there are useful and fun things you can do. What they don't tell you is that you're going to spend 3 of those 10 minutes doing nothing but staring at your screen waiting for the game to start, then to end. Seriously, seriously annoying. And here's another thing to complain about: there is no official forum. Which means no place to complain about this. Or to ask if anybody's found a way around it (which must exist, you can't tell me the developers waste time watching all these flying logos every time they recompile). Or to get advice on selecting a character. Or to ask for advice on where to find something that I can't find, or how to do something I can't figure out how to do. Man, the only company I've ever seen that was more hostile to the idea of user input and user/developer discussions was Funcom; this "no, we don't want to hear from you" vibe is a bad, bad trend in the industry. Oh, and the documentation, both in-game and out-of-game, stinks. Even by MMO standards. Which makes the lack of a centralized official forum for fan-written documentation even more annoying.

I may stay, anyway, for two things: Public Quests are, as long as you're not playing on a completely empty server, as cool as they've been described to be, and then some. And the player versus player combat in this suits me, more or less.

Let me take the first one first, so I can explain why I put that big, long graphic in the sidebar, and so I can explain something that's very poorly explained by every other review I've seen. Truthfully, I'm not sure how many reviewers actually "got" it. What you're seeing there are the two starting zones for the "human" side of the game, more or less where modern-day St. Petersburg is. If you create a character as part of The Empire, this universe's more or less equivalent of the Holy Roman Empire, you start in the lower right corner of that diagram, on the half of the map that's called "Nordland," on the northern frontier of the Empire. Your standard PvE missions work you gradually north, up the right-hand side of the map. If you follow the road, you can see that somewhere around character level 11 it takes you off the edge of the map, to the next "tier," via a mountain pass in the upper-right corner. If you create a character that's in the army of Chaos, you start in the upper-left corner, and work your way south along the left edge of the map, then continue along the shoreline to the middle of the map, then work your way more or less southwest until you exit the map via a teleporter in the lower left corner. That yellow-bordered area where they pass each other (at around character level 5 to 7) is New Esmkerk, that is to say, St. Petersburg itself. Enter that area and you are "flagged" for PvP from then until your character is killed. Inside that area are (in this case) four places where you and a team from your side (effective minimum: 3, practical maximum: 24) can seize the area, defeat the NPCs (and any player characters) guarding it, and plant your flag. Do so and hold it for a couple of minutes and you and everybody else from your side in tier 1 get a nice long-duration buff and a big boat of special PvP experience points, which are called "renown points." (And, of course, you get more renown points for other players that your team defeats.)

There's also an island fortress off the coast, not shown. You can queue up for that; when each side has 8 people in the queue, it notifies all of them and throws them together for a tackle-football equivalent of Capture the Flag. It counts for renown points, too. And, and here's the part that is interesting, for regular XP, too: you get XP for defeating players as if they were NPCs of equivalent level. If the other player has a higher renown score than you, they also drop loot. And here's the fascinating part of that: it has no relationship to the equipment they're using or carrying, it's generated randomly as if they were an NPC. Which relates to the other interesting thing: there is almost no "death penalty." Your equipment never wears out. You never drop or lose it; you never even have to go back and get it, it teleports with you when you let the NPCs resurrect you. If you're defeated by an NPC, the penalty is about 15 minutes at -10% to your stats; a player character, only 3 minutes. And even then, right next to every resurrection point is an NPC that will remove that penalty from you for a very, very trivial sum of in-game money, about what you'd get off of a single NPC kill, solo. So, no, seriously: you get killed by another player? Click "respawn," tip the healer a few coppers, run back to your team. This doesn't mean that you don't care if you die, though: if you die, it leaves your team short-handed until you can get back. Let's say you've got two 6-person teams, both about evenly matched? As soon as one person has to rez, now it's 6 on 5. And quickly 6 on 4. And then a wipe, and the team has to form up and charge back. The death penalty in this game is, really, just a yardage penalty. That's very cool.

That's tier 1, Empire versus Chaos. There are also tier 1 maps for Dwarves versus Greenskins (orcs and goblins) and High Elves versus Dark Elves. They don't always go south to north, north to south, but always you and your opposite numbers start at opposite corners, level your way up to the middle, and optionally fight in the middle. Then all three pairings repeat at tier 2, tier 3, and tier 4. Except that each pairing actually has five "tier 4" pairs of maps. If one side conquers all the open PvP areas for their pairing, and can raise an army of at least 48 (96 or more suggested), they can then try to conquer the other side's capital city. (Only the Empire and Chaos capital cities are implemented yet.) I haven't toured Altdorf, the German capital yet, but I have toured the aliens' capital city at the North Pole, The Inevitable City. It's very, very cool, with some seriously goth eldritch art, like a Cthulhu-themed theme camp at Burning Man only bigger. Honestly, I think my inner Lovecraft otaku was probably "hooked" as soon as I laid eyes on The Inevitable City. (It also doesn't hurt that one of the character classes' uniform is something I think I'd look kind of good in, that wouldn't be all that hard to build. yume_no_tenshi, are you still taking commissions? Something like image 3 of the Magus, without the cape? Email me.)

So, so much for PvP. Public Quests are something you've heard a lot of hype about, so I don't have to go into a whole heck of a lot of detail. Basically, they're designated areas, clustered around the "rally point" for each "chapter" of your faction's story. As soon as you walk into one, you get a display that automatically appears telling you what's going on in this area right now. Each one is split into three "phases." The first one isn't timed, and is designed so that it can be soloed; every objective you complete gives you points towards chapter completion, "influence points." As soon as it gets done, it kicks off phase 2, with some timed objectives. The whole "spawns" of the area can, and frequently do, change, as some surviving NPCs run into buildings and others run out. Phase 2 has its own, shorter, list of objectives, each of which is guarded by (or reacted to by) a group of NPCs that include at least one "champion," a mini-boss that is designed to be basically impossible to solo, but reasonably easy for a team of 2 or 3. Finish that on time, and it goes straight to phase 3, which is usually a named big-boss to defeat, one that's designed to be basically impossible for an average team of less than 5, and challenging for a team of 6 or more. If and only if all 3 phases complete successfully, six magic bags of very good loot get distributed, somewhat randomly, but mostly based on who contributed the most. That's not just influence points, or damage dealt; tankers taunting, healers healing, buffers and debuffers doing their jobs all count. If you didn't get one of the bags of loot this time, stay and help the next team; there's a huge "disappointment bonus" to that final loot roll.

I do find it vaguely annoying that Public Quests don't automatically lump you into teams, the way that PvP scenarios do. But there is a huge incentive to do so: the more people you get together, not only the quicker it gets done (and the more of them you get to do before you out-level the rewards), but the better the loot. That brings up both the aggravating and the interesting features of Public Quests, all in one. Because they don't scale at all, Public Quests really punish you for playing on low-population servers during off-peak hours. One thing that's holding me back from having any higher-level characters than I do is that I had to give up on Skavenblight and reroll all my Destruction characters on Ostermark. Important tip: When you pick a server, log in during off peak hours, and if it doesn't say at least "medium" population for both sides, don't play on that server. Really. Doing so will leave you with nothing to do but the single-player version of the game, and the single-player version of Warhammer Online sucks worse than in any other MMO I've ever played. (I do have some Order characters on Avelorn, if it matters.)

So yeah, I'm having an oddly good time. I think I'll stay, for a while.

What does WAR mean to you? from Stone Falcon Productions on Vimeo.


Sep. 28th, 2008 11:49 pm (UTC)
Re: What is it with Spash Screens?
I still remember the game Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising ... the opening cinematic was, uninspiring, I do recall it did have one lovely feature.

Played the first time you fired the game up ... and then switched itself off. You could turn it back on in the preferences if you wanted, or just play it directly, but it had an on-off switch where you didn't need to mess with the computer to find it.

That is, I will confess, about the only time I can think I've seen that in a computer game, but still, it's a kind of high-water mark for games where the opening doesn't come across as "Hi, we're the marketing department and we rule over all aspects of game creation, worship us so you may have the privilege of playing this game you paid good money for."

I'll have to take a look at that link when I get the chance, it wouldn't be ... optimal on the current machine I'm using.

-- Brett