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Lego Universe – The Verdict

Lego Universe – The Verdict

Lego Universe has a lot in common with a second hand Lego set. It seems like an awesome premise from the outset, is great fun for a while but is marred by the frustration of finding out that not all the pieces are there. Set in the titular Universe of the title, a dark force known as the Malestrom has taken over the world, and can only be defeated by the minifigs (characters) of the Lego Universe by restoring imagination to the world through battle and building.

The main facet that really holds most Lego games together – and moreso with this one – is the charm. There’s definitely something to be said about cute Lego versions of our favourite characters running around in the games based on movies and it’s comforting to know that the charm still exuberates from the Lego Universe even when it’s not tied down to another franchise. It’s clearly apparent that Net Devil know what they’re doing in this department, and charming little touches such as the Minifig that covers his eyes when you put in your password in the login screen really make the game feel like it has a sense of fun in the purest sense of the world, after all this is what Lego is all about.

Quite wisely, NetDevil have tried to stay away from the most obvious of MMO trappings, and combat is based around similar mechanics from the other Lego games, meaning the game does play more like an action platformer than the regular genre staples of pressing keys and watching pre-canned sequences. On the flipside however, this can mean fights feel a little samey and tactics become largely about proper health and ‘Imagination’ management – Lego Universe’s term for what is basically Mana. Imagination is used for many mechanics in the game, including building the preset stacks of blocks in order to reach previously inaccessible parts of the world.

So with all these touches, the game is a charming little action adventure – so the problem comes in the whole MMO aspect of it. There’s just not a lot of content at the moment. With three proper worlds in place total at the moment, it’s hard to feel as if you’re getting a true ‘Universe’ as such and more a small collection of areas to play in. Of course the developers might improve this over time as with all MMOs with their dynamic content, but by not having a mass of content to explore in the first place is leading to an already sparse population – which in turn doesn’t encourage future buyers and in turn doesn’t look good for further content. In a very tough post APB MMO market this makes it hard to currently justify the subscription fee – especially with Guild Wars and other, free to play MMOs that just feel like they have more to offer.

Of course, there is the building side to the game – every time you conquer so many missions you’re allowed access to a plot of land on which you can build using blocks gained from battles. Potentially it’s one of the best parts about the game, but it’s hampered by how fiddly it is to actually build anything in practice. And while understandable to protect the target audience of the game, it’s a terrible shame there’s no real ‘communal’ building areas and you are by and large restricted to viewing your friends’ creations which seem rather limited in scope when you compare them to things like Minecraft. It seems slightly off that the master of the physical creative building blocks should be bested in the virtual space by an essentially one man team.

Overall Lego Universe is a hard game to reccomend. It’s charming sure, and I can definitely see the potential within. But even for those planning to buy it for their kids – with a subscription of real money no less – parents may feel they’re getting slightly short changed by this deal, especially with other MMOs for children on the market that are free to play. If NetDevil can improve the game by adding more content and the like it may be worth a purchase in the future, but the tale of APB shows that Netdevil could be playing with a somewhat more fragile collection of bricks.

A few bricks short.

Fallen Earth – The Verdict

Fallen Earth – The Verdict

Fallen Earth is an MMO quite unlike other more mainstream titles of late. This is exactly why more people need to play it. Initially it seems to be just your regular, clunky and drab looking MMO. Actually it is at times, but it’s also so much more than just its looks. We’ve all seen the bleak wastelands and zombie infested future which games seem to adore showing us but it’s the way that Fallen Earth portrays it that makes it so much fun. Persevere through a slightly mundane tutorial section and it doesn’t take long to realise just what is so compelling and unique about this post-apocalyptic MMO.

There’s not a huge amount that can be said about the tutorial. It’s functional at best with nothing particularly grabbing me. In fact my expectations were very low initially thanks to my experiences with a very clunky combat system. I suspect my over reliance on auto attack modes has made me lazy when it comes to MMO combat, so having to aim at my opponent myself felt quite unnatural and awkward. Once the game opens up away from the instanced tutorial, things become very different. There’s no sign of the hand holding that is apparent in other MMOs in recent years. This is both a curse and a blessing as I can see many people giving up far too quickly in favour of easier, but less rewarding, games. It’s worth sticking by Fallen Earth though as you’ll be eventually rewarded with an experience that gives you more choices than nearly any other MMO in years. The desolation of the bleak wastelands around you are intimidating in their vastness and it’ll be many hours until you adjust your expectations appropriately and simply enjoy the fact that there’s no ‘set’ path to take. This really is an MMO that makes you feel entirely free in your options, something I haven’t experienced since my infatuation with space based MMO, Eve Online.

Unlike more conventional MMOs there is not even a class system to be confined to. There are templates that you can choose to follow but for the most part you can mix and match your skills however you want. This really opens up a lot of options and it’s refreshing to see a game treat its players so maturely, allowing them to really mould their character into a bespoke model. This is demonstrated even further by the impressively complex crafting system. As you would expect in a post-apocalyptic world, useful items are hard to come by in their complete form, so you’ll quickly rely on the items that you can create yourself. To create such items can take quite a while as initially core materials must be found amongst the rubble, before you even start to form more useful items. That’s not forgetting the matter of acquiring blueprints to know exactly how to make said item. After this the actual crafting element can take a long time, comprising of hours sometimes, but fortunately this can be left to finish while you are offline. Something that was used to great effect in the past by Eve Online’s skill system. Crafting is immensely rewarding but much like the rest of the game, players do need to be committed to the effort. At least if you’re the lazy sort of MMO player, you can always buy items from other players through an auction house system, although the snob in me can’t help but see that as cheating.

The crafting system was what really drew me into Fallen Earth. Being able to craft all my weaponry and even build my own vehicles felt like a great accomplishment, much more so than ever levelling up in other, more mainstream MMOs. It made things feel less like a grind and more like a battle for survival, which is surely exactly what should be felt when playing an RPG set in a bleak world. Frequently Fallen Earth felt more like a single player RPG experience by my own continuous self-reliance on myself rather than others. Despite this I still found the online community as mature as the game’s content, being (for the most part at least) extremely helpful and supportive.

It’s not all plain sailing for Fallen Earth. As mentioned previously, it does have a steep learning curve at times which is sure to put some players off persevering. However give it the respect it deserves and it becomes an extremely rewarding experience. It’s a culmination of small, initially mundane sounding things that make it so enjoyable. The fact that it explains your ‘respawning’ upon death by showing that you are a clone, or the fact that you can have horses or motor vehicles to travel with but they all need maintaining in some way. It gives the allure of true independence and choice, something that too many MMOs don’t bother with even though surely that’s the entire point of having an entire virtual world at your disposal.

Fallen Earth isn’t for everyone and I can see why some players will be disappointed by the lack of strong structure here, and the unconventional manner of the game. However others will thrive upon its openness and complexity. It’s the nearest you’ll get to a Fallout MMO which is surely high praise in itself. Just don’t expect an easy ride at first, good things come to those who persevere.

It is a hit, no question about that.

Ideal post-apocalyptic MMO gaming
Aion – The Verdict

Aion – The Verdict

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Aion comes from South Korean based MMO powerhouse, NCsoft. You may recognise the name from titles such as City of Heroes, Guild Wars and Lineage 2. All enjoyable MMOs but all lacking a certain something that would propel them to greatness. Aion on the other hand certainly has a hell of a lot of promise for such a new MMO. It’s worth noting now before I begin that I adore MMOs, they provide ultimate escapism. I’m not just playing a game with a linear storyline, I’m living in a world full of people who are as human as me and I can finally feel like a pioneer. Sure this escapist’s world tends to involve a lot of teenagers with aspirations to be ‘l33t’ but make friends with the right people, and there’s something truly special about the experience. Aion reminds me of this vision very much.

A lot of MMOs are reminiscent of modern society; they all seem to thrive upon instant gratification. Everybody wants everything right now, right this second. Understandable really considering life being so fast now. Long gone are the days where it took hours of playing to level up and then one simple death put you right back where you were five hours ago. These days we are used to the likes of World of Warcraft where you can reach level 60 on your own in a mere 2 weeks of gaming, even less with the recruit a friend scheme. Aion is rather different from this instead focusing on the levelling journey itself as well as the destination.

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I found out quickly that this meant that players actually stuck together, just like they used to. When it takes a while to level up in the 20s or 30s (Aion has a level cap of 50), it made sense to form groups to complete quests and gain experience. That’s not to say that it is a slow ‘grind’ to level up in Aion. Sure it might not be as fast to level up as World of Warcraft is, but nor is it as slow or as torturous as Everquest 1 or Dark Ages of Camelot. It’s great middle ground ensuring that levelling up felt like an achievement but not a slog. The first 10 levels or so are quite simple to gain meaning that it’s not long before you’ve got some power under your belt.

The class system might look a little limited at first but it opens up nicely. The initial choices comprise of the scout, mage, warrior and priest classes. Anyone who has played an MMO before will recognise these archetypes: damage dealer, caster, tank and healer. Each class then opens up further at level 9 adding specialisations to each, so that one can become a gladiator (a strong tank), a spiritmaster (a pet class) or an assassin (sneaky damage dealer). This is simplifying things quite a bit but with MMOs being so huge, it would be quite easy to write an entire essay on each class. From experience, I found that pretty much all the class types could solo when required but this really is a game that’s engineered more for group encounters than lone ranger style exploring. This is made even more vital with the presence of the much anticipated PvP elements of Aion.

At level 25, the option to enter the Abyss opens up. This is where flying (I did mention flying, right? Yes you can fly in Aion, but only in select areas) comes into its own and so does sticking together. It’s a pure PvP area which not only unites the two player based races, Elyos and Asmodians, but also an NPC based race the Baluar which is also out to get you. It’s an intense experience, made all the more so by the fact that you must fly across from platform to platform but it certainly sticks in your mind, and is a great experience. The game really does open up once you reach the midway level point with group instances becoming near essential to gain better items and to level up effectively.

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After playing such a solo friendly game as World of Warcraft, it was a slight culture shock to suddenly need to devote time to grouping together to achieve a common goal but it also quickly reminded me just how much fun it is to do so. You can’t underestimate camaraderie and I’ve always found it is the friends I make in an MMO that keep me playing for longer than any amount of content offered to me.

I spent much of my time in the city areas, such as Sanctum and Verteron, building up my crafting skills. Not only did they provide me with experience but I’ve always been a sucker for tradeskills in MMOs. Aion offered me plenty of choices with the likes of cooking, handiwork, weaponsmithing, sewing, alchemy and armoursmithing. In the early levels, the experience gains from such tradeskill related quests were particularly beneficial. While spending time in the city areas, it becomes quickly apparent that they are bustling hives of activity: full of quests and NPCs, but also full of excited new players keen to join together.

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To be cynical for a moment, I do wonder if this excitement will last longer than these early first months, but it does seem to have a strong chance of it. With increasingly strong legions (guilds) emerging across all servers, the community certainly seems to be powerful enough to maintain the momentum that the launch of Aion has produced. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its faults. Besides the incessant gold spammers plaguing all servers, some quests are perhaps a trifle dull at times. The combat although initially involving, eventually turns into a slight monotony of hitting the same few buttons in sequence to ensure an adequate combo is performed.

Overlooking these flaws however, Aion was a great experience and one that has enthused me to levels that I haven’t felt in a long while. I don’t have a crystal ball so can’t tell if it will reach the heady heights of the likes of World of Warcraft or Ultima Online, but it is certainly well worth a look if you fancy something a bit more group orientated than previous MMOs.

It is a hit, no question about that.
It is a hit, no question about that.

Vin Diesel and his Elephants

Vin Diesel and his Elephants

As I’ve made abundantly well known in these hallowed halls, I’m one of these strange folks who actually got off over his history lessons in school and went to carry on learning from dusty old tomes at university. So I can’t help but admire Vin Diesel’s conviction to produce a game set during the Punic War era Mediterranean. It’s a setting sadly seldom tread outside of strategy games (first and foremost, the leviathan figure of Rome: Total War – played that Vin?) We’ve got the MMO Roma Victor, but it’s unfortunatly dated and buggy in my own experience. So to me Barca B.C. is a veritable holy grail in concept.

The Punic Wars were a period of war on a scale perhaps inconcievable to the modern person; one where tens of thousands of men could be slaughtered in a single day, armies marched across lands from the straights of Gibralter to the mountains of north western Greece; through Africa, Sicily and Italy. Furthermore, it was fought by a huge variety of people of different nations. We all have a concept in our minds of the “Roman” legionary, yet the truth of the matter was that Roman armies were composed of half-or-more federal allies from a diverse and culturally mixed Italy from the Celts, to the Etruscans, to Greeks and more. Carthage’s armies were even more startlingly diverse, with mercenaries employed across the whole stretch of the Mediterranean. For a taste of the period you only need grab Rome: Total War, preferably partnered with the excellent Europa Barbarorum, or Mount and Blade with the upcoming Hegemony 268BC that I spoke about previously.

Now if you took that setting, and applied it to an MMO, I think it would be outstanding. Not only have you got an environment perfectly suited to some good old head chopping, but it’s one amazingly suited to the political intrigues of an MMO, full of factionalism within states, backstabbing and individual glory. If they take the EVE online type approach, giving players the opportunity perhaps to associate with a “independent” tribe or city as well as either Carthage or Rome, then tempered by the organisation of a two way war (as per World of Warcraft or Warhamer: Age of Reckoning) it could gain a definite sense of progression that I think both MMO formats have – a common ground between the free aspects of EVE and the more controlled one of WoW. I’d love to see it take the approach Mount and Blade takes to party forming. So rather than relying on your own character entirely, you also have to gather a party of followers. Gather up with other players and their parties, and you have armies. Though I wonder if this is pipe-dreaming perhaps.

Vin says it best “When we talk about dream case scenarios, man, I would love to play as a Carthaginian soldier 200 years before Christ. Sailing around the Mediterranean, that’d be pretty damn cool. If you could add some historical elements to it, the better.”

There’s such a variety of different historical character types in a period that it really would have an almost limitless potential. If Vin and co. do pull it off I might well end up never leaving the house. Ever.