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Friday, November 16, 2007

Legends of Norrath: Initial Impressions

I finally got around to trying Legends of Norrath a week ago. I'm surprised it took me so long because I'm definitely into collectible card games. I've played it a good deal but I haven't yet challenged many real human beings or tried trading or tournaments yet. So this is just the start - I will follow up on this post.

The important thing to make clear is that this is a great game. I've played it every night since I first tried it, sometimes for extended periods of time. I'm always excited to log on. The general design of the game is excellent. I love the aspect of dual win conditions (you can win either by questing or defeating the enemy avatar). It plays very smoothly and has a perfect pace. I find it fun and challenging and the artwork is definitely beautiful. There is a nice variety to the cards and a good number have very interesting effects which allow for strategic play.

I just think SOE did a fantastic, polished job and I can't wait to log on again. So the slight negative comments I'm going to make should not dissuade you from trying this game. If you are an EQ or EQII subscriber (meaning you get a free starter deck) I strongly urge you give it a play. But nothing is perfect, so here are a handful of issues I had:

The Tutorial: When I was playing through the tutorial, I quickly developed a headache. "They made this game way too complicated," I thought to myself. "They should have gone the route of making it accessible to all." But don't worry, those impressions weren't accurate. The learning curve is actually modest and you'll figure things out very quickly in your first few actual games.

So why did I think it was so complicated? It's the tutorial's fault. It's split into way too many segments and it needlessly muddles things. The tutorial tackles each type of card individually (items, abilities, quests, etc.) in too much of a vacuum. The important thing to teach is the gameplay. I promise you, the game is much much easier to learn when you actually play it through, because you understand the flow of play and how things relate.

I understand the concept of the tutorial. It is attempting to give you the basic knowledge you need about each type of card and then tie it all together at the end in the summary lesson. But that's way to late in my opinion to tie it all together. That should be done throughout.

Players would be much better served by being led through an actual continuing game. The tutorial should force you through a number of turns. And when a new type of card comes up, say "items," it should then explain that card in the context of the larger game. Then the tutorial could tell you to raid and explain how combat works, again in the context of the actual game. Having eleven tutorials is needlessly off-putting and really doesn't help.

The Scenarios: The scenarios are absolutely great and a ton of fun. I love the fact that some force you to win using a certain victory condition and familiarize you with different styles of play. The whole thing is well-written and enjoyable. I absolutely love what they did in Scenario 14 by connecting the story and events in the game to actual cards. The way they used the Altar and the Rift are just terrific. I absolutely loved playing the scenarios through and I strongly urge SOE to add more from time to time. I was impressed that they took the time to make these so enjoyable.

My negative on the scenarios is really minor and related to lore. And it's very rare that I ever get tweaked about lore. But, okay, here it is. In EQII we basically never see Lucan or Antonia (unless things have changed). I always felt this was a mistake, though I know it is trickier to do then it sounds. It would have been nice to be more connected to the central characters.

So am I now going to complain because the scenarios are chock-full of Lucan and Firiona Vie? Yes, a little. The problem with introducing legendary characters like this into an MMO or any other type of game is that we have pre-conceived notions and expectations of them. So when we play through the scenarios and see Lucan and Firiona have rather pedestrian stats, it's a little disquieting. I realize that this is necessary to keep the game balanced but it definitely is an issue. I also thought it was weak to use Firiona as the classic damsel in distress. It's just cliche and not really suited to the character. Just nitpicks, as I said.

Card Text: The "flavor" text on the cards is fine. But that's about it and that's the problem. I don't think the writing is weak by any means but it just doesn't reach out and grab my emotions like some of the Magic text does. I think it can really help draw you into the game if superbly done.

Again, none of the card text in Legends is terrible or even bad. But it's just my personal belief that writing flavor text for cards in these type of games is just about the greatest, most exhilarating job any fantasy buff can ever have. You have such an opportunity to be hilarious, dramatic, beautiful. To me it's almost the poetry of geekdom.

I'm designing my own episodic flash-based card battle game (still in the pen and paper stages) mainly for the golden opportunity to write flavor text. And it is hard, a heck of a lot harder then you might first think. So I appreciate the difficulty. But I just beseech whoever it is out there penning the prose: put your heart and soul and lifeblood into it. And enjoy it, because it's a fantastic opportunity.

Business Aspects: In general I think the price is right. It's great that you get a free starter deck if you are an EQ or EQII subscriber and great that you can play around a bit even if you're not. I think the booster decks are quite fairly priced. So, overall, I really like the model. I just have a few issues with it, one major and one minor.

The major issue I have is that there is no benefit for Station Access subscribers. If there is and I don't know about it, I apologize. But for those out there who are passionate enough to pay the quite high price of $29.99, I think it's almost absurd not to take advantage of this opportunity to reward them.

Would it be that big a deal to give Station Access subscribers a free booster pack a month? I certainly don't think so. They're paying you enough money and interest has to be waning considering Vanguard and some of the other "titles." This is a golden opportunity to make these subscribers feel good about the cash they are handing over every month. In the end, it might even make SOE more money to be a little generous here as perhaps fewer people will go back to a one-game subscription.

Again, if there is a benefit, I apologize. I didn't see mention of one. But if not, this probably bothers me more about Legends then everything else put together.

On a more minor note, it would be nice if the booster packs could be somewhat tailored to each class. It's pretty lame to buy a booster with only a few Mage cards in there. Okay, I think this will be alleviated when I start trading, but I still think it might be nice to have class-based boosters.

Well, that's it. As you can tell, pretty minor nitpicks and on the whole a wonderful job by SOE. The main thing to know is that the game is great and you should give it a whirl.

Two questions for the more advanced players out there: How is the balance between the different classes? How is the balance between the two victory conditions when playing a live opponent (do people mostly win by questing or by knocking the opponent's health down)?

I hope to meet you on the fields of battle in Legends soon.

Friday, November 09, 2007

PSP = SRPG

When I first bought a DS and a PSP I placed them down next to each other on a table. It seemed clear that the PSP was miles ahead of the DS. The gorgeous screen, the style - it just seemed like the PSP would dominate. I was obviously wrong in my initial impressions. I've spent about 90% of my handheld time on the DS, simply because the software was so much better. But lately, that percentage has completely reversed. Why? The PSP has come through with some very solid SRPG's. I've loved the strategy RPG genre since Shining Force and I find it very well suited to the handheld world. Following are the three SRPG's I've been enjoying for the PSP.

Jeanne D'Arc

This excellent game really hits all the right SRPG notes, combining challenging strategic gameplay with wonderful graphics and a solid story. There are plenty of fun combat mechanics to play around with such as the Unified Guard, the transformations and Burning Aura. I also enjoy the quick pacing of the battles, something a lot of SRPG's falter on. The setting may be a bit odd, but it is a really refreshing change from the standard fare. The story falters in points but on the whole it is a compelling drama with interesting characters. The graphics are just fabulous, both in the cutscenes and the actual battles.

All in all, Jeanne D'Arc is a great game. If I had to find a negative I'd say there isn't quite the depth or complexity of the other two titles on this list. But you certainly can have fun combining skill stones and trying various combinations of skills on different characters. As for the challenge level, it's really up to you. If you want to try to plow ahead through the story missions without leveling your characters it can be tough. But if you are having too hard of a time, simply level your force up on the free battles for a bit. I think it's the perfect game for someone new to the genre.

Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions

I really don't understand some of the incredibly high review scores this game received. I admit I'm a little biased. I'm just so tired of ports, remakes and rehashes coming to the handhelds. And while I recognized the greatness of Final Fantasy Tactics, I always found it more flawed then most.

But I think even putting that bias aside, there is no way this game should have received the level of favorable reviews it did. I find the slowdown that occurs when using magic or special attacks completely unacceptable. This annoyance is more than minor to me when you are spending so much time battling. The fact that the clunky control scheme is unchanged combines with the slowdowns to really kill the pace of the battles for me. And while they certainly did a solid job revamping the script, almost none of the problems with unit balance or the camera have been addressed.

But of course, you are getting the almost limitless depth and complexity that Final Fantasy Tactics brings. And it is definitely a robust, exciting game that I do enjoy playing.

Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness

Yes, like FFT, this is a remake. I've only played this one for a few hours so far but I think they did a great job with the port. It's smooth, it looks good and the voiceovers are surprisingly well done. Unlike FFT, the framerates are perfect throughout. This is another one with incredible depth and complexity with the added bonus of humor. There is also an element of almost puzzle type gameplay with the geo panels. Whether you enjoy that or not is dependent on whether you enjoy that type of puzzle play. With the Dark Assembly and Item Worlds there is also more to do in Disgaea outside of actual storyline battles than in the other two games.

If you haven't guessed I would recommend the games in this order: Jeanne, Disgaea and FFT. But the real point is that these are three very sweet SRPG's available right now to PSP owners. That's why my DS is gathering dust right now. Does anyone have any SRPG's to recommend for the DS? I expected a plethora by now, especially since the stylus control seems so perfectly suited to the genre. I've identified Luminous Arc but the reviews have been pretty bad and also Hoshigami Remix which features even worse reviews.

I am making the somewhat arbitrary distinction between the SRPG genre and the turn based strategy genre. I differentiate the two genres in that SRPG's focus on individual characters in battle which you can level and carry forward into future battles while TBS's feature larger scale battles with units that you can not individualize. Does that make sense? Anyone have a clearer definition? If I broaden my scope to TBS games, there are other options. For instance, we have Advance Wars for the DS or Field Commander for the PSP. These are two very solid games hampered only by what is some of the most poorly written dialogue I have ever seen. I'm not sure what percentage of overall production costs it takes to hire a good writer but I'm constantly surprised that so many companies still don't think it is worth it.

Well, I hold out hope for some good DS SRPG's in the future. Archaic Sealed Heat for the DS sounds promising, though I'm not sure it's an SRPG in the traditional sense. In the TBS arena, Warhammer 40K: Squad Command (DS and PSP) is very intriguing. But probably the biggest one to watch for is Fire Emblem DS.

And hey, if you have to do remakes, how about Shining Force for me? And from the turn-based strategy genre, I would love to see Heroes of Might and Magic on the DS. I'm thinking the simple but beautiful art from the first three iterations of the series. Wouldn't it be great to use the stylus to move around the exploration map, position units in battle and poke at town buildings to buy units?

Friday, November 02, 2007

Best Cosplay Ever?

When you're playing EQII, LOTRO or WoW do you ever want to be an Elf? But I mean do you really, really want to be an Elf? Yes?

Okay, click here.

I'm 95% sure that this is an elaborate prank or art project but it is a well crafted one.