Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. This week, Robin Hood could be in a fix. Robin Hood, Robin Hood, spies a Weetabix. Does he retreat? Back to Sherwood? No. Because it's just a ****ing cereal.
Today I want to talk a bit about one of my favourite game endings of all time. Of course, to get there and see why it's so great, we need to take a little bit of a journey. The place? Sherwood Forest. The time? How about right now, or in a few hours if you're reading this in Americaland? And the hero of the quest? A man in Lincoln green tights by the name of Robin Hood. You may have heard of him...
Conquests of the Longbow is one of Sierra's lesser-sung adventures - most of which also hit the shelves without the word "Quest" or "Larry" anywhere in their titles. It was the sequel to an Arthurian game called Conquests of Camelot, with both games written by designer Christy Marx (who has plenty of credits, gaming and otherwise, but whose most famous creation is probably Jem - the 80s pop cartoon whose theme music is even now almost certainly running through your skull. Um. Sorry about that.)
Both games took a similar approach to their myths - meticulous detail, and a more paganistic version of the stories than usually told. In Camelot for instance, Arthur has to begin his quest for the Holy Grail by paying tribute to both Christ and Mithras, an ancient mystery cult. Amusingly, the penalty for ignoring either was the same, and this was a Sierra adventure with many Sierra deaths, making this the only game I'm aware of where a vengeful Christ will drop a portcullis on your head for disrespecting him.
The beauty of both legends is that they're endlessly malleable. Neither have a 'true' version, and changed radically over the years. In the Arthurian stories, specific retellings like Mallory fixed our view of the story, but elements like Guinevere's affair with Lancelot, or even Lancelot's existence - in earlier versions, Gawain was firmly The Man - were very late additions to the story. Personally, I always felt a little sorry for Morganna le Fay, who started off as an ally but eventually morphed into one of the villains, probably because her name is much, much cooler than that of her sister Morgeuse, which sounds like something a hungry man would shout at a duck-themed banquet.
The legends are still being written today. In the case of Robin Hood for instance, it's now expected that the Merry Men - though that term is increasingly sidelined for obvious reasons - will contain a Saracen member. The most famous of them is Morgan Freeman's Azeem from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, with the BBC's recent series going for a twofer by making it a woman called Djaq. This trend only goes back to the 1980s though, and specifically a character called Nasir in Robin of Sherwood.
Like all the best myths, the origins of Robin Hood are largely lost in time. The version of the story we all know now has little in common with earlier versions, where he's been everything from a yeoman to a nickname, to an early marketing campaign. Amongst the most obvious changes is that originally he didn't wear green, but red. Another is that in these early days, Maid Marian was nowhere to be seen - she entered the story through a side entrance, first as another character played during festivals, and then as a way of making the rough outlaw more of a Gentleman... and, it's been suggested, to perhaps draw attention away from talk of the Merry Men being just a little too Merry. IfyouknowwhatImean.
The accepted modern version though is pretty straightforward. Robin is an aristocrat who sees the plight of the poor while good King Richard the Lionheart fights the Crusades and evil Prince John rules the country with an iron fist. Stripped of his land and title, he turns his skills with the bow to justice, robbing from the rich, giving to the poor, and tangling with the cruel Sheriff of Nottingham.
(In reality of course, King Richard - despite having a mighty name and good popularity - was a monumental tool who couldn't have given half a dung-beetle's buttock for England, did his best to avoid the place, and ultimately retired in France. If not for the fact that John made a play for the throne, this historical reenactment probably wouldn't have been that far off the end of the story. As for Prince John... well, he was a bad king, often a cruel man, and staggeringly unpopular, but it's notable that most retellings of the Robin Hood story avoid the unfortunate fact that Richard later forgives him and he ends up being the king who... deeply reluctantly and under duress... signs the Magna Carta into law.)
Conquests of the Longbow uses this version relatively straight - its main deviations from the norm being that Marian is a pagan forest priestess, and that magic exists in a couple of forms. It's far from an omnipresent thing though, and something that few of the characters are even aware of.
The story is set at a very specific time during the legend, with Richard captured by King Leopold of Austria and held for ransom. This actually happened, and caused no shortage of political trouble - not least that while Richard's mother, Elanor of Aquitaine, desperately tried to raise the cash, John tried slipping Leopold a few treasure chests to hold onto him for a bit longer. As Robin Hood, it's your job to foil any attempts to stop the ransom being paid, and contribute to the fund wherever you can. If you play the multiplayer, the amount you raise can be doubled wait sorry, wrong game and also millennium.
I really like Conquests of the Longbow. It's a relatively simple adventure in many ways, not very long or difficult, and with half the puzzles consisting of wandering onto Watling Street and waiting for a convenient person to wander down it with something you need, and the other half consisting mostly of looking in the manual for copy-protection questions. Shields, hand-codes, the meanings of gems... it's ridiculous, and really gets tiring by the end.
What it lacks in raw puzzles though, it makes up for with its style and storytelling. Death sequences for instance don't simply give you the classic Sierra "You screwed up, you idiot. Buy a hint book?" prompt, but offer a cut-scene of the Merry Men commiserating your death or simply trying to work out why their beloved leader would have done something so stupid as to walk right up to Nottingham Castle without bothering with a disguise. Scenes like this help compensate for the fact that they barely actually do anything in the game, while still conveying the feel that you're a leader of men instead of a jealous looking Batman. In short, its triumph is simply described - that it does a great job of putting everything you'd want in a Robin Hood adventure into one, from the shooting contest to a bit of romance, to repeatedly humiliating the Sheriff in his home territory,
(Fun fact, there is still a Sheriff of Nottingham. Being evil isn't a prerequisite as far as I know. Interestingly, he wasn't always a villain or even particularly important in the myths themselves. The same goes for Robin's other nemesis, Guy of Gisbourne, who was originally an actually criminal outlaw, with his role in the stories likely at least in part to reinforce that there was nothing inherently noble about being one. Guy isn't in this one though, leathered up and brooding or not.)
The main story is broken into thirteen individual days, each with their own key problem. The first is simply about getting to know the characters and slipping into Robin's skin. It's quiet, with the gang squabbling light-heartedly about Tuck eating all the pies... fish, deer, meat and parts of the table... Robin practicing the archery mini-game that will clearly be used by the end of the week, and generally admiring the lush VGA scenery. It looks about as much like Sherwood Forest as Bognor Regis, but still looks lovely. In this version, Robin lives in a cave next to a clearing, where the Merry Men haven't exactly outdone themselves in stealthiness by building giant picnic tables by the river. Nottingham is a short hike away, with a map for instant teleportation, though best avoided. Other areas are likewise marked so that you can go and take a look, but you won't be visiting them just yet.
Wandering around, Robin bumps into a Widow in the woods who helps the outlaws, and whose sons are carefully warned not to get themselves caught by the Sheriff - something that obviously will never, ever happen in exactly five days time. Aside from setting up that plot point though, there's little to do.
Watling Street is the main road leading into Nottingham, and where the outlaws launch their ambushes on incoming travellers. Today's lucky winner of some Sherwood hospitality is one of the Sheriff's men chasing after a peasant woman. He claims she hasn't paid her taxes. She claims they've been collected three times in one week. He sniffs and says he doesn't keep track, but figures a little rape will fix everything right up. Clearly, a lovely guy and a true discredit to his employer. Congratulations!
Like many situations in the game, this can be dealt with in a number of ways. Robin can simply pull out his bow and shoot him. He can blow his horn to summon his men to help... though this ends up being pointless, as the foul wretch threatens to kill the woman if they don't leave. He can move to attack the man, resulting in her death. He can simply walk away, hoping no troubadours were present. He can stand and have a staring contest with the guard instead of actually doing anything. He can also try to take the guard on in hand-to-hand, which... well... doesn't work out very well for the hostage.
Whatever happens, the game continues. I'm sure there will be no later repercussions. If you really want to be nice, you can even give the woman some money to help her on her way... though the game doesn't actually pay any attention to how much you give, meaning that everyone swoons at you for throwing them the equivalent of a penny. You generous soul, you.
The only other thing to do on Day 1 is practice the archery mini-game archery. If you turn the game's Arcade difficulty down to the bottom, you don't actually have to. In fact, you can't. Robin dismisses the very idea of practice with "Sooth, I've no need for practice. One cannot improve upon perfection," which in my view makes him such a big prick that he could probably punch his face through tungsten. Otherwise though, it's important to practice. This is a game about Robin Hood. What are the odds you won't end up in an archery contest at some point? Exactly none, that's what.
The day ends like they all do, with the gang getting together for supper to talk about the events of the day. Robin isn't exactly heroic in this, immediately lowering the tone by pointing out how much it sucks to be outlaws and facing danger every day, before getting to the bottom of his mug of ale and simply admitting that he's sick of nocking his arrow in his cave all the time and really wants a woman. Then he collapses unconscious in a drunken stupor. Hero of the People!
As he sleeps though, he dreams of a beautiful woman in white dancing through the trees and the wind whispering "Marian". Not his own wind, obviously. That only ever whispers "Parp." As he approaches, she disappears, leaving behind a glittering green stone - half of an ornately carved heart. Then he wakes up and his pillow is gone. Also, he's still holding it in his hand. The stone, I mean. Obviously.
Day 2 sees Robin infected with the Luck Virus from Red Dwarf. One of the problems with Conquests of the Longbow is that it's staggeringly contrived at times, and never more so than here. As soon as he leaves the cave to show off his new emerald, resulting in Friar Tuck delivering the 12th century equivalent of "Holy shit!" ("By my troth!") but the others amusingly indifferent to their leader almost literally pulling gemstones out of his arse, he's told that a cobbler in town has news of King Richard and needs to speak with him. However, there's a catch. The cobbler, Lobb, will only speak to him if he brings a lady's slipper as proof of his identity. Where does he find a lady's slipper?
(Personally, I suspect Lobb was hoping he'd come to the shop and buy one.)
That five minutes worth of work exhausting him beyond reason, Robin promptly calls it a day. Luckily, the Luck Virus is still in effect the next morning when he decides it's time to get off his arse and go see Lobb. He needs a disguise. But where to get one? As ever, Watling Street provides.
This time, it's a beggar. Robin intercepts him, figuring that his rags will make for the perfect disguise to slip into town unnoticed. Again, he's got a couple of options. For starters, there's his bow. Drawing an arrow, he can order the wretch to strip to his undershirt and hand over his rags, before calling his men to escort him in the other direction. Alternatively, since that's not exactly heroic, he can buy them off him... for a quarter of a single coin... before summoning the Merry Men to take him for dinner at their camp, give him an extra purse of money to compensate for cheapskate players, and kit him out with a new outlaw outfit that definitely won't get him murdered by any guards who happen to see him.
Lobb turns out to be a loyal servant of the Queen, as is Marian. He fills Robin in on the latest on the ransom, which is that Queen Eleanor is struggling to raise the ransom, and John has diverted half its amount to the Abbot of the local monastery. He needs Robin to intercept it before it arrives and capture it, and Robin of course accepts... not least because it'll mean the chance to see more of Marian.
All of her, if he plays his cards right.
The next day is pretty quiet. This time, Watling Street coughs up a poacher. Not a lot of interest in this encounter, except for the way that if you summon your men to help you deal with him, Robin ends up dismissing them immediately on the grounds that this wouldn't be a fair fight. As if anyone is likely to know. One arrow and quarter of a silver penny later, his Cheap But Good Deed Of The Day is done.
Which means it's time to go in search of love! Marian meets him at the sacred grove he dreamed of her dancing, and reveals that she has the second half of the gemstone heart - hers being diamond. They immediately pledge themselves to each other on the grounds that it beats waiting for OKCupid to be invented, though Marian virtuously makes it clear that she can't possibly be the quiver for his arrow until King Richard is safe. Or even give him a quick peck on the cheek for luck.
More practically, she assigns him to steal a mysterious scroll from the monastery in the spooky, haunted fens that Nottingham definitely, absolutely has. They're not actually monks though, just a group of soldiers loyal to John who are acting as his cloak-and-dagger operatives, so killing them is a public service rather than a fast-track to the bowels of Hell. Robin seems relieved by this.
Before he can head down there though, something totally unexpected happens - the Widow's sons are arrested by the Sheriff. This leads into the first full day of work, with Robin stealing an outfit and sneaking them out through a secret passage between the jail and the local abbey. There are lots of steps to this, like a drinking contest with the local Abbot, and a funny sequence where Robin in a monk's habit bumps into the Sheriff and ends up giving him a sarcastic blessing in front of his men ("May you get all you deserve, and may I live to see it."), but nothing worth going into in great depth save that he ends up with one of the Abbott's treasures - a puzzle box containing a magic ring. Unfortunately, you can't crack it open and play with it just yet. Soon though. Very, very soon...
(This bit also contains - by far - the hardest part of the game. It's a round of Nine Men's Morris to win a not-so-truly-truly-outrageous gem with the power to keep you sober. This is spectacularly tricky. Thankfully, the AI responds the same way every time, so you can just find a list of moves that beat it.)
That dealt with, the next day takes a somewhat darker turn in the Swamp of Copy Protection. Uh. I mean, the Nottingham fens. The Black Monks do not mess around, and the one who inevitably shows up on Watling Street to donate his clothes to the cause and...
...you know, now I think about it, Robin spends a lot of time in this game either killing/threatening/bribing people for their clothes or sending them off in various degrees of nakedness, doesn't he?
Anyway, Robin can simply shoot him, but the Monk invokes Section A, Subsection B of the Hero Code - the "What are you, chicken?" clause that suggests they fight like men, in a rap battle. Specifically, rapping each others' skulls with quarterstaffs. It's another arcade sequence if you have them turned on, an instant victory if not, and a new change of clothes either way. As long as you win.
At the fens, Robin gets a ride across the water in a boat steered by a sullen monk. On the other side, his identical twin challenges him to a battle of wits... or to be more exact...
I really, really dislike this kind of copy protection. It's boring in this case because you not only have to answer the riddles, but ultimately select nine stones to prove you bought the game/own a photocopier. Worse though, there is absolutely no reason for Robin to know the meanings of these stones, unlike the Druid Code that comes later. It's out of context, and out of context things are this: bad.
The Black Monks are up to spectacular amounts of No Good in their castle, including torturing a prisoner, holding secret information, and being led by a man with a goatee. That's how you know he's Evil. The prisoner turns out to be an important one though by the name of Fulk - the Queen's jester. In return, and pausing only to go grab the scroll that Marian needed, he's given an incredibly important artefact for his service - The Ring That Commands Water - and the clues needed to open the puzzle box containing The Ring That Commands Fire. Sadly, no sign of The Ring That Kicked The Hornet's Nest.
Next day, it's time for... you guessed it... more copy protection! This time it involves a druidic code that you only get to see for about two seconds, based on assigning letters to different parts of the hand and tapping them. These days, you can grab a screenshot. At the time, you had to be really, really fast at writing it down or just use the manual. Sigh. This is immediately followed by a warning of the next test - that you'll have to track down a specific coat of arms at Nottingham Fair, but are only told the name of it. Where do you get to see it so that you know what you're looking for? Guess. If this was Fawlty Towers, it'd be getting a clip round the ear for being irritating and obstructive for no good reason.
On the plus side, the Fair means it's time for the bit everyone's been waiting for!
Hope that was worth it.
Winning the tournament - and with it, the Sheriff's prized golden arrow - turns out to be a Pyrrhic victory however, as Robin wakes to find guards rampaging through the forest. Luckily, he has the power of Copy Protection Magic on his side, and can use it to talk to the trees for protection and oh god, how many manual lookup puzzles does one game need? I do like this game, honest I do, but it's about this point that it really starts taking the piss with a catheter. Attached to a hosepipe.
Escaping the patrols, it's over to Watling Street once again. Today's visitor is what appears to be a poor tradesman who turns out to be hiding a bag full of jewels which turn out to be fake - part of an attempt to scam the Sheriff's wife. Robin liberates him of his clothes... again... and heads off to do the same. With the help of some rouge, nobody recognises him as the archer from yesterday.
Not content with simply bilking the two nobles out of their money though, he takes things a step further - claiming to have discovered a cave full of jewels left behind by none other than Merlin himself. The Sheriff is soon convinced, and agrees to both load a horse with thousands of coins to buy its location, and head alone into the forest with his new friend to avoid the guards discovering its location.
This goes about as well for him as you'd expect.
Next day though, things get serious. Marian is captured while trying to deliver a message to the Queen's messenger, and sentenced to be burned to death in the Abbey. A plan is quickly formed - or rather, several are, ranging from an all-out assault to a sneaky-sneaky infiltration. With a sneaky plan, and a little help from the Ring That Commands Fire though, the day is soon saved and Marion rescued. Mostly. As she dies of smoke inhalation in her beloved grove though, Robin realises that the power of their heartstone gems can deus ex machina the shit out of this and brings her back from the brink.
...or he doesn't and she actually dies. Which sucks for everyone concerned.
For the final couple of days, it's full steam ahead on the plot - the discovery of a fake knight pretending to be in the service of the king, an assault on the money being delivered to the Abbey, and a return to the Fens to rescue the man who can get it to its destination. All that happens pretty quickly though, and then it's time for Robin to play the waiting game. It's a long, cold few months... though at least he does finally talk someone out of their clothes for reasons other than wanting to wear them around town...
But I mentioned at the start that what I really wanted to talk about was the ending.
This takes place a few months after sending the ransom. Robin's luck finally runs out and he gets captured by the Sheriff, who wastes no time sending him to the gallows. But. As he stands on the steps, preparing to join Manny Calavera in the land of dead heroes, a miracle happens - a clash of steel, the sound of hooves on stone. At the last possible second, the King has returned.
"Word came to me, Master Sheriff, that you'd captured the great outlaw Robin Hood," he announces. "But I heard nothing of a trial! Is this the way you've kept the law in my absence?"
And so it begins.
"Robin Hood, you and those you call your men stand accused of brigandage..." begins the king, as Conquests of the Longbow goes back over every single decision you've made to answer the ultimate question - were you really playing as an honourable outlaw, or just an egotistical thug. Until this point, nobody (but victims) have even sniffed at you just levelling a bow at every problem.
Now, it becomes relevant - as it so obviously should be.
This is brilliant, brilliant design, and not just for its era. Very few games have tried to weave the moral choices into something of this complexity, and even fewer have done it so well. Bioshock 2 for instance pulled a similar trick of judging in the late-game, also through the eyes of an impartial observer. In that case, the question was how well you'd taught your adopted daughter to handle the world, and whether she'd become cold and brutal or honourable and forgiving as a result. Mass Effect 3... also exists, and I'm insanely bored of talking about that one now, so let's just pretend we did and move on, okay?
In this case, you can probably guess the endings. In the best, Robin is restored and made an Earl, along with being given permission to make Marian a maid no more. In the worst... admittedly, next to impossible to get without trying... ending, things don't go quite so well.
Check this video to see the variation points. And remember, this was 1992. Games did have multiple endings at this point, but something of this degree was still a rarity. Still is.
There's lots to like about Conquests of the Longbow beyond this though. Its copy protection is ghastly, and you can easily pick holes in the design being repetitive and occasionally silly. It nails its setting though, with buckets of details and fun character touches, and above all, it does a great job of putting you into both the shoes and world-view of history's most infamous fictional outlaw. I liked when I first played it. I like it now. It may not be Sierra's best, but it deserves more credit than it usually gets.
Like 'em or not, lockboxes are the latest craze in free-to-play games. These little chests of mystery show up on your fallen foes sealed alarmingly well, and often require a special key purchased from the cash shop to open them. DC Universe Online will be the latest to jump on this trend with next week's patch, but it will at least allow subscribers to open all of them for free. In addition, subscribers will be getting a few other nice perks starting next Tuesday.
My favorite of the new perks is the monthly stipend of 500 Station Cash, roughly $5 worth of cash shop currency that can be used to pick up all sorts of goodies. Also awesome: SOE is adding the ability for players to reset their instance loot lockout timers, which'll let you double-up on gear rewards if you have a free weekend. Resetting a lockout will cost a different amount of Replay Badges, depending on the type of content: 12 Replay Badges for a Duo, 29 for an Alert, and 87 for a Raid.
Subscribers will get 150 Replay Badges dropped into their bags every 30 days to let them run their favorite content more often, with additional Replay Badges costing about three cents a piece. The reason I like this new perk so much is that it adds an option that wasn't in the game before, and lets subscribers sample it for free without changing the experience of free-to-players at all. These two new subscriber perks are terrific, and are a show of good faith on SOE's part.
The third perk is more of a mixed bag: it's great for subscribers, but will likely annoy the majority of free players. Starting Tuesday, Promethium lockboxes will have a chance to drop off of every enemy in the game above level 10. These will contain random pieces of new, unique gear and Marks that can be used to purchase endgame gear. Subscribers will be able to open them at will (yay, free gear!), but free players will need to purchase keys from the cash shop to crack 'em open.
I'm not a fan of this kind of lockbox system, which fills free players' inventories with potentially useless items that constantly remind them that they're not paying money. But some free players will want to pay for these boxes and subscribers will definitely be happy to receive the extra loot and Marks while playing. And to be fair, no other free-to-play MMO is as generous with these lockboxes to their subscribers as DCUO is. Most other MMOs with a similar system require their subscribers to pay for the keys, just like free players. The big problem I have with DCUO's system is the price tag on the keys: $2.50 is abnormally high.
For comparison, Allods Online, which doesn't have a subscription option, has been dropping lockboxes that require cash shop keys to open for over a year, charging 50 cents per key and allowing them to be traded between players in-game. Since December, Lord of the Rings Online has run a similar gambling-style game with its lockboxes and treasure-hunting system, but it requires subscribers to purchase keys at $1.33 a piece, on top of their monthly fee.
Star Trek Online added Cardassian Lock Boxes back in December, which can hold anything from a super rare spaceship to crappy consumables, and charges $1.25 per key to open the little buggers—also not free for subscribers. And more recently, City of Heroes added some random looting with its Super Packs, which give five random items for $1. But CoH's super packs don't drop from creatures and can only be purchased in the store--a good compromise that keeps the packs from pestering those players not interested in playing a little gear-roulette with their money.
The big non-MMO to use a similar lockbox mechanic is Team Fortress 2, which also charge $2.50 for players to open a single lockbox, which will contain a random item.
So by comparison, DCUO's system treats susbcribers extremely well, although it isn't doing free players any favors with steep key prices. For more info on the changes to DCUO next week, you can see the official community post and FAQ.
Our handy guide to game deals from around the net should keep a little money in your pocket. Cheap highlight include 50% or more off of Age of Empires Online, Shogun 2, Saints Row The Third, a Buy 2 Get 1 Game Free sale, and much more.
STEAM Steam's offering 50% off damn near everything related to Age of Empires Online, as well as 50% off Gotham City Imposters and both Trine 2. Deals end Monday, kiddies.
50% off all Age of Empires Online content 50% off Gotham City Imposters - $7.49 50% Trine 2 - $7.49 80% Trine - $2.00 40% DCS A-10C Warthog - $26.99 50% off Droplitz - $2.49
ORIGIN Getting Arkham City for $10 is still possible this week, as is getting 50% Total War: Shogun 2 if you buy it with the Fall of the Samurai expansion. Best of all, you can save $20 on the Digital Deluxe version of Star Wars: The Old Republic for a limited time.
Buy Mass Effect 3 and Get Batman: Arkham City for $10 50% off Total War: Shogun 2 with purchase of Fall of Samurai - $29.99 25% off Star Wars: The Old Republic Digital Deluxe Edition - $59.99
AMAZON The 'Zon's having a Buy 2, Get 1 Free sale on several million games across all platforms. Eligible PC titles include Mass Effect 3, Sims 3, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, The Witcher 2, and eleven more pages of incresingly worthless stuff.
Buy 2, Get 1 Game Free Sale Mass Effect 1 with Mass Effect 2 Digital Deluxe Edition - $11.99
IMPULSE Impulse is still rocking the 2K Ultimate Bundle pack, which includes BioShock, Civilization III, IV, V, Mafia II, Duke Nukem Forever, Borderlands, the entire X-Com series and more for $69.99! They've also added a couple of great THQ titles to the cheapening, and are offering at least 50% off several Assassin's Creed games.
Over 75% off the 2K Ultimate Bundle - $69.99 50% off Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine - $14.99 50% off Metro: 2033 - $9.99 50% off Assassin's Creed: Revelations - $24.99 66% off Saints Row The Third - $16.49 66% off Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood - $7.49 75% off D&D Anthology: The Master Collection - $7.49 75% off D&D Anthology: Neverwinter Nights Complete - $7.49
GOOD OLD GAMES Nothing in GOG.com's sale section exceeds $2.99! Get 50% off Activision relics all weekend long, and that includes more Zork than most of you will ever need!
The Zork Anthology - $2.99 Zork: Grand Inquisitor - $2.99 Arcanum of Steamworks and Magika - $2.99 Vampire: The Masquerade - Redemption - $2.99
Know of any more game deals this weekend? Be a dear and add 'em in the comments.
Oh happy day. As someone who resents leaving the safety of his Ubuntu desktop every time I want to play a game or do some benchmarking, today's headline from Phoronix.com is frankly the news I've been waiting for for years.
Valve has been recruiting for at least one Linux specialist to help port Windows games with this job ad since January. But it looks like they're getting very serious, and keen to push on with the project. Phoronix' Michael Larabel has received an email from Gabe himself asking for help head hunting.
The email to Larabel, which has been confirmed as genuine, reads:
We are running into a bunch of performance issues in Linux drivers (e.g. 50 millisecond draw calls because thedriver is compiling a shader).
We'd like to hire someone to work on these performance issues. If you know of anyone we should be talking to, I'd appreciate getting connected with them.
Gabe Newell Valve, Bellevue
This isn't overly surprising, but it is reassuring. With the rapid rise of Android as a gaming platform, and recent changes to the Linux kernel which integrate Android code, there's every reason for developers to start treating open source more seriously. The Humble Indie Bundle has proven that there's a market for Linux gaming too, as grateful Tuxheads spending more than Mac users.
It could well be that they're looking for someone purely for internal testing and research with no firm plans to bring Steam or games to Linux yet. But neither the ad or the email seem particularly speculative.
I'd never be as foolish as to predict the rise of the Linux desktop, but the operating system is pervasive in other ways that might become a more common desktop alternative.
I'm not going to lie: I'm pretty happy with my coverage of the MLG Winter Championship last weekend. But nothing beats seeing it with your own eyes, so I thought I'd call you attention to five of my favorite games from the event. Then we'll talk about what else is going on this coming week, and some of the big eSports news stories that are starting to take shape right now.
But first, let's look at some good StarCraft 2 matches.
1: Polt v. Stephano, Open Bracket Round 4, Game 1: Turn your eyes to the top of the post, where we start with Polt v. Stephano, Game 1, from the end of the first day. The back-and-forth over the course of this duel on Antiga Shipyard is just incredible. The second match is also worth watching, but this first one was a real roller-coaster.
2. Idra v. JYP, Open Bracket Round 6, Game 1: I don't want to oversell this as a great match, but it's worth watching. Idra came into this match knowing he needed to make a strong showing, but despite a good start, he just could not find a way to deliver a killing blow to JYP. This is a match of "almosts", where you see a very good player slowly squander a lead as, time and again, he hits on a right strategy or the right upgrade just a couple minutes or a couple seconds too late. It's a match that highlights the gap between being a great SC2 player and being one of the sport's truly elite competitors.
3. MarineKing v. Parting, Upper Bracket Semi-Final, Game 2: MarineKing didn't run into too many problems last weekend, but Parting made his life a living hell during this match. What's striking here is how many times Parting effectively is badly outnumbered, and makes up the difference with unbelievably Templar play. MarineKing knows that Parting is going to ambush him with Psionic Storms, but Parting is playing so well that he can't quite counter it.
4. DRG v. Heart, Lower Bracket Final, Game 5: What looks like it's going to be a quick formality as DRG heads to the Championship Final turns into a wild series of twists and turns. The last five minutes of this match was my favorite sequence of the weekend.
5. MarineKing v. DRG, Championship Final, Game 7: Why did MarineKing win this weekend? Why is Day calling him the best Terran in the world right now? Watch this match, and the controlled aggression on display. With the side-by-side start here on Metalopolis, these two players are in each other's faces from the first minutes of the match, and it goes on like that until the end. It's just a nonstop exchange of body-blows and counter-attacks.
If that isn't enough for you, eSports journalist Rod "Slasher" Breslau covered the Winter Championship for GameSpot, and he did a great series of highlights from the tournament.
Breslau had a chance to catch up with MarineKing (sorry the embedding is a little wonky) and talk about what went through his head when DRG tied the series, about breaking the curse of second-place tournament finishes, and the difference between winning a Arena, without an audience, and getting a tournament win on the main stage, in front of thousands of fans. He also had a long chat with MLG CEO Sundance DiGiovanni, in which they talk a bit about the MLG's upcoming plans.
The Spring Season and an Elephant Enters the Room
The MLG has also announced its plans for the Spring StarCraft 2 season. It kicks off with another Arena in New York, on the weekend of April 21, features another Arena event in mid-May, and concludes with a Championship tournament in Anaheim, CA from June 8-10.
If there is one thing here that I have doubts about, it's the first Spring Arena. It's an eight-player tournament where the top four finishers will get direct seeding in Spring Arena 2, while the bottom 4 have to go through invite-only qualifiers to make it to Arena 2. How much do you want to bet that most, or even all of them do? It's hard to see meaningful consequences coming out of Arena 1, and I have to admit the smaller-scale is a bit of a turn-off. On the other hand, the top 8 players from the Winter Championship will make for some great games.
There is one other thing to start paying attention to. A number of major Korean StarCraft 2 teams just formed an eSports Federation, and will soon ask the Korean eSports Association "to start talks advocating free participation of current SC2 players and teams in the incoming leagues, among other things."
Why does this matter? Because when you were hearing about how Korea went mad for Brood War, and it became a huge sporting and television phenomenon over there, you were hearing about KeSPA. KeSPA is, in the words of the head of the FXO team manager Josh "Boss" Dentrinos, "one of the most insular businesses in e-sports history."
For a variety of reasons, KeSPA did not make the jump into StarCraft 2, and has continued playing Brood War. As a result, StarCraft 2, with the participation of a lot of Korean and international players, has become a much more international sport than Brood War ever did. Now it is looking like KeSPA's move into SC2 is imminent.
The danger here is that KeSPA would, at a stroke, pull all the top Korean SC2 players into a Korean league. Since KeSPA has a reputation for not being terribly cooperative, that also means those players would likely abandon the international circuit. That would obviously be devastating to those international events, and possibly to SC2 as an international sport. It would, once again, be a "Korean thing."
These SC2 teams, with their federation, are trying to get ahead of a potential avalanche, so that when KeSPA does transition to SC2, it integrates itself into the existing scene. The trouble is, KeSPA doesn't need an international community. But the international StarCraft 2 community definitely needs the participation of Korea's top players.
As always, be sure to shout-out games and events that have happened this week, or are coming up this weekend. What other great games from the MLG Winter Championship deserve a look?
No, our latest episode's title is not a slam on EnMasse Entertainment’s upcoming TERA, which you'll hear Gavin talk about glowingly this week. Sadly, in addition to otherwise joyous impressions on Legend of Grimrock (which you can WIN right here!), as well as Josh's updates on EVE Online and Dust 514 fresh from Fanfest, we say a heartfelt goodbye to a member of the PC Gamer US team.
PC Gamer US Podcast 311: TERA-ble News
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Follow us on Twitter: @jaugustine (Josh "MMOprah" Augustine) @cantista (Chris Antista) @gavinFYG (Gavin Townsley @Ljrepresent (The Dearly Departed Lucas Sullivan)
The floodgates on Mists of Pandaria have opened. Abilities, spoilers, and questlines are pouring out from the beta testing of WoW's next expansion pack, and it's easy to get lost in the details. We sat down with Vice President of Creative Development and master of all things story at Blizzard, Chris Metzen, to get back into the big picture by talking about the big themes in the expansion's story and what these crazy little pandas have to teach us.
PC Gamer: So you dropped the big bomb last week, the siege of Orgrimmar and de-throning of Garrosh Hellscream. That's huge, but it sounds like the launch content for Mists of Pandaria is going to be pretty peaceful, maybe even serene.
Chris Metzen, Vice President of Creative Development: I wouldn't call it serene at all. I'd just say it's not as doom-laden as recent chapters have been. There's definitely high-octane content: war is evident constantly, it's just a different kind of war. I think it was Kosak who kinda illustrated that it begins as a proxy war.
The big hook to Pandaria is that as we roll up on the beach, all the hate and violence we bring as Alliance and Horde really kind of begins to make the Sha bubble up. And the Sha is something that's been contained for ten thousand years. It has been a very serene place, and of course our shenanigans break it, heavily.
So there's definitely some drama and high-octane hero time type stuff, but there's this underpinning of hope buried beneath it, breathing up through it, which is definitely a different tone. Cataclysm was relatively bleak. Lich King felt like it had a little more tragedy inherent in it—we knew Arthas, we knew about his fall from grace. We were wondering if he could be redeemed, if we could save him at the end. So Pandaria has a different tone playing against the heaviness. This one, by way of contrast, has a lighter tone, but it's still pretty high-octane.
PCG: It almost seems like we, as the players, are the villain in this expansion. We're going to this peaceful island as a corrupting force. We're causing the problem.
CM: I love that spin, I love that. After all these years, you think about building expansion sets and moving this thing forward... What's really cool about WoW, I don't know much about other studios, but to some great degree, most of the guys on this team are pretty old-school. Some of the designers left to go to the new we're working on, but it's still a very vital team.
All these years on, you push yourself to figure out, "What's the next step? How does this franchise play out over time? How do we keep it vital?" The weird psychology of players bringing the problem with them to a relatively untouched land was an interesting spin. You always hope these things, as experimental as they are, play well. I don't mean necessarily in terms of design, but that people get it, and run with it, and it feels engaging after all these years. It's a real danger, right? Running this long, you constantly have to look at how it feels. Is it fresh, is it cool, does it feel like it's moving forward in a satisfying way?
PCG: When you're looking at how to do that, is it just a matter of looking at where Warcraft has been, and then thinking of where to go? Or are you looking at what other media and other games are doing, what's going on out in the world?
CM: I think it's a little bit of everything. I'd love to tell you we just have these hooks in advance. There's plenty of hooks in advance, don't get me wrong—we've got ideas. But so often... I had a big grinding hook for an expansion set, before the greenlight on Pandaria got going, because Pandaria's something we've talked about forever. Before that greenlight went, we were thinking we would need to go another way on this big grinding idea, all sorts of weird hooks, what happens after Cataclysm. In a way, the greenlight for Pandaria trashed all those plans, but there's still some bits of those plans that are useful moving forward. Many of those plans found a better voice through the lens of Pandaria. I know that's all very vague, but you never know. The right idea could take many forms. With this thing being real time and moving all at once with the community, creative decisions are informed by any number of things. People wanted to see certain characters come back, or see certain characters get their due. The Alliance feeling like we've sold them out the last couple years, like, "Alright, guys, we hear you. We can see how you'd make the argument. I don't think it's true, but I can see the argument..." So let's hedge the bet, let's give those guys some stuff to do.
PCG: Having Orgrimmar be the next big part, that's gotta just fuel the fire, right?
CM: I have to think that the Alliance is going to feel good about that. And there's interesting ways to do that. There's very different reasons, by the end of this storyline, for both Horde and Alliance to want this done. Garrosh will be an increasing bastard. And there's an interesting story there too.
I'm totally fascinated by how people will respond to this, because what we've been hearing lately is... When we created Garrosh, and we put him in the foreground with the novel The Shattering, we installed him as the current Warchief, people were incensed. Horde players were just pulling their hair out. "We can't believe you would do this, are you guys even paying attention at all?" And the messaging was, "Look, it's a long-term storyline, this is all going to play out in what we hope is a very satisfying way. Please understand that it's not arbitrary. We have a plan here." So it's funny now: just since yesterday, talking to some people in the hall from the previous press thing, people are saying, "You can't take Garrosh out! What the hell? Horde's cool again!" It's amazing how everything flips.
So it's fun that way. We find things in the characters, as storytellers or whatever, where this is the logical path for the character and we're going to do this or that. But people respond to things in such varying ways that it forces you to see things in characters that you didn't necessarily see before. You see that there's equity in directions for characters that you didn't necessarily think would be there. Garrosh is one of those characters where I can't believe that people love him all of a sudden. But it's fun, right?
We're all going to make it together through this storyline. And it may not be the end of his story. But it's gonna be a glorious moment. Again, all I'm saying is, the Alliance and Horde definitely have different motivations for this endgame scenario. There's so much fiction that spins out of that. It's been really fun to conceptualize. I think Pandaria... How strange is it, that it'll wind up being one of the most satisfying story chapters in Warcraft, in many, many years? Hopefully at least as good as Lich King, which was in many ways a sequel to The Frozen Throne.
But I think in some ways even more, because it's not necessarily standing on games previous—it's not necessarily standing on legends from the past. It's just really dynamic in and of itself, and that's very exciting, especially after all these years, to still find these pools of energy. Still finding these areas for dynamism within the fiction. I think this thing could run indefinitely, as a game and as a fictional undertaking. I don't think anyone's ever going to run out of ideas. But I think that's something that WoW has kind of uniquely these days. Not necessarily in games in general, but in the MMORPG space. So many players have come up with these NPCs and these characters like Thrall or Arthas or whatever. We can move these characters around the board and create a lot of emotionality and create a lot of engagement with people who know these characters. Even if you're not a hardcore story person, or into the lore or whatever, you live in this virtual space, you know who these people are, you've done quests for them and such. That's an amazing place to be, to be able to pull these levers and dials after all these years and have it count.
PCG: At this point, you're almost drawing from the community knowledge that's been built over the game. You don't have to build the lore and say, "Here's a new character, here's who he is, here's why you should care." There are characters people have been playing with that they're already invested in.
CM: Both are happening at once. Now we're talking about Garrosh, right? Deposing him as this horrible tyrant. But like I was saying, a couple of years ago, there was an audience that had no idea who he was, and there was an audience that had a clue and didn't like him at all. So, we recognized that we needed to begin to go out of our way to really create a lot of characters to get some investment in down the road. I remember early on, we made Illidan the boss of the Black Temple. We brought down Arthas at the end of Frozen Throne. We killed Deathwing. We got a lot of guff on the net relative to, "You're burning all your characters! Who's left to fight? Warcraft is done! We don't care, there's no equity left, there's no interesting characters left." You know what? That's just utter bullshit. But to hedge the bet, here's some more. Here's Garrosh, right?
So it's fun, now, to see characters like him getting a lot of equity, a lot of airtime. Tired old characters like Thrall or whatever still have plenty of mileage in them. Even Varian, the human king—again, a character that we introduced that has existed in continuity before, but we conspicuously left him out of the shipping game. We did our comic series and really attempted to build his character into something that would have many miles in him. With Pandaria, we have this mega questline that involves him, and him really becoming this great king, where all the Alliance races say unreservedly, "I will follow this guy into the gates of hell." And they will. Or Orgrimmar.
It's really fun to be able to see these themes taking shape after all these years. They're not necessarily standing on top of Warcraft games past. Although I think there's still a lot of rich potential in Warcraft games past, I do love things coming full circle.
PCG: Are there new characters coming out of the Pandaren side too? Are the Pandaren leaving the island to become some of those new main characters too?
CM: Totally. There's a number of characters. We focused a lot of pepper on the Chen Stormstout character, who had existed in previous Warcraft lore. But there wasn't a whole lot to him, to be honest with you, in the Frozen Throne campaign. It was really more of a fun one-dimensional character. So there are a number of new ones . There's a number of cool Pandaren characters that step up. I think Chen, most notably, has a strong arc throughout the course of the expansion.
Pandaria, as much as the Pandarens are evidenced all the way through, it's so much richer than just them. Looking back at something like Outland, the Mag'har orcs, you had the Draenai obviously... In a lot of ways—I don't know if this is a true statement—but Pandaria isn't all that much about the Pandaren. They're a really cool new element, but they're just an element. There's so much more going on in that land and with this mythology coming full circle. It's something I guess I rail against: people having the impression that it's just about Pandaren, and we're just going to be holding hands and skipping with them through five long levels. It's not true. They definitely pepper throughout and have a cool storyline, but there's so much more going on there than just them and their concerns.
PCG: They're just one small group, but the expansions's more about the larger themes, this evil and balance?
CM: It's interesting... Take that psychological spin earlier of, we're the ones that bring the problem. The expansion set is almost as much about us; what we brought and our character arc... How far go here, what they learn here, how close to the brink we all get—that's really the soul of the expansion set. The pandaren just help facilitate that contrast and that soul-searching. Like, "Why doesn't everybody just relax? You're riling everything up." In and of themselves, the Pandaren don't really have an arc, as a culture. They're the steady-eddy middle ground kind of people.
PCG: Their role is to show us how extreme we are.
CM: Exactly. Because Pandaren don't get super hot, they don't get super cold. They're not emo, they're super sane. They don't get violent. They'll fight and they'll fight well, they'll fight to win. But it takes a lot to make them angry. I don't imagine they fight in a state of anger; they fight in a state of need, thoughtfully, and with gusto. But rarely out of anger. It's been an interesting culture to write.
Remember the Wrath Gate cinematic, from Lich King? We have a few of those embedded throughout the expansion set, where big quest lines are going down. We had a number of scenes with Pandaren characters that are yelling at each other, but they're yelling at each other just like humans would. And I thought, "Guys, we gotta take a step back and really think about these people and how they would handle a situation." It was fascinating to get into, because I don't know that we... In building a world like WoW, it's not like a linear storyline, where you can really get into the head of your characters. So often in WoW, characters really facilitate plot and questing and things like that, so it's just fascinating to look at how these people would handle high-stress situations. The deeper we got into it, it took on a fascinating personality that's ultimately unlike any of the factional races we have, which all range from serene to whacked out of their minds. It's just an interesting experience working with Pandaren.
PCG: Is the Pandaren's thoughtful mentality going to change the Horde and Alliance? Are the Horde and Alliance just going to go there, corrupt it, and then go back to what they were doing before?
CM: I guess the way I would answer that is... Ultimately, for my part, I always come back to this one theme in Warcraft. I think the core of Warcraft's animus is cyclic. Because you can only push racial hatred through so many products without it feeling like the same old thing, and thus end. But the pillars of the franchise are orcs and humans; it really is the Alliance and Horde by extension, and it really is those two groups beating the brains out of each other for an extended period of time. That's always gotta be what Warcraft is about.
But when they do it for too long, you need to shake it up every once in a while. Which was evident in Warcraft III, the Reign of Chaos campaign, where they unite at least for a time against the Burning Legion. It's nice to change it up every once in a while, and have these moments where they recognize that the Russians love their children too. Y'know, ultimately we're all in it together. Everything that affects one affects the other, everyone has kids to raise and societies to build. In a franchise that's based on war it's nice to bring it back into reality sometimes. Not our reality, but the truth that constant war and violence doesn't beget a lot of societal growth. It doesn't beget a lot of personal growth. You need to check that every once in a while.
Pandaria, the root theme of this expansion set, whether it's the boxed product or even better through the patches, which I almost want to brand as a separate game event—this theme is critical to what Pandaria is. We've spent so long fighting alien demons and broken planets in Burning Crusade, the lord of death in Lich King, and the world literally falls out under our feet. The Alliance and Horde have just been banging against events and reacting to all these mega-level chapters. With this one, they find themselves like, "Oh, yeah, I hate you. We had to deal with all that stuff, but I hate you!" And that coming around again felt like the right beat for this time in the franchise's history, or ongoing storyline.
It's essential to that recognition of this societal hate, or racial hate. Those moments where you get right up to the brink of absolutely losing it, devolving into a conflict that will never end, and seeing that there's something of yourself in your enemy. Pausing to think about how you fight, why you fight. That sometimes war is not always just, sometimes our conduct in war, even if it's a just war, may be out of control. Remembering that you lose as much of yourself in conquering your enemy with no restraint, you risk losing what you fought to protect in the first place.
PCG: What you just described doesn't seem like a mental process that Garrosh is capable of. And that's why he's gotta go. Is it the Alliance and Horde teaming up together? You mentioned, they hate each other, but are they teaming up to take down Garrosh? Or they both attack individually?
CM: I wouldn't say that, I certainly wouldn't say that today. The raid will likely be bifurcated: there's an Alliance version of it and a Horde version of it. Now, whether certain Alliance and Horde people will kinda... From across the battlefield, they'll be like, "This is on, right?" They're going to need each other's help in some ways. I don't want to spoil any of the cool beats we have planned, but ultimately, both sides will recognize that this is a necessary action and a just action. There might be little help-outs here and there.
And the siege of Orgrimmar is preceded by a chain of events that gets worse and worse and worse, that affects both sides. There are probably points of interaction throughout the patches. I wouldn't classify it remotely as something like Warcraft III, where they're literally shoulder to shoulder. Those are very special kinds of moments, and this is not one of those moments. It's definitely a moment after the smoke clears, after this event concludes, after the whole fiction of Mists of Pandaria is concluded, that both sides will go, "Whew, wow, we got close to it that time, we lost a lot of lives, but we were on the verge of this thing just kicking into fifth gear. That could end the world." So there's definitely a lot of points of interaction, but the Orgrimmar raid is red or blue, and they both have very good reasons for wanting to see that done.
This article was originally published in PC Gamer UK 218.
Snwuggles was becoming more and more difficult to read. As I stumbled into our room after a long day at work, she would greet me with a terse question: "Are you blanking me on purpose?" Dutifully I reach in for a tickle. "If you do that one more time I’m going to get really annoyed." What do you want, you tiny purple tyrant?
It all began so innocently. A lonely Tuesday night, nothing on TV, just one human being reaching out to a small fluffy monster for company, laughs, maybe more. It was just a free MMO, a kid’s game, a land of candy and smiles and sunshine. What a fool I was. Now I’m an addict, a slave, desperate to please the very monster I created.
Katsuma, Diavlo, Poppet... they might sound like creative stripper names, but they’re the types of monster you can adopt. Snwuggles is a Poppet, the most emotional of them all.
It was casual at first: we visited the funfair to play some Flash games, bought cake in the Gross-Ery, window shopped for comedy moustaches glasses, new shoes. When it got more serious I signed up for membership, worked on the garden to try and attract adorable pets called Moshlings, even redecorated. And that’s when Snwuggles changed.
Her mood meter dropped, her health waned. Anything I bought, no matter how many Rox it cost, barely stirred an adorable smile from her bewhiskered cheeks. Soon, I was slaving for Rox almost constantly, completing the borderline-educational Daily Challenge puzzles every day. Working, if not at the En Gen power station, then at the Ice-Scream shop. Covering hundreds of green ice creams in slime, serving them up to every dead-eyed creature that wandered in, threw down their Rox, and left without so much as a thank-you.
Friends are supposed to be a big part of this game, and yet, even though my friend-tree was alive with like-minded ten year-olds, I’d never felt more alone. I hit my limit for Rox I could earn in a day, and it still wasn’t enough for Snwuggles’ endless need. I was forced down Sludge Street to the Dodgy Deals shack, selling all the furniture I’d worked for just to try to stop her falling into one of her dark moods.
In the disco, to the beats of Banana Montana and Lady Googoo, Snwuggles flaunts herself in front of her own kind, wiggling her hips and taunting me with he fluffy, fluffy ears. Lately I’ve been taking long, silent walks to the Port, staring at the endless blue, imagining a last glimpse of purple fur glimmering beneath its surface.
To understand how Guild Wars 2’s high-end PvE feels it’s necessary to understand how all the ideas behind the game fit together. Without fixed class roles, the emphasis is on player skill and as such encounters have been designed to be more flexible than most modern MMOs. World of Warcraft’s boss fights are usually constrained to a particular location because it’s by controlling the environment that Blizzard are able to add variety to the traditional tank and spank model. Guild Wars 2 is far less restrained: if your party is able to pull a boss out of their comfort zone, the game won’t stop you.
During our run through the Ascalonian Catacombs instance, my party was faced with a pair of bosses who become stronger the closer together they were. The designer accompanying us advised that we try to separate them within the open arena where they spawned, but we quickly found ourselves fought back the way we came, into a narrow corridor that we’d opened by placing a rock on a pressure plate to open a secret door. At this point, a player moved the rock, causing the door to shut and trapping one of the bosses on the other side. After dealing with the first boss, we then re-opened the door and dealt with the other much more easily.
Because player progression isn’t tied to specific loot drops, Guild Wars 2 can encourage playstyles that would be considered exploits in other MMOs. This gives players much more freedom to experiment, and with that freedom comes a greater sense of improvisation and teamwork. It can feel very chaotic, but the penalty for death is low enough that it’s easy to recover from mistakes quickly. Players who enjoy meticulously planning their pulls will be disappointed - at least on the lower difficulties - but the pace of the action and feeling of freedom is, to my mind, worth the tradeoff.
Creating room for both disaster and valour is one thing: keeping players going back to the same dungeons once they’ve figured them out is another. ArenaNet’s answer, as ever, is to add more variability to the mix. Every dungeon also includes random events, similar to the open world. During a run, it’s possible that a wall will collapse revealing an angry troll, or burrowing monsters will break through to the surface and need to be beaten back. These encounters are designed to keep players on their toes: having a plan is great, but you also need to be ready to fight a boss at any time.“We're going for a sense of exploration” explains game designer Colin Johanson. “You don't repeat the pattern to defeat it over and over again. The moment when traditional MMOs get a lot of fun is when a couple of people in your party die that you didn't expect to die, or when something goes wrong. That's when the game gets exciting - that's when you have to think and react. I think those are the best moments in games, when you're reacting to things you didn't expect, or when you have to change on the fly.”
ArenaNet don’t want players to get into a situation where they wipe on purpose because there’s no way for them to win, nor do they want people to datamine and document every encounter in the game. Hopefully, this’ll mean that Guild Wars 2’s set piece battles retain a sense of mystery far longer than those of its rivals. “Our bosses will very rarely use an exact pattern that you have to do to defeat it,” Johanson says. “Instead they're changing their tactics and doing things that you have to react to.”
There’ll be eight story mode dungeons when the game ships, and these are instances in the traditional sense - a fixed series of bosses designed for a five-man group and bound together by a narrative. There are still random events, but story mode is about as close to a regular MMO dungeon as Guild Wars 2 gets. They’re hard, but they’ve been designed for groups of strangers and it’s fully possible to beat them on your first try.
Once you’ve finished the story mode of a given dungeon, you can re-enter it in exploration mode. This jumps time forward a notch, and in the case of the Ascalonian Catacombs this means a friendly NPC camp has been set up and there are new problems to deal with. The vengeful spirits that you dealt with the first time are still lurking in the further reaches of the dungeon, and other forces are moving in to stake their claim. Exploration mode is repeatable, but having the narrative move ahead is a nice touch and adds a bit of weight to your achievements in story mode.
Once you reach the friendly camp, you’ll be presented with three different problems, such as a boss threatening to collapse part of the dungeon or a treasure to recover. Each of these is advocated by a different NPC and your group then votes on who you’re going to support, and that dictates the course you’ll take for the rest of your time in the dungeon. This effectively splits every story mode instance into three distinct ‘hard modes’ - GW2 will have eight maps, but 32 ways to work through them. Exploration mode is incredibly tough. When I played, our group couldn’t beat the first boss, a spider queen with a grab ability and AoE poison who, helpfully enough, ambushes you in a room full of fire traps that is adjacent to a room full of floor-mounted spikes. We tried climbing walls and using ranged weapons, mobbing her in a circle, and even pulling her back to the friendly camp, but to no avail: we simply didn’t know our classes well enough to pull it off.
Had we been higher level, we would have had a slightly easier time - but as players are levelled down to match the area they’re in, this would have simply provided a boost to our versatility. The emphasis really is on player skill, and instead of frustration at our lack of preparation I felt the spike of energy that I get when a game is difficult and the responsibility is on me to improve myself. That’s a personal impression, of course, but I suspect it’ll be exactly what some players are looking for. “Some people will say ‘this is just way too hard for me’”, Johanson says, “and we have 95% of the game available for them. What we’re trying to do is create encounters in the sense that these are things where you can beat it, but when you lose you have a sense of ‘I didn’t play well enough to overcome this, I want to come back and play better.’”
By minimising the amount of min/maxing you need to do, ArenaNet are making a game where you can’t fail a dungeon before you’ve even started. Johanson is candid about the fact that this is something Guild Wars 1 struggled with. “We would build a dungeon and what would end up happening - and part of this is a symptom of the way Guild Wars 1 worked - there was a certain build that people needed to beat that dungeon. That’s a problem - there can’t be any one way to do things or that’s the only way people will do it.”
ArenaNet’s rejection of the ‘trinity’ of healer, damage and tank classes is part of that effort to add more variety to group play. Every day, according to Johanson, Guild Wars 2’s QA team takes on a dungeon with a different group composition. “We'll play them with five thieves, and we'll play them with five engineers, and then we'll play them with three thieves and two rangers. We bounce the group composition around constantly. What we found, over and over again, is that it's the skill of the players, and the professions make almost no difference. It's how good you are playing that profession.”
Every time you take on a dungeon in exploration mode you’re given a certain quantity of tokens which can be traded for equipment with unique appearances. These sets of weapons and armour are top-tier, for their level, but no better than equipment that can be found easier elsewhere. The idea is give players a way of showing off their skill, rather than making equipment an essential part of the path to success. “You don't feel like you have to do it” says Johanson, with regards to the equipment grind. “It's something you can choose to do and you get rewarded for it as well. I think that that's a huge difference in mindset.”Then, finally, there are puzzle and jumping dungeons. These have been added to the game relatively recently, and serve as the reward for dedicated exploration. They’re completely optional, and found in the open world - often in hidden parts of caves or on top of seemingly inaccessible ruins. Jumping puzzles might lead you to the top of the old walls of Ascalon, or through the depths of a cave system to a unique boss, rare crafting resource, or bonus skill point. The feature developed organically, when the content team built a tough series of jumps into a particular story quest. It was deemed too difficult to be a compulsory part of play, but the idea caught on and since then it’s caused something of an arms race in ArenaNet’s art department. “One of our environment artists kind of went bananas,” Johanson told me. “They're all competing now, trying to one-up each other and put these insane jumping puzzles in different hidden parts of the world where we didn't have anything there before.”
Puzzle dungeons, which also take place in the open world, task you with solving a series of riddles and environmental puzzles to progress. You might need to find the missing pieces of a statue or interpret clues to figure out how to disarm a trap. The one I was shown took place entirely underwater, and we had to release freezing bubbles of air from caskets and attack them to release a burst of ice in order to extinguish magical flames. Solving a series of these problems, we were promptly wiped out by the ultra-tough boss guarding the loot chest at the end. I’m honestly not sure how far we’d have gotten without the help of the designers who created the dungeon, but the purpose of the content is to provide the most dedicated players with a problem to solve. Riddle solutions will likely become well-known fairly quickly, but pulling them off while still doing everything else that a dungeon requires will require a lot of skill.
I was shown a comprehensive slice of Guild Wars 2’s toughest content, and came away impressed. While puzzle and exploration dungeons were too hard for my party to deal with, I could see that they’ll give talented players a chance to shine. As someone with a limited amount of patience for raiding, I’m excited to give Guild Wars 2's alternate take on endgame content another go. Fans of raiding will, I think, find it a tougher sell - but hopefully the personal rewards of mastering a class will compensate for the lack of purple drops. For better or worse, it’s been too long since we’ve seen genuine innovation in MMO group play.
If you ever need to gauge my sense of awe and wonderment, you can check how stupid my face looks. My face just spent forty minutes looking very, very stupid. Try letting your jaw hang, then raise your eyebrows in surprise whilst also twisting them in puzzlement, and smile with your mouth open. This is what Proteus can do to a man.
It's a first-person exploration game in which the components of the music you hear depend on what you're standing near to. And the time of day, and what's going on in the rest of the music, and probably some other factors I'm too dumb to grasp.
You're washed up on a textureless island of mountains and trees, and all you ever do in it is wander around listening to the soundscape change. I was fairly sure I wouldn't like it, because the screenshots don't look all that inviting. But it turns out that all of Proteus's magic happens in the three things a screenshot is missing: motion, music, and interaction.
Seems weird to cite interaction as the point of a game that doesn't even have a 'use' button, but that really is the key. It doesn't feel like all the trees, creatures, shrubs and sparkles in this world are each emitting their own constant tone that fades in and out as you approach. All these things react to you, tensing, springing, shivering and flinching. And what they produce isn't just a sound effect, it's a thread of this evolving song. It doesn't feel like you're hearing these objects directly, it's like there's something in the air. Your presence makes the world react, and the world's reaction makes the air sing.
A lot of oversimplified or outright discordant dynamic music games have trained me to be sceptical of the term, but Proteus is exactly what I was hoping for in those. The soundtrack plays off your actions without being slave to them, so the changes always make sense for the music itself. Instead of feeling like you have to move in the right way to make it sound good, it's more like having an intelligent composer producing this shifting soundtrack to your actions. Your play is what explains this piece, but the piece itself would work in isolation.
I should explain what genre this music is in, but trying to makes you realise how outmoded that notion is in this context. The music in Proteus ranges from electronic to organic, frantic to ambient, melodramatic to chilled. If it's ever a type you don't like, move.
I didn't often find a tune I didn't like, but that relationship did change the way I explored. I'd expected the world to feel empty, but I had almost the opposite problem. Over there, specks of white dust are swirling from all over the island to a single point - what the hell is that? But over here, the forest is coming to an end and giving way to desert - what will it sound like if I go that way?
Even once most of your curiosity is satisfied, your exploration is still motivated by music. It's quiet at night, so I headed to the place that was most frenetic by day: the trees. Their tone and mood is different with the moon out, and it gave my song a new texture. I found an unusual creature and chased it. Each time it ran from me, its movement struck a new cord, one which tinkled on as long as I followed in its wake. It led me out of the trees, over a mountain, through the desert, and finally leapt into the sea. Its thread faded from the music, and as I watched the water glint, I realised the sun was coming up.
The day always brings pace to the music, but this time I noticed something new: a buzz. It happened as I looked at the sun. It was faint compared to the rest of the island's sounds, so I started to walk out to sea. The buzz grew, trembling and changing pitch, and the island sounds slowly fell away behind me. At the same time, the glare from looking at the sun was making the sea and the sky paler and paler.
I kept wading, and kept staring. The island sounds were gone. The screen was nearly white. And the buzz, now building to a crescendo, felt like a music of its own. It felt like a track I'd created - a crazy one, unlike anything my aimless wandering had produced before, but much more purposeful and exciting and strong.
After a few minutes of staring at a totally white screen with an almost unchanging tone in my headphones, inexplicably close to tears, I realised what was going on: I was tripping my balls off.
Even when you're sat opposite Tim howling in laughter at Battlefield 3, and Rich singing his "I am the greatest person in the world" song to Graham over a game of FIFA, Proteus can still grab you, intoxicate you, and hardwire your brain to its pixels and quavers. It is nuts, and magnificent, and engrossing and beautiful. And £5.
PS. Don't press Escape to pause it and write a blog post, because it turns out that quits.