The gaming service OnLive was released on Thursday in the UK after having been in the US for some time. The service allows you to play games that are essentially on another computer via a tiny app on your Mac or PC, or via their own microconsole device - your control input is streamed across, and a video response streamed back. I tried it briefly when the service was available in the US (surprise surprise, it was rather laggy) and so decided to give it another go after it launched at midnight. I romped through the first 30 minutes of Space Marine for free and found the service much better - certainly worth a look if you want to see if such-a-game is worth buying. The store page showed that preordering Saints Row 3 before such-a-date would get you a free microconsole, but after a little more digging on the web I learned three things: That OnLive were planning on giving free microconsoles out at the Eurogamer Expo this year, that the first day was Thursday too, and that tickets were as little as £7.50. One impulse purchase later and I found myself going to bed with a plan. A plan with two objectives.
Immediately after entering the building I found my way to the OnLive booth and joined the queue, already snaking out of the cordoned area by this point. I whipped out my iPad and played a bit of Final Fantasy 3. I hadn't picked it back up since dying and losing a couple of hours of progress due to forgetting to save, and so had to go through the annoying Tower of Owen again, all the while wondering if the man behind me was trying to queue jump ahead of me. I reached the front of the queue during my fight with Medusa, the zone's boss, and within a few more minutes had my free console thingy. And so my first objective was accomplished.
There were many games at the event. A large number of them were console games, and so only a few interested me. Battlefield 3 is something I am very much looking forward to, and Skyrim is looking increasingly enjoyable. But today I did not care about those. I wanted to answer a question that's been on my mind for some time. Guild Wars 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic, which looks better?
The first MMORPG I played was World of Warcraft, prior to The Burning Crusade (I quit before it came out). I've played WAR and AoC briefly too, but nothing as much as WoW. I was in a mid-level raiding guild as a fury warrior, and one of the highest damage dealers there. Additionally, I worked myself up to rank 12 in PVP, so I'd like to think that I knew the game mechanics of that time pretty well. In the end, all games come down to two things: game mechanics and story. Much has been made of the story content of SWTOR, yet much of the video put out there makes the gameplay look incredibly dull. GW2, however, has shown gameplay that looks fun. Of the people I know interested in MMORPGs, GW2 is the one that people generally prefer the look of. And so I headed to their booth.
The demo started with character creation. I went through the process pretty quickly, but as I recall there are five races, 8 classes (though one was locked out to me, perhaps due to my chosen race (edit: that class hasn't been announced yet it turns out)), then some choices to be made after to further define your class. The game also asks you a few multiple choice questions which lets you choose your character's background and personality type in brief, and soon Fneb the human noble fire mage was born. The game started in what appeared to be an instanced area just for me, killing random centaurs who are apparently invading or something. After about 5-10 minutes I found myself at a boss fight. It appeared to be a pretty standard fare, until he stunned me and the NPCs and ran away. I begun to give chase, but then a cutscene cut in and everything changed. Suddenly there were a pair of skeletal hands growing out of the ground, blocks of the ground spinning around above them. Some sort of golem things were summoned occasionally, and the earth-elemental-hands-thing would throw rocks that would stun anyone in an area. I'm sure I saw it throw cows at me too.
This surprised me somewhat. I was only a few minutes into the game, and yet I was fighting a boss fight that was actually fun, where I had to think. Once the fight was over, I was released into the general world. Whereas the world of Guild Wars 1 was made up of various party or solo instances linked together by city hubs (resulting in it not being a MMORPG by the developer's own admission - they prefer the term CORPG, competitive online RPG), GW2 is a fully fledged MMORPG. Talking to an NPC revealed to me several "event" locations in a nearby zone, each marked by the outline of a heart.
What is an event in GW2? Essentially, a quest. Instead of hunting out the NPCs with the floating punctuation, GW2 gives you these events based on what is around you. An example: I wandered near to a field and was told of an event to put out fires in it. At the other end of the field, I entered an event to help make the area safer for a fisherman by killing the bad monsters nearby, and near to there was a similar event, to kill harpies that had got in the way of a mining operation. The game doesn't show you a specific number for you to kill, it simply shows you a progress bar. Once I cleared out enough of the harpies the rest scarpered and mining resumed, and that outline of a heart became a solid heart. All of this was done without needing to talk to an NPC to get a quest, it was just from walking around murdering things that are red. As a result, the process felt somewhat more organic, though I think it'll take a slightly different mental approach. In WoW, I'd just load up on quests, quickly check what I need to do, then mindlessly murder people until those quests are done. The GW2 style means actually paying attention throughout as new events pop up for your attention.
I mentioned earlier that games boil down to gameplay and story. My brief time with GW2 didn't give me an opportunity to experience any real story other than the beginning, but I paid attention to the mechanics. In WoW, anything within a 180˚ arc to the front is something you can target and hit, something of great advantage when kiting as a ranged class as you can effectively run all but directly away from an enemy and still attack it. However, anything other than instant cast abilities requires you to be stationary. GW2 handles both of these points differently. Firstly, your arc of attack is a lot smaller. I would put it at around 100˚ to 120˚, but that's just a guess. However, spells can be cast whilst moving. I ended up with three abilities, and all three were castable while moving. Instead of some sort of autoattack, right-clicking on an enemy would result in one of my spells being cast on it, depending which spell I had chosen as my main ability. I never tried to see if it would repeatedly cast that ability until stopped though, as any time a fight started I would spam keys to make the bad man die.
Now, I mentioned that spells can be cast whilst moving. There's a couple of other facets to this. Firstly, you can begin casting a spell when out of range of an enemy. If you're in range of the enemy when you complete casting then the spell will still hit. Secondly, you can't have an enemy outside of your targeting arc either at the start of casting or at the end, but you can while casting is in progress. With practice, a good player could use this to spend much of the casting time running away from an enemy. Backpedalling is slow, so the best way would be to strafe away from the enemy for the duration of the cast then flick back at the last moment. I tried this myself and messed it up a fair amount, but it can be done. Another aspect of movement is the dodging system. Double-tapping a direction key, or pressing the B key, will cause your character to do a bit of a dodge roll thing. I could only do two before emptying my stamina bar, but again a good player could use this well.
After these quests, I spent the rest of my time exploring the nearby city of Divinity's Reach, where I purchased a stick of candy floss. This city is huge, and I only explored a fraction of it within perhaps 15 to 20 minutes. Fortunately getting around can be pretty quick thanks to the waypoint system - think WoW flight paths that are instant. What I saw made Divinity's Reach feel like a well-crafted environment, from the peaceful glade in the centre of the upper city, to the carnival stand where NPCs are playing in some sort of game (behind a fence that prevents you from joining in, no less). As with all other locations I have seen, this game looks gorgeous. I don't know what the spec of the machines being used was (though I did accidentally hit the Windows key at one point and was tempted to check) but I was impressed by the engine. Not only did it look great and run incredibly smoothly, but the engine performed well. Sometimes games have an awkward drag/latency on mouse movement, interface actions, or the keyboard that doesn't just irritate but get in the way of mouse accuracy etc., but there was none of that here.
Overall, I was incredibly impressed by my time with GW2. I was pretty confident in the game from footage I've seen up until this point, and my time with it has only reinforced that confidence. As with GW1 there won't be any subscription fees, so it'll be well worth the purchase when it's out in the coming months.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
The Star Wars: The Old Republic booth had an actual queuing system, so I got out my iPad and resumed battle with Medusa. I didn't have it out as long this time; no one wants to re-start the Tower of Owen twice in one day, that place is horrible. The queue was split into two sections, with the front section being the next 16 gamers who are going to get to play. When I did get into the front section I got talking to one of the beta testers and so learned a fair amount about the game:
- Level cap of 50 at launch.
- There are 4 classes per side, and then 2 specialisations (or whatever they're called) per class. The Sith Inquisitor class can divulge into either an assassin or a spellcaster, meaning the potential for a respec to completely change your play style (with respecs being possible for increasing cost per respec). Not all of these specialised classes were ready just yet.
- The classes are more or less mirrors of each other, so there won't be any of that shaman/paladin imbalance.
- The story content really is immense. This beta tester had spent 50 hours to get to level 30-something. An interesting point he made; when he had been playing SWTOR he hadn't had the TV on to distract from the grind as he had for other MMORPGs, as he was enjoying the story content. Obviously he's paid by Bioware to say positive things but still a good sign compared to the standard MMORPG grindfest. Additionally, playing as different classes can result in a lot of content being very different. However, there won't be anything quite so major as the turning points in the plots of other Bioware games.
- There are flashpoints, which are for 4 players, then operations for 8 or 16 players. Think I got those terms right at least!
- With there being so much story content it's entirely possible you could miss some. I gather from what he said that some of these (the flashpoints perhaps?) you'll be able to go back to when you're at the top level if you missed them, and play them rebalanced for your level. If I got that right then that's pretty cool.
- There will be open world PvP on some, not all, of the planets in the game. Additionally, there are battleground-type instances to go to too (more on that later).
- With a companion, you can potentially level up as a healer with the companion dealing the damage, though I'd personally question how enjoyable healing one person would be. Additionally, companions can perform other tasks, including taking unwanted items clogging up your inventory to sell or gathering or creating specific items. To me this sounds like it'll keep the action flowing more smoothly in many cases. I believe I'm right in saying that you can have one companion at a time.
- The alignment system cannot be used to change your faction. Additionally, unlike in the KOTOR games, going 'grey' - neither dark nor light side - will have its own advantages and rewards.
I was hoping to get to play some PvE so I could compare this easily to GW2, but unfortunately they decided to change to PvP starting with our group. As a result, I've been left with more questions than answers about the game itself. We were split between the two tables, Empire and Republic, to play a game of huttball. What is huttball? That is a fantastic question. It's basically American football that's a little bit mad. The ball spawns in the middle, teams pick up the ball, and deliver it to the end zone furthest from their spawn. However, aside from the whole space opera homicide stuff, the map isn't simply a flat field. The middle area has a couple of pits of acid that are easy enough to walk around but you can easily get knocked in to by an enemy. After that, you have to run along a ramp where there are two flame pits. One fires at a time, and there's a gap between the two - you know the score.
I won't lie; we lost pretty badly. I'd have much preferred playing solo so I don't have to deal with other people not running forwards with the ball. To be fair, being stuck in to a character we don't know in a game we don't know at level 14 isn't a recipe for success. Anyway, before I give my thoughts on the mechanics of the game, I need to preface this by saying that I found out after I played the game that the servers were being hosted in NA (as opposed to more local ones that GW2 was on), so I spent the whole time being irritated by interface lag which coloured my opinion somewhat. And has left me without a real answer on how it performs. Remember what I said about OnLive lag when I tried it when it had only launched in the US? It was much like that. Incidentally, the Alienware portables they're using? If you hold down W and E at the same time, the keyboard won't recognise a spacebar press. W and Q is fine, and mouse1 + mouse2 + E is fine too. This amused me.
I played as a Sith Assassin. I had an AoE knockback which was handy, and a couple of other abilities of use, but generally speaking I felt pretty rubbish. I never really felt like I was dealing much damage to enemies. The game didn't feel as smooth to me as GW2 did, which is most likely due to the NA servers thing but we won't know for sure until launch, and so it was all pretty generally 'meh'. As in WoW, spellcasting requires you to be stationary for the duration of the cast. A slow movement speed and a fairly large arena made the gaps between action feel rather dull and drawn out. On the plus side to all this, apparently I was in the same group as TotalBiscuit. Woo internet nerd celebrities woo!
I have no doubt that the story content for this will turn out to be pretty good - maybe not better than a true single player experience, but significantly better than normally expected from MMORPGs. That's good for the story aspect of a game, but what about the mechanics, the gameplay? I have no idea. And so as far as SWTOR is concerned, my opinion is much the same as it was this morning.
Did I play any other games when I was at Eurogamer Expo? I briefly found my way into the 18+ area where the more violent games lived. I spent a couple of minutes with Saints Row 3 (which looked horrible as it was on an XBox 360). The result amused me greatly.