Wednesday, December 28, 2016
The State of MMORPG Gaming as 2016 Closes
This year more even than last demonstrated that MMOs are in a weird space, where the conventional aerchetype set by Everquest and then World of Warcraft (yes, and others that no one really remembers prior to WoW) has --I think-- moved from being "the only way to do it" to being both something of an oddity and also a conscious style/design decision. Today if you make a game that functions on the traditional questing/leveling/pve/pvp structure set by the industry nearly two decades ago then you are doing so because you want to actually offer up that style of game, not because it is in any way the golden apple of design (or seen as such).
We had a time when MMOs were being cranked out constantly, and in Korea at least it seems this still goes on, with a fair number getting awkward ports over to the US. But in the US, new MMORPGs need to do stuff differently, and often don't look anything like a conventional MMO used to....to the point where the line between MMO and other game is often blurred considerably. As a result, some games (like The Division, Destiny or even GTA Online) might well have a valid claim to the MMO part of the name. But despite this, I want to look at how the "tried and true" MMORPGs are doing these days.
As usual, I look at these games with the following important caveat, because I am not a normal MMO Blogger: I probably am lucky to land 50 hours in a game per year, and if an MMO gets 200 hours out of me in a year I must really, really like it, enough to devote that much of my precious time to it. When some guy comments online about how you can level to 100 in game X in a couple weeks*, remember that I am not that guy, and I have played, for example, The Elder Scrolls online continuously since it's date of release and only just hit the level twenties....albeit with like 9 characters, but you get the idea: I am the player for whom all the pre-end-game content in an MMO matters. The End Game is not for me, and I find it a time sink anyway when I do miraculously get there. When I hit level cap in WoW, for example, and wrap the current story (as much as the solo quests allow me to see) then I am done with that game; I have no time, ability or interest in the End Game raids and other nonsense.
So, with that said....here's what I followed/played over this year:
The Elder Scrolls Online
This year Elder Scrolls Online upgraded to a "One Tamriel" edition which was basically a smoothing out of the leveling experience....you can now basically go anywhere and group with anyone and the game accommodates your level accordingly. The net result was more freedom of play and a bigger focus on what you are doing now rather than where you need to go. TESO remains my favorite fantasy MMORPG on the market right now, with beautiful graphics, enough of the Elder Scrolls aesthetic to make it interesting, and for a casual MMOer like myself it's a great game to pick up and play on those odd Sundays when you have a four or five hour block of time for some serious gaming. It also remains one of the more affordable microtransaction experiences; the most expensive items remain vanity-based, but the game regularly has sales and reduced costs on its crown points which means you can make it quite cost effective if you are patient.
Verdict: will continue to play this most likely until I finally reach level cap. Someday. But sometimes I just can't get into the experience and have to put it aside for weeks at a time, only to come back to it randomly and suddenly totally dig it again. I think it's the fact that there are moments where it feels like 95% of my quests are being delivered by ghosts, about other ghosts. Why the obsession with the ghosts, Zenimax???? WHY???
I jumped back in to this for a few weeks earlier this year and was pleased to see that it had grown quite a bit in content. I played long enough to start (not actually succeed....just start) comprehending the bizarre multi-tiered point structures of the cash shop, but ultimately grew annoyed with the whole mess once more when I took a month away from the game, came back, and found it too annoying to bother with re-learning all over again. That said, I think Neverwinter really doesn't require any purchasing for a casual MMOer to enjoy for a while, as the game feeds you pretty much the essentials as you go. Their hook is to offer you lots of cool stuff you want to buy, and hope you do exactly that. Restraint will make this a much cheaper game, since unfortunately the cost of store items remains too high for my tastes, and their sales often do little more than drag the outrageous costs down to "almost affordable but not quite."
Verdict: I really enjoyed the play of NWO once I figured it out and learned to ignore the weird currencies design to make you pay money in the cash shop. I was disappointed to see that leaving and coming back a few weeks later left me feeling a bit out annoyed with all of it again. When I feel the temerity to stab at it once more, I will.
This game is getting older and older, but still has periodic new events, usually driven by cash shop sales items. It remains a fun shooter to mess around with, and ties in to the Defiance TV series, but I've never been able to really enjoy it as much as I feel I should these days, since Defiance itself delved into the "MMO shooter" genre first, laying the groundwork for much better games to come, games which knew the audience for this style of game much better than poor Trion did (The Division, GTA Online and Destiny, for example). I may give up and delete it, but not before I finish watching all the episodes of the TV show.
Verdict: I think I may be done with this one, but who knows, I thought I was last year, too.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
I honestly did not have this on my radar, but three things happened: first I got into White Star --a lot-- earlier this year which really put me in the mood for some good, pulpy Star Wars-adventure. Despite my interest, I didn't think of SWTOR as an outlet for this desire. Then a new expansion was announced, featuring a cool trailer (here) that reminded me of why Bioware is so cool. Finally Rogue One released, and I rediscovered my fluctuating, on-again, off-again love for all things Star Wars. On a lark I snagged the expansion and loaded the game.
Since then I've been hooked and it's dominated my December game time, more so than any other game except The Division. The cash shop is not annoying me like I remember when it first came out...the prices aren't spectacular, but they are more affordable on average...$40 in coins gives you enough to snag the key items and vanity crap you will no doubt want to decorate your PCs with. It's still not perfect, but the game also was overhauled with a faster, more story-focused leveling experience which has so far proven much smoother and more entertaining for the casual MMOer like me. People are bitching about this change online, I noticed.....but my guess is Bioware needs people who are playing the game and spending money, not end-gaming it and no spending money? I don't know.....but I do know I am currently quite obsessed with this game, and I honestly did not expect that I'd end the year stating that SWTOR is my darling MMORPG right now.
Verdict: I feel a strong desire to actually experience all of the story content in this game and can only assume EA and Bioware have found some form of mind control to hook me on the game. That or I'm just enjoying how even trivial quests are made entertaining with Bioware's live actors and cutscenes.
The Crew (Complete Edition)
I feel an obligation to include this game on the list, because it is absolutely an MMO and maybe even an RPG, due to the fact that you follow storylines in the game. When this first came out I was less than impressed, but several expansions later and The Crew is a pretty fulfilling and interesting experience, with some decent (but not perfect) car physics. You are totally playing online with other humans, but it is fairly easy to ignore them if you want, for most things anyway. That said.....unlike Horizon 3, where you have to choose to go online, The Crew is always online all the time. I've been enjoying touring it's rendition of the United States, which is a world filled with aggressive drivers attempting to perform ever more outrageous stunts and races with increasingly tricked out cars in various locales. The new expansion adds cops and chases in to the mix, making the overall experience feel pretty rounded.
Verdict: I'd like to play this to the "end," whatever that is for a car game but suspect Horizon 3 will beat it up and take it's stuff as that game steamrolls out more compelling content.
World of Warcraft: Legion
Legion is definitely a return to form for World of Warcraft, and I jumped back in entirely because my nostalgic love for this game was rekindled by the Warcraft movie earlier this year. I had left off somewhere in the middle of Warlords of Draenor on my alliance warrior, and enjoyed playing through WoD which I really think was a better expansion now than I previously gave it credit for. The Legion expansion is interesting....but it's the "newest" which means that once you hit the new content the leveling process slows down and the game's flaws (such as agonizingly painful quest lines, horrendous environment designs, generally dated graphics even after the recent attempts at improvement) start to stand out. Maintaing your garrison is fun, though....but I have to say, I am not sure I like the weird turn of events in Legion all that much....the weird pseudo-Norse stuff, the superhero feel with artifact level weapons and all that are just not really proving all that fun for me (yet, I's still persevering). My main gripe though is that as I play my horde warrior through Pandaria content to get to the good stuff in WoD, I am learning to REALLY HATE PANDARENS...and Pandaria...it's just so gimmicky and trite for the horde storyline so far, and the increased leveling pace makes it such a fragmented experience that I am basically just trying to find the will to level my orc warrior to get her the hell out of there as fast as possible.
Verdict: I wish Blizzard would cough up news of a WoW 2, one which looks and feels more like the movie. Leave the original WoW as a legacy title for gamers with older rigs.....we need something genuinely new for Warcraft's future, please! For now I will probably find myself leveling my one warrior to the level cap slowly and surely while enjoying the lower level content I find more palatable...and exploring more of WoD's territory, which I think is the best since BC.
Off the Radar
I have a few games I used to love which have all but dropped off the radar. These include:
Rift: despite releasing new content this year, I never did recover from when Rift went F2P; the cash shop is too messy and expensive, and the design decisions from level 50 content onward were just no fun, with a questing approach that worked great before the F2P experience but leads to a fragmented inability for casual MMOers to figue out what the hell is going on, where to go, or why to care. Rift still remains a great experience from level 1-50, approximately, with diminishing returns beyond that point. Verdict: I am done with it.
Guild Wars 2: I gave up on this game. Much like Rift I have no idea what the hell is going on, or why it took me so long to level up back when I was invested in the game. Leveling up seems much faster now, but the purpose of one's existence in the game is constantly called in to question due to a questing structure that seemed innovative back in the day proving to be boring and pointless now. It's basically a problem I describe as "invisible progress," in which the cycling of recurring events/themes doesn't give you much direction on where to go.....if you can adjust to the "fill the hearts" thematic of GW2's exploration process, and you can accept the almost (to me) incomprehensible math behind how damage in combat works, then GW2 is probably a better game for you than it is for me. Verdict: I am keeping it installed for now, but I think not for much longer. A damned shame.....I love the original GW, and so wanted this one to be a major innovator going forward.....so my frustration at not being able to grokk it is very annoying.
DC Universe Online and Marvel Heroes 2016: The DC Heroes MMORPG and the Marvel Heroes 2016 action RPG both are fun experiences, but from very different angles. I spent a bit of time in both, and came away from the experience realizing that the best moments I experienced in both games paled in comparison to taking 2 hours to watch the latest movie or read some comics. Verdict: Deleted and moved on. I do want to thank Marvel Heroes for letting me run around as Moon Knight, though....if only you were a real game, and not a Diablo knock-off, the most ill-suited design choice for Marvel characters imaginable. And as for DC Universe.....it helped clarify just how inappropriate the MMORPG classic format is when applied to a comic book superhero universe.
*The reason I make this distinction is because of an experience I had (often) best summarized by this story: sometime around mid 2008 I was gaming in WoW with my wife and her active guild when I was treated to a fascinating conversation explaining why I was a casual gamer because I could not devote more than 30 hours a week to the game. When I pointed out that that would mean I would have to devote a minimum of 4-5 hours per night, seven nights a week to meet the minimum, I was met with a sea of "yep, absolutely" type responses from the guild, who had no problem with this concept. I took a long break from WoW after that.