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Oh boy! Oh boy! Oh boy!

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You may have seen my Sentry Duty “cover” percolate through the dA sidebar awhile ago, unsung.  It’s an open, collaborative comics anthology with a bunch of different stories concerning the same basic premise from a few writers and artists.  I’m doing some arting, but saving up my words for NTO.  And LittleBigPlanet levels.

Exciting.

P.S.

Gave Aion a spin. It seems thoroughly inoffensive, which is to say it’s consummate but altogether bland. I will probably never play it but I wouldn’t think less of someone who did.

And don’t forget to buy Time Gentlemen, Please!.

Lot of Catching Up to Do

I spent way more of yesterday than I should have with the PS3, but we have a lot of lost time to make up for, a lot of apologies to exchange, etc. — i.e. I cannot overemphasize to the PS3 how sorry I am for swearing up and down that I’d never own one and insisting it was a colossal, damning misstep for Sony, and in turn the PS3 can’t quite convey its contrition over having formerly cost a billion dollars.

I gotta say, though, utterly after-the-fact as my eventual PS3 purchase was, I haven’t had this much fun with a new console since the GC (social 360 vers Rock Band shenanigans notwithstanding), my consternation at the checkout at Best Buy with a gift card and 800 Rewards Points certificates in hand be damned.  There may have only been one game off the shelf I really had to own (LittleBigPlanet, natch, and I probably blew about three hours of my day on it yesterday) but catching up on all the downloadables I’ve missed was bliss.  Flower in particular — I’ve rarely been so emotionally affected by any game.

I would have gone on to flOw and Fat Princess but eventually had to give the PS3 over so George could  spend quite some time with PixelJunk Monsters.

So I’m reborn a PS3 owner.  What’s your PSN names, guys?

Darkfall Part 4: The Farewell Bend

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Darkfall is a divisive game.  Opinions expressed about it tend toward the extremes of love and hate, and usually illicit a dissenting shitfire either way.   Darkfall devotees will defend the game till the bitter last word as a bold niche game that’s not for everyone, and detractors will invariably equate “niche” with “crap” and cite a bunch of numbers relating to Blizzard’s subscriber base.

I actually managed to stand my ground somewhere in the middle.  It is a bold, niche game and it’s certainly not for everyone, but I do think its appeal will broaden as Aventurine continues to work the kinks out of it.  Final Fantasy XI, when released, was a passable first foray into creating an MMORPG but that was about the extent of it; in the years since then Square Enix has bent and reshaped the game into something great (too late by most accounts but that’s a story better left to Alex).  Darkfall has already undergone sweeping change since its initial European release and with support from its playerbase I have every confidence Aventurine will continue tweaking until the game really shines.

If said playerbase doesn’t drive off everyone on the fence about giving Darkfall a shot.

One of the game’s few irreconcilable flaws it is its present population.  15% mature adults with jobs; 85% socially retarded man-children who’ve never been within 10 feet of a vagina that was higher res than 72 dpi.  Outside a tiny, tacit minority the people playing the game are persistently, aggressively stupid at every opportunity in every avenue available to them.  When not posturing behind internet-anonymized walls of racism, sexism and stupid weed jokes, the kids are running macros in the safety of their clan cities to beef up their skills while they’re presumably away sleeping off all the incredibly hardcore drugs and alcohol they constantly purport to be doing.  Folks frustrate me to the point of lippiness at some point in virtually every MMOG but I eventually had to just shut all my chat tabs save Clan in Darkfall lest I blow a steam line.

Which brings me to the game’s other really interminable snag: its chat interface.   Rather than have a single log window into which various chat and system channels dump per your desired filtration for seamless perusal, Darkfall has a cumbersome tabbed chat window wherein a new tab pops up for Race, Race Alliance, Trade, Public, Clan, Clan Alliance, Party, Whisper, etc.. New tabs don’t expand the window, either; so if you have your window sized to accommodate all your usual channels without crowding your view of the deadly horizon and someone sends you a tell to warn you you’re about to be shot in the kneecap by a lurking red you probably aren’t going to see it.   Additionally, to speak in a given channel you have to click over to interface mode (meaning your character is standing vulnerable for however long this takes you, out of your control), click the appropriate tab, click the input bar, and then type whatever you wanted to say.  Ventrilo is almost universally mandated by Clans that actually want to accomplish anything in the game because its chat interface is unusably deficient, and for a squillion irrelevant reasons I hate Vent almost as much as I hate Darkfall’s playerbase.

I did functionally quit Darkfall a few weeks ago, and rising disgust with things not entirely within Aventurine’s power to fix did factor in but mostly I just couldn’t pay to play three MMORPGs simultaneously.   I fully expect to pop my head back in in the future, and I’m confident it’ll be shot off by a fagaxe macroer with maxed archery skill.  By that time I expect things will have heated up on the NA server: veteran transfers from EU will have overthrown all the upstarts and behemoth siege vehicles will be rolling over the clan cities of the current death-by-numbers hordes, the odd raft in the ocean will have been driven away by roving pirates in 30-gun warships, and with any luck the fucking chat interface will be sorted out and I won’t have to turn on Vent and flashback to wiping all over Blackwing Lair under the command of a graduate of the Dives School of Raid Leadership.

Darkfall deserves a second look.  For a freshman effort by a tiny development group it’s an impressive feat: a deep, dangerous game where you really can do or be just about anything you want free of artificial restriction.   It’s the nearest thing available to a spiritual successor to Ultima Online and/or the prematurely shutdown Shadowbane — the only port in a WoW-clone storm.   Well. Until Final Fantasy XIV.

Darkfall Part 3: Hours in Exile

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If you belong to a clan in Darkfall with control of a reasonably established city you can pretty much disregard the game’s alignment system, killing whomever’s gear strikes your fancy or whomever’s name you think is stupid, safe in the knowledge that no matter how high you rise on your faction’s shitlist you can always ride home to your melting pot clan city and bank your loot before unwinding gathering truckloads of otherwise rare herbs cultivated at the clan farm.

I speak in impossible run-on sentences, though, and have an enduring intolerance for outfit names with too many Xs in, so I didn’t belong to a clan I could run home to when my alignment dipped into the red.  I had to fix it, and fix it pronto.

Heading east into the snowy mountain miner’s paradise the Dwarves hail from, I ran, unmounted, for probably 40 minutes, grabbing apples off fruit trees to limp my flagging stamina along, before reaching any kind of civilization.  From there it was an eternity of creeping around in the shadows trying to find someone weak enough to handle yet strong enough to conscionably kill.

There is no “press button, turn invisible” ability in Darkfall.  Stealth is hiding behind a bush at the right time, striking from the shadow, not standing against a flat grey rockface when the sun is blazing off your polished plate armor.

I am pretty awful at it.

Yet I managed, eventually, to find and approach, unseen, a lone Dwarf wearing a slight cut above the barest of minimums in gear, out skilling his magic abilities on the second tier of the game’s ubiquitous goblins.  I.e., I found the nearest thing I could to my Dwarven equivalent, then charged out from behind a rock hurling mana missiles at his backside.

He turned to face me, hurling mana missiles of his own, but then for whatever reason he panicked as I closed into melee range and turned and ran like hell for an uncomfortably near city that I hadn’t previously noticed being there.  I ran after him, firing stupid underpowered mana missiles once again, as he dodged and wove like a pro and attempted to kite me in to die in the cover fire of the city’s towers.  I stayed on him, missing about half the time because this Dwarf was honestly probably a better player than I was and just suffering one of the seizures of groundless panic at the sight of a red that grip everyone in Darkfall from time to time.  Guard towers looming, I whittled away the last of his health and he fell, in a mucky ditch, probably about ten yards from safety.  My character threw back her head and roared triumphantly as awkward and faintly ironic phrasing heralded my success  — “You are now considered good.”

My heart was pounding again; he hadn’t put up a fight like the last guy but I was in enemy territory and he was undoubtedly warning the neighborhood there was a red outside in laughable gear.  Too rushed and too sympathetic to really feel like looting the guy’s corpse I nevertheless couldn’t resist seeing what he had on him.

His inventory was full to bursting with commingled crap.  Gear, drops, arrows, and just shy of 100 gold pieces.

I mentioned before how looting in Darkfall works; manually dragging items from an enemy bag or corpse to your own backpack.  What I didn’t touch on it is how all these various containers are without any kind of grid or slot system; stuff just goes and stays wherever you put it – if you loot gold pieces in three stacks of 5 and just randomly dump them in your bag you don’t automatically have a neat stack of 15, you have three randomly dumped stacks of 5.  And a minute later, when you loot a set of crummy cloth armor, it probably gets dumped over the top of two of those stacks and you can’t find them until you do a proper sort later at the bank.  Which, if you’re smart, is where you sort as a rule.  If your OCD’s got you doing it in the field (like this poor anal retentive Dwarf) the most harried of gankers (like me) can effortlessly grab your neatly stacked gold and arrows (arrows in Darkfall, like Tiny Tim, are as good as gold and better) without spending five minutes rifling through all your crap trying to decide what’s worth taking.

Richer, better armed, and running like hell, I lit out for the Tribelands as fast as my depleted Stamina would allow.

Next time: Christ, the denouement, already!

Darkfall Part 2: The Price of Freedom

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(Part 1 of the Darkfall review can be found here)

My second day in Darkfall found me hunting trolls nearer the edge of the the Tribelands: my native corner of the massive, seamless world that is Agon.  It supposedly takes 6 hours straight running to cross the mainland corner-to-corner, and of course the continent is fringed with islands the smaller clans are already trying to set up housekeeping from, but at that point I’d never set foot outside my own, relatively safe corner of things.  The corner was big and scary enough.

Darkfall’s alignment system, a vague allusion to factions, discourages wholesale slaughter of people new to the game while not actually prohibiting it.   Player races make up three warring “race alliances,” with Humans/Mirdain(Elf-allegories)/Dwarves comprising one, Mahirim(furries)/Orks[sic] comprising another, and the Alfar, Dark-Elves-in-miniature, off doing their own thing because they’re thematically stupid and overly difficult to hit with an arrow.  But I digress.

In essence if you kill a friendly (“blue”) member of your own race alliance you will take an alignment hit, become evil (“red”), and be killed on sight by the guard towers of your faction’s NPC cities.  Additionally, you are then a target for players of your own race, who will receive no alignment penalty for taking you down and stealing your shoes.  Redeeming your alignment involves killing members of enemy factions, which is sort of difficult if you’re brand new, underpowered and undergeared.

I’d already been killed a few times by other players, but they’d always been enemy races presumably in need of a quick alignment fix – in their hulking full plate armor I sort of doubted they were after my goblin axes and lizard-on-a-stick.

With regards to my own race I’d gotten dangerously complacent.

I’ve previously touched on the fact that Darkfall’s art direction is uninspired.  The graphics, too, are underwhelming overall, but once in awhile, at certain points in the game’s day-night cycle it blunders into some transcendent combination of filters and lighting.  Suddenly, I’ll find myself distracted by the beauty of the environment, staring at the sunset glimmering off veins of metal ore in a rockface when I should be paying attention to the approach of two blues I’d written off as fellow troll-hunters.

Weapons sheathed, resting in the dirt at one-eighths health watching the butterflies, I was easy pickings for the pair of them.  And, goddamnit, I’d been wearing my second-best armor (the Sunday stuff I kept in my bank for precisely this reason).

Resurrected a good five minutes’ walk away I didn’t take the time to load up on replacement gear.   I just took off in the direction of Troll central, naked (apart from my trusty, unloseable Leafblade) and furious.

My corpse was stripped, predictably, and my killers nowhere in sight.  But Darkfall sees to it the sounds of conflict carry ridiculously far, and I could hear fighting.  Where was another matter.

Darkfall’s sound is really one of the game’s indisputable flaws.  It has no excuses and no arguable silver-linings; it’s just bad.  In a game where survival hinges on perception, there is no surround or even decent sound separation.   You cannot tell which direction a given noise might’ve come from, and for that matter what a given noise is – the sound effects are horrifically selected in most cases.  For example, logging into Darkfall makes the same noise as a Death Knight of World of Warcraft’s Corpse Explode ability, giving the impression that you are being forcefully born of some Biblical harlot’s slick, fetid womb.

I hunkered down with my back to a high, troll-covered bluff to rest and top off my health.   And one of my killers jumped down in front of me, separated from his accomplice and at about half-health.  He was blue, still; clearly, this wasn’t the one that had taken me down or finished me off.

I didn’t care.  He was wearing my pants.

The first time you kill someone in Darkfall is memorable, to say the least.   I’ve done the PvP thing and it’s always sort of exhilarating the first few times but Darkfall’s clumsy real-time combat is somehow more evocative of predatory intimacy.  Killing that bewildered son of a bitch with my Leafblade (I ordinarily use magic but my staff was currently in his filthy mits trying to heal him with an underpowered curative spell) got my blood going in a way a game hasn’t in years.  My heart was pounding, my stomach molten.  And then he was dead, I had half my stuff back, and I was now evil, unable to return to the city to turn in my troll quest or bank my reclaimed gear.

It was time to take a long, introspective journey of redemption … into Dwarf country.

Darkfall Part 1: My Life as a Sheep

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Initially announced in late 2001, tiny independent Greek/Norwegian (huh?) company Aventurine SA’s MMORPG Darkfall was in development so long it was written off by almost everyone who might’ve cared as vaporware.    When it was eventually released to the European market over 7 years later Eurogamer rated it first 2/10, then 4/10 following allegations on Aventurine’s part that the original reviewer didn’t actually play hardly any of the game.

… none of which I was aware of when the game made it to the North American market a couple weeks back, because I’d never even heard of Darkfall.   My sister said she thought I’d like it.

And so, perpetually bored with WoW but requiring, as ever, some kind of MMOG drip-feed, I read up on this Greco-Norsky underdog, mostly on blogs run by grown-ups still raging over the eventual shutdown of Shadowbane.   What they described was an MMORPG that in many ways cleaved closer to genre roots than the recent deluge of WoW-clones, eschewing levels, classes and restricted PvP in favor of individual skills, freedom of character development and full-on, full-loot player killing – a fusion of Ultima Online and Morrowind.  Darkfall’s devotees were fond of styling themselves wolves among sheep, which smacked severely of douchebag interweb posturing, and yet I had to admit an attraction.

So I bought the game, a decision I hemmed and hawed about and then immediately regretted once it was made; $50 feels steep for a game as unruly and unpolished as Darkfall immediately proved itself to be.  It presented like a wacky Korean freebie:  trainwreck art direction, buggy install, incomprehensible interface with very little documentation.   The thought crossed my mind that I must never, ever in any way indict myself for having paid actual munnies for Darkfall in any venue where people might know who I am.

But I come from stock that acutely felt the sting of the Great Depression.  As rigorously as I was taught to feel guilt whenever I am indoors on a day nice enough to work outside in the yard, I feel as if I must get my money’s worth out of any product or service for which I have paid hard earned dollars.  So I was going to play some goddamn Darkfall.

After negotiating a perplexing interaction with what I was sure was supposed to be a helpful NPC, I headed out with my Leafblade in hand to find a goblin to kill.   The Elder Scrolls resemblance was definitely apparent here, with my inelegantly animated furry Gumby-sliding around swinging, but I was somewhat distracted from this by a phenomenon I was unprepared for: these newbie garden goblins didn’t seem to want to die. They weren’t content to sit there and bash it out with me and see whose DPS output was infinitesimally superior; they were avoiding me, kiting me, maneuvering behind me, falling back to switch weapons and shoot from a distance, pulling me back to their group.  Far from feeling the incipient hero, I felt like a jackass.

Elated to finally put one of them down, looting it proved problematic.   It was grossly unintuitive to me, coming off of games like FFXI and WoW; a complicated affair of putting away my weapon, using a context-sensitive interact key to open a blood-spattered tombstone, opening my own backpack, and finally … dragging each item individually over from the corpse to my inventory?

I found my way into the game’s incredibly weak chat interface just so I could howl “You are kidding. Must I seriously drag each item, physically, from this loot window to my inventory?!”

Yes. I must.

My mind reeled as to how anyone had thought this was acceptable – for about 4 seconds.  And then, unarmed and bent over this cocksucking goblin, I was shot in the back.  Before I managed to get my backpack out of my way and my stupid Leafblade unsheathed I probably took about 3 more hits.  Suddenly goblins were all over me and I was running like the wind back to the safety of the thoroughly unhelpful NPC and her bafflingly labyrinthine interaction tabs.

Safe within the walls of my starter city I decided I’d find the nearest bank.  My earlier research into the game had impressed upon me the urgency of banking often, and the proximity to death I’d experienced scrapping with a stupid goblin underscored this.  If I were killed anything on my person was instantly forfeit to whomever happened to be strolling by.

On the way a guy come lolloping past on a majestic Death Pig.  He was still in visual range when he was shot dead in his saddle by someone, presumably from a warring clan.  The killer stripped his corpse, hopped aboard the Death Pig, which was still standing there, majestically, and rode off.

The seemingly clumsy loot system, Darkfall, and my willingness to spend actual money on it made sudden sense.   I was free to do whatever I chose here, but choices would always have immediate repercussions — and not the predetermined, generalized and usually reversible sorts of repercussions presented in a game like Fable II.  If I chose to take everything the goblin dropped I would always be vulnerable as I bent to rifle through his possessions while other goblins, and, more dangerous still, other players moved in to attack.  If I rode my fancy mount through town there was always the risk someone would kill me and take it.   Absolute freedom and constant risk analysis.

I was going to be playing a lot of Darkfall.

Do you think this is FUN?

My dad can fix just about anything.  I think most people probably feel this way about their dad, especially when they’re five and their dad displays a modicum of skill at gluing things, but I’m hurtling toward 30 and the sentiment persists: yesterday I was out there and he was showing me his progress on an industrial-scale wood gassifier he’s building out in the barn, demonstrated with a foot-long flume of near-invisible hydrogen flame.  It’s good he can fix anything; he’ll probably blow my childhood home into the stratosphere eventually.

Growing up he was always fixing someone’s stereo or TV or dehumidifier or car or computer.   When I was little him soldering new capacitors into circuit boards of his own device sort of blended together with him soldering capacitors into someone else’s circuit boards; fixing or building things was just what he did, and had been doing since he was like 10.  I guess when I was a kid I figured, like everyone else must’ve figured, that he just liked doing it.

My dad’s recently retired.   Before that, though, he was an industrial electrician for 30 years, fixing somewhat bigger stuff at a can plant.   He definitely didn’t like doing that, but at least he got paid.  Most of the time, when he was fixing someone’s Playstation, he was doing it out of a sense of obligation; it was always friends and family who just happened to bring along some busted hunk of shit in the back seat of their car that “maybe he could look at.”

What he liked doing was innovating; making something new or arriving at an old destination via a different route.   He didn’t stick a conventional turbine on the roof when he wanted wind power; he trial-and-errored through developing a vertically-bladed contraption with reactively shifting vanes dependent on wind speed and direction.  He liked doing his own thing.

whirligig_generator_vanes

I know how he feels.

I’m not much for machining or circuit design — I dropped anything resembling an electronics course after AC Fundamentals in school — but I’m a passable hand at drawing things. And I am tired of designing your tattoo or band T-shirt or business card or photography company logo for free because you are my cousin or my boyfriend’s former co-worker.   If I want to toil endlessly at artistic bitchwork for zero financial compensation I’ll work on my comics.