Sunday, November 22, 2020

On the Campaign Trail, Part 2

Group content in an MMO can be a double edged sword.


I'm not referring here to dungeons and raids - not much anyway - but to open world events intended to be handled by several players.  The Sword of Damocles will always hang over this content, or rather the Sword of Diminishing Player Population.  What happens once there's simply not enough players around to take on and complete these challenges?
 
It's not overall numbers that matter here, but how many players there are in a particular zone.  With the focus on endgame so dominant in many MMOs it's not unusual to find the number of active characters at max level easily exceeding those still levelling.  Lower level zones, and even the older endgame zones, can end up sparsely populated, and that makes group content harder to handle.

One solution to this problem is to offer incentives to max level players to take part in these encounters - Neverwinter does this with the various random queues, which keep the dungeons and skirmishes busy even if the lower level ones are invariably run at a sprint that leaves any player who's actually on-level for it struggling to keep up.

Another solution is to power up characters so that what was once only doable by two or three players can now be done by one.  This is what The Old Republic did when it buffed the companions up to god-mode, making it possible for anyone to complete the planetary Heroics, and to some extent it's what Neverwinter has done also.
 
The legacy campaign system is really a combination of both of these fixes, with level 80 players being encouraged to complete Heroics in the older campaign zones through weekly quest objectives, and being powerful enough to handle at least some of these encounters solo, if necessary.

None of which does anything to keep those campaigns with few Heroics feeling in any way relevant at level 80.  That includes a couple of those I talked about last time, but with the exception of the second half of Tyranny of Dragons and Dread Ring these have always been easy to out-level.  Now I'm coming to the later campaigns, which mostly do have their fair share of Heroic encounters, and as such don't feel quite so uninvolving when run at level 80.
 

Storm King's Thunder
 
Around the time I returned to Neverwinter for this blog I was talking to a friend with whom I'd played through the game previously.  He had questions...
 
"You're really going to complete the campaigns again?"
"Yes."
"All of them?"
"Yes.  I'm actually looking forward to it."
 
I really was.  I still am.  Except that 'all' does include Storm King's Thunder.
 
This is a marathon of a campaign and the only one I didn't finish the last time around, and even with the faster progress that's now common to the older campaigns it's still a daunting prospect to return to this one.  It plays out across several zones, starting in Bryn Shandar.

Bryn Shandar suffers from what I think of as the Silithus Effect - a zone that's so effective at evoking an unwelcoming atmosphere that it becomes something of an exercise to get through it.  The atmosphere of a town that's barely holding on amidst a bleak and inhospitable landscape is altogether too well realised, and helped - if that's the word - by a score that's both grand and grim.  This may be part of why it takes me so long to go through SKT - I can't adventure through this zone for too long before I feel the urge to go somewhere more upbeat, like... well, like anywhere else.

The mobs in Bryn Shandar aren't quite one hit kills, which makes them (slightly) more formidable than those in the preceding campaigns.  There's also a few quests that spawn multiple waves of attackers and these can be fairly tough even now,* but these are the exceptions.
 
*The removal of Lifesteal has changed the dynamic of combat, especially extended fights like these battles with the barbarians.  I haven't been dying to these encounters, but I have been using a fair number of healing potions to stay alive.
 
 
Icewind Dale 

The emphasis on completing Heroics makes Icewind Dale a better fit for the new approach than many of the other campaigns, since these encounters are thick on the ground in Icewind Pass and Dwarven Valley.  On the other hand these zones are also focused on Black Ice crafting - whch is more or less obsolete now - and PVP - which I'm not aware has ever been big in this game.

Still, it's a nice change of scenery which continues the snowy theme without being anywhere near as grim and desolate as most of Storm King's Thunder.  Indeed, Caer Konig, the hub town for this campaign, is one of the most pleasant places in the entire game - beautifully made, with a cheerful and upbeat theme that always makes me think it should be the title music for a children's cartoon about a girl in an adorably oversized furry hat who goes on adventures with a friendly talking bear.
 

The Cloaked Ascendancy
 
Almost all of Neverwinter's campaigns have strong openings, and The Cloaked Ascendancy is no exception.  It's probably the longest intro sequence of any of them, and is one of the better written ones as well as it sets the scene and gives everyone involved a little more character development than is the norm for this game.

It's also long because it has a lot to explain.  The River District, where the action of the campaign proper takes place, is perhaps the most ambitious zone in Neverwinter in terms of interactivity, and all the moving parts - guard posts, dig sites, ritual locations and the treasure ship - take some time to explain.  I must admit that when I first explored this zone back in 2018 it took me a long time to come to grips with how it worked.  I did come to enjoy it though, and still do.
 
The standard mobs in River District aren't particularly tough, but the ritual locations are - at least if I'm doing them solo.  Which I mostly am, since as discussed, most of the playerbase has moved beyond these campaigns now, and none of these zones are as lively as they once were.

They're still fun though, and getting caught up in the dynamic nature of River District is why I won't be talking about the rest of the campaigns until next time, because I haven't got to them yet.


Friday, November 20, 2020

On the Campaign Trail, Part 1

If I were to do this run - all of it, from level 1 to now - over again I would have let Undermountain wait, and levelled from 70 to 80 through the campaigns.

Admittedly doing so might not have made much difference.  The gear that's given out at the opening of Undermountain added 5K to my item level right away, and that undoubtedly increased the speed at which I out-levelled the older campaigns, but even without that I'd still have been level 80 sooner rather than later, and that would have made a difference as well.

Still, it would have slowed things down somewhat, and given me more time to appreciate the campaigns that make up some of Neverwinter's best content.

Tyranny of Dragons

This is really two campaigns in one, as it kicks off during levelling as a stealth tutorial on daily repeatable content, before eventually moving on to Well of Dragons, a more conventional campaign zone.  The daily task line-up - an instance, a couple of short quests and a group fight with a dragon, in one of 5 different zones - is nicely varied and takes just the right amount of time.  I've almost never been in a situation where there weren't enough other players around to down the dragon, and at times the real challenge has been to get a hit in fast enough to get credit for it before the beast goes down under a swarm of players.

This campaign does get fairly easy fairly quickly.  Even before Mod 16 characters were scaled down to bring them in line with the zone when they entered the questing area, but as always there's a significant difference in the power of a levelling character compared to that of a scaled down max level character.

The instances did make for a definite difficulty spike - particularly Ghost Stories in Neverdeath - when they opened up later on, but that's no longer the case, particularly as GS only goes up to level 60 now, so at level 80 it's one hit kills all the way.

Sharandar

This campaign is something of a relic, being designed for levels 60 to 69, at a time when presumably it took more than a few hours to go through them.  As such there's no way to not out-level this place very quickly, even before Mod 16.  That's a shame because it's very well made, with nicely detailed and atmospheric zones and an excellent array of fun enemies, and it really does deserve more than than to be raced through.


Elemental Evil

Similarities to Undermountain are not coincidental, seeing as this campaign was added to the game the first time the level cap was increased.  Like Undermountain it's not really a campaign, being a strictly linear progression through each of the four zones, though here it's possible to do those zones in any order.  Which I guess makes for another way in which Undermountain was a step backward.

I have mixed feelings about Elemental Evil.  Two of the zones are reused from levelling, and though they've had some changes made to them they're still very linear and fairly grindy.  It probably doesn't help that I didn't much like Blackdagger Ruins and Helm's Hold the first time around.

Of the others I do like Spinward Rise quite a lot.  It has a good layout, excellent music throughout, and lots of kenku.  Everything is better with kenku.

Like Sharandar this campaign has always been easy to out-level, since they share the same level range.  The zones are all relatively quick to complete though, as it's a straightforward progression through quest hubs rather than being drawn out through daily quests.


Dread Ring

There's nothing subtle about Dread Ring.  It's a big box full of bad guys and the daily quests mostly boil down to killing X number of them.  Where this zone stands out though is in the design.  Dread Ring is fantastically well laid out, and that's a big part of what elevates this to one of my favourite campaign zones.

This is Neverwinter at its fast paced, action packed best.  Dread Ring is a terrific zone to ride through at speed from one objective to another, with multiple routes available that minimise the number of unecessary fights along the way.  Each area is visually distinct - no small feat given the overall desolate rockiness of the place - and I rarely if ever have to look at the map to see where I'm going, which is always a sign of a well made location.

Dread Ring also has two good instances and one great one.  Phantasmal Fortress is, simply put, a work of art - a fantastically realised environment reminiscent of the works of M.C. Escher, and full of clever incidental details.  It's one of my favourite locations in any MMO.

Unfortunately this zone is perhaps the one that's hardest hit by the fact of being level 80 in a level 70 zone.  Unlike the later campaign zones there's no Heroics in Dread Ring - other than for the Demonic Invasions - and that lack of group content means it didn't take long for me to be utterly overpowered for everything I go up against here.  Of these first four campaigns it's losing out on the true experience of this one that stings the most.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

To Hell with Uprising

Because nothing says new level 80 content like fighting under-level mobs.  Again.

Module 17: Uprising is an attempt to get more mileage out of the Undermountain zones.  Being levelling zones they don't have a lot of longevity built into them, but they're also not an especially good fit for repeatable content.  This is something that Neverwinter is normally very good at - zones like Dread Ring and Barovia are masterfully crafted to enable fast and fluid movement from one location to another, and pack a ton of content into relatively small spaces.  Most of the campaign zones are like that to one extent or another, which makes Uprising's awkward reuse of the Undermountain zones all the more jarring.

I'm not even entirely sure why I'm back in Undermountain, from a story perspective.  Seeing as Uprising opens in a literal space station it seems it would be an ideal opportunity to present some new and unique environments to explore and adventure in, but nothing is done with the setting.

So it's back into Undermountain, and while I'm fighting level 80 Illithids and Githyanki in these areas now, the original denizens are still there as well and spoiling for a fight.  This is less of an issue in Twisted Caverns, where the locals are mostly too busy getting duffed up by Mind Flayers to aggro on me, but in Terminus I spent more time fighting the original inhabitants than I did the Githyanki invaders.  Seeng as these mobs are the same level now as they were when I first trudged through that zone they don't make for interesting opponents, and this experience also underlines the fact that Terminus is one of the worst laid out zones in the entire game.

Uprising is so half-baked it doesn't even get proper campaign progression - another inexplicable break from a formula that this game has used so well in previous modules.  It all feels rushed (despite it having come out five months after Undermountain) and unfinished.  The unusually long cooldown times on the repeatable quests also suggest an effort to stretch out what little content there is.  It does have a good opening - as usual for Neverwinter - but after that it's entirely underwhelming.

To hell with this, I thought.  Quite literally, since I headed on to Mod 18: Infernal Descent.

Infernal Descent also gets off to a good start, but unlike Uprising it follows up with something that feels more substantial.  True, it reuses the guild stronghold map, but seeing as that's never been used as a pure questing location before I can't fault Cryptic for making use of an under-utilised resource..

I say feels more substantial because as yet I've only dipped a toe into this particular bloodbath.  Infernal Descent is tough, with a recommended item level of 20K, and I'm currently at just over 16K.

I did have something of a suspicion that I'd be in for a rough time in this one during the intro, which unusually teamed me up with two NPCs who I felt were doing most of the heavy lifting during the combat sequences.  Sure enough, when I got outside and started questing it didn't take me long to confirm I'm underpowered for this zone.  I can win the fights, but I'm leaning on my health stones for insta-heals more than I like.  I have plenty of them, but at 2 or 3 charges per fight I'll burn through them in no time at all if I stay here.  Which leaves me in an awkward position, being under-geared for this campaign but over-geared for everything else.  Except Uprising, for whatever that's worth.

So my plan for the next few sessions is to go back to the older campaigns, which I've barely touched on since my realisation that Undermountain had inadvertently power levelled me past them.  If I intend to take this character as far as I can, in terms of build, I'll have to do them at some point, and though my first impressions of how Mod 16 impacted them were not good it will be interesting to see in a bit more detail just how they play now.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Not what, but when

"What's your favourite MMO?" is a good question, but "When was it your favourite MMO?" might be a better one.

I don't have to think too long about the answer if I'm asked what my favourite singleplayer games are.*  The only way that list changes is if I play something that's new to me and good enough to take a spot, or if I go back to a game and find I don't enjoy it like I used to.  That doesn't happen often, and if it does it's likely due to some change in my attitude to gaming.  I do find I don't have quite as much patience for 90s difficulty as I once did...

*Doom, Minecraft, Stalker SoC, Civilisation II and Fear Effect.

What won't alter my opinion is a change in the game itself, because singleplayer games don't undergo significant changes post-release.  Sure, nowadays there's DLC, but aside from remasterings and the like the nuts and bolts that make up a singleplayer game will be the same today as they were when the game was new.  This cannot be said of MMOs.

The ongoing development of MMOs is one of the great strengths of the genre, enabling games that have been running for a decade or more to remain relevant and continue to offer something new, even if they'll never be cutting edge again (if they ever were), and so it gives them a longevity that singleplayer games can only dream of.  With the recent launch of the PS5 it's worth reflecting that World of Warcraft launched during the era of the PS2.

This strength can, however, also be a weakness.  Some updates, particularly those that impact core mechanics, can change a game until it's very far from the game that it was.  Hence the question - when was it your favourite MMO?

This does come up a lot during discussions of certain games in the genre, particularly WoW, where it usually comes down to a question of which was the player's favourite expansion.  I don't see it as often relating to other MMOs, unless there's some clearly defined before-and-after dividing line.  I've never played either Ultima Online or Star Wars Galaxies but I still know what's meant by pre-Trammel or pre-NGE.

Of course to have an informed opinion on this it helps to have played the game for a fairly long time, and certainly both before and after whatever changes made the game worse (or better - it can happen.)  This is why I don't have especially strong opinions on the relative merits of The Secret World and Secret World Legends - because I never played TSW for that long before the relaunch.

Neverwinter is different.  When I first played this game the latest module was Tomb Of Annihiliation, with Lost City of Omu coming out while I was on my way to level 70.  I progressed through those campaigns, and the ones that preceded them, all the way through to the launch of the next module, Ravenloft.  That's a strong run of content updates, and all of it integrated well with all that had gone before.  Nothing was wasted.  Everything worked.

Then came Heart of Fire, with the changes to the crafting system, and then Undermountain, which raised the level cap to 80, and in doing so trivialised most of the older content in the game.

It's that version of the game - pre-HoF and more especially pre-Undermountain - that I look back on as being Neverwinter at its best, and it's comparisons to that version of the game that fuel most of my criticisms of the current game.  It's not other MMOs that this game at times fails to live up to, it's the better version of itself that it once was.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Neverwinter: Day 4

No, that's not a new character.  This is Neverwinter, not City of Heroes.

There's a sequence early on in Vankrakdoom - the final zone of Undermountain - where our hero is sent to infiltrate an enemy cult.  The disguise utilised for this is undoubtedly effective, changing the height, build, race and gender of my character, and the funny thing is that it's not a magical disguise.  In a fantasy setting like this it's hardly difficult to explain anything away with magic, but this quest makes a point of emphasising that I just need to collect the clothes of the cultists to get away with the deception.  Clearly it's so easy for a female Drow to pass as a male human that it's not even worth mentioning, just so long as she's wearing the right cloak.

Implausible impersonations aside, Vanrakdoom is the best of the Undermountain zones.  The infiltration sequence did hint at a retread of Terminus when the cult leader started handing out quests, but it's much better handled here, with an opportunity taken to subvert the orders, and this time my walk on the dark side was over quite quickly.

The zone feels bigger than the others of Undermountain, and the layout is less linear than most of the game's levelling zones.  There's a couple of grand architectural flourishes - one of which is also the scene of the final instance - and some nice use of phasing to move the story along.  Best of all there's a genuine sense of danger, because with mobs at level 79 and 80 the fights are a challenge for the first time in a long while.

The importance of this can't be understated.  Neverwinter doesn't have strong enough storytelling for that to pick up the slack if the moment to moment gameplay isn't up to scratch - unlike Secret World Legends or Star Wars: The Old Republic.  Similarly it doesn't have the atmosphere of Lord of the Rings Online or, in a way, Dungeons & Dragons Online.  What it does have is a profusion of ways to add incrementally to a character's power, but if that character is already running on godmode most of the time already it does reduce the impetus to do so.  This game needs good, challenging combat, and in Vanrakdoom it finally starts to deliver on that again.

Rather a lot of it too.  The zone has extremely high mob density, and unlike most zones in the game there are few clear paths from one area to another.  The only time I've travelled through Vanrakdoom without constant fighting has been when I've been following in the wake of another player who has already killed everything in their path.  That's something that can be tiresome in some other MMOs - SWTOR come to mind - but it works here, in this game.  At least it does in this zone.

 

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Squid Pro No

During my last three runs of City of Heroes I've always raised my notoriety settings at some point - even if it was only for one mission.  This time I didn't even consider it.

After 24 hours Ms. Midnight is level 17, with 73 defeats to her name.  That's 2 levels behind my previous slowest levelled, Time Raider (also blueside - no coincidence) and only 4 defeats less than Mistletoe, who was running Praetorian content.  In other words, it's not great.

So does this mean that Warshades actually do suck?  Well...

There's a couple of factors to take into consideration.  I've been running a human form build, which is not recommended for levelling.  I did try out the shapeshifting Dark Nova form, but I just wasn't feeling it, and really who would want to feel it when it's a nasty, slimy, tentacled monster...

My lack of affinity for squids notwithstanding, it's hard to deny that there are some issues with Everyone's Least Favourite Archetype.  I'm not saying that Warshades were specifically designed to be terrible until at least level 22, but I'm not not saying that either.

I've talked previously about the anaemic damage this AT does, and while I did get access to a power that buffs that damage - Sunless Mire - fairly early on, it's on too long of a cooldown for it to be a consistently effective solution to the problem of an attack chain comprised entirely of minor and moderate damage.  It's also situational as hell, since it requires the Warshade to be in melee range of multiple enemies to get the best out of it, and those enemies aren't doing nothing while I'm powering up.  Think of it like Build Up, if Build Up took 25% of your health every time you activated it.

I could have topped up my damage with Orbiting Death (aka Orbiting Debt - says it all, really) but damage auras run heavy on end usage and I'm already running no less than 3 defensive toggles.  Adding a damage aura on top of those (and Hover) would leave me gasping for end after just about every fight.

My debuffs have been similarly unimpressive - to the point I've wondered at times if they're even functioning.  Knockback remains a winner and has been a literal lifesaver on multiple ocassions, but I only have two powers with that effect, and neither do it reliably enough to plan for it.  Hope, yes.  Plan, no.

Even on default difficulty settings - with bosses enabled - I've had very few fights I'd call easy.  I've found myself relying on inspirations to get through clashes with three +1 Council* and every boss fight without exception has been a life or death struggle.  Luckily I haven't run into any Elite Bosses.

I've been eating purple inspirations like candy and my comment a few days ago about Warshades starting off with a travel power to cut down on the time it takes to run back from the hospital doesn't seem like a joke anymore.

Oh, and the AT's unique inherent gives zero benefit while soloing.  That's par for the course for the HEATs (and VEATs) but it's still ironic given how unpopular Warshades are on teams.

*The Council have the dubious distinction of being the weakest enemy group in the game to go all the way up to level 50.  They're the go-to faction for players who want to steamroll through hordes of cannon fodder, and I don't recall every having had this much trouble with them on any prior character.

It's not all bad.  The Warshade story is good, and the character isn't uninteresting to play.  I can see the potential for Ms. Midnight at higher levels, but this has definitely been the toughest run of the four I've done in this game so far.  Mistletoe was more of a slog, but she was going up against the generally harder to handle Praetorian factions, and a lot more bosses.

With all that said I've still enjoyed this run.  City of Heroes remains my favourite MMO, and I'm sorely tempted to break one of my rules and do a double bill of this game.  I've spent entirely too much of this run of blueside thinking about how much I like redside...