Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Patch 5.2 Trailer Up

Well, the Thunder King trailer is out, which would seem to suggest the patch is imminent. Historically, these trailers are usually out the week before a patch or so, so I'd expect we'll be heading into the Throne of Thunder very soon.

It's nice to have a well-produced patch trailer again. 4.3's dinky montage and 5.1's utter lack of a trailer were a bit disappointing. I realize these things aren't all that important in the long run, but it's little things like this that can drum up excitement for the game.

I get the impression that Blizzard has put a lot of effort into making the Throne of Thunder an epic raid. We haven't really had a huge raid since Icecrown Citadel, and I've always found those to be more exciting than the smaller, broken up raid tiers.

Aesthetically the Throne of Thunder looks to be quite cool as well. We get plenty of Troll stuff (armored dinosaurs!) but it's not overwhelming, so we also get to experience some cool Mogu stuff.

While I would certainly like to see new 5-man content, I get the impression that Blizzard is de-emphasizing them as a progression path, other than a source of Valor.

Justice Points are also fading into irrelevancy, with old Valor gear remaining purchasable for Valor, albeit at a discounted price.


We have three new factions, though per-character you'll only see two, as two of them are faction-bound.

The Shado-Pan Assault:

This faction is the raid faction, and will be the new source for Valor gear. You will be able to earn up to Friendly rep simply by clearing trash in the raid, but in order to earn beyond that, you need to down bosses. Luckily, beating them in LFR will also count toward your rep, though you only get one reputation boost per boss per week, meaning you can't run LFR and Normal to double your rep. There will be some items to purchase at Neutral, though, so even if you get off to a slow start, you'll be able to spend your valor.

The Kirin Tor Offensive:

Jaina has mobilized the Kirin Tor and reestablished the organization as a strictly Alliance faction. Alliance players will fight alongside Jaina as they take the isle of the Thunder King, fighting the Zandalari and Mogu, as well as the Horde forces there, the Sunreaver Onslaught.

The Sunreaver Onslaught:

Lor'Themar Theron has taken direct control of the Sunreavers after their expulsion from Dalaran. Horde players will aid the Sunreavers in fighting the forces of the Thunder King while also grappling with the Kirin Tor Offensive.

Both faction-specific reputations will give you the option of PvE-oriented quests, sending you against the Zandalari and Mogu, or PvP-oriented quests, which have you fighting the other side. As I understand, you make the choice at the beginning of the day, and thus PvPers can stick to PvP and PvEers can stick to PvE.


Wrathion continues his chain, sending you into the Throne of Thunder to eventually put together the pieces for a Legendary Meta Gem, and an extra socket to put it in.

Warlocks will finally get their Green Fire quest chain. The chain begins, I believe, with a drop (though I do not know off of whom) and leads them eventually to a separately instanced Black Temple. After completing the quest, Warlocks can switch the color of their fire spells back and forth by talking to an NPC (in case they aren't crazy about the new look.) Hopefully this will herald in a new era of epic class quests.

Transmogrification restrictions will be eased considerably: Main hand and one-hand weapons are now inter-transmogrifiable, and any weapons that share an animation (such as two handed swords and two handed axes) can also be transmogged to one another. Vagaries of Time, here I come!


All in all, it looks to be quite the exciting patch. I expect we're going to spend the better part of 2013 with this one, perhaps with a smaller, 5.1-style patch a few months down the line (perhaps adding 5-mans?)

Of course, we don't know how many tiers we'll have this expansion, but if it holds to the pattern most expansions have, we'll likely see the Siege of Orgrimmar near the end of this year. And we can expect to hear about the next expansion at Blizzcon this year.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

New Super Mario Bros. U

The "U" suffix is an interesting thing to get used to, though I suppose in the long run it's not that must stranger than "64" was.

So obviously, the first game I got for the Wii U was New Super Mario Bros. U. There are only two Nintendo-made launch titles, and Nintendo Land comes with the Deluxe box (which I got.)

The New Super Mario Bros. series is something I had been clamoring for for years. When the N64 came out and demonstrated that yes, you can have a 3d game world that does not suck, most gamemakers took that to mean that we had been broken free of the shackles of 2d gaming, never to return. Nintendo seems to have realized that actually, the old-fashioned Mario games were damned fun, and just because the system is more powerful now doesn't mean that you shouldn't hold on to  your roots.

That said, I must say, Mario Bros. U does not feel like much of a step up from Mario Bros. Wii. Technically, it's nearly indistinguishable (though in HD... I think.) Even some of the music is the same. Is it a good game? Absolutely - this is a Mario Bros. platformer we're talking about.

I've only played the single-player mode of this, which means that the dual-screen functionality of the Wii U pretty much just means that if someone else wants to use the TV I can still play.

It also seems oddly easy. Mario Bros. Wii took a lot out of me to get to the end. Granted, it had been a lot longer since I had played a sidescroller when I took up that game, but in the space of a couple days, I've gotten all the way to the last area. Granted, that doesn't count getting all the star coins or whatnot.

The thing about these games is that you go in for the fantastic, unparalleled polish that Nintendo brings to its absolute core franchise. The control is tight and the design is glorious, but the depth and scope is somewhat limited.

The Wii U is meant to signal Nintendo's return to the main stage of the Video Game world, after the clunky days of the Gamecube and the (profitable) sabbatical in crazy-land that was the Wii, the Wii U actually has a number of launch titles that bring it back into the fold - like Mass Effect and Assassin's Creed (never mind that those games had already come out for the previous generation.)

It might have been a better call to come out with something a little more hardware-demanding as their first outing, but I think it's a good sign that, for example, Watch Dogs is planned for a Wii U release. This being a game that is likely to hit the AAA stage big time (and will hopefully deserve that place - Ubisoft has a pretty good record, so I'll keep up with it,) I have hopes that Nintendo will truly make its return.

I have to imagine that the new Zelda and the new Smash Bros. games will push the system a little harder. The Wii U has been out for about three months now, and it's on the vanguard of the next generation of consoles (or is it technically the current generation, technically?)

The nightmare scenario, of course, is that Nintendo will have a Dreamcast on its hands, but I'm cautiously optimistic that that will not happen, given that the PS4 is on its way (though admittedly, not for almost a year,) meaning 3rd party developers will likely start getting to work on the big titles. Nintendo can always squeeze by on its first-party titles, but I really hope I don't have to play the more mature titles on my roommate's 360 (or 720, though I don't know for a fact that he'll be getting one.)

So it's a strange grade I give Nintendo for its newest New Super Mario Bros. The game in a vacuum is blameless, save for maybe a little underwhelming in innovations (though with a formula like this, do you want to mess with it all that much?) But as the marquee launch title, I think a more ambitious game would have probably been warranted.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Library Issue

So here's what's going to happen, probably today, and if not, then probably tomorrow: I'm going to go out to the store and buy a Wii U. The thing costs 350 bucks (there's a cheaper one, but I think it's missing a lot of components,) and that doesn't include the 50 for the first game (Mario Bros. U, obviously.)

There was a time when Nintendo systems had most of the AAA titles. In fact, up through the Gamecube, most big non-exclusives were released on all three platforms. With the Wii, given the very different control scheme and the fact that it was almost a full generation behind in terms of power, the AAA games started going only to Microsoft and Sony.

Nintendo wants the Wii U to re-enter that arena, bolstered by the financial success of the Wii.

The thing about the Wii is that in some ways, I think it was a great system, and in some ways, I think it was awful:

Nintendo really opened up a new market of casual gaming. Combined with the lowered price tag, the Wii was the designated "second system" for most hardcore gamers, and the only one for a lot of casuals. The odd result is that even though the Wii was not taken as seriously by both the industry and the core demographic, it managed to sell really well.

On the other hand, take a look at the Wii section of a store: 95% of that stuff is utter crap, compared to about 75% for the other systems. There are so many cash-in tie-ins, cheap-looking gimmick games, and thrown-together pieces of crap that it makes you wonder why you own the system in the first place. That's when you see the first party titles: Zelda, Mario, Smash Bros. Then you sigh a relief and say: yes, ok, this was a good idea after all.

Being the guy with just a Wii was tough, but luckily, after two years I moved with my friend Tim to California, and he has a 360. Having access to the 360 has let me experience the AAA world I was missing: Assassin's Creed, Bioshock, Mass Effect, Skyrim.

Here's why I've convinced myself that getting a Wii U is a good idea: I'm going to need it anyway when there's a new Zelda game or a new Smash Bros. or a new Metroid (can we get the people who did the Prime trilogy back? Those were awesome.) Best case scenario, the buffed-up Wii U is going to also get the major AAA games, and I can just get those games for the Nintendo system. Worst case scenario, I'll still get all the great Nintendo stuff.

Just to be sure, I'm going to research the difference between the expensive one and the cheap one (other than hard drive space.)

In the words of a mustachioed Italian plumber, Here we go!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Frustration of Wanting to Play a Game that Doesn't Exist

You know when there's a game that you're super excited for, and you really want to rush out to your local store and pick it up and spend the next two days straight playing through it, preferably with friends there (who for some reason don't mind just watching you play) and a giant pizza?

But sometimes you can't do that. Sometimes there's a roadblock. Maybe the game hasn't come out yet. Maybe you're a little strapped for cash, and the 60 bucks that game would cost should probably stick around for more practical purposes. Or, maybe the game doesn't exist anywhere but within your mind.

If there is one thing I can safely boast about myself, it's that I'm creative. I have had many, many ideas for games that have, of course, never gone anywhere because, damn it, I don't even known anyone in the game industry, and I don't really know the first thing about making them myself (also, the ideas tend to be the kind of game that would need a big studio behind them.)

Back when I was in High School - freshman year, spring of 2001 - I got a game called Escape Velocity Nova. It was one of the first games I ever just downloaded and paid for online.

Anyway, for those of you who are unfamiliar, EVN was kind of an open-world sandbox game, with very simple storylines (that were told purely through text.) The gameplay had you, as a spaceship captain, slowly build up your power and wealth. You would start with a very simple shuttle that had no weapons and a small cargo hold. After a bit of buying and selling of goods,  you could start to climb the rungs, getting access to bigger ships, then armed ships, and by the end of it, you could be flying around with a 15-ship fleet of massive dreadnoughts spitting out hundreds of Hellhound Missiles as you took entire planets over.

That game is twelve years old now, and was built on a pre-existing game. It was also a kind of cheap shareware piece.

I've been on a bit of a sci-fi kick lately (I'm writing a TV pilot that is in a Sci-Fi setting) and I was thinking that I'd really love to get my hands on an awesome planet-hopping action/adventure game with RPG elements, but alas, as I look through the various games available, nothing quite matches my cravings.

Here's what I'd like to see in a game:

- An open galaxy, free for the player to explore

- But with serious set-pieces to make it feel like your story matters

- A customizable character, with the ability to choose different character classes

- A combination of on-the-ground shooting action, like a more open-world version of Mass Effect 2/3's style, and deep space flight, allowing for big ship-to-ship combat that could be the primary type of gameplay if the player chose

- Lots of space stations and derelict starships for the player to discover and explore.

- Really spiffy graphics

That last one is usually not what I focus on, but I'm having a craving, so damn it, just...  you know?

Anyway, the core engagement of this game would be the sense that you could be just about any kind of person you wanted in this world - from a freight captain who has to fend off pirates to a salvage ship that must brave the dangers of a dark and mysterious ship any time you want to get paid, to a soldier fighting in massive space battles, to a pirate, who tries to take the stuff from that first guy's ship. And otherwise, you might just use your ship as a means to an end - maybe you're a mercenary who has a small ship with a team that travels between stations and offer your deadly services?

Anyway, I've been trying to find something akin to that in the current lineup of games, but there's really not much that I see that fits the mold. The closest I can come to is Eve Online, but I don't want to take on the subscription fee, and I also understand that the economics in that game are ridiculous and silly. Not to mention that I kind of want a solo adventure at the moment.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The New Generation of Consoles is Finally Happening

I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Nintendo fan - I've had every system they came out with except the original (I was born in 1986, and had no game-playing older siblings, so the NES was a little before my time.) Today, I started considering getting the Wii U. Also, Sony just announced the PS4, and we can probably expect Microsoft to announce the next Xbox soon, so I'd say that the Wii/360/PS3 generation is finally coming to a close (though a great generation it was.)

If there's a defining trait for this past generation, I'd say it's downloaded content. Nintendo had its virtual console, which I hope they continue to support (it makes finding those obscure games from the past far easier) and games largely became more modular, allowing new content to be added (annoyingly, for a price usually.)

Nintendo, whose motion controls were a cool idea that was only used interestingly in a few games, clearly has set themselves as the innovators. The Wii U (and Nintendo finally got to the generation early, which will hopefully prove advantageous once developers start actually working on the new generation) has integrated a Tablet as their main controller, which is actually what I thought they were going to do when the "Revolution" was announced. Anyway, the tablet is a far more versatile concept than the motion-control, and of course, the Wii U has a standard controller as well. Nintendo clearly wants back into the mainstream, AAA market. I hope they succeed.

Sony seems to be doing its usual thing and just copying. The PS4 has a screen built into it, as a kind of sad knockoff of the Wii U's controller, and it also has an imitation Kinect.

Of course, no one has any idea what the new Xbox will be like (well, outside of Microsoft,) but I thought they did a good job with the 360. If Microsoft wants to make a lot of people happy (though perhaps not their shareholders) they should make Xbox Live free.

So what should we hope for or expect for this generation? The previous one was all about HD capability, which in retrospect is probably something most of us don't really think about anymore. (HD TVs are just "TVs" these days.)

The flexibility of the Wii U's tablet is certainly cool, and I could imagine consoles growing more independent of the television as a direction for the industry, but that might not be the huge thing that defines this generation.

The microtransaction business model seems to be taking the industry by storm, but I wonder how it will turn out in the long run. I, for one, have never gotten anything via microtransaction. I tend not to get downloadable content either (my roommate does get Rock Band songs, but that's the extent of it.) There was a PA Report article a week or two back that pointed out that the games industry is actually doing the reverse of what amusement parks did decades ago: Disneyland, for one, used to have free admittance, but you had to buy tickets for every ride you went on. When they switched to a one-price-fits-all version, the reaction was very positive. As the article pointed out, buying things is stressful. You have to worry about whether your purchase is worth it. In games, historically, you got to play your game once you made the purchase, and then you were free to enjoy it without any more concerns.

Frankly, I think microtransactions - especially if those purchases lead to power-level increases in-game - have the potential to seriously damage the medium, and I recommend that we, as the customers, boycott them as much as we can, to discourage game makers from continuing the practice.

Moving away from that subject, there's also the idea of the online game. Bungie recently announced their new project: Destiny, that will be a MMO FPS, designed to last ten years. This could be amazing or terrible, but here's an idea:

Nintendo's online service is already free, as is Sony's (if I recall correctly.) If Microsoft were to make Xbox Live free, developers could feel free to make fully online games for all the consoles. Now, I'm not saying every game needs to be online (I like WoW, but sometimes it's nice to have all of Skyrim to myself) but I think there's a lot of really cool potential design space for a console-based MMO.

Ultimately, the hardware guys have just got to build a good framework. It's the game designers themselves who are going to be responsible for just how awesome this generation of game systems is. Graphics can wow you, and new ways to interact with your system can open new doors, but it's the games themselves that I care about.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Valor Point Downgrade

According to the latest blue posts, Valor points will be getting downgraded to justice points in 5.2, meaning that you'll have to get shiny new Valor points to buy the new gear.

There is a very serious problem with this, philosophically, which is that Justice Points are utterly worthless.

For anyone who has run a significant amount of LFR, or built up an epic set via reputations (or more likely, both,) it's likely that most players have replaced their blue gear, or at least they have replaced anything below a 463, heroic 5-man level blue piece.

Justice Points are only used to purchase 458 blues. In the post 5.1 world, JP got a little more relevant by allowing you to do a one-time upgrade on blue pieces to raise them 8 iLevels. It did not do much for them, because JP could only be used to upgrade blue pieces, and once you started decking yourself in epics, JP lost any use whatsoever.

In Cataclysm, Valor was downgraded to Justice every raid tier, but this corresponded with a downgrade in cost for the previous tier's Valor gear. Thus, if you had 2000 VP, and you didn't quite make it before the downgrade, there was no problem, because that VP would become JP, and the 2200 VP item you wanted to buy would now cost 2200 JP.

But current valor gear is not getting downgraded in cost. Thus, players who do not jump to buy their 5.0 or 5.1 VP gear are going to now lose progress toward those items.

The whole point of the VP/JP dichotomy was to have a "current" currency to correspond with "current" gear, and to have an "old" currency for "old" gear.

If these changes go live, our VP will become "old" currency, but the actual old gear will remain with a "current," if discounted price.

There are two options here. One is to not downgrade the currency and effectively create a single-currency system. The other is to downgrade 5.0 and 5.1 gear to JP.

As it stands, the only thing that this will accomplish is to set people back from goals they were approaching.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Customization and Consoles

The PA Report had an interesting article about "The Minecraft Problem," which got me thinking about the future of video games.

Several months ago, I discovered some YouTube channel with a weekly "Top 5 Skyrim mods" series. It was actually quite amazing to see - hundreds, if not thousands of people were tweaking the game in various ways, from tweaking lighting effects to introducing hilarious new abilities (such as a shout that called down a "Rain of Trains," which does exactly what it sounds like it does) to adding entire new game areas with their own quest chains and looks.

There's a granularity of customization to modern video games that's kind of amazing - far from limited to a couple of 15-dollar DLC packages.

Here's the thing: I play Skyrim on an XBox 360. I use a Mac computer, which shuts me out of a lot of games, but even if I had a PC, I certainly can't afford to spend a thousand dollars to put together a fancy gaming PC, and a thousand bucks is probably a very conservative estimate of what I'd need.

Console makers have begun to realize that they have a disadvantage over PCs. Consoles were conceived, I think, to originally be basically home arcade units. But once people figured out how to create save files, they blossomed into something that even the most sophisticated arcade cabinets could never really be. In more recent generations, console makers started to take the idea of data storage seriously, eventually just throwing an actual, legitimate hard drive onto their consoles.

PCs (and for the record, I'm referring to both Windows machines and Macs) never really had to work on this as a "new" thing, because unless you're talking about the era of the Apple II, home computers have almost always had some kind of storage. That's why games like Civilization could work, allowing you to save as many times as you'd like in as many different copies as you might like.

Yet PCs still have an advantage (again, let us never forget that the off-set disadvantage is much higher cost) which is the ability to look at the nuts and bolts of the game. Controls aren't really an issue, because if you want to play a game with a controller, you can easily get one that plugs into a USB port. But the environment of a PC, where it's not just "play this game" but "here's the game and all its files" allows you to do all those awesome things like give Tamriel a Death Star or a Tardis.

I imagine some consoles will try to become more PC-like in this regard, opening up customization, but it will probably require that they let you interface your PC more directly with the inner workings of your console. It'll also probably require you to start installing games on the console, rather than popping the disk in.

There are two things they would also need to fix: one is making switching out hard drives easy, which in fairness, is probably already not too hard - we'd just need to make it so that a PC-formatted hard drive was compatible with the consoles.

Next, we'd have to rework any download service. I'd recommend that games create a bank of user-generated DLC and that the people who operate the online services of the consoles make that stuff free. One should not have to pay a red cent if the maker of the content is giving it out for free.

It's a complex issue, and I'll be very curious to see how this develops over the next generation or two of game consoles, but I think customization is going to be the most important development in the evolution of video games as we head into the future.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Still trying to do that WoW movie

After years of Sam Raimi as the chosen Warcraft movie director, there was a lull where he had quit but there was no replacement, and the project looked like it had died. However, recently Duncan Jones was announced as the new director, so it looks like the project is back on.

I've only seen one of Duncan Jones' movies, which was Moon. I actually thought the film was quite good, and had the feel of old-school science fiction that you never seem to see anymore - specifically that it was a science-fiction film and not a sci-fi action film. Mind you, I don't mind the latter category (I did watch the Star Wars movies an absurd number of times as a kid) but I appreciate that this is a director that can handle otherworldly subjects without needing to make everything an explosion.

That said, the Warcraft film is going to be super action-heavy. There is a lot of interesting intrigue going on between the various factions in the Warcraft universe, but this is definitely a world where violence solves problems, and even if there are many conflicting interests between the various factions (and sub-factions,) Warcraft's always been fairly straightforward in its characters' motivations (as much as I'd personally hate him in real life, I think that Garrosh is actually one of the most complicated characters they've come up with - a man who struggles to embody honor without having any idea what honor is.)

So there are a couple hurdles to making the Warcraft film that they'd have to leap. Mind you, as much as I like Jones and the Warcraft setting, let's not fool ourselves - this movie is going to be a disappointment. Video game movies have, at their very best, only ever ascended to guilty-pleasures. And for every Tomb Raider or Prince of Persia (haven't seen either, but I understand them to be "not as terrible as you'd think') there's an Alone in the Dark or In the Name of the King, or a Resident Evil movie where most of the cast gets killed by freaking lasers before the zombies even show up.

Don't expect an epic of deeply nuanced characters here. If you don't, you'll only get a nice surprise if they manage to pull it off.

Ok, so with that sad caveat out of the way, here's the major hurdles:

1. Races!

Warcraft is a setting with many different races. Depending on when they set the movie in the series' timeline, they might be able to keep things limited, but at the absolute least we're going to have Humans (easy enough) and Orcs.

That said, I'd appreciate it if they put in a little effort to show the less traditional races in Warcraft. If they want to distinguish the setting from the generic fantasy setting, then getting the Gnomes, Trolls (dial down the racism a bit, if you can) Tauren, Draenei, Goblins or Worgen in there would do a lot (particularly the Gnomes and Goblins - nothing says "not your average fantasy world" by throwing in 20th century technology.)

How they do these races is another challenge. They're all humanoid, so if you get a Westmore-style makeup team (they did the aliens on Star Trek) you'd probably be able to pull them off decently. If you make them CGI, it could look kind of crappy, but this is also going to be a 100 million dollar movie, so let's hope any CGI characters are more Gollum than Jar-Jar.

However, the absolute most important thing I think they need to make it truly feel like Warcraft and not like generic fantasy is that they need to show how the "monstrous" races are just as human-like as the humans. If the movie's about humans fighting orcs, let's see the Orcs raising their children and practicing shamanism, and show that they're not just berserkers.

2. Story!

The World of Warcraft is a HUGE fantasy world. It's got to be one of the most detailed fictional worlds out there, with tons of books and the absurdly huge amount of story content contained within the games. This is all very good, and will certainly help the art department flesh out the world, but it also means they've got to figure out what story they want to tell.

Probably the most film-ready story in Warcraft is the Tragedy of Arthas. You could do a movie about Arthas' downfall and it'd make for quite the experience. That said, as awesome as the Scourge is, Arthas' story is limited to one corner of Azeroth. You wouldn't be able to see Kalimdor in that story, and you'd limit your exposure to the non-human races.

If they choose to create new characters and just set it roughly where the game is at (which means that by the time the film comes out, it will be an expansion or two behind) you'd have to strike a delicate balance between showing off people like Varian or Thrall and fleshing out your dudes. Plus, if  you were creating new villains for those people to fight, you'd be passing up a lot of pre-existing stuff.

3. Scope!

This ties into the story, but the thing about WoW is that there are a lot of major plots going on and not everyone gets to participate in all of them. If they use the pre-existing bad guys in the movie, will that suggest to the non-WoW audience that the main bad guys of WoW are the Scourge, the Old Gods, the Burning Legion?

4. Staying True!

Warcraft is very different from the Tolkien standard. The demons are not from hell, they're from a magical version of hyperspace. The undead are not standard zombies, they're an army organized with a single leader.

It would be a shame to have Warcraft generic-i-sized so that audiences could follow along. We need airships and nuclear-powered submarines along with our wizards and swordsmen. We need lanky green dudes in loincloths successfully fighting bulky blue guys with spaceships. That's just how Warcraft rolls.

If it winds up looking like a standard medieval setting, it won't be worth the trouble.


The movie's still a long way off, and could return to development hell. But if they do wind up making it, I genuinely hope they do pull it off. I've grown to like the setting quite a lot over the last six years, and with the talent they've got behind it, we could, theoretically, get a good film out of it.

But this is a video game adaptation, and there are going to be a whole lot of cooks in the kitchen. So if it winds up not-so-good, let's not take it too hard.