March is here so it must be time for another update. The Warhammer and Age of Conan betas plod on. I find I have less interest now in Warhammer and greater hopes for Age of Conan. It has never been any secret that Warhammer was particularly focused on PvP but it has become ever clearer that this appears to mean PvP to the exclusion of all else. PvE content is never spoken of in any newsletter or mentioned in any advertising. From what has been revealed of the classes and character development there are no obvious indications of any end-game beyond city raids (which do seem interesting). I know less about the ins and outs of Age of Conan than Warhammer but that ignorance leaves room for hope that it will be a more interesting game with greater depth.
Since I have had little time lately my gaming has been confined to things I can pick up and play for an hour or so at a time. Given those restrictions I have had no desire to play World of Warcraft. Logging on for 20 minutes to do a daily quest is to me the gaming equivalent of remembering to take out the garbage or making sure to mow the lawn. Another chore to be crossed off a list rather than a mode of entertainment.
One of the games I have played and enjoyed was S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Stalker is a first person shooter set in the area around Chernobyl after the accident. In this storyline the radiation released has created mutated animals and people that you will encounter as well as valuable artifacts which can be collected and sold. The people who enter the restricted area in spite of the military presence have formed small communities and strongholds. There are several factions which you can choose to support, join, or ignore as you wish. Each offers access to jobs that can be undertaken for money and stores where equipment can be purchased. Which jobs you perform is not without consequences. Working for one group may put you at odds with another and turn potential allies into enemies who will shoot you on sight.
The game is great for letting you go about your business exploring the world while avoiding anomalies (radiation hazards that can kill you in horrible ways), killing mutants, and collecting precious artifacts and loot. The combat model is fairly good and the graphics are well done. The story is adequate for providing you reason to visit certain areas and take on certain jobs while not being so overdone that it cannot be avoided or comes off as excessively melodramatic.
There are a few downsides though. The game can be unforgiving. You will want to remember the old gamers Axiom: Save Often. In a single careless moment you may turn a corner and walk straight into both barrels of a shotgun or find yourself stuck in a situation from which you cannot escape. Another potential annoyance is the weight limit imposed on your character. While it adds a certain amount of depth and strategy to the game many people may find that being unable to carry more ammunition or a wider variety of weapons and armor too restrictive. Weapons and armor also wear out over time as you use them. The body armor you just bought before starting a mission may offer about as much protection as a cardboard box before you're halfway through.
Another downside is the difficulty curve. Everything moves along smoothly right up until the final mission to enter the power plant. As soon as you enter the map region where the reactor can be found you are being chased by helicopters, snipers, and riflemen through highly radiated areas while under a time limit. Entering the plant itself things get even harder. Suddenly the enemies seem less flesh and blood and more like heavily armored, semi-mobile gun turrets. These soldiers will stand in complete darkness at the end of blind corners just waiting for you to poke your head out to burn you down in a hail of automatic gun fire. You will find it takes three or four times as much ammunition to stop one of these opponents as it does to kill any other enemy in the game not to mention the gauntlet you had to run through to reach this point has likely left you rather short on bullets and with your armor in tatters.
All that aside I played the game for about twenty hours before setting it aside and had a very enjoyable experience even up to the end where I was forced to quit w/o completing the mission. Considering you can get the game from Steam for only $19.95 I figure it was money well spent.
The other game I have found myself playing again recently has been City of Heroes. It's been over three years since I last played and the game hasn't changed all that much. There are new powers to choose from as well as the ability to play villains now. There are new costume pieces, new character appearance options, and a new (to me) invention system that creates an economy in the game for buying and selling craft-able power enhancers and the components to make them. There are new types of missions, new task forces, and areas where players can engage in either arena style, or open world pvp with set objectives. The game also allows players to increase or decrease the game difficulty to better suit their abilities and style.
Character creation is as compelling as ever if not more so. It is easy to spend hours planning out your hero or villain and there always seems to be just one more archetype or power combination to experiment with. The game play is as good as ever. Players can jump into the action quickly and start feeling heroic (or villainous) within minutes of entering the game world. Maximum level is still 50 after all this time but there is no shortage of people playing at the lower levels to team with. Because the character system is so enticing people are constantly creating new avatars.
In many ways I think CoH is every bit as good as, if not superior to, World of Warcraft. The player interaction and game mechanics are better as is the dynamic pace of group combat. The areas where it falls short are not insignificant however. The game still uses an xp debt system for charaters over level 10 that will turn a lot of players off and encourages people to play within their 'safe' zone rather than take on riskier encounters and test their limits. When it comes to the end game CoH still has nothing to offer. You can spend as much time as you like tweaking your skills and enhancements but new challenges are few and far between. Content updates occur roughly every 6 months and not all will have new material for old players. Fortunately the early game is good enough that if you enjoy leveling superheroes and just playing the game it can keep you entertained indefinitely.
City of Heroes is now fully in the hands of NCSoft. Cryptic handed over control of the game and has been working on a new superhero game of their own. the new title will be called Champions Online and is based on the pen and paper superhero game called 'Champions' published by Hero Games. Champions Online builds on many of the features that makes City of Heroes so compelling. Players can expect a huge array of options for customizing their character's appearance right down to their style of walk and combat. Characters will still be categorized by the class they choose but now all powers will be available to every player. The difference being that some powers will be less expensive for some classes than for others. The game is being developed for simultaneous release on consoles and PC. The interface is designed with that in mind so that there are few UI elements and combat can be carried out using just the buttons on a standard controller.
Champions Online promises to deliver the next generation of superhero MMO incorporating and expanding on all the best parts of City of Heroes while updating the graphics for even better visuals. The game is projected to be released sometime in 2009 so the wait may not be unbearably long. It is definitely something I'll be keeping an eye out for in the future.