Technology catches up with a really great idea in EverQuest Next

Image credit Sony Online Entertainment
Image credit Sony Online Entertainment

Just east of the great city of Qeynos, up a trail through a narrow cleft in the mountainside lay hidden the glade of Jaggedpine. Game hunters are wise to keep to the valleys below, as the Rangers loyal to Karana who keep the glade frown on any who would pursue quarry there. Poachers weren’t the only enemies of the Jaggedpine. Darkpaw Gnolls fester in the lower hills and prey on any who venture the roads, eager to take back the land of their birthright.

EverQuest was many things to many people. It was equal parts social role playing, exploration, character development and classic swords and sorcery combat. It was the apple to whom all others would be compared for over a decade to come. Nineteen expansions later and nearly 15 years since it’s pioneering debut, EverQuest and it’s sequel are a tapestry turned chronology of how the MMO RPG evolved. Future industry leaders like Blizzard’s World of Warcraft were built on the backs of 989 Studio’s EverQuest (now under Sony Online Entertainment) and Turbine’s Asheron’s Call. These first 3d “multi user dungeons” evolved from a niche genre of top-down 2d games and text based dungeon games of decades prior. Even the upcoming Mega MMO RPG successors like Elder Scrolls Online are still borrowing from EverQuest’s success. “We’ve got public dungeons!”, says one. EverQuest had them in 1999.

EverQuest was a very ambitious title that pushed, and sometimes broke, the limits of technology at the time. Beta testers for the original release will recall some features that started as well thought out but did not see light, or not in their intended form. Other game mechanics had to be reworked several times before they were balanced. Some ideas, like the detailed faction system and how your character could develop through choices of allies, deities (and enemies) were simply ahead of their times. More than anything, EverQuest was an eye-popping leap forward so vast and immersive you were almost certain to get lost in the wilderness and have a good time of it. Oh, and die, a lot.

EverQuest tackled many critical gameplay mechanics with little industry experience to lean on. Tuning character death, anti-social behavior, equipment advancement and character personalization were all relatively new concepts in a blossoming genre. While the same issues had plagued and forever altered Ultima Online just a few years before EverQuest, the underpinnings weren’t all too similar. Solutions in one game did not translate to the other, and EverQuest managed to invent several more – like monster AI relevant to zone edges, and how same monsters reacted to unwitting bystanders – and other monsters – while chasing fleeing adventurers. In most cases, EverQuest had to return to the drawing board before finding the right balance.

Despite it’s challenges, EverQuest grew into a benchmark success in the genre. Fast forward to present, and a franchise worth rebooting gets a second day in the sun. Sony Online Entertainment recently announced EverQuest Next, a re-imagining of the world of Norrath on a brave new platform that is powered in part by fan generated content. A far cry from just a trip down memory lane, EverQuest Next sets out to push new envelopes, blaze new trails, and go places few elves have gone before.

Among the exciting new features are permanent, dynamic change and environmental damage. The entire world is built of many small voxel nodes, not unlike “minecraft” or an extremely detailed brick-building set. These make up everything including the ground, buildings and floors and walls of dungeons. They can be set to react to dynamic forces, including spells and other colossal impact, like dragons or giants or siege equipment. The possibilities are staggering, and the same world building tools used to make all this happen are available free to players in the parallel sandbox world of “Landmark”. Landmark leverages modern cloud computing technology and turns players into world builders, allowing fans to self-publish content – content that may even find its way into EverQuest Next itself.

SOE was not content just to cross minecraft with an MMO RPG. In this rebirth, they have boldly left the archtypes and character styles long associated with decades of Dungeon and Dragon influence. They have also established early engagement with the player community to help shape the direction of EverQuest next ahead of beta. Through the “round table” community feature new ideas are laid out for debate and discussion with the fans. At current, one topic was a light humored question to the fans – should dwarf women have beards?

As a member of the same fan community that cheered EverQuest into it’s first release, I am extremely pleased to see the depth of fan community engagement in foundations of EverQuest Next. It’s a daring evolution of many great ideas and technology that simply were not around at the time. I will be delighted to see Norrath with new eyes, without zone borders, and through the power of modern graphics technology. I pray it sees release on Gaming Consoles like PS4 and Xbox One – an announcement on this is due soon from SOE. I may even run into a few old friends upon my return to the Jaggedpine Glade.

Deadspace 3: Awakened DLC – Don’t Blink


Don’t blink, or you might miss this fantastically scary, and short, encore. Visceral Games responds to complaints that Deadspace 3 wasn’t a “horror” title, giving us 3 additional missions that follow the end of the main story – each packed with pretty much everything that ever made a Deadspace title scary – condensed into espresso strength fright. They also manage to pack in some of the best dialog and one liners yet for Isaac and Carver. Top it off with a rousing boss sequence and it is well worth the spare change: 800 MSP or approx 10$. I do wish it had been a bit longer – It’s easily completed in a single sitting – but in this case having been left wanting more is hardly a complaint.

Report: PS4 can’t make toast.


Or, how consoles grew up and got day jobs.

Since the 1994 debut of the Playstation, Sony releases a new version of their flagship gaming platform roughly once every 6 years. The Playstation 2 was released in 2000, and the blu-ray powered PS3 was released in 2006. The recently unveiled PS4 is due holiday season 2013, about 7 years after the still-relevant PS3. Unlike their cartridge-powered competitors like Nintendo, The Sony Playstation and other disc-delivered home gaming consoles have always done a little bit more than just play games.

Although the original Sony Playstation had horrid in-game load times absent in the cartridge gaming world, it could do something the others could not: play music CDs. For a gaming console this was hardly worth the trade, but this is when gaming consoles first started to develop noteworthy differences in total home entertainment utility. Of course, in 1994 you probably knew more folks with musical doorbells than musical phones, and gaming consoles were still primarily just that: for games.

Leap forward a generation of consoles, and the Sony could also play DVD movies. Marginally useful when a lot of home videos were still VHS, it still showed a growing divide between their console and the competition, a division that was also increasingly evident in the types of game developers attracted to a specific gaming console, and the age of each console’s target audience. Sony commanded a larger portion of the mature gaming audience. Nintendo, for a long time the face of family-safe games and games designed for younger children, steered clear of games with mature content until an awkward, ineffective about-face in 2001 featuring an adult-rated game about a heavy drinking squirrel with strong suggestive content. Eyebrow-raising failures aside, Nintendo survives to maintain its core brand and lead its ahead-of-its-time gameboy innovation to command a lion’s share of the handheld gaming market today.

Around the same time, Microsoft decides to get a piece of the pie with the XBOX gaming console, going from zero to awesome in an instant with genre-defining titles like Halo. By 2006, Sony and Microsoft pull ahead of Nintendo with local hard drives and native High-Definition Video support, each betting on opposing players in the blu-ray vs HD DVD war. Both the XBox 360 and PS3 supported additional features like “why do I need a camera SD slot in a gaming console” or “who would use a game console to surf the internet”, but the features remained and grew to include social media integration, youtube, streaming home video on demand (RIP, Blockbuster) and most importantly, the ability to play with friends over the internet. Yet, these were still just gaming consoles, right?

Nintendo bets against it. Boldly racing away from anything that resembles high-definition video, it debuts the Wii, with balance-board and gyroscope outfitted controllers that turned gaming into personal home fitness, dance-along gaming, and a whole new generation of immersive entertainment. It may have missed the giant demographic bullseye that had become FPS-obsessed, but it succeeded in other ways. In addition to its celebrated, kid-friendly core titles like Mario, Zelda, Metroid and Donkey Kong, the Wii today is also used to help the elderly maintain coordination and as treatment for degenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease. Sony and Microsoft each follow in suit with motion tracking add-on devices for similar gaming experiences, like the Microsoft Kinect, which requires no handheld device at all to play.

Despite growing to be educational and physical therapy tools and home entertainment powerhouses, a recent CNN article suggests “console gaming is dying“, citing a four year decline in the market, emergent mobile gaming, and other economic factors. If true, lead game pioneers aren’t letting us see them sweat. Activision-Blizzard is wagering the opposite, launching their historically PC/Mac-only Diablo series on the PlayStation 3 and 4 later this year. The PS4 supports the new 4K HD video output most homes don’t event have yet, and next-gen blu-ray native support. No word yet on the competing offering from Microsoft, tentatively called the Xbox 720, but both are likely to feature highly social online gaming experiences along with the next generation of on-demand, streaming “cloud” gaming.

In the last year, we have seen Microsoft’s Windows 8 desktop and tablet OS evolve to look more like gesture-friendly home gaming consoles – almost exactly like the Xbox 360 – instead of the other way around. We’ve also seen tighter integration between our smartphones and tablets with the home gaming consoles. For systems like the Xbox 360 that are already more powerful than most cable “tivo” boxes for movies and tv, I’d say the PS4 and Xbox 720 are poised to take more (not less) of the non-gaming streaming content, potentially biting into the immovable broadcast giants themselves. Oh wait, I’ve watched all of my pay-per-view cable events on Xbox Live… not to mention the Mars Rover landing. If my internet provider were on the list, I could get ESPN Sports on it too. Microsoft points out that 40% or more of Xbox Live traffic is non-gaming today.

They may not brew coffee, do dishes, fetch beer or make very good toast (I strongly recommend against it, no matter how hot your unit gets), but they certainly do way more than just games and have risen to be the hardest working component of our home TV, movie and entertainment setups.

I believe the reports of console gaming’s death are greatly exaggerated.

Below are some clips from the PS4 announcement trailer showing off the next gen graphics.

12_destiny 246183-dc1 ps4-killzone-shadow-fall-gameplay-video-4 gaming-deep-down-screenshot

Dead Space 3 – Suit Up!

image credit

Lights out, surround sound on. I am Isaac Clarke. Visceral Games spares no detail in its latest masterpiece of immersion, wonder and horror. Enter the dark future of Dead Space 3, a science fiction dream come to life that is easily one of the most visually stunning in the genre, surpassed only by how awesome it sounds. With every step, whether it’s peeking around an unlit corner, scrambling for cover, rocketing through space or stumbling blind through a storm, we are listening with dread. By weaving deliciously eerie environments with a symphony of ambient sounds and audible clues, Visceral Games delivers highly engaging gameplay that stands apart from other popular space shooter titles.

Just as Dead Space 2 was a brave leap forward from the first title, which is widely held to be more or less flawless in terms of gameplay and presentation, Dead Space 3 is a giant step for the series – a move that has garnered a lot of criticism. From the moment we are reunited with our troubled hero it is clear that Dead Space 3 is anything but more of the same dark corridors, a risky move for the franchise. Gone is the centerpiece of the focal experience – Isaac, hallucinating, alone in the dark, going mad from horror all whilst fending off hordes of undead necromorphs in vast, gloomy, derelict spacecraft. Dead Space 3 pushes the envelope further with new co-operative gameplay, featuring a second main character, Carver. Players discover his background during multiplayer-only challenges throughout the story. Isaac, still flawed and unredeemed, is no longer alone in the dark. With this the presentation evolves, leaving the corridors of the USG Ishimura behind.

The risk pays off. Multiplayer mode is genius. During the heat of the battle players can help one another using voice commands to trade ammo or health without clicking a button. Many challenges are a race to coordinate both technical puzzles, swarms of enemies and the ability to react to the unexpected. Some challenges cannot be attempted in single player mode at all. Also new is weapon crafting, universal ammunition, and resource gathering. Craft your own gun, make a blue print for it and trade it to your partner. Players manage supplies and medic kits with the help of scavenger bots that can be outfitted with optional AI routines for personality and style.

Of the complaints I have read, the most common is that Dead Space 3 isn’t scary. It’s not horror. True, some scenes weren’t, but I thought the same of Dead Space 2 compared to the original. Actually, except for two very specific, terrifying encounters in Dead Space 2, I though it was only moderately creepy compared to part one. Dead Space 3 in turn finds new ways to get your blood pumping, relying less on monster pops in the dark to create fright and suspense. From a race against freezing temperatures in a blinding snow storm, or rappelling in oh-so hazardous conditions, to navigating space wreckage while counting the seconds till your air runs out, heart pounding thrills abound. And yes, some scenes are downright scary.

Bottom line, Dead Space 3 is a huge success. With a solid story, fantastic multiplayer, numerous achievements, easter eggs, unlockable game modes and more downloadable content in the pipes, there is a whole lot to like. So nevermind the critics – suit up and get stomping!

Dawnguard – Icing on the Cake

What do you get a game that’s already won Game of the Year? Skyrim’s first official DLC “Dawnguard” tops the cake – adding fresh dungeons, new factions and more of everything that made the base title so immersive.

Dawnguard is named for one of the new factions, a band of heroes sworn to fight the evil Vampire Lord Harkon’s plot to cast Skyrim into Darkness. The player will make choices that align them with one side or the other, and while the core story progresses much the same either way – the people at the heart of the story and myriad of smaller details make this one of the most enjoyable side stories in Skyrim yet. More significant than the plot itself are the locations and opportunities for players who wanted to play a vampire or werewolf; or to hunt them.

Previously there were not many options outside the Dark Brotherhood assassin’s guild for a player infected with vamprism (merely a disease, Harkon points out). Werewolves were much more socially accepted by comparison, but the novelty outside the Companion’s Guild storyline was limited. In Dawnguard both get new talent trees and powers, as well as ample opportunity to run wild.

Dawnguard’s best moments are in the delivering of the story and development of the many new characters and locations. The new dungeons are a huge improvement on the original well-worn layouts, with clever use of lighting, new puzzles and thoughtful level design. True to Elder Scroll’s style, much of the add-on content lay outside the central story, waiting to be stumbled upon. The new content is tightly integrated into the old. You may hear of a location from a guard, a wanderer, or in a dusty tome on a shelf in an unlikely location.

Finally, Bethesda gave players much needed bug fixes and gameplay tweaks. Mounted combat and improved “kill cams” for archery and spells are technically part of a patch and not the DLC itself, but were released around the same time and corrected a few progression-killing bugs that had existed since Skyrim’s release. New content *and* bug fixes? Please, you’ll spoil the fans. Seriously, two thumbs up.

Following a tough act: Elder Scrolls Online

A daunting task: launch a successful MMORPG in the shadow of World of Warcraft.

Even in it’s decline, the 10 million+ subscriber megahit from Blizzard Entertainment leaves a crater of expectations for future titles.

Fearing no bar set too high, Bethesda & Zenimax Online aim to launch the multi-GOTY earning Elder Scrolls series into the MMO gaming space in 2013 with Elder Scrolls Online. From the preview shown at E3 2012, it is built on the sum of many good, old ideas, a few new ideas, and a wealth of first generation MMORPG development experience. The team includes veterans from Sony Online Entertainment (EverQuest, Starwars Galaxies) and Mythic Entertainment (Dark Age of Camelot).

The Elder Scrolls series, which includes Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim, takes place in Tamriel, a rich fantasy world with lore that spans 18 years of award-winning single player RPGs dating back to 1994 when “Elder Scrolls Arena” was released. Few other fantasy franchise can boast such detail, and few others would be scrutinized as closely by fans protective of a world they grew up gaming in.

A central feature of Elder Scrolls Online revealed at E3 2012 is the PVP system, which shows the development team’s love for the three-kingdom epic scale combat that made “Dark Age of Camelot” popular. The similarities may end there though, based on how the active combat system has been described.

Creative development leads teased fans with descriptions of it’s active combat system and cross-class combination attacks. Gone are the messy UI, complex cooldown cycles and rows of action hotkeys. Players instead take more direct control over each weapon swing and shield blocks, perhaps similar to the high-action combat in Skyrim. Certain special abilities may have cooldowns but were also described as further enhancements to the active, reactive combat systems. The cooperative nature of the combination attacks players can perform together promise a more social online gaming experience.

Other key features talked about at E3 went further to highlight the focus on social aspects of the game. Public dungeons (remember EverQuest?) – the opposite of private, instanced dungeons – will challenge and reward players who work together whether or not they are in a prepared group. It will feature regular instanced dungeons and raids, too, for cooperative groups and guilds.

The biggest impression I got from the material shown at E3 and in interviews afterwards was not based on any one feature they talked about, but rather how deeply the development team seemed to love actually playing the game in it’s pre-beta state. Several times in different interviews they would stop trying to answer “why it’s not like Warcraft” or “why feature B is great” and simply state that we needed to play it to understand.

One final observation that I was very happy to see: support for Mac. Thank you! I look forward to seeing more details (and a beta signup) soon.

Rise – Diablo III Fan Review Part 2

Fire, Brimstone, Fantastic Art Direction. Thankfully, for all its traits both good and bad, Diablo 3’s success is not just skin deep.

First, the bad. While I had no issue logging in to play on the evening of launch day, reports on other forums suggest widespread technical issues spoiled the first impression of many fans. I did run into the occasional glitch my first run through, but far fewer than other recent multiplayer action-RPG titles (Fable 3 comes to mind). No doubt that not being able to log in at all would have been a big disappointment and I hope those issues are resolved now.

The classic title had it’s flaws too, and it’s back and better than ever. Blizzard shows it’s is not too big of a studio to learn something new, and brought more than polish for the occasion. It’s clear that effort went into the plot and stories of the games key characters, adding an unexpected, unobtrusive element of character development that is more than just complimentary. The way the characters interact with the player, and each other, lends to an atmosphere much more interesting than just squishing the hordes of hell (again). The dialog is tailored to the player’s class and gender, which left me eager to play the story through a second time as a different class just to see how the dialog changes. There are five classes. Well played, Blizzard.

About that polish I mentioned- they didn’t hold back there, either. Start with the easily recognized three and a quarter view, nearly 3 dimensional game field that IS Diablo. The hero is small in the center of the view, plunging into hordes of monsters and endless, dark catacombs with eerie mood lighting. No one piece of art is very detailed but as a sum make each setting seem rich, complex. The backgrounds and locations are beautiful and dynamic –  trembling, crumbling, burning and expanding as the hero faces the onslaught. Little of your surroundings are safe from the horrors of combat either, and each wall, table and pile of bones are scattered when struck with realistic physics that are a far cry from just animated crumbling rocks. It creates a very tangible dungeon experience (and more than a few potential achievements).

New to the franchise are the moving watercolor and sketch-style animated sequences that link the sub-stories of each act. They are slightly different depending on your class and gender, enhancing the sense of story. These do not replace the major cut-scenes, long a trumpet of the Blizzard franchise. While there are only four or five of the big production movie scenes, they are breathtaking and easily rival or surpass their Hollywood cousins.

To me, more impressive than the art alone was the art direction. Both prior titles suffered from repetitious environments and monsters despite being more or less random every time you play. Third time’s the charm though. Each dungeon and environment is far from just a new skin on old corridors, and are varied dramatically. Clever camera and perspective manipulation highlight certain encounters. By the third and closing fourth act, the places themselves have built a story that is more than just “tougher monsters in the next dungeon with a boss at the end”. The gorgeous music fits perfectly.

Of course, the art, plot, characters, music and creative direction might keep us playing but it’s the gameplay itself that we bought it for. It’s deceptively easy to pick up and challenging to master. The first play through on “normal” difficulty concludes somewhere around level 30 (results may vary widely based on playstyle), with level 60 being the max. After that you unlock “Nightmare” difficulty, followed by “Hell” and “Inferno”, the latter of which not even the game designers have beat. Each step up, your character starts with all the prior advancement and gear at the beginning of the story against progressively tougher foes, earning even more powerful moves and gear. Diehard fans looking for a much steeper challenge can unlock “Hardcore” mode, in which your character gets just one life to attempt the same feat – die once (even to lag), and the character is gone. Succeed and earn rare achievements, loot and bragging rights.

The combat is a blast, and the monsters and AI are well thought out. The boss encounters are hair-raising and liberally spaced throughout the story. Easily just as challenging are the “elite” monsters randomly encountered throughout the game, which at times can be hard enough to leave you rethinking your strategy while licking your wounds back at your most recent checkpoint. The challenge and AI instantly adjusts to the number of players in your group – it’s not just extra, tougher monsters either. Be prepared to learn how to work together to make effective use of complimentary skills or find yourself quickly overwhelmed by inexhaustible waves of foes. It’s thought provoking, engaging and very fun.

All in all it is a knockout hit – a badly needed success in the action RPG genre, and a big win for Blizzard.

Review: Skyrim rolls a twenty, crits your weekend plans

Not only did it cancel your plans, it called in sick for you and brought you your slippers. Skyrim puts the game back in roleplaying in the latest “Elder Scrolls” title.

Prior experience not required. Even if you have never played (or didn’t care for) the previous four titles in the series, Skyrim is highly accessible to both the seasoned roleplaying game fan and new player alike. It wastes no time drawing you into the story and rich world, easing you into game controls and character creation along the way. It is instantly interesting and difficult to put down, setting a new standard for what an engrossing game should play like.

Like the preceding Elder Scrolls titles, the story, world and flow of game is highly dynamic and open ended. The core storyline drives just a few of your objectives and encourages you to explore and make your own agenda. Even the main story content itself adjusts and adapts to your choices – making no two players game experiences alike. Case in point: both my wife and I started new games individually and had a different gameplay experience. The dialog and even a few of the characters you’d interact with first changed.

Where Skyrim succeeds the most, though, is in the fun factor. It’s one thing to hand the reigns over to the player in an open-ended world, but another to make it actually fun. The places, people, landscapes and dungeons are memorable. Character development is smooth and well thought out. Progression is anything but a grind, and rewards you for simply doing what you want to do. Favor a sword and shield? Put one on and go. Prefer to sneak and dispatch your enemies from the shadows? Just do it. Dabble in spellcraft, but want to blacksmith? No problem.

One more thing – you’ll be playing this RPG with the sound on. The ambient sounds, effects and musical score are a knockout. Look for this title in the “game of the year” section of your favorite gaming magazine soon. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got an pesky ice troll to settle a score with….

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