First Impressions — Dragon Age: Origins (PC Version)

Full Disclosure

First, I received a free copy of Dragon Age: Origins when the folks marketing the game for Bioware asked me to review it, but of course, this will not impact my review.

Second, the only Bioware game that I’ve played at any length is Neverwinter Nights.  (I’m not even talking NWN2 — I mean the original.)  We have copies of Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic around, though I’ve never played them myself. (I believe my husband has.)  In anticipation of Dragon Age, I did pick up Mass Effect on Steam and played for several hours.  So, I can make some superficial comparisons there, but nothing more.  I certainly know of Bioware’s reputation for strong storytelling in their RPG’s.

Third, I am primarily an MMO player and my primary MMO is World of Warcraft.  I have played a few other MMO’s recently and dabbled in some puzzle games, but I have not put solid playtime into a single-player RPG in more than five years.  My thoughts will likely be most useful to those coming from a similar background. Below are my first impressions of the game and I’ll likely put together another review after I have played through it in its entirety.

The Grey Wardens and the Darkspawn

There is evil rising in your world, the history of which is nicely set up in the opening cinematic.  Standard hero story set-up, but it’s neatly delivered.  I liked the style and tone.  I still rewatch this as each of my new characters begins their journey.

Character Creation

In choosing your character, you first pick the gender and race (human, elf, or dwarf), and then an available class for the race you chose (warrior, mage, or rogue).  There are some limitations consistent within the game world.  Only humans and elves can be mages, for example.  There are a total of six backstories to play through, so in a few cases, you’ll have some say in your character’s origin.  Were they a commoner or a noble, for example?

After this, you choose your character’s appearance.  Dragon Age has a realistic art style, with customization that allows you to finely tune your character’s facial features right down to the width of her jawline. You can’t change the character’s body type at all, but if you like, you can give them a giant forehead, jutting chin, and beady eyes. Just scrolling through the preset appearances will give you an idea of the diversity possible.  For each of mine, I started with one of the presets and tweaked it to my liking.  (I didn’t go with the beady eyes, but one of my characters ended up with a prominent forehead and a bit of a chinbutt.)

A warning, too. You are selecting the shape and shading of all your character’s features by candlelight.  I chose what looked like a nice healthy skin tone for my elf rogue when I was creating her.  When she got out into the light of day, her skin was so light that it looked like she was running around in a white bodysuit.  Same with some of the makeup on the women. What looks subdued in the creator is often much brighter in the game itself.  My mage has some very unfortunate green eyeshadow.

You can preview the character creation experience by downloading the files linked here.

Story and Character Context

I have played through all the origin stories now and I think they’re pretty well done.  You immediately get a sense of who your character is through conversations with characters that already know them.  Right from the start, your character is interacting with friends, mentors, and/or adversaries.  I have heard some complaints about the originality of the stories themselves, but I thought they were fine. Fairly typical birth-of-a-hero stories, but each compelling in their own right.

As you meet new characters and learn about the world, information is collected in a Codex, accessible through your Journal where your quests are also kept.  There is a lot of collectible information.  I’ve found that in some cases, you can still get the info in your Codex even if you skip the conversation.  You do not have to have the same “What are the Darkspawn?” conversations with every new character, for example.  If you speak with the character that would have given you that info, very often you end up with the story in your Codex anyway.  In your Journal, there is also a conversation history if you want to go back and review all the choices you made in conversations.

From what I have heard, Bioware RPG’s are notorious for putting your character in situations where they are forced to make difficult choices.  Betrayal seems to be a common theme, sometimes with devastating consequences. I can’t say how much most of it effects the overall outcome, but I found myself caring about the NPC’s enough to get swept up in it, wondering who to trust and whether I was doing the right thing.

No Going Back

My husband and I made a character and played the game together for a few hours one evening.  Knowing I’d play quite a lot on my own, I let my husband “drive” and make decisions about what the character said and did. When one of the NPC’s asked for help, rather than go with the positive answer (as one does if one actually wants to do quests and gain xp), my husband chose the smartassed “Yeah, whatever… good luck with that” answer, blowing her off to see what would happen. She looked very sad and withdrew from the conversation, causing my husband and I to make frowny faces at one another.  So, of course, my husband approached her again after the encounter cinematic ended so he could offer to do the quest.  No dice.  She wouldn’t talk to us any more.  😦

I remember a point in my WoW career where I felt an emotional connection with the NPC’s.  I felt terribly guilty if I declined or abandoned a quest.  That feeling is long gone now.  The NPC’s never seem to remember you anyway.  (Heck, I’d think Thrall would remember me after Wrathgate, but I’m pretty sure if I popped by the throne room, he’d welcome me to Orgrimmar and ask if I’ve come to serve the Horde.)  I’d forgotten what it was like for there to be such consequences in my gameplay.  Sort of refreshing, actually.

(Later, when I was making another character, my husband told me I could delete the one we made together.  “She’s mean,” he said.)

“Realism,” Immersion, and Missing Voices

All of this sets the stage for a wonderfully immersive gameplay experience.  It is immersive, for the most part.  There are two things in particular that take me out of the story on a fairly regular basis, however.

The first is the blood splattered all over everything.  At first I thought, “Wow, that’s different.”  Aside from a few drippy raid bosses in WoW, there’s not a lot of blood squirting around.  In Dragon Age, sometimes the killing blow decapitates your enemy, causing blood to shoot out of their neck.  So, I suppose it’s natural that your character might become bloody if they’re in the fray.  The problem is that in the brief cinematics after a battles, your character continues to stand there with blood all over their armor, weapons, and their faces.  There are little specks of bright red blood on everything.  I suspect it’s intended as part of the “realism” of the game, but it’s just a bit over the top, in my opinion.

The second (and probably my biggest criticism of the game) is the lack of a speaking voice for you, as a main character.  When your character is deep in discussion with others and you choose what she says, she doesn’t actually say anything.  If everything were text, that would be one thing, but the cinematics are otherwise fleshed out with voice acting.  This may not have stood so much had I not played Mass Effect briefly.  In Mass Effect, you make conversation choices and then your character actually talks to the others.  She doesn’t say precisely the text you chose, but conveys the essence of it in a way consistent with her demeanor.  I realize this would have required many more hours of voice acting, but I absolutely loved this in Mass Effect.  I think it would have brought the Dragon Age play experience to the next level.  Not sure why it wasn’t done.  You choose a voice at the beginning, but it just determines what your character yells passively in battle.

Basic Controls , Tactics, and Navigation

One thing that took some getting used to was the combat system.  It may be second nature to those accustomed to recent single-player RPG’s, but I was having a hell of a time trying to figure out how to coordinate all my characters at first.  You choose the character central to the story, of course, but you’ll often be fighting side by side with characters of other classes that join your party and help you fight.  As part of this, you gear them and can control them.

There is AI, of course, and you can define elements of your party members’ fighting styles through the Tactics interface.  Until I figured this out, I died a lot. (In between dying a lot and figuring this out, I was pausing the game a lot.  Turns out that using the Tactics system is far superior. ;)) You can set your characters to heal themselves if they get too low, use certain attacks based on enemy proximity and health, and so forth.  Very handy.

Navigating the world is intuitive.  Your map features quest locations and the minimap has a pointer on it to lead you in the general direction of your quest objective. Another complaint I’ve heard from MMO players is that there are invisible walls.  This is true, there are.  You cannot always go to the places that you can see in the distance.  With a few exceptions, this hasn’t been too immersion-breaking for me.  As I’m moving through the world, I just try to stay on task.  The urgency with which the quests are usually assigned means I probably shouldn’t dally exploring the fields or romping in the rivers anyway, right?

As with WoW, I use a combo of WASD and the mouse to move myself around.  (There is click-to-move, but I don’t use it.)  It’s pretty smooth and the running animations look fairly natural.  There is, however…

No Jumping Allowed!

I don’t think I realized how much I jump around in WoW until I started playing Dragon Age.  There’s no jumping at all in this game.  (I suppose it would make you look uncivilized.)  In WoW, I am constantly moving and jumping in fights while I’m casting.  Part of this is because some of the raid encounters require constant repositioning and running around, and as part of this, I jump.  My priest almost always hops up in the air before slinging Prayer of Mending at the tank, too — it’s just a habit I picked up. (She looks like she’s having a great time when she’s healing.)  So, in DA:O this means that I hit the space bar and pause the game repeatedly.  I see a pile of rubble and want to jump over it. *pause* *grr*

(So, only rogues in Dragon Age.  No rouges.)

But, Pause is Your Friend

It turns out that pausing in battle can be really helpful, however.  This kept me alive before I figured out how to use the tactics properly and now I pause just when things get too chaotic.  My tactics are mostly set up to just let the AI do its thing, but occasionally some intervention is required.

I confess that it’s also refreshing to play a game that I can pause it all.  I can leave the game at a moment’s notice and nothing will happen without me.

And F5 is your BEST Friend

Save. Your. Game.  Do it often.  There is autosave, but nothing kills a play session like accidentally dying and then realizing you’re going to have to repeat your last 30 minutes of play.  If it were just fighting that would be one thing, but it sometimes means redoing conversations, watching cinematics, etc… aaargh.  Not that they’re bad to watch, it’s just frustrating when you want to move forward in the story.  So, right from the start, get yourself into the habit of saving the game regularly.

Overall

First impressions?  Dragon Age: Origins is excellent fun.  It’s reminding me of the old days when I looked forward to long, immersive play sessions with my games. I’d dim the lights, put on the headphones, and completely focus on the story being told to me, soaking in the experience.  It has made me realized that so much of what I do now is socializing and character maintenance rather than play.  It is fun, but it is definitely a different kind of play than a single-player RPG can offer.

Looking around the blogs, lots of MMO players (particularly in WoW) are bored or in a rut right now.  Looking for something fun to do before your next patch/expansion comes out? Consider joining the Grey Wardens.

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Dragon Age (shall be reviewed)

EDIT: I just received an e-mail saying they’re sending my copy after all. Coincidence? (A couple bloggers made similar posts about this yesterday.)

As my husband sometimes says, “The universe is far more interested in embarrassing me than inconveniencing me.” Not that this was particularly inconvenient, but you catch my drift. I’m happy about the outcome, too. Like I said in my last version of this post, I’ve heard good things about the game.

So, post withdrawn. 🙂


Ikariam (Yes, Really)

In the last couple months, I’ve branched out a bit and started playing other games.  I’ve tried several other MMO’s and a few single player games that I’ll write about soon.  WoW still takes up most of my gaming time, but the game that is currently a close second place?  Ikariam.  Yes, really.

I first heard about Ikariam about a year ago.  I remember sitting there at my desk at work, daydreaming and listening to podcast, and something prompted me to check out this game.  (I can’t remember if it was a blog or a podcast, to be honest.) I glanced at the game site only briefly and it didn’t even interest me enough to make an account at the time. It just didn’t look appealing.  Things going against it included that it was a browser game, it was free-to-play (but with premium options available for cash), and that it looked like a Civ-type game.  Couldn’t possibly be as compelling as Civ, I thought.

When I joined up at MMO Voices, Beau chose Ikariam as one of the first site games.  With some reluctance, I made an account to play along with the other folks at the site.

Nuts and Bolts

My Mighty Empire

My Mighty Empire

You start with a single colony on an island and some wood to construct your first building, either an academy to begin research or barracks to house your budding military.  Of course I chose to build the academy.  Back in my Civ days, I was always going after the space ship rather than the military victory.  After hiring a few researchers, I went to the island view to hire some workers in the lumber mill and crystal mine.  (This mine allowed me to collect glass, one of the four harvestable resources.)

Rather than being turn based like Civ (which it couldn’t be, since it’s an MMO), activities like building, research, and travel are all time-based.  It reminded me of EVE in that regard — set up your training and then go do something else for a while.  As with EVE, the early skills and lower level buildings don’t take long.  Unfortunately, there are no building queues available unless you pay for a premium account.  Research used to be queued (sort of), but they changed it in a recent patch so that you accumulate research points and then buy the discovery of your choice when you have enough.

Travel time, as far as I can tell, never changes (unless there is a miracle, which I’ll talk about later) .  This is where some of the challenge comes in if you want to play near your friends.  You begin in a random spot on the world map.  While you can certainly build your second colony anywhere and eventually make it your capital, it takes a while to gather the resources to accomplish this.  I’m sure plenty of folks do this, too.  My husband and one of our friends have both relocated their civilizations completely to some islands on the fringes of the map so that they can build their resources together.

To cope with the travel time issues, the MMO Voices folks initially set up trade routes together to help each other get started.  We plotted our locations on a map and posted it to the website.  Occasionally I’d get a note that said, “400 sulfur is on the way.  Please keep 200 and send 200 on to so-and-so at such-and-such location.”  Really fun, actually.  It made me wish there were a way to set up more permanent routes in the game like that.  Setting up a trade alliance with someone only means that when they add things for sale in their trading post, you can see it even if you’re far away from them.  Beyond that, trading is limited to nearby islands (the trade radius defined by how much you’ve leveled your trading post).

Gathering Resources…

Aside from building materials, the basic resources are marble, wine, glass, and sulfur.  Just for my own play purposes, I would prefer them in that order. Marble is used in higher level building upgrades and city walls.  Wine is made available in local taverns to keep your population happy and growing.  Glass goes toward upgrading academies and temples (recently added), military upgrades, and the training of spies.  Sulfur is used for the training of military units (a process that can be queued, thankfully).

The underdeveloped island that holds my capital.

The underdeveloped island that holds my capital.

The amount of a particular resource that you can harvest depends on how many you hire to work in the mine, vineyard, or mill on your island.  The number or workers you can hire is limited by your population, but also by the level of the node itself.  Here’s where the “MM” in MMO begins to creep in — the resource node is leveled through the contributions of all the other people with colonies on your island.  In the beginning, you’ll be scraping to have enough resources to get your basic buildings going.  Once you have a modest surplus, it’s good to start contributing to these shared nodes.  Not only will these contributions improve the island’s output and benefit you in the long run, it will make you look like a good citizen.  Some island residents make a particular point of attacking and pillaging leechers who don’t contribute, so it’s wise to help out.

Beyond gathering things yourself, you can trade with others that you know (as I mentioned above) or with people nearby through your trading post. The radius of available trades increases with every two upgrades of your trading post.  I didn’t see any traders at all until I was able to trade at least three islands away, though you may have better luck if you land in a more populated area.

…and Getting Pillaged

I, like many of my MMO Voices compatriots, got pillaged within the first week of playing.  Someone marched their army into my town, killed the two slingers I had in my barracks, and cleaned out the majority of what I had in my warehouse.  A percentage of your stuff is protected in your warehouse (again, this is building level dependent), but everything else is game for anyone that decides to rob you.  My husband’s first colony got pillaged repeatedly when he first started playing, so he started changing his production schedule to make sure he never got too big of a surplus when he thought his neighbor might be active.  (He then moved to another island.)  Not a very friendly welcome to the game.

My much better developed wine island.

My much better developed wine island.

I didn’t get pillaged more than once or twice early on, but it was enough to make me build some extra warehouses until I got a few defensive units and city walls built.  I have managed to fend off some medium-sized attacks, but once or twice, the enemy has come in with more than 1000 troops to my 20-30. Some alliances in the game seem to have rules about attacking people way below your level, but others don’t care.   The mottos on the guild pages of the latter are usually to the tune of “if you’re not armed, you will be farmed.” This is the nature of MMO’s anywhere, I suppose.  There will be griefing.

Unfortunately, this caused of few folks in MMO Voices to lose interest right away.  To my surprise, I didn’t quit when I got pillaged.  I once got pillaged very badly, too, in fact.  I lost about 10,000 building material, 5,000 marble, and 1,000 sulfur.  I was so furious.  But, the fact was that I had been sloppy.  I had forwarded all this material to a new colony that I was founding. (I needed it to upgrade the governor’s residence to kill the corruption there.)  An enterprising individual had occupied a nearby town and I imagine he giggled with glee when he discovered all the unprotected goodies in my warehouse, waiting for the rest of the boats to arrive.  I was furious, but I knew I’d done something really stupid, too, and assumed the stuff would be safe long enough for me to get the stupid building built.  That’s part of the game.

I’ve never pillaged anyone, but I’ve certainly reaped the benefits of being occupied.  When your town is occupied by enemy forces, they can’t pillage you, but they can use your town as a base to pillage everyone else on the island.  For hosting the army, you get 10% of everything they pillage. I happened to get occupied on the best of the islands I have colonies on and I got a TON of stuff out of it.  So in the end, it all balances out, I suppose.

They recently added some features to make the game friendlier to new players, in this regard.  Now, new players cannot be attacked or pillaged right out of the starting gate.  Until their town hall is level 4 or they’ve built a second colony, they are immune to any attacks my other players.  (If they attack someone else, all bets are off, of course.)  This is a nice change, I think — they’ll keep many more players this way.

Cultivating a Civilization

A closer look at my capital.

A closer look at my capital.

Your first colony will take a while to get going.  Building materials will always feel like they are in short supply unless you have a friend to help you get started.  (By the way, if you decide to start playing, I’d be glad to send you a welcome package.  I’m on the US Iota server — send me an e-mail with your coordinates and I’ll put my fleet in motion!)  But once you create your second colony, things really start cooking.  You’ll find yourself with occasional surpluses to send to friends or sell at your trading post.  There will always be little things to tweak and things to build.  Small goals will be met, new goals will be made.

Checking in on the game can become a habit very easily, especially if you work at a computer all day.  Here’s the part where I have to admit that all those things that turned me off in the beginning are the things that now keep me playing.  The game is browser based, so I can keep it going while I’m doing other stuff on the internet.  It’s free-to-play, so I can do as much or as little as I feel like from day to day without feeling like I have a big commitment to it or need to get my money’s worth. In fact, if I take a day or two away from the game, I return to find that I have a huge surplus of resources to play with.  Fun!

Finally, because it is a Civ-type game, there’s a great sense of progress as you watch a dumpy little town in the sticks turn into the cultural center of your empire.  The fact that it’s time-based and not turn-based is what allows you to get other things done during the day, too.  When I take writing breaks, I might check in, send out some ships, set a few buildings to upgrade, and then determine that there’s not much more for me to do for the next two hours.  I can then write or work for two hours, come back, and check in.  It’s also a great game to play in between other games.  There is as much or as little to do as you wish to do.

Finding Community

After our short-lived (and miniscule) MMO Voices alliance dissolved, I decided to look for a larger, more established alliance to join.  An alliance’s size is limited by the number of diplomacy points available, which is based on the robustness of the leader’s civilization (as I understand it, anyway), so it seemed like this would put less pressure on one of the bloggers, in case they wanted to wander to a different game.  It would also give us a chance to see how established alliances run themselves.

After a bit of shopping around, I happened across an alliance called Art of Defence (AoD) , an alliance based on trading, mutual defense, and expansion.  They do allow pillaging, but military play is not their primary focus.  It sounded perfect.  I applied and was accepted, and now I watch the day to day ramblings and tradings of an Ikariam alliance.  Folks are helpful to one another, trading vast quantities of materials in 1:1 trades.  Once you are able to build museums, you can arrange cultural treaties with people, too, displaying your cultural artifacts in one another’s museums to raise happiness (an alternative to wine).  I’ve also seen some come to the defense of one another.  Another particularly appealing thing about this alliance is their impressive list of peace treaties.  Aside from the person that ran off with all the goods for my governor’s residence (who could resist such a mother lode?), I haven’t been bothered by anyone since I joined them.

The Addition of Miracles

In this recent patch, they added “miracles” to the game, which can do things like boost your population or make your ships go a little faster for a brief time depending on which god has a statue on your island.  The statue itself is also a node on the island where you can contribute resources (anything but building materials and the resource available on the same island).  The quality of the miracle increases based on the statue’s level. You need to have a certain amount of your population converted (through temples and the hiring of priests) in order for the miracle to become available.

It’s been interesting to see the community’s response to this addition.  Certainly some miracles are going to be more desirable than others depending on what aspects of the game you enjoy.  I wouldn’t say I have my finger on the pulse of the community at large, but some in our alliance have dismissed them as useless.  One of them will allow your ships to load faster for 30 minutes every 20 hours, for example.  One of our members said, “Only every 20 hours?  What’s the point of that?”  Well, the point is to make it so that it’s not so incredibly overpowered that everyone will evacuate their current location for the islands that have the best miracles available.  I imagine folks will be selecting locations for new colonies with the miracles in mind (since they do act upon your entire population), but it seems they’ve tried to make things beneficial without being too gamebreaking.  I’ll be curious to see what people will think about them once they actually try using the miracles.

A Few Rules

I mentioned before that my husband started playing, as well.  This has been fun, because it means we’ve been able to talk about the game, daydream about colonization plans, and sympathize with each other’s resource losses.  As it turns out, we cannot actually play together, however, since we both play from home.  Playing two accounts on the same IP from the same server will get you banned.  This rule is no doubt in play to make sure that one person with too much time on their hands doesn’t make a ton of accounts and take over the world in one fell swoop.

It turns out that if you officially let them know that you are two different people at the same IP and you agree never to have fleet contact with one another, then it is fine.  You just need to submit a ticket.  “No fleet contact” means we can’t jointly attack an enemy, but most unfortunately, it means we can’t trade resources directly.  It’s been okay because we’ve managed to lure in a few friends on different IP’s (living in different states, actually) to play with us and they were able to help him get started.  It kind of sucks that we can’t trade and help one another out, but I think it would suck more if other folks were allowed to multi-account.  I imagine that could make it unplayable for the rest of us.  Anyway, it’s something to be aware of if you game with someone you live with.

More Addictive than you Might Think

Games like this are a terribly slippery slope if you have to be a productive person at your computer during the day.  I’m sure if I weren’t playing this, however, I’d be doing something equally distracting.  Ikariam effectively takes the place of daytime Facebook checking, social e-mailing, and all the other little things most folks do during their work breaks.  Instead of reading about who needs what for their next Mafia hit, I peek in to find out, “Do I need to send out another wine shipment?  Did that person in my alliance accept my cultural asset treaty?  Are there enemy forces on their way to pillage my towns?”  I currently have four towns to look after, which means there’s usually something to do if I have a few minutes to check the game.  Although it will be expensive as hell to build a fifth, I’m already scoping out locations.

So, I am completely addicted to this game.  In total, I didn’t even play Chronicles of Spellborn this much and I really loved that.  (Runes of Magic has been deleted from the hard drive to make room for other stuff.)  In fact, one thing that has held up my writing a review of Ikariam is the fact that I play it so much during the day, during times that would otherwise have gone to blogging.  (All those people on Facebook haven’t heard from me in eons either.  Heh…)

Definitely check this one out.  Again, find me on the US Iota server.  (Be sure you’re at ikariam.com and not .org, too.)  E-mail me to let me know where to send the welcome wagon. Join ussss… 🙂

Chronicles of Spellborn

I’d heard Beau rave about The Chronicles of Spellborn, but wasn’t really interested in trying it until I watched his video tour.  The animation of the character didn’t thrill me, but the atmosphere was so intriguing, I decided I’d give it a go.  I have to say, it impressed me.  It’s well worth checking out.  In fact, I’ve played more of Spellborn during the last week than WoW.  (I know!  I’m surprised, too!)

Character Creation

The flexibility in character creation is quite fun. You start by picking the archetype for your character:  warrior, spellcaster, or rogue.  After a bit of leveling, you’ll be able to specialize to become one of three more distinct subclasses available.  I chose a caster, for example, who has the potential to become a rune mage (powerful damage dealer), a void seer (with healing capabilities), or an ancestral mage (caster with a pet).

There are two races, humans and daevi, which are mysterious hooved humanoids.  You can choose from a couple different body types to come up with some very different-looking characters.  The really fun part, however, is customizing your character’s clothing and armor.  All of this is purely aesthetic apparently — if you don’t like the shoulder armor models, you don’t have to give your character shoulder armor.  In the end, it really doesn’t matter. There are matching sets of clothing and gear, or you can mix and match all you like.   Coloring of the items can be chosen individually or for the entire set.  Here are some views of a character I made, showing some of the options for clothes and gear styling.  Click each for a larger view!

spell-1 spell-2 spell-4 spell-5

Some of the armor pieces have sockets where you can add sigils to boost your abilities.  If your current items don’t have slots, you may find new items later during your adventures.  It seems anything can be reforged to match the rest of your gear’s color, if you like, too.  (I imagine this will be one of the paid options when the shop opens next year.)

Movement

Learning to move around effectively took some practice.  My characters still stagger around somewhat drunkenly at times because the super-quick about-face mouse turns that I do in WoW don’t quite work here.  It’s pretty funny to watch people arrive at the docks just after the tutorial, too.  Good to know I’m not the only one that didn’t get the hang of it immediately.

Combat

Combat is quite interactive.  I’d heard that you had to aim your weapon, which made me nervous given my history with FPS’s.  (I stink at them.)  This is much more forgiving than I imagined, though you still have to pay attention to what you’re doing.  You have a rotating action bar that offers you different sets of skills that you can rearrange to your liking. This screenshot is a little dark, but you’ll get the jist of it:

spell-14

Here, it’s between casts.  When the cylinder completes its rotation to the spells on row 2, it will remain there until you cast one of the spells on it.  It took me a while to figure out the best way to actually cast.  I aim using the mouse and then click the number of the spell twice, the first time to select it, the second time to cast it.  There may be better ways (they suggest the mousewheel to select the spells), but using the numbers on my keyboard worked pretty well for me.  Also, while there’s no mana/rage/energy bar for you to consider, there are a few different bars below your HP bar that will impact how effective your attacks are.

I worried a little about being a squishy caster in a game I’d never played, but I’ve been impressed with my survivability.  I can take on several waves of multiple mobs thanks to some self-healing abilities.  I need the survivability, too.  In some of the wooded areas, it’s easy to become surrounded very quickly and respawn timers seem to be short, as well.  I’ve seen some people complain about it in the public chat (“that’s not fair — in wow I just get attacked by one thing at a time”), but it’s made for some really close, exciting fights.

Questing

The questing is fairly standard, though I’m finding it quite engaging.  I’m reading all the quest text (shocking!) and following along with the stories.  Sometimes, you are presented with more than one option of how to respond to the NPC’s, as well.  I plan to go through and answer a few of their queries differently on my next run through, just to see if it changes the outcomes.  Even if it doesn’t, I like that it allows my character a little more personality.  Makes it feel more like an RPG.

The NPC’s have personality, as well.  There was something very bland about all the questing in Runes of Magic.  Even when they were clearly trying to be funny, they weren’t.  There was a strange disconnect there, maybe a language/translation thing.  Spellborn has made me smile several times and even laugh out loud.  I wouldn’t say the wit rises to the level of some of the stuff in WoW, but I think that sort of stuff would be inconsistent with the mood.  Spellborn isn’t a dark game, but it has a darker tone than WoW, for sure.

Quality of Light

I really love the look of this game.  Much of it has to do with the quality of light.  This is my character looking out at the landscape with a campfire to her right side.  (Click to see the full view of the landscape.)

spell-6th

This is an empty vendor’s stall on the docks.  I love the way the inside is lit by the lamp.

spell-7th

I keep happening upon scenes like this, where everything is so beautifully lit that I have to stop and take a screenshot (which is cumbersome — I didn’t notice an automatic feature for this in-game).  You know there’s a little dude up in the watchtower there.

spell-10

It’s a great-looking game.  I’ll resist the temptation to post more screenshots so that when you discover things and see the cities for the first time, you’ll enjoy that same moment of “wooow” that I did.  Ok, just one more:

spell-8th

Sound and Immersion

Another thing that has really impressed me is the ambient sound.  When I’m running around in the wooded areas, the hum of the insects is amazing. I usually have the window next to my desk open this time of year and at first I thought it was noise from outside.  I’ve been thinking about dimming the lights and playing while wearing headphones some night, though the game barely needs it.

The insect (and bird) sounds also remind me of my days of backpacking.  These are wonderful memories of “epic” journeys on foot that I took in real life, so I’m sure this plays into the sense of adventure that I feel in this world. My awareness is heightened, too, because I know there could be danger lurking in the trees.

Discovery

As I’ve begun to play these other MMO’s, my inner explorer has re-emerged.  I love wandering into new areas and finding out they’re too dangerous for me.  I creep up to the edges of the world and give myself vertigo by peering into the abyss.  I encounter holes in the ground with ladders leading down and wonder… what’s down there?  There’s only one way to find out…

spell-13

I’m sure it helps that I’m making it a point not to look up quest help, read about things ahead of time, or study what classes and spell rotations are optimal.  Even beyond that, there’s something about this world that invites me to explore it.  I’m loving the process of discovering this game.

Overall

A fangirl is born.

Like I said, I’m playing this more than I’m playing WoW.  The time that would have formerly gone to fishing, doing dailies, and leveling up alts has now been shifted to running around in the darkened woods, admiring the landscapes, and exploring the winding cities I’ve discovered so far.  The game is currently free to play while it’s in redevelopment. I believe it’s going to remain free after its re-release next year, but it sounds like cash shops and stuff like that will likely be added.  My only hope is that the game itself will not change too much.  I think it’s marvelous as it is.

Runes of Magic

I’ve been feeling a bit of wanderlust in my gaming recently.  The rush of gathering badges in heroics in WoW has passed since I’ve picked up my 8.5 chest and helm for both of my priest’s gear sets.  Her only other major upgrades come from raids, so there’s not much “work” for me to do.  I do have some alts tootling about, though they’re mostly out of rested xp.  And, if I’m being honest, I think I’ve just spent too much time in game recently.  Little things about my guildmates (who I adore!) have been getting under my skin.  I think it’s just time for a breather.  During my time in WoW, I have messed with a few other games, though never too seriously.  That’s the plan for now, too.  I’m going to try some new games and not worry so much about researching the character classes or working to setting up shop (socially or otherwise) and just have fun exploring.

My wanderings are also inspired in part by Van Hemlock‘s Operation Cheap Seats (spending time in free trials and free-to-play games) and the good folks over at MMO Voices.  When I joined the site there, Runes of Magic was the current “Game of the Site” (that several folks are going to be trying at ones), so I decided to start with that one.  (Looks like they’ve moved on to a different game now though.)

So, Runes of Magic.  I’d heard a bit about this game from various blogs and podcasts, mostly mentioning that it was disturbingly similar to WoW. The better reviews said that questing was much the same, the interface was nearly identical, and that it was a pretty good free-to-play option for those that didn’t want to shell out the subscription fee for WoW.  (Runes of Magic instead has RMT options for in-game items and bonuses of various kinds, though it’s optional.)  The less positive reviews condemned the game for being too much like WoW or a poor imitation of it. WoW is the only MMO that I’ve played at any great length, so I knew I’d be making comparisons, as well.  I promised myself I’d keep an open mind and not condemn it for its similarities to my main game.

I got the game downloaded, installed, and patched (a fairly lengthy process) and then was finally set to log in.  To my surprise, the login screen offered an on-screen keyboard to type in your password.  Woo!  Extra security!  That’s a pretty cool feature for those that put a lot of time and money into the game.  When the WoW hackings were more common, I remember someone mentioning that as a possible solution, but Blizz went with authenticators instead.  (I do have one, too.)  Still, kind of cool to see that feature on a free game.

Character creation!  My favorite!  I flipped through all the faces and hairstyles for both the male and female characters.  The only available race was human, which was sort of a bummer, but there was a decent variety of looks to choose from.  The art style has an Asian influence, for sure, though there was a good range of cartoony-anime to more realistic looks.  Most of the male faces looked really goofy to me (as they do in WoW, as well), but I usually go with female toons anyway.  I made my first character a warrior.  Here she is, getting ready to begin the tutorial:

rom-1

Look familiar?

And there you can see the UI, as well.   I run about 100 addons in WoW to make my UI not look like this, so I was a little frustrated.  I wanted to move the portraits, the action bars, the map, everything.  It was better after I put the video on the proper resolution for my monitor size and scaled the UI to 70% of its natural size.  (Turns out you can move the action bars, too — I figured this out later.)

I completed the tutorial, which essentially teaches you how to move around, jump, interact with NPC’s, and kill stuff.  Afterward, I was given a bag of goodies to help get me started in the game which included some gear, as well as a horse that lasts for 24 hours (live time).

I rode around the Pioneers Colony (sic), the quest hub for the starting area, and picked up quests.  They were all pretty standard.  Kill ten of this, collect ten of that, go talk to so-and-so.  Nothing new there.  There was a nice surprise with crafting, however — seems you can learn as many professions as you like!  You can only train some of them up to max level, but for someone with no aspirations of hitting any sort of level cap, this is the perfect thing.

Then, I ventured out to kill stuff.  Although the names of the attacks were different, the warrior in RoM has the same rage mechanic as in WoW, it seems.  I clobbered stuff and did quests until she hit level 4 or so.  I really don’t enjoy melee all that much (just like in WoW), but I did get a good feel for how all the UI features worked as I dealt with my inventory, turned in the quests, and upgraded my gear.  Turns out the default UI in RoM has incorporated some things that have only very recently been added in WoW or that we still rely on addons for.  For example:

  • Coordinates are available on the mini-map (not that I plan to look up quest locations, but it’s nice for those that want to).
  • Built in gear management options that allow you to examine all items in your inventory slot-by-slot (hover over slot to see them) and the ability to save outfits (recently added by WoW, though I still use an addon).
  • Notes that appear on mob mouseovers that let you know what quest they’re part of (WoW recently added this,).
  • All mobs are tracked on the mini-map, and mousing over them on the mini-map will also give the quest info.

All of this makes it pretty easy;  it’s intuitive if you’ve ever played an MMO.  One feature that surprised me was if you click on the name of an NPC in the quest text, your toon walks (or rides) right to them.  Wooooow.  On the one hand, that makes it all seem a little too easy.  On the other hand, it means not running around in circles for twenty minutes because the Argent squire you’re supposed to talk with is only two feet tall and wearing camouflage that causes him to blend in with the bench he’s standing on.  It’s also a nice thing if you’re feeling lazy.  This feature actually made the game feel a little bit more like FreeRealms, which lights up a little path exactly where you’re supposed to walk to do or turn in a quest.  Sometimes I used this feature, sometimes I didn’t.

You can also train right on the spot after leveling.  A little book appears on your screen and you spend points to upgrade your skills — pretty straightforward.  You can also apparently level up more than one class on a single toon.

After the warrior, I decided to try a priest.  I spent a little more time customizing her than I did my warrior.

Didn't realize I made her this busty until I cropped the shot... heh...

Didn't realize I made her this busty until I cropped the shot just now.

The tutorial is worth redoing with each toon because it gives you a magical bag of stuff (including the 24h horse) and really, it only takes a couple minutes.  I had turned off click-to-move, however, and that’s one of the first things it asks you to do.  Bah.  So, for every tutorial, I had to turn that back on briefly.

The priest was more fun for me than the warrior.  It was kind of nifty to see the different casting animations:

Pew pew!

Pew pew!

The priest had both damage and healing spells, though healing myself seemed to be a bit of a pain since my portrait was all the way at the top of the screen.  As someone spoiled by grid + clique, this wasn’t going to fly.  I leveled her to four or five before deciding to check out the mage class.

I immediately liked the mage.  She felt powerful, had cool casting animations, and had pretty hair! 😉  Here she is checking out the “creative” name of someone else in the starting zone:

I didn't ask if he had any tales to share.

I didn't ask if he had any tales to share.

Not that the NPC names were always better:

My boyfriend.

My boyfriend.

I got the mage to level 6 before I tore myself away to go back to one of the remaining melee classes, the rogue.  Apparently, apprentice rogues don’t wear pants, but I’ll leave it to you to click on that link at your discretion.  Again, melee.  Nothing special, just faster stabbing than the warrior.  She eventually found a tunic that covered her buns and was grateful to do so before crossing paths with the headmaster himself:

o rly?

o rly?

I then briefly played the scout class, which seemed to have both range and melee abilities.  I mostly used my range abilities and kited the mobs around, but felt like a WoW hunter without a pet.  It’s odd, too, how deeply I’ve been conditioned to think that hunter-y types should never ever melee (thanks, BRK), so I actually felt like I was playing badly if the mob caught up to me and I had to stab it.  I recognize that a scout is not a hunter, but still… I decided to skip the knight class and do a little more exploring with the mage instead.

So literary!

So literary!

She finished up most of the quests in the starting area, including the daily gathering quests, which seem to be endlessly repeatable, as far as I could tell.  She then wandered to Logar, the larger town in the center of the map, to see what was going on there.  There were tons of player characters bustling among the NPC’s.  I explored the whole town, picking up quests as I found them.  And look what was at the edge of town:

Hurray!  Outla... Oops, nevermind.

Hurray! Outla... Oops, nevermind.

In town, I found all the usual vendor types, an auctioneer, and a few more crafting trainers to learn from.  I also found someone looking to sell me a house!  Ok, this is moderately exciting because I’ve never played a game with player housing.  This isn’t something I’ve particularly cared much about, but I know that some folks love it, so I was eager to check it out.  I shelled out the gold and went inside my empty house.  Hm, not very exciting.  So, I went back outside and bought a chair.  It seemed like the thing to do.

Spacious.

Spacious.

Oh, and that’s my “housekeeper” to the left.   Heh…I can’t even sit in the chair, so I suppose she’ll have to dust it to keep it clean.

I still haven’t figured out all the house settings and stuff… something about energy?  I have no idea.  But, like I said, I’m just messing around here.  I’ve decided I’m not going to research it, I’m just going to follow my nose.

Overall

Surprisingly fun.  My gameplay in WoW has become so goal-oriented that to just run around in circles and click on things actually felt like a vacation.  While this game may not offer the humor and cleverness of WoW (at least not in the starting area), the gameplay was pretty smooth and not far from the standard WoW old world fare.  I haven’t played with the crafting much, but I liked that I don’t have to lock myself into one or two choices.  I’m intrigued by the dual class thing, too.

I didn’t mind the art style as much as I thought I might.  The world feels very enclosed to me, however.  In the starting area, I felt like I was on a sound stage instead of in a world — I can’t explain why.  Everything looked too still, perhaps?  I’ll pay more attention next time I log in.  There is day and night (on a different schedule than our 24 hour one, it seems), but no weather that I noticed.  I don’t remember seeing any small creatures running about or leaves blowing around.  Details like that can breathe life into a zone.

One of the major hurdles I’ve had with other games (or even Alliance toons) in the past is that if my toon looks silly when they run, I can’t play for long.  If their arms swing in a stupid way or their legs kick too much, forget it.  After all, most of the time, that’s what we’re looking out — the back of our toons as they run.  When I first saw my RoM warrior running toward the town, I thought, “Oh, great.”  I scoffed.  I rolled my eyes.  But, it actually didn’t take me that long to get used to.  This gives me hope that I can enjoy something other than watching my Horde toons running around.

Will I Keep Playing?

I’ll certainly keep looking in on this one from time to time.  I still want to play around with the crafting stuff and give one of their dungeons a try to see how it compares.  I’m curious about about the quality of the community, too, so I might try grouping up with folks after I get to a higher level.  I’m not ready to delete this game quite yet. 🙂

What’s Next?

The next MMO Voices game pick is Ikariam, so I’ll certainly check that out.  I also downloaded The Chronicles of Spellborn after watching Beau’s video here.  Nifty.

(And, if you were ever wondering what Ess stood for, now you know. 🙂 )