Ah, fresh meat. No, wait...

When Blizzard held the 2008 fan convention in Paris, I stood up early each day to gorge myself on the daily-shifting artwork that heralded some grand revelation or announcement that was soon-to-come. I frothed over these teasers, engaging in active study – even going so far as to maintain active threads that served as a condensed source of speculation, debates, and upvoted opinions by prominent members of the relevant online gaming communities. StarCraft 2 was at that point already a year in the (official) making, so what else could be there? World of Warcraft is always in constant development, so that seemed unlikely.


League of Legends Review

in Games
Tuesday, 09 February 2010

What happens when you blend the best elements of an RTS, RPG and an MMO? League of Legends.
It's a rare thing that a new genre arises in the game industry.  All the games we see on the shelves go under a common genre: RTS, FPS, RPG, Sports, Adventure or any other miscellaneous name. League of Legends falls under the recently-expanded (along with its counterparts, Heroes of Newerth and Demigod) DotA genre.

There is the odd chance that you actually get to see a new genre arise and form a loyal fan-base, critics, and media attention. MOBA (Mobile Online Battle Arena) is a new game sub-species that branched out from Aeon of Strife in StarCraft, more popularly recognized as the DotA custom game in Warcraft 3 (Defense of the Ancients).

League of Legends wades into the gaming arena with one major advantage under its belt: it’s free. You can download the game and play it without ever having to spend a dime. There is a sort of adopted micro-transaction system, but that comes later.

Aside from a clever acronym, LoL has built upon the archetypal hero. You actively control one strong Champion as if in a regular RTS, but you solely have control of this unit. There is no army, no blobbing, no unit spamming. The game follows a ‘tug-of-war’ strategic theme, wherein each team (consisting of 5 players) will use their unique champions to push for the enemy base. Think of these heroes as your bulky guys at the back of the tug-of-war rope. The two teams have their cannon-fodder units, the guys you would want at the front of your rope, which spawn automatically and clash in the center of the map.

It's up to the champions to successfully push into the enemy base. Each champion is widely unique, varying from all walks of RPG-stereotypes. As you kill enemy units or an enemy player, your hero gains experience. Just like any RPG or modern RTS, you use this experience to further develop your strength in one of three available abilities. In addition, you gain a highly lethal “ultimate” ability, an effective tide-turner.

League of Legends does have its shortcomings, though. As with many MOBA games, newcomers may find themselves disoriented or lost. It is imperative that you understand what an enemy champion excels at, how to work together with other champions, and how to counter enemy combatants. LoL attempts to remedy this by supplying a fully-voiced tutorial, AI to train against, and a run-of-the-mill ranking system for player comparison.

Unlike many teater-tottering RTS’s out there, everything in League of Legends carefully balances on the edge of a knife. If your team is being pushed back from superior enemy firepower, having one of your teammates ambushing the opposing team from behind can result in two enemy champion kills, rewarding your team with valuable resources.

Gold enables player champions to purchase weaponry and armor during the match, but these are not persistent outside of each individual game. One of the Champions I played the most, a dark-robed badass named Kassadin, has a silencing ability, denying enemies spells for a short duration. Kassadin’ teleport power gives you access to nifty maneuvers and narrow escapes. Both of these take up a good deal of mana. This is where gold and items come in. There are builds that increase damage, mana pool, health, speed, and much more. With more than 40 champions and so many build options, you can spend days just nailing down that perfect combination.

There are two halves to League of Legends – in essence an ‘outside’ world and an arena. Your account accumulates experience points and influence points from each match, inevitably leading to levels, bonuses, skills, and even additional champions. The catch, though? You are much better off purchasing those heroes with real money, unfortunately.

The Good: Large variety of Champions. Great longevity thanks to unlockables. The game runs stunningly well, even on mid-range rigs. The learning curve is not nearly as steep as other MOBA games.

The Bad: Only has two maps, one still being measured as “beta.” The out-of-match lobby is a bit sloppy, and in-game UI is hit-and-miss. Features still lacking, such as ranked games with official ladder lists and Replays.

Overall: LoL is highly-addictive and fast-paced – I had trouble tearing myself away to write this review. Attentiveness to the community, including frequent updates and community-ideas being implemented. This game has everything it takes to become an E-sport attraction. Oh, and it’s free.

~Baard "Aeterne" Spein

Torchlight Review

in Games
Thursday, 05 November 2009

Diablo 3 has been in a perpetual ’pending’ state, and for us die-hard hack-n-slash fans, the wait can get exhausting. Luckily, a band of veterans from the now-defunct Blizzard North represent our light at the end of the tunnel – Torchlight.

Vanguard: Saga of Heroes

in Games
Sunday, 16 August 2009

Innovation has been absent from the MMORPG scene in recent years. There are those who want to take it to a whole different level, whilst others want to take the old and slap on a few twists. The latter usually isn’t held in much esteem by its own players, but Vanguard: Saga of Heroes certainly has a lot of twists and takes that make it seem fresh.

Vanguard differentiates itself by taking the EverQuest formula and repackaging it for today’s standards. It’s your old-school EverQuest, the father of all modern MMO’s, meets casual-friendly and popular World of Warcraft. Death penalty, just like in Everquest, stings, and players could potentially lose the majority of their items upon death, which is a toll that can scare of most players to play. To accomplish something, you have to do it in a group. To craft your own stuff, you have to work. You have to work hard, and long – some might call it a grind. And you’ll probably ask yourself why. Why? Why make it feel like your second job when you’re home from work? Having just fixed the broken oven, you want to have fun now. And don’t get me wrong, working in Vanguard is all about how you make it. Crafting can be fun, but you must figure out how to make it so.

When players get creative, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes is your fantasy come alive.

Similar to your average MMORPG, V:SOH is based around many familiar functions in an MMO: crafting, killing, questing, guilding. What sets V:SOH apart from its current competition, however, is what developers refer to as “Spheres.” Unlike “that other game,” V:SOH offers a variety of paths for players to choose when leveling up, not just one. Adventuring, Diplomacy, and Crafting are examples of these paths. Adventuring is something we all know, be it from D&D, EverQuest, or WoW. Players accept quests from NPCs marked with a quest icon; those NPCs will beg you to whack ten wolves in order to secure their safety for the night. As you continue along this route, you progressively gain better rewards to battle tougher obstacles and quests. Further down the adventuring trail, players are sent all across three vast continents that are totally unique to the MMO world. The magical world you play in, Telon, is inhabited with 19 races, each originating from either the equivalent medieval European continent of Thestra, the Asian-smooth-curves continent of Kojan, or the Arabian-African desert wastes of Qalia. Each of the continents is a marvel to behold, with a countless number of non-instanced secret dungeons and tall raging mountain peaks that stretch up into the sky. V:SOH is filled with eye candy, with graphics being second only to Age of Conan. Adventuring in itself is a common progression you’ve done in so many MMO’s, but with a beautiful new world and some entertaining quest lines. If lore interests you, you’ll soon find out that the world is jam-packed with it, giving the feeling of a true adventure. You are in a world, not a game. Danger is an ever-looming theme coupled with the relentless drive inspiring you to explore, find secret dungeons that are widely unknown, gives Vanguard players a feeling of accomplishment – ripping apart the sense of otherwise a monotonous grind.

Sigil had no problems making the old seem new. The quests themselves can seem boring and repetitive, but having to actually walk for a little while (or fly, if you choose to ride a wyvern or a gryphon) you can see what the beautiful world has to offer you along the way. Some dungeons are even targeted at soloing, making for a nice change in pace from the “LFG” command you always have to spam to enter each and every dungeon in most MMO’s these days. The dungeons are sprawling and ominous, I even got lost in one once!

The magnificent and sprawling cities are stunning. From the smooth lines and idyllic trees covering the entrance to the High Elves of Leth Nurae, to the bastion of human civilization at New Targonor, looking over the great sea, distinctive landscapes dominate the map. It screams details. The southern part of Qalia, a region inspired from Arabic and Indian influences, is where players will discover snake-hypnotizers seated on carpets. Camels travel in and out of the area, and buildings are crafted similarly to those in the real world. Each race has it's respective city, and I've yet had time to see them all.
Exploration takes time and battles, and that's where a class can be a joy to mow down through enemies, or detrimental to your game experience. Some classes excel at soloing, whilst others compel you to bash your head against a wall. Sadly, the game lacks players, and the enormous world spreads the small player base ever thinner.  Because of this some dungeons will go untouched eternally, a damn shame considering some of them really are a sight to behold.
Vanguard offers a surprising 15 different classes, though all of them are stereotyped in some way.   We've all seen it before, but here it is again:  players can archetype into a tank, DPS, or healer. Nonetheless, save for a few exceptions, they all function more like hybrids instead of extreme focus classes. A Bard, for example, can learn different tunes and chords to weave and create songs (with a separate, class-exclusive interface!) that you automatically wear as group buffs. Whether it will be group damage, increased healing efficiency, or four times your normal run speed, the interface is truly unique. The Disciple, a general healer, can use combos to create Endowments, also giving group buffs to you and your party. A Disciple might start an attack using three different damage spells, in turn creating an Endowment capable of restoring health significantly, at times a life-saving ability.  Even with all 15 classes on the scales of balance, they are more or less reported to be equally powerful.

Character creation is largely important for many MMO-players, and Vanguard by no means lacks this quality.  Supplied with a huge array of tweaks and adjustments, players have the option of character customization to the extreme. The abundance of races only adds to the unique characters, and existing races include (but are not limited to): half-elves, humans, half-giants, fox-like men, and even wolf-like humanoids. Thanks to this feature (and probably the lack of players), it is unlikely that you will meet your clone.

Earlier I mentioned the overwhelming opportunities for adventure, but it doesn't end there. Two other “spheres” in V:SoH are geared toward Crafting and Diplomacy.

Crafting is not what you think. No really, it isn’t. Crafting in Vanguard: Saga of Heroes has its own level, gear and process to make each weapon or item, and the built-in system makes for a fun break from adventuring. It's an active process, you don’t just need click “mix” after 'just adding water,' and the mini-game is similar to the one found in EverQuest II.

Each stage of the crafting process requires a special workstation outfitted with the required tools. During the process, complications arise and need to be battled. This process limits players to a certain number of Action Points, giving the ability to ignore the damaging complications, or just wait and see what happens. The process is fairly complex, too complex for this review, so I will spare you. Rest assured, the crafting is what I spent the majority of my time on. I never liked crafting, but I did in Vanguard. I was actively engaged in the process.

Diplomacy is Vanguard's ace-in-the-sleeve, a never before seen addition to the MMORPG scene. Diplomatic transactions are represented in form of a  card game. Equipped with your own deck of cards, each 'play' can be an emotion, statement, bluff, or anything to that effect, and you have to duel your NPC opponent in a game of stichomythia. Many gamers are familiar with this next reference (if you aren't, don't fear!), but the mini-game is loosely related to Magic: The Gathering. Diplomacy is also the best way to learn all about the game's lore, since the adventuring path's quests offer little incentive in forms of lore. The world of Telon has a rich history, and the best way to learn about it is through the use of Diplomacy.  The sphere's cards are well-written and reflect the traits of people in a familiar way.

The Good: The biggest game world you've ever seen! A few unique classes add hundreds of hours, because for some reason, alting feels like a whole different experience.  Vanguard's music does a fantastic job of setting the mood. Diplomacy has never been done before, and Crafting keeps you entertained when you're worn out from the dungeons and group-play. Three flying mounts and over 20 grounded mounts are available. Although lacking population, the community is tightly interwoven and backs up server-wide events on a large scale.

The Bad: The game engine is still clunky and cumbersone, even after months of patching.  As with most MMO's, loading screens plague the game's zones. Animations are sub-par, though graphics make up for them.  Bugs still crawl through the game's code, and though greatly improved since launch, were the initial reason for the small population.  World population is small in comparison to most MMO's. Some level ranges are very tough to progress through if you intend to solo.

Graphics are gorgeous. The game offers some unique platforms and is a refreshing experience. The developers haven't given up on Vanguard (dubbed the “Spirit of EverQuest”), and improve content on a regular basis. If you tried Vanguard in the past and were unpleased, a 14-day trial is available from the website. Try it out, and enter a game like no other!

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