Rise of the MMOs – Part 1

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The nineties were a truly epic time for gaming. This decade saw many changes in the home console market. Handheld gaming became mainstream. And of course, PC gaming took off at a rapid pace. With the ever growing popularity of the internet, a new concept in gaming began to rise to the surface: online connectivity.

The first online multiplayer game that I ever played was a text-based adventure game hosted by a local BBS. It was called Legend Of the Red Dragon. The game was quite simple actually, but it totally floored me at time. The BBS in which it was hosted could only handle one or two connections simultaneously. When trying to connect during peak hours I’d have to command my modem to dial over and over until I was finally able to get on. LORD is a hard game to explain these days, but essentially, the first time you played it you made a character and you could perform a certain number of tasks daily. This is includes things like fighting monsters, exploring, flirting with the taverns girls, etc. I don’t believe you could participate with other players in real time, but you could leave notes for other players that they would see when they logged in. Also, a log of player actions and accomplishments were posted so that everyone could see what had gone on during the day. At the time, the whole concept was fascinating to me and I have many fond memories of the title.

Example of the LORD interface courtesy of Moby Games

LORD was a watered down version of what is known as a MUD, or Multi-User-Dungeon. These text-based games allowed multiple players to interact together to one degree or another. MUDs were the first “MMOs” in many ways.

The first full blown Massive Multiplayer Online game that I truly experienced was Ultima Online.  I had been a fan of the Wizardry series for many years, and I had recently came off a binge of playing every RPG game I could find on the PC. as a result, I had just finished a marathon of Ultima games and the franchise was on my mind. I remember seeing the game on the shelf of my local computer store and I recall the fierce debate that raged inside my head; do I really want to pay to buy this game and then pay to play it?

I had a somewhat moral objection to revenue model for this game. I had recently read about it in a magazine and I was appalled to learn that the game was going to have a monthly subscription. In my mind, paying for the purchase of the game was enough. I had all but decided to boycott the product, but yet, actually seeing on the shelf – I couldn’t resist.

 

I played Ultima Online for a couple of weeks, but I wasn’t able to really get a sense of understanding for the title. It looked and played like some of the later titles in the series. But the online element felt rather chaotic. Also, to me, there didn’t seem to be any clear-cut goals to accomplish. Maybe I just missed something, but by the time my free month had expired, I decided that the game wasn’t for me and filed in the back of desk drawer – swearing to ignore these types of “pay to play” games from now on.

Of course, a year or two later I was persuaded into trying the latest and greatest multiplayer title, Everquest. You see, by this time I had moved on from hanging out on BBS forums and I was a full blown Internet user. I used to hang out in an IRC chat room with other local people and all of them were big Everquest fans. They raved about it non-stop. So, I bought the game and indeed, I was impressed by the way the title looked and operated. I was quite ignorant about the inner workings of the game, and I didn’t really understand the community aspect that already formed around the game, but I was enjoying exploring and checking things out.

Everquest

It was only a few days after getting my feet wet with the game that I again decided, this was not the title for me. You see, every time my character would leave town, I would be attacked by a group of players. Being new and inexperienced, I was no match for them. I would literally take one step out of town and BOOM. These guys would kill me. It was my first experience of being griefed by another player. It was all I needed to say “That’s it. I’m done.” Despite this bad experience, the game still intrigued me. I could see the draw behind the game. Everquest reminded me a lot of Dungeons & Dragons. (The tabletop role playing game that I played a lot as a young teen).  I found the setting and most aspects of the game very appealing. But at that time in my life, I had very little patience and being held back by other players was just unacceptable. Today, the game is still active and in fact recently reached its 15th birthday. Since the time of its original release, the game has changed dramatically, 19 expansions and countless updates, the Everquest of today barely resembles the Everquest that I played in 1998. In fact, I believe it is even Free-To-Play now. I’m also sure that the type of player-killing I encountered now has some safeguard in effect, so for the curious, the game might be worth a look. It’s also important to note that Everquest spawned a sequel, Everquest II. A third sequel is also on the way.

Due to these experiences, I stayed away from MMO RPG style games for a long time. My multiplayer experience was restricted to first person shooters almost exclusively. Then, one day I saw an article stating that Square Enix was looking for players to help test a new online game, this game would be Final Fantasy XI. This struck a chord with me. I had enjoyed the Final Fantasy series immensely and for the first time in a while, I found an MMO that interested me.  I’m not going to go into too much detail here now, because one day I will post a whole article about XI. But, this game is the MMO that finally managed to hook me. I played the crap out of this game. I have wasted years of my life… seriously. It’s actually kind of sad.

Final Fantasy XI

In Final Fantasy XI, I found the perfect balance I has always been looking for in a multiplayer game. FFXI has a wonderful storyline. So, you’re not just walking around killing monsters and getting stronger for no apparent reason… you’re doing it so that you can continue experiencing the game itself. In fact, everyone is doing this – as a result, teamwork is encouraged. It finally all made sense. FFXI really opened my eyes to the magic of MMO games. Since that time, I have tried several titles over the years with varying degrees of success.

No discussion about MMO games would be complete without a mention of what is arguably, the most popular of all time, World of Warcraft. WoW is the title that really brought MMO games into the public consciousness. I should go on record as saying that I am not really a big fan of World of Warcraft. I have played it, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. But by the time WoW popped up on my radar, I fully invested in Final Fantasy and WoW did not offer enough compelling gameplay to tear me away from my home. That being said, Warcraft certainly offers a lot for new players and it’s very easy to get into.  One feature that really set WoW apart from the other games at the time was the concept of player alliances. You see, when creating a character in World of Warcraft, you have to choose between creating an Alliance character or Horde character. This represents your character’s allegiance or affiliation. Originally, this had a big impact on gameplay. You could only befriend and talk to other players on your faction, members of the opposition were considered enemies. This has become very watered down over the years, and the concept really doesn’t mean as much as it once did. In many ways, the World of Warcraft has reached the sunset of its lifetime. Over the last couple years, the game population has dwindled as more MMO games have captured the attention of players. Now, players can often even create characters that are instantly granted maximum level in the game. This is a practice I disagree with.

Regardless, WoW really did wonders for the genre. It introduced concepts and practices that were very much needed and still permeate to this day. For example, in Warcraft, when you encounter an NPC that offers a quest, there is an icon floating over the head of that character. This let’s you know that they have something interesting to say. In prior games like Everquest and Final Fantasy, there was no identifier. To uncover quests and assignments you pretty much had to wander around and talk to every NPC that you encountered. WoW also popularized the Quest Tracker. This provided an in-game log of assignments and your character’s progress on them. Until now, these sorts of things had to be kept track of manually on paper by the player.

Character Creation for WoW

After the success of Warcraft, it seemed that there was a new MMO popping up every time you turned around. Conan, Vanguard, Guild Wars, the list goes on and on. For the most part, I managed to ignore most of these games and stuck with Final Fantasy. But occasionally, I ventured off my tried and true path.

I admit being sucked into buying the original Guild Wars and all of it’s expansions. This game intrigued me with its beautiful art-direction and pricing. You see, unlike most other games, Guild Wars does not require a monthly subscription. It functions off a model known as Buy to Play. After paying for the initial boxed software, you can play the game for free. As a result, the content in the game is somewhat limited compared with other MMOs, but there’s certainly no shortage of things to do.

One of other side effects of this sort of pricing I discovered, is the general immaturity of other players. Up until now, I had found MOST other game participants to fairly friendly and mature. This was especially true for Final Fantasy XI. WoW certainly had its number of jerks, but nothing like what I experienced in Guild Wars. I’m not sure how it is today, but back in 2007/2008 you could almost guarantee that the first thing you would see when logging into the game was a line of half-naked women dancing or people arguing in open chat. One time I asked another player if they wanted to team up for a quest and I was told repeatedly to “eat his farts”. So… free to play and buy to play gamers, be prepared to grow some thick skin against this type of nonsense.

The beautiful world of Guild Wars

I’ll be continuing my thoughts on MMO gaming in another post within the next couple of days. If this is a subject that interests you, stay tuned.

Review: WarCraft III (Battle Chest Collection)

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Finally, I have reached the last “old school” PC game on my list. Honestly, we’re not really that old school anymore. WarCraft III is only about 10 years old, but it does mark the end of an era for me. This game, and its expansion are probably the last PC games that I played before my first child was born. As any parent can tell you, having a child changes your life forever. Your attention and priorities change considerably. Once my son was born, there was a period of time, lasting quite a while, that really put a hold on my PC gaming – but that is story for another post.

If you read this blog often, you’ll know that Real Time Strategy games are not my favorite types of game. In fact, I pretty much despise them. Regardless, Blizzard has a way of tricking me into playing their games. I played through WarCraft I and II, I completed StarCraft and while I could appreciate the games for their vision and quality, I never really walked away from them wanting more. WarCraft III is the first RTS game that changed that for me.

First, let’s be clear, WarCraft III was released in 2002. The era of 3D accelerated gaming was in full swing. Blizzard is not ignorant. Despite being a Real Time Strategy game, WarCraft III is fully accelerated. The graphics retain the cartoonish art direction of it’s predecessor, but everything looks much better.  The lighting and environment effects are very well done, the textures are detailed and attractive, everything looks great here.

 

Also, now more than ever, the game is driven very heavily by story. Each chapter and scenario you play through in this title is filled with purpose and helps progress the story along. Not only does this make things a bit more interesting, but it found it helped motivate me and kept me interested in playing. For fans of the World of Warcraft MMO, this game sets up some very crucial themes that a large part of WarCraft lore.

In this game, there are a total of five chapters to experience. Two of these focus on the story of the Orcs. But there’s also a chapter from the viewpoint of the Humans, Elves and even the Undead. Each scenario presents a good balance of traditional RTS gameplay and story-related content. Each scenario also presents its own unique challenges. (The Undead scenarios were a favorite of mine.) Story elements aside, there’s not much to talk about gameplay wise. The game works and plays like the other titles in the series so far. There are some refinements of course. New features such a experience levels for heroes is a nice touch and helps bring some RPG elements into the genre.

While my recent time with the game focused mainly on the single-player campaigns, the game does feature a multiplayer mode. The community remains surprisingly healthy despite the age of the game. So if this is your cup of tea, you will not be disappointed. Community mods and custom content are plentiful.

Naturally, there is an expansion that adds additional scenarios. These days, the two titles are usually sold together either digitally or as part of the WarCraft III “Battle Chest”. The expansion picks up right where the original game left off in terms of storyline, and features some pretty impressive lore elements. Personally, it is my favorite of the two.

Having played through all of these games over the last several months, it’s quite obvious to see just how well Blizzard’s RTS games have matured over the years. From WarCraft to WarCraft II, on to StarCraft and now to WarCraft III – each game has become incrementally better. So much so that this title actually won me over. – No easy feat.

 

Difficulty: Variable–  This entry in the Warcraft series does offer variable difficulty. I played through the game on the normal setting and found some of the later levels to be quite challenging. Almost extremely so. The game does feature an optional prologue which serves as a tutorial, and the game offers tips and hints as you progress. These help at first, but by the end of the game, you will really need to be on your toes to win. First time players may want to play on the easiest setting until they feel comfortable.

Story: For an RTS game, WarCraft III has some really good storytelling. The story in both the main game and the expansion are very well done and interesting.

Originality: Despite being the third entry in the series, this game does offer enough innovation to maintain a fresh feel. The in depth scenarios, and introduction of colorful characters do a lot to make the game feel like a new experience.

Soundtrack: WarCraft III features an amazing soundtrack. Fully orchestrated tunes that really set the tone and direction for the game. The voice acting in the game is also very well done, albeit a bit overly comical in my opinion.

Fun: As someone who is not really a fan of RTS games, this title still managed to keep me entertained. For the first time in “craft” franchise I found myself actually really enjoying the game. That’s saying something.

Graphics: WarCraft III features some really good graphical effects. Top of the line for its day, the game still looks good in modern times.

Playcontrol: These games are played primarily using the mouse alone. I feel like the UI and overall control scheme here is very well done, if not perfect for the this type of game.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – As far as RTS games go, WarCraft III is about as good as they come. Players new to the genre would do good to start here. I found the game to be a good balance of both RPG and RTS elements. Everything from the storyline to the sound and graphics are wonderful.

Currently available: Blizzard Online Store

Other Reviews In This Series:

Warcraft –    Warcraft II –    Warcraft III

Collective Review: Warcraft & Warcraft II

What trip down the PC gaming memory lane would be complete without mentioning the juggernaut known as Warcraft. These games help popularize Real Time Strategy games almost as much as the ever popular Civilization series, not to mention they provided a setting for what is arguably the most popular MMO of all time, World of Warcraft.

I should take a moment to note that I’m not really a fan of RTS games. There’s nothing wrong with the genre, I get the concept, but personally I find them to be a bit boring as a general rule. Obviously this is a personally opinion as many people love these games with a passion. That being said, if I’m forced to play an RTS game, I’m quick to go with a Warcraft title.

The concept of Warcraft is as follows. In the land of Azeroth there is a war brewing between two factions, Orcs and Humans. The Orcs come from another world and have recently invaded Azeroth through a magical portal. Their attacks on human villages and cities have increased in ferocity and the humans have began to strike back.

In these games, you can play campaigns as both the Orc Horde and the Human Alliance. Each campaign is filled will a number of scenarios. For example, you may be asked to construct a specific number of buildings to help train troops to defend against an upcoming invasion. To do so, you will first need to harvest lumber and mine gold to finance the operation. Once you have enough, you can build a barracks to train soldiers. As your soldiers explore and defend their territory, your laborers can continue to mine and harvest so that you are able to bolster your defensive and offensive capabilities. As you progress through the games, the objectives increase in complexity and difficulty.

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Warcraft: Orcs and Humans

The original Warcraft was released in the days of DOS and shows its age quite a bit. Despite this, the game was actually quite advanced for its day. Both the audio and graphics were really top of the line at the time. In fact, this is what first captured my attention about the game. Admittedly, I never played the original Warcraft all the way to completion until this review, but there were many nights in my High School days spent wasted on this game instead of doing things more productive. That’s the sign of a solid game.

Despite everything that I enjoyed about the game, it quite honestly got on my nerves pretty quickly as well. The feedback that you get from your units when assigning tasks is repetitive and frequent. I found myself playing with the sound off as a result. The UI also feels a bit basic and loose at times. Also, the game tended to drag on a bit and had an overall “rinse and repeat” feel to it.

Regardless of some of its shortcomings, Warcraft was a huge success. Naturally, a sequel was released that provided a better all-around experience. Warcraft II took all of the great elements of the first game and made them even better. Aside from enhanced graphics and audio, many complaints about the original game were addressed. The storyline also received more of a focus and as a result, the game is bit more engaging for those who are into that sort of thing. Most importantly, Warcraft II also brought with it a multiplayer experience.

warcraft-2-tides-of-darkness-3-5B1-5D1     Warcraft II: Battlenet Edition

Warcraft II spawned an expansion that added a new settings and two new campaigns and multiplayer enhancements. A definitive version of the game was eventually released, The Battlenet Edition. This version compiled both the main title and its expansion, as well added support for Blizzard’s Battlenet Network. Playing online was now easier than ever.

Difficulty: Somewhat Variable–  The original Warcraft is pretty straight forward. It has its difficult moments, but the enemy AI is fairly predictable and easy to thwart if you’re willing to plan ahead a bit. Warcraft II is a bit of a different story. This game seems to be a bit tougher in the long run, but there are some settings that can be adjusted in the main menu that makes things a bit easier to deal with. For example you can adjust the game speed or disable the “fog of war” feature.

Story: Most of game story of the first title is found in the game manual. The second game does a slightly better job of providing lore in the game itself. The backstory for these games is actually quite detailed. Novels were written that provide more information than you can shake a stick at. If you enjoy the games, and fantasy storytelling, there’s actually lot to see if you’re willing to do a little digging.

Originality: While RTS games were nothing new, the Warcraft series really gave a new approach to the genre. Warcraft really laid the foundation, while Warcraft II provided the polish to make the series shine

Soundtrack: The first game features crude, midi based music but some surprisingly good speech effects. The music in Warcraft II is much improved and features some really well done, epic music to accompany the gameplay. My only complaint with both titles is really the frequency and redundancy of some of the in-game speech. Assigning a command to nearly any unit is followed by a ridiculous reply. This gets old after a while.

Fun: If RTS games are your cup of tea, there’s hours of fun to be had here. Unless you’re a completest or a rabid Warcraft fan, I think its safe to suggest that you skip right over to Warcraft II for the best all around experience. Even with myself not being a fan of RTS-style games, Warcraft II is quite enjoyable.

Graphics: By today’s standards both games are somewhat crude, but at the time these games were released the graphics were astounding. Warcraft II takes a noticeably more “cartoonish” approach that the original game. I assume this was done for clarity, but it eventually became a staple of the series.

Playcontrol: These games are played primarily using the mouse alone. The speed in which the screen scrolls around seems a bit too accelerated for my tastes, but it’s easy to get used to. Warcraft II is a dramatic improvement over its predecessor in terms of UI. Still, it always felt a bit “off” to me.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Great games overall but not without their quirks. Warcraft II is by far the most accessible of the two for new players. Multiplayer games can be a bit hard to find these days unless you’re using Battlenet. As I said before, I’m not a fan of these types of games as a general rule, but even I can see what makes Warcraft a great gaming experience.

Currently not available: Out of Print

Other Reviews In This Series:

Warcraft –    Warcraft II –    Warcraft III  –    World of Warcraft