The world's biggest specialised Massively-Multiplayer Online games finally comes to Europe. Part of your mind can't help but ask... well... who cares?
We're living in post-nation times, or so the cool kids are telling me. Just because City of Heroes hasn't been released in the UK yet hasn't stopped me playing it. Download the client, start paying the subscription and it's up, up and away. What difference does it make, really? Isn't forgetting about where you are what online experiences are meant to be about? Playing with friends, old and new, from across the world, coming together in a beautiful international family of love to... well, you get the dirty hippy picture.
Well, there's all the minor technical matters - localisation is a constant bugbear. Having NCSoft over here means Europe-specific servers, and while basic ping issues are relatively minor in relatively slow-paced games (i.e. All MMOs other than the divine Planetside), especially with broadband, having your gaming time coincide with everyone else's for once is a boon. Assuming you like people, of course. If you don't... er... you may have accidentally come into the wrong genre.
Secondly, there's the basic business issues. While aficionados will hit the servers to download the client, even in this most net-reliant corner of gaming, you've got huge proportions of the audience who first are attracted to boxes in shops. Despite City of Heroes being available to download, eighty-percent of stateside gamers chose to head down the local "Wall Mart" (or whatever) to purchase. Though how much that was because the client download cost the same amount as the boxed copy is open to the perceptive reader to speculate.
Thirdly, and probably most importantly, is purely symbolic. It shows that NCSoft are serious.
In a genre which the very biggest publishers have experimented in, and had a mixture of some success and extreme, public and embarrassing failure. Look at Electronic Arts, who have managed to dominate any genre they've put their mind to yet, after Origin was dissolved, created nothing but disaster after disaster in the MMO field. But while everyone else gets it wrong, NCSoft has managed to get it Right, and become successful enough to expand offices into new territories.
With others retreating from the genre, this means that if you believe - like many - this genre is the Future Of Videogames(TM), then this is where your attention should hover.
Their opening hand in this high-bandwidth poker game consists of Lineage II, City of Heroes and Guild Wars. It's an interesting selection, showing how the genre has diversified since a couple of years back, when literally every single game was a Fantasy MMO based firmly on (i.e. Rips off terribly) Everquest.
The most radical child is Arenanet's Guild Wars. Still in development from a team of Ex-Blizzard developers, it seems to offer something that simultaneously familiar and strikingly new.
Its "familiar" is obvious: It's a Fantasy Role-playing game MMO.
It's "new" is expansive. It has thrown out huge swathes of what we come to expect in the game type, including some things which seemed to be promises in the genre. You remember all the hype about living in an alternate world? It's gone. It sacrifices the atmosphere of being able to walk around a coherent world in favour of pure convenience. Want to get to a mission on the main map? Just teleport directly there and get stuck in. "A quick session" ceases to be a contradiction in terms.
Secondly, despite clearly being an RPG, it has no interest in the traditional level-grind or any mechanic which stresses length-of-time played above player talent. Playing Everquest, for example, and a level 40 character will always thrash a level 10 one. It's just how the game works. Ability isn't important in a player - persistence and bloody-mindedness will do as a replacement. Guild Wars plans should be different - while players do gain in ability they essentially level off in raw power at level 20, a position reached faster than in many other games. After that, it's more about honing your character to your tactics than any absolute gain in head-kicking ability.
This is based on a system that owes something to collectable card game Magic: The Gathering. Before every mission you select a number of abilities from your skill inventory, and that's all you can use. Abstractly, none of these are relatively better than any other - just differently tactically useful in different situations. In a real way, the sophistication of approaches possible that Arenanet can build into the system will determine the overall success of Guild War. If it works, Player Versus Player battles will have a whole new importance, as it'll be about your ideas and tactics rather than what you've managed to accumulate over the last 200 hours of play. Expect team-tactics to emerge between interactions of powers, at the very least.
The third standout feature is its proposed payment model. Rather than a monthly fee, once purchased you're able to play Guild Wars forever. For free.
The catch is that every six-months or so an expansion pack will be released, featuring the next chapter of the main story and plentiful new content. To go on any of these, you'll have to purchase it. However, there's nothing forcing you to do so, and you can play for years with the basic material is that's all you desire. An interesting and brave idea - and that's Guild Wars all over.
In a moment of beautiful coincidence, as I've been typing this article, its World Preview Event has just gone live, meaning that you can download the client and play for the weekend. Probably a good idea to clear a slot in your calendar and see how close Arenanet is to achieving its grail.
Both City of Heroes and Lineage II have been released in other territories for some time, so are more proven properties. City of Heroes particularly is an incredible game - a cut to the bone superhero adventuring that manages to be hugely atmospheric and driven simultaneously. Having been expanded in updates called "Issues" since release, its feature set is being pushed to something slightly more sophisticated than simple mission-based combat, with non-hero skills and PvP combat to be added next year.
Lineage 2, while clearly possessing its fans (i.e. a sizeable proportion of the population of Korea) is everything this writer despises about MMOs. That is, it's trad-Fantasy in the lineage (clever wordplay, I know) of Everquest, with a healthy influence from Dark Age of Camelot (i.e. Castle Sieges). Running on a modified Unreal base, it looks spectacular - in terms of rendering quality, its characters stand head and shoulders above virtually anything else out there. However, once CoH has spoiled you with spawning enemies doing credible threatening things in a city-scape, returning to a land where monsters randomly wander around a field for no discernable reason other than to be skewered on your sword, so assisting you grind out another level is far from appealing. And that's not even looking at the sexist S&M elf character designs either...
My problem, clearly.
Which is kind of the point - a few years ago, if you were into MMO games, you liked what was available. With more variety now available we can choose according to our own preferences and inclinations. Lineage 2 doesn't inflate my sexual organs to a prodigious and mighty size? No problem - there's a whole world of options out there for me to investigate.
And right now, looking across the gaming landscape, it's only NCSoft that seems to realise that.