Gaming Round-Up: TSW’s Spin-off, Diablo III’s Patch, Heroes, WoW, and More

I really want to start making a dent in my massive backlog of already written blog posts, but the world just keeps throwing new juicy blog topics at me. Today, there’s a bundle of gaming news to cover.

A preview shot from Funcom's new horror game, The ParkFuncom announces The Park:

Here’s something absolutely no one saw coming: Funcom is putting out a single-player spin-off of The Secret World.

The Park is a horror title set in the Atlantic Island Amusement Park on Solomon Island. Presumably this means it will be set before the events of TSW — this is probably one of the horror stories that got the park shut down.

The amusement park was always one of the more interesting and unusual places in TSW. Aside from being creepy as all Hell, it’s one of the few storylines in the game with no real connection to the game’s main arcs, so this makes for a good choice for a spin-off.

I’m also glad to learn this was Joel Bylos’ secret project. For some reason it comforts me that Joel didn’t really leave the Secret World — he’s just working on a different part of it. Maybe he’ll come back to the MMO later.

Horror games aren’t usually my cup of tea, but I’m enough of a Secret World fan that I’m pretty much guaranteed to buy it.

A preview shot from Funcom's new horror game, The ParkI’m more interested in what this will mean for Funcom as a whole, though. The latest financial reports have been quite dire, and as a fan of TSW, this has me very worried. I hope The Park will be successful enough to turn things around a bit, and maybe boost TSW as well. Hopefully people who like The Park will then want to play TSW.

If Funcom is smart, they’ll take a page from Blizzard and do some cross-promotional rewards. Buy The Park and get an exclusive outfit in TSW, or something.

The really interesting thing is that this might open the door for more TSW spin-offs. The Secret World is such a vast and unique setting that the possibilities are virtually endless. You could get twenty games just from Innsmouth Academy and the League of Monster Slayers.

What I’d most like to see are Nassir’s time in the “special” Special Forces and a prequel about Halina Ilyushin from the Facility. I think she’s one of TSW’s more compelling antagonists, and she deserved way more attention than she got.

Diablo III: Is it about my cube?

In other news, this week saw the release of patch 2.3 for Diablo III, which is arguably the largest non-expansion patch the game has yet seen.

The new Ruins of Sescheron zone in Diablo IIIThe big new features are the Ruins of Sescheron zone and Kanai’s Cube, an artifact with a number of powerful abilities, most notably the capacity to extract powers from legendary weapons and equip them on you character as a new set of passive abilities.

I was very impressed with the Ruins of Sescheron. I have often ragged on D3’s subpar graphics, but Sescheron is absolutely beautiful and without a doubt the best looking place in the game to date.

The detail of the zone is excellent, and not just in terms of visuals. There’s all-new, fully voiced lore — including the incredibly welcome reappearance of Abd al-Hazir — as well as several memorable new monster types. The yetis gave me a nice jolt of nostalgia for Diablo II — which is a bit weird since I didn’t like that game very much.

The Cube is also quite an interesting concept, though I haven’t been able to get much use out of it yet. To my eternal regret, I disenchanted nearly all my spare legendaries before the announcement of the Cube. All I’ve been able to throw in so far is my old level 60 Mirrorball.

But that disappointment is entirely on my own head.

I am eternally impressed by how Blizzard keeps putting out new free content for Diablo III. In any other game, something like patch 2.3 would be a $15 DLC. Blizzard could certainly get away with charging that much for it. But they’re literally giving it away.

The corpse of Elder Kanai in Diablo IIII am increasingly struck by the stark differences between World of Warcraft’s team and the rest of Blizzard. While StarCraft 2 sets a new standard for developer communication with weekly development updates and Diablo III throws free content at players for funsies, WoW is defined by shameless greed, out of touch development, and tone-deaf communication.

Blizzard is still a fantastic company. But you’d never know it if all you play is WoW.

Heroes of the Storm: Infernal Shrines and map rotation woes

Heroes of the Storm also got a significant update this week with its second Diablo-themed map, Infernal Shrines.

Unfortunately, I’ve only had the opportunity to play the map once so far, but based on first impressions (which could prove totally wrong once I have more experience), I’m not sure I agree with the people saying this map is more prone to snowballing than others. My team had a massive advantage for the first half of the match — we won something like the first three or four Punishers — and we still went on to lose badly.

Painful as that was for me personally, it does show comebacks are very doable on that map, and that’s a good thing.

The loading screen for the new Infernal Shrines map in Heroes of the StormOn the whole it seems a fun map. Having the bosses target players as much as structures is a nice change of pace, and I like the way they borrowed monster affixes from Diablo III. Arcane seems especially deadly.

On the downside, the fact that some affixes do seem better than others adds an unhealthy degree of randomness to the map, and the amount of skeletons you need to kill to summon a Punisher seems to favour AoE-heavy heroes, which are already pretty popular in the metagame right now.

Then again, I play Jaina and Tassadar. Maybe I shouldn’t complain.

The addition of another new map also means the map selection has once again been cut down to increase the odds of Infernal Shrines appearing for the first week. It’s a good idea in theory, but it has some flaws.

It kind of sucks if your favourite map is one of the ones (temporarily) cut, and you still have only a one in six chance of getting the new map, which tends to make one pretty sick of the others. I have seen way too much of Tomb of the Spider Queen lately.

You could do custom games, but you lose out on matchmaking, and it’s kind of a pain in general if you’re not lucky enough to know nine other people who are interested in doing custom games.

World of Warcraft: I’m back, baby

The swamps of Tanaan Jungle by night in World of WarcraftYes, despite all my harping on Warlords of Draenor, I have finally returned to WoW. I missed my characters, and I want to get the legendary ring for my rogue.

For the most part my previous thoughts on WoD remain true. It’s a sea of blandness and mediocrity occasionally spiced up by some brain-achingly bad decisions. Garrisons remain the main saving grace for me, though I somewhat understand from where the hate for them springs.

The grind needed to unlock flight isn’t improving my view, either. It’s not really that bad a grind in terms of how long it takes, but the stuff you’re doing is just so agonizingly tedious. Apexis dailies are a special kind of Hell. I mean, I even like the idea of just filling up a progress bar through whatever is at hand, but they’re tuned to be so slow. Every time I kill a mob and see that bar move only 1%, I die a little inside. Add to that crowds of players killing and looting everything in sight, and it’s just miserable.

On the plus side, I finally started leveling my warlock in earnest, and the Frostfire Ridge storyline turned out to be by far and away my favourite part of the expansion so far. Was a great reminder that Orcs are actually pretty awesome when they’re not being stripped down to Saturday morning cartoon villains.

I found the culture they established for the Frostwolf Clan to very fascinating — basically translating the canine pack mentality to a full society of sentient beings — and Durotan is just all kinds of awesome. The way he shut down Ga’nar was just brilliant.

Bladespire Fortress in te Frostfire Ridge zone in World of WarcraftVery pretty zone, too.

Pointless Nostalgia: Gaming

We now continue with my series of self-indulgent nostalgia posts discussing the sci-fi and fantasy I loved as a child, which turned me into the proud nerd I am today.

A screenshot from the mission Stair of Grief in Myth II: SoulblighterThis time, I’ll be discussing video games. Note that I am limiting this to sci-fi or fantasy games that had a significant impact on my views of those genres, so there are some games that I truly loved that will not be discussed in this post. The Age of Empires franchise, for instance.

Some of these are also games that I’ve discussed before, so my thoughts on them may be a little truncated to avoid repeating myself too much.

Warcraft:

Of course, Warcraft is always the first game franchise that comes to mind on this topic. Warcraft: Orcs and Humans wasn’t the first game I ever played, but I did start on it very early in my life, and it’s probably the first one to have had a major impact on my tastes going forward. I would go on to spend an enormous amount of time playing it and its sequel, Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness.

In retrospect, the early Warcraft games weren’t particularly special by modern standards. They were fantastic given the limitations of the era, but looked at through modern eyes, they were fairly thin experiences that shamelessly ripped off Warhammer and Lord of the Rings.

Still, I loved them at the time, and Warcraft II is noteworthy for kickstarting my lifelong love affair with Elves. With their coolly confident voices, lethal ranged attacks, badass capes, and epic hair, my seven year-old self thought the Elven archer units were just the most amazing thing ever.

A screenshot from Warcraft: Orcs and HumansWarcraft III, however, was something special. It vastly expanded the universe and added an incredibly amount of depth and complexity to what was previously a very simple story.

Timing also played a role in my love for Warcraft III. It came around just as I was getting old enough to understand that the world isn’t entirely black and white. I think it had a profound impact on my sensibilities as a writer, and as a person. It helped to waken me to the idea that there is more than one perspective on everything, that one person’s villain is another’s hero.

The expansion, The Frozen Throne, was less impressive, but it did take my Elf obsession to new heights by reinventing the Elves as the Blood Elves, who remain my favourite interpretation of the archetype from any source.

Again, timing plays a role. To my teenage brain, the edgy, sexy, misunderstood Blood Elves seemed irresistibly cool.

StarCraft:

Blizzard’s other great RTS franchise also deserves a mention, but truthfully, I’m not sure it really had that big an impact on me.

A screenshot from the original StarCraft's Terran campaignNow, don’t get me wrong. I loved StarCraft, and still do. It was a great game with a strong if somewhat imperfect story, and from a gameplay perspective, it was a quantum leap forward for the genre.

I’m just having trouble drawing any direct lines between my love of StarCraft and my current sensibilities. I had already developed a certain degree of interest in sci-fi thanks to things like Star Trek and Beast Wars.

Mostly all I can say is that Jim Raynor was and remains my all-time favourite video game character, a rare example of a character who is presented as an everyman forced into the role of hero and actually feels authentic as both.

One nice thing is that StarCraft 1 is the only entry on this list that can be readily played today, without dealing with technical issues or outdated graphics and game mechanics.

Drakan: Order of the Flame

Here’s a game that’s definitely not remembered as one of the great classics. Still, it was special in its way, and I remember enjoying it a lot — despite some glaring problems.

A screenshot from Drakan: Order of the FlameDrakan was a fairly generic fantasy story — Evil McBadPerson is coming back from the dead to destroy the world, unlikely hero must stop him — centered on a young woman named Rynn, who bore a remarkable resemblance to Lara Croft. Rynn stumbles across a dragon named Arokh and winds up soul-bound with him.

So the gameplay split between content played as Rynn and aerial sequences atop Arokh.

Arokh is what made the game worth playing. His wry humour and cynicism gave him infinitely more personality than Rynn, but the gameplay of playing as a dragon-rider is what made Drakan really special.

Few things in my gaming career have equaled the sheer thrill of soaring through the air atop a fire-breathing dragon, and Drakan made it every bit as amazing as you would expect. The controls were simple and intuitive, the maps were expansive and full of potential for exploration, and Arokh’s power was awesome in the truest sense of the term. Enemies that would be challenging or nearly unbeatable as Rynn could be effortlessly incinerated by Arokh.

Despite its generic story, Drakan impressed upon me the sense of awe and wonder that the fantasy genre is capable of, and I still have many fond memories of soaring across the Eastern Archipelago, raining fire on my enemies.

A screenshot from Drakan: Order of the FlameDrakan is also noteworthy for beginning my lifelong hatred of jumping puzzles and platforming mechanics. I truly believe the gaming industry has evolved beyond the need for such things; I wish they’d just go away altogether.

Myth:

I am not given to looking back with rose-coloured glasses. I am not someone who grumpily declares that games were so much better back in the day and the current crop of games just can’t compare.

But the Myth franchise was something so unique and special that even today I’ve never quite seen a game equal it.

For whatever reason, Myth: The Fallen Lords and Myth II: Soulblighter* did not become elevated to the pantheon of all-time great RTS games like Age of Empires and StarCraft, but they deserved to be. They ought not to languish in forgotten obscurity as they do.

*(We don’t talk about Myth III. It didn’t happen.)

Art for Myth II: SoulblighterMyth wasn’t like other strategy games. There was no base-building, no economy. Only very rarely would you ever receive reinforcements during a mission, and you virtually never had any control over when you got them. It was just you and a small group of soldiers fighting against impossible odds.

And things did often feel all but impossible. These were brutally difficult games, which is my one complaint about them. You were invariably outnumbered, often outgunned, and there were a million little things that could go wrong.

Which brings me to another unique thing about Myth, which was how incredibly realistic the combat was. It’s hard to imagine, but these janky old games from the 90s managed a level of realism that is unheard of even today. Wind could blow your archers’ arrows off course. Rain could cause your Dwarves’ grenades to fizzle out. Body parts rolled downhill. Explosions sent deadly chunks of shrapnel wheeling across the battlefield, cutting apart friend and foe alike.

This immense realism and the complexity it created were a big contributor to Myth’s difficulty. One wrong move could send a grenade flying into your own Dwarves, causing a chain reaction as the grenade set off their satchel charges. This would turn your army into a conflagration of flame and severed limbs, at which point the supremely deadpan narrator would calmly declare, “Casualties.”

And then I’d laugh my ass off even as ghols tore apart what was left of my army.

But the genius of Myth was not confined to its gameplay. It also had a brilliantly different story.

A screenshot from Myth II: SoulblighterMyth was a bizarre mashup of some of the best elements of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings, and The Black Company. It was high fantasy in the truest sense of the term, full of magic and fantastical beasts, but yet it also felt incredibly gritty and real.

The interesting thing is that they didn’t give you a birds’ eye view of events as most such stories would. Everything was told from the perspective of ordinary soldiers on the frontlines, who often didn’t fully understand the plans of their superiors. Normally I’m not a fan of ambiguity in story-telling, but in this case, having only incomplete glimpses of the world and its history made it feel so much more real.

Much like the how the gameplay could be unrelentingly difficult, the story of Myth was often ruthlessly bleak, depicting a world bereft of hope in the face of all-consuming darkness, but that only made the characters feel more heroic, the struggle more meaningful.

I’ll also say that despite that almost complete lack of any character development or personality, I still think Soulblighter is one of the all-time greatest video game villains. You’ve just got to respect a guy who cut off his own face and tore out his own heart “in a ritual too dark to name.”

And I haven’t yet touched on my great love for the Heron Guard (Best. Paladins. Ever.), or how hilarious the Dwarves were, or the utter badassery of the Trow, or the sheer terror of the Myrkridia…

Myth bannerOr I could talk about they seamlessly blended traditional high fantasy elements with more obscure concepts out of Irish and Mayan culture and their own unique fiction…

Damn, I miss Myth.