Fractured! ArenaNet reveal their latest Living Story update

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Originally published on The Game Jar November 22nd 2013

Whilst Guild Wars 2 players are currently dealing with the threat of the Toxic Alliance, ArenaNet has revealed the latest instalment of the Living Story. Following up on the Cutthroat Politics update from July, captain’s council election winner Ellen Kiel is returning to make good on her election promises. Her seat on the council has allowed her to sponsor new research into the Fractals of the Mists dungeon, and from November 26th, players will get to experience the fruits of that labour.

The product of those shady characters The Consortium, Fractal of the Mists is a dungeon made up of three, randomly selected mini-dungeons from a pool of nine. Introduced to the game just over a year ago, it’s the only dungeon in the game that has an increasing difficulty scale, and players have been fighting their way up through the levels ever since. Due to its modular nature, players have long since speculated that the Fractals could be used to replay past temporary content, and with the Fractured update, it looks like becoming a reality.

The first mini-dungeon added is the one promised by Kiel during her campaign. Currently, in-game, the Thaumanova Reactor is a bit of a disaster area. A past explosion within the facility has caused a significant amount of disruption to the magical processes within, and players have been dealing the aftermath since the game’s launch. Whilst we knew the explosion was due to an Inquest experiment gone awry, we’ve never really known much more. The new fractal remedies that, as it takes us back to the moment of the explosion, and promises to reveal the mysteries surrounding it.

As far as I’m aware, the other two new fractals being introduced are a complete, but welcome surprise to the player base. The Molten Furnace fractal, and the Aetherblade fractal will both take players back to those temporary dungeons introduced during their relevant stages of the Living Story. Players lamented the loss of these enjoyable bits of content when they went away, and now, with the Fractals dungeon, ArenaNet has found a way to bring them back permanently. Almost as exciting as these additions is the precedent set by this move, as it looks like ArenaNet are moving towards using the Fractals dungeon to revisit iconic moments from games past – something that would be much welcomed buy the players.

If that wasn’t enough, ArenaNet have even more new shinys to shoehorn in to the dungeon. Two new Boss fractals are being added, bringing the total to three. Even-numbered difficulties have always had a fourth Boss or ‘Bonus’ fractal, but in the past it’s always been the same one – The Jade Maw. After a year’s worth of play, players are now well familiar with how to beat The Maw, so a fresh challenge is much-needed. Aetherblade captain Mai Trin and the two Molten Alliance champions from the Molten Facility join the Jade Maw as bosses, and if our previous encounters with them are anything to go by, they’ll be a firm test.

Also added to the game with this update are various Fractals-related tweaks. Agony Resist is getting reworked, and Agony Infusions drops are being added. Players will be able to collect these drops and combine them to further increase their Agony Resistance – essential for anyone venturing into the higher difficulties. Fractals leaderboards are also being added, and the overall difficulty curve is being adjusted with difficulty levels above 30 gaining special challenges. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, ArenaNet is updating and improving the rewards!

The Fractals of the Mists was a great addition to the game, so I’m really pleased to see it get some love in this update. An already interesting dungeon is getting some nice new content, and the rewards are being improved! A win-win as far as I’m concerned. Some of the adjustments have got the a few of the more ardent forumites hot under the collar, but they, as always, are in the minority, and it’s my opinion that most players will be eagerly looking forward to this update. In the main, ArenaNet have done well with the Living Story, and the Fractured update looks like continuing that trend.

Guild wars 2 – The Launch: Smooth sailing or choppy seas?

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Originally published on TheGameJar.com Aug. 31st 2012

Launching a brand new Massively Multi-player Online game is a notoriously tricky thing to do. Many games have had rough launches in the past, regardless of how well-regarded the developer is. The sheer brute force of hundreds of thousands of players all hammering on game servers, all at the same time will often make a mockery of the best laid plans. Nobody really expected then that the Guild Wars 2 launch would be flawless, but after three relatively smooth running beta tests, would some logging in congestion be the only issue?

Even though the official launch date was the 28th, all pre-purchasers had the option to begin questing three days early from the 25th, thanks to ArenaNet’s head start event. Judging by the numbers they released recently, a lot of people chose to start early. Not only did they reveal that they’d sold over one million copies by launch, but that the tally of concurrent users (the number of players on-line at the same time) had already hit a peak of four hundred thousand! I’ll just say that again to put the rest of this article into some kind of context. Four hundred thousand players. All trying to log in to the game, create characters, fight monsters, all at the same time. No small wonder then that things that appeared to be working fine in the beta no longer worked come launch. The Guild Wars 2 twitter feed soon lit up with tweets say roughly the same thing every time; “We’re aware of the issue and we’re working on it right now. Please bear with us.” I really do feel sorry for the community reps at times like this, because as a general rule us gamers aren’t a patient bunch, we want things fixed straight away and we don’t mind telling you so! Thankfully, despite having to reply to the odd angry tweet, they kept us updated via social media sites, and the bugs started to slowly get squashed.

Not everything is fixed though, and there are a few things still blotting the game’s copybook. Concern No.1 is that there’s some account hacking going on. I can’t work out the exact cause of this one, mainly it seems to be gamers falling for phishing emails, but Guild Wars 2 has launched with… let’s be generous and say “less stringent” security checks in place. Other games have authenticator key fobs to combat hacking, and Guild wars 1 required you to enter a character name to beef up security. GW2 has neither of these things. I want to stress, this appears to be a tiny number of players falling foul of phishing attempts, but the lack of authenticators has been noted before now. Concern No.2 is less worrying from a security point of view, but in a way has a bigger impact on the game; the Trading Post isn’t working. So I can’t sell my loot? Not a big deal surely, until you realise that no one can sell anything to any other player. This has had a huge impact on crafters wishing to sell their excess materials, and buy somebody else’s. When the Trading Post does make a brief appearance, prices are through the roof. Crafting is supposed to be a viable profession, right now a major part of it is missing. Concern No.3 is the general buggy state of Guilds. I haven’t experienced this first hand, but my guild leader has told me of at least two problems preventing reliable recruiting and building of upgrades. Personally it hasn’t impacted my game-play at all really, but I can’t help thinking that a game called Guild Wars probably should have a fully working guild system.

What isn’t in doubt however is the games overall quality. Having played all three beta weekend events, I had a fair idea of how the game worked, but come launch a few things have really sunk in. The first thing that hit me is the sheer beauty of the world. Exploring the environment is an absolute joy, around almost every corner is a stunning vista. Castles loom on the horizon, tempting you to come closer. Caves dare you to explore them, pools of water hint at hidden tunnels beneath the surface. I spent almost two whole days just wondering around and not once did I worry about doing quests or leveling up. Exploring the world leads me on to my second realisation; the whole world really is a viable place to quest. Thanks to the level scaling system guild wars 2 has, going to a much lower level area is still a rewarding experience, the game drops your effective level to one more appropriate for zone, and as a result you still gain XP and the monsters are still challenging. The last thing to sneak up on me was the achievements. Somehow, in my mind at least, achievements are something Xbox games do, never in a million years did I think I’d be utterly hooked by a little progress bar in an MMO.

Despite all the teething troubles, Guild Wars 2 is still worth the price of purchase. ArenaNet have been very active in communicating with the fans regarding technical issues, and as frustrating as it is to have trouble logging on, or having no trading market, we players do at least know they are working round the clock to fix things. As I said at the start, launching a brand new MMO is a tricky thing. The game isn’t running perfectly right now, but that doesn’t change how good it is. Suffering a few snags early on is worth it to play the game in my opinion, so do yourself a favour and go buy it!

The Game Jar Files: The problem with free-to-play

Originally published on The Game Jar.com – 05/11/2013
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Of all the things I discuss with fellow gamers, absolutely nothing make my head hurt more than trying to pin down what free-to-play is. I mean, I know what the individual words mean, and I understand the term when they’re combined, but when the industry tries to attach it to a genre? That’s when things go wrong. It’s little wonder when you consider that the developers can’t even agree amongst themselves what free-to-play, but what’s the actual problem? Why can’t I define what free-to-play is? In an effort to unravel the mysteries of free-to-play, I decided to break the whole thing down in to manageable chunks.
Problem One: The perception of poor quality. There is a feeling, particularly among the MMO community, that free-to-play = poor quality. For why that is, you have to go back a few years. Broadly speaking, it stems from a difference in design philosophies between east and west; Western developers, who were developing games more to our tastes, tended to charge a monthly subscription for their games, whereas games from the far east tended to be the opposite. As a result, free-to-play became synonymous with the kind of games that western audiences never really took to – Korean-made titles that usually involved a fair amount of grind to progress in, and so the idea that quality was relative to payment model took hold. Of course, it isn’t at all true that all free-to-play games are poor quality, but there are still gamers out there that will immediately write off a new game (particularly a non-western one), once they find out it’s free-to-play. It’s unfair, but it exists.
Problem Two: The perception that switching to the model means failure. When a game switches from subscription to free-to-play, fans of the game usually fall in to one of two categories – those that are happy with the switch, and those that are not. In the happy category are the realists. The gamers that know the alternative was very probably an outright shut-down, or the gamers that were coming close to unsubscribing because the model no longer fitted their lifestyles. Those in the unhappy category are the gamers I mentioned in problem one: the ones who equate quality with payment model. To them, the switch to free-to-play is the first step towards an inevitable decline for their favourite game, and any change – no matter how small, is an unwelcome one. Games do change after they switch to free-to-play, but not necessarily in a bad way. Sadly, there are plenty of gamers out there that wont accept that fact, and thus free-to-play continues to have a bad name.
Problem Three: Nobody can agree on what should be in the cash shop. Most gamers it seems are fine with purely cosmetic items, stuff like cool looking armour sets, or exclusive racing liveries, but that’s about as far as the consensus goes if the conversations I’ve witnessed are anything to go by. Everything else, from quality of life improvements, right up to directly buying gold seems to be a free for all when it comes to deciding whether you should be able to buy them with real money. A lot of the tension over what’s sold in the cash shop can be eased by providing players ways to earn cash shop currency in-game, but not all developers do this, so finding the right balance can be a very tricky proposition for even the most conservative of developers. Personally, I’ve never had a problem with the cash shops in any of the games I regularly play, but that’s because the developers responsible have never added anything that could be considered essential to playing the game normally. Not every developer gets this right though.
Problem Four: Nobody can agree upon what “pay to win” actually is. This perhaps, is the thorniest of all subjects when it comes to discussing free-to-play, as virtually everyone draws their line somewhere different. The main sticking point seems to be just how convenient your convenience item should be, and it’s such a grey area, that even the act of me trying to describe it now is making my teeth itch. Lets use a racing game as an example. Restricting the very best cars to a cash shop that only accepts real money payments is very clearly pay-to-win. But what if you could buy the best cars with coins, earned either in-game through gameplay, or bought with money from the cash shop? Essentially you’re still buying the best cars for real money, only now they’re also available to those willing to grind out the coins via regular gameplay. Is this still pay-to-win? For some gamers, the answer will still be yes, and that’s what makes the pay-to-win question so difficult, where do you draw your line?
Problem five: Nobody can agree what free-to-play actually is. If you take everything I’ve highlighted so far, and combine it all together, you’re left with the biggest problem of all with free-to-play, and the title of this piece – nobody can decide what is actually is. Is it an indication that a game is not of sufficient quality to justify charging some sort of fee for playing it, or a way to enable gamers to play great games for free? Is it the saviour of games with a shrinking subscription base, or the last death throes of a game that should just go quietly with dignity in tact? Is it merely a mechanism for greedy developers to nickel and dime it’s player base, or a brilliantly adaptive system that offers a la carte gaming to a group of players becoming ever more demanding? The truth is, free-to-play is all of these things at the same time, which leaves developers in an impossible situation. It’s no surprise that haven’t settled on one single formula.

If you conclude anything about free-to-play after reading this article, it should probably be that you should just walk away from anyone who’s determined to tell you what free-to-play is or isn‘t. It’s such a nebulous subject, that only you can decide what good and bad is. I’ve had many an hours worth of fun playing Real Racing 3 for example, and yet user reviews would seem to indicate that it’s business model makes it impossible to do so. When it comes to judging good value for money, I don’t rely on someone else to tell me what that is, so why do it with free-to-play? If you want my advice, ignore all the preconceived notions about free-to-play games, and play as many as you can get your hands on. There are some real gems out there, and finding them will cost you nothing.

The Game Jar Files: So you want to play Eve Online?

Originally published on The Game Jar.com – 14/05/2013

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With Eve Online celebrating its tenth anniversary this month, I thought I’d have a go at debunking some of the more common myths surrounding the sandbox spaceship MMO. I’ve been playing Eve for some time now, just over four years in fact, and it that time the same few questions have been asked of me. What follows isn’t a guide to playing the game. What I’ve tried to do is collect up some of the more common misconceptions about the game, and answer those in the hope that it might convince you to try the game.

Isn’t it horribly complicated?

Only if you allow it to be. Traditionally in other MMOs, creating a character has almost always meant locking yourself into playing a single class. Some games have played around with duel-classes and other similar things, but by-and-large, if you choose a wizard you play a wizard. Eve isn’t like that. You create a human being, a character that’s capable of learning anything it wants. There are no classes in Eve, you’re free to play anyway you wish, and sometimes that freedom can be overwhelming for new players. The key thing is, not to panic. Being able to learn anything, any time you want, means you can’t really get character creation wrong. Decide that you no longer want to be a miner? Fine, switch training and go do something else, those mining skills will always be there. The bottom line is, learning the ins-and-outs of the game takes time, not membership to MENSA.

But I’ve heard that I can never catch the veterans?

This is one of the more common complaints about Eve, and in a way, it’s true. Skill training in Eve is done in real-time, you simply cannot ( as in other games ) grind out XP to level up. There is no way to short-cut skill point accumulation. In short, veteran players will always have more skill points than you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find anything meaningful to do. Flying a PvP fitted frigate can be achieved within a week or so, for example, so you can get stuck in. I read something another Eve player posted in reply to this point a few days ago, and it summed it up beautifully: “Skill points don’t make you a better pilot or put you on some unreachable tier – when two pilots undock, only the skill points that relate to their ship matters” My main character might be able to fly every size of ship up to a battleship, but I can only fly one at a time. If we both meet each other in Frigates, it’s my experience at flying that particular ship that’ll give me the edge, not my skill points in Logistics.

What about the players though, aren’t they all just sociopath?

Sure, some players are arseholes, but every game has those. Even the in highly controlled environment of Xbox Live, you come across unpleasant people from time to time. It’s how you react to them that matters. You decide how much you’re going to let them bother you, and if you decide they’re not going to matter, you’ll enjoy the game. There are plenty of good people playing Eve Online. I know because I’ve flown with them. Like so many other aspects of the game, you have to go out and find them, but they are there. Joining a corporation is, in my opinion, crucial to enjoying Eve Online. Flying with a like-minded group of players can mean the difference between sticking with the game, and quitting. A good corporation like Eve University can be a much-needed source of friendship and knowledge, so don’t make the mistake of not finding one.

It’s a PvP game, right? I can get killed anywhere?

Potentially, yes. The first thing you should understand is, everyone is in the same shared universe. Some games have regional servers, some separate the PvP and PvE. Not in Eve. Everyone plays together. Second, there are no 100% guaranteed safe places in space. Eve space does have areas with varying degrees of security, but even the highest rated area, HiSec, can be dangerous. But while it’s possible to get blown up in HiSec, a properly alert pilot with a sensibly fitted ship should be able to minimize the risk of losing his or her craft. You’ll never totally eliminate the possibility of destruction, but that’s part of the charm in my opinion. The risk/reward dynamic is at the heart of everything in Eve Online. Without risk, your achievements mean less. You will suffer setbacks. You will get blown to bits at some point. It’s when you accept that and carry on regardless, that the game becomes fun.

Wait, I have to pay a subscription?

Yes, it’s currently £9.99 a month for UK players. Is that poor value for money? I don’t think so. Depending on the format, games like Bioshock Infinite or Tomb Raider will cost you anywhere from £25-ish to £40, and we (generally) don’t consider those to be poor value for money. They’re both great games, but will you still be playing them four months after purchase? If you consider that for £40 you can play Eve Online as much as you want, for up to four months, it doesn’t seem so expensive. Even if you discover it isn’t for you in that first month, you’ve still only spent a quarter of the cost of a console game.

OK, you’ve convinced me. Where do I start?

The first thing you need to do is head over to EveOnline.com and sign up for a 14 day free trial. Next, download the client. It’ll probably take a while, so be patient. While you’re waiting, you can head on over to CCP Game’s YouTube channel and watch some videos to get a flavour of the game. Start with the CDIA: Pilot Orientation video for a brief overview of the game. Next, play the tutorial. When I started playing, the full body avatars and the captains quarters didn’t exist, so separating your ship from your character could be tricky. Today, the tutorial does a great job of reinforcing to new players that your ship is just something you fly, and that from time to time you’ll have to replace it. Getting new players over that initial fear of being blown up is an important first step, so do the tutorial. Finally, remember it’s free trial. You’re not paying anything to try the game, so don’t worry if you don’t like it.

Eve Online has a daunting reputation. Whether its references to the learning curve being a learning cliff, or tales of an antisocial player-base  it has an aura of being difficult to get into that puts off many gamers. But I’ve never recognised that game. The Eve Online I fell in love with four years ago is a deep, immersive sandbox MMO that offers things other games cannot replicate. As a beginner you will make mistakes. So long as you don’t let them frighten you into not playing the game, you’ll be fine. Just remember, Eve Online is ten years old now. It’s had ten years worth of iteration, and there is a mountain of content to get stuck in to. Nobody expects you to get through it in short order. Eve is a slow burn game by design, you’re not supposed to know everything after a few months of play. If you take things slowly, and don’t waste your time worrying about what you don’t know, you’ll enjoy the game before you.

Images for piece. Feel free not to use them 😛 http://imgur.com/a/LvswW

The Game Jar Files: Overated Games

Originally published on The Game Jar.com – 29/03/2013

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Sometimes, I like to write well thought out articles about stuff I genuinely care about. Sometimes, I write reviews. And sometimes, when domestic life hasn’t quite provide me with enough excitement  I like to poke the gaming beehive with a stick. This article could well be one of those stick poking times. You see, I don’t think I’ve met a single gamer that doesn’t have strong opinions on what games they like and don’t like, so trying to define which games are overrated could well be a hot topic. I am however, fearless when it comes to these matters, so with the aid of my flame-proof suit, I dive straight in, and tell you which of your most favourite games are overrated.

World of Warcraft

I am a huge MMO fan. Over the years, I’ve played many different types of MMO, some for only a few months, some for years, but none of them, not a single one, has ever turned me off instantly like World of Warcraft has. And I’ve tried to like it, I really have. Multiple times. But I simply cannot find a single redeeming feature. When you consider that WoW has a player base totalling roughly ten million players, you’d think I’d have to try pretty hard to find things that I don’t like, ten million people can’t be wrong and all that, but no, I find it easy. Because I dislike pretty much all of it. In no particular order, my main issues are thus: It’s the worst kind of clichéd high fantasy. It looks ugly. The level of gear grind is horrendous. They charge for stuff many people feel they shouldn’t charge for. And there’s a healthy number of players that look down upon anyone who wasn’t there for vanilla WoW. I know that many, many people love this game, and very probably those same people would dispute everything I just said about it, but it doesn’t change my mind. World of Warcraft is a MMO dinosaur, and I don’t understand why people continue to play it.

Halo Combat Evolved.

If there’s one thing in gaming that continues to baffle me, it’s the existence of gamers who insist that Halo: Combat Evolved is the best Halo ever made. Maybe its because I never owned the first Xbox, and didn’t experience the whole LAN party thing, I just don’t know. What I do know is that I’ve played the game since (in its original form), and that it doesn’t come even remotely close to matching the heights achieved by Halo 3. My biggest problem with the first game is the repartition. Fight your way though a series of identical looking rooms and corridors, listen to some plot exposition, then turn around and backtrack the way you came, back through those very same identical rooms and corridors. How on earth is that supposed to be fun? Halo has it’s moments I’ll grant you (when it lets you out of the corridors, and in to the outside world), and it was certainly better than most of the shooters around at the time, but much like FF VII, progress in the genre has shone a cold, hard light on Halo. Against the backdrop of the modern shooter, Halo’s game play looks and feels stale. With each instalment Bungie got better at making Halo games, and by the third games they surpassed anything they’d done in the first. Halo CE is a good game. As the start point to a multimillion pound franchise, it’s interesting to revisit occasionally, but it’s not the pinnacle of Master Chief’s adventures.

Earthworm Jim

I’ve often wondered how David Perry feels about EWJ. “Please welcome on to the stage, founder of Gaikai, and creator of Earthworm Jim…” The game sucked. It sucked, and now he has to wear it like an albatross around his neck, unable to free himself from it. I’m sure that if you stared deep into his eyes, you’d be able to sense his internal mental pleading, “please don’t mention Earthworm Jim, please don’t mention….” Logically I suppose then, this game should be topping the list given it’s the only game here that is actually terrible, but unlike the other games here, EWJ usually requires some prompting before gamers start misremembering its qualities. To be fair to the game, its graphical style was pretty impressive at the time. The cell-shaded cartoony looks well and truly stood out from the 16bit crowd, but flashy visuals do not equal solid game play, and that’s where EWJ fell down. The controls were ropey, the levels erred on the wrong side of repetitive, and the boss fights were often frustrating (remember those ropey controls I mentioned?). Trust me, I owned EWJ back in the day. I played it for many hours, and I can assure you that it wasn’t very good. Take pity of David Perry, won’t you. Release him from the curse of Earthworm Jim by never mentioning it ever again.

Any Burnout game, ever.

I’ll be honest on this one right from the start, by stating that I’m willing to accept that my opinion on the Burnout series of games may well be irrevocably tainted by my inability to play them. Why can’t I play them? Because they’re fundamentally broken, that’s why. Let me take you through a little scenario by way of illustration. You’re settling down to play multi-player with your friends. It’s Burnout, so you’re imagining a night of trading paint with your buddies. A night of take downs and  blossoming rivalries. A night of putting your friends into race ending central reservations, and the warm glow of smug smack-talk afterwards. That’s what you imagine. The reality however, kicks in around thirty seconds into the first race. You take off from the line, door to door with your friends, desperate to commence the destruction. And then you hit an oncoming car. You watch helplessly as your friends disappear into the distance, cursing their ninja-like reflexes. It soon dawns on you, that the only way to win a race in a game fundamentally about crashing into other cars, is to avoid crashing into other cars! That is why I have such a problem with every Burnout game I’ve ever played, they’re just one big cock tease. Well, that or I’m shite at them.

Final Fantasy VII

This game is without a doubt, the single most over-rated game ever. Now, before you start grabbing your pitchforks, or begin a comment in the box below with the words WHAT. THE. and F***, hear me out. I’m not saying that FF VII was a bad game (I quite enjoyed it at the time), I simply wish to point out that it’s elevation to near mythical status is totally ridiculous. Now, before you start telling me it’s one of the best games ever made, let me stop you. To be considered as one of the best games ever made, a game (in my opinion) has to move the genre in which it’s in, forward. It has to shake the genre up so firmly, that developers are simply forced to make games in a new way. FF VII didn’t do that. It was very firmly a traditional JRPG. Squaresoft didn’t take any risks with it, they played it safe. Back in 1997, when we didn’t know any better, JRPG’s were cool. Today, in the cold light of a sandbox RPG world, JRPG’s look like what they are, grindy ordeals only played by masochists and gamers stuck in a time bubble. Random encounters popping up all the damn time when you’re just trying to get somewhere quickly are not fun. Realising you’ve got to spend hours grinding away to level up so you can beat that boss you’re stuck on is not fun. We’ve grown up now, we understand that games should be enjoyed, not endured. Final Fantasy VII was a fun game at the time, but things have moved on. Let’s not rewrite history, and turn the game into something it wasn’t.

So there we have it, the five most overrated games ever made, according to me. Don’t agree? Well, tell me then. Leave a comment telling me I’m crazy. Ask me why “X” isn’t listed here. Give me your suggestions for the most overrated games ever. I’m a big boy, I can take it, and I still have my flame-proof suit on!

The Game Jar Files: Ten games you can play for free

Originally published on The Game Jar.com – 03/01/2013

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It’s Christmas! The time of year when you spend nearly all of your money on buying cool stuff for other people. No doubt, most of your family and friends wont understand if you choose to buy yourself games instead of presents for them, and so you’re stuck with doing a load of Christmas shopping without any reward. But I say NO! You should have a reward. So what do you do if you want to play something new, but spend no money? The answer is Free to Play games, and in the interests of giving, I’ve rounded up ten free to play games for you to try.

Now before I start, I just want to talk about what to expect from a free-to-play game. Nearly all F2P games have a cash shop of some kind. It’s how they make money from a game that they’re letting you play for free. What’s on sale in the cash shop is often a thorny subject amongst fans of that particular game, but rarely is anything a compulsory purchase. Approach any F2P game with the knowledge that you’ll only have access to the basic form of the game, and that you don’t have to spend money in the cash shop, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Trying these games costs nothing, so what have you got to lose.

Free-to-Play MMOs.

The first place to look when hunting for free to play games is the Massively Multi-player On-line genre. Your choice of games here is huge, everyone one of them offering a slightly different take on what F2P is. I’ve suggested two games here to get you started.

Lord of the Rings: Online. Given that Peter Jackson’s latest film based on Tolkien’s work has just been released, I feel that it’s only appropriate to start with this game. Like the books that it’s based upon, it might be a bit long in the tooth now, but it’s still full of charm, and well worth a look if you have a fondness for Hobbits and the like. As a free player, you won’t be able to quest everywhere, or have full access to all classes, but there’s still plenty to do and see. Iconic locations such as the Shire and Bree-Town are available to you, so why not create a character and go explore them.

Try this game because: You love the world of Middle Earth, you want to try a traditional MMO.

Wakfu is a tactical, turn based RPG with a delightful Manga art style, and is as about as different to LotR:O as it’s possible to get. Create a character from a choice of fourteen different classes, get together with other players, and help rebuild the world. I really like the isometric 3-D view, to my mind it has that cool retro thing going on, and it makes a nice change from the traditional MMO, where you’re constantly staring at your characters backside. If you like your games with a tactical flavour, try Wakfu for size.

Try this game because: You like games with a manga-like art style, a tradition MMO doesn’t appeal to you.

Browser-based MMOs.

Don’t have PC capable of running these games? Relax, I’ve got  you covered. Have a PC capable of running a web browser? I thought so, how about trying a browser-based MMO?

Doctor Who: Worlds in Time is a browser-based MMO from Three Rings Designs. The game has a 2-D cartoon are style that rather suits a game based on Matt Smith’s Doctor. Before you ask, the answer is no, you can’t be the him. Instead, your character exists in the world of Doctor Who, and from time to time he turns up and needs your help. Back in the day we would have called this a point-and-click game, and that old skool feel does have a certain charm. If you like Doctor Who and puzzle mini games, you should take a look at this one.

Try this game because: You like Doctor Who, you like puzzles and mini-games, you want to be close to Matt Smith.

Free Realms is a difficult game to describe. To begin with, I’m not really sure it should be called a game, strictly speaking it’s more of a 3D virtual world to play in, designed for younger gamers. It might not be a grown-up adult MMO, but it’s still a fun place to be. There’s plenty to do, including playing mini games, racing go-karts, collecting stuff, making stuff, or even just exploring. If you want a game that’s easy to play, and is about having fun more than anything else, then check this one out. Finally, it’s available to play on PS3 too, just sign up for a free account and redeem the provided code.

Try this game because: You have children and want something free to play with them.

Free to Play Shooters.

So what if you don’t want to play an MMO? I know, these crazy people do exist, right? As it’s the festive period, I have something for them too.

Battlefield Heroes is a browser-based 3rd person shooter from EA. If you’ve played Battlefield 1943 or the like, you’ll be familiar with the objective based game-play and the WW II style vehicles of this game. As a free player you’ll have enough slots to create four heroes, choosing from the two factions and three classes; the Royal Army or the National Army, and Commando, Soldier, or Gunner. Playing requires installing a plug-in, and membership to EA’s Origin service, but that’s about as complicated as it gets. The only other thing I’ll mention is the sale of better guns in the cash shop. Some gamers feel selling such things leads to an uneven playing field, whether you feel the same is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. Luckily, as the game is free, finding out won’t cost you anything.

Try this game because: You like Battlefield games, you like objective based shooters, you like shooters with vehicles.

Team Fortress 2 is a class based FPS from Valve. Released on consoles as part of the Orange Box, it’s also available for free to Steam users. The store contains things like extra maps, hats and outfits, but nothing really essential to playing the game. TF2 has always been one of my favourite shooters, and with it being free, there’s no excuse not to gather up a few friends and have a go. This game does require a little more grunt than Battlefield Heroes, but nothing to powerful, in fact the minimum specs even list Windows XP as one of the support operating systems.

Try this game because: You like class based shooters, you like your games to have some lunatic humour, you like wearing a gas-mask at the weekends anyway and so playing the Pyro appeals to you.

Free to Play Strategy Games.

Something for MMO gamers? Check! Something for the Shooter fans? Check! Now, what about something for those of you with a more strategic frame of mind…

Age of Empires: Online is a free to download and play RTS from Microsoft Studios. Half of the game is Age of Empires as you know it, you start with a town centre, send out your civilians to gather resources, and build from there. The other half, the capital city part is the persistent online world bit, and where the game makes its money. Having played this game in the beta, and without the cash shop restrictions, I can tell you that the traditional AoE part is as fun as ever, I just haven’t worked out whether I like the amount of stuff they charge for.

Play this game because: You’re an Age of Empire fan, you want to build your own empire.

League of Legends is a hugely successful MOBA (Multi-player Online Battle Arena) game, and I couldn’t possibly write a list of free to play games without mentioning it. There’s no questing to be had here, it’s a straight up battle for map dominance between two teams of players, and winning is all about the champion you pick, a solid strategy, and good team coordination. You don’t have to worry about learning the hard way by jumping in at the deep end though, a practice mode allows you to play against bots while you figure how to play and which champions you like using. Yes it’s a PvP (Player verses Player) game, which won’t be for everyone, but don’t let that stop you from at least trying it out.

Try this game because: You find the idea of questing boring, you prefer a team-based games.

Free to  Play Console Games.

Ah yes, free to play console games…tricky one this…errrm…can you come back to me next week? Actually there are some free to play games available to the PC phobic gamers out there.

DC Universe Online is for those gamers that require their entertainment to have more of a superhero flavour. Playable on the PS3 (and PC), DC:UO is an action MMO that allows you to create your own superhero within the DC universe, and beat bad guys faces in. Or if you find Superman a bit lame, to create your own supervillian, and beat the good guys faces in. Sadly, if your longing to play Superman or the Joker you’ll be disappointed, here they play the role of mentors, guiding your path to greatness. It’s not been the most successful game ever, but it is free, and it does have muscular men in tights. All in all a win-win situation.

Play this game because: You like superheroes, you dream of wearing Spandex on a day-to-day basis.

Happy Wars on Xbox Live Arcade is the one game in this run down I’d never heard of until I started writing. The best description I can come up with is cartoon-like medieval setting + Animal Crossing looking characters + class based, fifteen versus fifteen player combat. Hopefully that made some sort of sense to you. Technically I suppose you could say that as it’s only available to Gold subscribers it’s not truly free, but hey it’s my article, and as the 80’s song goes, it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to. Or something… Anyway, it’s a fun little game that’s worth a look. Grab some friends and go play it.

Play this game because: You have an Xbox and friends, Animal Crossing isn’t violent enough for you.

The Game Jar Files: Bioware and the burden of EA ownership

Originally published on The Game Jar.com – 05/12/2012

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Ideas can be tricky little blighter’s to pin down sometimes. For a while now, I’ve been considering writing something about Dragon Age 3; what it might be like, whether the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle would have any impact upon its creation, and how it would be received by fans. The idea bounced around my head for quite some time, but it wasn’t untill recently that it started to take shape. Over the last week or so, conversations with friends about various aspects of the Mass Effect franchise started me thinking; was I asking the right questions? There’s far more negativity towards Bioware floating around the internet now than there was a year ago, and maybe a piece on Dragon Age 3 would be too small. The bigger question was how do gamers feel about Bioware themselves? It occurs to me that there are gamers out who will never give the next Dragon Age game a chance, mainly because it will have EA’s logo on the box. Has EA’s ownership of the studio soured Bioware’s relationship with the fans? In this piece I take a look at two of Bioware’s biggest IP’s to see if EA ownership really has changed the studio for the worst.

Whenever fans talk about Bioware’s possible decline, they nearly always mention the 2007 takeover by EA. But how much of an impact does new ownership actually have? Perhaps examining how the Mass Effect franchise has changed over the course of three games can help. Even though the first Mass Effect was released after the take over, it was only just after, and as such wasn’t made under EA’s ownership. Before release, it was Bioware’s stated intention that the first game was to be the first installment of a trilogy of games, but by 2008 it was clear that EA had other ideas. A quote from then EA president Frank Gibeau gave the first indication that Bioware were no longer in control of the franchise’ destiny; [Mass Effect] “will be a franchise for [EA] for a very long time.” Mass Effect 2 is released in 2010, and unlike the first game, it’s multi platform. It’s entirely possible of course that a still independent Bioware would have  abandoned Xbox exclusivity too, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that EA either had an influence upon that decision, or indeed were the ones making it. Mass Effect 3 arrives in 2012, and by this point the franchise is very clearly an EA property. Micro-transactions are shoehorned in by way of adding a multi-player mode to a game that has never even had a co-op mode, and despite the fact that it turns out to be a very creditable addition,  you can still short cut your way through unlocks by spending real money. Mass Effect’s metamorphosis into a full-blown EA game is complete, and many fans are left wondering what the future holds.

If you’re console gamer, I doubt you’ve been paying attention to Bioware’s new Massively Multi-player Online game Star Wars: The Old Republic, but if you’re ever going to understand why I think the way I do, you really need to. You see Bioware has had a rough time of late with this game, and it’s become like a millstone around their neck. Even the most ardent of SW:TOR fans probably won’t be able to look you in the eye and say it’s been a success, and it’s continued struggles are a concern. Perhaps console gamers indifference is due to the fact that it’s made and maintained by Bioware Austin, and not the Mass Effect bit of the company, I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s a game that cost a lot of money to make, was expected to be a lot more profitable than it is, and is published by EA. It’s relevant to what sort of company Bioware is now, or more to the point, is allowed to be. But let me skip back a couple of sentences to the important bit; “was expected to be a lot more profitable than it is”. It’s important because in many respects SWTOR is a good game, it’s just not making the kind of money that EA expected it to, and that’s how it’s ended up switching to a free to play payment model less than one year after release. Would an Independent Bioware have switched from subscription to F2P so soon into SWTOR’s lifespan? I don’t believe so. I don’t believe that they would have had two rounds of job cuts at their Austin office either had they still been Independent. Those staff would still be there, creating the content that the game badly needs. Under EA’s ownership, Bioware Austin has cut staff and added a cash shop with micro transactions to a game not even a year old.

So is that it then? Do we all just accept that Bioware is now merely another EA studio, its sole purpose to churn out average games that make shareholders wealthier? No, I don’t think so. As you can see from my examples above, I do think that EA ownership has changed the studio for the worst in some respects, but you can’t deny that they’re still making quality games. No company remains unchanged after they’ve been bought out, but in this case I don’t think that’s the problem, it’s the EA factor, and I don’t think it’s a problem that Bioware can ever solve. The controversy surrounding ME3’s ending, the bumpy ride SWTOR has had, they’ve both been exacerbated by the negativity that surrounds EA. It’s unfortunate, it’s unfair, but it’s also the reality for Bioware from now on.

Guild wars 2 – Super Adventure Box!

If you want to know why I play Guild Wars 2, this video just about sums it up. Added to the game for the month of April only, the Super Adventure Box is a prime example of the kind of free content ArenaNet has been adding to the game since launch.

No, it’s not an April Fools, it’s really in the game, and it’s awesome.

Guild Wars 2 Video: Wintersday Trailer

Guild wars next seasonal event is almost upon us, and Arenanet have released a trailer to go with it. Personally, after the troubles I experienced with the Lost Shores event, I’ll wait and see before I get too excited.

The video is good though.

The Game Jar Files: A look at SW:TOR without saying “WoW Clone”

Last week or so, the usual “what are we all writing about on The Game Jar this week?” email dropped in to my inbox. After a bit of head scratching I decided I’d try out the new-ish free trial available for Bioware’s first and only MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and write about that. I would cover the first 15 levels available, try to figure out why the game gets so much criticism in some corners of the ‘net, and generally come up with some conclusion as to whether it’s worth you forking over your cash after the trial ended. That was what I was going to do, right up until the moment when Bioware decided to change my plans for me. At the beginning of last week the developer dropped the news that the game will be ditching its subscription based payment model, and switching to a free to play one in the Autumn. As I’d already spent what felt like days downloading the trial, I decided to press on regardless. Whether it was value for money or not would be kind of irrelevant, but I could still find out if it was a quality game or not. MMO’s by their very definition are big things, and I only have fifteen levels to play with, so a comprehensive review of the game would be out of the question. Will its trial contain enough content to sell the whole game? Let’s find out.

The Game. If you did away with the Bioware logo screen when the game first starts up, you’d still know who it was made by. Dragon Age II and a Mass Effect 3 ending aside, the name Bioware means high quality role-playing games to its followers, and it’s no different here. Admittedly I’m not really a Star Wars fan Per Se, but even still the very first cinematic had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. Jedi were swishing their Lightsabers around, the soundtrack from the films was rumbling in the background. It was as perfect an introduction as any fan boy or girl could hope for. Character creation continued to get the Star Wars fever building as I chose my class and race from a suitably iconic selection of humans and aliens, evenly divided between Empire or Republic. For my trial I created a Chiss Bounty Hunter on the Sith Empire side, fully intending to take all the Dark Side choices possible. I entered the world and began my story, the core of the game, and where it really shines. I began on a dirtball planet with no real reputation to speak of. I join a team of other bounty hunters and pretty soon I’m working for a local Hutt crime boss. Bioware have called this approach to story the fourth pillar, and it’s what they feel sets their MMO apart. Personally I’m not so sure it does, but you certainly can’t fault the quality of the storytelling. From the first “pew pew” of your blaster it feels right. Upon entering the Hutt’s palace you’re greeted by shifty looking aliens hanging around in the dark corners. The cantina band is playing the kind of music you expect them too. The slave girls sitting at the base of Nem’ro the Hutt are in skimpy space bikinis. It is Star Wars.

Having gotten the creation of the world right, SW:TOR reveals its trump card, fully voiced cut scenes. Like the Mass Effect series, you choose what your character says via a dialogue wheel. With just three options there’s not much room for finesse, but it is a huge improvement over the traditional quest text box and a mute hero. I really enjoyed the story side of things, it’s well written and progresses you through the universe quite nicely. Unfortunately is doesn’t quite obscure that fact that the rest of the game is box-standard MMO. Over familiarity with well-worn game mechanics are what kills this game, step away from your storyline quests and you enter a world of deja vu. Underneath the Star Wars gloss are the same sort of tasks that are found in many older, more established games, and at this point they’re just plain boring. This Yin and Yang of good storyline/boring side quests is why subscription numbers fell away. Gamers played the story to its conclusion and loved it, then tried the side quests and found nothing else to hold their attention besides rolling another character. This perhaps is the reason why gamers are so harsh with SW:TOR, Bioware has such a great reputation that fans were hugely disappointed to see them be so conservative with such an iconic IP. The MMO market is a crowded place, and being an “also ran” isn’t quite good enough if EA Bioware is written on the box.

The switch to free to play. Personally, I can’t see the switch as anything but a disaster for Bioware. The game launched with a subscription, therefore I think we can safely assume that free to play was never in their plans, so how on earth did they end up here? In my opinion it’s because of a lack of experience in the MMO genre which lead them to making some big mistakes PR wise. Before the game was launched there was massive hype. The Star Wars IP + Bioware’s RPG-making expertise = sure-fire hit. On the face of it a guaranteed success. The game did what most Bioware titles do at launch, sell millions of copies. Maybe that’s where the complacency set in, because they never worked fast enough to add features and content that would retain all those players who bought the game. With a console title, gamers buy the game, play for a few months, and then they stop and move on to something else. Fine if your game is called Mass Effect, very not fine if it’s called SW:TOR. Bioware’s biggest mistake in my opinion was spending too much time talking about what they were doing to make the game better, and not enough time doing it. A solid three months of pushing content and fixes out is what SW:TOR needed to put it on a firm base for future growth. Looking back, Bioware reminded me of the proverbial rabbit in the headlights, with the full gaze of  gaming press and MMO gamers upon them, they froze. Maybe the controversy over Mass Effect 3’s ending was a contributing factor to their indecisiveness, I don’t know. From the outside looking in it seemed to me that they had only planned for a runaway success, and when it didn’t happen they had no plan B.

So is SW:TOR worth your time? Right now with a sub fee? Maybe, only if you’re an avid Star Wars fan. When it finally goes free to play? Most definitely yes. Granted I only played the first 15 levels, but in all that time I never really found anything to really dislike. Bioware’s story telling is as excellent as ever, the fully voiced cut scenes for quest giving really gets you attached to your character, and the Light side/Dark side choices add the same sort of twist as choosing Paragon or Renegade. It’s a solid, fun RPG game that just happens to be an MMO too. With a subscription Star Wars: The Old Republic restricts itself to the real hard-core fans and that’s a shame because the story on offer here is really worth playing. Thankfully when it finally goes free to play, the question of whether the good bits are value for money goes away, and Star Wars:The Old Republic will get the number of players it deserves.

WoW Clone 😛

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