Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Mythos: Beating the Drums

Now that my network issues have cleared up as mysteriously as they began, and I can actually play, I managed to squeeze in a little playtime yesterday in the late night/early morning hours.

As far as I know, there's no NDA or similar agreement preventing me from writing about those activities here. I certainly never accepted any such agreement and as I've seen plenty of others blog about Mythos elsewhere, I guess I'm on firm ground here. If I'm wrong, I'm sure someone will let me know.

My in-game name, if you're interested and in case you missed it yesterday is "Sausaletus". I'll probably have several characters, and reroll a bunch, but you can rest assured that I'll have at least one character with that name. It's, you know, my calling card.

Anyhow, I played only a few hours. But it was enough to ding level 5 and explore the area immediately surrounding the starting area pretty thoroughly. Enough, in other words, to get a feel for the game. Taking a crash course in its mechanics and voraciously devouring the offerings at the official, super-secret forum no doubt helped (Still looking for a good unofficial forum, though. A Lurker's Lounge or a Guild Hall. The place where the cool kids and bright boys hang out while they kick around ideas about the upcoming game. There has to be one out there. I'm not starting it myself, this time, that's for sure. If anyone knows of one, be sure to let me know.) but I've always believed that if you can't jump into a game and learn as you go, it's probably not a very good one. So I didn't go too overboard with my research because I'll learn as I go, I'll discover the things that an average player would, as an average player would, and since I'd like to think I'm at least a little above average (Then again, who doesn't?) that should make the testing more useful than otherwise.

I already managed to uncover my first bug although when I went to the official forums to make note of it, I saw that someone had already beaten me to the punch. Basically, it's another issue with skill cooldown. I'm playing, as I touched on last night, a Red Hand Blood Letter. Which means, I'm a big scary weapon swinger who summons a bunch of evil critters from the corpses of my foes. With my levels I've steadily improved my minion summoning skill to improve the bread and butter of my scheme and now I can summon several, one corpse at a time. There's virtually no cooldown on that summoning skill and you can use it to rapidly build up or replenish your small army. As long as there's enough corpses around because summoning a minion uses up that corpse like a fire uses up kindling. All fine and good so far but what I found is that certain enemies have longer than average death scenes. They stumble about, clutching at their chests, milking it for all its worth as they crash to the ground with huge chunks of scenery in their toothsome maws, the great big hams. And if that animation is long enough you have enough time to activate your minion summon multiple times. Summoning creatures as they're toppling over and then again when their corpse is on the ground. Two was the best I could do but, theoretically, you could get as many as you wanted as long as the death throws were protracted enough. This is a problem, a bug, an exploit, because it allows you to break the limiting factor on a skill. It would be like getting to use your mana twice to cast a spell.

Not a huge exploit or anything but, then, I haven't been looking all that long. That aside, I'm enjoying the game so far. It's a Diablo clone, point and click, top-down isometric view, the same sort of inventory and socketing system, and I've even portaled to town to clean out my clogged inventory. I gather it's based on the Hellgate: London engine but I don't really have much experience with that game. Tried the demo or the open beta and didn't really care for it. Mythos, on the other hand, manages to capture that elusive sense of fun and whimsy and adrenaline fueled action that the original Diablo had. Almost note perfect, really. What Diablo would have been with the latest player-friendly features and processing power and a healthy online component, but as I liked the original games that's not exactly a negative feature for me.

There are a few features I don't like or that I'd want to see added before the game's release. The last major patch brought with it respeccs, for example, but you're limited to a lifetime total of three (once you get past level 5, of course, which as I can attest to is an extremely low barrier and not enough time to adequately test out all the different ways you can go.) and that's way, way too low for my tastes. And something that's likely a deal-breaker for me unless it changes by release.

Other issues bother me, I'd like to see an auction house and the old Diablo inventory system is showing its age but I suspect that my first big crusade, on the boards, on this blog, and wherever else I can throw my admittedly limited intellectual weight, is going to be getting unlimited respeccs in game. Not painless or costfree, not a clone of the Guild Wars system I'm so fond of since the game isn't built for that. But some way, some method, where I can erase mistakes and try out new ideas without having to start a new character all over. In a free-to-play game, in one that's going to appeal to a casual audience, it's just mindboggling that you'd force people to grind their characters over, add to the time they have to spend playing along with the strain on the servers, instead of making it as easy as possible for them to explore.

Why are respeccs so important to me, if not to the game? Well, to understand you need to know how characters work. At creation, your first choice is picking between the three different races (3 comes up a lot when it comes to Mythos, by the way.). There are the required Humans. The diminuitive Gremlins who are, well, Gnomes/Dwarves by another name. And there are the fay Satyr who are standing in for the elves here, as well. As far as I can discern there are no advantages or differences to be had by picking one race over the other. No special skills or difference in stats. It's a purely cosmetic choice.

The next choice, your class, does matter, though. There are three different classes: the Blood Letter, the Pyromancer, and the Gadgeteer. Each has their own distinct flavor. The Blood Letter is the melee class, suited to getting in the enemies face and taking the fight to them. Although they have a few tricks up their sleave besides just meat-thuggery - in Guild Wars terms, it's like a Warrior crossed with a Necromancer. The Pyromancer is the caster class, a glass canon with a big boomstick. Again, in GW terms it's like they took the Elementalist and stripped it down to Fire and then remembered to include all the interesting stuff that line's always lacked. And the final class, the Gadgeteer, is the ranged one. They get to stand back and pick the enemy to death in various ways.

Now, each class isn't set in stone since you have control over your stats and your stats determine which equipment you can wear. You want to make a melee Pyromancer? Then pump up your Strength, put on the heavy armor, pick up a close-range weapon, and wail away. Perfectly legit choice. In fact, it's not even all that odd since the Pyromancer has an entire line of skills devoted to weapon-based melee combat. It's those skills that are the real dividing line between the classes. You only get to use the skills of your class and those special abilities make up a large part of what you'll be doing.

They're divided, more or less equally, into three separate lines per class (I told you 3 came up a lot. It's like talents in WoW, basically. The game does a good job of lifting good ideas and by-now familiar concepts like that and applying it to the classic Diablo formula.). They can roughly be divided into a line for weapon fighting, a line for combat through spell-casting, and a line for creating and supporting summons with each class getting its own distinct, flavorful variation. So, for the Blood Letter, you have a line that buffs up your ability to hit with a weapon and add blocks so you'll survive longer in combat. And a line that gives you a bunch of big, splashy special attacks and debuffs to fight with. And, my personal favorite, the minion summoning line. While, for the Pyro, you have the aforementioned melee centered line that lets you buff up and go the Fighter/Mage route. And one line is centered around tossing about the heavy damage nukes while another is about summoning pixies to do your bidding. The Gadgeteer gets a line of ranged special attacks, a line of direct damage (Through items whipped up on the spot that you get to chuck at your foes), and a line where they construct mechanical creatures to swarm their foes.

There's a lot of variety within each line, too. Lots of skills to try and strategies to make use of. Along with prerequisites - certain skills require you to spend at least one point in a previous one before you can make use of them - each line has several tiers of skills and you're required to sink skill points into them in order to unlock bigger and better skills. It's not a big deal as you get 2 skill points per level, and if you unlock a tier, it's unlocked for all your skill lines instead of just the one. But, all in all, you have to spend 30 points to get to the ultimate skills in each line and that makes it prohibitively expensive to spec deep into multiple lines. Instead, it's better to concentrate on one and splash into the others.

As I mentioned before, I'm playing a Red Hand Blood Letter and the Red Hand line is the minion line. There's some other stuff, like the cheap PBAoE nuke with the nice cooldown that I can use while I'm cowering behind my shambling army of death. Works great in tight corridors since it sends out a series of spikes which explode after a few seconds, resulting in massive carnage. Or the skill which lets me paint a target so my creatures focus their attention on it. It's been working pretty good so far although I suspect that as I get further and further into the game those minions are going to go fro a swarm of fast killers to disposable battle fodder that I'm going to have to constantly refresh.

My biggest problem, at the moment, is mana. I just don't have enough especially if I need to build up those undead babies fast once their wiped out. So I've started to invest more of my skill points into the mana stat so I can have more to cast with which means taking htem away from the health stat that lets me hang in a fight longer and the strength stat that lets me equip the stuff I want to wear making me a softer target, overall. Fortunately, I lucked into a magic item that gives me bonus mana regeneration towards the end of my play session. I could really tell the difference. That little doodad also features a Luck bonus, which is really nice. Luck rules everything when it comes to Mythos. It's like Magic Find, it increases the quality of the drops you get, giving them better bonuses and stats and the like. So that little magic item was a quick favorite, replacing the magic sword with a strength/damage bonus and a few gem slots in my heart. Magic items come in various grades of awesomeness (Conveniently color-coded, like WoW although the color scheme is different.) and, at their best, have six enchantments along with a number of sockets for gemstones which can further improve them. There's a way to pay to put enchantments on items that aren't at the max that I haven't found yet but it's a pretty flexible, easy system.

It's a fine build, in other words, and it's working out for me so far. But as I have no idea what I'm doing, I'm sure I could do it better if I had another chance. And I'm sure that, sooner or later, I'm going to want to try something new. That's why respeccs are so important. To me, anyway. With them, I can explore the combinations and options available with ease. Without them, then every choice I make needs to be the "right" one because I'm going to be stuck with it. That makes me much more likely to play it safe and conservative, instead of trying to come up with something new, something interesting, that would make the game more interesting for everyone.

Expect me to keep beating that drum for a while, by the way. But it's not to say that I'm unhappy with everything about the game. Some of the new (Or, at least, new to me. I think there's something similar in LoTRO.) features are pretty nice. One thing I like are the Achievements. Basically, you complete a certain task and you get a title which can be equiped giving your character a passive bonus. I, for example, earned one for completing the starting dungeon which gives me a nice little bonus to my health stat. And while there aren't many, there are enough to mix and match and get some interesting results - there are several slots for achievements but since I have only the one, I haven't been able to make much use of that. You kill a boss, you get a bonus damage resistance. You slaughter so many of a certain type of foe, you get a damage bonus against them. That sort of thing.

The game has instant travel, too, as you're able to warp back to any outpost you've been to before. Having played Guild Wars being able to map around is so easy and intuitive it's always a surprise to me when it's not featured in other games. It's not quite as simple in Mythos as opening up your map and clicking on a map pip, but it's pretty close.

It's certainly come in handy as I've been running around, picking up quests and mowing down my foes (To give you some indication of how fast and furious the combat is, there's one achievement that requires you to kill 1000 of your enemies, any kind. I'm already over halfway there.). Quests are level coded, as they are in WoW - you're restricted to a certain amount in your quest log at any given time, which is annoying - and offer the usual money (Again, the currency system is right out of WoW. You go from coppers to silvers to gold pieces. I've been spending relatively freely, kitting myself out with the best armor available and stocking up on potions, and I've already amassed over up to double digits in silvers. Assuming things keep scaling up, I should get my first gold piece any time now.) along with a choice item or two. I'm at the point now, though, where the drops I'm getting are already better than the quest rewards and that's a bit of a problem. Those should make the quest worth doing, not simply become merchant bait. But, maybe I've just been lucky so far and it'll even out before long. None of the quests have been especially original so far - it's the same old kill so many creatures or recover the MacGuffin from the named boss in that cave over there for me, please - but while they're not sparkling with originality they've got a lot of character, a lot of flavor and charm, that go a long way towards making me not care.

Quests and the snipe hunts they send you on are the best way to level, of course, and that's taken up the bulk of my time. I gather that, since it's a beta and all, that they eventually run out and the only way to continue to advance toward the level cap of 50 is to run through the various instanced dungeons. That's another feature that I like, by the way. Quests will lead you to areas spread around the map where you'll have to slay your way through a dungeon in classic Diablo style. But you'll also encounter maps along the way. These items, dropped by creatures or purchased at an NPC, will list a place and a party size and a recommended level. And using them is like a one-time ticket to enter that dungeon. You can explore it all you want but, once you leave, you can't get back. Using one will lead you to the lobby, a place with a merchant and little else besides the doorway to the dungeon. You can apparently take anyone you're grouped with to any dungeon you have access to and it's a pretty slick way of creating a lot of content to run through.

I managed to explore one myself as the last thing I did before I logged off. It led up to a final encounter with a mother of a named boss which was my toughest fight so far. He was huge and would teleport around the place, crackling with the raw energy of the spells he was chucking around. He managed to wipe out my minions in short order and I was grateful for all the stacks of potions I'd bought up (There's a limit on how many similar items you can group together. I imagine that, come release, there'll be an premium, paid option, where one of the benefits is unlimited or vastly increased item stacks. You can still use all your health pots when they're bound to your quickkey slot, for example, but each stack takes up precious space in your inventory.), as I chugged them down furiously as I raced around trying to find an old pile of corpses to throw at my tenacious foe. In the end, though, I was victorious. And without even losing a life. I'm not playing the Hardcore or Elite options or anything but it's still nice. Hardcore means you have to restart if your character dies while Elite means you face tougher enemies. You can toggle one or the other or both at creation. In the beta, everyone shares the same server but you can't group or trade with people from a different difficulty setting. I will, in all likelihood, get around to playing those but, for my first character, I went with the normal option.

That was about all the playing I had time for. And, as I said, so far, so good. I have a few concerns and issues, and if the game was released today I wouldn't be playing for long (I mean, it's free, so I'd give it a try, at least.) but it's a beta and things are unsettled and up in the air, so there's nothing that's completely soured me on the experience. But we'll have to see what life is like once the quests run out and it's grind out the XP time.

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