Friday 17 July 2009

Arma 2 an old school MMO? No, but yes, but no, but yes, but no.

Huge probably rambling post inc! Just writing as it comes to me, so may go off on tangents.... You have been warned ;)

Lately I’ve been playing a lot of Arma 2, a hardcode soldier sim. Arma is one of those unforgiving, realistic, bastard games where you have to play with caution and stealth or get capped by someone you can’t see. It takes place over a 230km2 landscape of a fictional former USSR state called Chernorussia. Missions are extremely free form and fluid, it’s very much down to you to operate as you think best. A sort of sandbox game if you like. It’s also bloody awesome, though not one for those wanting a Serious Sam style shooter, this my friends is a serious game for serious people. :P You maybe wondering WTF this has to do with WAR, but let me tell you a (very shortened) story of what happened to me in Arma 2 the other day and all will be revealed…

My 4 man recon unit had been tasked with hunting down a traitorous Chernorussian officer. Intel had given me three locations where our UAVs had sighted increased activity and it was suspected these might be some of the hidden rebel camps. We’d also been advised that we may get some results from questioning the locals in the various towns and villages. I figured I’d leave the questioning until last, so I commandeered a Humvee and we drove to within a couple of klicks of the first site. It was in a forest west of a town with a name I can’t spell. I planned on us approaching on foot and carefully observing the site before moving in. However, as we disembarked from the Humvee the shit hit the fan.

One of my men called a warning as he sighted an enemy patrol emerging from the woods on the opposite side of the road. We hit the floor, crawled into cover and opened fire. In the resulting firefight we took them down without loss, but our Humvee got turned into a smouldering wreck after being introduced to some form of rocket launcher. Once I was satisfied the area was clear, we moved up to the suspected camp, but alas it was deserted. We would have to move on. I radioed in requesting immediate extraction from our supporting helicopter. As we waited in cover on the edge of forest all was quiet for ages, until I heard distant whup whup of our choppers rotors as it rushed to meet us. It turned out I should have checked out that nearby town before calling in our helicopter.

An immense volley of gunfire ripped up from the Shilka anti-aircraft tank hidden in the town, tearing the helicopter out of the sky in seconds. Once I had stopped swearing, I led my squad through the woods trying to find a place where we could get into the town without being exposed for too long. I didn’t know if we could get another helicopter transport, if not then I would have to find transport from within the town itself, but whatever the outcome I would need to deal with that bloody Shilka.

To cut the story short, we took out the Shilka, cleared out some rebel infantry in the town and I stole a crappy little car to get us on our way. Loads of other stuff happened, it was a proper adventure and I had an awesome time. Then disaster! I cocked up my saved game and I had to start the entire thing again, but the next time it was entirely different. I made different choices, went different places and had an utterly new experience.

It wasn’t scripted, it wasn’t pre-set, I made my own choices, did things and stuff just happened. This was freedom I’ve not had since God knows when. I’d say Oblivion was like this, but the way the AI works in Arma makes it seem much more alive and variable. My game time was packed with tension and excitement; this was old school exploration and adventure. I had no quest markers, spawn points or limitations. I was set loose on a game world with only a few loose objectives and I was free to go about them as I wished. It was like the feeling of playing Ultima Online circa 1997. A single player game demonstrated the thing I miss most about massively multiplayer online games, how messed up is that?

Ultima Online used to be incredible. We didn’t have quests, we didn’t have instances, we had freedom and a story that was written by the players just playing the game. You can accuse me of wearing rose tinted spectacles, but honestly in original UO it was like that. My friends and I would log in, go exploring and just see where the world took us that day. We’d hear about a PK (Player Killers murdering swines, criminal players) terrorising a town or acting like a highwayman and we’d try and hunt them down. We’d battle through dungeons fighting mobs and players alike, all sorts of drama would happen. We’d trade with people playing real crafting characters, driving a real economy. We’d escort people going mining in the wild mountainous areas and we sailed the seas, searching for treasure. We had more to do than you’d believe possible, far more to do than we’ve got in these current games and that was without quests, instances or achievements. Honestly I wish you’d all been there, it was simply brilliant.

And then it got ruined. The PvE only facet “Trammel” was introduced. Each server had 2 versions of its lands, full PvP and PvE. You could travel between each version at moongates across the world, a bit like switching instances in AoC. The developers bowed to the obsession with itemisation that Everquest had introduced and “epics” and statistic driven items appeared. The game changed. People became obsessed with numbers and grinding, the character of the game was diluted. The new players that strolled from the PvE lands into Felucca (the PvP land) were unprepared; they went from PvE safety to what they saw as a dangerous land full of ganking arseholes. Most of the old PvPers were mortified at the changes to the game, many of them insulted the new players, calling them carebears and then they got vicious. All the honour that people used to play with was gone, the land DID become full of ganking arseholes. And as it was easier to grind those new epic items in the safe PvE only lands, Felucca slowly died and with it the whole concept of players creating your story. This was the start of the end. The days of the MMORPG were over, welcome to the new era of Masssively Multiplayer Online Number Crunchers™. Then the explosion of the internet population and the massive success of World of Warcraft further established the restricted “questing by numbers” style MMOs.

Thou shalt only PvP in that small walled off area by the toilet, with no risk to yourself.
Thou shalt grind the same mobs ad infinitum in quest for epic goodness.
Thou shalt be led by the nose and lose all imagination.

There are exceptions. Eve Online is probably the closest thing we have to old school Ultima Online and because of that I’ve tried it several times. I really want to like it, but I have issues with the way the game itself plays that I just can’t get past. Plus I really do like the fantasy settings for MMOs. I do like my beards and fireballs. Dark Age of Camelot and the RvR at its core was a player led game, but this changed over time as later expansions mangled it into yet more of the same. With no decent alternatives I, like most MMO gamers, got drawn into World of Warcraft and the rat race treadmill of materialistic progression. It’s always felt hollow and every year I would reactivate my UO account and see if there was a return to days of old, alas to no avail. This year I closely watched the development of Darkfall Online. This was a game that looked like it might reproduce the legends of old. But no, it was badly implemented and has been ruined by exploiting, macroing, etc. As much as I want to go back to old style gaming, I don’t want to do it in a ropey game. I want it to be a polished, excellent product too.

So what about WAR? It’s got a shit load of the same item based, materialistic gameplay that we all became used to in WoW that’s for sure. But it does have the RvR core. It does have players driving events and making a story every time you log in. For me it is vastly more interesting than Warcraft ever was. The problem is it’s still limited in scope. We fight in restricted RvR lakes; our combat environment is controlled and rigid. There are no wild lands, no frontiers; you never quite get that mixed feeling of freedom and danger that original UO introduced us to. Perhaps if tier 4 zones were entirely PvP enabled it would bring some of that feeling back, that tension where you’ve always got to be on the ball or suffer a grisly pixel death. I was hoping Land of the Dead would bring that back, but I think the instancing prevents it. Unfortunately LotD is really not Darkness Falls 2 in that respect.

Could WAR bring me what I want? I think with some changes yes it could, and I think those changes are feasible too. But I also suspect that most of the MMO populace has grown so accustomed to living in ordered and controlled environments (both in game and in real life) that it’s too brave a move for Mythic to consider. Don’t get me wrong, I really like WAR and I still see it as my long term MMO, but it could be so much more.

I salute CCP for keeping Eve Online a player led universe; by all accounts they’ve got the balance right. Maybe one day we’ll get another genuinely great game that brings the same qualities to the fantasy genre. Alas, I think it’s more likely I’ll remain fondly remembering UO and wishing it was 1997.


  1. I wish I had played Ultima back then. I tried it about a year ago but it was a bit weird and the grfx are oooooold looking. My bro played it when it was new too and he still raves about it. Did u not find it to hardcore with losing gear? t

  2. Gear just wasn't that important. It was fairly easy to get and wasn't the stat fest we have now, so you'd have spare sets of armour in your bank or house ready should you get clean looted. Not that getting stripped naked was a regular occurance.

    Which meant you didn't get the adventuring starkers crap that people are doing in Darkfall.


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Half man half pixel. Music obsessive, likes a drink, occasional bastard.