Friday, December 31, 2010

Adventures in DC Universe Online

A few weeks ago I got an email invitation to join the DC Universe Online beta. This gave me the (free) opportunity to take the game for a spin before it became publicly available. For all my game playing I’ve never spent a lot of time with a massively multiplayer game. Here are my impressions, playtest notes, and wish-list.

At first I was quite disappointed by the MMOness of it all. It feels very much like World-of-Warcraft-with-tights. There are lots of fetch quests and beat up X guys missions. There are loot drops and raids. Weak character development and very weak story all around - even by deeply diminished video game standards. The well-populated persistent world mean nothing really changes. I’m supposed to beat up Scarecrow’s thugs and rescue my fellow citizens from his fear gas. But an infinite stream of bad guys and infected bystanders keep showing up as fast as I deal with them. I knock out baddies and free bystanders to make my quota and leave the rest for the next guy. It doesn’t feel very heroic.

Character generation is flexible and fun. You choose hero or villain and have a wide variety of costume and appearance options. Choose a power set, a weapon, and how you get around. Choose your awesome super-name. Realize that your awesome super name was already taken. And your first 6 somewhat less awesome backups are also taken. Settle for some kind of vaguely appropriate but available name. Now you’re ready for action!

The graphics and combat are only OKish relative to their single-player counterparts (like Prototype or Batman: Arkham Asylum). But they are solid and enjoyable for a game of this scope. Combat feels more more kinetic, twitchy, and action-oriented than what I would expect. Giant spring-loaded boxing gloves send characters flying. Attacks can be dodged with a quick acrobatic roll. Rhythmic button combinations lead to spectacular, leaping, flourishes of Demon Fist’s deadly power-quarterstaff. At its best it feels like you’re playing a fighting game or a brawler.

Many of the MMO conventions are present. To a superhero fan and MMO novice like me they can seem out of place or are simply baffling. Having loot drops seems odd for heroes. The appearance changes are kind of fun. But the stat changes you get from the super-pants you got from beating up Doctor Psycho are too subtle to really get excited about. Having decaying equipment seems pointless. And facing the Queen Bee with a bunch of busted gear can be especially frustrating. Collecting money seems inappropriate for the genre (if you’re a hero). And there’s not that much to buy. So I’m not really sure what the point is.

Characters can have different roles (Damage, Control, Tank, and Healer) that seem like nods to knowing WoW fans. But I wish they were more intrinsic to the characters rather than different roles my character is supposed to take on from mission to mission. Character generation provides a wide variety of power and weapon selections. Fire and ice. Flying and super speed. Magic and brawlers. But then, they all get kind of homogenized in the name of balance. Everyone seems to wind up with similar offense and defense options to work out to the same amount of damage points per second.

The biggest advantage a MMO has over a single player game is the availability of all these other players as heroes and villains. This remains my greatest disappointment with the game. I hate chat windows and can’t imagine spending my precious gaming time typing in one. All my players interactions so far have been incidental, brief, shallow and random. I wish the game did much more to encourage player interaction and helped form enduring partnerships and rivalries between the players.

If I’m dong a mission and another hero is doing the same mission right next to me, the game should ask us if we want to work together. If we do, scale the mission, open a audio chat channel, and make us a team. If we complete the mission, ask us we want to be friends. If we say yes, let us find each other and team up in future sessions.

If a villain comes along and beats me up, offer me a revenge mission that let’s me track him down. If I succeed at the revenge mission, ask us we want to be enemies. If we do, let us track each other down and do battle in future sessions.

Instead of a “Tank” mode, I want a “Social” role. When in social mode characters should not be able to attack or be attacked. Their controls  should allow them to strike a variety of poses and make a number of canned, context relevant, statements. Before a battle (or even in the middle of one) heroes and villains should be able to target each, go “Social” other to swap some banter and strike poses for a few seconds before the action resumes.

What I really want is more, deeper, more personal mission-based PvP. Give a villain a mission to go rob a bank. Tell my hero that I need to go stop the bank robbery. We both have to get to the bank and get sent to the same instance. I fight my way through henchmen. The villain fights through the guards. We meed in the middle and only one of us can be the victor.

Unfortunately, DC Universe Online doesn’t offer much of that kind of social-engineering. It does offer a lot of flash,  fireworks, power progression, and different ways to be super. I think it’s probably a good MMO. It's just too conventional for my taste. I might buy it when it comes out. But I’ll continue to look to the skies and search the rooftops. Someday a real hero will come. Someone will serve up some real stories and save us from MMO grinding and drudgery. But who? And will they be too late?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Everyone Gets a Tax Cut

A few thoughts on the announced tax-cut deal between Obama and the Republicans:

Generally, I like the deal. Everyone gets what they want (even if we can’t pay for it). Taxes don’t go up for everyone next year. We even get a little tax cut. Unemployment benefits get extended for another year. And the earned income tax credit get extended. So, tax cuts for everyone and the most needy get a little extra.

It’s absurd that there had be to any negotiations at all. The Republicans get a say because they have 42 senators and Democrats only have 58. Since it takes 60 votes to do anything, 42 is as good as 58. If the senate doesn’t kill that rule at the start of it’s next session then the Democrats are insane. I’m looking at you Jeanne Shaheen. What the heck, I’m looking at you too Kelly Ayotte. Just because you’re a Republican doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility to end this foolishness.

Liberals who are apoplectic about this deal need to rethink their priorities. Would the world really be a better place if taxes for everyone went up next year? And unemployment benefits ended? This is a stealth-stimulus. It’s not a very efficient stimulus. But it’s better than nothing -- and will be much more popular.

I support progressive taxation. I opposed the Bush tax cuts. I never liked the Democratic plan to extend 75% of the Bush cuts. I don’t think it’s a moral imperative that rich people pay higher taxes. We need a lot more revenue to balance the budget. When we get serious about the nation’s fiscal health I would like to see a little extra come from where it’ll cause the least hardship - people richer than me. But everyone will have to share the burden. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.

But we aren’t serious about balancing the budget. Nobody cares. Not this year. This deal piles on another $600-$900 billion on the deficit. It also settles taxes and economic stimulus issues for the next few years. Maybe this is our last big bender. Hopefully, this opens the door to serious negotiations around a big picture deficit reduction plan (like Simpson-Bowles) where everything is on the table and we look at the kinds of real, structural changes that are required in tax policy, defense, medical, and entitlement spending.

Speaking of negotiations- Obama is clearly at home with them. He’s much more interested in being the presidential centrist than leading the charge as the front-man of the Democratic party. I admire this quality. But it drives “the base” berserk. Obama will get plenty of opportunity for negotiation over the next two years. The man himself is such a stark contrast from the communist-socialist rhetoric that comes from the right. I hope that’ll become increasingly apparent, that the fever will break, and that American center will realized Obama is one of them.

In this highly polarized era there may not be much support for a President-as-centrist-negotiator. But that’s his job. And I’m glad Obama is the one doing it.