Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Right to Bear Arms

Demantura exercises her right to bear arms.

If you're looking for information about the Second Amendment, this is not the right place. If you're looking for satire about the Second Amendment, this is still not the right place. [Jedi Mindtrick] The places you're looking for are here or here.

As my readers know, this blog is a place to read about my gaming misadventures, and this past week has been no exception! I have the pleasure of telling you all about my rediscovery of the beorning race-class in LOTRO.

Race-class? What on earth is THAT all about? Well, in Tolkien lore, Beorn (that bearish skinchanger who gave aid to Thorin's company in The Hobbit) was one of the last of his people. He appeared as a huge man, but could shapeshift into the form of a monstrous bear. If you're going to make that kind of powerful creature into something playable for MMO gamers (who are notoriously fickle about balance between races and classes) then you have to make sure you strike that happy balance right from the start. The easiest way for the LOTRO devs to do that was to make the beorning race also their class. Changing into a bear and laying the smackdown is kind of OP, so it's hardly fair to let them also cast rune AOEs or utilize gambits or fire off a dozen arrows in a wide swath against foes.

Man form
Bear form

Now, when beornings first came into play in November of 2014 with Update 15, I was as excited as anyone to play one. I bought the race-class the day it came out and made one. I was captivated by the detail and beauty of the Vale starter area and dove into it with aplomb. Much to my intense dismay, after only a scant few levels I was ported away to Archet in the Bree-lands. Some people might disagree with me, but I happen to feel that the Man starter area is the worst, with the Shire as a close second. Not only is Archet a pain to get to, but there's hardly anything there and the quests are scattered over a large area -- far less linear and flowing than if you started in the Elf or Dwarf areas. As a rule, if I make a Man character, as soon as I'm out of the intro I hoof it to Celondim. Not only is the story more palatable, but it takes less time to level because of the better-organized quest chains.

But then I really started having trouble. The swap between man form and bear form was anything but smooth, and was especially awkward with the different skills on the skill bars. I hadn't quite become accustomed to using my keyboard for the first skill bar (that lessoning would come after playing RIFT for a while and learning how to make the in-game macros), so it was that much harder to keep the skills straight. Disheartened by the struggle that it was to play, I left the character alone at around level 18. Thereafter, I would only run him through the Yule festival for easy XP -- and I did him the favor of putting a Horned Snowbeast Cloak on him as well as giving him a Snowbeast Steed. It completed the rugged look, and that in itself made me satisfied.

My beorning, Hiraeth, on the Arkenstone server.

Fast forward 2 1/2 years to last Friday. I had no idea what character I wanted to play in LOTRO, aside from wanting to play on the Landroval server with my favorite kinship, Away Shall Fade. (You guys are perpetually awesome.) That left me with 7 characters to choose from. Deciding to be arbitrary about it, I asked a friend on Steam to roll a d8 for me, with 8 being a beorning since I hadn't played it in so long and many of my kinmates seemed to enjoy it. Sure enough, his die landed on 8 and I set to work to create a new beorning character.

Demantura seeks out Gandalf in The Prancing Pony.

I ended up with Demantura Vindurel (diamond wind) whose cosmetics ended up looking vaguely like she belonged in Assassin's Creed instead, but still seemed entirely appropriate for a rough and gruff woman who turns into a bear.

Demantura out on the barrow-downs.

The difference in gameplay was amazing.

I learned that Update 16 (if I'd only waited for it!) had brought about an amazing edit to the beorning race-class: an auto-swap of the skill bars when you shifted forms. That in itself made the beorning more enjoyable to play, but it was clear that they had also tweaked a lot of the skills and the trait trees along with it. To anyone who still has gripes about the beorning, you have no idea how good it is now compared to how it was on its first day!

I took to questing with Demantura like a duck takes to water. As soon as they were able to, Away Shall Fade took me into The Great Barrow, a group of instances that are part of one big dungeon. What I hadn't anticipated was that I'd end up being the tank for the group. My usual favorite classes are all ranged dps, support or healing. Tanking was never something I planned on doing -- or rather, I anticipated it with my guardian and possibly my warden, but forgot that the beorning can be a furry bulldozer with the right build.

Beorning trait tree options.

It was a bit awkward at first, especially since I didn't entirely remember how the dungeon instances went, and my healers didn't exactly keep me alive. (It's okay. I forgive you. You know who you are.) We've run it a couple more times since that first time, and I can safely say that I'm very happy with how the race-class plays. I prefer the blue trait line, dabbled with red and didn't care for it, and am trying to learn the yellow. Beorning is hardy, diverse in the way you can damage and heal with the same build, and seems to make a good meat shield for other players. The bear form is very strong (especially if you use the red line), but the man form is just as strong if you use your skills well.


So if you stopped playing beorning years ago for the same reasons I did, I encourage you to give it another try. If you've been playing recently and have the notion that it isn't a viable class, I implore you to think about how bad it was when it was first released and appreciate the work the devs have done and all the feedback the community has given. Maybe it still has its issues, but it's come a very long way!

Now I bet someone out there would love a free game. Who doesn't love a free game? My beorning on the Arkenstone server, Hiraeth, was not originally known by that name. I began playing him on Elendilmir before the World Consolidation. Upon transfer, someone else already had his name and I had to rename him. Knowing that I made him in 2014, and that he is a shapeshifter, what popular (and relevant) name from that year did my unoriginal self give him? Comment with your answer! Your chances are pretty good given how few people comment.

And as always...

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Melody's Escape: The Best Birthday Present

A little over three years ago, when I was just starting to get into regular streaming of my gameplay on Twitch, one of my best friends gifted me an early access game on Steam for my birthday. That game was Melody's Escape.

I didn't know then that I would spend endless hours playing the game, but it was still the coolest gift I received that year because it was a music game -- a genre I had fallen in love with when the PS2 was hot and Harmonix was giving us Frequency and Amplitude. (If you don't know the studio name Harmonix, I'm sure you know their Guitar Hero and Rock Band games. They have even released a new version of Amplitude on PS4, though it doesn't have the same feel as the PS2 game.)

But I didn't sit down to write about Harmonix. I'm here to write about one of the few games I have seen be successful in utilizing Steam's Early Access process. I played this game for over 2 years while it was in Early Access (which I feel is way too long for a game to take advantage of, but that's another topic), and it finally had its full release in June 2016. The game has undergone a great many changes since I first installed it, but if it tells you anything at all: I've never once uninstalled it.

For people who have no idea what a music game is all about, I'll break it down for you. Typically these games follow one of two paths: (1) It comes with a set list of songs, or (2) It uses your own library of digital music. If you have a game that follows the first path, you're lucky if they also include difficulty levels. If it doesn't, I hope you didn't pay overmuch for the game.

Melody's Escape follows the second path in that you can search your computer directories from the game window itself to pull up any song file you have -- or you can even drag and drop the music file from another window if you aren't playing full-screen. (I use this method mostly out of habit from streaming so much -- it was easier not to let my viewers see what songs I was passing up and instead to simply accept what I was going to play!) The game will then analyze your music file and generate an obstacle course that is set to the rhythm of your music. Slow, off-rhythm computer-generated songs without much beat are often much harder than fast-paced rock classics as a result!
Melody is the feature-less girl figure who has to run this gauntlet of your music, and the being you control the movements of. When I first began playing the game, there were a couple of token cosmetic variations you could choose for her appearance, but if you wanted to do your own thing you had to know which files to edit and have a good understanding of how the body pieces moved together. The game supported Steam Workshop files for this, so a lot of the early options looked like paper dolls connected with those gold round head fasteners at the joints. Eventually they added the tools to make your own custom appearance with less technical knowledge, and that added some uniformity to the resulting files. These days, Melody can look like anything from Marge Simpson, to Equestria Girls, to Vocaloids, to Rick Sanchez or even a Warframe. Granted, some of them look terrible -- but there are a good number of them which are rather good. (I'm still waiting for someone to update the Rainbow Brite mod.)
The customization doesn't end there, either. There are also mods for the background color themes and every possible detail taken into account when the game analyzes a music track. You can tailor any of the difficulty levels to suit your play preferences, or even make a Custom setup of your own choosing. The targets you have to hit in the game can display as either colors (which correspond to a gamepad's XYAB buttons) or as directional arrows (which correspond to a gamepad's directional pad buttons). Beginners will often need one or the other by itself to get familiar with the game. Harder difficulty levels require a mix of both -- or both in tandem! I haven't yet become skilled enough for tandem, but I've at least worked my way up to mixed. You can also adjust how fast Melody moves across the screen, if the analyzer adjusts anything for slower tempos, how much timing leniency there is with your button presses, and how fast Melody respawns after crashing. I could explain these options, but they would likely not make sense if you haven't seen the game in action.

Given these customization options, gameplay already has a wide spectrum of possibilities. Add in the wealth of music that's out there, and the different genres people enjoy listening to, and you've just given yourself an endless supply of entertainment in one game! Speaking for myself, any of my seasoned Twitch followers who used to watch me stream can attest to the crazy variety of music I threw across my screen. I would play anything from John Williams to Daft Punk, The Sound of Music to Linkin Park, Cookie Monster to Swedish House Mafia. I'd refer you to my saved Twitch videos, but they like to censor long stretches of audio when copyrighted material is magically detected.

There are a few great benefits to this game. For me, the first is that I learn more about my music because I have to listen more closely to it if I want to play the game well. Nothing improves appreciation like repetition and careful listening. If you're a social person with the capacity to stream your games, then this is also a great way to share your music with a live audience while also having fun (just don't expect the audio to maintain its integrity if your host site is afraid of copyright lawsuits). And of course the obvious benefit is further improvement of rhythm and hand-eye coordination. If you have trouble keeping a beat and don't have a music teacher to beat it into your football helmet, then this game can probably help you out a great deal. (First person to name that reference in the comments wins a small game from me via Steam, Humble Bundle or

Originally priced at $15, the full list price for Melody's Escape is now $9.99 on Steam. In addition to the Steam Workshop, it also has some competitive Steam Achievements to acquire. It is worth every penny if you're looking for a fun, customizable music game.