May 9 2012

SWTOR Review / Legacy Update

I’ve been playing SWTOR for about four months now – here’s both a review and a status update on how they’re doing:

I wasn’t excited about SWTOR; at no point in its development did anything about it really grab my attention. I’m not really a Star Wars fan, so the setting wasn’t a bonus. The only feature I heard hyped was the voice acting, which I was skeptical of – that’s for single player games! In MMOs we just want to get through quests quickly! So it sounded to me like WoW in space with some pointless single player style questing.

I was wrong. Very, very wrong.

The questing in SWTOR is far and away the best of any MMO I’ve played. It’s a lot like Mass Effect – voiced dialogue, and 3 (usually) options for you to choose from with a variety of niceness/meanness, light/dark, greedy/altruistic, etc. You get to choose how you want to deal with the quests, at least in a roleplay sense; sometimes it affects gameplay as well.

It’s led to something I never even realized was missing – my characters actually have identity, personality… character. My Shadow, Uria, prefers personal freedom and to avoid fighting if possible. Arie, the Scoundrel, is just all about the credits and killing things… and helping the victimized, especially women. Uriul, the Sentinel, is a model Jedi – except for the “there is no passion, there is serenity” part of the code, as he’s quite passionate with the ladies. Those aren’t the most complex characters ever. They don’t really have backstories, and certainly don’t have the depth to make for good reading. But what personality has developed – in a relatively short period of time – is more impressive when compared to WoW. I’ve been playing WoW for several years, and only one character for most of that time. But I couldn’t give him any attributes whatsoever. He’s… a Death Knight. That’s about it.

The individual quests of SWTOR thus often have interesting choices – that for the most part “don’t matter”, in that you won’t break your character whatever you do, yet have weight because of the story and how your character would deal with it. There were multiple times as I was leveling Uria that I stopped to ponder the moral and practical consequences of my options. That’s a pretty huge improvement over just clicking “Complete Quest”.

You’re also being force-fed story – which has led to me actually being interested in the game world. You CAN still just move through the quest dialogue without listening to it, but watching is so much easier than reading quest text…

And as you’re questing, the actual combat is fun. You’re almost always fighting multiple enemies, unless it’s a very strong one, which you have to fight for many quests – sort of like the Group Quest bosses of WoW, but soloable if you utilize your companion well. Having multiple mobs allows you to approach fights differently, rather than just going up to one and launching into your rotation (or a few attacks of it before the mob dies). Some of each fight tends to be similar – CC the strongest mob if you can, focus the others down one by one; but different group sizes, enemy types, and positioning mean that two fights in a row are rarely the same.

Having no auto attack is interesting – at first I intensely disliked it, because it feels wrong to have to use an ability to kill an enemy at 1% health. But because there’s no auto attack, the combat animations work much better. You feel connected to your character’s actions, because anytime they do something YOU told them to.

This does get old, eventually. Level too many alts too quickly, and having class-based dialogue options doesn’t help very much. Eventually you need to go do other things…

Luckily, there’s other stuff to do that’s also fun!

Space missions, for example. They’re often compared to Wing Commander – on rails shooters where you fly around in your spaceship, shooting other spaceships! They’re simple, but I enjoy them. There’s some challenge in going for bonus objectives. They’re also good experience and credits. (The experience is possibly too good – I outleveled quest content on Uria because I did my space mission dailies.) As far as minigames go, it’s the best I’ve seen.

Then there’s the PvP. It’s limited – there are only 4 Warzones (the equivalent of Battlegrounds) so far, but it’s extremely fun most of the time. BioWare having some Mythic (creators of Dark Age of Camelot, still the best world PvP MMO, and later Warhammer Online, where they did well with the instanced PvP) employees clearly shows – the warzones are designed around objectives and yet actually involve constant combat.

One big part of this is that the maps are simply smaller – which means you don’t have so much running from fight to fight. Imagine Arathi Basin with about half the distance between the two spawns removed – it’d be a far more interesting place, IMO. It also takes longer to kill a player, which is more interesting in general than dying in a few GCDs (it also gives tanks a strong role of protecting others via Guard and Taunt, in addition to node defense), and also allows reinforcements to come and help; so you have fights with an ebb and flow that can last for minutes.

There are some issues with PvP, that have worsened since patch 1.2.

  • The time to kill has decreased dramatically; Expertise, the PvP stat, now also scales faster for damage than for defense, so time-to-kill decreases faster as people get more geared than it really should.
  • This has led to dual-wielding melee classes, in particular, being overpowered – there’s no longer a real counter to them.
  • There are no cross-server queues or rated Warzones, so you frequently end up against teams that are simply far better than yours, and unless you’re on a big server you’re likely to see them over and over.
  • The PvP daily can feel like a grind – completing the daily is worth 3-5 Warzones, so it’s worth it, but it makes you “have” to log in. World PvP is nonexistent (although I don’t personally think that’s a problem; I find world PvP mostly an excuse for griefers).

Overall, I feel that SWTOR PvP is superior to WoW’s, although there are times when it’s incredibly frustrating. It could be spectacular if they change the Expertise scaling to favor defense and add cross-server queues.

PvP is great fun but not really revolutionary – the crafting system isn’t fun, exactly, but is unlike anything seen before. It isn’t exactly even something you really… do.

Instead of crafting anything yourself, you have your ship crew do it. You pick 3 skills – gathering, crafting (limited to one crafting skill per character), or mission and then you can assign companions to do them.

  • Gathering works pretty much as you’d expect. There are nodes out in the world, you can gather from them. (You can actually do this one thing yourself, though by default your companion does it.)
  • The point of Mission skills is generally to get rare items. You can get rare mats for crafting skills, find companion gifts, schematics for orange items (more on those later!), ‘maps’ of sorts that let you unlock one-time (per discovery) missions that give much better rewards than usual. When you send a companion out on a mission (which last from a few minutes up to two hours) they disappear and can’t go out questing with you.
  • Crafting also works mostly as normal – except that each item takes longer to make than in WoW. The shortest take a couple minutes, the longest, so far, about 50 minutes. Since your crew are doing it while you’re off doing whatever you want, that’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. The crafting skills are set up so that they each need one gathering and one mission skill to support them.

Items also work pretty much as in WoW. The only noteworthy thing is the item modifications. High quality items usually have a slot or two you can drop a modification in – a hilt for a light sabre, blaster for a pistol, armoring for armor, and so on. You can also remove these, if you want, to reuse on other items, though it costs some credits. The coolest mod-related thing, though, is orange items. These are sort of SWTOR’s initial answer to being able to choose how you look. They’re items that have NO base stats at all, and inherit all their stats from mods you put in. Using these, you can find a cool look for your character and replace the mods in it as you level up. I’ve done so with Uria since… level 25 or so, I think.

You obviously don’t have nearly as much choice as you do in WoW with transmog, but you have more choice than you did in WoW for the first 6 years, and some of the armor looks really cool.

I don’t have any more transitions, so just some more stuff:

  • Companions, as you would expect if you’ve ever played a BioWare game, are a big deal – not just for crafting. There are quests involving them (though mostly pure dialogue), you can earn their affection (or lose it) based on your choices as you quest, you can even romance them (though only opposite gender at the moment, a restriction that’s extra dumb when you consider they’re willing to go cross species). The companions aren’t as well fleshed out as in Dragon Age or NWN2, but they’re on par with Mass Effect. You can micromanage them in combat if you want to, or you can let them do their own thing; they’re mostly smart, but you can turn off AE attacks if you need to.
  • Glowing corpses – instead of just sparkling as in WoW, SWTOR has a ray of light (sort of like WoW raid markers) on corpses with loot, colored based on the type of loot it has. So if you don’t want to bother picking up trash loot and credits, you can skip those.
  • Excellent sound and music – lightsaber noises are cool! So is the John Williams score, and other music.
  • There are interesting class options – my Jedi Shadow is a lot like a rogue, for example, but has a tanking tree. Smugglers can become Scoundrels, which can either be a short range/melee DPS class or a healer.
  • The new Legacy system in 1.2 allows you to unlock cool things either with credits or by leveling characters.
  • They have a live events team – they were able to launch a week-long live event (the outbreak of a zombie-like plague, unfortunately similar to the WoW event) with no advance warning or leaks.

really like the core of SWTOR – it has good combat, it has good questing, it has good PvP. But it’s the other things that it lacks. The game isn’t 7 years old – it hasn’t had time to accumulate all the things that WoW has for you to do when you don’t want to play the core parts of the game. There’s very little collection – there are only a couple minipets and a dozen or so speeders, no achievements, and not very many titles. (Oddly there used to be a lot more titles, but BioWare removed them just before launch.) They do have Datacrons, which are small permanent stat boosts that you can go collect (they usually involve some difficulty getting to them – jumping, hidden doors, that sort of thing). And they have the Codex, which is like Warhammer Online’s Tome of Knowledge – it stores the little pieces of lore you discover. (If Mythic’s ToK team is working on SWTOR, you can expect it to get much bigger and tied in with their achievements.) They certainly don’t have pet battles.

Another issue is that BioWare is new to this, and is still making dumb mistakes. For example, in Ilum (a zone that’s basically 50+, although the game first tells you about it at 40) they had these chests spawning along the road. The chests were unguarded by mobs, had a set respawn timer of five minutes, and contained high level items (healing kits, credits, crafting mats, armor, etc). So, some people realized that you could get these regardless of your level – and started, basically, farming them. BioWare then warned these people to stop or they would be banned. There was nothing in the game to prevent lower levels from getting to Ilum; BioWare simply said that players should know they “weren’t supposed to be there”, and if they went anyway they were exploiting. BioWare basically threatened players for being smart and hardcore. (They said they were worried about the impact on the economy – but if people actually looting the chests is bad for the economy, the chests are a horrible idea to begin with.) I believe they still haven’t added a level restriction to the planet…

There are no addons. There will be eventually, but there aren’t now, and I miss them. The UI isn’t horrible, but it’s no better than the default WoW UI. 1.2 did add the ability to customize the UI to a degree, but a lot is still missing.

The economy is fairly weak. There aren’t a lot of BOE items, and a downside of orange gear means that the BiS item for you is very obvious. The Global Trade Network (their AH; though there’s actually no bidding, just buyouts, so there’s no ‘auction’ per se) is troublesome without addons, and there is a limit of 50 listings per character.

But probably the biggest issues are the lack of population and of a way to find groups, which tie together into people not being able to do things.

You have to get groups the way you did in WoW pre-LFD – go into the city and spam general chat (people use general chat in SWTOR, and leave Trade for trading! It’s amazing). This means that people out questing who want to do a dungeon aren’t going to see you looking. You can set yourself as LFG so it’ll show in /who if someone searches a zone, but it’s no substitute for LFD.

This compounds with a low-ish population – the game as a whole is fine, but there are too many servers by far. I’ve heard they opened dozens of new ones shortly after launch to ease login queues – that was a mistake. There are anywhere from 50-150 players per planet (counting Empire as well), usually, but only during primetime. The rest of the time, things are dead.  Which is fine if you’re leveling or, like me, just sitting about on the Fleet while sending crew out on missions – but for those who want to do a dungeon in the middle of the day, it can be tough.

THE CONCLUSION TO THIS EPIC TALE

Overall, I think SWTOR’s definitely the best MMO to come out since WoW (though I didn’t play all of them, like Rift and AoC). WoW offers far more things to do – SWTOR can’t match all those systems that have been added over the years, and will be further behind when MoP is out. But two of the three core systems, leveling/questing and PvP, are very strong – much better than WoW. Which leaves only the end-game raiding and dungeons, which I haven’t seen yet. If those are as good (or even close to) as WoW, SWTOR will end up being better overall in time.

tl;dr version:

Pros

Questing far better than other MMOs (and I care!)

Strategic & fun combat

PvP that involves LOTS of fighting, centered around objectives

Space missions

Companions

Cons

Not much non-core stuff to do

No addons

No LFD

Score
8/10
(Pending Raids/dungeons; this is assuming they’re at least decent. Revised downward from my original score of 9, as PvP has become worse.)


Apr 2 2012

The Hunger Games Review

Chances are that you’ve already seen The Hunger Games, as it had one of the biggest opening weekends in history. But in case you haven’t, here are my thoughts…

I had not read the book before going to see the premiere of the Hunger Games on Thursday night. I bought it for my Kindle, but wanted to see the movie first. So I don’t know how closely it follows the book. I knew very little of the movie; but I knew that it was being compared to Twilight, and that it had a huge young adult following. That’s not necessarily a great place to start. I expected this to be a movie that, not being a teenage girl, I wouldn’t get emotionally invested in.

It defied my expectations. This isn’t, first of all, a romance. Nor is it a social commentary, or a big set-piece action movie. There are elements of all of those, and the movie could easily have been any of them – and possibly still have been good. But that’s not the movie they made. The focus is squarely on Katniss, a girl who volunteers to take part in a fight to the death with 23 other teenagers – with only a handful of scenes not featuring her, to help contextualize events. It’s a far more intimate movie than I expected.

It’s also an extremely quiet movie; there is more silence and The Hunger Games than in any major movie I can remember (it can actually be a problem if those in the theater with you are making noise). Even the score is quiet, when it’s there at all. It’s this quietness, I think, that has led to the complaints of the movie being “slow”. I didn’t feel it was slow – in fact I hope there’s a Lord of the Rings-style extended DVD with tons of extra footage – but it wasn’t constantly grabbing your attention. It’s a movie of small moments. Until the Hunger Games actually start, the movie never loses that somber undertone – you don’t forget that all this is leading up to a lot of deaths, even though there are funny moments. And even the arena is relatively quiet – there’s action, but we probably spend as much time watching Katniss sleep as watching her fight.

(To get an idea of how the tone differs from what I expected, you can listen to the soundtrack – which isn’t even remotely the score of the movie, in this case. The Twilight soundtrack featured bands like Paramore and Linkin Park. The Hunger Games soundtrack features The Civil Wars, Taylor Swift, and The Decemberists, among others, and is more folk than pop.)

The citizens of the capital do seem to have forgotten – or don’t care – as they are celebrating the Hunger Games in garish outfits; it’s like Carnival, if Lent were replaced with a gladiatorial arena. I found the disconnect interesting, especially the tension between the capital and the outlying districts, but the movie doesn’t dwell on this – it’s a backdrop to Katniss’ experience. This is the part of the movie that could have delved into social commentary – but I’m assuming the other books in the series will do so. If the series as a whole neglects this angle it is a weakness, but I don’t fault a single movie in a series for not getting to everything.

Without a lot of action and loudness to hold our attention, the movie relies heavily on its actors – and they come through. Jennifer Lawrence is completely believable as Katniss – she’s overwhelmed and sometimes numbed by the situation, but you can still see her  quiet, of course) determination to survive. You can see why she’s an Oscar-nominated actress already, and I hope she gets another nomination for this performance.

The supporting cast was good, but there were a few that stood out – Lenny Kravitz and Woody Harrelson do very well in their roles as stylist and mentor, and manage between them to counter the insanity of the capital. I was surprised by how little most of the Tributes were featured; there were 24 altogether, and only a handful were named in the movie. This is one thing that I would imagine being different in the book. Of the Tributes (including Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark, the male lead), Rue made the biggest impression  - Amandla Stenberg and Jennifer Lawrence manage to bring a lot of emotion to their relationship, despite it not having much time to develop.

Overall, Hunger Games was very nearly as good as it could have been – and far better than I expected it to be. It was good enough, in fact, that I went back to see it again a week after I first went to the premiere – in a better IMAX theatre an hour away from where I live. I think Avatar is the only other movie I’ve ever gone back to see so soon. It came to a satisfying ending while leaving me wanting to see more of Katniss and this world, and I’m very much looking forward to reading the books.

Score: 5/5


Mar 22 2011

Podcast Review: Citizen Azeroth

Citizen Azeroth is one of a couple dozen podcasts I’ve subscribed to recently, as doing these reviews made me more aware of just how many World of Warcraft podcasts I wasn’t listening to. Instead of trying to listen to each of these new shows every week, I’m going to try to listen to several episodes of a podcast in a single week, then review it with them fresh in my mind, and only continue listening if I like it. Citizen Azeroth is the first podcast with which I took this new approach – over the last week I’ve listened to all 19 episodes.

Citizen Azeroth has an interesting hosting setup. There are two hosts, Renata and Kokomoka, who are married – but though I think they’re the first married team I’ve heard podcasting together, that’s not the interesting part. Renata is very much the main host, and Koko the lesser; it’s a lot like a late night TV show host and their sidekick (think Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter, since Koko provides no music). Renata moves the show along, does most of the talking (with excellent enunciation), has done the preparation; Koko provides what amounts to color commentary, most of the time.

Citizen Azeroth is also the most structured podcast I’ve ever listened to. Each episode begins with an overview of what will be in that show, and there’s very little deviation from the current topic. Length is similarly controlled – Renata has a stated goal of making each episode 45 minutes to an hour long, and tends to be on target. I would prefer some more flexibility, but you do know what to expect:

  • News: They don’t cover all the news, or even necessarily the biggest news. They tend to stay away from class-specific stuff. The discussions of the few topics they do have are fairly accurate, but sort of leave me wanting more… either longer discussions of those few topics, or more topics.
  • Segment: The segment isn’t in every episode, but is brought out when there is one topic Renata wants to discuss at length.
  • Gem of the Week / Test Labs: The gem of the week is a website or addon recommendation, along with a thorough examination of what it can do for you. Test Labs is essentially an addon roundup. Her picks for both are excellent; I use many of them myself.
  • Jackass of the Cast: This is Koko’s segment, wherein he picks a type of “that guy” and… well, he kind of spends a few minutes whining about them. Examples are beggars, the guy who always asks for help, the guy who always want to duel, etc. Between having an entire segment devoted to complaining, and his constant insults toward younger players, Koko comes off as a grumpy old man – despite his humor being quite juvenile (lots of poo jokes and obvious sexual innuendo).
  • Week in review: They spend almost no time on this, most episodes. I think this is partially because of the type of player they are – they usually do not raid, but instead have lots of alts. Raids simply make for better stories than questing, in my opinion.
  • Listener feedback: A listener letter of some type; sometimes a question, other times just a comment on the show.
  • Shout out: Just a couple shout-outs from listeners, or the hosts, to a player.

Almost all of this is delivered calmly, professionally, in a mature manner. If Outlandish is a drive-time radio show, and The Sundering is Howard Stern, then Citizen Azeroth is the NPR news report. Including the bias, though in this case it’s anti-raiding.

Koko is really none of those things, for better or for worse, at least in his own segment. But a pleasant surprise was that he is a competent gold-maker. I wouldn’t consider him an expert, so it’s not as though Citizen Azeroth is a replacement for Call to Auction or Auction House Junkies (especially since most episodes, gold-making doesn’t come up) – but he does play the AH, which all by itself is nice, and seems to know what he’s doing. Koko also gives the show what little unpredictability it has; otherwise, it’d feel very much like the show was Renata reading from her notes.

That rigidity of structure and content is the show’s defining quality, really – you know exactly what you’re getting. Though not necessarily when you’ll be getting it – the first dozen and more episodes were released on a fairly regular schedule, but there have been only two episodes since September, the last over a month ago. I’m not entirely sure the show is still going… and even if it is, according to the last episode none of the above may be true, as Renata stated an intent to relax the structure a bit.

Edit to add: The content of the show is what I’d call accessible. Much of it seems aimed at either new or extremely casual players. They make it clear without oversimplifying it or making it useless to veteran players.

If they do release more episodes, I would say they’re worth listening to, but don’t expect to make them part of a regular schedule…

Rating: 4 stars
Length: 45 to 60 minutes
Audio Quality: Good
Safe for work: Yes(ish)


Mar 15 2011

Podcast Review: The Sundering

I’ve decided that since the first paragraph of each of these just gives the same rather boring information, I can just put it into a little list at the end, with the rating.

This week I’m reviewing The Sundering, yet another WoW podcast, this one hosted by Rayfyst, Ceraphus, and Xia.  The podcast is defined by the two problems I have with it…

First, there isn’t enough WoW.  I don’t mind a WoW podcast that doesn’t JUST talk about WoW.  As mentioned in last week’s post about Outlandish, some of my favorite moments are from their 3.5 section, which isn’t about WoW at all.  The issue is that the ratio of WoW to off-topic in The Sundering is completely reversed, and takes over the show.  For example, in their episode the week of Cataclysm’s release, roughly 30 minutes of an 80-minute episode were about WoW – and it’s not like there weren’t things they could have been talking about.

Rayfyst and Xia tend to go off on long tangents about their personal lives.  Ceraphus doesn’t get involved in most of the off-topic shenanigans, but he also doesn’t rein it in – he just goes silent until Rayfyst and Xia are talked out.  The show would probably be considerably more focused if Ceraphus were the primary host, rather than Rayfyst, who is by far the worst of the three.  (Rayfyst’s contributions to the show are about 10% WoW and 90% vaguely sad tales of his personal life.)

The second problem is that I just don’t find their off-topic discussions funny or interesting.  Maybe if you know them it’s interesting which restaurant they go to for wings, but otherwise the talk is a lot less “universally amusing anecdote” than “something my friends would like to hear”.  And maybe that’s who the podcast is for – in which case, anyone who should be listening already is.

Bringing up Outlandish yet again, I said that I liked their mix of focused discussion with friends just chatting, and compared them to an afternoon radio program.  The Sundering is more like Howard Stern.  It’s dirty for no reason; it’s not just explicit, but disgusting at times.  I don’t think it’s an act they do for the podcast to make them seem ‘edgy’ or anything, it just seems like how they really are, so on one level it’s hard to fault them for it.  On another level, it means that I just don’t want to listen to their off-topic discussions.  Since those discussions are mixed in with the WoW talk, it means I don’t want to listen at all.

I suppose if you enjoy listening to the non-WoW parts of the show, it would be worth subscribing to – but I don’t, and cannot recommend it.

Rating: 1.5 stars
Length: 1 to 1.5 hours
Audio Quality: Average
Safe for work: Nay, nay, a thousand times nay.


Mar 8 2011

Podcast Review: Outlandish

In my review of Buzz Out Loud, I mentioned that it used to be something I made part of my daily routine, that I looked forward to and felt out of sorts if I couldn’t listen to it for some reason.   Outlandish, though not a daily fixture in my life – it’s a weekly podcast – has sort of the same anticipatory feel for me.  I look forward to listening to it every week.  I’ve even begun listening to back episodes – the show began a little before patch 2.4 (the Sunwell).

To get the technical stuff out of the way – There are three hosts:  Matt, Justin, and Jeremy.  The audio quality is good (they have a semi-professional recording setup).  However, I often have trouble telling whether Justin or Jeremy is speaking.  It’s not so hard when they’re both participating in the conversation, but just one of the two is talking with Matt, I sometimes can’t tell which.  The show generally lasts from 1 and a half to 2 and a half hours, and releases on Tuesdays.

Outlandish follows a consistent structure, that as I’m discovering has been in use for a while.  Segment 1 they talk about what they’ve been doing that week.  Segment 2 is news.  Segment 3 is listener mail, and sometimes “What They Said”, where they give listeners a topic to comment on in their forums and read responses the next week.  Finally, there’s segment 3.5.. but I’ll get to that later!  Their introduction and transition segues are worth mentioning as well – at the intro to each show they play an original WoW parody song, all of which can be found here.  Most of them are good, and some are absolutely fantastic.  Between segments, they play parody commercials – generally for addons.  This creativity brings something unique to the show, though unfortunately they haven’t made many parodies recently.

They’re also all extremely knowledgeable; they’re not encyclopedic storehouses of lore, like Shade of ATA, but between them they can talk about pretty much any game topic.  All three raid (or did – whether they will all continue doing so is in doubt at the moment), and I find their discussion of raiding to be the most useful of any I’ve heard.  They actually discuss their experiences with boss fights in a way that you can learn from them and apply it to your own raiding, without becoming an audio-only version of a Tankspot guide.

They are informative and entertaining at the same time on all topics, even generally boring stuff like patch notes. I think they’ve managed to combine the feel of friends just talking with the focused discussion of a podcast the best of any show I’ve heard; in some ways, it’s a lot like listening to a drive-time radio show that happens to be about WoW.  It helps that I enjoy their humor – I often find myself laughing out loud, which is why I prefer to listen to Outlandish on days when I’m working from home.  Their humor can get dirty sometimes, although it’s not overly explicit.  It also helps that the show is as long as it is – they have plenty of time to fully discuss the topic, as well as be funny about it.

The show also manages to be fairly balanced; unlike, say, The Instance, which – at least when I was listening to it – was almost relentlessly positive about Blizzard and about the game.  It’s nice to hear honest complaints – I find myself agreeing more often than not.  But they don’t let it get overly negative, so you don’t get the feeling they’d rather be doing something else.  They’re also willing to be honest about more specific things – such as talking about their raids in detail and bringing up issues they’re having.  It actually got Matt kicked from the guild all three hosts were in.  It may not necessarily have been great for Matt, but it’s somewhat therapeutic to listen to, if you’ve ever raided.

Once the main show is over, they get to 3.5 – the part where they don’t talk about WoW, although sometimes they do.  3.5 is sort of like what would happen if you wrote down all the odd questions that occur to you during the week and then ask your friends.  In fact it’s almost exactly like that, since that’s what Matt does.  The segment is all over the place, depending on the questions that week – but some of the funniest moments I’ve ever heard in podcasting are from Outlandish 3.5.

tl;dr version: Outlandish is currently my favorite podcast, a perfect mix of fact and fun. I absolutely recommend listening.

Rating: 5 Stars


Mar 2 2011

Podcast Review: The Obscurecast

We go back to the gaming category on iTunes for another World of Warcraft podcast this week. The Obscurecast is a member of the Dawnforge Network, of which recently reviewed All Things Azeroth is a member, but they don’t really have much in common – even continent.

Obscurecast is hosted by a pair of Brits (or perhaps a Brit and a Scot – all I can be sure of is that, sadly, neither has a sexy Irish accent) – Gazimoff (male, definitely British) and Pewter (female, perhaps Scottish).  Being able to understand what the hosts are saying is always a concern if they’re not from your home country, but I don’t have any trouble on that account, even though the recording quality is only about average.  Episodes tend to be between an hour and 90 minutes long, and the format nothing extreme – they start with reader emails (they apparently read every single one they are sent, which can be annoying when they say nothing other than “love the show”), proceed to what they’ve been doing in Warcraft, and then the bulk of each episode is news or topic discussion.

What I like best about the show is that, in contrast to its sister podcast All Things Azeroth, both hosts have opinions, and they are willing to get into outright arguments if they don’t agree, without having to resort to someone playing the Devil’s Advocate.  Both hosts are raiders and knowledgeable about the game, so they have pertinent points to make.  Another plus is that they’re willing to go where the conversation leads them, but tend to circle around to the original topic, rather than just getting lost on their verbal side paths.

Their news coverage, from the episodes I’ve listened to, is not an attempt to actually keep you up to date – it’s a collection of the news stories they want to talk about.  It’ll help to have already read the news by the time they discuss it.  I would prefer they at least mention more news items, even if they don’t necessarily have 5 minutes of discussion about each.

One episode I listened to had an additional segment, called “This Week’s Obscurity”.  I don’t know how often they have this, though obviously not every week.  Nor do I know exactly what the premise is, although it seems to be a place for them to talk about a random topic not directly related to WoW.  The one I heard was about video game awards ceremonies, and the division between online and other games therein.  Hopefully other weeks’ obscurities are more interesting, because a lengthy discussion about awards no one outside the industry watches or remembers… well, it’s a bit silly.

My biggest complaint about the podcast isn’t part of the podcast, but the lack of them.  I started listening to The Obscurecast when they started their new “season” on January 30, 2011.  At that time, they had not podcasted since December 12, 2010.  That means they had one episode after Cataclysm, and then skipped the next seven weeks – some of the most interesting weeks in WoW.  Moreover, they’re now on a schedule where they are doing 8 weeks of podcasts, followed by 2 weeks without.  It just feels to me like a lack of dedication, and I’m annoyed as a former content creator (though, given my history with updating various sites, my annoyance is quite hypocritical).   As a listener, it makes it difficult to really make the podcast part of a routine, and I have to wonder what we’re going to miss out on during the weeks they’re away.

But overall, the good discussions with multiple points of view make it worth a listen, at least on the weeks there’s a new episode.

Rating: 4.5 stars


Feb 22 2011

Podcast Review: Buzz Out Loud

Update 10/4/11: I stopped listening to Buzz Out Loud several months ago, so did not find out about this when it happened (late September) but Buzz Out Loud is now a weekly show (airing on Thursdays). While a weekly tech show can be interesting (early episodes of TWiT, for example) and enlightening, Molly Wood and Brian Tong aren’t the people to bring an in-depth look at the news. So now in addition to being silly and overly focused on a handful of topics, the show will be dated by the standards of the internet.

New rating: 1/5. Unless you just have extra time to fill on your Friday commute and have run out of podcasts released earlier in the week, don’t bother.

Buzz Out Loud was the second or third podcast I ever listened to, back in 2005, after being referred there by This Week in Tech.  I gave it a shot and for years, BOL was a part of my daily routine – I would get to work, and start listening.  Any day they didn’t have a show (which was rare) felt off-kilter.  The podcasts of late 2005 through mid 2007, when the hosts were Tom Merritt, Molly Wood, and Veronica Belmont (<8), stand far above any others as my favorite podcasts, because of moments like these:

However, those times are gone, so I’ll try to review the Buzz Out Loud of today rather than score out of sentimentality.

This is the first professionally produced podcast I’ve reviewed – it’s recorded in the San Francisco studio of CNet, with tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and a dedicated producer. As you’d expect, it sounds and looks (looks? It’s both an audio and video podcast, though for the record I subscribe to the audio version) great. Another nice benefit of the deep pockets is that they have an iPhone app through which you can watch their livestream as well as pre-show discussion, and a chatroom where you can talk to hundreds of other viewers.  Hosts are distinct and audible (except for, sometimes and ironically, the producer – though that’s an english as second language thing).

The format of the show was the same for several years – talk about news, then take voicemails and emails.  The current hosts have added in some ‘segments’, which in general I think are a waste of time; they’re little more than an excuse to play a sound effect prior to talking about stories they would have mentioned anyway.  The segments so far are Quick Hits, Gadgets, Science News, and the Feedback Loop.  Of the four, Quick Hits is the only one that really makes any difference, and I think it’s a negative one – stories in Quick Hits don’t always get as much discussion as I think they should.

There are 3 hosts, sort of – Molly Wood, Brian Tong, and producer Benito Gonzalez. Molly was one of the original hosts, 6 years ago (although she took a hiatus for a while); Brian and Benito are more recent additions. Benito tends not to say much, which is probably for the best, as if he wasn’t producing he wouldn’t really have the geek credentials to be there.  Brian and Molly have a good chemistry – but it’s a bit 16-year-old-boy sometimes, in both energy and content. I find myself missing old host Tom Merritt, who was calm, measured, and more likely to make a joke with a reference to an obscure event in history than to sex.

I also find myself yearning for the good old days when it comes to content.  The show has become heavily weighted toward Facebook and Apple news.  I have an iPhone, so I’m not an Apple hater; but I think devoting several times as much news coverage to a company as it has in the PC market is a bit silly.  Facebook, on the other hand, I don’t use, and find it annoying that the hosts constantly complain about Facebook’s attitude toward privacy but continue to use it, and to talk about it more frequently than ever.

Many of the stories not related to those two companies are stuck in the segments, and get only a brief discussion at best.  They also often skip stories, even mentioning that they’re doing so on air, which is extremely frustrating.

In short, unless all you care about is Facebook and Apple, Buzz Out Loud cannot be relied upon as your sole source of tech news. It can be fun to listen to, but the quality tech news has suffered for the frivolity.

It pains me to do this…

Rating: 3


Feb 12 2011

Podcast Review: All Things Azeroth

We go from possibly the newest World of Warcraft podcast, Auction House Junkies, to one of the oldest. All Things Azeroth began in January 2007, and this week release their 233rd episode.

The show has two hosts, Medros (formerly of WoW radio, recently of Dawnforge Productions) and Shade (Anne Stickney, lore and other stuff columnist of WoW Insider; also of Internet Dragons). Each episode is fairly long, ranging from 1 to 2 hours. The audio quality is decent (though not as good as I’d expect from Medros, given that he has his own podcast network). There’s obviously no worry about voice confusion, and both hosts are easy to understand. After more than two hundred shows, they of course have a pretty consistent formula – they talk about their week, then news (or just topics in general) interspersed with a couple different listener-contributed segments, and then they close up with listener voice and emails.

I especially like their news coverage, because they go into a nice level of detail, and discussing facts sidesteps the show’s biggest weakness. The first segment, “Ask Moo” – someone answering listener-submitted questions from the “Tauren perspective” – is sometimes funny, sometimes not, and always delivered in a grating voice. Warcraft Less Traveled is a great look at some of the (mostly not-so-much-anymore-) hard to reach and out of the way places in Azeroth. Those interested in exploring the world probably won’t find better inspiration.

But though I’ve been listening to the show for a long time now (well over a year – perhaps two), and there are things about it I enjoy, a couple issues constantly frustrate me while listening.

The show feels like it’s meant to have more than two hosts, because Medros acts more as moderator than participant. He introduces new topics, but very rarely weighs in in a meaningful way. He occasionally forgets himself and really dives into a subject, and those times are great. However, the rest of the time he has little more to say than “we’ll have to see what happens”. It doesn’t seem as though he doesn’t have things to say, but that he intentionally holds back from saying them.

This leaves Shade as the only one really saying anything, and certainly the only one saying anything with passion. While Shade is perhaps my favorite host of all the shows I listen to, the lack of a back and forth discussion is something that her awesomeness cannot replace. Every discussion feels one-sided, and as though more could be said, if only there were someone else to say something…

The other issue is that the show is often heavily lore-based. That makes a good deal of sense, given that Shade is a lore columnist for the biggest WoW blog around, and Medros knows his lore as well. However, they often reach a point where I just could not care less about the lore and wish they would get on to something, for lack of a better word, gameplay related. I like that the world is cohesive and usually gives us good reason to do what we’re doing, but for me the lore is something that happens while I’m playing. It’s part of the game, not its own entity. Long discussion of the lore for its own sake, without being tied to the game in some way, tends to bore me.

The focus on lore also frustrates me because that one aspect of what Shade does is featured so heavily; the other aspect, her raiding, barely comes up at all aside from during the recap of her activities during the week. I’ve been unable to find a show with much focus on raiding – thus far, Outlandish is probably closest. A number of WoW podcasters try to emphasize that their show is different because it’s casual, or for the average player. The reality is that’s not the exception, but the norm.

Still, despite the problems, and the unrealized potential, I’m glad I listen. Go in not expecting to hear multiple points of view being argued, and looking forward to hearing about some lore, and I think you’ll really enjoy yourself.

Rating: 4 stars.


Feb 8 2011

Podcast Review: Auction House Junkies

Auction House Junkies is a brand new podcast (at the time of this writing, only two episodes have been released) from Cold of Cold’s Gold Factory and Wes of the perhaps shortsightedly-named Capped By Cata. It, like the extremely irregular Call to Auction, is a podcast about making gold in World of Warcraft.

First off, the basics – the audio quality is good (Wes in particular sounds extremely clear), length is nice (in that it seems dictated by how much they have to say about their topics, rather than by an arbitrary time limit), the hosts are easy to understand and to distinguish from each other. The introduction unfortunately includes the overused “guy with deep voice talking over dramatic music”, but it’s short and far from the worst offender.

With only two episodes, it’s hard to judge the format of the show, but it seems to have only two parts. They talk about their week in game (in this case, how they’ve been making gold), and then get into a big topic. It’s basic, but it works.  Hopefully they’ll keep an emphasis on content rather than on gimmicky segments.

The show would benefit from a news segment.  As things stand, if you’re not interested in the main topic of an episode (whether because you don’t have a character who can do it, you just don’t want to, or you already know what you need to) you may as well just skip it entirely.  There are plenty of things changing to make a news segment helpful, though it would require that they release either regularly or, at the very least, soon after recording.

As for the meat of the show – so far it’s very good, albeit limited. The first episode, they (mostly Cold) went in depth on the Mysterious Fortune Card market. While I personally don’t like the market as it virtually requires being in trade chat, which I will not do for any amount of gold, the discussion was thorough and, as far as I could tell, accurate. The same was true of their big topic of episode 2, the Obsidium Shuffle. (Doesn’t have quite the ring of Saronite Shuffle, does it?).

The biggest problem I have with the content is that it seems both of the hosts are playing the game solely to make gold.  This perspective means that they don’t have the same concerns most of their listeners will – mostly in terms of time, and making gold in an efficient manner. For example, you can spend a lot of time in the capital barking your cards and monitoring trade chat to try and counter comments by your detractors – if you’re not spending the night raiding, in a rated battleground, or running a heroic. Or you can farm (Cold ran a blogging carnival about favorite farming spots in Cataclysm; Wes submitted a post to the carnival) for hours.  I may have the wrong impression of them, but if not I hope they add a third co-host, someone with a more varied playstyle (Faid of Nerf Faids, for example, who wrote a great post about gold blogger perspectives).

It’s worth a listen if you’re interested in making gold, but currently both the content and the perspectives are somewhat limited.

Rating: 4 stars.