Monday, May 31, 2010

A Clash of Kings - George R.R. Martin

The second book of the "A song of Ice and Fire" series picks up the story where "A Game of Thrones" left it. The first novel divided the kingdom, this second novel leaves those who are left to pick up and mend the pieces. And that's not an easy job. "There are more kings in this kingdom than there are dogs" one poor citizen mentions. Not less than seven self proclaimed kings have a claim at the throne and each one has an army to back it. Some are even looking at more exotic ways to win the iron throne...

The book follows the survivors from the previous novel and adds one new person. Davos is an ex smuggler who is very grateful to his lord, the rightful king of the Seven Kingdoms, Stannis Baratheon. A decade ago he smuggled onions to the besieged castle at Storms End. Stannis gave him a lordship with one hand but took away his left hands fingers with the other one as he believed that everyone must pay for his sins no matter how heroic they act now. Small wonder that Stannis is the least popular king of them all. Davos however doesn't hold a grudge against his king and he's even keeping his fingers in a pocket around his neck for good luck. He's an interesting person to follow. Clever and we can still feel the commoners blood flow through him even if his sons already feel of the higher class. Davos himself however, is not one to forget his past and he always speaks his mind to Stannis.

The old favourites have returned too. I mentioned that the dwarf Tyrion and the boy-like girl Arya are my favourites and this books only adds to that. Especially Tyrion gets a major part in this book. He's acting as hand of the king and as such he's doing a far better job than his predecessor. Intelligence and cunning go hand in hand as he intuitively knows how to plot and bargain to keep his kingdom safe. And even though he's not afraid to kill or even torture people to that end he remains sympathetic. For a big part it's because he remains loyal to his family. His companions mention how much easier his life would be without his cousin and he's always got to watch his back to see if his sisters fangs aren't in it but he loves his family and wouldn't hurt them. He's also showing a deep affection towards his beloved one, a hooker he has to keep locked in a pretty cage filled with silk. All of this makes sure that he keeps his human side. -

We're also following how Arya makes her way back to the North. Her sister, Sansa has gotten a deeply needed wake up call and her love for her captors turns into hate while she still manages to show them a smile. Daenerys, Catelyn and Jon have smaller rolls in this novel but there seems to be  build up to the following books. A lot of the major events are only seen as sideline stories through their eyes. A castle can fall and they might find out like everyone else, through gossip or a carrier raven. It makes them all feel like small radars in a bigger clockwork. Still, with this huge cast of characters, to me the highlights of this amazing book were the Tyrion chapters.

And let it be clear that his is an amazing book. Tons of things are happening at once but Martin manages to keep it all in check. The book is a huge one but it needs all those pages to tell this complex story, there are no filler pages in here. These series are on a different level than most other fantasy novels. Few manage to tell such a great story so flawlessly It makes me long to read the next book in the series and hope that George R.R. Martin can finish the next books in the following decade.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Eragon - Telling a consistent story

If you want to convince your public that your world is real you have to be consistent. You can't just change the rules in the middle of the story. Let alone doing it multiple times after each other. Case in point? The movie Eragon.

Eragon is about a boy who finds a pretty stone. Not long after the "stone" breaks open a cute, tiny little dragon appears (very similar to the dragon eggs found in A Song of Ice and Fire). I have no problems with fantasy so I'll happily buy dragons, wizards and elves. What I won't buy however is that as soon as the tiny dragon flies ten metres up in the air it suddenly changes into a huge dragon. Seems like some very powerful dragon magic... and a convenient way to prevent us from having to wait twenty years until the dragon is fully grown and the boy no longer a cute movie star.

Sadly from there on it only gets worse and worse. At one moment the protagonist decides to go rescue the girl even though his mentor tells him it's a foolish thing to do. He mounts his dragon and flies off to the castle that's at the other side of the country. He rescues the girl and right when he's about to get his ass kicked his mentor storms in and saves him! Huh, how did he get there? Five minutes ago he was at the other side of the country riding a horse. Are dragons as slow as horses? Possibly but later in the movie we see the dragon thundering over horses at speeds which would make a jet pilot envious.

The mentor gets wounded while saving the boy and his wounds need to be healed by the rebels who are of course at the other side of the country where they started in the first place. No problem I'd think, jump with three on the dragon and off you go. But the dragon can't fly a long time with three people on his back! The obvious choice would be to tie the man with ropes to the dragon and let them fly at Mach 1 speed to the rebels. That would be too simple of course so they decide to ride all the way to there on a horse...

Once they're there the big battle against the evil king is right around the corner (where do the baddies suddenly all come from?). The rebels "work all night" to create a magnificent armour piece for the dragon which shields it from tip to toe. Wait a minute, the dragon can't wear three people but she can wear full plate armour and have a fully armoured rider on her back? Sigh, talk about consistency. Once the baddies do arrive the dragon can suddenly also breath fire from one minute to the next. And the battle itself? A dragon which flies high above the ground and is able to burn a hundred soldiers at once doesn't really offer a challenging fight. I rather felt pity for the poor fellows on the ground.

It's sad to see all these inconsistencies. Once you start seeing one you start seeing one after the other. So if you do write a story then please think it through. At least try to come up with an explanation why key characters sometimes move from one place to the other or why the dragon can suddenly fry and fly. I do hope that the book is better then the movie but I won't find out any time soon as the movie has made me loose all interest in the series.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Hybrid Power

At the start of WoW warriors tanked and all other hybrids healed. The damage dealing was left for the pure DPS classes and I was happy to do so with my mage. Sure, our guild had a warrior and maybe a kitten damage dealer but druids or paladins weren't good enough to tank an end-game raid instance. And back then that worked fine. A raid needed 40 players and there were 8 classes. So you'd have about 5 warriors in your raid, enough to tank every instance. Perfect for raids but it caused a problem for dungeons. There you need one tank, one healer and three DPS classes. If only one in eight can tank then there just aren't enough tanks.

In the Outland expansion every hybrid could tank as good as a warrior or heal as well as a priest while doing similar DPS to a pure DPS class. This was a great step to fix the shortage of tanks as suddenly three classes could tank. Of course this didn't completely solve the problem as most people are afraid of the responsibility to tank or heal a group. And now they *could* DPS! Players who used to be called loladins or retadins were suddenly on top of the damage meters.

Logically, I  wondered why the heck I would continue playing as a pure DPS class (warlock/mage). A hybrid in Outland did as much damage as a pure class and some even added irreplaceable extras to the raid. It went so far as to stack shaman upon shaman for the most competitive end-guilds. So since The Lich King I'm playing as a deathknight. When I was raiding at the start of the expansion, I was outdamaging all pure DPS classes while wearing plate and being able to tank heroics. Unfair? Yep!

Seeing how much benefits a hybrids class gets, a worgen Druid is on my wish list. I tried out the paladin but it was boring as hell (auto attack and click a button every 10s, how much fun). Cataclysm promises to improve the early levelling too so I'll give them another try. I've been wanting to try out a healer and a druid looks like a nice fit for me. Add to that that they can also tank and even do two kinds of DPS and we've got the ultimate class. With the new dungeon finder tool I've also noticed how short the queues are for my tank-warrior. The only times I have to wait is if the healer slot isn't filled yet. Levelling a druid through instances as both a tank and healer looks like a fun way to level with instant queue times. If you enjoy instancing then tanking or healing seems to be the way to go.

WoW is now in a state where you can finish everything with 25 druids. They can tank, heal and do both ranged and melee DPS. Why do we still have to roll anything else? I wonder if the pendulum hasn't gone from favouring pure classes to favouring hybrids too much. Five years ago hybrids were the black sheeps as they were all forced to heal. These days the DPS are the black sheeps: long queue times and they bring less to the table then their hybrid cousins. Makes me think twice before I'd roll another DPS class.

The fix seems simple to me. Let pure DPS do about 10% more DPS and give them a bit more utilities like CC and raid buffs. That way a good hybrid will still outdamage an average pure class and the utilities make sure that you want to balance your raid with all classes. It's fine that tanks and healers are all roughly equal, just give the DPS a benefit as they're already off worst.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin

Five years ago I joined my first raiding guild in WoW. It was named "Fire and Blood" and its leaders were named Rhaegar and Lyanna. When I asked them where their beautiful names came from they told me they were from the "A song of Ice and Fire" series. Now, years later, I've picked up a copy of the first book in the series. The cover has great quotes from some of my favourite fantasy writers such as Feist, Wurts and Hobb. I was very curious to find out if the book really is the best fantasy series created this decade.

The story takes place in the fictional Seven Kingdoms. These kingdoms have been reigned by the Targaryen family for centuries. Their reign ended fifteen years ago when they were overthrown and the throne was claimed by the new, current king, Robert Baratheon. The kingdom remains united but there's a frail peace. The alliances formed in the war aren't forgotten so easily and it will take only a small fire to set the kingdom ablaze. The book follows a number of highborn persons as the wick to set it all of is growing shorter and shorter.

There's a huge cast of characters, the appendix contains twenty-five (!) pages giving us an overview of who is who. Luckily, we're only seeing the story through the eyes of a handful and these can be divided in three camps. The main part of the book follows the Stark family. They're the rulers of the harsh, northern regions of the country. Eddard Stark, the honest lord of the region is asked to advise his old friend, the king. His girls, Sansa and Arya follow him to the royal court while his sons, Bran and Robb are left to reign Winterfell. Jon, his bastard son is sent off to join the black garde, watchers of the northernmost region of the kingdom. Eddard and his son, Robb are both honest men. They're the kind of rulers who would cut of their own hand when they stole something. But how far will their honesty lead them in  a royal court filled with treacherous snakes? Sansa is the cute, naive one. She's in love with prince Joffrey and she dreams that he will take her away on his great, white horse and ride of into the sunset. Arya on the other hand would rather be a boy. She enjoys playing with the boys and she'd much rather be a warrior than a princess.

Opposed to the Starks are their arch enemies, the Lannisters. Cersei Lannister is the queen of the kingdom. Her major interest lays in making sure that her son, the heir to the kingdom can raise to the throne as fast as possible. Anyone standing in her way can better order a coffin. Even the king himself can better grow a pair of eyes on his back. Tyrion is the black sheep of the family. Or rather, a black lamb as he's only dwarf sized. What he's missing in length he's more than making up for with his tongue and he's delivering some of the most witty dialogues in the book

And finally, to the far east we're following the last of the Targaryens, the overthrown kings, Viserys and his sister Draenerys, nicknamed Dany. Viserys thinks of nothing but retaking the kingdom through force. He's even willing to sell his sister to the "barbarian" horselords of the plains. Dany, still a child of thirteen, is following her brother blindly. The horselords are clearly inspired by the Mongols of our medieval times. They're nomads travelling great distances living of the land and their horses. And they're only following the strongest leader. Luckily for the west, they're also divided in smaller tribes and only a great leader can unite them. But if that were to happen, their fighting style could crush everyone. Hit and run tactics using a bow and horse trampled all over Europe 800 years ago. Draenerys, being married to the greatest of these horselords is trying to convince her king to do just that to the Seven Kingdoms...

Unlike the eastern tribes where the leader is the strongest one the western kingdoms have a hereditary system. It quickly becomes obvious that not all the lords in the realm are as courageous as the Starks or as cunning as the Lannisters. Fifteen years ago the previous king Aerys, the mad king was overthrown. And in the southern realms the Arryn queen is still breastfeeding her seven year old prince and treating him like a porcelain doll. And just when their country needs a strong leader, king Robert obviously isn't up to the job. He's hunting and partying every day while his counsel leads the country. It's nice to see cast where not everyone is a hero or villain but where everyone has his own flaws and strengths. The characters feel less like typical fantasy persons but more like the cast of a Roman court.

The book is driven by a great caste and all of these persons are driven by their own history. The book is filled with a rich, historic background. Bit by bit we're seeing what happened fifteen years ago and how it affects them. Viserys is vengeance-mad and wants to reclaim the kingdom by all means. If we find out how the Usurpers killed his mother and slashed his baby brothers skull to a wall then it's not hard to figure out why he's like that. And seeing how the alliances were fifteen years ago it's no wonder that there's such animosity between the different factions who are officially at peace. The history is so interesting that I'd love to read a prequel about the events that happened back when the Mad King was overthrown.

Overall, this is a great read. It's filled with great characters which drive the story to a logical conclusion. If there's one point of criticism it's that not all characters were equally interesting. Of course it's hard to be as witty as Tyrion or as innocent as Arya, my two favourite persons. Eddard and Sansa Stark were too honest and serious for my liking. But as this is a book in multiple parts I'm sure that this will be solved in its sequels. At the end of the book Sansa has surely lost her naivete and her innocence. As such, I'm more than looking forward to reading the sequel!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Eighteen months of changes

It's been a year and a half since the last WoW expansion. Back then I levelled my DPS deathknight from level 55 to 80. For these past few months the WoW microbe has been tickling again so it was time to start levelling a new character. I've still got a stabled level 70 mage, hunter and warlock but I decided to go and level my lvl 51 warrior as I want to try out a new play style, tanking. And it's surprising how much has changed in these past eighteen months.

The first thing I noticed is the big improvement in levelling speed. The levels seemed to fly past as I rushed to level 60. But not only those levels went by fast, the 60-70 range also goes by a lot faster. I still followed James Levelling Guide but I could skip entire zones. It only took me Hellfire Peninsula, Zangarmarsh, Nagrand and part of Blade's Edge to get to level 70. When the guide told me that I'd now ding level 62 I was already level 63. And the biggest change to this range is of course that I could now buy and use a flying mount the minute I reached level 60! Gathering quests suddenly get a lot easier and the overall levelling speed goes up significantly.

Since you can now use your flying mount at level 60 I expected to be able to fly in Nothrend too. It would certainly be useful in the Howling Fjord starting area which contains a lot of height differences. After googling a bit I found out that it's possible to do so when your main character buys a heirloom item which only costs 1000 gold. The downside is that it's a bind on account item. And apparently a "bind on account" is actually a "bind on server" item. You can only send it to characters on the same server. My warrior is on another server however so I'll just have to level him with a regular mount (transferring servers would be an alternative option I don't want to take). It does feel strange to have to use your regular mount after ten levels of flying. But I'm sure that when Cataclysm hits Blizzard will allow us to fly in Northrend and lower the XP needed to get to level 80 again.

Another huge improvement is the new Dungeon Finder. I didn't bother to do any of the 50-60 instances as I think they just take too much time. Instances like Blackrock Depths, Maraudon or Dire Maul were a lot of fun but you need to be able to play for at least two hours. All new instances can be completed in less than an hour so I did do some of the Outland instances. First I signed up as DPS. Ten minutes later I was in the Hellfire instance. And thirty minutes later I was ported back to the exact same place where I was questing!  I remember how this would be done a few years ago. You'd have to find people in the chatrooms of the major cities with a "LF2M BRD, one tank and one healer". When you finally get that healer after half an hour you'd all have to ride to the instance and when you were finally done you'd have to ride back to the city. It could easily take you an entire evening just to do one instance! These days? It's a blast to run these instances, even the older ones! I knew that the Dungeon Finder was great for level 80 players but it's even better for levelling as you don't even have to stop questing any more while waiting in the queue!

Since the end goal of levelling this character is to tank some heroics I also went ahead and bought the dual talent specialization. I levelled as fury to level 60 but I've read before that protection was actually a good levelling spec. I only intended to use protection in instances though. And for these instances it has been great. You could level these with a fury/arms spec but things get a lot easier with your protection talents. And after a few nervous minutes I actually enjoyed tanking. You can set your own pace and it's fun to try and let all mobs stick to you while still watching out if you're not pulling any adds. Best of all are the queue times. Today I tanked the first Nothrend instance. Queue time? One second.

But protection is also surprisingly good to use while levelling. I tried out playing half an hour as fury and then half an hour as protection. Result? My DPS went up from 400 to 500 while my defenses went up considerably. I did more damage and I took less! Add to that that the AoE is better than with a fury spec and that protection is just more fun to play as it's a more reactive gameplay. Every time you block, dodge or parry an attack you can cast revenge on an enemy which does huge damage. And every time you cast revenge or devastate you've got a chance to get a free shield slam. There's a nice cohesion between these spells and they are also very rage efficient compared to fury's whirlwind and bloodthirst abilities. It's a very interactive play-style which suited me fine. If all that isn't enough it's also the best way to single elite mobs. You've got so many cooldowns: shield wall, last stand, shield block... Combine all these and you can solo those two men quests without much problems. So while I intended to level as fury and instance as protection I just ended up using only protection. I'm sure that a fury warrior is better at grinding but only if he's walking around in epics.

Overall I'm very impressed with the changes Blizzard has brought to the tables. Especially the dungeon finder is a clever way of using WoWs huge player-base. There will always be someone in these millions of players who wants to run BRD now. The dungeon finder makes sure that you can all do it together. The dual specialization is also a nice bonus for hybrid classes. I can see how it's especially useful for healers as you can't level decently with a healer spec. A shadow priest or boomkin only have to switch their specs and they can use their DPS gear to heal! It's also nice to see how Blizzard added small improvements. Being able to fly in Outland is a tiny amount of work for Blizzards engineers but it's great way to make levelling a lot faster. And their in game quest database is a big help. It's no longer needed to visit for every quest, you can just see where you have to go on your map.  All this makes me curious what Blizzard will come up with in the future. These changes are showing that Blizzard isn't sitting still between two expansions and it's great to see that they keep innovating the game with each patch.