The nail in the head of Warhammer

Despite all the praises about the gameplay and design choices, there are still those glaring flaws that I and others pointed out… years ago.

In this case I quote someone else, as a good summary:

There are 7 public quests (that I know of) in the first Chaos zone alone. That means you’d need 42 to 70 people in that zone working on public quests to do them all at once. I even ran into one completely empty PQ over the weekend even though almost every Chaos player was in that zone.

Will there ever be that many people working on PQs in the same low level zone after the first week or two after launch? Probably not.

I suspected that they would dynamically scale public quests based on the number of players currently participating. When I found a PQ that nobody else was doing, I worked my butt off and completed the first stage alone. Then Champion mobs spawned in stage 2, and I was screwed. So, it looks like they aren’t doing any sort of scaling.

Unfortunately, even though public quests are extremely fun, I fear they won’t even be doable throughout the majority of the game for those of us who will get behind the curve. As soon as I fall behind the pack, which inevitably I will, I’ll be unable to do any PQs until the end game.

I was able to have a similar experience in the second chaos zone, even with 2500 players logged in. Not exactly during an off-peak. And not even weeks or months or years after a server launch.

There’s a way to sum it up in an even more significant way:
– Too many parts of Warhammer’s core design are strictly dependent on keeping a fine balance on the number of players participating, and so vulnerable. It’s not about PQs only. It’s about PQs, faction balance in open RvR, issues of overcrowding and depopulation in all the parts of the game. The *fun* strictly depends on that fine balance, to keep all the options viable at all times, and to keep the single option fun without suffering overcrowding or depopulation.

Right now Mythic does absolutely nothing to preserve that fine balance, and down the road I only expect XP, renown bonuses/disadvantages for a faction or the other that won’t really move anything in any significant way.

There are certain workarounds that may help, some of which I also suggested (de-levelling, multiple scenarios queues, adaptable objectives for PQs). But to me it’s very clear that this game required to be built different at its core.

– Dynamic server structure with a mix of persistence and instancing. Server(zone) created dynamically depending on the number of players. Something like a creative use of Guild Wars system.

Certain design schemes need their specific systems to work. Or they just remain pretty ideas that do not work in practice.

The scheme Mythic’s adopting here will have its flaws hidden or sweetened for a while, but it will hurt them hard in the long term.

Quote from The Steel Remains

Just a random quote:

At his side, Milacar sighed. ‘The Committee for Public Morals is not dependent on Kaad for its venom, nor was it ever. There’s a general hate in the hearts of men. You went to war, Gil, you should know that better than anyone. It’s like the heat of the sun. Men like Kaad are just the focal figures, like lenses to gather the sun’s rays on kindling. You can smash a lens, but that won’t put out the sun.’
‘No. Makes it a lot harder to start the next fire, though.’
‘For a little while, yes. Until the next lens, or the next hard summer, and then the fires begin again.’
‘Getting a bit fucking fatalistic in your old age, aren’t you?’ Ringil nodded out over the mansion lights. ‘Or does that just come with the move upriver?’
‘No, it comes with living long enough to appreciate the value of the time you’ve got left. Long enough to recognize the fallacy of a crusade when you’re called to one. Hoiran’s teeth, Gil, you’re the last person I should need to be telling this to. Have you forgotten what they did with your victory?’

I’m enjoying a lot the book. Not for any particular new idea or approach, but it’s just fun to read and makes you want keep turning the pages and go on.

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Barry Allen SCREAMS while playing WotLK

Now Blizzard risks a Crisis on Infinite Earths.

From an interview:

It’s actually not instances. What we do is we have different world states, and depending on what quests you’ve completed, it changes what world state you’re seeing.

what we call the phasing technology. There’s quests that you do when you arrive at a town that’s overrun by Scourge, it’s like a “Choplifter” quest, you have to fly in and rescue villagers. As you bring them back to your quest hub, those villagers are there permanently for you, whereas if somebody who hasn’t done the quest shows up, they don’t see them.

There goes the last pretense of creating a world.

That kind of feature is extremely easy to implement. If it didn’t exist till now it was simply due to scruples. Wasn’t there any other better way?

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Warhammer comments writeup

EDIT: Will revise later.

The NDA came down and I can join others commenting the game. I didn’t have time to make a decent writeup, nor the time to see the game past the first few levels, so I’ll write down some comments about my experience and view on the game, even if prematurely.

On the basic level this really feels as if Mythic tried to make their own WoW. As a game on its own, it is serviceable. Polished enough and solid. I already anticipated that predicting how popular the game will be, in particular in the longer term, is very hard compared to other MMOs launched recently. Warhammer has a strength over its competition, but that strength is undermined and uncertain. And it may as well end as a weakness that backfires on them. In this case a lot depends on how well Mythic acknowledges problems and answers them. Post-release support.

With Mythic you can never know. Sometimes they react fast, address problems and provide some of the best support and continued development in the industry. On the other hand they often only work around problems and make them worse, or totally miss the point and finish to ruin the game (ToA and other long term disastrous choices DAoC was littered with).

That’s also the disclaimer I suggest you to consider: do not believe reviews at this stage. The way PvP/RvR develops isn’t predictable at the moment. It can either be a huge success or a big fail. It depends on the flow and players’ activity and these elements are impossible to judge when a new server just opened and everyone is crammed in the same spaces. The PvP and other core elements of this game only work if there’s a good players’ activity. From what I’ve seen Mythic didn’t think of ANY system that helps balancing it, and this mean that the number of alternatives for PvP offered may become a HUGE flaw if the players are spread thin and large swathes of content go depopulated and unused. Just hoping that “ideal conditions” are maintained out of faith just doesn’t cut it.

Your fun in this game crucially depends on the affirmation of those “ideal conditions”. It’s a risky balance, and it’s madness for Mythic to simply hope it will happen and will be maintained on its own.

The presentation of the game isn’t anything too impressive. Character creation is even more simple and limited in choice than DAoC itself. You have limited graphic combination, no height slider (that existed in DAoC) nor other custom settings. You get to pick a few combination of faces, skin tones and usual presets. On the other hand all the characters have a distinctive look and a decent style. Nitpicking: there’s a total lack of polish on the details. There are holes in the models, for example in the beards and hair, and plenty of flickering, z-fighting textures. It’s all about small detail you have to have an eye for. But it’s obvious that there’s some lack of polish overall. Form the first moment you enter in actual the game you’ll get a strong WoW feel. The impressions weren’t wrong: this game was made with WoW running side by side and trying to copy it down to the smaller details. Not inspired, this is directly “ported”. That said, the game has style.

The artists surely went for the WoW look even before glancing at Warhammer source material, but still have poured some personality in the game and not just a soulless copy. This is valid for both the graphic and the UI. There’s charm and a lot of intelligent improvements all over the place. On the other side, WoW makes a much, much, much better work at leading you around and stagger systems so that you can learn easily and progressively. Warhammer instead presents a lot more “noise” right away and feels more confusing. The fact that it works on the same systems means that veteran MMORPG players will have no trouble starting to navigate it, but for new players this game isn’t as easily accessible. The dwarf starting zone, in particular, is indoors, which is already an odd choice, a bit looking all the same and with no landmarks, so easy to get lost in it despite it reveals to be rather small.

The world and overall zone design mimics WoW without matching the sweeping vistas. The clip range is much shorter, the spaces overall more cramped and the zones without smooth transitions and contiguous feel. The “worldy” feel is lacking but it also kind of feels more “focused”. Despite it’s not on par with the world design in WoW and its impressive scale, Warhammer doesn’t delude on the first impact. It has charm on its own and you don’t feel like you are really missing anything.

For quests and other things the NPCs have overhead round icons, but the mouse pointer does not react to them and so the interaction isn’t perfectly intuitive. If you know where to click it’s because you played MMOs already. Here I had already my first gripe. Playing Relic’s Dawn of War and Company of Heroes I’m used to see overhead icons as a way to quickly select a squad. You know, when it is tricky to select the unit properly. The icon is there to ease the selection. That’s also a perfectly fine idea for a MMO: since often you get these NPCs cluttered and hidden behind a number of players’ models, it is a great idea to place a nice, visible icon floating above their heads that is easy to see and click on. Great. But why can’t I *use* it? That would be a great feature, clicking on the overhead icon directly instead of having to target the NPC model. Sadly, and not intuitively, as the first thing I tried to do when I logged in for the first time was trying to click on one of those overhead icons and discovered they weren’t usable, the game doesn’t work this way.

Despite these initial quirks and confusion, I was presented with the usual MMORPG fare. Get quest, go to location, do task. The quests themselves are WoW, first generation. Nothing particularly original and inspired, and it actually misses the nice touches and gameplay that makes these basic activities still fun and interesting in WoW, despite their simplicity. The system itself instead has some nice improvements. Three are most relevant:
1- In your on-screen quest tracker if you mouse over the quest title you get a short tooltip that explains exactly what to do, so you have an accessible and quick summary of the practical objective if you want to skip the reading of the whole quest, or if you’re trying to remember what was that quest about. It’s also dynamically updated to reflect what you are supposed to do next.
2- You have a red area marking the zone with the name of the quest, so working like a waypoint of sort.
3- All quest-related items sit in their own bag/UI panel, so don’t get mixed with normal loot and equipment.

If you are here to have a similar PvE experience to WoW, then I suggest you to simply play that game. I’m dead bored of the usual quests and Warhammer doesn’t seem to offer anything new on that field. The game instead stands out for the alternatives it provides, so here I’m saying that PvE is not very good or brightly designed, but that this isn’t even too important. It is there if you want it, but you aren’t supposed to care much.

On screen you basically have three experience bars that also explain a bit how the game is organized.

1- The proper experience bar that makes you gain levels (here ranks) by killing monsters and completing quests.
2- The “renown” bar that measure PvP personal progress. Like Realm Ranks in DAoC.
3- A contribution progress bar is local to the zone/location and that measures your progressive activity in the area.

Plenty of reasons to ignore the dull PvE, or at least to break those sessions and experiment with something more original and involving. The basic idea of the game design here is again to provide a number of alternatives so that the game feels more varied and not too repetitive. From what I’ve seen, it works. Win.

The Public Quests are probably one of the most interesting new concept of the game (but shame on Mythic for having put a trademark on the term). The implementation could have been improved but they seem to work well anyway. They are basically normal quests broken in stages and every player in the area can cooperate or at least work toward getting the task done and pass to the following stage. When it’s over there’s a timeout and the quest resets and restarts. Not “worldy” feel and rather faked, but it’s there for the quick fun. For the two of them I’ve seen the completion is rather quick. I don’t know if PQ in the later game becomes much more complex and elaborated, but those two could be resolved in a couple of minutes (if enough players are present), so it’s really something immediate and then kind of redundant.

The redundancy feeds two concurrent systems that defines the reason why you’re there and caring. One is through grinding the PQ. So not only completing one, but “grinding” it over and over again. Doing that slowly builds up the contribution bar and you get progressive rewards in three stages that you claim from an NPC. The other system is instead a bit too competitive and not really collaborative as it resembles more to a race to rush. If you manage to “do more” than other players in the area then, when the PQ is complete, you’ll be able to roll for loot and, if at the very first positions, get something nice. So you can either grind, or try to rush. Or, well, both.

My impression on these is that they would work better if there was an adaptable system in place, like reducing or increasing quest requirements depending on the number of players involved so that the “flow” could be maintained. I think they would also work better if longer, broader and rewarding more players. Again, I don’t know if the design opens up as you progress through levels, but the very first PQ, with a good number of players around, practically lasted only a couple of minutes before it was completed and reset. Feeling too fast and rushed and without even giving you enough time to figure out what to do in a stage before the stage was already completed. On the other hard the PQ are brilliant ideas because of a simple concept: shared quests spaces. You just go to one of them and can join right away, playing along a number of other players and having some fun. It’s socialization and collaborative gameplay for dummies. And it’s fantastic.

That’s what’s so special about this game. Got bored with PvE quests? Then go to a Public Quest area and dick around for a while. Got bored doing the public quest? Then queue for a scenario (from the UI, without the retarded idea to have to travel/walk to a battlemaster NPC) and join some mindless PvP. Bored with the mindless PvP? Then join an RvR area and fight for control. At the end this is fun because it’s varied. It doesn’t even need to be particularly meaningful or deep. You dick around and pack some progress tracked in multiple ways. It’s fun and it’s very accessible.

And the accessibility was the premise that made WoW successful.

The very first playable scenario is simple and fun. Basically a bridge with some control points and factions spawning at opposite directions. Every player below a certain level gets buffed up. The gameplay feel was also good. The fighting wasn’t too fast or twitchy and there was plenty of time to react. Tuned quite well.

There’s some controversy about the gameplay. I’ve read complaints that the game feels sluggish. That’s one of the three reasons why the NDA was still up. I arrived in beta AFTER that problem was patched, I didn’t read about the problem at that time, and yet I still perceived it.

It’s not as simple as it appears. A lot depends on a number of elements, like the design of spell effects. There’s a certain degree of slugginesh in the sense that there’s some disconnection between you triggering skills and seeing their outcome (health bars updating, graphic effects being shown). The Graphic effect seems to “lag”, more because of how they are designed than a system problem. You trigger the spell, get the flating number of the damage, see the health bar go down, then, after a while, you notice the full spell graphic effect. It’s a bit silly, as if they used a long spell animation effect on a spell that does the damage instantly.

On its own it gives a bad feel, but it isn’t game breaking. What makes it WORSE is about a problem in the controls. There’s no spell/skill queue and the game SUFFERS BADLY because of this. You are forced to look at your hotbar, lock your eyes there to see if the spell is being triggered or not, while you are savagely spamming the key hoping to beat the cooldown/refresh timer. This is utterly annoying (even MORE if you play an healer, really) and you don’t even have a sound clip like those in WoW that gives you a better idea if the action was accepted or rejected. If you pile the sluggishness problem with this spamming of keys and difficulty to trigger skills, you can imagine that the gameplay isn’t as smooth as it should and it makes you feel like fighting too much against the controls. Implementing a spell/skill queue would greatly reduce this problem and I can’t fathom why Mythic didn’t solve this a long time ago. This is easily the first priority issue.

Controls about moving around and stuff are very good. Much better than DAoC. They put a lot of work to make sure the running/jumping animations feel as smooth as in WoW and they kinda succeeded. There’s no fast-forward, jerky speed feeling here, animations are well paced and feel very good. It’s refreshing to have at least another MMO that gets it. Just think to SWG, Warhammer sits at the opposite end. In particular I like the way they handled strafing and the back speed. Moving forward is much faster than going back, and this actually gives more depth to the controls even if limits the mobility. Twitchy-loving gameplay types may hate this, but I loved it. The strafing is also a nice touch as the character automatically turns to face the original direction when it stops. Just very good controls and well polished. And a good feel like moving is another key feature behind WoW’s success that Warhammer was able to reproduce well.

The few quirks I didn’t like are about the collision (with objects, not with players) and the slopes. There’s some jerky z-axis movement when you move through a passable obstacle. Instead of a smooth transition, your character jerks up and down when it moves over things. With the slopes the game shares DAoC’s problem. Instead of having an intuitive system like the one used in WoW where your movement through a slope depends directly on the degree of its slant (so learnable and then guessable by the player’s eye), in Warhammer you still have hand-made paths. Sometimes you can walk up walls, sometimes you feel blocked by invisible walls. There were also a number of occasions when I was able to walk to locations I wan’t meant to, and even move off the world, but these are problems that will be likely solved at release or shortly after.

The UI is pretty, well designed and serviceable. In particular the Tome of Knowledge and the maps are GORGEOUS. Best looking maps in any mmorpg. All hand drawn. Only downside is that the name of the location isn’t present and it can get annoying if you’re trying to remember where some place is. The layout and design is ported over from WoW, but as i said above in the case of the quest tracker, there are smart improvements here and there. I’ll point even here two important cases:
1- Open groups button, right under your portrait. Click on it and see listed all open groups you can join in the area. As simple as it is, and added to the other nice features, makes grouping rather accessible.
2- HEALTH BARS. God, this is one of the best features I’ve seen in a MMORPG recently. You can set overhead health bars, everywhere, so that they show ONLY if the player is hurt. No fucking reason to have the screen cluttered by those raid windows. In RvR you can just look around and see at a glance who’s hurt and needs healing. No matter if he’s in your group or not. No matter if you have a corner of your screen dedicated to him. Makes healing much more natural and connected to what you see. Heal your target to full and the health bar vanishes. Work done. Only downside is again about a selection problem. Either they add a targeting key that target the most damaged player, or they make, once again, the bars and names directly clickable/selectable as they should with the overhead NPC icons.

Hell, I would actually FORCE healers to go target the models and forbid to heal by clicking on the UI portrait. It would make healing so much more meaningful and interactive. But as it is, it’s already better than the rest.

Performance. I tested the game on a Core 2 Duo E8400, 4 GB ram on Vista and a Radeon 4850. That’s a very powerful machine right now and so every comment I made isn’t meaningful. Especially because I played at 1024×768 and with no AA.

The game was smooth at all times, but then it’s supposed to FLY with that configuration. On the other hand I had some issues when I flied to the capital city. Framerate was starting to stutter despite the zone was basically empty. The problem here is DAoC’s legacy. The engine of Warhammer is the same Netimmerse/Gamebryo. The basic render just doesn’t have a good performance and they kept adding effects and stuff, but the raw performance was never good and still isn’t. Compared to WoW the performance is much, much worse despite the stylish, low-poly graphic and my perception is that it doesn’t even support anything more. The ground textures get blurry just a few feet away from the character, the clip range is much shorter and the world overall less detailed and well crafted, with the terrain more jagged. The zones not contiguous and the loading makes the game stutter badly when new characters show up for the first time.

I don’t think that performance is going to be an issue for most players, but don’t take anything for granted just because Mythic went for conservative graphic. The performance of the client isn’t very good and a decent hardware is probably required to have a smooth gameplay in RvR.

My final impression is similar to the summary I made. Since I have no idea of the endgame RvR, the strength of the game is about the varied play, but that’s also a potential problem as it remains a good feature only till those options are easily accessible at all times and under all conditions. There’s a solid game under the skin, especially if they address those few problems I’ve pointed out. There’s nothing that risks to seriously cripple the game outside potential realm balance problems, players’ activity and RvR convergence. And these are all issues that were in the air and I commented years ago.

There’s no way to foresee how these things this go right now. Wait and see. With Mythic it could go either way.

What is sure is that this one MMORPG has its strength and validity over the competition. It’s not a mediocre clone without anything different to offer like most MMPRPGs released recently. Sure, WoW represents a large chunk of its design, but there are distinctive ideas stacked on top of that, and the potential to be successful in the longer term (especially till WoW persists in its horrid PvP design, thanks Tom Chilton).

In particular I’m worried at the reintroduction of the two capital cities, so the multiplication of RvR space and the consequent spread out of the objectives. All that risks to create unfulfillable gaps and destroy a natural flow in the RvR. If the action gets too dispersed, the game would quickly decline and fall again in the hands of organized groups that ruin the game and make it inaccessible and unplayable for anyone else. DAoC went already down that path and Mythic never done anything to change the course. Warhammer right now seems more collaborative and accessible for all players, but so was DAoC at the beginning. So place your bets. I hope that it remains a game for everyone and doesn’t go rewarding just the hardcore elite.

To conclude, I’ll list the priority issues that I found in the game, that could be easily fixed/adjusted and that would make a much better game in my opinion:

– Dinamically adaptable objectives for Public Quests, depending on the players’ activity in the area.
– Possibility to queue for all accessible scenarios. No zone-dependent.
– Usable/clickable overhead NPC icons.
– Location tooltips on the map.
– A way to track on the whole map specific NPCs, like renown trainers, general trainers, flight masters and so on.
– Selectable names/overhead health bars. Keybind to target (or cycle) most damaged nearby friend.
– Implementing a goddamned skill/spell queuing that would allow me to look away from the damned hotbar and avoid spam keys endlessly. NOT FUN! (also playing a sound tone for an accepted action)
– Improving the collision system around objects. It’s too jerky and too easy to get stuck. Annoying during combat.

And my old design challenges are still sound. Probably more now than at that time.

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Warhammer quick “review”

The thought gathering and writing isn’t going exactly well. In the meantime you get this:

A smaller-scale WoW with a PvP vocation. Neither of its part are particularly brilliant or original but the number of accessible alternatives of gameplay makes it a win.

Got bored with PvE quests? Then go join a Public Quest. Got bored with the Public Quest? Then go join a scenario for some mindless PvP. Got bored with the redundant scenario? Then move to an RvR area and fight for control.

All this right from level 1. It’s fun and extremely accessible.

The fact that the PvP is always just a couple of minutes away means that you always have a diversion ready when you’re bored.

While you’re dicking around your character continues to make progress and grow toward the ultimate RvR endgame. It provides a motivation and makes you go on, without being just progress finalized to itself.

What makes or breaks it: since the varied gameplay is what makes the game fun and strong over the competition, it can also break it. The game is fun if a “fine equilibrium” is preserved. The fine equilibrium depends on players’ activity (having enough players, but not too many, to provide a target-rich environment in PvP).

The problem here is Mythic has no system in place to preserve the fine equilibrium.

If the strength of the game is about varied gameplay, then just think what happens if two/three months after release most players are at the endgame and the low level zones only have an handful of players around. Suddenly the Public Quests stop working, you can’t queue for scenarios, and the RvR zones have no players in them.

What’s left is grind stupid PvE quests that in this game are no better, if not worse, than the competition.

The game could have worked so much better with an adaptable server system like Guild Wars so that players could be chunked by activity and keep all zones always active and balanced around an ideal number of players. As it stands now the game is seriously undermined by that lack of stability in the players’ activity.

Especially in the longer term.

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Warhammer diary

I haven’t played all that much these days as I kinda expected, but enough to have something to write. Today I started taking notes so that I don’t forget bits and pieces.

I’m currently testing Public Quests and Scenarios specifically to have a better grasp of them. I’m going to write what I think of the game and both short and long term expectations, but I’m still completely unable to see the bigger picture.

It’s not a matter of having enough playtime (I can already comment on client performance, look & feel, controls, polish and so on) but of saying how it really pans out the later game and the actual RvR. Judging that at this stage would be alike judging DAoC’s RvR by playing in the level 10 battleground.

That also something I suggest paying attention to: do not believe reviews at this stage. Especially for *this* game the RvR can make or break it, and whether it is one case or the other it will be only clear a few months *after* release. It depends on players’ activity, RvR flow, motivations and so on. It’s just too hazy to have a precise opinion at the moment.

Anyway, tomorrow the NDA drops.

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Books at my door – August edition – Part 1

Got the book in my mail today. Hardcover, 340 pages probably going to be around 400 in standard mass market. Almost a “short” book compared to fantasy standards ;)

This one is going to be next in my reading queue after I’m done with Erikson’s last two novellas. After Richard Morgan I’ll probably go back and start Memories of Ice. Then Abercrombie again, most likely.

Waiting for more books to arrive before the end of the month…

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NDA breakage all over the place

So the servers are up. I discovered also why I fell into this odd beta phase, but can’t explain. NDA still up. But for specific reasons.

Since I played for 20 minutes, twenty, and have no idea about the one issue Mark Jacobs is talking about, I’ll break the NDA:

WoW is to Warhammer like U2 are to Radiohead.

Which is quite flattering.

Lots of things to say already. Will have to wait proper times.

While I mourn Lum’s lack of opportunity.

We’re in the wrong world.

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Book quotes interlude

These two from the second novella, The Lees of Laughter’s End.

Oh yes, my darling daughter, the night begins! Many are the terrible secrets of Laughter’s End, an’ could we fly wi’ wings of black now’s the time to leave the nest, derie! But who in this world can flee their terrors? Hands o’er the eyes, ye see, and voices t’drown out all sordid griefs, an’ the mind has wings of its own, aye so beware the final flight! Into the abyss wi’ all flesh left behind!
The stars swirled strange overhead and the Suncurl wallowed as if the wind had gasped its last. Black waves licked the hull.
But we are safe, darling, ‘ere above the squalid fates. Like queens we are. Goddesses!

‘Them nails, Master?’
A sharp nod. ‘It is never advisable to loose the spirits of the dead, to wrest them from their places of rest.’
‘It’s kind of comforting to think that there are such things as places of rest, Master.’
‘Oh, I apologize, Mister Reese. Such places do not exist, not even for the dead. I was being lazy in my use of cliche. Rather, to be correct, their places of eternal imprisonment.’