All this talk about Magic: the Gathering makes me want to revisit a topic I briefly touched on last week, in the comments here and elsewhere. Namely, the sort of denigration of “instant gratification” and the elevation of investing in “long-term fun,” which is presumably shorthand for “doing a series of boring things for a reward later.”
The choice between instant gratification versus an investment in long-term fun is a false dichotomy. Gaming is an instance in which you can have your cake and eat it too.
One of the examples activities that was used to illustrate how “boring gameplay” can lead to bigger returns in fun was painting figurines in a tabletop game like Warhammer. Simply purchasing already-painted figurines would just not be the same despite having no direct gameplay relevance. I agree. I also agree with the notion that, say, using cheat codes to become immortal, having infinite money, and so on right at the start of the game likely diminishes the overall amount of fun you can derive from it.
But here’s the thing: someone who paints their Warhammer figures probably finds the act of painting them fun.
I used to play a lot of Magic: the Gathering back in high school. The games were nothing serious, just some 3-5 person chaos multiplayer amongst friends. However I would routinely spend about 10 hours crafting decks for every 1 hour a given deck would actually see play. In fact, if any of my decks began to routinely win, I stopped using them and built new ones.¹ And I had fun!
Deck-building was almost better than playing the actual game for me. There is something deeply satisfying in seeing a complicated scheme all fall into place, top-decking the one perfect counter that changes the game right when you need it to. But running all those scenarios through my head, pouring over all my available options, whittling down a pile of 250 cards I wanted to use into a perfectly-tuned 60-card machine was pure entertainment in of itself.
Another example: D&D. I ran a 4-year campaign throughout all of college, and a little beyond. As a DM, I let my players have ample freedom, but I made sure the world they inhabited was scaffolded in lore such that they had a place in it. In other words, I wanted to give them the ability to take the world as serious as they wanted to. Of course, most sessions started and ended with them starting a bar fight rather than the existential pondering I secretly wanted them to do. But it is not much of a stretch to say that I spent 20 hours per week in preparation of one 3-6 hour session. Never once did I consider those 20 hours a chore. I was excited to DM those games because it gave me the opportunity (and justification) to spend all that time world-building.
Now, clearly, what an individual finds fun is going to be subjective, and possibly something that changes over time and circumstance. But my point here is that the sort of activities necessary for long-term enjoyment – figure-painting, deck-building, world-creation – can be fun in of themselves. Not only can, but should. This extends to all in-game activities.
I do not buy the argument that something like Darkfall/EVE’s AFK resource-gathering systems is fun “because it gives you the time to do something else.” An activity doesn’t become fun by adding in a separate fun thing; an activity is either fun in of itself or it isn’t.² An unfun thing can become tolerable when mixed, but that is not a point in the base activity’s favor. Being punched in the face is alright if you give me $1,000, but I would rather just have the $1,000. Is desiring just the money considered “instant gratification,” or is that simply rational?
You can rightly question why I am not currently building Magic decks or constructing D&D campaigns if they are so fun in of themselves. The truth is that without the payout, without the destination at the end of the journey, these (investment) activities are not as fun to me. However, while they might not be as fun – that is, they are less fun than other things I could be doing instead – keep in mind that they still are fun. An actual destination acts as a force multiplier, if you will, to the entertainment of the journey. Contrast that with many of the in-game “investments” we are tasked to complete which make no sense to perform at all without reward, e.g. they are the punch to the face.
The distinction is important, because I feel it is far too easy to for us gamers to fall into the cognitive dissonance trap of “retroactive fun” and Sunk Cost fallacy. “I spent 5 hours farming herbs, it must have all been worth it!” Even if there is no real difference between actual fun and retroactive fun in practice (and isn’t that a depressing thought?), it does matter when comparing games mechanics in the moment.
All things considered, you should desire the mechanics that are both fun now and even more fun later. We simultaneously can and deserve to have both.
¹ A successful deck was a sort of “proof of concept” for me. Could my infinite damage combo reliably work in an actual hostile environment? Coming up with combos was a lot easier than constructing a deck capable of pulling them off, after all. Plus, my goal was never to craft a (P2W) deck that beat my friends 100% of the time; that sort of thing is never fun to play against anyway.
² It’s probably more accurate to say fun is a gradient rather than a binary distinction, one that can shift from one moment to the next. But I still believe that the unfun half of the scale hits zero right near the border.
Is it just me, or does the word “followup” just look weird after a while?
…anyway. Here are some relevant Q&A straight from the forums regarding the now-funded Hex:
Q: Any chance this might be headed to IOS as well?
A: Our immediate launch plans are PC and Mac, but the tech has built from the ground up for mobile.
Q: I would also like to know about the card rotation plan. Will there be standard and unlimited formats, or will all cards be legal to play forever?
A: Right now we’re planned for a 2 block format, as well as an everything format. That is the current plan. We might revisit it after 2 years of data.
Q: The estimated delivery sep 2013 is that for the full game or the beta stages ?
A: September is the estimated delivery for the beta, which will have all of the PvP content and some of the PvE content.
Q: Will the game require a big internet connection? I’m currently working 6 month a year in a inuit village with Satellite internet connection and wireless modems and I get a 5000 ping in online games like Path of Exile here. Wondering if the game will be playable in those condition (Drop out, Lags, ect).
A: The internet overhead of the game is very, very low. The amount of data that goes back and forth to the server is minimal, and we have a 3 minute reconnect timer, that if you lose connection during a game, you have 3 minutes to log back in and you will be automatically rejoined to that game. Any single player experience just uses save states, so you can actually rejoin almost any time after disconnecting.
Okay… hold up a sec. “Working 6 months a year in a inuit village”? You know what, nevermind.
Q: Weird question i know, but any plans of a post beta wipe, getting packs and such back?
A: We will not do a post-beta wipe. Once we give you something, we won’t take it away in even the most seemingly kind way (eg, by refunding packs.) If you open a super rare awesome card it’s yours until you decide to trade it.
Q: So there is currently no other way to get cards for PVP except through initial pledge and buying $2 each?
A: The only way to get PvP packs is through the KS rewards, at $2 each, or as rewards for playing in drafts/constructed tournaments. We will also have an auction house, and I’d expect that PvP commons can be easily picked up off there at budget prices.
So it’s official: you cannot earn booster packs in PvE content. In other words, the only way anyone is playing Limited/Draft formats is for them to have bought, traded for, or won boosters themselves. Based on other questions, it appears the first set is 350 PvP cards that only come from boosters, and 300 PvE cards that are only earned in PvE and cannot be used in normal PvP games (but there might be “anything goes” formats for fun). Now, it is likely you will be able to sell a particularly nice rare you got in a Draft (that you otherwise lost) to help purchase boosters to try your luck again, but otherwise these games are going to cost you $6 a pop for less than an hour of play.
By the way, the stretch goal for $540,000?
540K - Add Primal Packs
Primal Packs are “god packs” that will drop for lucky players when buying HEX booster packs. It is not a separate item in the HEX Store. Every card in this booster is a Rare or Legendary! In addition, each Primal Pack will contain a Legendary Treasure Chest that will hold some truly incredible items, which you can open or trade in the Auction House. Speaking of which, should you be lucky enough to get one of Primal Packs, they are tradable and can be given or put in the Auction House for others just like any other pack. To maintain balance in a tournament setting, you cannot get a Primal Pack during a draft.
“Yo dawg, I heard you like gamble boxes. So we put gamble boxes in your gamble boxes [...]“
If it sounds like I am being unduly harsh, it’s simply because I know the effect these sort of games have on me. Drafting is addicting: you get to see 24 boosters being opened, passed around, and picked apart, plus the 30 minutes of frantic deck-building, plus the very-real pressure of best-out-of-three duels with the prize being enough boosters to join another draft for free. That’s a sex, drugs, and rock & roll combo of endorphins right there.
But you’re going to pay. A lot. Unless you’re good, I suppose, in which case the poor players will be subsidizing your gameplay.
Just screwing around in 1v1 Standard duels is fun and all, but you won’t be getting any new cards; there is no progression without pay. Then again, I suppose that is what the whole PvE side of the game will be about. Will it be enough? You cannot use your PvE cards in PvP. Then again, PvE cards do not “expire” and yet there will be additional PvE sets in the future, presumably along with additional monsters/dungeons/raids, so… yeah. Maybe Cryptozoic will be able to shore up the one weakness Magic Online has.
I suppose we’ll see in September, once the Beta is released.
In the event that you didn’t read last Friday’s Penny Arcade, they talked about the Cryptozoic Kickstarter for a “MMO-TCG” called Hex. Basically, Hex is Magic Online meets WoW TCG meets cards that can get socketed gems, equip gear, gain XP, earn achievements that expand artwork and upgrade cards to foil versions. Also, there will be PvE, apparently including dungeons and raids. And all of this is Free to Play.
Of course, just like with Hearthstone, calling a TCG “F2P” is criminally misleading.
I have some concerns with Hex. First, while I am frankly excited about the unique opportunities involved with an all-digital TCG – cards that buff your creatures do so for the rest of the match, you can put tokens on cards that get shuffled into your library, and all sorts of crazy nonsense that physical card games couldn’t pull off – this game skews so heavily towards Magic Online that I’m surprised Wizards of the Coast hasn’t issued a takedown notice.
Seriously, look at this video:
I’m not talking about Apple’s “rounded corners” copyright bullshit, I’m talking about Grand Theft Mechanics. Creatures have summoning sickness, there is First Strike, Haste, seven cards in the opening hand, 20 life per player, four copy limit on individual cards, 60 cards per deck, land cards, instants, discrete turn phases (Draw phase, main phase, declaring attackers/blockers/combat damage, end step), and even the goddamn Stack.
That’s not even really my concern here though. My concern is what occurs about 200 times in the bottom right corner of that video: spamming of the Pass Priority button.
This is alpha footage, things can change, etc etc etc… but not really. Magic is an incredibly nuanced card game with thousands of pages of technical rules that few follow to the letter in non-tournament settings; friends usually don’t ask each other if there is any response to their Draw Phase, unless one of them was packing a relevant card in their deck. My initial few weeks with Magic Online was a brilliant experience because the game reminded you of all the sort of routine Upkeep triggers and the like that can bog down/derail completely a physical game when you forget one. Trouble is, Magic Online is going to ask you every damn time because it has to. You can manually change your settings to ignore certain steps if you want, but again, Magic is an incredibly complex beast – if you aren’t careful about when you cast a spell or use an ability, you can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in an (cough) instant.
So that’s concern number one: the Pass Priority button is going to simultaneously be annoying as hell and be the reason you lost a perfectly winnable match. It’s also incredibly high-brow for as much as Hex is being marketed as “easy to get into.” I was a tad disappointed at first when I watched the Hearthstone duels and realized that there would be no “in response I play X!” back and forth. But seeing Hex and being reminded about how cerebral Magic can get… I think the Blizzard folks are on the right track, at least for a casual audience.
Concern number two? You’re going to spend probably $100-$200 a month playing this F2P game.
Look at this paragraph from the official website regarding the above card Extinction:
Every last troop in sight bites the dust. This card will be a crucial staple of many control decks in any tournament format for a long time to come. In other words, in addition to being awesome, these will be quite valuable to all types of players. If you’re dungeon crawling instead of tournament crawling, you can even keep troops off the board for another two turns while you finish your master plan, with the all-powerful equipment Grips of the Unfortunate!
Translation: everyone will be paying out of the ass for this “crucial staple” of a card.
Even if you don’t see yourself competing in the sort of obvious P2W Constructed deck format (or presumably high-end PvE raiding), you will still probably be spending many times the average monthly subscription if you are remotely interested in the game. It is all right there in the Kickstarter page:
For experienced TCG players, we have designed the card set around Booster Draft and Limited play. We have engineered the card sets to launch three times a year, like a standard TCG.
In Magic Online, a Booster Draft = eight players buy three booster packs apiece. Open pack, take one card, pass remaining to the left, repeat. Build deck. Limited = buy six booster packs, open them, build deck. Booster packs in Hex will cost $2 for 15 random cards, which is half of what WotC charges. Magic Online rewards the winners of these mini-tournaments with extra booster packs, such that those coming in 1st and 2nd place can generally leave with a profit of a few packs; I assume Hex will reward similarly. Everyone keeps the cards they play with, so you don’t leave empty-handed if you lose, but… well. Suffice it to say, I finally overcame my game subscription aversion when I realized I spent $24 in the course of a one hour in Magic Online. Suddenly, a mere $15/month seemed like a total steal. Cue WoW purchase.
Frankly, Booster Drafts and Limited are the best Magic tournament formats to play in because there is no Pay 2 Win pressure – everyone starts with the same random chance to get good/bad cards, and skill plays an exceedingly strong role thereafter. But, again, in Hex you are looking at dropping $6-$12 to participate in “content” that evaporates after an hour, if you’re lucky. This is to say nothing about the fact that new sets will come out three times a year, which means most of your cards will be unplayable in Standard settings (which is the big set and its two smaller components in Magic). You can still play older cards in Magic, but only in Extended formats where most people are still packing the overpowered cards of 5 years ago, not the leftover garbage from your Limited games that just became old news.
If you haven’t noticed, I am extrapolating a lot about Hex from how Magic Online worked, but Cryptozoic has already stolen so much shit I feel safe that they will keep the theme going here. Perhaps Hex will feel a little different since it will have a PvE aspect, where some of your “outdated” cards might find a long-term home. Perhaps you could even earn boosters from said PvE – that would at least make the F2P claim less of a bald-faced lie. But make no mistake here: Hex, like any TCG (digital or no), will contain the two worst components of consumer-gouging videogame design: Pay 2 Win and gamble boxes.
And goddamn it if I’m still reacting like an ex-junkie, credit card in shaking hand.
Game: Fallout: New Vegas
Recommended price: Full Price ($20)
Metacritic Score: 84
Completion Time: 70+ hours
Buy If You Like: Fallout 3, Oblivion
When I played Fallout 3, it completely revolutionized the series to me. A storied veteran of the original Fallout, Fallout 2, and Fallout Tactics, the idea of a first-person non-grid-based combat game filled me with dread. Would it feel like Fallout? Why turn this series into a FPS?
By the end of the first hour, my fears (and free time) melted away in the vast furnace of Fallout 3′s immersive, brilliant post-apocalyptic world. I had already played games like Oblivion, but it was not until Fallout 3 that I truly appreciated the depths in Bethesda games; the ability to just strike out and roam. While it lacked the brilliant storytelling of the prior games, I felt it made up for it in all the unspoken narratives of the world around you. Suffice it to say, Fallout 3 remains in my top 5 games of all time.
This is not, of course, a Fallout 3 review.
Fallout: New Vegas is a noble attempt at having it both ways: the exploration and the narrative. You start not as a fresh-faced Vault Dweller, but as a middling Courier, shot in the head in media res ala Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. And in typical narrative-driven fashion, your quest for revenge starts at Point A and leads inexorably to Point B.
This is roaming on rails, at least for the first few dozen hours, with the slightest deviation leading to certain death. Strike North from the starting city and you will face level 20 Giant Radscorpions. Stray too far West outside the plot-directed Southerly route and Super Ghouls will eat your face off. Cut through the mountains to the East and you will inexplicably face the Blind Deathclaw guarding the path, conveniently immune to the effects of even your Stealth Boy invisibility cloak.
Between the visible fences of high-level monsters and being able to see New Vegas’s Lucky 38 tower from any vantage point in the game, F:NV starts off by feeling microscopic in comparison to Fallout 3. But a curious thing happens as you finally reach the Southern reaches of I-15 and turn East. “Tutorial Mode” over, the game suddenly opens up, blooming with hidden depth and density like some desert flower. There is still the highlighted yellow-brick plot road to follow, but you can actually strike out on your own at this point with less risk of instant death. I decided to plow my way to New Vegas proper at this point, stopping only at the various locations within sight along the way.
It ended up taking me over 40 hours just to reach the gates.
Combat in F:NV is more or less identical to Fallout 3: you can still treat the entire game as a normal FPS or you can pause the action in VATS mode to specifically target enemy extremities. Weapons skew a lot more towards traditional Spaghetti Western fare as befits the motif, but classic laser/plasma guns are not too far behind.
F:NV does feature some interesting innovations compared with its predecessor, including the use of Factions with mostly independent reputations. Don’t like the New California Republic? Join Caesar’s Legion. Or vice versa. Or screw them both and embrace Mr. House’s vision of the future. Or screw him too and embrace your own brand of justice. While the burgeoning complexities of the midgame collapses into an endgame constant, fundamentally the ending is one you can choose. Classic Fallout.
Well… mostly. While all of the set pieces are in place, including many of the same (recycled) posters last seen around the D.C. area, I could not help but feel that F:NV was… missing something. Something ephemeral, something intangible. F:NV is set in the same Fallout universe with the same people and the same post-apocalyptic problems. And perhaps that is what felt off. If this were the 1990s, F:NV would have been an expansion pack to Fallout 3, not a spiritual sequel.
Don’t get me wrong, there is more than enough to do in F:NV to justify its own existence. But it felt more like Fallout 3.5 than its own game. And yet, at the same time, F:NV feels like it didn’t have to be a Fallout game at all. Sure, there are Vaults and Nuka-Cola and Super Mutants aplenty. But the overarching narrative of revenge never felt personally compelling, and the coming clash between NCR and Caesar’s Legion seemed a digression. This game was Fallout when I was just wandering around, eager to scavenge what I can out of crumbling ruins I see just on the horizon. When I was the Courier just trying to make a final delivery for no particular reason? Not so much. The Platinum Chip is not too different from the Water Chip when it comes to plot McGuffins, but it felt different just the same. I wasn’t protecting my home, my family, nor was I my own person. I was… the Courier, a stranger in familiar skin, following a past everyone knows about but me.
Ultimately, Fallout: New Vegas is not Fallout 3. For some people, that will be a relief; for others, a deficiency. But it is important to keep in mind the scale of this particular comparison. I am pulling out the microscope and judging the relative merits of Mt. Everest versus the Grand Canyon. I am quantifying and comparing the love felt for a firstborn son with that for a granddaughter. Fallout: New Vegas cannot be fairly judged by a jury of its peers because it has no peers other than Fallout 3… and possibly Skyrim/Oblivion. So while I still feel that Fallout 3 is better than Fallout: New Vegas, the latter is better than damn near every other videogame I have played. I am being so critical not because Fallout: New Vegas is a bad game, but precisely because it is so good.
There are four main pieces of DLC for Fallout: New Vegas, although at this point they will all likely be bundled with any Game of the Year copy you will buy. Briefly though, I will describe them for posterity.
Honest Hearts: Technically speaking, this was my least favorite of the DLCs. Heading into the outskirts of New Caanan, the Courier gets to interact with Burning Man, the hitherto presumed-dead former leader of Caesar’s armies. While there is a main plot concerning the story of revenge/redemption, it simply does not flow too well, in my opinion. I never really cared about the plights of the tribes or the lands they occupied.
Conversely, the sort of understated plot line of “The Father in the Cave” revealed via in-game computer archives was one of the more poignant mini-narratives I have seen in Fallout, if not in games period. If you’ve chosen to never play F:NV (and are still reading this review for some reason), go read the transcript here; it is presented in the Wiki exactly as you see it in-game, aside from actually exploring some of the locations (and seeing the traps) mentioned in the text.
Outside of that, the Hearts DLC does feature a lot more plant materials for use in homemade stimpacks, and an abundance of clean drinking water for those doing a Hardcore run.
Old World Blues: Modeled on 1950s-era space dramas, I found this DLC to be exceptionally fun and funny both. The premises push the boundaries of believability even in the Fallout universe (your brain is scooped out right at the start), but after a while it ceases to be particularly relevant as you blast giant mechanical radscorpions and other ridiculous enemies. As a sort of bonus, by the end of the DLC you essentially receive a remote mountain base with all sorts of crafting stations and other amenities that you can teleport to at any time.
Dead Money: While this DLC opens up with my least favorite gaming trope – the sort of Metroid-esque “remove all your gear” mechanic – it does sort of ratchet up the tension and make the rest of the storyline work. Collared with explosives, you are forced to try and open up a vault underneath one of the few surviving casinos outside of the New Vegas area. The limited weapon selection and deadly dust clouds skews the DLC more towards survival-horror than Fallout sidequest, but I was pleased with the plot, imagery, and ultimate payoff.
Lonesome Road: Out of the four, this DLC most fits the narrative of the game proper. I felt it a smidge too linear for my liking (although not as linear as Dead Money) and a bit too ridiculous in other places (trigger nuclear bombs to move wooden debris out of your way, what?), but out of the four this most fit the tone of Fallout games.
As reported by MMO-Champion, the subscriber total was 8.3 million at the end of the quarter, a loss of 1.3 million subs since Q4 (which had its own 400k loss). For those keeping track at home, Blizzard had 9.1 million subs back on August 3rd, 2012, during an eight-month lull of zero content at the end of Cataclysm, i.e. pre-Mists of Pandaria. That is a net loss of 800k this expansion – with a 1.5 million sub rollercoaster in the middle – and the lowest subscriber count WoW has had since 2007.
By the way, RIP to MMOData.net, which has not made an update in nearly nine months now. How can we pontificate without graphs? Sigh.
I went and signed up to listen to the investor report as there was not a transcript available, wondering where MMO-Champ got the rest of those bullet points. Plus, you know, Press™:
To save yourself 38 minutes, just trust me when I confirm MMO-Champ got all the relevant information.
What did interest me though was hearing how ultra-conservative Activision Blizzard is. I mean, that sort of thing isn’t a particular trade secret, but when Bobby Kotick explained that the company wasn’t interested in the mobile sphere because the Top 10 titles change every year, I cocked an eyebrow. Call of Duty and WoW still have a lot of viable milking years ahead of them, but this is the same company that gushed about their $1 billion Skylanders franchise that didn’t even exist two years ago. If CoD: Ghost ends up pulling a Warfighter along with the further expected losses (their words) in WoW subs, you can almost imagine a scenario in which they conserve themselves right off a cliff by the end of this year.
But, alas, the money machines continue unabated.
Finally, I sort of chuckled at this part of the WoW presentation:
- There has been less engagement by casual players.
Well… yeah. What did they imagine would happen when you release
one of the most alt-unfriendly expansion in the history of the game? And then proceed to put everything behind a triple-gate of dailies and rep, all but remove leveling dungeons (only to put them back), and then essentially stop all production of 5m dungeons for the rest of the expansion? Oh, and don’t get me started on the continued embarrassment of no-pop servers languishing.
At this point, all I’m really interested in is Hearthstone (as hopefully a cheaper Magic: Online) and maybe Bungie’s new game; Titan has been too much of a cocktease for too long to even get a rise out of me anymore. Otherwise Activision-Blizzard might join the ranks of EA as a big-budget publisher who only produces one title that I am remotely interested in, with all the “risky” indie ventures soaking up the money I leave on the table.
And as Doone points out, that’s probably the best thing for everyone involved.
I was not sure there was going to be a Day 3 to this series. Hell, Day 2 came as a complete surprise for that matter. My default expression in life is “Impress me,” to which Darkfall just laughs. “Okay, show me what you have to offer.” “Show yourself.” There is an inherent nobility to that uncompromising sentiment, a sense that all the other games out there selling themselves are, indeed, engaging in prostitution. Darkfall instead has the purity of your back yard, with the creek your mother told you to stay away from. No one gave you a quest to turn over rocks to see what lied beneath them; you just did it because you were there, and hey look at that weird bug, I wonder what happens when I… eww.
Sorry, sometimes I get carried away with my own bullshit.
In truth, I continued playing Darkfall because I was interested in how onerous it would be to make arrows for my Skirmisher. The spiders never dropped any coin, the vendors were asking for 30+ crafting mats for 1g, and my initial try at crafting wooden planks left me with not enough gold to purchase a pick axe to mine the requisite stone for arrowheads. Considering my character was ostensibly an archer, would the game allow me to run out of arrows?
Of course it would.
I abandoned the spider spawns, and tried the other starter monster spawn location. It too was farmed out; in fact, I don’t even know what mobs spawn there as none lived long enough for me to point at them. From the map, I noticed some ruins off to the west. If there’s ruins, there’s monsters. Sure enough, it was zombie spawn city.
While I sat on the fringes watching characters in clearly superior gear farming through the zombies like butter, it occurred to me that there is a distinction between sandboxes that few ever make. There is the sandbox in which you perform repetitive actions in order to have fun later, and there are the ones in which you have fun doing fun things that leads to more fun later. Darkfall, to me, is the former; Minecraft would be the latter. And the funny thing is that the former doesn’t sound all that different from what I was required to do in WoW.
The zombies that trickled past the farmers did end up dropping hard currency – around 1-3g every 5-10 mobs. Examining the pleasure I felt when I walked away with 22g at the end of the farming excursion was a sobering experience. There were likely better spots for gold farming, even in the protected newbie zones, but it was a glimpse back into the churning abyss of a grind without end. Work hard today so you can have fun later, as opposed to having fun… having fun.
In any case, I remain pleased that I gave Darkfall the ole college try. Every time I read Syncaine’s latest post about ganking a dude and stealing all his stuff (and his boat), or about how he AFK farmed while writing the post, I can visualize what exactly all those shenanigans looked like. And then realize that game he and others are playing exists primarily in their own minds.
Which isn’t a bad thing, of course. It’s just not my thing.
Game: Spec Ops: The Line
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 76
Completion Time: 6 hours
Buy If You Like: Kane & Lynch-esque cover-based military shooters
Spec Ops: The Line is an over-the-shoulder cover-based military shooter that seeks to subvert the tropes of its genre. You control Captain Adams, tasked with commanding your two Delta Force squad mates in search for what happened to Colonel Konrad and the rest of the 33rd Battalion. The search leads them into the ruined city of Dubai, which appears to have devolved into anarchy after a series of epic sandstorms cut it off from the rest of the world.
After killing some insurgents whom had taken members of the 33rd hostage, the mission starts to go pear-shaped when the very soldiers you are trying to save confuse your team for CIA operatives who have been riling up the insurgents. From there, things just keep getting darker and darker as you continue taking completely rational steps towards a line you did not realize you already crossed hours ago.
I was interested to play Spec Ops precisely because I heard about its subversive themes. What I discovered though, is that I have seen this all before in Far Cry 2 and Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days. In fact, Kane & Lynch is the perfect analog here despite approaching from the opposite side of the legal spectrum: both games are over-the-shoulder cover-based shooters whose scenarios start off as reasonable before relentlessly veering into the absurd. What seems like a natural progression or escalation of violence suddenly sickens you once you realize what exactly you are doing. How did I go from killing insurgents to killing Americans? Why am I looking forward to the next cover-strewn environment so I can use my grenade launcher to kill even more soldiers?
The eponymous “Line” referred in the game title probably refers to one specific incident (that I won’t spoil), given how long it was dwelt upon, but I personally found it curiously ineffectual. At first, I didn’t even realize that my actions caused the incident in question, and even after I wasn’t particularly convinced player agency was involved. In spite of that, the game does a great job in fostering a sense of nihilistic fatalism. The situation becomes so FUBAR that it almost doesn’t matter what else you do at that point. And then you, the human player behind the screen, start to realize what that means for soldiers in real situations out in the world.
I am sympathetic to the argument that perhaps some reviewers give Spec Ops: the Line too much credit. While the gameplay doesn’t noticeably change, I absolutely felt fatigued by the end of the six hour story campaign. Construing that fatigue and feeling of pointlessness as being intentional artistic designs, might be a little too clever an excuse to take seriously; it sort of hand-waves away any possibility of bad game design, and feels a bit too convenient besides. If you are willing to give the designers the benefit of the doubt though, it is certainly an effective plot mechanism… just as it was in Far Cry 2 and Kane & Lynch.
Ultimately, I feel Spec Ops: the Line as an experience is worth a bit more than my usual limit for these shorter games. The visuals are amazing, the interaction with your squad is superb, and the setting is both unique and artistic. You might feel drained and depressed by the end, but at least you felt something – a feeling that might actually persist beyond turning the system off. Which is more than I can say for a lot of the games I have played.
I felt like the screenshots were not enough to fully immerse you in the world of Darkfall. So here is a video of me attacking some spiders. Don’t forget to switch to 1080p quality!
In terms of the tutorial, I finally realized why I was stuck on the “skinning” portion. While you can loot leather from the glowing gravestones, if you have a skinning knife you can also skin… the gravestones. Because that makes sense. The failure rate seems ridiculously high, but eventually I loot one.
The next step is to hearth to your bindstone, which I did exactly two minutes later. Literally, guys, it’s a 120-second cast. I started it up and left to make my lunch for the next day.
This actually reminds me of another curious thing: AFK-farming seems encouraged in Darkfall. Much like in Guild Wars 2, you must buy a logging axe or herbing sickle in order to gather materials, and these items have charges (durability in this case) that deplete on use. The difference here is that you can start up the animation in Darkfall and walk away from the keyboard – your character will merrily continue chopping timber until (presumably) the axe is worn down to the nub or the tree runs out of wood. It reminds me of what I have heard about mining space rocks in EVE, insofar as gathering only requires button presses once every half-hour. Is that supposed to discourage people from farming, or a concession that farming is so boring the game will do it for you while you Tab out and play something more engaging?
In any event, the next stage of the tutorial was taking a 100kg (!) mount idol from the bank and summoning a mount. From there, you are tasked to running to the border of the protected area, sticking your toe over, and then coming back inside. Ah… so I was paranoid for no reason this entire time. Well, sorta. Apparently if you aren’t careful, people can actually steal your mount and ride away. After which I assume you are shit outta luck. Considering that unsummoning the mount takes a minimum of 2 seconds after dismounting, you’ll never want to actually be in town riding the thing.
After much squinting at the abysmal UI, I finally found and dabbled with the Prowess system. Essentially, you earn Prowess doing things, doing a certain number of things (Feats), and presumably other ways too. Prowess essentially act as skill points you use to upgrade skills, increase your ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, etc), and so on. Most skills start a 1 and can be increased up to 100 with an increasingly harsh cost ratio (1:1 up to ~25, then 2:1, etc); each upgrade level typically improves cast speed plus some miscellaneous qualities by some percentage. As an example, putting points into Archery lets me fire faster and deal more damage per arrow, whereas Mining let’s me increase my AFK-yield.
That all makes sense, but I was taken aback a bit from the “Boosts”. At first, I was thinking they were F2P-esque boosts, but that does not appear to be the case.
Instead, they are… err. Well, you can buy the first rank of “the Agile” boost for 200 Prowess, and it increases Dexterity by +10 and the Stamina by +37. Considering that manually boosting Dexterity by +1 costs 30 Prowess, I don’t actually know the point of boosts in this context other than a designer “Gotcha!” moment. I mean, I suppose that it is a way to quickly achieve your class’s optimum stats while still offering a Prowess sink for long-term players (e.g. Warrior dumping extra Prowess into Intelligence once everything warrior-y is bought).
If there is a third day of playing Darkfall in my future, my goal is to figure out the crafting side of things. I understand the basics, but I’m a little uncertain about how one actually goes about getting hard currency; considering that crafting consumes gold as well as mats, you have to have a baseline of income from somewhere. None of the mobs I have killed dropped gold thus far. Does it all come from vendoring goods? There are no “quests” of course, and there doesn’t appear to be an AH either.
So… yeah. Darkfall.