EVE is Real (Evil)

I don’t play EVE, but I have been following the developing story of Erotica 1 (E1) with a particular interest this past week. The drama itself is interesting enough, but the entire episode asks a lot of compelling questions on the nature of games, social interactions outside of the game but still concerning the game, and the role (if any) of the developers.

EVE, as you might already know, is just about the most hand-off MMO on the market. Scams, extortion, and piracy are not only allowed, they are encouraged. “Be the villain,” and all that. One such scammer took things to another level though. Basically, the deal was that E1 ran an ISK-doubling scam that actually did pay out occasionally, such that it was ambiguous as to whether you could make a bunch of money. After passing the first tests, there was a “Bonus Room” in which you could quintuple your winnings again. The catch? You had to hand over 100% of your in-game assets and then jump onto a Teamspeak server for hours (!) of recorded humiliation.

You can read the full breakdown of what transpired in this particular Bonus Room on Jester’s Trek. In fact, the two hour, seventeen minute SoundCloud file is also linked. The victim has a speech impediment which is fully exploited, and when he finally snaps, E1 and his crew drive the victim’s wife (who showed up to ask what was going on) into a panic attack.

I doubt this is what CCP envisioned with their “EVE is real” campaign.

The reactions to this incident have ran the gamut. I was first made aware of it at all by this post on Greedy Goblin. Gevlon’s take? I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count. Spoiler: Gevlon blames the victim. And in a certain light, it is something you can almost get behind – why didn’t the guy just turn the computer off? Well, for one thing, he had already given away 100% of his in-game assets at that point. And for another, it doesn’t fucking matter. The only truly relevant point (for CCP) is whether or not someone like E1 is worth having in your game.

And indeed, CCP, perhaps finally realizing the potential media shitstorm brewing, came out and issued a statement:

While the content of online interactions between players cannot realistically be gated within our game worlds, CCP strongly disapproves of clear and extraordinary levels of real life harassment against our players in the outside world.

CCP, in collaboration with the CSM, have agreed and would like to state in the strongest possible terms and in accordance with our existing Terms of Service and End User License Agreement, that real life harassment is morally reprehensible, and verifiable examples of such behavior will be met with disciplinary action against game accounts in accordance with our Terms of Service.

While they didn’t announce anything specific, we know from other sources that E1 was permanently banned. I don’t actually recommend going to that second link there unless you’re a fan of sadism, or want to see a rather frightening example of the sort of players EVE’s mostly hands-off policy attracts.

Still, I feel like there were some arguments surrounding this incident worth deconstructing. Gevlon and a lot of other commenters argue that this issue could be solved by not falling for the scam in the first place. Plus, they argue, what’s really the difference between a prank and a bully? Given how tomorrow is April Fools Day, it’s even somewhat topical.

My response would be: there really isn’t one. The difference between assault and a scuffle is someone filing a police report. The prank example that was offered was blocking someone’s door with phone books. Prank or bully? That’s two different questions. First, it’s entirely reasonable to suggest it wasn’t a prank at all, but rather harassment – again, with the difference being simply the victim’s decision. As to whether someone is a bully for doing that depends on their intentions. We can imagine a scenario in which a guy constantly “pranks” people who shrug it off when, in fact, he derives pleasure from the misery he creates. As I mentioned in the comments on his post, someone is a liar regardless of whether anyone believes them.¹

Gevlon then claims that we cannot prosecute people like E1 with intention-based arguments because no one can prove intention. Except the courts do it all the time via mens rea. There is a rather instructive scenario outlined in a related Wiki article:

For example, suppose that A, a jealous wife, discovers that her husband is having a sexual affair with B. Wishing only to drive B away from the neighbourhood, she goes to B’s house one night, pours petrol on and sets fire to the front door. B dies in the resulting fire. A is shocked and horrified. It did not occur to her that B might be physically in danger and there was no conscious plan in her mind to injure B when the fire began. But when A’s behaviour is analysed, B’s death must be intentional. If A had genuinely wished to avoid any possibility of injury to B, she would not have started the fire. Or, if verbally warning B to leave was not an option, she should have waited until B was seen to leave the house before starting the fire. As it was, she waited until night when it was more likely that B would be at home and there would be fewer people around to raise the alarm.

The Bonus Round victim could have turned off the computer at any time. So too could E1. And this is besides the point that there isn’t a jury in the world that would say the outcome was not exactly what E1 and company were intending to occur.

Where things get really amusing is when people argue that E1 can’t get punished because it’s not against the EULA. Except the EULA includes the ToS, of which the very first goddamn entry might be instructive. Or that E1 shouldn’t get punished because it sets a “chilling precedent.” Or the line is too ambiguous, as Gevlon states. Or it somehow would obligate CCP to start banning all such offenders. Or that it opens the doors to nefarious individuals impersonating people and getting others banned. And a number of similar armchair philosopher attempts at rules lawyering.

That sort of nonsense might work on religions and in college electives, but it doesn’t pass muster in the real world. Items #25 and #26 in the ToS give CCP carte blanche to permaban anyone for any reason. Arguments towards precedent and a nebulous obligation to do a full crusade sort of remind me of the Buridan’s ass paradox. On paper, it “makes sense” that a donkey inbetween two equally distant piles of food would starve to death because it can’t decide between them. In the actual real world, people have the ability to make arbitrary decisions and judgment calls. Just because E1 is banned does not necessarily mean CCP has to, by some mysterious logical mechanism, ban the EVE guild that threatens to blow your ship up unless you sing to them on their chat channel. So very few people understand the Slippery Slope is actually a fallacy; it’s entirely possibly to (subjectively!) determine that one is a more egregious example than the other and stop on the slope.

Then again, hey, that singing extortion thing is pretty fucking weird and exploitative and maybe they shouldn’t be doing that either. If these are the sort of examples people point to concerning how “EVE is real,” perhaps it’s time to re-examine whether that tagline actually relates a positive quality. We don’t have to abandon every game in which someone’s feelings might get hurt, but how about we aim for, as Jester points out, the ballpark figure of “your mother can listen to this without thinking you’re a psychopath.”

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¹ Gevlon’s counter-argument to this is that a liar no one believes is an actor or comedian. Err… no. Those professions do not rely on untruth to scam or exploit out of wealth, power, or security; the intent is to amuse, surprise, and entertain. It’s a nonsensical argument akin to suggesting a torturer and a dentist are similar because they both hurt you.

Lowercase Rift

The news of the week is Facebook buying out the Oculus Rift, which is perhaps the least impressive technology to see other people use. I’ll be honest: I poured out a sip of bourbon in memoriam to independent development and the noble goal that was Kickstarter, which increasingly seems to be an nightmare engine fueled by hubris and wanton optimism.

Actually, none of that last sentence is true. Well, other than the Kickstarter bit.

I did release a heavy sigh at the news, but in the scheme of things it might not be so bad. There are a couple ways of looking at it. For example, this penultimate paragraph from Penny Arcade represents a rather inspiring take:

Before yesterday, The Oculus Rift was technofetish gear.  It ceased to be so in an instant.  If you want to know how you get to the future described in books, any of the futures, it happens when technology has broad social meaning.  I’m not going to tell you it’s not fucking weird.  I’m as surprised as anybody.  I don’t like the idea of a fully three dimensional banner ad anymore than you do.  But do you want to live in a society where telepresence and virtual reality are…  normalized?  This is how that happens.  I used the shitty, old Rift, and I thought I was underwater.  Think of every corner they had to cut because they were trying to make this thing in the finite realm of men.  Now imagine the corners restored, and the corner cutting machine in ruins.

Perhaps you’re not an optimist. In which case, actually consider the alternate realities:

> Just promise me there will be no specific Facebook tech tie-ins.

I promise.

Why would we want to sell to someone like MS or Apple? So they can tear the company apart and use the pieces to build out their own vision of virtual reality, one that fits whatever current strategy they have? Not a chance.

Now, as the scathing Reddit posts below that point out, had Microsoft bought out the Rift he could have just swapped the names around: “Sell to someone like Facebook or Apple?” It really seems to be no difference… except for two things. One, I don’t want Microsoft or Apple to have sole control over the Rift. Apple’s version would likely not be PC compatible and Microsoft would likely bundle it into every Xbtwo purchase. It might “just” be a monitor on your face (the size of a small book) right now, but shit man, it’s 2014 and I still can’t take screenshots of PS3 games without hundred-dollar hardware to trick the DRM or whatever. And two? Sony has VR, Google has pseudo-VR, and now even goddamn Facebook has VR. It’s only a matter of time before the ghost of Steve Jobs releases the iEyes and whoever is running Microsoft releases a more expensive, lower resolution version that requires a constant internet connection.

Competition, people – it’s a good thing.

Having said all that, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. In fact, I barely care about VR at all. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool conceptually. The frugal side of my nature is excited at the prospect of basically one $300 headset replacing all the monitors and TVs in my house. But that’s when pesky reality starts popping up. I already wear glasses and it’s hard enough finding earphones I can comfortably wear for more than an hour.

But the VR problems are deeper and more systemic to me, in much the same way as console MMOs. For example, can you see the keyboard with these goggles on? Some people can type without looking, but essentially pulling yourself out of whatever just to remember where the ‘B’ key is will be annoying. Controllers don’t really get around this issue, especially considering how much more limiting the lack of buttons will be (imagine trying to play WoW with an Xbox controller). Then I wonder: do I really want to be craning my neck around for 2+ hours? And to what end? Unless you go full nerd, the practical application will be the equivalent of the Lean key in most games; you are still aiming with your mouse/gamepad, not your face.

I’m sure the immersion is all there and maybe that’s enough. From where I’m sitting though, all I’m hearing is “touchscreen monitor,” like I want to be playing games in (more literal) zombie posture all day. No thanks. For me, the Oculus and other headsets are basically conceptual means of being able to play games fully reclined on a Lay-Z Boy or laying down. Actually, nevermind, no access to keyboard/mouse that way. So, err… yeah.

Beta Impressions: Hawken

In an effort to both delay poor decision-making and assuage the pain of not having purchased Titanfall for $48 via GMG, I decided to download and play Hawken this weekend. Apparently the game is still in open beta (since December 2012), even though I could have sworn it had been released already, but whatever.

Graphics are pretty decent.

Graphics are pretty decent.

Hawken is a F2P F2Download FPS mech PvP game. Considering it too has a 6v6 player limit, there are a lot of amusing parallels to Titanfall, actually. The mech combat feels legitimately like you are inside a mech – it takes time to get momentum going when moving, your turning speed is slow, and so on. That being said, your maneuverability is actually pretty good with the assistance of thrusters, allowing you limited ability to fly through the air, do quick dodges, and do a 180-spin. Some mechs have larger (regenerating) fuel reserves than others, and there are lighter mechs that can perform all sorts of mid-air acrobatics.

The shooting feels pretty good and the TTK (Time To Kill) seems reasonable; you frequently have enough time to register you are taking damage and get to cover without dropping past 50%. All mechs can repair themselves, but it leaves you insanely vulnerable for up to 10+ seconds, the first few of which do not repair you at all. There are a few other ways to get some repair action going (defeated mechs drop health orb things), but I actually like how “sticky” damage ends up being; the prevalence of cover-based firing plus regenerating HP in FPS games has led to an over-reliance of ultra-short TTK, in my opinion. In other words, in Hawken you can dance around cover taking potshots at enemies, but eventually you’ll have to give them the opportunity to rush your position.

Pretty badass, actually.

Pretty badass, actually.

Out of the very few games modes Hawken has, the most unique is probably Siege. Basically, each side attempts to gather power resources from either power stations or stealing it from downed mechs, and then deposit it back at their base. Once enough has been gathered, a capital ship appears and starts slowly flying towards the enemy base. At this point, the main goal is “capping” the AA turret in the middle of the map, as it will quickly destroy an opposing ship. If the ship gets within range of the enemy base, it will start damaging it, and your side wins when the base HP goes to zero. If both sides summon a capital ship, they will duke it out in the skies above.

Most interestingly though, your own mechs can fire at the capital ship and deal damage. There are exposed turrets that can be destroyed to significantly reduce the offensive power of a ship, and with enough time even a single mech can whittle the rest of the ship’s hull down with concentrated fire at the engines. All of which introduce neat little dilemmas throughout the battle: do you focus on gaining power, or slowing the enemy’s power gains? Do you bunker down on the AA and hope someone else on your team caps power? Do you assault the AA or do you spend time shooting the capital ships from the ground?

Having said all that, the main concern with these sorts of game are the progression/reward system. And it’s here that I feel Hawken flounders a bit.

If you have a $100 option in your F2P game, reevaluate your life choices.

If you have a $100 option in your F2P game, please reevaluate your life choices.

Pretty much every single thing is an unlock you purchase with Hawken Credits (HC) or with the RMT Meteor Credits (MC). While you start off with a rather large sum of HC, each subsequent battle adds maybe +250 HC at the top end. Sometimes you get as little as 70 HC. Other mech chassis start at 3800 HC and go up to 12,000+ HC. While it is tempting to not spend any HC until you hit that first tier of new mechs, you forgo equipable items and passive abilities (costing anywhere from 300 to 3500 HC apiece) in the process, making you that much weaker for longer. And by the way, each equipment unlock is specific for that mech. Spend 3k MC on regenerating armor on one mech, and you’ll have to spend another 3k to unlock the same item elsewhere.

Is there any P2W? Strictly speaking: no. However, Hawken absolutely features strictly-better upgrades and arguably strictly-better mech types such that you can easily get creamed by more advanced players (who might have spent money to get there). At the most basic level, for example, items have one charge per respawn; their Mk III versions allows three charges per respawn. Thus, even though we might be able to say that grenades or EMP blasts or whatever is balanced, having access to them as essentially a spammable ability (cooldown aside) is not at all balanced in comparison to someone with just a single charge.

Overall, the game is decent enough for a 3.5gb F2Download title. There aren’t a whole lot of maps (7-8ish) or game modes (5) or even opponents (6v6), but the action nevertheless feels quick, responsive, and generally cool as a mech pilot blowing shit up. Hell, each mech’s ability to hover and dodge and boost forward almost made it feel like Titanfall for like a whole second there. Not the fairest of comparisons, of course, but there it is.

Beta Impressions: Wildstar, Part 2

After having spent some additional time with Wildstar, my impression has soured rather significantly.

I touched on it before, but I really need to reiterate how bad Carbine is screwing up questing. We have known since 2012 that they decided on Twitter-length quest text “because nobody reads it anyway,” but this rather disturbingly flippant attitude results in perhaps the most banal leveling process I have experienced in an MMO. It is one thing to reduce all quests down to kill X mobs or click on Y things, but it’s another thing entirely to not even bother papering over the activities with clever writing. I read quest text because it is the only real difference between MMO A and MMO B, in terms of doing things. With Wildstar, I was about 15 quests in before realizing I was wasting my time reading even their Twitter quests.

“Good job. Do this over there now!” Okay… where is “there?” What am I accomplishing? Ultimately, the truncated dialog doesn’t even matter because it’s faster to just click on the Quest Laundry List to get a directional arrow and rangefinder to tell you exactly where to go. And once you arrive, click on the shiny things, tunnel vision down the Challenge, and follow the next arrow somewhere else. At a certain point, I have to wonder if Wildstar could have pulled off an MMO without NPCs or dialog at all. By the end of the beta, I was barely even looking at the environment.

I'm assuming the Explorer jumping puzzles get more difficult later.

I’m assuming the Explorer jumping puzzles get more difficult later.

By the way, the Path system isn’t going to save anything. I tried the Scientist (click on these things with actual lore attached to them), the Settler (click on these things), and Explorer (jumping puzzles + uncover the map) without any real sense about why Carbine decided to compartmentalize the few quests that aren’t bag-n-tag. Maybe they get amazing later, but the only real thing that set them apart from one another are the special abilities that you unlock at the end. The Scientist, for example, can summon party members to his/her location and eventually create portals to the Capital City. Explorers get to triple jump on a 30-min cooldown and the equivalent of the WoW Monk ability Transcendence. Settlers are probably the best in that they create buff stations (that last 60 seconds…) that can grant 30-min buffs like +50% run-speed, bonus XP, and can eventually drop vendors (and I think bank bots, I don’t remember).

Combat-wise, it was not until I read someone describing combat as staring at blue and red circles on the floor that I realized, yes, that is entirely accurate. My initial positive combat experience also seemed to have been colored by a relatively powerful, EZ-mode-esque Stalker class. I tried out the Spellslinger and was shocked to discover that being rooted to the ground for some abilities is a thing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fine with the idea generally, but it feels particularly incongruent with Wildstar’s “action move move move huzzah!” zeitgeist. Playing the Engineer sort of cemented the experience that, yes, combat is not nearly as crisp or impactful as I felt on the Stalker. And that there are some serious concerns about the long-term viability of ranged classes.

By the way, take a look at some Warplot PvP:

Supposedly, group content is not quite as much of a visual disaster (you only see the green zones from other players). But hey, who actually knows what will happen in 40m exclusive raids, with attunements no less. A pretty bold plan to double-down on vanilla WoW mechanics in the same year that Blizzard thinks downsizing to 20m raids is more viable with their 7 million subscribers.

And, really, that combination of factors took Wildstar from Hype Train to trainwreck in my eyes. If your endgame is “40m raiding or die,” if your PvP is an epileptic seizure waiting to happen, and if your leveling game is a plotless point-n-click adventure, then… what’s left to justify $60 and a subscription? Player housing? Hoverboards? To an extent, I recognize that it’s a bit harsh to make judgment calls about an MMO based upon the sub-level 20 experience, but… well, should we really be giving games such a free pass anyway? Not at full MSRP, that’s for goddamn sure.

Oh, and this is a thing too.

Oh, and this is a thing too.

Of course, sometimes these decisions get made for you. Four members of my ex-WoW crew are playing Day 1. If you order it via GMG, you get 20% off. There’s no way the game is worth full MSRP… but how about $48? Ughhhh. Well. I have at least until Monday to make my decision (assuming GMG’s latest 20% coupon doesn’t come back in time), whatever that ends up being.

Interlude: Skill Trainers

Out of all the things mentioned in yesterday’s Wildstar beta post, the one thing that caught the most attention was that of Skill Trainers. Wildstar has them. And Wildstar having them is, to me, emblematic of a fault-line beneath it’s foundation that will undermine the game’s long-term viability. Hyperbolic much? Maybe. But it’s not about the Skill Trainers themselves, it’s about what they represent.

First though, me and Skill Trainers go way back. Here is a post from SWTOR’s beta back in 2011, which included this picture:

For serious.

For serious.

In fact, I’m just going to quote myself:

This is not to say there were no pressing issues afoot. Light/Dark side issues aside, some of the game mechanics feel they came out of a time capsule buried when Gary Gygax was still alive. Talent trees? How quaint. But seriously, there was another matter which was important enough to submit proper beta feedback about: [above photo]

I am not sure who was the first game designer who thought it would be fun to present players with the dilemma of stopping mid-quest/dungeon to trek all the way back to their trainer to get Rank 3 of Explosive Shell for it’s increased damage, or simply Troopering (*rimshot*) on without it, but they deserve a Rank VII Punch to the face. If there was some kind of RP scene showing you how to get a little more juice out of your grenade shots or whatever, I could understand and appreciate that. But if I can level up in the field and magically grow stronger and tougher to kill from one moment to the next, I should be able to get that +10-20 damage in those same moments. Even Gygax let our Fireballs deal 8d6 damage when we went from 7th to 8th level!

Skill Trainers are an anachronism, a piece of game design debris that was introduced once long ago, and thoughtlessly picked up by subsequent games out of some kind of misguided notion of tradition. Skill Trainers in MMOs are almost always Skill venders, granting access to abilities you have already unlocked by leveling in exchange for (a symbolic) thirty pieces of silver. That is the extent of their function in most games. There is no gameplay attached to them, no lore, no advice given to the proper use of the skills you instantly learned Matrix-style, no training montage, nothing. There are no interesting decisions when it comes to learning the skills – you are simply that much weaker and incomplete until you make the proper offering to archaic game design.

I could see someone making a case for Skill Vendors if they were hidden somewhere in the world (promotes exploration). Or if you had to use the skill several times against training dummies or whatever (demonstrates its use). Or if they had any gameplay use whatsoever. As it stands, the extent of the Pro-Vendor side seems to be it being confusing when abilities just pop into your bar/spellbook. Er… okay. You could just, you know, continue not using the skills until you you feel comfortable opening the spellbook and reading what they do (which is exactly what you’d do even with Skill Vendors). Hell, just roleplay the experience by not reading anything until you double-click on a random NPC in town somewhere.

As I said at the start, my main problem with Skill Vendors is not necessarily with them per se (although they are terrible), my problem is what they represent. If a development studio thinks they are a good idea – or worse, didn’t even bother analyzing their inclusion – what other nonsense is going to be brought back? Attunements? 40-man raids? Oh wait…

Beta Impressions: Wildstar, Part 1

So I have been “in” the Wildstar beta for a while now. My motivation to play it has been pretty low though, for a few reasons. First, the strong NDA meant that really even hinting that I was playing it could revoke not only my own beta pass, but also that of the person who gifted a pass to me. Second, I find myself growing increasingly stubborn when it comes to overcoming (or even learning) game mechanics/designs that I find annoying.

Almost like Wind Waker...

Almost like Wind Waker…

Before I get into that though, let me frame my experiences. On the whole, I fully expect Wildstar to be a great themepark MMO. The art style is bold and gamey, but also fun in a well-made way. Wildstar sort of doubled-down on the whole “floor AoE effects,” but it works on an intuitive level pretty quickly. Games like The Secret World and Guild Wars 2 had the same floor effects thing, but the relative rarity meant it always felt gimmicky rather than integrated. When you’re applying Expose Weakness from Stealth to every enemy in a long column and your other three attacks all have cone targeting however, you get into the positional mindset pretty quickly.

Speaking of stealth, I picked the Stalker, aka Rogue, as my first class because stealth mechanics are one of those things that can inadvertently break games or otherwise indicate how serious the designers take mechanics. I can’t say much about long-term viability since I never got past level 10, but I can tell you that Stealth lasts indefinitely and has no cooldown outside of combat. Compare that to the Thief in GW2 and draw your own conclusions.

Overall, combat is fun and visceral in that ineffable WoW-like way. Attacks have punch. The world is pretty populated with things to click on and interact with. I chose the Scientist “path,” which means I need to have a camera bot go scan stuff in the environment occasionally. Worlds look like worlds, with hills, mountains, and secret paths. The general game attitude is WoW meets Borderlands, especially when it comes to the Level Up prompt. You can double-jump. And so on.

Good job on further minimizing quest text, Carbine UI Dept.

Good job on further minimizing quest text, Carbine UI Dept.

It’s the little things though, you know? It’s one thing to have a Twitter-length quest text, but it’s another to have that and make it hard to read the dialog boxes. Who the shit thought it’d be a good idea to put most of them at the top of the screen? Then, you’ll get ambushed with Challenges out questing, which have universally been “kill X mobs in Y amount of time.” Every time it has happened, I stopped looking around at anything else and tunneled my way to the finish line, only to forget what I was doing afterwards. Which isn’t a big loss given the lack of quest text, I suppose, but I sorta felt like the content was on a conveyer belt and I had to act on consuming it immediately. The fact that you can click on your quest list and get a directional arrow plus rangefinder means you don’t really need to even understand where you are or what you’re doing anyway.

Then I leveled up, unlocked a slew of new Skills, and have since leveled up twice more without having encountered a Skill Trainer to actually unlock said Skills. “Ah. This is still a thing, then?” Hell, I don’t even know how I would go about looking for a Skill Trainer. My Stalker is currently logged off in what I assume to be a quest-hub city, and my cursory tour of the place has not revealed a Skill Trainer. Do I spend 30% of my meager wealth taking a taxi to the capital (last known location of a trainer)? Or do I continue leveling and hope that I’ll eventually run across a trainer in the next half-dozen levels? And who the hell thought this arbitrary bullshit was worth fishing out of the garbage can of bad MMO design?

Seriously, if your Trainers are glorified Skill vendors, it’s not worth implementing them. Maybe if each Skill required you to practice on a training dummy or otherwise integrated into your game’s fiction somehow, then it would be worth it.

I understand such complaints might seem pretty weak and hyper-specific, but that’s where my head is when it comes to MMOs these days. I have abandoned all pretenses that any specific MMO is ever going to be the MMO, or that I even want one to be, so it’s getting difficult to muster up enough cares to dance around their various idiosyncrasies. Given how the beta is getting turned off this week though, I’ll put some more time into it and see what develops.

Reviews: RAGE, Crysis, Sanctum 2

Game: RAGE
Recommended price: $0; bundle
Metacritic Score: 79
Completion Time: 13 hours
Buy If You Like: Racing games with FPS elements

What you'll be doing most of the time.

What you’ll be doing most of the time.

RAGE is a simplistic, 27gb racing game with some FPS bits tossed in.

Perhaps that is not entirely fair. If you include all the time you spend backtracking through the same exact environments, Halo-style, the game probably comes out to be 51% FPS or thereabouts.

In RAGE, you take control of a mute super-soldier who just woke up from cryo in the post-apocalypse future. After being rescued from some blood-thirsty raiders, you join the most generic-named faction in the world, the Resistance, to fight against the second-most generic-named faction, the Authority. Apparently the “Ark” containers (like the one you were on) were all supposed to be opened at the same time to usher in a new age of civilization. Turns out other Ark survivors somehow stopped that from happening, thus establishing themselves as rulers over the populace that apparently didn’t need space technology to survive the apocalypse.

Technically the above is a whole mess of spoilers, but considering there is literally no other plot, no character development, no competant writing, or really any redeeming factor for the game, it becomes necessary to work with what you got.

The set pieces can be kind of cool.

The set pieces can be kind of cool.

I take that back. There is precisely one thing RAGE got amazingly correct: melee enemies that are legitimately scary. The typical FPS that features melee enemies usually has to rely on them being bullet sponges or incredibly fast to compensate for their lack of cover-usage. In RAGE, melee enemies dodge back and forth, run up the walls, swing from ceiling fixtures, and otherwise make you reevaluate your damn-near-futile attempts at shooting them in the head. While I’m sure a lot of their acrobatics came down to heavy environmental scripting, it’s still something I’d like to see in games going forward.

What I would not like to see ever again is such a piss-poor implementation of damn near everything else. Little things start to grate on your nerves, like how pressing Esc brings up the main menu instead of canceling out of the Tab menu. Or like how you can hit Esc, choose Quit Game, and then it takes you to the Title screen where you have to hit Enter and then Quit Game again just to leave. Or how you have the ability to jump in the game, but not enough height to actually jump over anything 99% of the time.

I can appreciate the devs rebelling against the “only carry two weapons” FPS headwinds, but out of the nine weapons, eight of them have at least one extra type of special ammo. The crossbow carries normal arrows, explosive arrows, electric arrows, and mind-control arrows. Cool… except there is exactly one stage that allows electric arrows to do anything special (the stage they’re introduced in), and the vast majority of the enemies you fight after getting mind-control arrows are either immune to the effects or infeasible to use against.

In the end, RAGE doesn’t know what it wants to be or to do, and neither do I. Well, other than wishing I was playing something else. If you can grab it as part of a bundle, it’s worth checking out the legitimately scary melee enemies. But I wouldn’t necessarily give up a box of Girl Scout cookies for the privilege.

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Game: Crysis
Recommended price: $0; bundle
Metacritic Score: 91
Completion Time: ~15 hours
Buy If You Like: Benchmarking your PC, Sandbox-ish FPS games

Seriously, 2007, folks.

Seriously, 2007, folks.

Crysis came out in 2007, nearly seven years ago, and was the long-reigning benchmark of PC gaming everywhere. Not necessarily in terms of gameplay, but literal benchmarking – if your rig could play Crysis on High, you were hot shit back in the day. Crysis 3 was out for months before I acquired the original in some Steam sale or another, but I wanted to give the original its due, especially considering I finally had a computer (in 2012) that could run this beast.

Unfortunately, Crysis on Steam caused me considerable issues. I honestly cannot begin to recount exactly what steps were required, but I know some modding and 3rd-party downloads had to be done before the game would even boot up. Even when it deigned to boot, I experienced a C2D event roughly every hour or two on top of game-stopping bugs like missions not ending correctly.

Outside of those issues though? Damn, people weren’t kidding about the graphics thing. I mean, the game basically looks kinda like Skyrim, but Skyrim was released in 2013.

What I was really surprised by was the general gameplay though. Crysis is a FPS game where you control an elite soldier equipped with a nanosuit that has a handful of alternate abilities like cloaking, super-strength, super-speed, etc. Unlike perhaps every other game in existence though, you get all of those abilities right at the start. Indeed, most of the game consists of you getting a primary and secondary objective on a large map and being told to hop to it; the pseudo-nonlinearity really reminded me of the original Far Cry. This leads to the game feeling rather easy though, as for the most part you can abuse Cloaking and jungle-hiding to take out basically every enemy in the game, especially considering the suit provides regenerating health.

Overall, Crysis is FPS in which what you do in the first 30 minutes of gameplay is the same thing you’ll be doing in the last 30 minutes of gameplay. The graphics and environments are phenomenally well-done, but I’m not entirely convinced it would be worth the headache of installation unless you want revenge on its at-the-time insane PC requirements.

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Game: Sanctum 2
Recommended price: $0
Metacritic Score: 77
Completion Time: 10 hours
Buy If You Like: Console ports of a dumbed-down sequel

That 15-tower limit is fun in multiplayer, let me tell you.

That 15-tower limit is fun in multiplayer, let me tell you.

The original Sanctum, along with Orcs Must Die that was released around the same time, really sparked my interest in Tower Defense as a genre. Prior to that, Tower Defense was just associated with those annoying missions in RTS games that always seemed too hard or too easy. But Sanctum? Here is Tower Defense where you can not only build the maze yourself, but actually get down and dirty with shooting the bad guys. And multiplayer! So fun.

It’s just rather unfortunate that Sanctum 2 ended up being the sequel.

I have not even bothered to investigate it, but Sanctum 2 <i>feels</i> like everything that goes wrong with console ports of otherwise great PC games. There are four characters to choose from, each with various innate abilities and a main weapon that cannot be swapped out. Want to use the Sniper Rifle and Missile Launcher? Nope, that’d be too complicated. Instead of getting a pile of resources and having to carefully consider their application – do I build an extra-long maze, or upgrade all my towers? – you specifically get X number of wall units and Y amount of resources to apply to 15 deployed towers maximum. Oh, and everything is a tower now; there aren’t any floor traps (unless you count landmines).

Four walls and 400 resources? Gee, thanks, I'll get right on this maze.

Four walls and 400 resources? Gee, thanks, I’ll get right on this maze.

I can understand the logic behind most of these changes, as it pretty much universally speeds up the matches. “You can build 8 walls and drop maybe 2 towers this round, good luck.” I can wrap my head around breaking characters into distinct classes, as perhaps a way to foster more teamwork. The designers even took the time to introduce a Perk system to allow a bit more customization with characters. And hell, the ability to voluntarily buff enemies (sorta like in Bastion) to gain more XP is a pretty clever difficulty switch.

But at the end of the day? The game still felt like a truncated console port. I found a rather ridiculous combo of perks and weapons early on and sailed through the game with the exception of a few maps that had surprise bosses in them (most of which can simply destroy your maze walls). The tension between adding more walls or more towers afforded a surprising amount of strategic depth to the original game, and it’s simply absent here. In short: a lot of the things that were fun in Sanctum are replaced with either not-fun things or simply missing altogether.

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Hearthstone is Released, Weirdly Balanced

So the blues weren’t kidding about Hearthstone being released Soon™… because it came out today. Surprise!

Speaking of surprises, the patch notes were somewhat full of them. Or rather, not full of them, which itself is surprising. The most obvious changes were to two Legendary cards I talked about last month: Nat Pagle and Tinkmaster Overspark. Pagle’s nerf was brilliantly subtle, taking the form of moving the card-draw coin-flip from the end of your turn to the beginning. It almost doesn’t feel like a nerf at all, but the reality is that Pagle isn’t likely to be haunting the upper echelons of tournaments any longer; that one extra turn of being able to deal with Pagle before the draw engine full gets started is actually pretty huge.

In contrast, the Tinkmaster nerf has all the subtlety of Jay “And double it!” Wilson game design. Which may as well have been the case, since the card was “fixed” (in the veterinarian sense) by doubling the RNG.

From hero to zero.

From hero to zero.

Where things get interesting is the peek into the Hearthstone card balance logic when the blues explained the Tink nerf:

Tinkmaster is a neutral card that silences and often shrinks big creatures. This reduces the amount of big, fun creatures in the environment. We think this change will increase the amount fun creatures in the environment, and bring him more in-line with his cost and overall power. Tinkmaster should still show up in certain types of decks, but will no longer be appearing in every high level deck.

While they did talk about cost and overall power at the end, the main concern was how Tink was “reducing the amount of big, fun creatures in the environment,” e.g. other Legendaries, presumably. Cards like Ragnaros and Ysera are win conditions in of themselves, and have pretty much gone unchanged since they were introduced; people who were holding out hope that perhaps these Legendaries would get the Pagle treatment seem out of luck. Hearthstone is not Magic: the Gathering, of course, but it appears this fact will need to be repeated a few more times before it fully sinks in.

And speak of the devil:

Secrets can now only activate on your opponent’s turn.

  • Activating your own secrets feels a little strange, but mostly, the ability to do this was preventing us from creating new and powerful secrets that trigger off of events you can easily control (like a minion dying).  They end up functioning just like spells, instead of trying to bait your opponent into a bad play.  This change keeps secrets working like traps you lay for your opponent, instead of spells that you cast and use on your own turn.

I would characterize this Secret change as a huge Paladin nerf, but Paladins are pretty much nonexistent at high levels of play, and their Secrets are gimmicky at best. However, this change turns those gimmicks into Disenchant material. For example, Redemption is a Paladin Secret that says the next minion of yours that dies, gets brought back to life at 1 HP. Pair that with a value creature with Charge like Argent Commander, and you can suicide into a minion and come back to deal some extra damage. Or, of course, you could use Redemption with a Legendary for some serious card advantage.

Well, not anymore.

In any case, Hearthstone is out, it’s fun, and it’s F2P for US audiences… and merely Free-to-Download, In-App Purchases Optional (F2DIAPO) for those in the EU. Blizzard is offering a WoW mount for those willing to get rolled by beta veterans until three wins are grinded out, so there’s that too.

Horizontal Verticals

I am beginning to question the conventional wisdom that horizontal progression in MMOs is less vertical than, well, vertical progression. Or that horizontal progression is particularly good for anything.

In terms of MMO game design, horizontal progression means two things to me. First, it means that you either quickly or immediately gain all the necessary abilities to succeed at all levels of in-game combat. If you have to have ability X to reasonably kill a raid boss, and that ability costs Y currency over the course of Z hours to purchase, then I consider the game to have vertical progression up until you unlock X. Same with PvP skills.

The second, related aspect to horizontal progression is that it allows you to experience a feeling of progression without necessarily experiencing power gain. This ostensibly takes the pressure off of skill choice by creating a lot of options/experimentation.

In my playing of The Secret World however, neither seems to actually be the case.

As you may know, TSW features an Ability Wheel with nine weapons that unlock a staggering amount of individual abilities and passives that you can mix and match to your heart’s content. The only problem is that if you screw up your selection, either by picking weak weapons with no synergy or simply realizing that a given play-style is not for you… well, you’re screwed. Ability Points come fast and loose in the beginning before tapering off at 40k XP apiece; Skill Points are gained at the rate of 1 per 3 Ability Points. While it is completely possible to unlock every Ability/Skill in the game eventually, the reality is that by the mid-game you are excessively punished for changing your mind.

See, your hit rating and such for attacks is based largely on your Skill Points in that weapon, while enemies are balanced in a zone upon given SP assumptions. SP requirements go up linearly (level 1 costs 1, level 2 costs 2, etc), so it is relatively easy to get the first few tiers in whatever. But about the time you start getting in the SP5 and SP6 range, a single rank up to match the enemies you’re facing costs as much as getting a new weapon to SP1-4.

This is my scenario: I’m tired of Shotguns. My whole thought process up to this point had been to unlock a certain Shotgun passive in the outer ring, and then enjoy all the synergies. As it turns out, an even better passive is in the outer ring of Chaos. But I kinda want to try Assault Rifle or Elemental. Except I can’t realistically do any of that because I already have SP6 in Swords and SP5 in Shotguns while my talismans have been languishing at SP4. So while I can certainly spend my Ability Points to unlock things I can’t even use on the way to Passives that I can, I can’t actually turn around and try those very skills I’ve unlocked because most of my attacks will glance/be dodged/blocked/etc.

So what have I been doing? Farming quests. Specifically, logging on and playing for 30 minutes and completing the first few quests in the starter zones (all quests are repeatable after a cooldown) that offer the quickest, easiest XP per effort. Sure, I would likely level faster just progressing normally. Then again, I would be progressing against tough mobs with a gimped setup that I begun to despise ten hours ago.

This is not solely a Secret World problem, although it is less pronounced in, say, Guild Wars 2. It can still be a tough pill to swallow though, when you dump a lot of points into an ability that looked fun on paper but ended up being useless in practice. Basically, all the negatives of vertical progression without the presumed benefit of being able to respec. And consider the best case scenario in which you picked 100% of the correct abilities the first time around: what then? The rest of your “progression” is really the equivalent of unlocking achievements.

Hearthstone and other Game News

According to the Blues, Blizzard’s F2P “Free to download, optional in-game purchases” Hearthstone will be released for real in a matter of weeks:

How close to the end of the beta are we? Don’t need an exact date, because I know that would be horrendous, but is this a matter of days or weeks or months?
I can’t say exactly, but it is soon. Not months.

Although there are a number of annoying bugs still kicking around, I have largely considered the game to be ready for Prime Time since the closed beta. The level of polish when it comes to sound effects, the implied physicality of the game pieces, and everything else is pretty astounding considering the size of the development team. For a while there were rumors floating around that the game wouldn’t be released until the iPad version was up, but it seems like that might be referring to the planned single-player Adventure Mode.

Whatever the case, I am very much looking forward to the release and any potential card tweaks that might go along with it. To an extent, it’s easy to sit on the sidelines and call the release of new card sets/expansions as “greedy,” but goddamn does it get annoying after a while when you see the same dozen cards get played in game after game. The metagame is in a healthy state of flux, but the core staples of most every deck do not.

In news that I likely care about more than any possible reader, apparently there is a 4th (5th?) entry in the Deception series called Deception IV: Blood Ties and it’s being released this month. While it is obscure as hell, the Deception series was a set of rather groundbreaking PS1 games that were the precursor to games like Orcs Must Die. Essentially, you set up a number of nefarious traps in a mansion and then must lure trespassers to their doom by controlling an otherwise unarmed Gothic lady.

Here’s a video from Kagero: Deception 2, which is the sort of foundation of the series:

The graphics were pretty hideous even by the time the 3rd game was released, and the plot was Japanese nonsense, but the gameplay? Equal parts brilliant and hilarious. A large part of the game revolved around chaining trap combos, both because traps had cooldowns and because getting the bonus currency was required to unlock more traps/upgrade existing ones (and there was no farming). A fairly simple chain would go like this:

  • Bear Trap at bottom of stairs.
  • Giant Boulder crashes down stairs, knocks target into back wall.
  • Push Wall knocks target back onto Bear Trap.
  • Repeat.

Sounds quaint, right? Well, it should, considering Deception started doing it in 1996 and Kagero in 1998. Those were good years – FF7 was 1997, FFT was 1998 as was Xenogears.

…all of which happened almost 20 years ago. Sigh.