Or Maybe We Won’t See

Once again, Blizzard has buckled under the weight of people giving them money:

#ZerothWorldProblems

#ZerothWorldProblems

I would call something like this unprecedented, but I suppose I have experienced something similar firsthand back when Guild Wars 2 came out (Jesus, was it really 2.5 years ago?). I mean, it’s one thing to take people’s money and then not let them play because the servers are on fire; it’s something else entirely to not take the money in the first place.

In related news, someone on Reddit provided the following Twitch screenshot:

Rather unprecedented.

Rather unprecedented, I think.

In case that’s hard to see, it says Hearthstone had 190,704 viewers on Twitch.tv – higher than the next two games combined, which were… League of Legends and WoW. At the time I’m writing this post, it has decreased to ~86k viewers, but it’s still beating out LoL by a few thousand. New expansion and all, sure, but that’s still not a bad performance for a “casual app with a PC port.”

Hearthstone’s Expansion

Goblin vs Gnomes (GvG), Hearthstone’s first expansion will supposed go Live later tonight. You can see the cards here.

I have not talked about Hearthstone in a while, primarily because I had stopped playing for a while. The Naxx Adventure mode (e.g. mini-expansion) brought me back for a bit, but once the PvE content was finished I once again retreated to getting my Hearthstone fix via Twitch.

It is not so much that the game stopped being fun to play, rather it became… well, a bit more prescriptive. An aggressive deck hits its curve? GG. The opponent plays a card you cannot immediately deal with next turn? GG. Don’t get me wrong, it is possible to dig yourself out of certain holes. The means of doing so are completely known though, which means the opponent can either play around it or know when they are safe not to.

Looking at GvG, I am not entirely sure anything will change.

Nevertheless, I have been knocking out daily quests these past two weeks or so. And, surprisingly, been enjoying it. Indeed, I might even show an uncharacteristic break in willpower and straight-up purchase some GvG packs this week.

Some of this interest might be due to the shake-up of the metagame, some due to an ipso facto renewed interest from buckling down and playing Hearthstone some more. Hmm. You know, it might simply be because the marginal value of in-game gold has increased due to the upcoming expansion. After all, once you own 95% of the cards you want, the sense of progression from gold pretty much evaporates as each additional pack/arena run is likely to result in nothing but disenchanting materials. Which is is still useful, of course, but much less exciting. Getting 2-3 brand new cards per pack though? Super exciting.

I suppose we’ll see what happens with GvG tomorrow and in the days ahead.

Review: Tomb Raider

Game: Tomb Raider
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 86
Completion Time: ~14 hours
Buy If You Like: 3D puzzle platformers, slick Deus Ex-like visuals

When it finally came time to play Tomb Raider, the reboot of a 1997 game, it had been sitting in my Steam library untouched for over a year. I delayed playing this version because I felt as though I might get more out of the experience if I played through some of the original games; I think I got as far as the underwater portion of the very first one, back in the day. Once it became clear that that was not likely to ever happen, I sat down and booted up Tomb Raider.

Holy shit, you guys. This game is slick.

See how even the tutorial message box is inside the screen? Awesome.

See how even the tutorial message box is inside the screen? Awesome.

Although the Eidos Montreal team seems to have only worked on the multiplayer portion, the very first thing I thought of while playing Tomb Raider was “this feels like Deus Ex: Human Revolution.” My gaming rig is starting to get long in the tooth (GTX 560ti), but this is easily the best-looking computer game to ever grace my screen. The whole thing may as well have been an extended cutscene for how good it looks. And not just visually, but conceptually as well – even the UI when camping seems downright cinematic.

After some early exposition, you take control of an inexperienced Lara Croft who very quickly faces some life-and-death situations. While there were some early news articles alleging the game is torture-porn, I felt it did a rather brilliant job at portraying a more “realistic” sense of action. Lara is not the invincible action hero she eventually becomes in the older games – she gets smacked around, thrown by explosions, impaled by rebar, covered in cuts, dirt, and blood. “I hate tombs,” she quips in an early section of the game. While some later scenes clearly get pretty fantastical, I nevertheless remained fully immersed by the utterly reasonable way Lara walked around, hid behind waist-high obstructions, and later became the hardered tomb raider of destiny.

I will say though, that the brutality of failing the numerous quick-time events almost makes you want to fail them on purpose just to see how awful a death the designers scripted in. Spoiler: they’re harsh.

Yeah... ouch.

Yeah… ouch.

In terms of what you actually do while playing, the game is essentially a 3D puzzle platformer with some extended shooting sequences. The game is divided into discrete areas to explore and solve, but the edges are pretty seamlessly integrated into the whole. Indeed, it wasn’t until about the 5th or so cave before I realized that Lara squeezing through a narrow gap and slowing walking with a torch outstretched was basically a playable loading screen. Sure beats all those elevators in Mass Effect. In any case, the puzzles themselves aren’t particularly difficult and Lara will generally talk her way through them the longer you stay stumped in the same area.

It is sort of difficult to coming up with more words to describe what the experience of playing this game is like. I suppose it is exactly that: an experience. Tomb Raider is a 15-hour movie that could have easily been a satisfying 7 or 10 hour one, but goes that little extra mile and I am glad for it. You will not likely be blown away by the dialog or particularly innovative gameplay experience, but you will be having too much fun looking around and doing things to care.

Seriously, guys, it's like this all the time.

Seriously, guys, it’s like this all the time.

I definitely recommend playing Tomb Raider if you get the chance.

Gray Friday

I’m getting into a weird place when it comes to sales. This past Black Friday consisted of…

  • Shadow Warrior ($5)
  • The Banner Saga ($5)
  • Logitech G502 Proteus Core Optical Gaming Mouse Black + $50 Steam card ($80)

I do not anticipate anything worthwhile happening on “Cyber Monday.”

There were indeed deals on games I technically want to play. I have heard good things about AC4: Black Flag, for example, and it was discounted down to $20. The problem I have – and arguably always had – is the fact that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to specifically purchase a game if I’m not going to play it right away.

My “currently playing” list in the sidebar hasn’t be accurate for a while simply because I find myself cycling through games much faster these days. Cycling either because the games aren’t grabbing me (and I’ve finally acquired the intestinal fortitude to just abandon un-fun games) or because they end up being short, 5-10 hour experiences. While I am glad to finally start working on my backlog in a more serious manner, it also means there isn’t much motivation to drop $20+ on something right now.

There was no discount on Warlords, which means I didn’t purchase it either.

SOE technically had a Double Station Cash sale on Friday, but I resisted that siren call as well. Primarily because I was miffed that I had used my Walmart SOE card about a month ago after holding onto it for all of last year (it’s a 1500 SC card with a bonus 500), and I wasn’t about to physically go to Walmart on Black Friday to pick up another. There was that reason, and the follow-up to what I would actually spend SC on these days. PlanetSide 2? The upcoming H1Z1? EverQuest Next, released 20 years from now, or whatever? I can wait.

And that is really what it all comes down to these days: I can wait. There’s an indie game on my Steam wishlist called One Way Heroics and it was discounted down to $0.87. Didn’t buy it. Why? It would make the inevitable Humble Bundle it is a part of that much less of a value. Same with Not the Robots, currently 75% off at $2.49. I am not actually that cash-strapped that it matters in a financial sense, but the question I always ask myself is “do I need this right now?” The answer used to be “No, but I might want to play it later when it’s no longer on sale and I’d feel dumb for letting the deal go by.” These days, the answer is more simply “No.”

Besides, worst-case scenario: just wait a few weeks for another sale.

Star Citizen and “Realism”

I have not really been following the development of Star Citizen beyond knowing that it had a pretty successful Kickstarter campaign. I mean, I know the premise and everything, but the name Chris Roberts holds about as much cachet with me as Raph Koster – both supposedly important dudes who made games I never played. Have they done anything lately? No? Okay then.

One thing that did catch my eye the other day though, was a short Massively article talking about Star Citizen’s “realistic” health and wound system. Feel free to read the source material itself. The basic idea is that the designers wanted to further the immersion by making a “fun” limb-based damage system. Take a lot of damage to an arm, and your arm gets blown off and/or ruined. There are a total of 10 specific areas to damage, with eight of them being arms or legs. The “Damaged” state is between 50% and 1% health, and… let me just quote it:

Damaged – Damaged limbs are useless and the player cannot use them unless they get them patched up in the field or taken to a mobile trauma system (see: Healing). This is the state right after the hurt phase, where the pain is so severe to the player, that no matter what limb is damaged, they will have a hard time being mobile. If one of their legs are damaged, they fall to the ground and crawl.

Now, there is something to be said about how the CoD/Battlefield-style run-and-gun regenerating health paradigm removes a lot of the weight of battle.¹ Take some damage, hide behind a wall, and ~15 seconds later you are good to go. Or perhaps rush into that occupied room with a shotgun and hope you get lucky, knowing you’ll get back to the fight faster than any of the other guys.

On the hand… Jesus Christ, can you imagine the grief potential? Enormous. I don’t care under what circumstances we have come to blows, I’m telling you now: I’m shooting your legs. I’m shooting your legs and then, whether or not I survive, you are spending the remaining time crawling pathetically across the floor to get anywhere. I am doing that because it is the most annoying thing I can possibly imagine. Screw headshots, if you want to invade my ship, you will spend the next 15 minutes crawling your way to the command chair over my dead body.

If you want to find me, I’ll be flying the most handicap inaccessible ship I can find. One with stairs!

That post about limb damage mentioned permadeath, which was the first I heard about it in Star Citizen, so I read that article too. The short version is that permadeath exists for lore reasons, but doesn’t actually matter. Taking a cue from Rogue Legacy, any time your character permanently dies, you simply start playing as whomever you marked as your next-of-kin. Since there are no RPG elements apparently (i.e. Skill Points), the most you lose is some reputation standing and whatever emotional attachment you’ve developed for a character in a permadeath-enabled game. Considering that the limb-damage system specifically talks about how difficult it will be to instantly die – a Ruined head might be jaw or eye damage instead of missing skull – it sounds like this might not be entirely relevant anyway.

I do not want to give the impression that I am not looking forward to Star Citizen, at least as much as anyone can about a game that could radically change at any moment. Space sims are not a genre I spend a lot of time thinking about, but I absolutely loved them in the past. I played Colony Wars for the PS1 way back in the day for an inordinate amount of time. The Zone of Enders series might not technically count as a space sim, but it is the first thing I think about whenever I see videos of Star Citizen dogfighting. I would seriously consider buying EVE: Valkyrie on Day 1, even though I’m not particularly impressed with CCP’s other spinoffs.

But if/when I do pick up Star Citizen, it will be in spite of mechanics such as limb-based damage and permadeath. I do not actually see such things adding anything of value to the game that would not have otherwise already been there. Instead, I foresee a future in which there will be a lot of people crawling around on the floor, hoping that Chris Roberts included a method to commit suicide and still wake up back at their spawn point.

¹ I don’t actually believe that much, if any, weight is removed in these games (or at least in Battlefield). Dying is already a miserable experience even with instant respawns, let alone in the context of not being able to capture an objective or prevent the capturing of your own. Attempts to penalize them further just makes the game harder, but not in a particularly fun way. Otherwise death penalties would all be “invalidate your CD key and force you to repurchase the game.”

This is Why You Wait

Dragon Age: Inquisition

  • 11/18/14 – Released for $59.99.
  • 11/24/14 – Discounted to $45 via GMG.

 Far Cry 4

  • 11/18/14 – Released for $59.99.
  • 11/24/14 – Discounted to $45 via GMG.

Now, you may be tempted to chalk this up to being a holiday thing. Or a GreenManGaming thing. And you would be right in that prices (probably) don’t drop this quickly under normal circumstances.

But, guys, it hasn’t even been a week.

The GMG deal apparently expires on Thursday, so there is a little tension as to whether we will still see a similar price drop on Black Friday from somewhere else. On the other hand, the Steam sale begins on Wednesday, so you can probably safely hedge your bets then.

Impression: Firefall

When we last left Firefall, it was in the beta and I was labeling it “Firefail” in a moment of supreme cleverness. Basically, an early tutorial quest that required me to pick up a handgun wouldn’t complete, and a later re-attempt at playing the beta found me unable to download the final 0.04 MB of the file.

This time around, everything worked and I have spent ~13 hours across last week getting a feel for the game.

Booty Shorts are the future.

Booty Shorts are the future.

Firefall is a F2P 3rd-person shooter MMO, vaguely reminiscent of Mass Effect + Borderlands. You play as an ARES pilot, a sort of mercenary with the ability to swap in and out of battleframes, which are themselves the equivalent of classes. Different battleframes have different abilities and primary weapons, and each battleframe levels up independently of each other. At certain levels, you unlock Perks which can (usually) then be applied to your character no matter the battleframe you are wearing.

There are story quests of sorts you can follow in Firefall, although the main thrust of the game has more to do with random, open-world questing than normal MMOs. For example, a 15-minute story quest and a 2-minute quest to repair a generic Thumper generally give the same amount of XP.

The open-world part of questing is emphasized by the literal open-world: aside from needing to click on towers to push back the “Melding” – and the level-based mobs, a huge change from the early beta – you can generally run anywhere. And the world is absolutely HUGE in this game. Huge and vertical, even. Considering every battleframe has a jetpack (of differing quality), this lends itself quite nicely to exploring.

One of the better Glider jumps I've encountered.

One of the better Glider jumps I’ve encountered.

As always, there are downsides. Although the world is huge, it also feels relatively empty. Part of this is literal emptiness, but part of this also comes from the vast distances between quests and the cash shop-based restrictions to moving around. For example, you can purchase a cash shop vehicle right away, or wait until level 25 to get one with a cooldown. Technically you can craft 1-time use transportation solutions (Gliders) too, but it’s generally easier to just turn on auto-run inbetween waypoints as you browse Reddit on your phone.

I like how you have one character that swaps battleframes rather than a stable of alts, but in practice everything ends up feeling more restrictive than less. If you’re playing Assault, I hope you enjoy your grenade launcher primary, because that’s the same weapon you’ll be using forever. If you swap to Engineer for a change of pace after 12 levels, suddenly you’re going to need to hoof it back to the starting zone and kill level 2 mobs again, assuming you even have low-level weapons to use. Since the story missions aren’t particularly rewarding, the end result is you repairing Thumpers 200 times just to get back to where you were in the first place.

CardioFall

CardioFall

The shooty bits are fun for fans of shooty bits, but… it’s hard to describe, but there’s some essential element missing. “Substance” is the best word I can use to describe it – you feel like you are shooting at ghosts all the time. There is technically collision, mind you, it’s just that the enemies never feel like they belong anywhere or behave particularly rationally. On some of the random missions you will walk into a room that is filled with 30+ enemies and get mowed down without understanding why the room had 30+ dudes in it. Was it intentional? A bug? Was it actually a hidden group quest? I actually survived that cave, but mainly by abusing the poor AI rather than any sort of fancy shooting on my part.

Overall, I don’t anticipate playing Firefall for much longer. The game is F2P and it does seem like you could get a lot of gameplay in legitimately without feeling too much like a 2nd-rate citizen. Hitting level 40 (the cap) supposedly gives you the ability to purchase one of the 10 cash shop classes, although you can technically get them off the AH for in-game currency as well. That said, it’s hard to imagine hitting the cap and playing the same routine missions again and again, this time with a different primary gun.

So… Firefall. Certainly not the worst F2P game I have ever played, but there are better options.

WoW Back to 10 Million Subs

Christmas came a little early at Irvine, as reported by MMO-Champ:

This afternoon Blizzard released the subscribers count as of November 13, 2014. This is up 2.6 million from the Q3 2014 call that listed WoW at 7.4 million subscribers.

Warlords of Draenor has sold over 3.3 million copies so far, up from 1.5 million pre-ordered in August.

There is an interactive graph on MMO-Champ, but for posterity’s sake here it is again:

That Bell Curve is looking more like an Arby's logo.

That Bell Curve might end up an Arby’s logo.

There is already a lot of prognostication and pontification out there as to what this means for WoW, what Blizzard is doing correct with Warlords (that presumably it did incorrect with Pandaria/Cataclysm), and so on. The only thing I know for sure is that everyone commenting is just firing blindly into the dark – not even Blizzard expected this level of engagement, as the server issues attest.

That being said, I just want to point out a few things that might get lost in the weeks and months ahead.

1) This is the largest expansion jump in the game.

Just look at that graph: 2.6 million people coming back is unprecedented. The next closest was the 900k bump coming into Pandaria. Prior to that, the norm was 500k. Of course, the total population had been the lowest it had ever been since vanilla WoW, but still, this clot of players would be enough to make any other MMO the #2 in the industry.

2) The Warlords endgame doesn’t even exist yet.

The first Warlords raid doesn’t unlock until December 2nd, two weeks from now. I’m pointing this out because all the people talking about a return to “old-school WoW” can only really be talking about story-wise or quest-wise. Or I suppose dungeon-wise, but I strongly doubt that.

3) WoW went 13 months with zero new content.

Siege of Orgrimmar was released September 10th, 2013. The pre-expansion patch 6.0.2 was released October 14th, 2014. You can view historical information in this Reddit thread, but the bottom line is that the next closest content drought was ~9 months at the end of Cataclysm. Technically there was a year inbetween Icecrown and Cataclysm’s release, but an extra raid was released in the middle of that. For similar reasons, I don’t count the gap between Black Temple and Sunwell back in TBC given the release of ZA (etc).

Guys, do you understand how impossibly stupid this is? Any other MMO that up and went dark for an entire year would be declared abandonware. Instead, WoW went from 7.6 million subs in Sept 2013 to 6.8 million at the lowest, then back to 7.4 million in anticipation of patch 6.0.2. And, as you know, it’s sitting at 10 million right now.

There is no clearer evidence demonstrating that WoW is more platform than game than this. Blizzard got a whole year of subscription payments and gave back nothing until now. It boggles the mind.

4) The 10 million figure doesn’t include China.

From the official press release:

The expansion launched today (November 20 local time) in South Korea, mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. […]

*More than 10 million subscribers as of November 13, 2014.

Given how “subscriptions” work over there, I suppose it’s possible for some “preorder” shenanigans or whatever to have influenced the final count (e.g. they’re already being counted). No doubt that Blizzard will be ready to fire off another press release about 11 million subs if the China/SK bump ends up being significant. I’m just saying it could be significant.


 

As for why Warlords is bringing everyone back, your guess is as good as mine.

You can’t really ascribe it entirely to the MMO Tourist/Locust phenomenon, simply because there’s too many people. There were 10 million subs at the start of Pandaria, so perhaps this can be expected to be the normal plateau, with ~2.5 million people cycling in and out as new expansions are released. Maybe Warlords has simply came out at an auspicious time, just as the darling MMOs from the last year begin their slow descent into obscurity. Or was it the revamped character models? Or the instant level 90, rescuing lapsed veterans from the horror of Cataclsym leveling? Or perhaps even the server merges connected realms change revitalized the community?

The safe (and lame) answer is most likely “some combination of all the above.”

I myself plan on coming back for the token month or so, starting whenever Blizzard decides to discount the expansion. And why would I do this? Well… the core game never stopped being fun for me – I simply ran out of things I wanted to do. As mentioned before, I have little interest in dedicating more mindspace learning to dance in raids, so there is ever a natural expiration date to my return. But compared to the token efforts I make trying out these other F2P (or soon to be) MMOs? I do miss that sweet, sweet feeling of character progression in a game that feels big enough to matter. And for me, that has always been WoW. And likely only ever will be.

Of course, I am kinda nervous about the culture shock of going back to tab-targeting and lack of Shift-running and/or double-jumping.

Tablet Review: Asus Memo Pad 7

This past summer I was in the market for a tablet. Given how wide and deep the tablet market has gotten over the years, I figured I would go ahead and talk a little about what I was looking for and how I feel about my Asus Memo Pad 7 purchase, four months later.

Few complaints.

Few complaints.

Everyone will tell you that before you look at tablets, you should take a few minutes to outline what exactly you want to use it for. Do not skip this step. If you are looking for an eReader, getting an iPad is overkill. Chances are you will eventually start using the tablet for other things once you have it, but by that point you will have a better understanding of how one might fit your life, just in time for an upgrade.

My own goals were more temporary: I wanted a laptop replacement (mostly writing) for a series of vacations I was going on. But not an actual replacement laptop, mind you; I did not anticipate using it very much once I returned. My experience with the Nexus 4 phone also primed me to limit my choices to those that had microSD card slots. I had bought the smartphone to replace an old cell phone and iPod Touch with one device, but a 16gb limit basically meant I listened to the same music at work for nearly a year. I did not want to make a similar mistake again.

In the end, I went with the Asus Memo Pad 7, the latest version of which was released mere weeks before my July vacation. It was a ~$150 Android tablet with 16gb of space that nevertheless allows you to slot in a 64gb microSD card. It runs the latest Android software, has front and back cameras, and overall seems fast enough. My version is WiFi only.

These days I primarily use it as a musical device at work and as an eReader (including manga via Manga Rock) at home. During my vacation, I used a (wired!) rollable keyboard to write and it was technically powerful enough to run SNES/etc emulators if I hadn’t also purchased a PSP for that purpose. I absolutely feel that I got my money’s worth already from its performance on the two 14-hour flights I took, so it’s current extended use is pure bonus.

Are there some minor issues? Sure. As some reviews might have mentioned, the back is sloped weird, which sometimes makes reaching for the power/volume buttons a bit more awkward than strictly necessary. I also find it annoying that swiping down from the top brings up either the Settings menu or the Notification tray at random (when I always want the Notification tray). I have not investigated whether there is a setting I can change to fix this.

But, yeah, Asus Memo Pad 7. It is currently on Amazon for $135 $124 and will likely drop further in time for Black Friday. It probably won’t replace your Apple Air or whatever, but I feel it’s an excellent, safe entry into the tablet market for neophytes like myself.

Resisting Draenor

I will not be playing Warlords of Draenor… today. Or tomorrow, most likely.

As someone inbetween games and experiencing some ennui besides, the pull of an expansion to an MMO I actually enjoyed playing is quite strong. This is despite, or perhaps in spite of, the fact I do not believe I have any interest in learning the songs and dances of new dungeons/raids. I do not want to force strangers to carry me through boss fights and I don’t want to spend time watching videos beforehand, so… yeah. Bit of a Catch-22 there.

I do miss WoW PvP something fierce though. As an Alliance character I really shouldn’t, but as I may have mentioned before, I can derive pleasure from even a brutal loss as long as I get the opportunity to be annoying to the enemy for X amount of time. There was one WSG match I still remember in which two guys chased my shaman healer across the map for the entire 15 minute duration; this was sometime around when Ghost Wolf was changed so shaman couldn’t be snared below 100%, I believe. We lost 0-3, but they couldn’t kill me so I felt like a winner anyway.

In any case, my present gameplan is to bide my time with a mountain of readily available distractions and wait for the first Warlords price drop. It seems rather unlikely to occur over Black Friday, but stranger things have happened.

A friend even offered to buy me the box, but that isn’t the point here. “It’s not about the money, it’s about sending a message” and all that. Or it’s simply some kind of personal neurosis that expresses itself in wanting to avoid full retail price at all costs. Either/or.