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Who Beats Games These Days? (2014)

Way back in August 2011, I wrote about a CNN article that stated only 10-20% of people who play a videogame end up finishing it. Some of the industry experts interviewed stated that this metric was behind the rise of shorter campaigns, a heavier focus on DLC, and so on. After all, if it takes 100 developers a year and a half to produce six hours of gameplay, why would they spend even more time/money on extending that out when 80%+ of their customers aren’t going to see it anyway?

Almost three years later, the completion rate has increased to about 30%.

Too bad those stats didn't apply to a better game...

And the other 47.4% did not miss a single thing.

There are caveats galore, of course. First, that series of infographics is damn ugly. Second, the research methodology is simply looking at Steam achievements, so it’s tough to say whether or not it’s representative of gamers as a whole (not that it’s claiming to be).

Third, and most amusingly, this research looks at and includes people who own the game and have yet to turn it on even once. It’s amusing because this isn’t as crazy as it sounds given Steam sales (and Humble Bundle, etc). But it’s still rather surprising for some games when you actually dig into Steam achievements on your own. For example:

And I thought that first achievement was a good joke...

And I thought that first achievement was a good joke…

I know Borderlands 2 was a part of a good Steam sale a few months back, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t end up on any bundle sites. In which case 24% of the people who own the game haven’t completed the very first quest, which is literally pressing E twice.

Of course, when I ran my Steam ID through this website, it indicated that out of the 385 games I own, I haven’t played 63% of them. In my defense… err… uh… I buy a lot of Humble Bundle-esque sales. And Steam didn’t track stats for some of those games I did play a long while ago, like Half-Life and Counter-Strike.

Incidentally, this is a major reason why I hate purchasing things at full MSRP. It is not really that $59.99 is some kind of insurmountable obstacle, but the reality for me is that I have enough games on Steam to last me until the heat death of the universe, and thus it’s difficult to justify purchasing more when I can reasonably wait for a price drop. And even when it’s something cheaper like Banished ($19.99) or Starbound ($14.99), it still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me; I can just work on the backlog and save a few bucks later.

In any case, it’s heartening to know that the nightmare scenario of three years ago hasn’t occurred (yet?), and that it appears as though the indie side of things can prop up a lot of the longer-game space AAA has vacated. Still, as someone who endeavors to finish every game that I start even beyond the point of fun, this infographic is a sobering example that I might be well out of my mind.

Borderlands 2 Masochism

I finally beat Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep a few nights ago. It was… painful.

The DLC itself was fine – it is humorous and touching and has a lot of D&D/MMO jokes. What ended up happening with my situation though is that I completed the DLC on Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode, aka the highest difficulty (well, I guess it goes higher now). This decision was sort of cemented when one of the Treant mobs dropped The Bee, which is a legendary shield whose shield stats are kinda lame, but adds something like 50,000 damage per shot when you fire with full shields. Either intentionally or unintentionally, that extra 50k damage is added per bullet to my Double Penetrating Unkempt Harold (DPUK), which means mobs typically melted in the fury of 2+ million damage with each trigger pull.

Things got even more ridiculous when I acquired the Grog Nozzle, a quest gun that doesn’t deal a whole lot of damage by itself, but has a high chance of Slagging enemies (increasing subsequent damage by 200-300%) while also healing you for ~65% of the damage you deal with it equipped. Even more bizarrely, since it is technically a quest gun (that you can take anywhere) it doesn’t take up an inventory slot either.

The “painful” part to all this was simply playing the game at all. All non-legendary item drops were useless, especially any shields given how The Bee was pretty much required to deal damage. I did swap it out for a bit in a few areas, but I was leaning real hard on the DPUK to carry me through. Other weapons were pretty much a joke: dealing 32k/bullet damage is irrelevant to mobs with tens of millions of HP and the ability to regenerate health extremely quickly. At one point around level 54, I entertained the notion of going back to some of the DLCs to acquire some (upgraded) legendaries just to spice things up and not be shooting a pistol all day. The Sand Hawk would have been interesting, for example, as a submachine gun shooting bullets in the pattern of a bird flapping its wings. But that would mean extending my Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode stay in content I already seen twice now just to complete the current DLC after which I was likely to uninstall immediately.

All of this really struck home how important it is for games to have a smooth progression curve. Where I “screwed up” was hitting the level cap at the end of Mister Torgue’s DLC; thereafter I was stuck in a limbo of too-easy content on one side and content that’s designed to challenge the people who farmed legendaries at the old level cap. While I suppose the latter group needs catered to – especially given how they’re likely to be still playing, and thus willing to buy DLC – the end result is an extremely warped play experience. Your weapons are so strong because the enemies are ridiculous, and the ridiculous enemies makes your shields/HP basically irrelevant, which means you are awkwardly trying to dodge their melee/ranged attacks with generic movement, none of which really feels like Borderlands anymore.

By the way, calling it now: Borderlands 3 will have a more formal Dash/Dodge button, ala MMOs these days. If Gearbox doesn’t add this, it’ll be because they’re really dumb because goddamn precision movement is awkward and annoying right now for how much they require you to do it.

And have I mentioned that because the death penalty is a percentage of your wealth, that you end up losing $400,000 each time you respawn? There is also a few places with instant-death traps, which was a lot of fun not at all fun. Granted, you can’t really purchase anything for $5,000,000, but that’s another whole issue entirely. It kinda makes even picking up and vendoring loot a waste of time.

The more I think about it, the more I come to understand that Borderlands 2 basically ends at level 50. A full playthrough of the vanilla game will end around level 35, and that was a fun experience. After that? Still sorta fun, but the “optimal” path was going straight through the story missions again, skipping all sidequests, until you hit 2.5 mode at level 50. Then you can safely do sidequests for the unique rewards that would stay useful. Increasing the level cap basically screwed over everyone that hit the old cap without legendaries, as you get left with a Faustian bargain of farming bosses for hours or doing DLC missions for no reward.

So if you haven’t played Borderlands 2 yet and are waiting for the GotY edition, that is my advice: play the vanilla game while doing everything, then the DLCs in order, and then pat yourself on the back and be done with it. You can get 120 hours (or more) of play time like I did, but the you’ll face some pretty ridiculous diminishing returns on both fun and sanity.

All Over the Place

My gaming time, when I actually use it to game, is all over the place lately.

While the Currently Playing sidebar is technically correct, I find myself at the end of the day spending crazy amounts of time playing an Android game called Dungeon Raid. I think the problem is that my current gaming menu is full of open-ended loot games that lack otherwise meaningful progression. While I am genuinely interested in the Tiny Tina DLC storyline in Borderlands 2, for example, I have a hard time treating it like a “normal” game. Could I plow through the story missions and call it a day? Certainly. But… it’s DLC. Skipping the sidequests feels like a waste – especially when the sidequests in BL2 proper are usually hilarious/fun – and that goes double when they are DLC quests. I don’t feel the need to find all the secrets, but the sidequests? I need them all.

Of course, not all sidequests are created equal. Spending 15-20 minutes on some boring chores saps the motivation to go further. And while I largely solved the gun issue I had earlier, I am approaching the other side insofar as I suspect I should be playing this on Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode. Which means finding a Slag weapon. Which means more grinding. Sigh.

I thought I was done with Hearthstone, but I came slinking back in a moment of CCG weakness. Finally did an Arena as a Shaman. Went 0-3. And while I was mercilessly curb-stomped in all three games, on a certain level I just had to be impressed with the thoroughness. One of the games was against a Priest at 12 HP who Mind Controlled my 6/6 creature with Windfury one turn, and then followed up the next with a temporary Mind Control on my Taunt blocker and then cast a copy of Bloodlust from my own goddamn deck. I mean, Jesus Christ, man… good job. My secret Arena MMR must be setting me up against fucking top-decking wizards whereas I never even had an epic card available to pick from.

If that is really what’s going on – as opposed to a huge coincidence of pro players after 9pm – it’s definitely a strike against what I thought was an awesome innovation in Booster Draft gameplay. You always had “that guy” in your Magic Online drafting group, but there were at least even-odds that you’d face similar players first. Scrubbing out at 0-3 when you spent four days doing dailies to get enough gold to get it is demoralizing, to say the least. Is asynchronous Booster play worth it? I’m not so sure anymore.

Card Hunter is as it was (i.e. excellent), but I can’t seem to get any information as to whether the campaign is actually any longer than it was in the Beta. Because if it just sort of peters out at where it did, then I’m not sure purchasing the 30-day subscription/buying the Treasure campaigns is worth the $20 or whatever. And as both I and Tobold pointed out, you basically need to make that decision early on, as it decreases in value/usefulness pretty quickly.

Path of Exile is alright, but after wondering whether my minions build (think Diablo 2 Necromancer) would actually be useful at the higher levels – the boss battle I did a few days ago was an exercise in frustration when she one-shot my zombies and there were no more corpses to resurrect – I more or less metagamed a bit too deep. Once you see things like this, there is no going back. Which is somewhat literally true, since I already “wasted” a lot of my talent points and PoE is “old-school” when it comes to respecing. Even my more modest goal of acquiring a Summon Skeleton gem so my Witch isn’t left defenseless during bosses appears to be best achieved by rolling an alt and completing quests in Chapter 1.

So as I muse on which game I want to play that leaves me least hollow and empty on the inside, I fill the void with Dungeon Raid. Which is a roguelike akin to 10000000 minus the assured progression. But it’s shiny, it’s on my shiny phone, and it’s goddamn addicting in that Candy Crush way without microtransactions.

Yeah, I’m scared too.

Loot 2.0

The big news of the week has been Blizzard’s rather unprecedented decision to shut down the Diablo 3 AH in March of next year. While I suppose that the start of a new expansion is as good a time as any, I still find it interesting that they are bothering at all – a bit late to close those barn doors, yeah? Then again, I suppose with all the other changes they have made in the time since I stopped playing (a whole year ago?!), the “economy” has become more warped and functionally useless than before. Making it five feet in Act 2 Inferno used to require Resistance scores out the ass, but between the general elite nerfs, the player-decided mob-levels, and the Paragon system, you can probably make it through the game without buying anything.

You would still want to, of course. Even a child should be able to understand that a 5% chance at something good is worth less than buying exactly what you want from someone who was going to vendor the thing anyway. Or anyone playing the game for more than an hour during the open beta weekend, for that matter.

The question though, is what system will replace it? Apparently Blizzard feels it is Loot 2.0:

  • New game modes including Loot Runs with guaranteed special item drops when successfully completed.
  • Smart drops where a dropped item is guaranteed to roll the appropriate mainstat for the class that finds it.
  • Fewer but better item drops, where players will see far fewer items, but the items (especially the rares) will have better stats.
  • A new NPC Artisan, the Mystic who has the abiilty to reroll one selected affix on an item.
  • Legendary (including Set Items) will get an across the board quality buff.
    • Legendary items will drop more often, especially for lower level characters with guaranteed legendary drops from the first kill of many story/quest bosses.
    • Legendary items will roll with less low-end variability, to reduce the likelihood that they are complete junk.
    • Legendary items will gain variable item levels with stats scaling appropriately — current high level items legendaries will drop on lower difficulties and low level Legendaries will drop in the end game. All stats on these items will scale up or down to be appropriate for the level of the monster that drops them.

Item binding is going to be a key feature of Loot 2.0, with some of the found items, and most or all of the crafted items or items upgraded with the Mystic gaining BoA or BoE to restrict them from being traded or sold. Full details are not yet finalized.

I counted three instances of the word “guaranteed” in there. Not something I usually associate with Diablo games, but hey.

While the above is not an exhaustive list of the Loot 2.0 paradigm – I’m pretty sure that not even Blizzard knows what else they’ll toss against the wall before March – we can see the sort of trajectory taking shape. What is a huge unknown to me though, is what exactly Blizzard plans to do with all the gold left in the economy when the AH doors close. Will the Mystic be an expensive gold sink? That might work… but what about the people who haven’t stockpiled? Will the feature not be for them? Between that and the possible stockpiling of crafting materials, I almost have to assume that Blizzard plans a “currency reset” with the expansion, to go with the inevitable gear reset that comes with an increased level cap.

In any case, watching things play out this week has been interesting while playing Path of Exile on the side. I mentioned before that PoE has something more akin to a lore-based barter economy, but I am finding it even more interesting than before. Effectively, I find myself rolling my own loot back in town when I go to vendor things. Useful Magic/Rare/Unique items do drop out in the wild, but I am finding that the addition of colored gem slots adds another depressing layer of randomness to everything; a given item might be awesome for your class/build, but if it is replacing an item with a good spell-gem configuration, you might end up banking it instead. While there are “currency” items that can add/change sockets, I am finding it almost easier to hold onto normal items with good sockets and then spend my “money” turning that into a Magic/Rare item instead.

That can sort of happen in Diablo 3′s crafting system, but it lacks the granularity and impressive nuance that PoE brings to the table. Scrapping four items to get another shot at getting a useful fifth isn’t the same as being able to choose to reroll an item’s magic properties, adding a new property, adding sockets, adding connections between sockets, changing a socket’s color, and/or stripping the item clean and then possibly rerolling it into a Rare/Unique.

Can I also just mention how addicting just leveling in Path of Exile can be? It’s the standard sort of hack-n-slash, but since your gems can level up too, it feels like I “level” a half-dozen times every 30-40 minutes. “Getting kinda sleepy and I still have 8 bars before level 24. Oh, wait, there’s like a centimeter left on my Raise Zombie gem XP bar. Hmm… let’s go clear out the NW corner.”

But, yeah, loot systems. Borderlands 2 is feeling pretty archaic right now in comparison.

Item Build Paradigms

As you may recall, I have been having a rough time in Borderlands 2. I bought the Season Pass back when I bought the original game, but sort of let things slide somewhere around 95 hours /played, about the time the Hammerlock campaign was released. My main issue, aside from general burnout, was that my character is Zer0, the melee-based ninja/sniper character. Simply put, I was having a hard time surviving in the extended difficulties as someone either in the middle of the action (where mistakes kill you quickly) or trying to snipe when 10 people are shooting at you (whom are extremely accurate with their assault weapons).

Now, I can already hear those of you in the audience: “But, Az, Zer0 is like one of the strongest characters in the game! He can solo the raid bosses!” Sure he can… with a very specific loadout of Legendary/Unique weapons, which either requires luck, grinding, duping, or all three. While I am obviously not allergic to chasing gear drops in games, in this instance all I really wanted to do was finish the Hammerlock DLC and then complete Tiny Tina’s Dragon Keep DLC. You know, at a level in which it’d be challenging and rewarding too – there isn’t any real reason to blow through it on Normal or anything.

Unfortunately, I was stuck between a rock and Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode (UVHM). I beat the game on True Vault Hunter Mode (TVHM) way back when, plowed through it again in “2.5″ mode where everything is scaled up to level 50 (the cap at the time), leaving all of the sidequests alone so that I could give myself the option of getting the highest-level versions of the various unique gear. Hell, I even farmed the last boss a few times. UVHM steps it up a few notches though, including a level cap increase, and basically makes Slag elemental weapons (which increase the damage of all other sources) required. Not only did I not really have any of those weapons, my current gear was simply not cutting it… or anything, really.

This past weekend, I finally decided I was going to give it one more shot. My plan of action was to grind to level 51 and then cash in my ~40 Golden Keys and hope that the level-cap inflation on guns would give me something worth shooting. Since I was grinding anyway, I decided to do so in the Torgue DLC, in the repeatable Bar Brawl quest area; each run gives you special DLC currency to purchase, among other things, an Unkempt Harold, e.g. a Legendary everyone seems to use.

So I did. And got it. And now it feels like a whole different game.

The basic gist is that the gun says it deals ~14k damage per shot, but the “bullet” is actually a missile that splits off into 3, 5, and 7 missiles depending on how much distance it gets before impact. The Double Penetrating Unkempt Harold, which is the version I got, does the same thing x2. So, depending on how close something is, a shot from this pistol deals ~196,000 damage. Meanwhile, my best rocket launcher deals 226,000, with a 3-round clip and 7.4 second reload speed. I can carry 700 pistol rounds and reload in under 2 seconds. I could technically pick up another Unique item from a sidequest (The Bee shield) which would add something crazy-stupid like 40,000 damage to my bullets – which ends up being added to each bullet from the Unkempt Harold – but it is already making my TVHM-ish run somewhat of a joke.

What all of this is making me realize is that I don’t like this paradigm. Specifically: the gear-based-build paradigm. “Get item X and now you can do build Y.” Another of the items I picked up was a weapon (the Rubi) that gives heals you for 12% of the damage you inflict while having it equipped. It is another of the sort of “required” weapons for endgame Zer0 builds, as you can abuse the life-gain by dealing melee or grenade damage; the gun itself will never hold a candle to others, but firing one and then swapping back to it before impact will still basically let you heal to full. Combined with the “health-gating” hidden mechanic that prevents you from being one-shot (50% + 1 HP and you will survive any hit), this lets Zer0 basically melee raid bosses.

The problems, as always, are A) getting the gear and B) what to do until you get the gear. I am 100% for different character builds. I don’t even have much of an issue with talent choices leading to different stat weightings, e.g. choosing Talent X makes Haste worth more than Crit or whatever. But building an entire character around single pieces of (rare) equipment? That feels awful to me. Either you don’t have the item yet, in which case you feel weak/incomplete, or you do get the item and suddenly everything else that drops is useless/unrewarding. Plus, there is the whole side-effect of the fact that your character identity feels weakened or nonexistent; do my character choices even matter in the face of my item collection? Am I Zer0 at all, or am I simply “some dude with a Rubi and DPUK?

I decided to take a break from Borderlands 2, and started playing Path of Exile as a backup game. And… whoops! Just like many hack-n-slash games, it too features rare items that you can/should/(have to?) build entire characters around. Because that’s fun. To someone. Sigh.

Design Conundrums: 1 HP vs 0 HP

The difference between a character with 1 hit point and a character with no hit points remaining is immense. Obviously, right? But as I was musing on the extreme nature of the binary state, I started wondering if there was not some better way to handle the situation.

After some reflection, I am not sure that there is.

First, is there a problem at all with the conventional binary system? I’d suggest there is, at least enough of one to go through the thought exercise. One issue is that there isn’t much of difference between 1 HP and 100,000 HP – you are just as powerful and dangerous at one as the other. Some games might have “Execute” abilities that cause you to care about how many HP you have left, but all that is really doing is making the 1 HP “range” larger or simply making it more ambiguous as to your actual HP state.

The more salient problem with the 1 HP to 0 HP divide is what I’d term the Fail Cascade. Card Hunter (out of beta!) provides an especially stark example of this phenomenon. If one of your characters is reduced to 1 HP, they can still drawn 3 new cards each turn, can still attack at full strength, and can otherwise contribute meaningfully on the battlefield (limiting enemy mobility, being the target of spells, etc). Conversely, a dead character contributes nothing: all their cards are discarded, their body is removed from the battlefield, and you are left with potentially 10 cards to kill the remaining enemies instead of 15 cards. A character’s death is especially brutal in Card Hunter because the abilities you have access to are randomly determined from the cards in your deck. Instead of six chances of drawing an attack card to win the game, you are left with four.

Of course, sometimes the sacrifice of a character can turn out to be a winning strategy. In a 3v3 Arena game in WoW, it might be worth losing a DPS to take out the enemy’s healer in pursuit of an stalling game. In Card Hunter, taking out a Goblin Brute or other dangerous foe is worth it if the enemies remaining aren’t as immediately deadly in comparison. But under most circumstances in just about any other game (including the two mentioned), losing one character is an immediately 33% reduction in fighting capacity, and possibly more painful from a synergy point of view.

Is the alternative really that much better though? We could imagine a game where your health as a percentage is tied to your damage as a percentage; if you are are at 10% HP, your attacks only deal 10% of their normal damage. Personally, I recoiled at the very thought of such a system. Whereas the current design is a hard binary, it at least leaves open the possibility of a come-from-behind victory. If taking damage reduced your ability to deal damage in return, the outcome of most battles would be forgone conclusions within the first minutes of any engagement. Indeed, it is arguable whether we would be trading the binary at 1-to-0 HP for the same binary at the other end of the spectrum (whoever dealt damage first).

Now, I would be remiss if I did not mention the Downed State solution in games like Guild Wars 2 and Borderlands 2. Having played both for a while, I definitely appreciated the extra little window it offered between 1 HP and dead. It is certainly better than the alternatives we have currently.

At the same time though… how different is it really? I can still perform at peak capacity at 1 HP, so my HP totals are 1, 0, and -1 instead of just 1 and 0. The other issue is that I felt as though the Downed state started being an excuse for adding in more “sorta instant death” attacks. If a raid boss in WoW has a mechanic that kills you instantly, it has to give you reasonable warning given how powerful it is. Conversely, an attack that instantly sends you to a Downed State is common in both Borderlands 2 ¹ and GW2. It is a “safe” mechanic to use because it can (usually) be recovered from while still retaining a sense of awe/fear from the player.

Perhaps this isn’t even an issue at all, from a design perspective, as the devs rely on the player to gauge his/her own sense of danger. Personally, I don’t really glance at my HP bar until I start dipping below 80%; once at 50% or so, I start actively playing defensive and looking for ways to replenish HP; at 20% or below, I generally stop caring unless victory is in sight, as I see my demise as inevitable. Thus, my reaction is tailor-made for my play-style, rather than dictated by the devs who might want me to care at X% HP when I don’t, and vice versa.

I dunno. Realism rarely makes for more engaging gameplay, but I sometimes think HP is too abstract.

¹ Technically, there is “health gating” in BL2 which prevents any one attack from killing you instantly as long as you have 50% HP + 1. So, I suppose BL2 has both the tri-HP state plus an execute range.

Endless Loop of Nonplaying

The final Season Pass DLC - Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep – has been out for Borderlands 2 for a while now. I have not even finished Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt yet, having gotten bored with what the BL2 gameplay devolves into in Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode difficulty (I started playing Sir Hammerlock after the UVHM was released).

Actually, that is not entirely true. What happened is I’m stuck in an endless loop of nonplaying.

See, one of the big changes in UVHM difficulty is that you pretty much have to own some form of gun that features Slag damage (a Slagged enemy received extra non-Slag damage). Since Slag wasn’t required in the prior difficulty, I never really bothered to pick a gun with it up. And since I never saw a point in farming the final boss back when True Vault Hunter Mode difficulty and level 50 was the highest you could go, my normal level 50 weaponry is pretty weak. This was one of the contributing factors to my boredom with the Hammerlock DLC insofar as the enemies took forever to kill on UVHM and yet none of the weapons I was receiving were technically any more powerful. Lack of character progression = lack of interest.

And yet… where is the off-ramp to this endless loop? Completing the Hammerlock DLC isn’t required to start up the next one, but I’m not likely to start it in UVHM difficulty due to the weapon issue. But I’m already level 51, one past the prior cap, from my progress in Hammerlock. So not only will my Dragon Keep adventure start at a reduced difficulty, I also won’t receive any actual gun upgrades throughout it. But I can’t play UVHM without better guns. Which I can’t get without farming the last boss in story mode, or perhaps farming another of the other DLCs. But I don’t want to farm content that I have technically seen multiple times already, and certainly not to acquire guns that will likely be better than what I’ll see in the DLC I need to have them for.

This is, like, a Catch .2206.

Technically, I have shit-ton of Golden Keys from nearly six months of not using any; these will open a chest with high-grade, level-appropriate weapons of a random nature. Also technically, I could use a Save Game editor and just give myself appropriate weapons. In fact, I was considering the Editor because I’m tired of Zer0′s gameplay but don’t want to have to beat the game twice, again, just to get back to where I already am. But I kinda feel like using the Editor would remove any meaning to loot drops much as the AH did in Diablo 3.

So what typically happens is that I’ll be in the mood for some FPS game, think about Borderlands 2, try and navigate the thought process behind what I need to do to play it, and then… go play something else. Because, Christ, I just wanted to shoot things, not map out the plot of Primer.

First Impression: Firefall (Beta)

Downloaded the Firefall open beta client yesterday because, you know, Press™.

For those not keeping track at home, Firefall is… well, hell if I actually know. Without looking it up, I’m assuming it’s a F2P MMO set in an open-world, over-the-shoulder Borderlands 2 with bugs taking the place of bandits. After looking it up, it seems the devs want to emphasize the fact that it is a skill-based action shooter with sandbox MMO elements. Apparently the world is a not level-restricted, but the highest-ranked “dungeons” will need full groups with crafted gear. Which sounds like roundabout levels to me, but let’s play along.

One of my biggest fears with new MMOs – or any game which expects me to be playing for 50+ hours – is losing on the character select screen. How am I supposed to know which class will be the most fun months from now? And even if I luck into the best class for me, how will I know it won’t radically change (or get nerfed) years later? So, right away, Firefall got some major brownie points with me once I understood that a “class” means a Battleframe, which you can swap out at pretty much any time. Need a healer? Jump into your healer suit and go play.

In the future, even clothes are rationed.

In a twist, the Assault and Engineer classes have less armor than the healer and rogue.

Loincloth starting armor tropes aside, I think the whole Battleframe direction is pretty clever. Not only are you allowing people to play whatever role is necessary at the time, having independent frames means a player has to “level-up” multiple times while still allowing for quick catch-up. In other words, it’s horizontal progression. PlanetSide 2 has this same sort of thing, where you might have to purchase various levels of Flak Armor for each class (which is expensive with Certs), or you can just focus on playing Light Assault or Medic and save your currency.

In any case, from the extremely limited amount of time I spent playing, things seem fun enough. They certainly looked good, at any rate.

Borderlands 2 with an actual color palate.

Borderlands 2 with an actual color palate.

Some people might not like the sort of cel-shaded motif here, but this sort of thing has never bothered me. If the game runs better and has more options for crazy effects, then I will “sacrifice” ultra-realistic graphics any day. Plus: everyone has jetpacks, right from the start.

I can’t give much more of an impression beyond the above, as I was unable to progress past the second “quest.” The first quest was to follow a waypoint, and the second was to kill some bugs and then return to purchase your sidearm from a vendor. Unfortunately, either I am completely oblivious (possible) or the the game was bugging out for me (likely) seeing as how no menu would appear after interacting with said vendor:

How about you give me a gun and I don't shoot your face off?

How about you give me a gun and I don’t shoot your face off?

Since the mouse controls your aim, I know that I successfully clicked ‘E’ on the vendor because the crosshair disappeared and an actual mouse pointer appeared. But no menu. I tried highlighting the guns in the background, clicking on every on-screen icon-looking thing, reloading the client, and finally restarting my computer. Open beta is open beta, but I was left feeling pretty disappointed all the same. Hell, I couldn’t even submit a ticket because that interface wasn’t showing up either. I could probably submit a bug report on the forums… or I could go play some other game that works instead.

While I was clicking around, I did notice something particularly interesting:

Customizable interface right out of the box?!

Customizable interface right out of the box?!

That’s right, you can move shit around your screen and I think resize elements right from the start. It might seem like a small thing, and it arguably is small, but it begs the question of why some MMOs *cough* require you to download 432 mods to do the same sort of things. Artistic restrictions? General laziness? More of this sort of thing, please.

I might check back in on Firefall later to see if the problem resolves itself, or I might simply wait until release. Until then, feel free to try it out yourself.

Review: Borderlands 2

Game: Borderlands 2
Recommended price: $20 + $10 season pass
Metacritic Score: 89
Completion Time: 30+ hours
Buy If You Like: Funny and nonsensical cel-shaded FPS games

Some (most?) of the humor is a little juvenile, but some had me rollin' all the same.

Some (most?) of the humor is a little juvenile, but some jokes had me rollin’ all the same.

Borderlands 2 is the cel-shaded, “why so serious?” smash-hit FPS pseudo-Diablo-clone follow-up to the original breakout Borderlands. Taking control of one of the four classes (or five with DLC), you set off on an adventure of mayhem and random looting across the now-much-more-varied landscape of Pandora, helping the heroes of the original game try and stop Handsome Jack from taking over the world.

To be honest, I am having a difficult time reviewing Borderlands 2 after having spent 130+ hours playing it. If you played the original, BL2 is better, longer, and more… Borderlandy than before. If you haven’t played Borderlands before, well, prepare to experience one of the frighteningly-few games out there with a distinct style. Said style might be nonsensical ultraviolence, but at least it is consistent and generally amusing.

The basic flow of the game will be familiar to anyone who has played a Diablo derivative: get quest, kill mobs, get random loot, repeat. There is a decent range and variance of mobs, but the AI controlling them is not especially robust; every encounter either involves mobs rushing to melee or shooting from range. In fact, since all the visible mobs aggro after the first shot and many mobs simply don’t exist until you get within range, an entire swath of the strategic playbook (Stealth, sniping) consists of blank pages. This is no different than what occurred in the original Borderlands, so if it was fine for you then, it will continue being fine now.

Not your standard quests. Well, they ARE, but still...

Not your standard quests. Well, they ARE, but still…

What saves BL2 can be summed up in three words: guns, guns, and guns. The trick that the Borderlands series pulls off is not merely emulating the loot-centric gameplay of Diablo, but how the loot itself can change how you approach the encounters. If a really kickass shotgun drops, for example, you might find yourself suddenly getting more up in psychos’ faces than you were just five minutes ago. While the character talent trees stamp down on this more freeform behavior by virtue of weapon-specific bonuses, respecing is only a trip to town away. And sometimes that minigun that shoots missiles is just too much fun to fire to care about trivialities like your +15% critical hits with sniper rifles.

Once you complete the game proper, you unlock “True Vault Hunter Mode” which allows you to redo the game from the beginning while keeping your level, cash, and gear. The enemies in this mode get new abilities, more health, and hit significantly harder as you plow your way to the level cap of 50. While this difficulty extends the life of the game quite a bit, it also leads into some counter-intuitive behavior. You see, sidequests typically reward you with unique items that are scaled to the level you were when you started them. Ergo, the “correct” way to play TVHM difficulty is to skip ALL of the sidequests until you reach level 50, and then go and complete them for the highest-level version of the unique items. Otherwise, the unique items may as well not exist, as they will inevitably be replaced by even the most generic level 50 drops.

As I mentioned before, I have clocked in over 130 hours into Borderlands 2, with around ~20 of those hours being from two of the DLCs. Although I chose to play solo the whole way through, I’m positive that the experience would have been even more entertaining with a group of friends. Hell, the DLCs even include the equivalent of 4-man raid bosses, if you are into that sort of thing. By the time you start to question why, exactly, you are chain-farming the last boss for legendary drops, Borderlands 2 will likely have generated twice as many hours of entertainment as your last non-Skyrim single-player games combined.

So get in there and start shooting some faces.

Of Station Cash and Shift Codes

If you were not already aware, SoE is running a Triple Station Cash day this Friday, the 21st of December. The normal exchange rate is basically 500 SC = $5, so this is a pretty outstanding deal… provided you are into SoE games like, I dunno, PlanetSide 2. I already picked up two $15 prepaid cards at Walmart, which comes with a bonus 500 SC on top of the book value of 1500 SC. On Triple Station Cash days, each $15 card gives 6000 SC. With 23 hours already invested in the game, I figure $30 to unlock (nearly) ALL the things is fair play. If I hold out until another weapon promotion (e.g. they bundle 4-6 weapons together at a discount), those dollars stretch even farther.

In other news, if you have been playing Borderlands 2 lately (or stopped and plan on picking it back up), you should know that they dropped a Shift Code on their Twitter feed that awards 5 Golden Keys. Additionally, there is another Shift code as part of their Claptrap video promotion, bringing the total Golden Key haul to 6. If you have Borderlands 2 on PC, I’ll go ahead and save you some clicks:

  • 5 Keys: WT5TB-XC5ZC-CX3T3-BBT3B-B35WB
  • 1 Key: KJ5BT-FBKSK-KXJ3T-3BTJT-FJX5C

I haven’t played Borderlands 2 in a few weeks, but plan on booting it back up when the next DLC rolls around (I have the Season Pass); this amount of free uber-gear was enough to get me to log back in to at least redeem the codes. To be honest, I have been increasingly amazed that Gearbox hasn’t been selling Golden Keys for $1 apiece or whatever, as there was definitely a time period in which I would have bought some. On the other hand, I sort through their Twitter feed on a daily basis on the hunt for Shift Codes, so I guess that comes out as a bigger win for them.