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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.

Review: Far Cry 3

Game: Far Cry 3
Recommended price: $15
Metacritic Score: 88
Completion Time: ~18 hours
Buy If You Like: Far Cry series, mostly-open world FPS

Some seriously nice graphics.

Some seriously nice graphics.

Far Cry 3 is the latest entry in the mostly unrelated, Heart of Darkness-esque Far Cry series. The game follows Jason, a trust fund frat boy who is violently thrust into a hideous underworld of slavery, rape, and torture on an otherwise pristine island paradise when his friends are captured mid-vacation by pirates. Much like the other two games, FC3 features a long string of story missions set amidst a wide-open island sandbox.

Far Cry 3 has a lot going for it. The game is unbelievably slick, from top to bottom, in almost every respect. For example, it is easily the best-looking Far Cry, with graphics and sweeping vistas that rival the likes of Skyrim. But the slickness permeates deeper still, down to character animations too. Stealth kills start off brutal and in-your-face, only to escalate further once you unlock the ability chain them together, use the target’s own knife to score a long-distance secondary kill, and so on. This sort of Ninja Gaiden feel is on top of the many layers of weaponry that impart similar visceral thrills, be they sneaky bow sniping or front-door grenade launcher-ing.

Another thing that was extremely well-done are the missions, dialog, and general plot. Missions flow well, the various tasks you are given feel substantial and necessary, the characters are absolutely unique, and there is a general sense of gravitas to your actions. In comparison, the mission structure in Far Cry 2 made less sense, or at least, it felt less impactful.

But therein lies the rub.

Grenade Launcher is a tad OP. One shot, 3 vehicle explosions.

Grenade Launcher is a tad OP. One shot, 3 vehicle explosions.

As I have mentioned over the years, I view Far Cry 2 as one of the more sublime gaming experiences I’ve ever had. That game knowingly used its own flaws as a vehicle for storytelling, such that by the end of the game, you felt exactly how the in-game characters felt: weary, despondent, and resigned. Far Cry 3 attempts to recall the same lightning, but it can’t quite pull it off, for several reasons.

One of those reasons is that Far Cry 3 feels a lot more “gamey” than its predecessors. Part of the progression system involves hunting and skinning various animals to unlock additional weapon slots, a larger wallet, and so on. By itself, the mechanic is perfectly valid. However, it feels more artificial, especially given the fact that you are straight-up using cash in the stores to buy things. Why do I need to skin goats to expand my $1000 wallet? Couldn’t I just, you know, pay the $50 for a new wallet? Does this store really sell sniper rifles but no wallets?

That might sound like a little thing, but it’s precisely the little things that can break immersion. Far Cry 3 features a normal sort of game map, for example, but it’s a, ahem, far cry from the in-game map you had to actually glance downwards to see in FC2. More jarring to me though, was the crafting interface that necessitated crafting via the menu screen. Popping syringes felt pretty smooth, but effectively pausing the game with bullets in mid-air to pump out another half-dozen healing ampules just sorta felt wrong. And I haven’t even mentioned the interface riddled with perfectly usable but undeniably busy UI elements, mini-maps, quest trackers, and so on. Far Cry 2 didn’t even have crosshairs on by default, for god’s sake.

I didn't start the fire...

I, uh, I didn’t start the fire…

It is worth mentioning, in a general sense, that Far Cry 3 also continues the series penchant for wildly oscillating difficulty curves. If your natural inclination is to try and be as stealthy as possible when assassinating targets, you will experience some nice challenges. If you instead realize that a single flame arrow can burn down the hut your target is inside, or your bafflement towards unlocking infinite grenade launchers so early in the game leads to always equipping it, well… the game is remarkably easy. There are still a few missions where you can lose by raising the alarm or by letting an NPC die, but damn do you feel silly sneaking around after bombarding outposts with grenade fire and/or regular fire. Same outcome, minimum effort.

Overall though, I still feel like Far Cry 3 deserves top marks. Recommending that someone play FC2 carries a bit of baggage, as it doesn’t really become “worth it” unless they stick through it the entire way. In contrast, someone could play Far Cry 3 at pretty much any given moment in the game and feel like they experienced the best bits. I have seen some reviews that lament FC3′s later half for being less noteworthy, but while the main antagonists are less interesting at that point, it is somewhat offset by gaining a wingsuit and ample means to use it everywhere. Far Cry 3 is not particularly long, but I believe it’ll be worth the lower purchase price for most anyone… or at least FPS fans.

Unfair Impressions: The Secret World

I started playing The Secret World yesterday.

I'm nothing if not predictable.

I’m nothing if not predictable.

I was going to start that sentence off with “On a whim,” but it occurs to me that there isn’t much of anything whimsical about starting an MMO. You have the 39.2 gb client download, the registration, and usually getting your billing information straightened out. TSW doesn’t have a subscription anymore, but even though I had downloaded it previously, I still had about 2 gigs worth of patches to download before I hit the character select screen.

In any case, I ran into my first issue on the character naming screen. TSW asks you to enter a first name, a last name, and then a nickname, the latter of which is supposedly your in-game name. But it mentions that people inspecting you can see the others. It occurred to me that this is perhaps the worst naming mechanic I’ve ever seen. Allowing last names not only allows for increased customization, but on a more practical level, it alleviates the problem with one’s name being taken by someone else. Not so with FunCom’s design team; I was not able to move forward with character creation because someone already took “Azuriel” as a nickname. I tried a number of variations, referenced my List of Cool Nouns, then decided that Azuriel Inanage’s nickname was “GQX.”

But... isn't the whole point... wha...?

But… isn’t the whole point… wha…?

The graphics are whatever. I turned everything up to Ultra just to see if it improved things, but decided an extra 15 fps was worth more than whatever it is that Tessellation does or what FXAA means.

I very nearly died in the tutorial area – at least, I assume it’s possible to die there – before I realized that TSW is in the post-WoW active combat genre, with active dodging and whatnot. I’m fine with this style of gameplay, although it seems more ridiculous than usual when people are doing it in a more “realistic” setting. Or maybe it is an art style issue; I had no problem with the way things were handled in GW2.

I stopped the game session in the training room where you can try out the various weapons and decide which one is for you. My understanding of TSW is that you can pretty much choose any abilities you want and can theoretically learn everything, but you would be severely disadvantaged in not specializing early on. I’d be fine with such a system, if the Ability Wheel was not the worst implementation of a skill tree that I had ever seen.

Conceptually, the Ability Wheel is fine. But has anyone ever tried to actually look through it as a new player with an eye for synergies? “Okay, this attack deals extra damage when the target is Afflicted. Alright, what causes Afflicted? Let me just browse every possible weapon in the game, including clicking on these nameless little cubes on the outside in no particular order…”

When secret society immersion goes too far...

When secret society immersion goes too far…

FunCom added “decks” to the game a while ago, which are basically preconstructed talent builds that you can follow along. This certainly would speed up the process, but I am not of the mind to commit to any one thing without knowing all the moving parts, especially if there isn’t a way to respec (or maybe there is?). How am I supposed to know what I’ll find fun a dozen hours from now, let along a hundred? Complex and deep character build options are fine, but I’m beginning to see the visceral appeal of the Diablo 3/WoW system of making one decision at a time.

In any case, my next session will begin with a combing of the internet for build explanations, or perhaps more simply a diagram of the synergies between the nine weapons. It’s cool that the fifth skill in the X tree can make the Y weapon a viable option, but it’s less cool missing out on that interaction because you can’t really see it due to the UI. I want something that will show me every instance of the word “Hinder” and the like, so I can decide that yes, pistols and claw weapons (or whatever) are a combination that is acceptable to me.

Battlefield 4 Impressions

I have spent the past few days gorging myself on Battlefield 4, and feel it’s time to come up for some air and reflect on my self-abuse. As you might recall, I dabbled in the BF4 beta for a hot minute and was none too impressed. That opinion is… mostly still intact, although there are some definite surprises.

Progress!

Lens flare technology has definitely improved.

Right off the bat, the game does not feel materially different from BF3 in any way, shape, or form. The environments are detailed, geography diverse, the physics palpable, and actually seeing people to shoot without an over-reliance on Q-spam is a study in #firstworldproblem frustration. “The game is too beautiful to notice the bad guys.” All of this existed in BF3 to an indistinguishable degree. The “levolution” upgrade to the engine makes for some nicely-done scripted destruction, but that appears to be it. Well, the weather effects are pretty damn amazing too.

Indeed, about the only thing that became immediately apparent in terms of differences between BF3 and BF4 is how DICE continues to lurch further away from anything resembling intelligible UI design. The Battlelog fiasco is fine, whatever. What I’m talking about is how convoluted the menus and unlocks and the rest happen to be. Back in BF2, you earned ranks via XP and received an upgrade of your choice for any class (occasionally there were prerequisites). In BF3, all this was shook up with the introduction of assignments/etc, which had you to unlock weapons/items via the completion of what, in retrospect, closely resemble MMO quests: getting 20 kills with gun X and doing Y twice to unlock Z.

That's right. I took out an armored patrol boat with a blowtorch.

That’s right. I took out an armored patrol boat with a blowtorch. It only had 4hp but STILL!

For the most part, BF4 does away with that unlock scheme. Instead, weapons are unlocked linearly based on XP earned using any particular weapon in that class, e.g. using any LMG eventually unlocks more LMGs. The “problem” is that there is (still) really no incentive to use the newer weapons because you’ll likely be stuck with iron sights and no other accessories (bipod, laser sight, etc). The workaround appears to be via “Battlechests,” which are basically briefcases you earn via leveling up (and sometimes randomly in a match) that contain XP boosts, attachments, cosmetic items, and so on. Unfortunately, the accessories you earn can be for any weapon, including ones you haven’t even unlocked yet, so it’s too random to be useful for assuaging the new weapon issue.

One of the worst parts of BF3 was that feeling of utter uselessness that came with being a brand new player with zero unlocks; not only were you likely bumbling around getting no kills, even if you were in a position to be useful, you couldn’t really pull any of it off with the tools available to you. Even the DICE developers came out and said they “should be slapped” for it.

Well, the devs must have been talking about their BSDM preferences because BF4 proudly continues in that hazing tradition. The default Engineer anti-vehicle tool, for example, is a dumbfire rocket launcher that sometimes-maybe veers towards the roof of vehicles if it passes nearby. Which sounds neat, except this rocket hits like a dry pool noodle. You get stocked with five of them, and all five rockets are required to kill a single tank, assuming the driver is dumb enough to just let you launch five rockets at him. Or smart enough, I guess, because he’ll likely live past the barrage via passive vehicle repair and meanwhile you’ve just spent a full minute accomplishing nothing. Thankfully, the later weapons are significantly better in every possible fashion, but it’s still a ridiculous way to handle the new player experience, IMO.

Shooting lock-on rockets at vehicles while parachuting from 10,000 ft is my favorite thing.

Shooting lock-on rockets at vehicles while parachuting from 5,000 ft is my favorite thing.

It would not be a DICE game review without mentioning the bugs. I would say in the ~25 hours of play time I’ve racked up this far, I have to Ctrl-Alt-Del my way to the Task Manager and End Process about once every 2-3 hours; the Ctrl-Shift-Esc shortcut is apparently not powerful enough to break through whatever memory hole BF4 generates. Rubberbanding is occasionally an issue, although it mainly appears to be a server-specific problem. I have not encountered any obvious hackers, but I’m sure that’s inevitable. I still get in a full round of Candy Crush before the level will load when starting a session for the first time, but that’s been the case since BF3. DICE is saying they’re putting future expansions on hold until they sober up enough to fix the problems, which has to start sounding embarrassing to someone over at EA since that seems to be the case with every game they release.

Overall though? I’m having a lot of fun for my $26 thus far. I’m extremely burnt-out on PlanetSide 2, and BF4 scratches an itch in the way only someone slightly resembling your long-gone ex can. “Remember when you played Battlefield 2 for four years in college?” Yes, yes I do, BF4. You’re not BF2, but you’ll do. For now.

Hearthstone’s UI

As you may have picked up on in my Hearthstone Impression post, I am a huge fan of its UI. In fact, it is one of the best UIs I have ever seen in a videogame. Which is… kind of an unusual thing to say about videogames in general, right? Who cares about UI anyway?

Well, technically everyone. A game’s UI is how you interact with the game itself, or glean useful information about the game state. Sometimes you can get away without having an UI at all, like with LIMBO. Other times the designers might get all fancy and try to integrate the UI into the game world itself, like with Dead Space. Most times though, a game’s UI is simply there, and the most you can hope from it is to get the hell out of your way (Skyrim).

It is an extremely rare game that features a UI that actually makes the game itself better. Hearthstone is pretty much the only example I can think of. But why? Let’s break it down:

Emulates the Warcraft Experience

This might sound obvious, but Hearthstone: Heroes of Azeroth is derived from the Warcraft franchise and prominently features characters from said game world. It is one thing to use the likenesses though, and a completely different thing to emulate the color palette, the visuals, and the ineffable mood of the game as well. Everything from the menus to the animations to the sounds feels like it could have been pulled straight out of either WoW or Warcraft 3. In fact, I am pretty sure they did outright copy/paste a lot of the sound effects, at a minimum.

Not all of the iconic cards are good, mind you.

Not all of the iconic cards are good, mind you.

The result of this is that an otherwise completely new gameplay experience will instantly feel familiar to someone who may not have ever played a CCG before. And more subtly, assuming you still have fond memories of the other games, some of those are likely to bleed through via nostalgia.

UI Elegantly Informs the Gameplay

Digital card games differ from regular video games in that their UI essentially is the entire game; beyond the cards themselves, the rest of a CCG match takes place in each player’s head. Hearthstone is literally the first CCG I have played that has attempted to – and successfully accomplished – bring(ing) the mental game back into the visual realm.

For example, when your hero plays a Weapon card, it clanks and rattles next to your hero, while the hero tile itself lifts off the board and goes smashing into your intended target. Then, at the end of your turn, the weapon card (which has long since ceased being a rectangular object) gets hidden behind an oval sheet of iron, which sounds and looks like a full-plate helm shutting. You don’t have to know anything about the specific rules of Hearthstone to know intuitively, from this very UI design, that A) weapon cards let your hero attack, and B) your hero can’t use the weapon during an opponent’s turn.

There are “little” touches like this all over the place in Hearthstone. Creatures with Taunt have a different shape on the battlefield to distinguish them. Creature with Death-rattle (an ability that triggers on their death) has a little skull and crossbones icon on them, whereas a creature with a normal triggered ability has a lightning bolt. Even if you did not know what those icons meant at a glance, hovering your cursor over the creature quickly brings up an unobtrusive cheat sheet description. This is a UI scheme that both enables and enhances your ability to “grok” all the moving pieces extremely quickly.

3) Genre Game-Changing Innovation

Seriously guys, this screenshot has pretty much ruined all other CCGs for me:

We can never go back.

We can never go back.

If you are not quite sure what you are looking at, it is pretty simple conceptually: you can see what your opponent is looking at. If your opponent is hovering their cursor over your creature (to perhaps read its text), the creature glows. If they then cycle through their hand looking for a way to turn the game around, you see their cards glow one at a time. If they decide to target you with a creature or spell, a huge arrow appears where their cursor is, and you can watch as they debate with themselves as to which would be the better move.

This sort of thing is simply unprecedented in a digital CCG. And mandatory from now on, IMO.

Not convinced? Think about playing Chess in person versus playing against someone online. The pieces are all the same, the board is the same, everything is the same… except for the feedback. When you are face-to-face with someone, you can see where they are looking on the board, you can see them pick up a piece and start to move it before putting it back again. Aside from the mind games this opens up, at a minimum it might give you pause to consider that Bishop over in the corner that you had forgotten about until your opponent had briefly considered moving it.

Like I mentioned earlier, CCG battles always took place in the theater of the mind. You never really knew what your opponent was thinking or about to do… unless you happened to be lucky enough to be dueling them in-person. Can you imagine other games operating with this lack of feedback? Think about playing a FPS in which you could not hear another player walking or even which way they were facing when you did see them. An incredible amount of nuance would be lost.

Finally, at the bare minimum, consider the benefits of knowing that your opponent is actually at their chair and not AFK. I’m more than willing to wait a few minutes for someone to make their move as long as I know they are actually in the process of determining what move to make. Compare that to most other CCGs like Scrolls or SolForge or Magic Online where you are basically left watching the round timer count down.

4) Evokes the Physical Space

This last one is a lot more subtle than the others, but welcome nonetheless. Essentially, everything in Hearthstone feels… real. Like a three-dimensional object, with heft and contours and such. You don’t play cards by just clicking on them and then clicking on a target, you actually have to drag them from your hand and drop them on the target (assuming the card doesn’t automatically turn into a ball of flame or whatever midway through the action).

The way creatures are handled is similarly finely detailed. You might have noticed how creatures are sort of oval shaped, right? Well look at an unplayed creature card:

Clever girl.

Clever girl.

That’s right, the creature oval “breaks off” from the card when you play it. When a huge creature is played, the oval crashes onto the playing surface, creating shock waves and a small crater. Attacking with said creature involves the oval flying towards the enemy hero, smashing into them and shaking the screen. You start to forget you are playing a CCG at all as it feels sorta like a miniature game at this point. And yet there is still a connection between the cards and their products. Compare that to Scrolls, which also summons creatures but has no real tie between the product (parchment scroll) and the result (animated sprite).

And let’s not forget how this oval thing also solves the problem in CCGs when it’s not easy to distinguish between creatures, enchantments, spells, and so on. Cards are generally of uniform size, and the artwork (which usually takes up 50% of the real estate) can sometimes work against your quick assumptions by having a bunch of dragons or whatever on a “Deal 5 damage” spell. This is not a problem in Hearthstone, as all creature cards have ovals inside them.

Seriously, this is like goddamn paperclip levels of elegance here.

Conclusion

As I mentioned in my Impression post, Hearthstone feels both visceral and whimsical simultaneously. The further pillow fight analogy comes from the sense of “slamming” the cards down on the table, almost feeling the creatures smash into your opponent’s face. Then there are the spell effects like Consecrate that could have easily gotten away with simply dealing 2 damage to all enemies and been done with it. Nope: all your opponent’s creatures and hero tile are lifted high off the table as cracks of golden light bleed through, and then everything slams down at once.

The whole thing reminds me of how it feels to roll dice in D&D campaign – the physicality of the action imparts a gravitas completely independent of the otherwise unremarkable generation of a random number. For Hearthstone to evoke this feeling using just sounds and what could be Flash animation is pretty amazing.

If CCGs are not your proverbial cup of tea, it’s unlikely that even an amazing UI is going to change your mind. If you enjoy the genre at all though, or are merely ambivalent, then suggest you give Hearthstone a try at release. Watching Youtube videos of other people playing does not replicate the experience dropping late-game bombs on your opponent and watching them futilely cycling through their hand trying to come up with a response.

Review: Journey [PS3]

Game: Journey [PS3]
Recommended price: $20
Metacritic Score: 92
Completion Time: 2-3 hours
Buy If You Like: World peace, Justice, Art, Sand simulators

Seriously, play this game.

Seriously, play this game.

I do not even know where to begin with describing Journey. Perhaps the beginning? That always seems to work for most people.

Journey starts out as (and continues to be) the most impressive sand-simulator I have ever seen. Sliding down the first sand dune instantly transported me back into childhood, or at least as far as Super Mario 64. But Journey is not a platformer; it is an emotion, an experience. One that only gets more and more compelling as the minutes pass.

Describing your mechanical actions as you play the game almost feels like missing the point, but to not mention them would miss the point. Nearly every single thing about Journey is perfectly crafted. You move around with the left analog stick, and can pan the camera by either tilting the PS3 controller or using the right analog stick. In the opening desert-scape, you get some extra fabric added to your avatar’s scarf, which allows you to jump and glide for a few seconds. The only other button used is “O,” which lets out a little “energy chirp” or longer blast if held down.

That is it. There is no UI, no hearts, no power meter (aside from the scarf), nothing to distract you beyond the immensity and immediacy of the moment.

I felt more connected here than in most MMOs.

I felt more connected here than in most MMOs.

After the tutorial “level,” gamers connected to the internet will encounter perhaps the most sublimely executed feature in videogames: another human being. That sounds facetious, until you realize how often games treat other players as competitors, enemies, or judgmental peers desperately trying to foster virtual respect. Your fellow traveler in Journey is exactly that, no more, no less. Except… it is much, much more than that.

Remember when I mentioned the player’s scarf controlling the ability to jump? While there are items scattered around the landscape that add length to said scarf to further increase one’s hang-time, the ability to jump is always limited to how much of a “charge” the scarf has. One can only replenish this charge at certain locations along the map.

Unless, that is, there is another player around. Merely being in close proximity to a player with charge remaining on their scarf, will cause your scarf to recharge to full as they entwine. This is not a draining of power, but rather a creation, a resonance. Similarly, the sort of “energy chirp” players can do will also charge your partner’s scarf if they are in range.

I am spending so much time talking about this because the way Journey fits together as a whole led me to one of the most intimate experiences I have had in videogaming – all without voice, text, or even names. I felt connected to this stranger, as we slid down sand highways and soared above the dunes while alternating our energy chirps. I had a suspicion that my anonymous partner had played this game before, but he or she seemed tolerant of my exploratory inclinations. If they wanted to direct my attention towards something or indicate that we should give up on trying to get that tricky scarf-extension orb, a series of chirps was enough. Of course, as we traveled, I would occasionally chirp to keep up his/her power level, and after a while I think he/she realized what my seemingly random chirping accomplished (and then returned the favor).

There's more than just desert, but seriously, I don't want to lessen the experience.

There’s more than just desert, but seriously, I don’t want to lessen the experience.

I am not going to talk any more about the rest of the game and the environments explored, both to avoid “spoilers” and because the game itself is only 2-3 hours long. But suffice it to say, it’s brilliant. Absolutely, devastatingly, goddamn brilliant. And I haven’t even talked about the music, which is universally praised and adored. And have I mentioned the visuals? I believe I have, but they too are striking and sublime – there were a few moments during Journey at which I seriously considered buying a $150 video capture device solely to take screenshots of this one game.

Sometimes I struggle with these shorter, more artistic games insofar as how much they are really worth. A game like LIMBO can be amazing (and it is), but spending $15 on something you finish in a single sitting? Perhaps I should have waited for a sale there. But with Journey I do feel it is enough of a novel experience to be worth skipping one night out at the movies to play. Not to mention it comes with two other games, although I have not yet played them. Possibly all combined they could make a full MSRP ($30) worth it. Even if it is just Journey though, anything more than a 25% sale means this bundle will be worth it on the strength of Journey alone.

…”Journey alone.” Whatever you do, don’t Journey alone. Christ, I want to play again.

Unfair Impressions: Darkfall, Day 2

I felt like the screenshots were not enough to fully immerse you in the world of Darkfall. So here is a video of me attacking some spiders. Don’t forget to switch to 1080p quality!

In terms of the tutorial, I finally realized why I was stuck on the “skinning” portion. While you can loot leather from the glowing gravestones, if you have a skinning knife you can also skin… the gravestones. Because that makes sense. The failure rate seems ridiculously high, but eventually I loot one.

The next step is to hearth to your bindstone, which I did exactly two minutes later. Literally, guys, it’s a 120-second cast. I started it up and left to make my lunch for the next day.

This actually reminds me of another curious thing: AFK-farming seems encouraged in Darkfall. Much like in Guild Wars 2, you must buy a logging axe or herbing sickle in order to gather materials, and these items have charges (durability in this case) that deplete on use. The difference here is that you can start up the animation in Darkfall and walk away from the keyboard – your character will merrily continue chopping timber until (presumably) the axe is worn down to the nub or the tree runs out of wood. It reminds me of what I have heard about mining space rocks in EVE, insofar as gathering only requires button presses once every half-hour. Is that supposed to discourage people from farming, or a concession that farming is so boring the game will do it for you while you Tab out and play something more engaging?

At the Southern FFA border.

At the Southern FFA border.

In any event, the next stage of the tutorial was taking a 100kg (!) mount idol from the bank and summoning a mount. From there, you are tasked to running to the border of the protected area, sticking your toe over, and then coming back inside. Ah… so I was paranoid for no reason this entire time. Well, sorta. Apparently if you aren’t careful, people can actually steal your mount and ride away. After which I assume you are shit outta luck. Considering that unsummoning the mount takes a minimum of 2 seconds after dismounting, you’ll never want to actually be in town riding the thing.

After much squinting at the abysmal UI, I finally found and dabbled with the Prowess system. Essentially, you earn Prowess doing things, doing a certain number of things (Feats), and presumably other ways too. Prowess essentially act as skill points you use to upgrade skills, increase your ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, etc), and so on. Most skills start a 1 and can be increased up to 100 with an increasingly harsh cost ratio (1:1 up to ~25, then 2:1, etc); each upgrade level typically improves cast speed plus some miscellaneous qualities by some percentage. As an example, putting points into Archery lets me fire faster and deal more damage per arrow, whereas Mining let’s me increase my AFK-yield.

That all makes sense, but I was taken aback a bit from the “Boosts”. At first, I was thinking they were F2P-esque boosts, but that does not appear to be the case.

Ha ha, we got you good.

Ha ha, we got you good.

Instead, they are… err. Well, you can buy the first rank of “the Agile” boost for 200 Prowess, and it increases Dexterity by +10 and the Stamina by +37. Considering that manually boosting Dexterity by +1 costs 30 Prowess, I don’t actually know the point of boosts in this context other than a designer “Gotcha!” moment. I mean, I suppose that it is a way to quickly achieve your class’s optimum stats while still offering a Prowess sink for long-term players (e.g. Warrior dumping extra Prowess into Intelligence once everything warrior-y is bought).

If there is a third day of playing Darkfall in my future, my goal is to figure out the crafting side of things. I understand the basics, but I’m a little uncertain about how one actually goes about getting hard currency; considering that crafting consumes gold as well as mats, you have to have a baseline of income from somewhere. None of the mobs I have killed dropped gold thus far. Does it all come from vendoring goods? There are no “quests” of course, and there doesn’t appear to be an AH either.

So… yeah. Darkfall.

Unfair Impressions: Darkfall: Unholy Alliance

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. You know you are batting in the Big Leagues when you can bamboozle people into believing you are a member of the Press™ despite running a blog that is barely eking out Google pagerank from an Amazon book review and a bioterrorism article written in 2004 that happened to use the phrase “in an age” in the title. I suppose that this is sort of the gaming blogger dream though, wherein people send you free things and you write about them; instead of, you know, the standard procedure of having to purchase things to write about, like some kind of animal.

Whatever the case, Aventurine has inexplicably included me on their Press mailing list for Darkfall: Unholy Wars, and I am now entitled to the game itself along with 30 days of Press™ subscription for free. Rather than allow this inevitably comical misadventure go to waste, I downloaded and patched the game last Wednesday night.

It is worth noting why this post is labeled “Unfair Impressions”: basically, I have zero interest in Darkfall: UW. In fact, I would say less than zero interest. The sum total of what I know about Darkfall is that it is a full-loot FFA PvP game that some say is the most skillful MMO out there. They also say it’s terrible playing by yourself. Fantastic. Let me wander around, lost and confused, as I endeavor to stay as far away from other people as humanly possible.

Well... they got the 2004 look down, at least.

Well… they got the 2004 look down, at least.

Okay, I’m not going to mention how godawful ugly this game is. Not even once. The screenshots really speak or themselves. And as far as I’m aware, my settings are dialed to the max.

I am in the first town. I’m pretty sure this area is still a sanctuary, but I’m nervous about accidentally left-clicking someone. Okay, let’s follow the tutorial. “Buy an axe.” Alright, let’s see…

Way to maximize useless screen-space while not allowing movement.

Way to maximize useless screen-space.

…good god, is this the vendor interface?

Alright, nevermind, let’s go out to a monster spawn.

Trust no one.

Trust no one.

Halfway across the bridge, I notice a dude standing around. Is he a ganker, waiting for me to cross into no man’s land? Is he AFK? Can I gank him? It seems like a trap, so I shuffle away and swim into the river. My default strategy when I feel threatened is to make killing me as annoying as possible. Not that it ever stops anyone, but I derive the same satisfaction I imagine a puffer fish feels when swallowed by… whatever it is that chokes on a puffer fish before dying to its poisonous organs.

Don't mind me. Please.

Don’t mind me. Please.

Monster spawn time. Cave spiders. I… think they shoot poison at me, but it is hard to tell. There are 4-5 people in the cave killing spiders already. Do they know each other? Is this zone still protected? I give everyone a wide berth and hang out in the cobwebs. I kill a spider and loot its tombstone. Leather. Spider… leather? But wait, my little achievement tutorial thing says I must skin the tombstone. But I already have… or have I? Okay, let’s kill another spider. Except another doesn’t spawn in my area, and now there are more people in the cave and it’s late and I want to play something else.

Alright… how do I log off? I binded myself to a stone in town, so maybe I can hearth back? After searching the painfully bad UI, I see the option. I click on the button and… wait. Still waiting. I get that it would be too easy to escape a ganking if it were quicker, but a full 120-second hearth timer?

Good lord, maybe this was a bad idea.

Into the Breach

It has technically been four days since I started playing WoW again.

Awakening at my favorite spot after 1.5+ years.

Awakening at my favorite spot after 1.5+ years.

I say “technically” as the first two sessions were 1-2 hours long and essentially involved me downloading and configuring over a dozen addons because Blizzard’s UI options are atrocious. It has been more than a year since I last played, and I understand that a lot of my ire would not exist had I been playing continuously this whole time. But that is exactly my point. To someone just coming back into WoW from a long absence, the returning user experience is pretty bad. Not quite PlanetSide 2 starting experience bad, but close.

My first issue was with the UI scale. When I looked at my old WoW screenshots, it looks like I was running around in 1280×960 resolution, which was fine at the time. Now that I have a 24″ monitor that nags me for being in anything less than 1920×1080, within five minutes I started developing neck pain from having to look to the far corners of the screen to squint at quest text. My initial scan of the options left me with the impression that no scaling UI option existed, so I ended up spending most of Tuesday mucking around with the impenetrable MoveAnything addon and reconfiguring by hand. Eventually, I wised up and Googled my way to the UI Scale slider, but this was way after any rational person would have given up.

Something has gone terribly wrong.

Something has gone terribly wrong.

After two days of screwing around, I did approximately six of the new Pandaria quests before I simply logged off. Unlike a lot of GW2 ex-pats, the clunkiness I experienced with, say, the combat had nothing to do with standing still and trading blows – it was with much simpler things. For example, I kept trying to press E to interact with NPCs or loot bodies. Nope, I have that key bound to Crusader Strike (or whatever primary attack I have for the class/spec I’m playing) because, you know, solely clicking on shit with the mouse never went out of style. And can a brother move a goddamn window please? Maybe I want my quest text a little more to the center of the screen. You never know how much you can miss simply moving shit around until it’s gone.

There were some things I appreciated though. When it came time to assign talent points, I did not feel the immediate need to look builds up on ElitistJerks. In fact, it was the first time in years where the entire talent selection process felt… pleasant. “Huh. I’ll probably use this one more than that one. Oh, this one looks fun… I’ll take it.” The glyph system felt similarly serine, although that was mainly because there did not appear to be any actual useful glyphs for Retribution.

Which reminds me: designers, stop being idiotic by ignoring opportunity costs. I can understand the rationale of changing the glyph system to be different than simply +5% DPS options; the Enchanting and Gemming system already has you well covered there. But why would you give people 20+ glyphs with upsides balanced with downsides for three limited slots? If you ask me to choose between X and Y, the downside to X is losing the chance to pick Y. If Y is so bad no one would ever choose it, yeah, maybe it looks like X has no downside… but that’s the designer’s fault for screwing up Y. As it stands, my paladin glyph choices were made based on which ones I could take that inconvenienced me the least. If I felt more comfortable having empty glyph slots, I would have left them that way.

Anyway, some other things I appreciated were the “What Has Changed” tab and the rotation guide thing. The spellbook being divided into spec-specific abilities was helpful, even though it baffles me why Retribution is so limited ability-wise. The Dungeon Journal interface is incredibly slick, and this was the first time I ever looked at it, believe it or not.

Whoever finally convinced the devs to do this deserves a raise.

Whoever finally convinced the devs to do this deserves a raise.

When one of my (ex-former?) guildmates was showing off some of the new pets though, trying to bring out one of my own felt like opening one of those trick cans that shoot the snake and confetti out. “Oh, right, the Pet Battle thing.” It looked pretty overwhelming, to be honest, but I like the way it was set up graphically (I haven’t actually battled anything yet).

I am going to stick with WoW for now because playing games I don’t immediately like until I do (or until the cognitive dissonance kicks in) is my M.O. around here, but I just want to say: good lord, my first impression was bad. If there was ever a moment that I doubted WoW’s longevity was primarily due to social inertia, it has finally past today. It isn’t about the graphics or combat mechanics being old, it’s about downloading a bunch of 3rd-party tweaks just to make the game somewhat playable¹. Which is completely ridiculous if you think about it. If I were a normal person trying to come back again, I would have uninstalled within the first half hour.

But (un)luckily for you, I’m not, I didn’t, and god have mercy on my soul free time.

¹ “Playable” being a term relative to the other games one is playing, of course.