Impressions: Mass Effect: Andromeda

Bad facial animations are bad.

Rest of the game? Pretty good.

It is difficult to know whether I would have noticed the details on my own had it not been for the hilarious (and sad) examples spread across the internet. I would like to imagine that I’d notice, but maybe not. The toothpaste is out of that tube though, and straight into the fish-lips of every member of humanity that survived the journey to Andromeda. Maybe cryogenics causes one’s skin to slog off the bone.

Were the “older” (e.g. actual, real) Mass Effects just as bad? (No.) I dunno. All I know is that five years ago I said:

About 5 hours into Mass Effect, all I can say is holy shit.

One of the most groundbreaking things occurred in the city after the first “dungeon.” In talking with a receptionist to the Consort, she winked at me.

… and then a few months later:

My favorite aspect of the original Mass Effect was the integration of non-verbal dialog into the narrative, and the general narrative itself. In ME2, that is kicked up a notch^². Characters smile, nod, gesture, facepalm, wink, and otherwise emote in subtle, natural ways. Indeed, these little actions end up becoming part of the dialog, creating nuance and meaning that words themselves could not convey.

Perhaps the novelty has worn off. Perhaps the Witcher series has ruined facial expressions for other games for me. Or perhaps the animations in ME: Andromeda are really that bad. At the moment, I am leaning towards the latter. Ryder pretty much looks drunk all the time.

Time to hit the bottle again.

I have only played about an hour or two thus far, but the rest of the game seems okay. The gunplay does not seem as tight, but it could be the learning curve of the Frostbite engine. Or perhaps my low-level guns. I like how you can swap out abilities and such, but don’t like how apparently I’m limited to three abilities at a time. I suppose in the paradigm of quick recharging Biotic skills, it would be too much to be just slinging more mass effect fields than bullets.

Still, I always question whether these sort of decisions are made based on solid design principles, or whether it was to dumb down the game for consoles.

FF14 Dungeons, Take Two

This past week I ended up running the dreaded early dungeon gauntlet in FF14 again – you know, the three early dungeon Square Enix requires everyone to do in order to move the Main Story Quest forward. Things more or less went as well as last time.

The first dungeon run went comically bad. As soon as we zoned in, the healer just ran through half the dungeon and aggroed all of the mobs. This, of course, resulted in a wipe. The healer never rezzed themselves though, which is pretty indicative that his/her behavior was intentional trolling. Unfortunately, you cannot Vote Kick someone within X minutes of zoning into the dungeon, so we all had to wait.

Then it turned out that the healer and the other DPS voted to kick the tank, which happened to be frequent In An Age commenter, MaximGtB (who offered to help me through these early dungeons). It took me a while to figure out what even happened though, because FF14 does not allow you to Whisper or receive a Whisper while in a dungeon. And I did not know if there was an easy way to teleport out of a dungeon you were in.

So, yeah, comically bad.

After that, MaximGtB shepherded me through the three dungeons without major incident. In two of the dungeons, we had a Thaumaturge or Black Mage or whatever that insisted on using a knockback in their spell rotation, much to my Pugilist’s (and the tank’s) annoyance. It was also kind of annoying fighting 3-4 mobs at a time with zero AoE abilities. I suppose that might be a feature rather than a bug at this stage, as it would be easy for new players to spam that sort of thing and get aggro.

My overall impression about FF14’s dungeons have not really changed. There is zero reason for these early dungeons to be mandatory and/or exist. They are apropo of nothing. I don’t remember if Wailing Caverns had any lead-in, but other early WoW dungeons like Deadmines were the culmination of zone-wide storylines. That the devs required these three irrelevant dungeons for the MSQ simply boggles my mind. Mandatory is one thing, zero story is another.

In any event, further progress on my character will have to wait, as Square Enix is “moving data centers” and that apparently requires two full days of downtime. Which is almost enough time to be tempted to pop another WoW Token.

…think I’ll start Mass Effect: Andromeda instead.

Sidequestless

My early-level experience in FF14 has not been as painful as it felt previously. There are all manner of reasons why this might be the case – psychological, emotional, a more fun class, etc – but I suspect that a large part of it has to do with the increase in Main Story Quest (MSQ) XP. Which is weird, because I’m pretty sure that was already active the first time I played.

The difference is that I’m actually taking advantage of it.

I’m sure this will change down the road, but essentially I am skipping everything but the MSQ quests and still hitting the necessary milestones to continue adventuring. It feels a bit off to stroll into a new town filled with exclamation marks and roll out with just one quest on the log, but it also feels… liberating? “Oh, you want me to kill 6 whatevers on the ass end of the Earth? No thanks.” At my level (which has jumped up to 15 now), those sidequests reward around 1100 XP whereas the MSQ will dump 6500 XP on your head for walking 10 feet and talking with another NPC. Plus, the story feels a lot more coherent without all the narrative breaks.

The downside is… well, not experiencing any sidequests. Which I am both happy and sad about.

Sidequests are an interesting game design mechanic. Pretty much every RPG has them, and they are almost entirely used as pacing. Filler, in other words. Of course, if you actually find the combat/exploration/etc in the RPG engaging, then sidequests are actual, legit content. Plus, if the designers go the extra mile, sidequests might become more interesting than the actual storyline. A good example of that would be the Mass Effect or Witcher series, wherein the supporting characters and their interaction with the main character is most of the appeal.

In MMOs, sidequests are almost always chores to be completed. “Kill 10 whatevers.” “Talk to these NPCs.” “Go here and click on the shiny thing.” Some are more memorable than others, some engage in world-building, others sew the seeds of interaction with new story characters. But the vast majority are pointless busywork. And that’s the rub, right? Skipping the busywork means skipping the few gems out there.

Of the FF14 sidequests I did before focusing exclusively on the MSQ, 99% of them were filler. At the same time, I would have been sad to miss the ole “cold as a dead whore’s crotch” exchange:

The above is why I typically complete all the sidequests in MMOs: for those brief slices of amusement, in the middle of so much bland white bread.

Alas, I no longer have eight hours of uninterrupted gaming time a day, so decisions have to be made. And that decision is to largely skip sidequests. I have long heard that SW:TOR has made a similar move regarding deprecating sidequests to streamline their “fourth pillar,” and I wonder if there has been a similar loss in incidental storytelling. It is not even as though they can keep the “good ones,” because sometimes it’s the weird throwaway sidequests that end up being the best.

I’m not sure there is a real solution here. I suppose FF14 deserves some credit for at least having the possibility of people clearing these sidequests later, via leveling up other classes (which changes your level back to 1). Although with all the XP bonuses and such you get now, I’m not sure if that’s enough.

Yearly Attempt: FF14

I have resubbed to FF14.

It took a curiously long amount of time to figure out where to download the launcher for the game. In fact, had it not been the fact that I was socially committed to trying the game again, I might have just stopped right there. I understand that things might be confusing if random people were presented with a 25GB download link right off the Square Enix page and then prevented from opening it because they didn’t technically buy the game.

But seriously? I shouldn’t have to Google how to download your MMO.

Once I downloaded the launcher, reinstalled, and resubbed, I logged into my original character from a year ago just to test the waters again. And boy ole boy, do I get what the Blizzard devs have talked about before vis-a-vis not wanting to confuse returning players. Coming back to WoW is an intimately familiar experience. Granted, it is probably moreso because I had been playing that for almost a decade now.

Coming back to FF14 after having played for a month a year ago is a whole other story. Can I teleport around town at will, or do I need to need to be near one of the Aethershards? Where the hell are the mailboxes? What was I doing again? Why can’t I see the armor I have in stock?

When I left off, my character was a level 25 Arcanist/level 13 Thaumaturge on Hyperion. Meanwhile, my friend is on Cactuar. Do I pay the transfer fee? It seems to be a bit silly given the low levels, but it is difficult to tell the value of “skipping” as much of the painfully boring FF14 early game as possible. On the other hand, I don’t know my ass from a hole in the ground either, so maybe another go-around in the level 1-40 tutorial was in order.

This time around, I learned my lesson and rolled a melee character (Pugilist). Thus far… things are okay. Level 1: Press 1. Level 2: Press 1, then 2. Level 6, Press 1, then 2, then 3. I am eagerly awaiting level 10 when I actually get a reactionary button (triggers after I dodge), and then level 15 when I get a melee DoT to weave in. It may sound boring – and it absolutely is – but it is worlds better than casting Ruin a million times.

I am not 100% convinced I’ll settle on the Pugilist/Monk path. I managed to find a guide or two regarding endgame rotations, and the Monk seemed to be heading in the Feral druid direction of All the Things. Ninja just sound bizarre. The Dragoon looks fine, as does the Bard to an extent. Considering my newly rolled toon is just level 8, I have quite a ways to go.

Overall, things are fine for now. I am not buying Heavensward, as A) I doubt that I make it to the vanilla endgame before the end of this month, and B) it is included for free in the Stormblood expansion. I do not anticipate playing FF14 for even as long as I played Guild Wars 2, but I do plan on completing the main story quest and seeing what all the plot fuss is about. Assuming there is any.

Inflection Points

In Divinity: Original Sin, I have definitively hit an inflection point in terms of character power. And that is kind of a shame.

Basically, once you hit level 15 you can start learning “Master” level skills/spells. As one might expect, these can be extremely powerful. For example, one of them is Meteor Shower, which drops 30 little fireballs in a specific area, each of which can deal a few hundred points of damage apiece in addition to spread fire in the area. These powerful spells cost a lot of Action Points – generally meaning needing to wait around multiple turns to save up enough AP – and are limited to One-Per-Battle in terms of cooldowns.

The issue is that you can game the hell out of the system. The AP cost is entirely irrelevant if you happen to spot a group of enemies before engaging in combat, for example – AP only exists within combat, so go nuts for the alpha strike. Hell, I bring down the stars on even one dude, because why not? It’s always been powerful to initiate combat with a “free” spell, but up till now those spells didn’t necessarily gib your target.

Another of the Master level skills allows an Archer to fire 16 arrows in a 45-degree arc. Great for groups… or, you know, if you want to effectively one(16?)-shot bosses from point-blank range. Oh, and hey, there’s a low-level Ranged Power Shot skill that increases damage by 20% at the cost of accuracy. Which would normally be an issue if not for the fact that Arrow skills auto-hit as long as the target is in range.

MMO players will recognize this phenomenon as “Optimizing the fun out of the game.” As I have mentioned previously though, the optimizing process itself is what I find fun to begin with. And it has been pretty fun figuring this out. The problem is that the game is now “solved,” and I am in one of those positions at the end of a Civilization match where winning is a foregone conclusion, but for the long, tedious march to an official win condition.

I said this situation is a shame because I’m not so sure it was necessary. Up until this point, effective AoE in Divinity was actually decently limited. Yeah, there were combos and such that you could set up, e.g. dropping Oil in an area and then lighting it on fire. But none of it was enough to one-shot groups by itself. Hell, often those combos ended up being counter-productive. The Oil+Fire combo was good for setting people on fire, but the resulting smoke prevented targeted follow-up attacks until they moved out of the area.

This scenario sort of reminds me of Final Fantasy Tactics, when you are suddenly given an excessively OP party member (Orlandu) for basically no reason. The game was challenging up to that point, and considerably less so afterwards. Why? What was the designer reasoning?

Sometimes inflection points are inevitable. At the beginning of a game, your character’s options for skills and magic items are likely limited, so there might be less room for synergies. More options means more combos means more opportunities for OP results. Simply not giving anything new past a certain level isn’t a particularly good design, so the devs might actually be trapped in that regard.

And, hey, I’m not blind to the fact that it probably feels good, both as a player and as a designer, to reach the endgame and feel like a total badass. Every wizard dreams of the moment they go from shooting Magic Missiles into the darkness to altering the fabric of reality itself. This is why games like WoW end up giving you +5% upgrades each tier instead of a more measured 1% – anything less feels unrewarding.

The fundamental problem is that I found the Divinity combat system rewarding as-is. Even with good equipment, things felt dicey all the time. I’m sure that someone out there had a lot of fun going from dicey fights to forgone conclusion ones, but that person is not me. And I cannot help but wonder if it was necessary at all. If super-skills are necessary, do they need to be this particularly powerful? Why 30 meteors instead of, say, 10? That would still be a huge improvement over the standard Fireball spell.

In any case, I am continuing to play Divinity and hopefully wrap things up soon.

What I’m Playing

WoW: I have been pretty consistent in logging into WoW each day, although I believe my subscription has already lapsed. I’m about halfway into Honored with the Legionfall Reputation, the last pieces of gating between me and flying. Despite this, it’s debatable that I renew my sub.

The problem is precisely the same problem with Legion all along: alts are punished.

Yes, alts are not as punished as they were before. The Broken Shore offers easy loot, your main can mail an Artifact Knowledge book to bump that alt up to level 20 (or 25 now for me), unlocking flying on one character unlocks it account-wide, and so on. The issue is getting there.

It’s time to face the facts: the new Druid main was a mistake. Boomkin is awful in solo PvP, and awful-feeling in solo World questing when other people are around. Sure, Sunfire will tag all the mobs, yay. Now watch as every cast is interrupted by the mob in question dying to other people who get to press buttons.

PvP is basically impossible. Mages burst me down in literal seconds, and there isn’t anything you can do against melee classes. If someone is distracted or can’t reach you, sure, Boomkins can blow you up with some long-casted spells. But so could a Hunter with auto-shot.

So here I am, stuck with a class I no longer want to play, but cannot really drop either. I mean, I can, but that just means that I will have to redo a whole lot of effort, e.g. grinding reputation all over again. Being stuck inbetween impossible choices doesn’t make for a particularly enjoyable experience.

Divinity: Original Sin: This is an RPG that has lasted a whole lot longer than I ever expected it to. I think my current time counter is at 70 hours. Combat remains extremely entertaining, if not maddening at times. Crowd Control is absurd, with half a dozen different ways to lose your entire turn, multiple times in a row. This goes both ways of course, but there are always more enemies than PCs and you only have to be hit once or twice by CC to change the entire tide of the battle.

As fun as it is… I’m trying to wrap things up as soon as possible. Because…

Mass Effect: Andromeda: …I haven’t even booted it up once. Not because I’m particularly apprehensive (at least there has been a patch to smooth out facial animations), but because I anticipate dropping all other games until I finish playing it.

Final Fantasy 14: Redownloaded the client both because of the free login promotion, and because my friend finally made the necessary PC upgrades to play the game. I figure that FF14 is about due for another attempt, and the lull between now and the 2nd expansion is perhaps as good as any. Might clash with ME:A though.

Clash Royale: I continue to play and be frustrated by this game on a daily basis. I did managed to hit Challenger 2 (e.g. 4300+) again this month, but the 4000ish range is simply annoying beyond belief in terms of just farming chests. Meta decks abound in this range, and it’s almost expected to face over-leveled cards in every match. I’m talking about level 13 Royal Giants, Level 3 Lava Hounds, Level 6 Balloons, and so on.

CraftCraft

A few weeks ago, Gevlon had an interesting post on how crafting in MMOs is fundamentally broken:

If you fight monsters or players, you must constantly cast spells. If you gather, you must move between spawn points. Both needs you to sit at the computer and press buttons (unless botting). But to craft, you just press a button and maybe wait and you are done.

Basically, crafting is broken because all other options available to get in-game currency take keyboard effort (gathering, grinding mobs) whereas crafting does not. And, having reflected on that, it is 100% true. Just as in real life, the people making bank aren’t those doing the work, but the ones working the bank.

Gevlon concedes that there really isn’t a solution to this problem, mainly because “active crafting” would essentially be a grindy minigame. Well, he says the solution is to make it so that everyone can craft everything, thereby hopefully making the crafter-class irrelevant. I’m not so sure, considering how much gold people already make from selling vendor mats in WoW. Any knowledge gap is enough space for the Bourgeoisie to pop up like mushrooms.

Would a minigame really be that bad though?

Maybe. I remember getting pretty frustrated with Wildstar’s crafting system, which was essentially a lot of RNG and wasted mats. I did not spend a whole lot of time in FF14, but I recall a similar minigame there that required button presses for optimum results. Based on the comments on Gevlon’s blog post, it seems there might be other, older MMO examples as well.

Still, I’m thinking that that pretty much has to be the “solution.” This is assuming that you believe there is a problem to begin with. But crafting has felt divorced from the general MMO gameplay experience for ages. Even Fishing in WoW feels more interactive than the normal sort of insane grind (or extreme automation via addons) that is, say, prospecting stacks of ore and/or creating Glyphs. Running around Herbing on a toon feels fun. Smelting ore and transmuting it does not. And yet one of those is much, much more lucrative than the other.

A more active crafting overhaul would require a fundamental rebalancing of the sort of boilerplate crafting experience though. Most crafting systems are predicated on you crafting hundreds of redundant items, for example. Skill-ups – assuming they still exist – would perhaps need to come from successful strikes on the anvil, rather than just one for the finished product. Or perhaps simply an offline system ala EVE.

In any case, I do feel like active crafting is the way forward. There would still be a goblin-esque master class, as I find it unlikely A) even an active system would be slower at gold generation than grinding mobs, and B) a good 80% of the player population is too lazy to craft their own gear. Maybe the right system hasn’t been found yet. Or perhaps the right system is trapped on an older MMO?

Inventory Junk

Sometimes it takes a game to start doing something mundane before you appreciate how every other game doesn’t bother you with that crap. Case in point: Divinity: Original Sin doesn’t automatically remove anything from your inventory.

Nothing. The answer is nothing.

In pretty much any other RPG ever made, introducing lock to key causes the key itself to disappear. It is not as though the key will work on any other lock, so why keep it around? “Why not?” muses the D:OS designers. “Because it’s dumb,” says I. My inventory is filled with keys (which you can’t sell), books that no longer serve a quest or skill gain purpose, and other kitchen drawer debris. There isn’t any special glowing inventory effects either, so sometimes it gets difficult to realize that you actually have picked up something worth clicking on.

Can I manually go through my whole inventory? Of course. But why exactly do I need to? What is the underlying gameplay purpose? As far as I can tell… well, I can’t. I don’t actually know if this is a “old-school” throwback, as I don’t remember if Baldur’s Gate had anything similar. Probably not.

In any case, I’m glad most modern games have moved on. Because ain’t nobody got time for that.

Funslope

I have been musing a lot about Hearthstone and Clash Royale lately.

In Hearthstone, I bought around 22 packs of the latest expansion with accumulated gold and… things didn’t feel particular satisfying. A lot of duplicate commons, and only one Legendary (the hunter quest). I kinda screwed myself over inadvertently though, as I opened a pack reward from the Tavern Brawl, which ended up being Carine, a duplicate Legendary of mine, thus removing my pity timer.

According to Reddit, the latest expansion will cost you about $400 to get all the cards. Let that sink in a moment. $50 will get you 40 packs, and I opened about half that and got hot garbage. Spending enough money to buy a AAA videogame on release will likely not even get you remotely competitive in a F2P game.

This sort of begs the question though: how much should it cost to be competitive in a(ny) game?

On the one hand, I think cost analyses for an entire expansion are a bit ridiculous. Out of the 135 cards available, how many are actually any good? Cutting out the terrible Legendaries will reduce Dust cost by 1600 apiece, for example. Then there is the consideration of whether you really need all the cards on Day 1. There are going to be weeks and weeks of Un’goro, during which you can accumulate more packs naturally. Granted, if you are still buying Un’Goro packs a month before the next expansion’s release, you won’t have any buffer there.

On the other hand… well, it’s all terrible. A bunch of cards just rotated out, so if you aren’t rolling in the latest expansion cards you may as well just give up. Or go play Pirate Warrior and hope the other guy doesn’t have one of a thousand new taunts.

Clash Royale is a different F2P game, but I am encountering similar breakpoints. Specifically, I had a deck that I focused all my in-game resources on, the meta shifted, and now my deck gets hard-countered very easily. You can switch your cards out, but leveling cards takes increasing amounts of gold, and thus I can only field under-leveled cards against people with focused decks.

How easy should it be to max out your stuff though?

Personally, I feel that answer should be “immediately” for competitive PvP games. What is the point of a ladder in these games if you can buy your way to the top? It honestly reminds me of the gacha games, which have “VIP Levels” that unlock as you spend more money buying diamond currency. Well, except these gacha VIP levels are permanent and don’t reset each time new cards come out.

Alas, this is not the case.

What is worse is the simple fact that these games also do not have logical endpoints. They are fun. Then, gradually, they are less so. At what point on the Fun Gradient can you draw a line? I suppose games like Hearthstone are little more cut-and-dry since expansions are released, cycle out, and otherwise contain clear demarcations on the calendar. Clash Royale, meanwhile, does not. I am having less fun than I did a few months ago, but still more fun than either nothing or another game. So I continue to play, with internal injuries accumulating from the dissonance.

And just to be clear: these games are engineered this way. Payslopes? More like Funslopes. And at the bottom of this slope is just a money-pit that you fill with cash to try and make a softer landing.

Fuzzy Rules

I have been play a bit of Divinity: Original Sin and continue to enjoy it. Mostly.

One thing that I strongly dislike in games though, are fuzzy rules. By “fuzzy” I mean that the parameters of the rules are either not consistent or not entirely clear within the game itself. Divinity has tons of them that were at first amusing, but now are a bit grating.

For example, sometimes when you attack a target, they bleed on the ground. Fine, right? Well… environment effects are super important in Divinity. There is a talent that actually heals you when standing in blood, for example. Blood puddles also apparently conduct electricity, as I discovered when two of my melee team members got stunned after a third one shot a Lightning Bolt.

Things get real dumb though when you fight zombies. See, zombies are healed by poison effects. Guess what zombies bleed? Poison. So… yeah, hit zombies enough and they will bleed poison on the ground, which then heals them. I can kinda sorta maybe see the logic, if the designers were using this self-regeneration mechanic as an explanation for zombie resilience. But it’s far more likely that this is just sloppy game mechanics. Especially when you set zombies on fire, then the fire makes the poison explode, which ends up dealing fire and poison damage simultaneously, which sometimes cancels out the fire damage entirely.

Are there benefits to fuzzy rules? Sometimes. The real world is full of strange situations, so carrying over some of that uncertainty can make virtual worlds more realistic. Plus, fuzzy rules are a de facto increase in difficulty – if you’re not certain something is going to work, you have to be more cautious. Weird situations also make for good stories.

That said, I don’t like unclear rules very much. It’s tough to determine whether vague interactions are intentionally designed, or just designer incompetence. And when you end up failing because of said interactions, it’s difficult to know what you should have done differently. Did you lose to a dice roll? Strategic blunder? Not leveling up enough?

Growth requires not just knowing what went wrong, but what can be done to avoid it in the future. If the answer is “nothing,” there really isn’t any growth at all.