Category Archives: Impressions

Impressions: BlizzCon Day 1

Well, now. I didn’t really see this coming.

The biggest news of the day, based on Reddit traffic, was clearly Blizzard’s teasing of WoW Classic. As in, they are actually making a vanilla server. Everything is still in development, so it’s technically possible that it won’t actually happen, but that would be pretty embarrassing given that they spent time on stage and even created a video about it. Important details such as cost and which patch stage they will be basing it on are still unknown – based on “server” language though, it’s possible it will just be, well, a server option in your normal WoW subscription.

Some people will undoubtedly be overjoyed. None will probably play a paladin.

In other news, the next expansion in WoW Prime will be… err…

WoW_BFA

Uhh…

Now, I’m sure there be a lot of people excited for WarCraft to get back to “roots” as a Red vs Blue RTS trope, but this is literally the most generic title and expansion theme they could have done. Sequel Escalation can be difficult to manage when there is no formal end planned – there are only a few more tricks Blizzard can pull once the Burning Legion itself is extinguished – but… this? “Battle for Azeroth” is something you write on a whiteboard with an underline, to denote that a series of actual title ideas will follow. Is this what people felt like almost exactly six years ago when Mists of Pandaria was revealed?

Looking at the MMO-Champ coverage, about the most interesting set of bullet points were:

World PVP

  • The PvP vs PvE server division is going away, replaced by an individual toggle. You can choose if you want to opt in to PvP or not when you are in town. Players that feel trapped on PvP servers have a way out. This opens up the game to changing and improving the world PvP ruleset.
  • New content like bounty hunting or assassination quests will become an option.
  • There will be bonuses to experience, reputation and other things when you are questing with PvP mode enabled to offset the inefficiency.

This is almost a complete game-changer for me. And probably anyone else trapped on an imbalanced PvP server. My primary server at this point is actually heavily skewed to the Alliance, but that just makes the Horde I do encounter especially surly while leveling. Or, you know, when faceless Cross-Realm hit-squads phase into your area. Now that problem is permanently solved.

It also, rather cleverly, creates world PvP hotzones with the carrot of increased Reputation (etc) gains. You could argue that these Reputation-farming zones would already be hot in a normal, always-on PvP server, and you would be correct. But now everyone there would be consensually engaging in (or preparing for) PvP, likely putting up more of a sport of it. And since the change in flagging requires one to be inside a town, you avoid opportunistic ganking, and presumably accidental flagging in the same design. Win-win.

There will be more to talk about in the coming days, I’m sure, but those are my first impressions.

Advertisements

Star Cards

You may have heard a lot of people talking about how bad the Star Cards are in Star Wars Battlefront 2 (SWBF2), but there appears to be a dearth of information on what the cards actually do. Well, I took some screenshots, and will transcribe a lot of them here before.

Among the four classes, the following two abilities are in all of them:

  • Brawler: Melee kill regens 50/65/75/100 HP
  • Resourceful: All abilities recharge 10%/15%/20%/28% faster.

I did not experience much melee action in my limited time in the beta, so I’m not entirely sure if there is a special damage bonus for attacking from behind, ala the kill sequences from the Battlefield series. Somehow, I doubt it. Resourceful though, is a particularly impressive bonus. I don’t know the default cooldown for most abilities, but assuming 30 seconds, that results in the cooldown being 27/25.5/24/21.6 seconds. Not that this is a WoW raid or anything, but over the course of 5 minutes that means you can press the button almost 14 times instead of 10.

The other noteworthy Star Cards:

Officer

  • Officer Presence: Reduce HP Regen Delay by 20%/25%/30%/40%

Heavy

  • Defender: Gain 4/6/7/9 score for each hit you take

I was not able to test Defender, but this seems just a bit insane. Is there an internal cooldown? Otherwise, I can imagine some people rolling out Heavies and soaking up some long-distance fire for a few minutes before suddenly coming back as a Hero and murdering people. For reference, you typically get zero points for dealing damage until and unless the target dies.

Assault

  • Assault Training: Gain 20/26/30/40 HP on kill
  • Vanguard Refresh: Refreshes your abilities on kill 25/23/21/18

The Assault class in general felt extremely weak in the beta, even though it technically has more HP than the Specialist. Getting up to 40 HP on a kill would go a long way in fixing that. Additionally, Vanguard Refresh is just a straight-up upgrade to the default Vanguard ability, which sees you put away the blaster for a shotgun and quicker movement. Not sure what the bonus does exactly though.

Specialist

  • Stealth: Remain hidden when firing, and deal 65/75/100/150 extra melee damage.
  • Infiltration: Scrambler: Marks enemies for allies and scrambles scanners in 10/11/12/14 range.
  • Trip Mine: (replaces Thermal Binoculars) Laser Tripmine with a 30/26/22/16 cooldown.

The Specialist is really quite absurd all-around, even before the Star Cards IMO. Yeah, they will die to a Heavy in a reasonably fair fight. However, the E ability gives you an infinite-clip burst-firing gun, makes you invisible to radar, shows everyone else on your radar, and causes you to speed around the map. Have I mentioned that getting a kill resets the timer too? Adding the Infiltration: Scrambler to that and/or the Trip Mine is just bonkers.

The biggest Star Card offender from a blogging perspective is Boba Fett. Here are his upgrades:

Boba Fett

  • Acute Concussion: Concussion lasts 1/1.5/2/4 seconds longer
  • Quick Refill: Jetpack refills 20/25/35/40% faster.
  • Fuel Efficiency: Jetpack burns 15/18/21/25% slower.
  • Death from Above: during Rocket Barrage, take 50/60/75/100% less damage
  • Intense Barrage: Rocket Barrage fires 30/40/50/70% faster (more rockets)

As you can see, Death from Above in particular goes from 50% damage reduction while using a very visible ability to complete immunity. Intense Barrage adds more missiles to said attack for free. Or you can combine the two Jetpack cards together to get a much larger Jetpack uptime.

The characters aren’t the only problem either. Here are three cards from Starfighter:

  • Bomber has 5/10/20/40% more HP
  • Fighter deals 2/4/7/10% more damage with primary fire
  • Fighter takes 50/100/150/200% longer to lock onto with missiles.

If you are in a fairly even dogfight, but your opponent has 40% more HP or they deal 10% more damage, or you have to wait 200% longer than normal to get a lock-on… well, that’s not really a fair fight anymore.

Things can always change, of course. I don’t think that the Star Card system itself is going to change, but there will probably be tweaks to the exact percentages. And entirely new options/cards.

That actually might be where most of the concern should be centered. Because as we all know, the payment structure of games inform their ongoing development, which means the designers have incentives to create more powerful Star Cards later on. When they are undoubtedly added into the game “for free,” the average player might be able to craft the first two tiers with regular currency, but whales and competitive gamers alike will have it maxed out as soon as the servers are up.

Impression: Star Wars Battlefront 2

I managed to play a few hours of the Star Wars Battlefront 2 (SWBF2) beta this past weekend. I had not actually played any of the prior titles in the series, nor does the Star Wars IP hold any particular cachet with me. I have played and been a fan of the Battlefield series for over a decade though, so my impressions are based more around that.

In short: it’s decent fun.

One of the first things that should be addressed is the Star Wars-ness. I mentioned that the series holds no particular cachet with me, but that does not mean I am unable to appreciate cool sci-fi battles when I see them. In this regard, SWBF2 hits some seriously good notes. Being a part of a Stormtrooper charge through a wooded area, blaster fire going every which way, is exactly as cool as you can imagine it being. I am also incredibly impressed by how the other map can cast the player as a Droid. I think the hitboxes are the same as the more common human ones, but it remains an interesting experience seeing your Droid teammates scurrying about.

The space battle map is whatever. I’m not a huge fan of flying vehicles in this or any Battlefield game, entirely because I lack whatever faculties are necessary to shake someone off my tail. I have fun shooting people, launching missiles, etc, then someone gets behind me and I inevitably die. I know that it’s possible to lose someone, because I have been “lost,” but I cannot do it.

On a mechanics level, the game has a pretty interesting approach. There are four base classes in the game, and each class has three abilities (in addition to different weapons). Abilities are all cooldown-based, with the exception of the Specialist’s Thermal Goggles, so there is always a tension between using it ASAP to eek out every possible advantage, or “saving it” for when you might really need it. Do you chuck a grenade in the off-chance someone is in that hallway, so that you can chuck a second one later? Or do you wait for a specific situation? Beyond that, the four classes themselves seem relatively balanced – Officers are pretty bad solo, but shine in groups – and each organically play out quite differently due to said abilities.

Where things falter quite a bit is in the teamplay department – the only teamplay is accidental.

Again, I come from a Battlefield background, and I also recognize that EA might not want to copy all (or any, apparently) of its systems. But the lack of squads, the regenerating health, infinite ammo, infinite abilities (after a cooldown), no spawnpoint choice, no revives, no Spotting… in every way, SWBF2 is an arcade shooter. I can appreciate the fact that some things wouldn’t make sense in the Star Wars universe – shock paddles bringing Storm Troopers back to life, etc – but there is so very little connecting you to the rest of your team unless you’re playing an Officer, who in every other way is worse than any other class you could have chosen.

The hero system sort of wraps this all up in a big bow. As you complete objectives and get kills, you earn battle points, which you can spend to respawn into battle as special characters, vehicles, etc. The money-shot heroes cost 5,000 points, which take a rather significant amount of time to accumulate, and thereafter lock your team out of choosing said hero until you die. From my few hours playing, I can say that the ones using Lightsabers are OP as shit, as they dance around one-shotting everyone, then dancing away to regenerate a health pool five times larger than normal. There are still some “more powerful than normal” options for the rest of us plebs, but there are still limited slots.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the current Star Cards P2W fiasco.

At the end of each match, you gain a number of Credits which can be spent in increments of 1000-1100 to purchase crates, which then hold three random “cards.” These cards can be improved abilities for any of the classes – including the heroes – or even alternative abilities that replace other ones. Or they can be cosmetic things, emotes, etc. Cards have different levels, with higher levels corresponding to better bonuses. At the beginning, you can only equip one Star Card, but as you gain more cards for a particular class/hero, that class/hero “levels up” and can equip up to three.

The fiasco part of this is that the entire system right now is pretty much naked Pay-2-Win. These crates can be unlocked during normal play, or you can unlock as many as dollar bills you have. Since character levels appear to be derived by how many Star Cards one has – as opposed to, you know, how long you have been playing said class/hero – not only will buying a ton of crates give you more options, they will specifically allow you to equip all of them. And these are direct power increases. Lower cooldowns, damage reduction, regenerating health, more “ammo” per clip, etc. It might not be impossible to take out a fully-decked out player as a brand new player – unless we’re talking about the Star Card that gives Boba Fett 100% damage reduction during Rocket Barrage – but in a FPS the margins between winning and losing are measured in milliseconds. Every percentage bonus counts. Especially when your target survives with 1 HP and regenerates to full a few seconds later.

As if that was not bad enough, the real problem here is that this is SWBF2’s entire progression system. While you can eventually earn a crafting currency to construct exactly the Star Card you desire, there is otherwise zero means to acquire better (or any) cards of a particular class. In the Battlefield series, playing as Assault will let you unlock more/better Assault abilities, using the same gun will unlock components for said gun, and so on. In SWBF2, it’s all lockbox RNG. I can appreciate the occasional incentive to try out a different class based on a good loot drop, but as the primary progression mechanism? That’s dumb.

The whole Star Cards thing probably deserves its own post, assuming you haven’t already read 37 variations by then. But, yeah, it’s basically as bad as it looks.

Overall Verdict:

Unsurprisingly, the jury is still out.

As mentioned before, the game is decent fun. If you are looking for an arcade shooter and like Star Wars, then it is probably a no-brainer. If I were eventually purchase SWBF2, I expect it to follow the same trajectory as TitanFall 1 & 2, for the same reasons. Just something to play around with for a few hours here and there, to kill time. As opposed to the trajectories of Battlefield 2, 3, and 4, which remain mentally compelling and engaging to this day.

EA Impressions: SPAZ 2

The original Space Pirates and Zombies (SPAZ) was a hidden indie gem back in the day, and saw me through almost 40 hours of gameplay. Granted, it had some lousy pacing and the early portions of the game weren’t particularly great either. But hey, it was done by a two-man dev team, and hit some great notes in the middle there somewhere. Hearing about SPAZ 2 being close to Early Access graduation and on a Steam sale to boot, I just had to take a look.

SPAZ2_02

Where 99% of the gameplay takes place.

Well, then.

SPAZ 2 is set in same universe as the original, and even continues the story a bit. That and the ship names are pretty much the only things left in common with the original title. The principle “game” here is a sort of galaxy map… thing. I don’t really know what to call it. Simplified RTS? Except time only moves when your ship moves, so Real Time doesn’t fit. Nor does Strategy, now that I think about it. If anything, it reminds me of games like Eufloria, where you are basically collecting infinite resources and expanding your empire while everyone else is doing the same.

In the original game, combat was sorta handled like a twin-stick shooter. In SPAZ 2, combat is a formality. While you can elect to aim your weapons like you wish to actually play a videogame, the game’s tutorial advises to stick to “Battle Wagon” mode, which is where your weapons automatically fire and reload according to their ability to hit things within their range. The former supposedly allows you to target specific sections of enemy ships in an effort to break them off and commandeer them as your own, but the reality is that none of it really matters. Scrap, the currency of SPAZ 2, is abundant, and you’re unlikely to know what components your opponents are using anyway.

SPAZ2_01

Look, Ma, no hands!

The utter lack of regard towards the combat system is, frankly, baffling. There is a video on Steam from the devs demonstrating how to play SPAZ 2 in VR mode. Holding RMB down even brings up a targeting reticle. But… why? No game systems support, encourage, or require any manual control during battles. I mean, there’s a tiny element in the bizarre looting system they have, as the components shot off from downed enemies is not assured to be in the normal post-combat loot table. But you can’t collect these pieces – you must physically bolt them onto your own ship. Which is another whole gameplay element that isn’t even defrosted, let alone half-baked: if components are popping off your ship, you are dying, and you won’t live long enough for it to matter.

Maybe all of this is due to me being in the early game still? Maybe it’s due to Early Access? I dunno. What I do know is that the fun of the original SPAZ came from combat, and everything else was a chore. In SPAZ 2, combat is now a chore, and you are left with extremely simplified empire management as your only element of gameplay.

SPAZ2_03

Humor is there, at least.

Hopefully this gets better, because I’m already past my Steam refund window.

Ark Life

Ark can teach you a lot about life. Namely, man’s futile struggle against a hostile, uncaring universe.

Ark_FeelingLucky

Don’t do it… it’s a trap!

It all started when I returned to my base with a handful of Obsidian from a scouting expedition. Emboldened by my success, and reading about the usefulness of the Sabertooths (Saberteeth?) I spotted on the mountain, I took flight again to snag a pair.

Life 1

I made it to the mountain in one piece, and scout around. I spot a pack of four Sabertooths, land on a nearby rock, and tranq two but the others had already wandered off. While taming, I am stuffing my face with Cooked Meat, because the temperature of the mountain is below zero. During this process, I realize that I’m out of Raw Meat, rapidly losing health due to the weather (no Fur clothing, because no Fur from these dinos), and while I have plenty of arrows, my crossbow itself is about to break. Shit. In a frantic bit of survivalship, I manage to kill some dinos for meat, tame the Sabertooths, and make my way to the warmer beach. Then I begin the journey back to my home base.

Along the way, I have to go through the Swamp biome. I stick to the edge, between the Swamp and the ocean, to avoid the more dangerous swamp creatures. What I did not avoid was the seemingly endless amount of piranhas. Despite doing only 15-20 damage per hit, one tiger dies. I hop off my bird to try and assist the remaining tiger. One minute later, the piranhas eat the remaining tiger and, somehow, my flying mount. I embrace the darkness.

Life 2

Take a backup bird to fly back and get my dropped items. This time, I load up on a fresh crossbow and extra meat. Spot my corpse, pick up my items. In the distance, I notice a low-level Sacro (e.g. giant crocodile). Thinking this might be a worthwhile tame to assist with the piranhas, I land on a rock and start shooting tranqs. With the Sacro down, I hop off the rock to start feeding it meat.

That’s when its mate shows up and starts feeding on me. Turning around to try and escape on my bird, I notice that the bird has simply dematerialized. No death record, it’s just glitched out of the game. Cool. I die.

Life 3

Fuck it, Imma build a boat.

Tour length: 3 hours.

I spent the next few days collecting resources and constructing a boat and adding crafting stations and such to it. The goal was originally to boat up to the mountain, tame the Sabertooths, then boat them back. That’s when I realized that the snowy biome sounds more interesting, and hey, those penguins give you tons of Organic Polymer when you beat them with clubs. No, seriously, that’s how it works. Since I need a bunch of Polymer to craft advanced weaponry, let’s head North instead.

After a long time, I make it to the Snow biome. Club some seals, mine some frozen Oil, good times. Off in the distance, I see a Carno and some of hell boars. Huh, interesting. I craft some stuff for a bit, and then start to prepare to take my bird out to collect more resources. Except now there is a Carno and some hell boars, having aggro’d and swam out to greet me, clipping through the bottom of my boat killing my birds and my favorite mount. Fuck this.

Life 4

I ruthlessly murder every Carno and hell boar that I see. At one point, I got a little too zealous and fell off my rock perch, and the hell boars got their revenge.

Life 5

Let’s just avoid that area and get a little further North. What’s the worse thing that can happen?

This. This is the worst thing that can happen.

—–

It should be noted that I am actively save scumming in Ark, e.g. backing up files. Why they just don’t add a Quick Save functionality to Single-Player Mode, I don’t know. Perhaps it goes against the general principle of Ark, or might give people the wrong impression when/if they try and go to public servers and lose all their stuff for real.

In any case, I don’t even feel the least bit bad for what I’m doing. I cannot possibly imagine a scenario in which “cheating myself” out of that last loss will result in more game time than rewinding it. Maybe if this was more of a roguelike with a definite end, like Don’t Starve (Adventure mode), or even Binding of Isaac, I can see less replay value overall. With Ark though, losing an entire boat worth of stuff along with some of my best tames? I would be more liable to quit altogether than start over. Or perhaps never to have set sail in the first place, which is kinda the same thing.

I guess we’ll see. I managed to craft a modern pistol and assault rifle with my (rewinded) resources, while avoiding the anti-boat whale area. If the novelty of Ark wears off after gaining such weaponry, perhaps I did “cheat” myself out of time. Then again, I still have projects that I want to complete, caves I want to explore, and map to uncover. I’m thinking it’s better overall to trade future game time of uncertain value for non-frustrating gameplay right now.

Especially because of all the bullshit Ark throws at you out of nowhere.

Arked

Maybe there was some fanfare somewhere, but it came as a complete shock to me that Ark came out of Early Access this past week. As in, it’s fully released. It even has a Big Boy Pants price going on:

Ark_Price.JPG

Glad I picked it up for $12 a year and a half ago.

Deleted my prior saved game and started fresh on a “Single Player” server. The results were… rough.

The early-game in Ark is essentially broken as shit. I spawned in the “Easy 3” section of the default Island, which puts me on a beach. The first few minutes is the traditional Minecraft experience of punching trees to create tools. As you gain levels, you can spend Engram Points to purchase schematics according to your level, which kinda allows you to differentiate yourself between a builder or scavenger or whatever. Which is fine, but particularly sucks in single-player considering that I’m level 10 but still can’t build a Thatch house (since I went for weapons).

The real problem though is the absurd difficulty spikes. The beach where I spawned has a cliff face blocking access to the interior of the Island, and the water is filled with massive sharks. No matter which direction you travel down the beach, there are extremely aggressive raptors essentially trapping you in a corridor of death. You can respawn after being eaten, but whatever items you were carrying will have been dropped, and the dinosaur responsible will still be by your corpse.

Ark_SpawnCamp

Carno corpse camp.

Oh, and your items despawn after 15 minutes.

In other words, in the early game, consider your former items to be permanently lost. Which wouldn’t be too bad if not for the fact that getting back to some baseline of combat readiness requires you to punch trees, craft a Pick, mine some stone, create a Hatchet, gather some wood, then make some Spears. Oh, and hold E down when near about two dozen bushes so you can craft some clothes. All so you can maybe engage some raptors that you cannot outrun and will likely kill you. So you can do the whole thing over again. And by the way, you can actually spawn into the game right next to a raptor or T-Rex and start getting eaten before you even have full control of your character.

If you make it past this early game though, you can craft a house and a bed that will let you respawn at a stationary location. And perhaps build some storage containers filled with surplus equipment, so that you aren’t starting from zero every time.

Ark_HellNo

Carno, Alpha Raptor, Therizinosaurus? No thanks, I’m good.

This terrible beginning experience will not deter my Sisyphean struggle however. Part of the reason I stopped playing Ark 1.5 years ago was the terrible optimization that caused my PC to run it at 24 FPS max. With some settings tweaks, the game runs basically around 50 FPS at all times now. I’m hesitant to say everything is fixed on this front though, because I have a GTX 1060 now instead of a 970, so your frames might vary.

In any case, what I’m curious about is how the single player portion will play out. Supposedly there is an actual storyline involved, rather than this being a pure sandbox experience. [Fake Edit: Nope, no story] I routinely boot up 7D2D despite there not being any particular narrative, but the fundamental fact is… I like these sort of survival games. Ark scratches that “collect hundreds of Wood to build things” itch, in spite of being unbalanced as hell thus far. So, I will persevere. And should the boulder roll back down, I shall smile as I walk back down to push it up again.

At least, unless I spy a more interesting boulder somewhere else.

Optimizing Board Games

While on vacation this past week, I had a chance to put in a few rounds of Betrayal at House on the Hill. It is an ostensibly cooperative board game that consists of exploring a haunted house by laying down tiles, rolling some dice, and then attempting to survive once the Haunt starts. Once the Haunt is triggered, usually one of the players becomes a traitor working for the monsters that show up, and thus it quickly becomes 1v3 or worse.

The game was fun for the three rounds we played it, but by the third game, I started seeing the cracks in the design.

Exploring rooms will usually cause an Item, Event, or Omen card to be pulled. Items are pretty much universally good and are a hot commodity. Events are usually bad or otherwise risky – most require you to succeed on a roll to gain stats, or you otherwise lose stats. Omen cards are usually the equivalent of good Items, but once an Omen is pulled, that person has to make a Haunt roll that surpasses the number of active Omens, else the Haunting starts. In the three games we played, the Haunt pretty much consistently occurred after the sixth Omen.

The cracks mostly show once people realize that optimization is the answer. Some of the rooms, for example, allow you to increase a stat (Might, Speed, etc) by +1 if you end your turn there. Now, the rulebook states it only works once per game, but the FAQ (PDF) makes it clear that it happens once per game per player. In other words, the moment one of these rooms open up, the optimum strategy is for everyone to stop what they are doing and go get that stat increase. Free stats are free. Considering that the Haunt can only start when an Omen card is pulled, and no Omen cards can get pulled if no new rooms are being explored, there is zero reason not to perform that strategy.

Another example is the Vault room. A player needs to roll a Knowledge check and get a result of 6+ to open the Vault and snag two Items. Rolling a 6 would be exceedingly unlikely for someone with Knowledge 3, because the dice only have 0, 1, and 2 printed on them. But, again, there is zero danger pre-Haunt as long as no one is actively exploring new rooms. It costs nobody anything let one person roll three dice until a total of six appears. Granted, there are other players with higher starting Knowledge totals who can make the roll faster, but the bottom line is that the preferred result is inevitable.

Once I realized all this, the game become significantly less fun. We didn’t do the “everyone get your +1 Sanity” trick the first two times we played, because we really didn’t know better. The third time we did. And that room might as well said “everyone gets +1 whatever” because we basically cycled through everyone’s turn 2-3 times in ten seconds to make sure people with slower Speed scores could travel there. While we didn’t quite make the Vault an auto-open situation, we could have done that too.

Another example: some rooms force you to make a Might/etc check to leave without taking damage. The FAQ points out that if you fail the roll, you can choose to not leave the room and avoid the damage. Ergo, the optimal strategy is to not leave until you win the roll, and for no one to explore any rooms until you do.

Noticing a pattern yet?

The optimal strategy makes the game less about interesting decisions, and more about whether your friends are willing to play the “right” way. This becomes especially evident once the Haunt actually starts, considering the Traitor/monsters are way more dangerous than most of the other players by default. Since the Traitor/monsters get a turn to try and kill you, suddenly turns become a precious commodity. It’s less about options and more about “we need to win this roll or be turned into a toad.” What ends up being even worse is the fact that the Haunt is pretty much over – win or lose – within like 2-3 full turns. Yeah, sometimes it takes several turns to successfully research X, or tear apart a room for Y, but you either have a strategy/house layout that gives you breathing room or you are dead.

All in all, I found Betrayal at the House on the Hill to be relatively fun for a while. It honestly reminded me of a sort of Arkham Horror-lite, in fact. But having played Arkham before, I immediately recognized how much of a difference it makes to be time-limited. There are still optimal decisions to be made in closing portals or otherwise holding back the eldritch beings, but at least the gambling in Arkham has teeth. Sometimes literally.

Impression: Darkest Dungeon

As I alluded to before, I ended up refunding my purchase of Isaac: Rebirth. Deciding I was still in the mood for a roguelike, I put that $10 into purchasing Darkest Dungeon instead. Now more than dozen hours in, I myself feel like a character succumbing to mania over the experience.

DarkestDungeon_01

The art style and tone are an acquired taste, but I have acquired it.

The core gameplay loop of Darkest Dungeon is simply superb. Pick a group of four adventurers, buy them supplies for a dungeon delve, and then crawl through said dungeon killing and looting. Successful completion or not, those four particular adventurers are likely going to need a break to recover from the ordeal, so spend a bunch of your gold on (mentally) healing them. For the rest of the profits, use heirlooms to build up the Hamlet, then spend gold to upgrade the gear of another set of four adventurers… who then will need provisions for their own expedition. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

That might sound boring or perhaps grindy, but there are so many considerations and decisions to be made on a micro level that I find the hours melting away in a Civilization “One more turn” kind of way. For example, you can’t recruit just anyone: you get a small pool of recruits to choose from each “week.” Even if it’s a class that you wanted, out of the 8 possible Skills that class has, they will have 4 random ones. You can spend gold training the specific ones you desire, of course, but that’s 1000g less you have to spend on something else. Other times you have exactly the class and spec you want for your particular dungeon strategy, but they end up accumulating too many Diseases or negative Quirks such that it’s easier/cheaper to just let them go than keep them. Finally, even if you upgrade the Stagecoach such that you get higher-level recruits hand-delivered to you with full upgrades out of the box, they might not have enough positive Quirks to justify the limited roster space.

DarkestDungeon_02

Even if I liked Highwaymen (I don’t), this hero is too expensive to treat.

None of this even gets into the combat and dungeon exploring parts of the game.

At the beginning, I thought the combat system was kinda dumb. Each character has the ability to do one thing each round in a turn-based manner. There are priest-esque classes and others with healing abilities, but they can only perform these actions in combat. Yeah, that’s a particular “gamey” limitation, but the longer I played, the more I realized how the entire point of this game is resource management. A turn spent healing is a turn not spent attacking.

However, considering that HP is only a concern in a dungeon, whereas Stress carries over into town and future dungeons, you have to start considering the relative merits of either. Leaving up the weak spellcaster who “only” inflicts Stress on your team so that you can spend multiple rounds healing your team to full HP might not be worth (literally) the trouble. Then again, if you have to end up Retreating from a battle/quest because everyone is about to die, well, they end up getting penalized with Stress/quirks regardless.

Then you have the boss fights, which possibly toss aside all your carefully laid plans. I defeated an Apprentice Necromancer with barely an issue already. Fighting the Wizened Hag though? I have faced her three times thus far, and retreated each time, nevermind the three other attempts that were aborted before even reaching her chambers.

The Hag has a Cookpot that takes up the first two “positions” on the field, with herself in the last two. Invariably, one of your team members gets thrown in the Cookpot and takes damage each individual turn until released. Thus, not only do you lose the actions of that team member, but your remaining members are usually out of their normal position (most abilities have position limitations), and then you have to consider whether to attempt to free the person or attack the Hag. Freeing the person is fine… but the Hag will throw someone else in the pot almost immediately afterwards.

Which can be the same person. /sigh

Having been defeated by this encounter so many times before, I am now in a holding pattern of leveling up my lower-level people to get a pool of acceptable candidates to try and kamikaze my way through the encounter, or perhaps overwhelm her with higher-level gear. Repeated dungeon clears of the other locations unlock additional bosses though, so perhaps I ignore her for now. And, oh, this other quest offers a pretty good trinket for that one class, so perhaps I grab that first.

Around and round I go… loving every single minute of it.

So, yeah. I’ll be curious to see how I end up towards the endgame; if this gameplay loop still entertains or if I get ground down by the repetition/familiarity. I ended up choosing Radiant difficulty based on the, ahem, horror stories from others who played originally. Indeed, some of the original mechanics sounded outright dumb: the inability to take characters back into the final dungeon more than once, for example. Some of those have been address since the game’s launch, but it’s a bit sobering to read that Radiant was designed to bring down the play-time “from 80 hours to about 40.”

Fake Edit: took down the Hag with this handsome group of characters:

DarkestDungeon_03

What does not kill you, stresses you out.

Impressions: Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

It’s kinda funny, looking back and seeing my original review of The Binding of Isaac being posted in November 2011. 11/11/11, in fact. Nearly six years ago is a pretty long-ass time. And yet here I am buying the re-release of a game and its expansion for another go-around. Maybe.

The truth is: I don’t know.

Ostensibly, I bought Rebirth (and Afterbirth DLC) because it was on sale and I had read all the people praising it on Reddit as being far better than the original. One person mentioned that it was simply relaxing to play. Certainly, I felt slightly similar back when I first played the game insofar as I compared it to Solitaire. Just something to play for a little bit without a sense gravity.

At the same time, I constantly found myself pausing the game and going to the Wiki. What does this Tarot card do? What the hell is this buff? Why is this room empty aside from a spike pit in the middle? These mysterious things are traditional trappings of roguelikes in general, but I feel like Isaac spends an inordinate amount of time in being obtuse. Random effects or items? Fine. Obfuscated abilities? Not fine.

It took me three runs to make it down to and defeat Mom, which resulted in about 15 achievements. Among other things, this unlocks the other half of the game (post-Mom), new items that get added to the random pool, new characters to play as, and Challenges. The latter is new to me, but is basically normal Isaac runs with some kind of penalty added on. In fact, pretty much everything I’ve seen so far is just piling on difficulty.

I’m not sure this is me anymore though. It was certainly relaxing to play in the moment… until I started pausing every other room to double-check the Wiki. I’m not going to stop doing that either, as I find blind choices fairly abhorrent. I don’t need to win every time I play a roguelike, but I’m also not going to let myself ruin an otherwise good run with some bullshit “Gotcha!” moment either.

So, yeah. Perhaps this will be my 2nd Steam refund.

7DTD: Alpha 16 Impressions

The experimental version of Alpha 16 for 7 Days to Die (7DTD) came out over the weekend, and I have sunk close to a dozen hours into it already. Much as I was hoping before, the changes have revitalized my interest in the game generally. However, some of the same changes exacerbate underlying design problems with character progression.

Character progression in 7DTD has never really been smooth. Starting from Stone tools, you eventually craft a bow, some arrows, and a wooden club for defense. From there, the next “tier” requires the creation of a Forge, which requires a Bellows, which requires Leather and a Short Iron Pipe. The Leather can be collected by skinning animals you kill or breaking down leather couches in buildings. The Short Iron Pipe though, is either found as random loot or crafted. In a Forge. That you are trying to build.

The game is actually riddled with these regressive, bootstrap requirements. The Workbench is a necessary structure to craft mid-to-late tier items, and requires a Wrench to be consumed in the construction. Meanwhile, the Wrench can only be constructed with Forged Steel, which is an endgame resource material that requires a high player level. Oh, and a Workbench. You need a Workbench to create a Wrench so you can craft a Workbench. But hey, sometimes you can find a Workbench out in the world, so you can dismantle it and place it back at your base… provided you have a Wrench.

[Fake Edit: Just kidding, Workbenches in the world can’t be dismantled anymore.]

These problems already existed in Alpha 15, but it’s kinda worse now. The devs introduced “Sleeper” zombies, which basically means they seeded every corner and basement of every building with zombies that can wake up while you’re trying to loot. This makes looting houses much more tense and exciting, for sure. However, they also reduced zombie loot without actually increasing it elsewhere. Ergo, you end up having to do more fighting with less rewards, while stuck with worse tools for longer.

Another example of regressive design? The devs reduced the amount of Wood gathered with Stone Axes, and eliminated the Last-Hit bonus (generally +20 Wood when a tree is finally felled). “Better tools result in better yields” makes sense, right? Sure, conceptually. The problem is that by the time you have a Forge up and running to craft an Iron Fireaxe, your need for Wood has considerably decreased. In fact, considering the rate that even a Stone Shovel gives you Small Stone and Clay, it’s actually easier to create a base out of Cobblestone than Wood.

Alpha is Alpha, of course. That said, I think there is a lot that the devs can do to bridge the progression gap and otherwise tighten up with the core gameplay loops. Some suggestions:

Introduce a Scrap Iron tier of weapons/tools.

The current progression path is Stone –> Forged Iron. That is quite the jump, especially with such considerable gaps in coverage in some areas. For example, your first knife is a Bone Shiv, and the next requires Forged Iron AND a Blueprint (Hunting Knife). You can craft Iron Arrowheads all day, no problem, but a sharp piece of a iron? Impossible.

I would also suggest making the Cooking Pot craftable with general Iron, rather than requiring a Forge. The Cooking Pot is just too integral to basic survival given that there are zero non-loot sources of fresh water in the game otherwise. Well, you can create Yucca Juice from harvesting cacti in a pinch, but you can’t cook/craft with that.

Perform a general sanity check on existing Blueprints

I am hoping that the current Blueprint system is a placeholder that eventually gets revisited, because it really makes zero sense sometimes. For example, the general progression of clubs is Wood Club, Iron Reinforced Club, and Spiked Club. You can craft the first two without Blueprints (although the Iron Reinforced Club requires a whopping 100 Iron), but the Spiked Club requires both Forged Iron and a specific Blueprint. For a piece of wood with spikes on it.

What makes the Spiked Club even more ridiculous is that you can craft Barbed Wire with simple Iron right from the beginning of the game. And Barbed Wire Fence for that matter. Barbed Wire + Wood is fine, but Barbed Wire wrapped around a piece of wood is way too complicated. Or using the Claw Hammer and some Nails on a piece of wood.

Reduce the Bootstrap Gating

I mean, I kinda get the thought process here. In crafting games like Terraria, Minecraft, and others, the limiting factor that gets you out the door of your base is resources: you need that Platinum/Diamond/Magic Ore/etc. Resources are needed in 7DTD too, but the overwhelming impetus to scavenge is the simple fact that you can’t just slowly work your way up the crafting tree. You need Short Iron Pipes to craft the Forge that makes Short Iron Pipes, and you need a Wrench to build a Workbench that can make Wrenches.

At the same time, the difference between finding a Wrench/Cooking Pot/etc on Day 1 and not finding anything for 7+ in-game days is enormous. Random loot is exciting, and there is absolutely still a place for that. But I think there should at least be the possibility of a bridge between Nothing and Everything. Perhaps a Crude Wrench, or Makeshift Cooking Pot. Make them have the chance for failure or ruined ingredients so that the Real Deal is still desirable, if no longer strictly required.

In any case, I still find the game to be quite entertaining, although I’m unlikely to derive the same 60+ hours of fun I did when everything was new. Which is likely good news to the people more interested in my potential thoughts on the upcoming FFXIV and Guild Wars 2 expansions.