Relative Value of Money

Gaming has gotten pretty complicated for me these days.

The annoying part of this situation is that the complication is all by design. Clash Royale recently celebrated its 1-year anniversary, for example, which means I have been playing this mobile game off-and-on for about a year. Just the other day they teased a “one time sale” that included 100,000g and a Magical Chest for roughly $25. At the stage of development I’m at in the game, that amount of gold would effectively allow me to upgrade two units. Two. For $25.

And I was seriously considering it.

The only real thing that stopped me was that the deal wasn’t as good as the prior deals I did take advantage of. The $25 thing was only a “x4 value” whereas I dropped $25 on a different package several months ago that was a x10 value. At the time, it offered a rather significant boost of power, and allowed me to finally snag an Ice Wizard, which I have used in every deck to this day. Conversely, it is not entirely clear that upgrading two units for 100,000g would see similar returns.

In addition to Clash, I am playing three separate gacha-esque games with similar payment models. Four, technically, if you include Fire Emblem: Heroes in there. I haven’t spent near as much in those as I have in Clash, but I do boot them up every single day for the feeling of incremental progression. And all of them are offering “amazing” deals for $10, $25, even $99.

Then look what happened with WoW. There is currently a “sale” on character services, which means it “only” costs $18.75 for server transfers. Since I had over $180 in Blizzard Bux from cashing in WoW Tokens, I decided to use some of those funds to move the survivors of Auchindoun-US over to Sargeras-US. Moved about four toons thus far, and thinking of a fifth. That’s $75 already. Not $75 from my bank account per se, but I could have nearly bought StarCraft 2: Legacy of the Void and 50 packs of Hearthstone’s latest expansion with that same amount of funds.

All of this is why I take a somewhat adversarial stance with game designers. If these were all B2P games, we would not be having this discussion; instead I would be lamenting about how there aren’t enough hours in the day to play all these great games. Instead I’m talking about services within a game, or progression boosters, any of which are more expensive than actual, other games. I just bought Mass Effect: Andromeda from GMG for $41 and some change. That’s roughly two character transfers in WoW, or a few unit upgrades in Clash Royal.

Now, there’s the argument that there aren’t that many games you could even play for a whole year and not tire of. Doesn’t Clash Royal deserve my money for how much amusement it has generated? Isn’t plopping down some cash on these games technically cheaper than paying full price for new releases every few weeks/months anyway?

I think those are the wrong questions, and intentionally engineered to take advantage of cognitive dissonance. Because we aren’t asking those questions up front – we are asking them after having “invested” dozens (or hundreds) of hours into the game. If you told me at the beginning that it took 50,000g to upgrade units in Clash Royal, I would have balked. But having stewed in a pot of nearly boiling water for a year, it all seems reasonable. “Of course it makes sense that I used to get upgrades every three days, and now only get one a month.” Not really, no.

(Especially not when they end up nerfing units a month later. No refunds here.)

The value of money is mostly relative. Going from making $20k to $30k is life-changing, whereas going from $100k to $110k is likely not. However, money is also fungible. Dropping $10 or $25 here and there might make sense in the context of whatever game you are currently playing long-term, but those same dollars could buy anything else.

It is important, IMO, to consider the full picture of what your gaming dollars may or may not be purchasing. A server transfer in an MMO that will save your waning interest may seem a bargain. Hell, it might actually be a bargain in the final analysis. Just be cognizant that the decision should not be “do I spend money or not,” but rather “do I give up X or not.” I decided that two unit upgrades in Clash Royal isn’t worth half a Mass Effect. Framing it this way helps me resist all the fallacies (Sunk Cost, Gambler’s, etc) working on the decision to make it seem reasonable (when it is not), and gives me an answer I can live with.

Maybe your gaming budget is such that you don’t mind dropping hundreds of dollars a month into whatever. In which case, feel free to Paypal some my way, chief. Otherwise, we all have to look out for each other a bit, because the game designers and the in-house psychoanalysts on their payroll certainly are not.

Hearthicide

One of the interesting quotes going around the block this weekend:

“Hearthstone is killing itself” – Superdata
GamesIndustry.Biz

The short version of the situation was summed up by GameRant:

In a February report about the worldwide digital games market, SuperData spelled out a not so positive picture for the Blizzard card game. It says that in February, Hearthstone revenues on iOS and Android hit the “lowest” since those versions of the game launched and is “down significantly year-over-year and month-over-month.” The desktop version of the game has also experienced declining revenue but they have been less severe, likely due to the support from more “hardcore” fans.

SuperData blames this fall on recent “unpopular” gameplay changes to the game, which have resulted in a “sharp decrease in conversion on mobile.” Although Blizzard has attempted to fix problems with the game, such as addressing problems with arena drafts and nerfing certain OP (over-powered) cards, this hasn’t been enough. Several professional players have also ditched the game recently, citing the game’s reliance on randomness (rather than actual strategy), as a reason for them to look elsewhere.

I would kinda like to read the Superdata report itself to see if they provided more context, but the paywall is kinda significant.

Think I’ll pass, thanks.

The dire portents are somewhat interesting, because as recently as January the reports were all glowing about Hearthstone had cleared $394.6 million in 2016. Then again, perhaps that was just your sort of standard end-of-year update, and this February news showing a more concerning trend.

The question I always have: is it really randomness that’s the issue here? Certainly for Lifecoach it was an express reason. And perhaps for the pros at the top where the delta between player skill is so razor thin, randomness effectively makes up a disproportionate amount of the outcome.

But, honestly? As I mentioned a month ago, the problem is Team 5’s fucking ass-backwards balance philosophy. Back on January 13th, the devs officially stated that they were “looking into” the Pirate disaster they introduced in Mean Streets of Gadgetzan. You know, the expansion that came out on December 1st? The nerfs themselves did not occur until the very end of February. So we got 1.5 months to acknowledge a problem, then another 1.5 months to move on a solution. Then, even after the nerf, 14 of the 16 players in the HCT Winter Championships brought Pirate Warrior.

Were the nerfed cards absent? Yes. Does Pirate Warrior still consistently kill you on turn 5? Also yes.

Triple threat.

That is the problem. You have pretty much 100% of aggro decks (and some midrange) running a Pirate package. If you aren’t facing Pirates, you are facing Jade Druid, which completely murders Control decks in two different ways (endless threats + zero fatigue). And if you happen to get lucky and aren’t facing Pirates or Jade Druid, you are facing Renolock, which is a match best described as a JRPG boss fight – get them to low HP, they heal to full, get them low again, and then they transform into Jaraxxus. If you aren’t playing one of those three decks, you are blood for the blood god.

Journey to Un’goro is coming out soon, and I am finding it difficult to imagine the meta shifting that much. Pirate Warrior loses Sir Finley, which is a one-drop Legendary that allows the Warrior to switch his hero power into something else. That is a bigger deal than it sounds, but not something that derails a turn 5 win with decent draws. Jade Druid loses a few cute moves with Brann, but is similarly otherwise unscathed. Reno Jackson himself is leaving, which is a big deal to Renolock, of course. Then again, Handlock did fine for years before Mr. “We’re going to be rich.”

You can see the entire new set yourself. What jumped out at me were the vast increase in Taunt cards, which is good. Taunt Warrior with the Rag hero power Quest is probably going to be a thing. Shaman elementals seem pretty powerful as well. I like the Druid cards, for the most part. But again, all that being said, will whatever new decks emerge actually be better in practice than Pirates or Jade?

I have my doubts.

And we haven’t really even gotten to the other parts of Hearthicide, which is doing practically nothing in the face of competitors like Shadowverse throwing out 10 free packs for their latest expansion. We’re getting some free stuff each day for logging in, I guess, but it’s hard to tell. In any case, Team 5 has got to get off their ass and at least put on the appearance of doing something, or Hearthstone is going to be competing with Heroes of the Storm soon. For last place.

Shadowverse Gameplay

I have talked around Shadowverse quite a bit over the past month or two. The reason is that I haven’t bothered really playing the competitive aspects of the game; I have instead been clearing the “story” mode against the AI. Oh, and logging in every day, because of the rather generous log-in rewards.

Actually, let’s get that out of the way first: one of the biggest draws of Shadowverse is its generosity in the reward department. New accounts receive the same bonus card packs that were awarded to people when new expansions are released, which means you can expect to crack open 30+ packs right after signing in for the first time. On top of that, there are the aforementioned log-in rewards, which ends up being two free packs, a free Arena run, and increasing amounts of gold on 15-day basis. Maintenance at 3am? Have some more card packs. Then there are also Achievements that reward gold/dust. Oh, and three daily quests a day.

In short, there are a LOT of freebies. Especially compared to the misery Hearthstone.

For the most part though, the freebies are kinda required. Decks in Shadowverse are 40 cards, compared to Hearthstone’s 30. Additionally, instead of there being a 1 Legendary limit, Shadowverse lets you stuff three of the same kind of Legendary into a deck. And just as in Hearthstone, getting a Legendary to a class (or Craft, in this case) that you don’t care about is effectively wasted (you can still dust it though). This is why it is important to reroll, as I talked about before.

In terms of gameplay itself, things are remarkably similar to Hearthstone. Players gain 1 mana crystal per turn. There is no interaction on your opponent’s turn, and they can choose to attack you or your minions. There are 5 slots on the board for creatures/amulets (instead of 7). Creatures can have Taunt (Ward), Deathrattles (Last Word), Battlecry (Fanfare), and so on. One interesting wrinkle is Charge, which Shadowverse splits into Rush vs Storm. Rush allows a creature to attack other creatures (not players) as soon as its played, whereas Storm has no restrictions. Given how many issues Hearthstone has had over the years with OTK (one-turn kill) combos via Charge, I feel like Shadowverse’s dual take it superior.

A lot has been said online about how Shadowverse is a deeper game already than Hearthstone. In some ways this is accurate. Amulets are a type of card that can stick around on the game board (taking up a creature slot), having constant or triggered effects. We really haven’t see that design space explored in Hearthstone beyond Tavern Brawls. And while there are some random effects, there certainly aren’t nearly a fraction of the kind in Hearthstone.

Oh look, even the computer drops 8/8s on Turn 3.

One of the bigger deals in every Shadowverse match is Evolve. Starting around Turn 5/6, players can spend 1 Evolve point per turn to beef up a minion on the board and possibly trigger extra effects. The default bonus is giving the minion +2/+2 stats and Rush. Sometimes it’s those stats plus something else. Sometimes the minion doesn’t get buffed at all, and instead a powerful effect occurs. Regardless, knowing when you must Evolve and when to hold it is a tremendously important part of every game. And given that you can Evolve any creature, the dilemma comes up in each match.

Beyond that though… I’m not actually certain how much deeper Shadowverse’s gameplay actually is in practice. There are certainly way more mechanics than Hearthstone already, including ones that would be “too confusing” for people unable to handle more than 9 deck slots. But when you look at the top meta decks in Shadowverse as of 3rd week of March

  • Daria Tempo Rune 9.54%
  • Midrange Sword 9.15%
  • D-Shift Rune 7.37%
  • Face/Aggro Sword 6.45%
  • Aggro Blood 6.28%

Runecraft decks account for nearly 17% of the meta, with Swordcraft bringing up 15.6% (technically 20% in top 10). In other words, nearly a third of the meta consists of two classes, just looking at the top 5 decks. Looking at the top 10, nearly 30% of the meta is made up as aggro/tempo. Is that worse than Hearthstone’s current Pirate meta? Nope. But when you look at these top decks, it is not as though there are particularly deep interactions going on with convoluted cards. Even with D-Shift Rune, you are basically stalling the game long enough to drop a 7/7 and a few “take another turn after this one” spells. The average Renolock in Hearthstone has more turn-to-turn decisions to make.

What you can give credit to the Shadowverse devs for is their dedication to relative balance. Three weeks ago, Daria Tempo Rune was a whopping 19.31% of the entire meta by itself. Roach Tempo Forest was 10.59% by itself. Key cards in those decks were nerfed, and the meta shifted over the past few weeks to its current situation. Compare that to Hearthstone, where Ben Brode and company sit on their asses in the hope that the problem goes away on its own, or that the next expansion (months from now) fixes it. Because… reasons.

In any case, we’ll see how things go. Shadowverse is apparently the #2 digital CCG on the market out there, although it is facing competition from Gwent, the Elder Scrolls one, and other such games. I haven’t played those others, but I will say that at a minimum, Shadowverse is about 1000x times better than Hearthstone on mobile. Which makes sense, as Shadowverse was originally a mobile game that was brought to PC, whereas Hearthstone is the opposite. If you’re just looking for a CCG to play on PC though…

…well, let’s see where Journey to Un’goro goes. If the meta is still pirates/Jade, we’ll have issues.

The (Lewd) Art of Shadowverse

One of the most contentious things about Hearthstone’s main competition in the CCG space is its art. Shadowverse is primarily a mobile-optimized CCG that originated in Japan and closely follows typical Japanese gaming conventions style-wise. And while it may seem silly for the art of a card game to be a factor into its overall gameplay feel… let’s just say that it matters in Shadowverse’s case.

By the way, this post is probably NSFW – due solely to me posting Shadowverse cards.

While I am padding space for the NSFW warning, I also want to stress that I actually really enjoy anime aesthetic, generally. As you might have noticed in the sidebar to the right, I have a link to a MyAnimeList detailing pretty much every anime I have seen. Some of them are more graphic than others, but even the more tame ones typically have “hot springs” or beach interludes featuring rampant fanservice. This sort of thing does not turn me off (or on), but I do recognize that it limits the possible appeal of these shows.

On the other hand, sometimes (anime) fanservice is a reason to start or continue playing a game at all. There are undoubtedly individuals who choose Shadowverse for precisely that reason. And if so, good for them.

The real question then becomes the interval and degree of fanservice you are willing to accept. Luckily for you, I have some numbers: 62% of currently available Shadowverse cards are perfectly fine. This of course means that over one third of the remaining Shadowverse cards are either borderline or outright lewd. And, in fact, a full 26% of cards are total fanservice.

These numbers are fairly exact because I looked at all 624 pieces of Shadowverse artwork. Well, technically there are more than that, because each creature in Shadowverse has one normal and one Evolved state. Regardless, I went and looked at every card in Shadowverse and made a corresponding entry in this Google Drive sheet. Art is subjective though, so let me walk you through my thought process.

First, Normal cards are Normal. In fact, some of them are quite amazing:

The colors, lines… everything.

I want to stress that Shadowverse isn’t just about anime. There are absolutely some cards in there that follow the sort of grand Magic: the Gathering style. The variety of art styles is decently impressive. Well… for at least two thirds anyway.

Revelation in particular, wow. That’s cool.

The second category are the borderline cards. I considered something borderline if it featured technically unnecessary cleavage/upper thigh but otherwise fit with the theme of the card. Or if the clothing was fine, but the pose deliberately sexual (which happens a lot). Some examples:

Other than the pose, and the camera angle, and clothing choices, these are good.

Some of the cards that were borderline borderline, are cards like Vampiric Kiss, Elf Prophetess, and Desert Rider. In those cases though, the angles and focus points appear both reasonable and in reasonable taste. With those, I erred on the side of Normal.

These are probably fine.

Others like Serpent Force might might be debatably lewd – the bare legs, the dragon tail coming through the crotch, etc.

Maybe not so debatable, now that I think about it.

At the same time, I didn’t get the impression that it was being deliberately sexual. Which might sound odd given how “phallic object coming through the crotch” is pretty classically sexual, but we really haven’t gotten to the actually overt lewd section yet.

If you want overtly lewd, Shadowverse has you covered. Or uncovered, as the case may be:

Nothing to see here.

Among the lewd cards, some stand out on an egregious tier all their own. These I have marked with an entry in the Max column. Examples of those are:

Oh my.

While some of those may technically make artistic sense – Beast Dominator might be taking its theme a bit too on the toe nose, for example, but it at least has a theme – many of them do not. Could you guess what Arcane Enlightenment does based on its art? It draws cards. Actually, it draws more cards the more spells you cast while it is in your hand. What that has to do with a dress made of belts, I have no idea.

And honestly, that’s one of my biggest problems with a lot of these cards. Yeah, I get it – a card called Succubus is probably going to “sexy.” In fact, it might be easy to give Bloodcraft in general a pass considering that class is all about vampires and demons and such. Overall, 45.68% of Bloodcraft cards are borderline or lewd, so that’s one hell of a pass, but whatever.

The problem is that Runecraft is also 45.68% borderline+. Why is Multipart Experiment and Fiery Embrace in competition with Succubus?

Seriously?

“What’s the big deal?” “Who cares?” A reasonable enough question. I personally care for two reasons. First, unless you are trying to take an ideological stance on a venture, it matters what kind of headwinds said venture might run into. Shadowverse has already grown into the #2 mobile CCG on the market, so it is probably fine over the long term. That said, the above cards limits the appeal of the game, period. Perhaps there are enough hentai whales out there to make up for it, but it is a strictly unnecessary risk nevertheless.

Second? I find the game kinda embarrassing to play. I am not offended by the titillation, but I still wouldn’t actually want people to walk by and see that shit up on my screen. There is something to be said about how videogames and anime in general only became normalized by the people willing to subject themselves to derision by admitting they partake in it. Still, Shadowverse as it is, is not the hill I’m willing to die on.

Be my guest.

If you want to defend cards like Shrine Knight Maiden, go ahead. The newer sets might have fewer extreme examples, but the most recent Bahamut set still has Sadistic Night, Luxhorn Sarissa, Necroassassin, and so on. I think it is safe to say that this type of art is part of the Shadowverse aesthetic now and going forward.

As for Shadowverse gameplay, that will need to be saved for another post.

Divinity: Original Sin

My early impressions of Divinity: Original Sin (D:OS) is that this is the funnest tactical game I’ve played in years… in those few moments the game allows me to play. And I don’t mean that the game is crashing or anything – it’s just a few battles interspersed with long periods of fetch quests/running around town. Which is a real shame, because the combat is amazing.

Right from the start, I knew the D:OS battle system was for me, as it seemed to blend a whole bunch of mechanics from my favorite games. First, it’s character turn-based with a prominent display of upcoming turns, which reminded me of Final Fantasy Tactics or even FFX. Second, it uses Action Points just like with the old-school Fallout games. Third, speaking of Fallout, the movement system is non-grid based, as with Fallout Tactics. Finally, unused AP from the end of your turn is carried over to the next, providing additional tactical considerations.

DOS_Rope

Asking the serious questions.

 

What really takes the cake though, are the relatively novel innovations. For example, right from character creation I was able to learn the Teleport ability. Now, this is an offensive teleport whereby you drop someone (or something) from 20 ft in the air, but the sheer number of uses is extraordinary. In the beginning town, there was a joke about how a rope was preventing my character from reaching a treasure chest. Teleport it over to my area. Spellcaster hiding behind melee? Teleport him in front of your own. Considering how a main component of D:OS are environmental combos – shooting a lightning bolt into the water to electrify everyone standing inside – it is extremely convenient to be able to place people where you want them.

The other thing I appreciate? Spells have cooldowns. This prevents spellcasting from being too OP in combat itself (e.g. Teleport), while still giving you amusing out-of-combat options – aforementioned Teleport, casting a Rain spell on a boat on fire, etc. While this does affect game balance quite a bit in the sense that healing spells are effectively infinite, the sort of D&D/Baldur’s Gate style of resource management just means you can’t do fun things.

DOS_Loot

Oh, hey, an upgrade.

While I am enjoying my time thus far, D:OS does have some annoying design decisions. Inventory management is a righteous pain in the ass. The designers were very generous in the inventory slot department, for example, but they also went the Skyrim route of having nearly everything lootable, e.g. dishes, soap, individual gold pieces, etc. That’s on top of the baffling decision to make it so that inventory isn’t combined when selling things. Start a trade and realize you dumped the expensive goods on your mule partner? Can’t switch characters during a trade. Ooooookay… let me just manually shuffle items around and get right back into the dialog later.

As I mentioned, the pacing is weird too. There is a tutorial of sorts with enemies and traps and treasure. And then you are just kinda dumped into a city to investigate a homicide. The Witcher series has this exactly same issue, actually, but Witcher’s combat was awful so I enjoyed not having to slot through the nonsense. With D:OS, I’m hoping for fights.

In any case, this is fairly early on in the game, so I’m hopeful that things improve from here.

CivHammer

I’m not sure if I’m necessarily hooked on Total War: Warhammer, but I do happen to have spent 100% of my gaming time playing it this week. And going to bed much, much later than I have any rational reason to.

Basically, I’m treating the game as a Warhammer Civilization. Civhammer, if you will. Every army clash is resolved via auto-complete, for good or ill. The reason for that is because I still have no idea how these battles are supposed to go. Scratch that, I know how they are supposed to play out, but I am having an incredibly difficult time actually getting my troops to behave that way. Selecting multiple units already in a formation and clicking 100 feet forward causes them to disperse in a huge line. Why? I have no clue.

There is also an incredible amount of cheese I have organically discovered and am exploiting judiciously. By default, there is a “reinforcement” mechanic that allows you to combine one or more armies for a particular battle as long as they are nearby on the campaign map. Makes sense, I guess. The issue is that the reinforcement army might not have had any movement ability left, e.g. not had the ability to actually attack the army themselves, but now they can contribute their military might in 3+ nearby battles. The AI in this game uses this quite often.

That said, there is an ability that your army commanders can learn around level 6 called Lightning Strike. This ability allows you to attack armies without the benefit of reinforcements for either side. As noted before, the AI leans on the Reinforcement mechanic pretty heavily, and so Lightning Strike can (and did) completely change the battle calculus.

Just recently, for example, I was fighting the last strongholds of the Vampire Lords, but was unable to siege anything because of their two full-unit armies kept combining with the garrison to smoke me out. Unfortunately for them, only one army can occupy a city at a time, so I used Lightning Strike on the army left outside the walls and slaughtered them. Then I attacked the survivors again – Lightning Strike has unlimited uses – completely wiping them out.

At this point, I’m in the endgame of my first playthrough of Total War: Warhammer, with all victory conditions engaged aside from stopping the Chaos army advance from the North. While there is a part of me that is interested in starting another round up once this is done – to check out the other races and their armies – the other part of me wants to move on. We’ll see how things go.

P.S. If anyone knows of some good Total War: Warhammer (or prior titles, for that matter) videos showing how exactly to manually control armies to unlikely victories, it would be appreciated.

Total Warhammer

People say that the definition of insanity it doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. This is precisely me when it comes to strategy games.

Warhammer-Fighting.jpg

I want to want you.

After hearing about all the crazy stories with Crusader Kings 2, I got it on sale and… played all of two hours before uninstalling. Total War: Shogun 2 was a similar situation, which was quite disappointing as I enjoy that setting. Enter Total War: Warhammer.

Verdict? …probably the same.

The first few hours were awful. Then I got hooked after some early victories. Then pissed when the AI started marching armies out of the fog of war and then razing my cities to the ground with zero chance to react. I know, I know, I’m supposed to have expensive hero units roaming about to keep tabs on my borders. But then there’s bullshit like an army moving to a city, killing the defenders and looting the place, moving all the way to a second city, then killing and looting that one, all in one turn. How the shit does that work, temporally? Were they all riding unicorns?

Warhammer-Unicorn

…actually…

Don’t get me started on Hero units, which have to be the most outrageous bullshit I’ve seen. These are units that can run around with impunity and get a 20-30% chance to assassinate your leader, delay your armies, damage some buildings, and all sorts of similar nonsense. Huge army with 20 divisions? It’s fine, park your hero right next to it and get turn after turn of a chance to murder their high-level leader. The other counter-play appears to be deploying heroes of your own to roam about and try to counter-assassinate. But as we learned in Overwatch, heroes never die, they just go AWOL for 5 turns before getting back to their usual shenanigans.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if I were not trying to wipe out the last of the Crooked Moon goblin clan. Razed their capital and another city off the map, but the final city was way, way to the South. Every army I send down there ends up headless, as I had neglected to counter-hero the spider-riding goblin spy, who is now level 14. I am currently sending two full armies and three heroes down there to try and get a handle on things, but now I’m nervous that the Emperor himself is going to get whacked before that leg of the campaign is done.

Warhammer-Bullshit.jpg

LOOK HOW MUCH FUN I’M HAVING.

As for the combat system itself, I couldn’t tell you much about its improvement or not from prior titles. All I particularly know is that I suck at macromanaging. Micromanaging individual little units? Sure, it’s fine. Directing the calvary around and flanking with the sword troops and moving generals and getting the archers to turn the fuck around what are you even doing ohmygod… not so much. I’m using auto-complete on most battles and things are mostly going well.

So, we’ll see. Maybe I stick with it, maybe I don’t. The game was $12 in a Humble Monthly bundle, so I’m not out much either way.

Cold Open

There have been two games I played recently that have started with a cold open, e.g. one with no tutorial that just sort of throws you into the game. The first was The Long Dark, and the second is a space-sim called Hellion; both are in Early Access and both are survival-based games. So, in a sense, it’s difficult to determine whether either one intentionally set out to have cold opens, or if this simply reflects their current, unfinished states.

Hellion-Oops

Pictured: falling out of the airlock into open space.

 

There is a lot to be said regarding the power of cold opens. In an age of 24/7 information coming from every angle, it is refreshing to be thrust into an unknown environment without any sort of hand-holding. It absolutely appeals to Explorer-types, and also those looking for more difficulty in their games. Plus, many times it makes thematic sense, say, if you just woke from cryo-sleep in an otherwise abandoned life pod.

Personally, I find cold opens to be exceptionally difficult to pull off well.

The fundamental issue I have is the dissonance between what the player expects and what the designers intend. What ends up happening is that players must essentially “metagame” how the designers actually intended the game to be played.

For example, in Hellion you awake from cryo-sleep inside a life pod without functioning Life Support. While there are a few tablets on the ground which give you a general idea of steps to take, that is basically all the guidance you are given. I searched the area and did not find enough items onboard to repair the Life Support. I found a jetpack without fuel, and supposedly a charging station for said jetpack, but could not determine a way to refuel.

So… what now? Did I miss an item in the search of the ship? Am I supposed to try and space walk without a jetpack? Is it a bug that there weren’t enough items to repair the Life Support? I have mentioned before that I am fine with tough puzzles, as long as I understand where the pieces are. What I absolutely despise is not knowing whether my failures are due to not performing correctly, or because I didn’t trip some programming flag from 10 minutes ago, or some other nonsense.

LongDark_GL

Somewhat more literal cold open.

I had a similar issue in The Long Dark, of which I played about an hour before turning off. It takes 30 game minutes to break a stick into pieces by hand? Okay, fine. But having found a shelter and tools, I saw no particular way to locate food, or reconcile my exhaustion meter with my temperature meter with the time of day, e.g. how was I to sleep and keep warm in the middle of the day and still survive the night? I understand that perhaps the intention is for the player to be constantly on edge in the quest for survival, but again, I’m not even sure how food really even works in this game yet. I have not seen any flora or fauna beyond sticks and snow.

Flailing around in the darkness is not my idea of quality game time.

I’m not saying game designers should go full Ocarina of Time and have Navi pester you for hours. Minecraft has (had?) a cold open that was relatively straightforward once you got over the intellectual hump of punching trees. Don’t Starve is a much better example of how to do a cold open – there isn’t much of an explanation of anything, but I still felt a sense of agency in being able to interact with things.

And maybe that’s just it: I might not be doing the right things, but being able to do something is important.

I dunno. I think the best compromise would be to have cold opens with a fairly robust PDA/AI Assistant/Crafting Menu. Those that want to wander around blindly can, but those who want to know what they can do… well, can.

XCOM2’d

I have successfully completed XCOM2. And I am not entirely sure I will be playing again.

There is a lot to like about the game. If you enjoyed the first XCOM reboot, this one will likely be right up your alley as well. Good turn-based tactical games are hard to come by, and this is decent. There is also the Civilization-esque “one… more… turn…” element when it comes to researching new technology or building new rooms; it is technically just watching a clock spin around, but you occasionally get “interrupted” with critical missions, which you finish, then want to the research to finish before closing the game, but then a new mission… etc.

That said, there are just some core design decisions that I just don’t like.

The biggest one – which admittedly hasn’t changed from the first game – is how enemies get a “free turn” when you first discover them through the fog of war. I mean, I get it, a squad-turn based game needs some sort limitation set so that a scout running around doesn’t let your team instantly mow down tightly-grouped packs of enemies before they can react. Still, I hate it every time, and it warps my tactical considerations in an entirely metagame way. For example, it immensely dissuades melee units, because they can inadvertently reveal new enemies in the middle of a turn, which then causes your team to get hosed out of nowhere.

Another arguably “unfair” criticism I have is the mostly binary damage model. Firaxis isn’t doing anything out of the ordinary here – tactical turn-based games are tactical. But when you have a dude sporting a minigun that sprays plasma rounds at an enemy from 10 feet away, missing a 68% chance to hit and dealing zero damage strains my suspension of disbelief. Missing a sniper shot is fine. Even a few shots with an assault rifle is okay. But shotguns and miniguns should be doing something to your target provided you pointing it in their general direction.

The last problem I have is the same one I brought up with my Impression post. Namely, the wildly uneven difficulty. Early game Sectoids mind-controlling a squad member when you can only field 4 at a time is ridiculously punishing. But by mid-game? My forces were almost untouchable.

I mean, it matches the narrative of a scrappy resistance slowly taking the upper-hand against highly advanced aliens. At the same time, the actual gameplay element immensely suffers due to it. Ironman mode might make things more difficult simply because of it exacerbating the problems outlined in the prior two paragraphs, but the fundamental problem is that more options = easier game. Throwing higher health enemies with extra armor at me does nothing when I can dance around them with Mimic grenades, grappling hooks, and wrist-mounted rocket launchers.

I bought XCOM2 via Humble Monthly bundle for $12, and it has generated 40+ hours of relatively enjoyable gameplay. It is entirely possible that something like the Long War 2 mod could generate even more. So, yeah, I can highly recommend this game. I just can’t particularly say that I want to play it anymore.

ZOTAC: Thumbs Up

If you will recall, my GTX 970 card died recently. Here is the timeline of events:

  • Feb 12th – Submitted RMA request to ZOTAC.
  • Feb 13th – RMA request is approved.
  • Feb 15ish – I mailed my card via UPS.
  • Feb 21st – ZOTAC received my card.
  • Feb 22nd – ZOTAC confirmed the card is dead. Asks if new card is OK.
  • Feb 24th – New card shipped out.
  • Feb 27th – New card arrived.

In other words, from the time ZOTAC received my card to the time they mailed a replaced out was pretty much less than a week. Most of the delay was on my end of things, when I tried changing the power supply, sent my PC for repairs at Microcenter, etc. Given the horror stories I have heard and the “please give us 30 days” boilerplate, this is incredible.

Also incredible was this exchange:

We unfortunately do not have your specific model in stock, so we would like to offer you the ZT-P10600A-10L. Please confirm this change is agreeable asap.

For those playing at home, this is the ZT-P10600A-10L. As in GTX 1060 6GB Mini. As in, a card that is smaller, quieter, uses less electricity, and is roughly 10% better at benchmarks than a 970. Needless to say, I confirmed that this change was agreeable.

So, yeah. I installed the card on Monday and put it through its paces. On the Heaven benchmark software, I got 100-120 fps with temps stabilizing at 72C. I’m still pouring hours into XCOM2 at the moment, but I will hopefully be back to eye-candy gaming here shortly.

All in all, my graphics card dying worked out rather well for me.