Blog Archives

Regression Towards the Mean

I’m sure that 7 Days to Die (7DTD) is a rather niche topic of interest to most people here, much less discussion about experimental Alpha builds of an Early Access titles, but I feel like the things going on with its development are applicable more generally.

When the first Alpha 16 (A16) experimental build arrived, it was transformative. Sleeper zombies seems like a minor change, but it fundamentally changed how you interacted with buildings. Prior to A16, you knew pretty much instantly how many zombies were inside a given structure, and once you killed all of them banging on the doors trying to get out, you were free to loot the place in peace. That is no longer the case – now you must actively sweep each room, and double-tap each body on the floor to ensure it stays where it is. There are still some bugs with these Sleepers suddenly spawning right behind you, but the overall effect is that nowhere is safe until you make it so.

Then came the balance changes.

First, since the Sleeper zombie system necessarily increases the amount of zombies one faces, zombie loot was decreased across the board. This makes sense, as if prior loot rates stayed the same, you might end up getting more loot from the zombies inside a building than the building itself.

In practice though, reducing zombie loot makes fighting zombies considerably less fun, especially on Horde nights. Zombies essentially become resource drains, to be avoided if possible. Which… maybe makes sense. Games like Dying Light featured that model, with zombies that functioned as speed bumps and possible death traps, nothing else. The problem is that Dying Light also featured impenetrable home bases, whereas even a few ignored zombies in 7DTD can bring down the strongest base in time.

Another change? Resource gains were reduced significantly. Up to this point, there was a “last hit” bonus drop of resources when you finally cut down a tree or smashed a boulder. Not only were the bonus resources great, but it was also viscerally satisfying getting that last burst of stuff concurrent with destroying the object you were mining. Apparently it made the early game too easy for the devs’ tastes however, so they got rid of it. Now when you fell a tree, you get the same 2-3 pieces of wood you got from whacking it the first 30 times.

More recently, the devs have also messed around with Stamina gains and losses. Stamina has always been a bit weird in 7DTD. There are a lot of Perks that correspond with Stamina gains – from making Sprinting cost less, to making Stamina recharge faster, and everything inbetween – but none of them really felt necessary. There was even Coffee and Beer items one could craft to recharge Stamina faster, but why bother? You could get into trouble being chased by a bear after cutting down a tree, but Stamina otherwise served the purpose of preventing you from Sprinting across the map 24/7.

Now? Iron/Steel tools will pretty much instantly drain all of your Stamina. Setting aside the more realistic concern of whether a steel shovel would make digging a hole easier than a stone shovel, the change seems rather ham-fisted. Yes, by making it virtually impossible to complete any tasks without Stamina Perks, the devs have made Stamina Perks relevant. But I’m not sure any thought was spared regarding whether Stamina Perks were a good idea to begin with.

Waiting around for Stamina to recharge is boring gameplay. It is literally no gameplay. Even if the idea is for the early game to be more “dangerous” or difficult, even if the goal is to tangibly demonstrate how improved your character gets over time, this is NOT the way to do it. Having Sleeper zombies haunt every house already shoots the difficulty of the early game through the roof. Reduced Wood gain has made crafting your own base impractical for the first few in-game weeks. Making early lucky finds like an Iron Pickaxe practically pointless until well after the point at which you could create one yourself? Mind-bogglingly stupid.

Experimental builds are experimental, and all this could be reverted tomorrow. Still, it remains concerning to me that the devs are placing such a high premium on “older” ideas rather than iterating on what actually feels fun about the game currently. Half a dozen Stamina Perks do not feel fun, nor does funneling skill points into them. They seem committed to keeping them simply because they had them already, in some weird Sunk Cost Fallacy manner.

Hopefully, things will change – if not soon, then by the beta.

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Artifact Concerns

As the release of Legion inches closer, my implicit worries have begun to mount.

Technically, the concerns I have currently are the same ones I brought up a year ago. Namely: artifacts and alts. Having one weapon that you channel all of your power into is conceptually neat. But WoW has long ceased to be about one character and spec; the structure of the game since around Wrath has seemed to hinge on the assumption of alts, or at least dual specs. Just think about all the Account-Bound items and other technology changes that have occurred in the past five years.

So how is Legion going to interact with everyone’s alts?

Based on the Wowhead research I have been doing… it’s hit or miss. My first concern was being stuck with a single Artifact for a single spec out of the gate. What if I’m a healer and want to level as DPS? You are indeed stuck with a single Artifact until level 102, at which point you can unlock the others. However, you are not stuck stuck – there is a sort of gear workaround for alt specs:

What if I chose the wrong Artifact Weapon, vendored my old weapons and want to level in a different spec before level 102?

Your class Order Hall Quartermaster sells item level 740 weapons/off-hands/shields for 100g each. These can serve as replacements if you need them before you unlock all of your class Artifact Weapons at level 102.

So technically you should be able to have a backup set of gear to use if you want to tank/heal/DPS with an off-spec. Obviously it won’t be as ideal as with your Artifact, but it’s something.

Okay… what about gaining Artifact Power (AP)? During questing, dungeons, etc, you end up receiving consumable items that fill an AP meter for your currently equipped Artifact when used. So, it seems like you should be able to quest as DPS and funnel all of these consumables into your healing Artifact later on. That’s pretty good. Indeed, later on you unlock the Artifact Knowledge ability that will increase the AP gained from future consumables. I thought it was a nice touch that these gains aren’t retroactive to your currently obtained consumables, so there is no reason to hoard them for later.

But then we get into the sort of nitty gritty details of World of Altcraft. The amount of AP that you need to get from level 13 to level 14 is more than the total amount you need from 1-13. This makes a nice, conceptual breakpoint at which you can decide whether to hedge your bets or double-down on one spec or not.

That said, there are two problems with this.

First, you don’t always have any control over your circumstances in the game. Your guild might need a healer now, after you have already hit AP14, setting you a painful distance behind in your ability to fulfill the need. Second, there are numerous specs who can actually unlock their 2nd Elite Traits as soon as AP16. Now, “as soon as AP16” really means 33,450 total AP gained, more than 2.5 times as much as was needed to hit even AP14, but still. I haven’t seen all the math amongst all the specs in this regard, but I don’t believe it to be a trivial increase.

Finally, and most critically: what happens when Blizzard nerfs a spec?

If you were an Assassination rogue and got hit by the nerf-bat, it was always technically possible to switch to Subtlety rogue and keep going. Maybe your Best-in-Slot items change based on whether Mastery or Haste is king. But now? At AP18, you are two times further away from even AP16 farmed from scratch. Unless the Artifacts are front-loaded as all hell, you are basically staring down an entirely new endgame, minus all the easy AP gained via leveling. I suppose Artifact Knowledge is supposed to bridge the gap there, but I’m not entirely convinced Blizzard won’t be requiring us to grind dailies for, erm, days or weeks.

[Fake Edit]: A new interview just came out addressing this:

Artifact Weapons
The team will avoid nerfing a spec from being a little too good to the worst so that you don’t feel that all of your Artifact progression was a waste

Time will tell regarding on the Blizzard dev’s team ability to actually do this.

[/Fake Edit]

And don’t get me started on, you know, an actual alternate character. Artifact Knowledge is not Account-Wide, which means you are back to grinding from zero on every other character on your account.

For someone planning on coming back for Legion, I’m a little nonplussed as to what I’m actually going to do. My namesake paladin is right out – Retribution is garbage again from everything I have heard, and I have no interest in Protection tanking. So… what? I haven’t experienced the post-7.0 classes, and now must make a decision on a new main (probably on a new server at that) with a new main spec that I have to invest in at the expense of every other possible alternative.

Analysis Paralysis is a real thing, which often leads to doing nothing at all. Which is still an option.

Splitting the Hearthstone Baby

Breaking news: Blizzard finally did it. They really did it.

Hearthstone_Format

God damn you all to… nah, it’s cool.

In traditional Hearthstone fashion, the news of Blizzard splitting the Play format baby into Standard and “Wild” seemed to randomly come out of nowhere. In the scheme of things though, such a move is all but inevitable in CCGs, as it is the only legitimate tool to combat power creep. Magic: the Gathering has had different play formats for decades now, and has survived and thrived since then.

But I must admit it still feels a bit different here.

That could very well be because Blizzard is doing it differently. You can read the rundown on Hearthpwn, but the big takeaway for me was how they are up and removing Adventures and expansions from the store when they cycle out of Standard. As pointed out in one of the million Reddit threads streaming through /r/Hearthstone at the moment, this could very well doom the Wild format before it even begins. If you’re a veteran who already has Boom & co crafted? Go compete in Wild. If you’re a new player? You have zero recourse in breaking into this legacy format other than squeezing thousands of Dust from Standard packs.

…hmm. That’s actually not all that different than how Legacy goes in MtG currently. And considering Hearthstone’s Dust system allows you to craft any card you want, you aren’t actually limited to spending $500+ for a single card; technically the Dust can be accumulated over time from wherever.

Hearthstone_PaladinNerf

How will I predict the Paladin curve now?!

Regardless, the actual earth-shattering effect of the format split are all the cards cycling out of Standard. Dr Boom has been such an iconic representation of all the idiocy in how the devs balance Hearthstone, but this almost feels… too abrupt. Paladin loses Shielded Minibot and Muster for Battle and Piloted Shredder. Belcher? Gone. Zombie Chow? Gone. Everything? Gone. This is more than metagame shifting, this is game-game shifting.

And let me just say how brilliant this move is from a business perspective too. Blizzard just wiped out half of everyone’s collection, and most of the people still playing won’t actually mind all that much. “You can just play Wild.” Yeah, until you realize that a year or two from now it will be a cesspit of broken synergies which will make you pine for the halcyon days of Secret Paladin. To compete in Standard, you’ll have to have the latest sets, which means purchasing more packs and Adventures on the regular, when your old staples like Belcher and crew sufficed as stopgap measures up till now.

To be clear, I’m excited about these changes. For one thing, it’s an re-dedication to actually balancing their game. Before, Blizzard’s “policy” was hoping that broken cards were replaced by newer, more broken cards in the next set. Or that a particular deck would just naturally fall out of favor. But now? As noted in their announcement:

The arrival of Standard format will also be an excellent time for us to take stock of Hearthstone. While normally we’re quite conservative about making balance changes to Hearthstone cards (and we’ll continue to be in the future), we’re planning to take the new Hearthstone year as a golden opportunity to re-evaluate a number of cards in the Basic and Classic card sets, including class cards, and make some long-considered adjustments.

Everyone is pretty much taking this to mean a nerf to Druid combo. Indeed, PCGamer said as much:

On the subject of balancing, Blizzard will be addressing some of the more problematic basic and classic cards to ensure they don’t have a negative impact on the Standard metagame. Again, there are no details on which cards are being looked at, but I was told that less than 20 will be nerfed and none will be buffed. Perhaps we’re about to see the end of the Druid combo after all.

Point being: Standard is going to have to be balanced. It probably won’t be, but there’s going to be no excuse for it not to be under this paradigm. Calling it now, though: there will be a series of months in which Wild will be more balanced in the aggregate than Standard. And that will be both hilarious and sad.

In any case, I’m looking forward to seeing how all this plays out.

WoW Mercenary Mode

In increasingly typical WoW fashion, Blizzard came up with an incredibly convoluted solution to a rather easily solved problem:

In an upcoming patch, we’ll be adding a feature that allows you to act as a mercenary for the opposite faction in PvP. Whenever your faction is experiencing a long wait time to get into Ashran or unrated Battlegrounds, agents of the enemy faction will appear in your base in Ashran (Stormshield for the Alliance, Warspear for the Horde). These agents will allow you to enter Ashran or Battlegrounds disguised as an enemy player, and actually fight as the opposite faction.

When you compete as a mercenary, you’ll still earn all the same rewards you would have by winning or losing as your own faction (with the exception of faction-specific achievements). You’ll also have your race automatically changed into one appropriate for the opposite faction while you’re still inside the Battleground or Ashran. Perhaps most importantly, however, you’ll experience much shorter queue times, as our matchmaking system will be able to fill up groups much quicker!

To understand exactly how convoluted Blizzard is being, just read this bit of “clarification”:

On racials: The current intention is that the system swaps your race entirely, including your racial ability. We recognize that that puts Humans in a weird spot, so we’re looking into some options there that aren’t “spend your Honor/Conquest on a Medallion.”

It is difficult to imagine a worse implementation, even if I can kinda-sorta-maybe see why Blizzard is going this route. I mean, for better or for worse (hint: the latter), race matters quite a bit in WoW – if you are fighting a Forsaken character, you know that Fear will be less useful against them, while snares will similarly be less useful against Gnomes. This state of affairs makes the easier solution of “stay the same race, but change the character model” largely impossible unsavory. At the same time, it is exactly because racials are so important that this Mercenary implimentation is unwieldy. Not just for Humans turning into anything else, but Night Elf Druids losing Shadowmeld means they’ll lose a roundabout Vanish that might have been an important component of their character strategy.

I was going to add a further example of Blood Elf Paladins losing Arcane Torrent and becoming crippled Paladins, but let’s face it, only Alliance will be getting the Merc option anytime soon.

All of which is terribly ironic given the state of affairs just a year ago. Remember back in May 2014 when Blizzard was offering free Faction Transfers from Horde to Alliance to assauge queue times in the other direction? It makes me wonder if it wasn’t necessarily the Human racial that imbalanced the factions per se, but rather the instant level 90 that came with Warlords that allowed those on-the-fence Horde to seek greener racial pastures without committing dollars to a faction transfer.

How the tables have turned.

Hmm… I wonder what was released in November 2014?

In any case, in that same post I offered what I consider the best solution to the faction imbalance dilemma: same faction BGs. They already exist for Rated BGs and Arenas, no convoluted mechanical changes necessary. And as I also suggested in that post, if the whole lore and feel of the game is paramount – despite Warlords throwing it away with time travel and alternate universes – there is still an easy solution: sub-factions. It’s not Alliance vs Alliance, it’s Alliance vs Scarlet Crusade. Or Horde vs Twilight Cultists. Would it be weird for Scarlet Crusaders to be defending Frostwolf structures in AV? Sure, maybe. Although it shouldn’t be much more weird than random Alliance characters being faction-changed and defending the same thing under the Merc system.

Incidentally, that sort of highlights why the Merc system isn’t likely to work all that well. More specifically, it’s an “other guy problem.” Queue times suck, no question. But as an Alliance player for more than half the game’s history, let me tell you that instant queues that lead to inevitable losses aren’t all that great either. As an individual, you are better off letting other people utilize the Merc system to give you faster auto-wins. Same faction BGs literally even the playing field, taking away all advantage you might have had based on faction strength.

I dunno. Overall, I am a bit sympathetic to Blizzard’s plight in this regard. The rational design approach would be to get rid of the two factions altogether, as the concept of mutually exclusive factions like Horde and Alliance are quite a bit outdated and inevitably imbalanced. At the same time, there is so much pondorous prescedent, that the potential blow-back from angry veterans would be extreme. Most people are joking when they talk about hatred for Gnomes or whatever, but others are serious insofar as faction identity goes. Blizzard has amped up the faction differences for years and years – remember the motorcycle competition not too long ago? – so complete integration would be a more obvious shark-jumping event.

These halfway solutions though? It’s bad design. Imagine a year from now if the faction balance has shifted back to Horde, and Horde Mercs are entering BGs as Humans. Do they keep their PvP trinkets? Do said trinkets automatically transform into something else?

There are really only three elegant solutions to this problem overall:

  1. Change the Human racial.
  2. Disable all racials in PvP.
  3. Same-faction BGs.

The first is something that’s going to need to happen eventually, wailing and gnashing of teeth aside. It could be changed to either be slightly worse than otherwise default PvP trinket (+15 second cooldown), or Blizzard could be more radical and give the ability to everyone and then come up with something new for Humans. Remember, the Human racial used to be a button that increased the ability to see through stealth; which was still better than the garbage Draenei have been stuck with since inception, but nevermind. The second option of disabling racials is more of the nuclear option. But only the third solution is likely to solve the queue-time issue on a permanent basis.

Mercenaries are a cool concept, but “becoming the opposite faction” is clunky to the extreme, and unlikely to solve the underlying issues to any great degree. I mean, if racials are the underlying issue, getting Alliance to temporarily turn into Horde isn’t going to do anything – Alliance will still win on the aggregate power of their racials. This might be a stopgap queue solution, but it’s development time better spent on something more long-term. Like same-faction BGs.

Wildstar Housing, Balance

This Penny Arcade is pretty much spot-on.

I have not personally succumbed to the housing endgame, but I absolutely see the appeal. My present domicile is named Function Over Form, and is primarily centered around having my own Mining and Garden nodes for resource gathering. Any decor that isn’t worth vendoring is placed as amusingly as possible, scaled up to the maximum. As it turns out, the scale on most of these items figuratively and literally go to 11.

I enjoy the view from my 30-ft couch.

The view from my 20-ft couch.

If you were looking for more serious housing endeavors, examples abound. I especially enjoyed seeing the DIY jumping puzzles. The craziest, most underrated part? You can visit other peoples’ houses. You don’t even need to know them in-game; as long as they have opened their house to the public, you can stop by, and perhaps harvest their resource nodes (more on that in a sec).

Here is the method to do so, and please pass it along:

Won't you be my neighbor?

Won’t you be my neighbor?

Wildstar is by no means the first MMO with player housing. I was questing with a few friends on Vent the other night, and one friend actually complained that EQ2’s housing system was more intuitive. I’ll, uh, take your word for that.

Carbine has done something really clever here though, in elevating the Show & Tell aspect by combining it with Challenges and resources. I have my low-effort housing solely to be able to low-effort mine resources every hour or so; the Shardspire Canyon FABkit in the back similarly allows me to complete an easy challenge for a shot at additional goodies every 30 minutes.

But see, you can get a list of a few dozen people who have opened their houses to the public and check out their setups. If they too have resource nodes or Challenges on their property to complete, you have an incentive to essentially cold-call them to become Neighbors. Collect a big enough list, and you can probably farm all day just in other peoples’ houses.

Maybe that doesn’t seem all that social. I will tell you though, that it got me to add a random stranger to my Friend’s List so I could talk him into letting me farm his creepy, albeit very committed Plushie-themed house on the regular. I’m already trying to come up with a naming convention to indicate people willing to 50/50 their nodes into a… well, a “neighborhood,” to our mutual benefit.

The fact that there is a Zone Chat specifically for people in their houses is goddamn brilliant, by the way.

_____________

Having said that, I now have a 2nd character parked at level 15 with very little impetus to move forward. It is difficult to shape into words why that is the case, as I even enjoy my Medic main. As others have mentioned, by level 15 you will have unlocked your house, your mount, and will have opened up enough abilities to get somewhat of a grasp of what buttons you’ll be spamming for the next forever.

Part of the problem is commitment issues. Mobs don’t die in 2-shots anymore, so you better like who you’ll be grinding with. Is Medic really the best for me? In trying out the other classes though, let me just say that Carbine is going to seriously need to work on the ESPer and Engineer (I’d say Warrior too, but I’ll give it another shot first).

The Engineer problem is pretty straight-forward: the bots suck. Not only do the bots suck damage-wise – which is a big problem when they constitute 2 of your very early ability selections – but they have pathing issues too, which can lead to aggro issues. My Engineer is level 8 and it just doesn’t feel fun, and none of the upcoming abilities sound like they will be fun either.

The ESPer problem, on the other hand, is a complete breakdown in the class design. I can’t speak for it’s endgame performance, but there is almost nothing I like where I’m at. It is currently the ONLY class to have it’s “primary” builder require being stationary, which makes it worse than useless in PvP. Flag carrier running away? GG. Target runs out of your telegraph? Now they’re 35+ yards away and you’ll never hit them with anything. GG. Then you have it’s R ability with its… stay stationary to gain an absorb shield, interrupt armor, and PSI points? Only useable in combat? Let me just say that using that ability in PvP just leads to pretty much instant death, even in the lower brackets.

Medic was more fun, but PvP is a crazy mess.

Medic was more fun, but PvP is a crazy mess regardless of class.

I’m mentioning PvP a lot with the ESPer as that is largely how I leveled with that toon. The Aurin/Mordesh starting area is abysmal, and meanwhile PvP is pretty outstandingly rewarding and fun. It takes around 3-4 games per level, and you pretty much consistently get 300-400 PvP currency per battle. The PvP gear has some “useless” stats to make it weaker in PvE, but you can unlock usable shoulders that will likely last you a half-dozen levels or more with pure PvE stats. Otherwise, you must rely on opening the PvP loot bags rewarded at the end ala GW2, to similar effect (read: none).

My goal with the ESPer was pretty much to heal exclusively, and in that area it is kinda okay. Most of its healing abilities are actually targeted (and stationary), which reverts the game back to WoW-mode; I moved the team window down to the center of the screen and basically used it like Healbot. I ended up unlocking a standard telegraph heal in the teens though, so I was able to be a bit more mobile as a healer.

So, yeah, ESPer, Engineer, and likely Warrior are about the three weakest classes at the moment. Carbine is on the record for saying that classes will be buffed up to the top level rather than top-tier classes being nerfed, so we’ll see exactly how they plan on solving this balance issue. I don’t see any way out for the ESPer other than making the level 1 ability a mobile cast though.

#TitanFail

I don’t think I have ever had something like matchmaking so completely and totally ruin a game for me. I mean, queuing up as Alliance for BGs in WoW was pretty bad towards the end, but Titanfall? Holy Jesus, it’s bad. So bad that I started an Imgur album to detail it. Examples:

dH1uOGK

Balance.

More balance.

More balance.

This matchmaking is so terrible it cannot possibly be random chance. I mean, I can understand a little bit of snowballing – god knows that if I see a veteran on my team, I play it out until I get sick of the game – but this sort of shit is just stupid. All Titanfall has is it’s moment-to-moment gameplay, so for you to face an entire 10 minute match with your nose in the carpet the entire goddamn time is worse than the most banal daily quest in any MMO. I’d rather be grinding Golden Lotus rep – at least at the end of the day, I’d have something to show for my blood, sweat, and ample tears.

I tried to play some PlanetSide 2 to wash the taste out of my mouth, but the game crashed to desktop after about 20 minutes.

Remember when I said I never buy games near their release days and/or at full MSRP? This is why. If I could resell Titanfall or get a refund, I would; then maybe come back when the developers got their shit together.

Hearthstone is Released, Weirdly Balanced

So the blues weren’t kidding about Hearthstone being released Soon™… because it came out today. Surprise!

Speaking of surprises, the patch notes were somewhat full of them. Or rather, not full of them, which itself is surprising. The most obvious changes were to two Legendary cards I talked about last month: Nat Pagle and Tinkmaster Overspark. Pagle’s nerf was brilliantly subtle, taking the form of moving the card-draw coin-flip from the end of your turn to the beginning. It almost doesn’t feel like a nerf at all, but the reality is that Pagle isn’t likely to be haunting the upper echelons of tournaments any longer; that one extra turn of being able to deal with Pagle before the draw engine full gets started is actually pretty huge.

In contrast, the Tinkmaster nerf has all the subtlety of Jay “And double it!” Wilson game design. Which may as well have been the case, since the card was “fixed” (in the veterinarian sense) by doubling the RNG.

From hero to zero.

From hero to zero.

Where things get interesting is the peek into the Hearthstone card balance logic when the blues explained the Tink nerf:

Tinkmaster is a neutral card that silences and often shrinks big creatures. This reduces the amount of big, fun creatures in the environment. We think this change will increase the amount fun creatures in the environment, and bring him more in-line with his cost and overall power. Tinkmaster should still show up in certain types of decks, but will no longer be appearing in every high level deck.

While they did talk about cost and overall power at the end, the main concern was how Tink was “reducing the amount of big, fun creatures in the environment,” e.g. other Legendaries, presumably. Cards like Ragnaros and Ysera are win conditions in of themselves, and have pretty much gone unchanged since they were introduced; people who were holding out hope that perhaps these Legendaries would get the Pagle treatment seem out of luck. Hearthstone is not Magic: the Gathering, of course, but it appears this fact will need to be repeated a few more times before it fully sinks in.

And speak of the devil:

Secrets can now only activate on your opponent’s turn.

  • Activating your own secrets feels a little strange, but mostly, the ability to do this was preventing us from creating new and powerful secrets that trigger off of events you can easily control (like a minion dying).  They end up functioning just like spells, instead of trying to bait your opponent into a bad play.  This change keeps secrets working like traps you lay for your opponent, instead of spells that you cast and use on your own turn.

I would characterize this Secret change as a huge Paladin nerf, but Paladins are pretty much nonexistent at high levels of play, and their Secrets are gimmicky at best. However, this change turns those gimmicks into Disenchant material. For example, Redemption is a Paladin Secret that says the next minion of yours that dies, gets brought back to life at 1 HP. Pair that with a value creature with Charge like Argent Commander, and you can suicide into a minion and come back to deal some extra damage. Or, of course, you could use Redemption with a Legendary for some serious card advantage.

Well, not anymore.

In any case, Hearthstone is out, it’s fun, and it’s F2P for US audiences… and merely Free-to-Download, In-App Purchases Optional (F2DIAPO) for those in the EU. Blizzard is offering a WoW mount for those willing to get rolled by beta veterans until three wins are grinded out, so there’s that too.

Review: Far Cry 3

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

Some seriously nice graphics.

Some seriously nice graphics.

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

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

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

But therein lies the rub.

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

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

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

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

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

I didn't start the fire...

I, uh, I didn’t start the fire…

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

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

The Hearthstone Hole

Green Armadillo from Player vs Developer has a post up about the somewhat skewed incentives in Hearthstone. Essentially, Blizzard does not have too much of an incentive to do Matchmaking based on card rarity/quality, as not doing so allows the paying customers to get some easy wins against non-paying customers while hopefully encouraging the latter to spend some money to get out of the hole. Plus, queue times might go up if they segmented the audience too far.

I’m not really going to comment too much on the situation itself, because it is kinda true. Hearthstone is a CCG, and like all CCGs, it is Pay-To-Win until all the cards are obtained. Moreover, there appears to be a good chance that the Matchmaking algorithm is not even in place or functioning properly. And like I have mentioned in the past, Blizzard has stuck close to the CCG model of strictly-better cards being “balanced” around their rarity.

But let’s put all that aside for now, and start talking solutions.

1) Stick to Arenas

Hearthstone is basically the Arena for me; everything else is simply a means to more Arena games. The only real reason why I would care about opening more packs and whatnot is to get cards that will allow me to complete my daily quests faster. That might change at some later date – likely coinciding with me actually opening up something more than a Rare card – but for now it is more than enough.

If you are leery about the Arena, don’t be. It is the great equalizer. Sorta. It is still entirely possible to be screwed via RNG by facing opponents that got two Legendary cards whereas you barely have one Epic. Plus, sometimes you get little to no selection when it comes to removal or class-specific cards. I went 4-0 the other day as a Warlock, feeling good, and then got matched with a Mage that had four Fireballs. In a normal game, you can’t even have more than two of the same card. I ended up losing to that Mage, plus a 2nd mage that had a seemingly never-ending supply of Freezing cards (Blizzard, Ice Lance, etc), and some third guy that undoubtedly didn’t deserve to beat me somehow.

Hmm… I’m not exactly helping things, am I?

2) Basic decks can still be good.

Generally speaking, Basic Decks are not at too much of a disadvantage depending on the class you are playing. That means both your class and their class. So while the daily quest can basically dictate which class you end up having to play as to get rewarded, there are steps you can take to put the odds ever in your favor.

For example, this Mage deck is entirely Basic cards:

I don't even have any non-Basic Mage cards yet.

I don’t even have any non-Basic Mage cards yet.

By a complete coincidence, the two dailies I had sitting around were “Win 5 games” and both had Mage as one of the class options. I went 5-2 with the above deck in Unranked mode.

I am not suggesting that I am some pro player – my Arena matches usually keep me humble – but understanding the hidden depths to something simple like the above deck is key in turning games around. For example, Kobold Geomancer is not a particularly desirable card on it’s own, since it often (at best) trades with other 2-drops. And while you should absolutely play it early if you don’t have anything better, keep in mind its hidden power: turning Arcane Explosion into a Consecration on turn 4. Even if they play something with 3 HP, you can spend your 3rd turn sniping it down to 2 HP before likely wiping their Turn 1-4 board. Hell, it even works in the late-game considering you can Geomancer + Flamestrike to take out 5 HP dudes, or finish off a line of wounded guys with the 2-damage version.

If I had all the Mage cards, would I replace cards in the above deck? Of course. Mana Wyrm is a complete no-brainer, for example. Then again, most of the cards I would add would essentially morph the deck into something else entirely – Mana Wyrm, Blizzard, and Cone of Cold all have a much different feel to them than Arcane Missiles, Arcane Explosion, and Kobold Geomancer shenanigans. To say nothing about the non-Basic Neutral cards available.

There are absolutely certain classes that are much weaker than others when they do not have access to their powerful Rares/Epics – such as Warriors and Brawl – but the Mage really isn’t one of them. Even classes like the Shaman can win unexpectedly with just their Basic cards (i.e. via Bloodlust).

All that being said, yes, you can and will roll over and die to some Diamond+ League decks. One of the losses I had in my run was to a Priest, who only won because Blizzard knee-jerked buffed the hell out of them in the latest patch. Mind Control, in particular, is some major bullshit:

It's 2:1 Card Advantage, minimum.

It’s 2:1 Card Advantage, minimum.

I had two big blockers Mind Controlled in that match, along with facing some Shadow Word: Pain slowing my early game. “Playing around” the Mind Control is possible, sure, but it cedes control of the board to the Priest unless they haven’t been playing anything else this whole time. Flamestrike is certainly powerful and has to be taken into consideration when facing a Mage, but let’s face it, the Mage is perhaps the best class to deal with Mind Control – everyone else is screwed.

Even though that game felt completely awful to me, it is worth mentioning that I was 1 damage away from stealing earning the game at the end.

This would have felt SO GOOD, dammit.

This would have felt SO GOOD, dammit.

Fireball for 6 damage, Frostbolt for 3 damage, Hero Power for 1 damage would have left the Priest at 1 HP and frozen. Now that I think about it… holy shit, guys. I’m so dumb. What I ended up doing was Fireball the Lord of the Arena (my own, by the way), Frostbolt the Yeti, Hero Power the Priest, and then attack for 2. My logic at the time was that if I could bluff him into worrying about a Pyroblast (10 damage), he might play more defensively while I continued digging a way out of the hole. It didn’t occur to me that being frozen by the Frostbolt might have prevented him from using his own Hero Power to heal… letting me ping him for 1 damage and the win next turn.

Even if that doesn’t work – I’m honestly not sure – the point is the same: I had him to within 1 damage with a Basic deck. A minor decision at the beginning of the match or an errant attack against a creature I didn’t have to might have made all the difference. So while some cards are horribly OP and possibly locked behind a rarity wall, just keep in mind that a better player might have been able to steer your same deck and same draws into a win.

So… strive to be that better player.

3) Your cards only ever improve

This likely won’t feel like a “solution,” but your card situation in Hearthstone only ever improves. But more importantly, keep in mind that if you are feeling particularly weak without a certain card, you can craft that card specifically. Each pack of cards can be disenchanted for 40 Dust, minimum (+5 for Common, +20 for Rare). That is enough for a 100% assured Common card of your choice, per pack. Three packs would equal a Rare of your choice plus 20 Dust leftover. Ten packs would give you any Epic of your choice. And if you were crazy enough to do so, 40 packs will guarantee any Legendary card of your choice.

Again, those are minimum numbers. If you (digitally) crack open a second Rare, or an Epic/Legendary/Gold version of any card, the Dust payout increases substantially. Plus, you know, you might actually open the card that you were looking for to begin with.

What I am basically trying to get across here is that Green Armadillo (and others) are correct: Hearthstone is a “F2P” CCG whose principal purpose is to extract the maximum amount of dollars from you in a completely typical F2P way. The important difference here, and reason I am likely to be playing Hearthstone for a long time to come, is that Blizzard isn’t being particularly nefarious about it. Try playing Magic Online or the upcoming Hex by investing zero dollars while still earning actual cards. Try playing any CCG and having a predictable and free (!) method of eventually acquiring any specific card you want. I mean, everyone pretty much agrees that the best way to play Card Hunter is to throw down $25 on their Basic Edition, and that’s also a F2P game. A similar “investment” early on could make your daily quests in Hearthstone that much easier.

Or save your money, like I’m doing. Losing streaks suck, but the Matchmaking software will fix it eventually if going Live doesn’t do so by virtue of deepening the pool of players. The minute you hit 150g, you can buy a ticket into a cloistered realm where, even if everyone doesn’t have the same quality cards, you are at least not shackled to playing around with just your Basic ones. Plus, 7 wins before 3 losses means you can get back in for free. And even if you go 0-3 like I have on a few occasions, the minimum you walk away with is something like this:

Just be aware of the ego-bruising that accompanies it.

Just be aware of the ego-bruising that accompanies it.

What’s that? A booster pack plus almost as much Dust as you’d get disenchanting a 2nd pack.

Card balance isn’t exactly where it needs to be – beta is beta – but the one thing least deserving of criticism is Hearthstone’s business model. While being in the Hearthstone Hole is discouraging, it is not and will never be as bad as the same phenomenon in traditional CCGs nor even your everyday F2P app with a payslope. I mean, Jesus, I’m not sure how other CCGs can compete with this.

[Hearthstone] Remaining Concerns

My Press™ coverage of Hearthstone has been pretty glowing thus far, so I wanted to talk today about some lingering concerns about a few issues that cropped up in the last week. I do not believe these to be structural problems necessarily – I feel like they could be fixed within the Beta – but I also have no idea how Blizzard will address them, if at all.

1) Unbalanced Heroes

On paper, the nine Heroes you can pick between are balanced. Here is a rundown of their powers:

  • Druid – Hero gains +1 Attack until end of turn, and +1 Armor
  • Priest – Restore 2 health to target
  • Warrior – Hero gains 2 Armor
  • Paladin – Put a 1/1 creature into play
  • Rogue – create a 1 attack/2 durability weapon, or +1 Attack to weapon this turn
  • Warlock – Lose 2 Health and draw a card
  • Hunter – Deal 2 damage to enemy Hero
  • Shaman – Create a random totem (usually 0/2 creature w/ ability)
  • Mage – Deal 1 damage to a target

By the way, all of the listed abilities cost the same amount of resources (2 crystals).

One of the more annoying classes to play against.

One of the more annoying classes to play against.

The problem in reality is two-fold. First, there is a huge difference in synergy between a Hero’s powers and the class-restricted cards. The Priest’s ability, for example, combos ridiculously well with one of the default Priest cards: Northshire Cleric, a 1/3 creature that let’s you draw a card when a creature is healed. In fact, entire mechanics revolve around and/or become enabled by the Priest’s ability. Enrage, for example, is an ability that triggers an effect when the creature is damaged. One of the most common cards that uses Enrage is the Gurubashi Berserker, a 2/5 creature that gets +3 Attack each time it’s damaged. Smashing into a 2/2 will beef the troll up to a 5/3, which is nice… but also puts it within range of a lot of counter-attacks. A simple heal from the Priest though, puts it back to 5/5, letting it snowball further. Then you have goofy cards like the Angry Chicken, which is a 1/1 with Enrage: +5 Attack. Obviously you need to combine that creature with some other effects to boost its Health, of which the Priest has many.

By means of comparison, nothing combos with the Hunter ability. In Magic: the Gathering, the devs eventually created the Bloodthirst mechanic that boosted a creature’s stats (or some bonus effect) if it was played the same turn as the opponent taking damage. No such thing exists in Hearthstone, at least for now. And while Rogue decks need no assistance, the Combo system on Rogue cards have nothing to do with the Rogue’s ability; at least the Druid, Warrior, and Warlock are thematically consistent with their class cards. Then again, perhaps we should look at the Priest as an outlier rather than the bar that other classes should reach.

The second problem is related to the first: what class cards are available by default radically changes the strength of your deck. Now, sure, technically everyone will be able to unlock all 20 basic class cards by simply playing against the computer (assuming they didn’t want to challenge players). But take my word for it: many of those early games suck. Hard.

Through either a combination of the first issue or the second, I can already tell that some Heroes are being left in the dust by the Beta population. I would say more than 95% of the Ranked games I have played have been against either the Mage, Rogue, or Priest. For a good reason: they’re strong.

There are a few clever things Blizzard is already doing to (presumably) combat this trend. One of the types of daily quests is to win 2 games as a specific class. When I logged on yesterday, for example, I had to win 2 games as a Druid and Warrior (two separate quests, as I had missed yesterday’s daily). Having played neither before, I created custom decks for both and then went for a spin against some human opponents. Those games played out very differently than my normal games, and were pretty fun to boot, although I doubt I will be spending much time with them until I luck into some of their non-basic class cards from booster packs.

The other clever move to improve class experimentation, if not promote diversity, is how Arena mode matches start by forcing you to pick between three random class Heroes before you start the actual Draft process. The other day, I had to pick between the Hunter, Druid, and Shaman, all of whom I had never played with before. While they let you mouse-over their Hero powers from that specific screen, the more critical aspect of the Heroes is ultimately their selection of class-specific cards. Spending some time in your collection looking at all of the class’ cards – which, by the way, Hearthstone allows you to do even if you don’t own them – is definitely recommended.

For the record, I chose the Hunter. And went 0-3.

Worst possible Arena result, I think.

Worst possible Arena result, I think.

2) Unbalanced Cards

Beyond the Hero issue and the class-specific card issue, I have a problem with the card balance in a few locations. Basically, I don’t feel like strictly-better cards should exist in a CCG, especially not when it appears it’s being “balanced” around rareness. Take a look at the following:

Balance!

Balance!

There is precisely one scenario in which you might choose the raptor over the gnome: if you were playing some kind of Beast deck (e.g. with the Hunter). And actually, you might put in the gnome even in your Beast deck; por que no los dos? At least with the Ooze, you can convince yourself that there are certain scenarios in which blowing up the opponent’s weapon is better than whittling down their blockers for free.

By the way, only the Paladin, Warrior, and Rogue are likely to ever have weapons equipped. That Ooze is pretty much a dead draw 90% of the time in my experience.

A few other cards are simply ridiculous. Pint-Sized Summoner, for example, pretty much single-handedly caused me to lose an Arena game (I had no targeted removal at the time). Bloodlust is probably balanced, but 100% of the games in which I lost to a Shaman have been due to that one card… and a bunch of suddenly bloodthirsty totems. And so on.

3) Over-reliance on Taunt

This section is going to be short, because the title sums it up: Taunt is both ubiquitous and pretty much the only means of combat shenanigans.

This should have been a combo, dammit!

This should have been a combo, dammit!

In case you aren’t aware, Taunt is a creature ability that forces an opponent to only attack the creature with Taunt, as opposed to being able to attack any creature or just smash the opponent’s face in directly. Without Taunt, basically whoever drops creatures first is at a huge advantage since they can decide to attack any “special” creatures their opponents play with their own creature or ignore them. Pretty much the only rational strategy then becomes A) play special creature and then immediately drop a Taunt meatshield, or B) beef up a Taunt creature and control the board. An all-in-one package example of the latter is Ancient of War, which is an absolute bomb drop in Arena, by the way.

4) Playing first puts you at a huge disadvantage

Another shorty, but basically I never ever want to go first when playing Hearthstone.

Each player draws three cards before a game, and can choose to send any (or none) of the cards back and draw different ones. Whoever goes second draws a fourth card during this phase, and thus can fish for their deck combo cards or removal that much deeper. Plus, after the first player’s turn, they get a 0 crystal card called “The Coin” that will temporarily give you 1 crystal for a turn. So, basically, going second you can cast a 2 crystal card on your turn 1, or 3 crystal card on turn 2, and so on. What makes it even worse is that The Coin counts as playing a card/spell, which can trigger all sorts of nonsense, such as a Defias Ringleader suddenly giving the Rogue a 2/3 and 2/1 creature on turn 1.

Conclusion

Having said all that, I do feel like these are solvable problems. For the most part. Given the simplicity of the resource system and the mechanics in this first set, I am not quite sure how things will get balanced. The Knife-Juggler and Pint-Sized Summoner could be reduced to 2/1 and 1/1 respectively, and still be worth playing. But what about those Hero powers? The Hunter power can’t be reduced to 1 crystal or the damage increased to 3. Would they buff the Hunter class cards instead? What if a player doesn’t actually use those “balancing” cards?

Time will tell upon release exactly how broken some of these interactions are. Time will also tell how much we or Blizzard particular care. I probably have the most fun in Arenas (I went 8-3 and 9-2 this weekend, the latter of which resulted in 310g) where dropping game-changing cards is the norm, and Ranked matches sorta feel like 2v2 Arena in WoW somtimes. I would rather it be balanced of course, but this is also a CCG – there being only a few viable decks at the upper-end is pretty much par for the course. But if Blizzard wants to do some (more) groundbreaking things with their game design, they are going to have to fix the above four issues at a minimum.