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Overwatch’s Mark-Hitting

There is an interesting post up over at MMOBro asking whether or not Overwatch is missing the mark. The conclusion Tyler comes to is this:

For what it is, Overwatch is a solid game. The core gameplay is strong, the art is fantastic, and the action is plentiful. But it is an incredibly narrow game. It’s a fantastic experience for those who crave intense, high octane competitive play, but very unwelcoming for everyone else.

Having spent the last week playing Overwatch 2-5 hours a day, I am inclined to agree.

Most of the criticisms brought up by Tyler are legit. While single-player campaigns in games like COD and Battlefield are generally superfluous, they are value propositions and used extensively to sell boxes via commercials. Blizzard appears to be treating Overwatch more like a MOBA in the sense that they are crafting a lore-rich story and intricate characters that have nothing at all to do with the game itself. Or maybe the straight Team Fortress 2 comparison is more apt.

Regardless, it does feel a bit jarring to have all these production values without a production.

Overwatch_Tunnel

Probably my favorite place in all the maps.

Also, it is very much true that Overwatch is not a particularly welcoming game. The average Time-To-Kill varies, but it very often can be “Instantly.” Junkrat and Reaper can often kill 3+ people practically out of nowhere with their Ultimates, which is kind of a big deal in 6v6 matches.

Indeed, the team size is small enough that a skilled veteran can often single-handedly lock down a match by themselves or a complete noob on your side can result in a demoralizing, grinding loss in an otherwise even match. I’m not sure what kind of matchmaking Blizzard had active during the Beta (assuming they had anything at all), but it didn’t seem to be working that well. The fact that the teams stay the same from match to match (there is no team shuffling) just encourages people to bail to try and find a different server with the possibility of a better team, which just increases the queues for everyone.

Having said that… this is technically still beta. One of the criticisms from Tyler was:

That in and of itself is not necessarily a problem, but there’s nothing else to the game. Blizzard has repeatedly shot down the idea of offering any other game modes.

This is not entirely true.

In fact, if there is contrary info out there, I’d like to know where, because Kaplan has said this:

Yes. The version you are playing now is what will go live at launch (there will be some bug fixes etc…). We also have Competitive Play, which was a feature that was live in Closed Beta. We removed it from Open Beta because we received a ton of great feedback on how to improve the system. We had a tough choice. It would have been awesome to have the feature in for Open Beta and Launch. But we felt like we could really improve on some things so we opted to have the feature come out shortly after launch. We’re hoping that our efforts in the Closed Beta to try to get things done quickly and at high quality aren’t lost on our community — but we also never want to sacrifice the quality of the game by putting something live that isn’t up to our standards.

We’re also working on a TON of post-launch features and content. It’s going to be a pretty amazing summer…

Indeed, Overwatch has borrowed Hearthstone’s Brawl mechanic in which there is a weekly mode with “crazy” new rules. This past week it was random hero selection upon death, and the ability to switch heroes disabled. Not only was this a brilliant, relatively stress-free way to experience characters you might feel bad for picking in a normal match, if Hearthstone is any indication, it is also a test-bed for future mechanics.

Just think about how much live data Blizzard could pull from any given match, in terms of whether stacking three Roadhogs was effective given X or Y factors. Seems dumb now, but maybe that very thing will inform a future, more robust AI for bots down the road. Or when the Brawl from before was normal Overwatch but 75% shorter cooldowns.

Far-fetched? You be the judge:

Hearthstone_Shadowcaster.jpg

Playtesters and didn’t even know it.

So, in the final before-launch analysis, I conclude that… Overwatch is fun. I wish I was playing it right now. Assuming that Blizzard fixes the matchmaking and horrible DC experiences, it will absolutely become a part of my “I don’t know what to play right now” rotation. You can easily get four matches done in 30 minutes, which starts to make you wonder if Blizzard’s master plan (assuming there is one) is to fill in the holes in WoW’s design with other games. Waiting for dungeon queue? Play some Overwatch. Which is absolutely easier to jump in and out of than Hearthstone or Heroes of the Storm.

However, much in the way that raiding isn’t for everyone, neither is Overwatch. If you are John Q Casual, there isn’t much for you to do (at the moment). The scope of the Battlefield series is such that you could always tag along a squad as a medic or supply guy and generally not be nuisance while rendering material assistance to your team. In Overwatch? You’re a straight liability, even if you are a healer. Especially if you are a healer. Because the better players might assume you’re competent and not pull a healer themselves.

So as I mentioned before, I agree with Tyler. If you’re looking for quick bursts of kinda frustrating, often amusing FPS action, Overwatch is pretty damn good. Just make sure that is what you’re looking for before you throw down $40/$60.

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Impressions: Overwatch Beta

I managed to get into the Overwatch beta stress test this past weekend, and ended up logging a dozen or so hours with the game. Did I have fun with the game? Absolutely, yes. Am I still concerned with the game’s longevity and overall direction? Sadly, also yes.

Matches in Overwatch are generally over quick. In fact, here is one with me playing Pharah:

That’s five minutes from start to finish. Respawn timers are 10 seconds. There were a few matches that went for 10-15 minutes, but for the most part, the only downtime you’ll experience in this game are either in-between matches or running back from the spawn room to the fight. Time-to-Kill generally depends on the character, but you can be one-shot or otherwise die within 1 second depending on what goes on. Fighting is almost always quick, manic action from start to finish.

One thing that I’ve enjoyed more than I thought I would are the MOBA-ish elements. There are four archetypes – Offense, Defense, Tank, Support – and each character generally has two abilities with cooldowns and an Ultimate ability that charges from damage. I also like how the character select screen will warn your team if it is missing the expected balance, e.g. no Support characters, no “builders,” and so on. Sometimes you can ignore the warnings depending on the maps, but for the most part it is accurate; without a Tank, it’s tough to push capture points and otherwise stop enemy advances.

(Incidentally, my feelings on the TF2 vs Overwatch matter haven’t changed from a year ago.)

That brings me to my first issue, actually. I kinda feel like the competitive scene of this game will be a joke, and there really isn’t anything Blizzard will be able to do about it. Such a conclusion was driven home to me rather forcibly in one of the most absurdly bad matches I have ever played, perhaps in any videogame:

You have no chance to survive, make your time.

You have no chance to survive, make your time.

The enemy team was Attacking in Hanamura, which meant they needed to capture Point A in King of the Hill fashion, then Point B to win the match. As you can see above, the enemy team consisted of three D.Va characters and a Winston (all four of which are Tanks), and Lucio, who is an passive AoE healer with an Ultimate that puts a huge shield around every friendly nearby. That they also had a Pharah is immaterial.

The short version of this match is that all the Tanks, whom all have the ability to jump/fly past barriers by the way, just rushed Point A and sat on it. I hesitate to say that such an attack is impossible to defend against, but I honestly have no idea how you’re supposed to within the time you are given. Your balanced team is just going to get murdered, and by the time you respawn, Point A will already have been taken.

Even if Blizzard made it so that only one person can be a certain character, there are enough Tanks to reproduce this strategy. And it’s not even a particularly risky strategy when Attacking. I’ll talk about the overpowered D.Va in a moment, but the only way I can imagine beating this would be to have Defense consist of 3-4 Junkrats just spamming the capture point with grenades. And even that might not be enough.

In this context, what is the Pro Scene going to consist of? Maybe Blizzard doesn’t particular care about the Pro Scene. In which case, I’d be nervous about “investing” in this game in the long-term.

As I said before, I have had fun with Overwatch. I kinda want to be playing it right now, actually. But at the end of each match, there is a lingering worry that this is just another Titanfall. In other words, it’s a game you’ll have fun playing for a week, and then never play it again. Which, admittedly, is how most games you buy end up. But when I look back at Battlefield 2/3/4, I see shooters that I had fun playing over months and even years. It would take some really crazy good progression system from Blizzard to engender a similar feeling of “investment,” and I just don’t see how that would be possible given the switch of Overwatch to the B2P model. Cosmetic unlocks could be a thing, but I doubt alternate guns will factor in, and unlocking new characters is totally off the table.

Characters

I am not quite sure how much more tweaking Blizzard plans to do with the characters, but some are crazy OP and others are just downright awful.

Big fish, little pond.

Big fish, little pond.

The Tank character D.Va is one of my favorites, and absolutely belongs to the former category. Her default Mech mode features dual-shotgun cannons that fire quickly and never need reloaded; her L-Shift ability lets her fly around for 3 seconds, reaching high ledges or just escaping; her E ability negates all incoming projectiles in a cone in front of her, including many Ultimate abilities. And D.Va’s Ultimate? She primes her Mech to self-destruct, which is instant death to all enemies (and herself) in an entirely way too large area. When “killed” in Mech form, D.Va bails out and runs around with a legitimately respectable gun but no other abilities. If she racks up enough damage, she’ll prime her other Ultimate, which is summoning another Mech to pilot. If you use the self-destruct Ultimate and it kills 1-2 people (not hard to do), that will be enough to allow D.Va to hop into another Mech right away.

Like I said, crazy OP.

An example of the opposite is Symettra, who is classified as Support and also technically a Builder. She “supports” by press E on teammates once and giving them a recharging shield. Which is okay, I guess, but that’s the extent of your healing support; if you see a teammate going down and you already gave them a shield earlier, there is zero you can do to assist them. Symettra can create up to 6 little laser turrets which deal damage and slow enemies, but unless you spam a bunch of them in one area, they are easily destroyed and do next to nothing. Finally, her Ultimate is creating a Teleporter. Which, while useful, isn’t likely to swing matches given how quickly they end.

The injury to the insult of Symettra’s abilities though is her weak-ass attacks. Left-click is a super-short range auto-target beam that deals more damage the longer it fires. Good luck surviving that long as a goddamn Support character at short range. Right-click is a less than useless charged-up, lethargic orb of energy that crawls across the map. I don’t know how much damage it deals, and I kinda doubt anyone does, as it’s unlikely anybody has ever actually been hit by it.

Torbjorn is a much better Builder in every way.

Torbjorn is a much better Builder in every way. He can even give people Armor!

The rest of the characters are a mixed bag. I enjoy Pharah, but her Ultimate is almost always a waste of time as it makes you a huge, bullet-attracting beacon in the sky. Some of the Tanks are weird, because they’re terrible by themselves but way better “support tanks.” For example, Zarya couldn’t hold a point to save her life even with healer backup, but Zarya + Reinhardt/Roadhog is almost good enough of a combo to not need a healer at all. Winston’s sole function in life seems to be an anti-Reinhardt (the electricity gun goes through Reinhardt’s shield), as he will easily die to any other Tank 1v1.

I’m not going to go through every character – there are 21 of them, after all – but I do appreciate exactly how different each one of them end up being. If you can’t find a character that matches your play-style, then you probably just don’t like FPS games. Honestly, it’s actually to the point where I have to wonder what other characters Blizzard could really add in the presumed expansions.

Bottom Line

Overwatch is fun. Is it $60 fun? Not right now. We’ll see what Blizzard adds, but it’s possible nothing will make Overwatch more than just another Titanfall.

Beta Impressions: Hawken

In an effort to both delay poor decision-making and assuage the pain of not having purchased Titanfall for $48 via GMG, I decided to download and play Hawken this weekend. Apparently the game is still in open beta (since December 2012), even though I could have sworn it had been released already, but whatever.

Graphics are pretty decent.

Graphics are pretty decent.

Hawken is a F2P F2Download FPS mech PvP game. Considering it too has a 6v6 player limit, there are a lot of amusing parallels to Titanfall, actually. The mech combat feels legitimately like you are inside a mech – it takes time to get momentum going when moving, your turning speed is slow, and so on. That being said, your maneuverability is actually pretty good with the assistance of thrusters, allowing you limited ability to fly through the air, do quick dodges, and do a 180-spin. Some mechs have larger (regenerating) fuel reserves than others, and there are lighter mechs that can perform all sorts of mid-air acrobatics.

The shooting feels pretty good and the TTK (Time To Kill) seems reasonable; you frequently have enough time to register you are taking damage and get to cover without dropping past 50%. All mechs can repair themselves, but it leaves you insanely vulnerable for up to 10+ seconds, the first few of which do not repair you at all. There are a few other ways to get some repair action going (defeated mechs drop health orb things), but I actually like how “sticky” damage ends up being; the prevalence of cover-based firing plus regenerating HP in FPS games has led to an over-reliance of ultra-short TTK, in my opinion. In other words, in Hawken you can dance around cover taking potshots at enemies, but eventually you’ll have to give them the opportunity to rush your position.

Pretty badass, actually.

Pretty badass, actually.

Out of the very few games modes Hawken has, the most unique is probably Siege. Basically, each side attempts to gather power resources from either power stations or stealing it from downed mechs, and then deposit it back at their base. Once enough has been gathered, a capital ship appears and starts slowly flying towards the enemy base. At this point, the main goal is “capping” the AA turret in the middle of the map, as it will quickly destroy an opposing ship. If the ship gets within range of the enemy base, it will start damaging it, and your side wins when the base HP goes to zero. If both sides summon a capital ship, they will duke it out in the skies above.

Most interestingly though, your own mechs can fire at the capital ship and deal damage. There are exposed turrets that can be destroyed to significantly reduce the offensive power of a ship, and with enough time even a single mech can whittle the rest of the ship’s hull down with concentrated fire at the engines. All of which introduce neat little dilemmas throughout the battle: do you focus on gaining power, or slowing the enemy’s power gains? Do you bunker down on the AA and hope someone else on your team caps power? Do you assault the AA or do you spend time shooting the capital ships from the ground?

Having said all that, the main concern with these sorts of game are the progression/reward system. And it’s here that I feel Hawken flounders a bit.

If you have a $100 option in your F2P game, reevaluate your life choices.

If you have a $100 option in your F2P game, please reevaluate your life choices.

Pretty much every single thing is an unlock you purchase with Hawken Credits (HC) or with the RMT Meteor Credits (MC). While you start off with a rather large sum of HC, each subsequent battle adds maybe +250 HC at the top end. Sometimes you get as little as 70 HC. Other mech chassis start at 3800 HC and go up to 12,000+ HC. While it is tempting to not spend any HC until you hit that first tier of new mechs, you forgo equipable items and passive abilities (costing anywhere from 300 to 3500 HC apiece) in the process, making you that much weaker for longer. And by the way, each equipment unlock is specific for that mech. Spend 3k MC on regenerating armor on one mech, and you’ll have to spend another 3k to unlock the same item elsewhere.

Is there any P2W? Strictly speaking: no. However, Hawken absolutely features strictly-better upgrades and arguably strictly-better mech types such that you can easily get creamed by more advanced players (who might have spent money to get there). At the most basic level, for example, items have one charge per respawn; their Mk III versions allows three charges per respawn. Thus, even though we might be able to say that grenades or EMP blasts or whatever is balanced, having access to them as essentially a spammable ability (cooldown aside) is not at all balanced in comparison to someone with just a single charge.

Overall, the game is decent enough for a 3.5gb F2Download title. There aren’t a whole lot of maps (7-8ish) or game modes (5) or even opponents (6v6), but the action nevertheless feels quick, responsive, and generally cool as a mech pilot blowing shit up. Hell, each mech’s ability to hover and dodge and boost forward almost made it feel like Titanfall for like a whole second there. Not the fairest of comparisons, of course, but there it is.

Beta Impressions: Wildstar, Part 2

After having spent some additional time with Wildstar, my impression has soured rather significantly.

I touched on it before, but I really need to reiterate how bad Carbine is screwing up questing. We have known since 2012 that they decided on Twitter-length quest text “because nobody reads it anyway,” but this rather disturbingly flippant attitude results in perhaps the most banal leveling process I have experienced in an MMO. It is one thing to reduce all quests down to kill X mobs or click on Y things, but it’s another thing entirely to not even bother papering over the activities with clever writing. I read quest text because it is the only real difference between MMO A and MMO B, in terms of doing things. With Wildstar, I was about 15 quests in before realizing I was wasting my time reading even their Twitter quests.

“Good job. Do this over there now!” Okay… where is “there?” What am I accomplishing? Ultimately, the truncated dialog doesn’t even matter because it’s faster to just click on the Quest Laundry List to get a directional arrow and rangefinder to tell you exactly where to go. And once you arrive, click on the shiny things, tunnel vision down the Challenge, and follow the next arrow somewhere else. At a certain point, I have to wonder if Wildstar could have pulled off an MMO without NPCs or dialog at all. By the end of the beta, I was barely even looking at the environment.

I'm assuming the Explorer jumping puzzles get more difficult later.

I’m assuming the Explorer jumping puzzles get more difficult later.

By the way, the Path system isn’t going to save anything. I tried the Scientist (click on these things with actual lore attached to them), the Settler (click on these things), and Explorer (jumping puzzles + uncover the map) without any real sense about why Carbine decided to compartmentalize the few quests that aren’t bag-n-tag. Maybe they get amazing later, but the only real thing that set them apart from one another are the special abilities that you unlock at the end. The Scientist, for example, can summon party members to his/her location and eventually create portals to the Capital City. Explorers get to triple jump on a 30-min cooldown and the equivalent of the WoW Monk ability Transcendence. Settlers are probably the best in that they create buff stations (that last 60 seconds…) that can grant 30-min buffs like +50% run-speed, bonus XP, and can eventually drop vendors (and I think bank bots, I don’t remember).

Combat-wise, it was not until I read someone describing combat as staring at blue and red circles on the floor that I realized, yes, that is entirely accurate. My initial positive combat experience also seemed to have been colored by a relatively powerful, EZ-mode-esque Stalker class. I tried out the Spellslinger and was shocked to discover that being rooted to the ground for some abilities is a thing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fine with the idea generally, but it feels particularly incongruent with Wildstar’s “action move move move huzzah!” zeitgeist. Playing the Engineer sort of cemented the experience that, yes, combat is not nearly as crisp or impactful as I felt on the Stalker. And that there are some serious concerns about the long-term viability of ranged classes.

By the way, take a look at some Warplot PvP:

Supposedly, group content is not quite as much of a visual disaster (you only see the green zones from other players). But hey, who actually knows what will happen in 40m exclusive raids, with attunements no less. A pretty bold plan to double-down on vanilla WoW mechanics in the same year that Blizzard thinks downsizing to 20m raids is more viable with their 7 million subscribers.

And, really, that combination of factors took Wildstar from Hype Train to trainwreck in my eyes. If your endgame is “40m raiding or die,” if your PvP is an epileptic seizure waiting to happen, and if your leveling game is a plotless point-n-click adventure, then… what’s left to justify $60 and a subscription? Player housing? Hoverboards? To an extent, I recognize that it’s a bit harsh to make judgment calls about an MMO based upon the sub-level 20 experience, but… well, should we really be giving games such a free pass anyway? Not at full MSRP, that’s for goddamn sure.

Oh, and this is a thing too.

Oh, and this is a thing too.

Of course, sometimes these decisions get made for you. Four members of my ex-WoW crew are playing Day 1. If you order it via GMG, you get 20% off. There’s no way the game is worth full MSRP… but how about $48? Ughhhh. Well. I have at least until Monday to make my decision (assuming GMG’s latest 20% coupon doesn’t come back in time), whatever that ends up being.

Interlude: Skill Trainers

Out of all the things mentioned in yesterday’s Wildstar beta post, the one thing that caught the most attention was that of Skill Trainers. Wildstar has them. And Wildstar having them is, to me, emblematic of a fault-line beneath it’s foundation that will undermine the game’s long-term viability. Hyperbolic much? Maybe. But it’s not about the Skill Trainers themselves, it’s about what they represent.

First though, me and Skill Trainers go way back. Here is a post from SWTOR’s beta back in 2011, which included this picture:

For serious.

For serious.

In fact, I’m just going to quote myself:

This is not to say there were no pressing issues afoot. Light/Dark side issues aside, some of the game mechanics feel they came out of a time capsule buried when Gary Gygax was still alive. Talent trees? How quaint. But seriously, there was another matter which was important enough to submit proper beta feedback about: [above photo]

I am not sure who was the first game designer who thought it would be fun to present players with the dilemma of stopping mid-quest/dungeon to trek all the way back to their trainer to get Rank 3 of Explosive Shell for it’s increased damage, or simply Troopering (*rimshot*) on without it, but they deserve a Rank VII Punch to the face. If there was some kind of RP scene showing you how to get a little more juice out of your grenade shots or whatever, I could understand and appreciate that. But if I can level up in the field and magically grow stronger and tougher to kill from one moment to the next, I should be able to get that +10-20 damage in those same moments. Even Gygax let our Fireballs deal 8d6 damage when we went from 7th to 8th level!

Skill Trainers are an anachronism, a piece of game design debris that was introduced once long ago, and thoughtlessly picked up by subsequent games out of some kind of misguided notion of tradition. Skill Trainers in MMOs are almost always Skill venders, granting access to abilities you have already unlocked by leveling in exchange for (a symbolic) thirty pieces of silver. That is the extent of their function in most games. There is no gameplay attached to them, no lore, no advice given to the proper use of the skills you instantly learned Matrix-style, no training montage, nothing. There are no interesting decisions when it comes to learning the skills – you are simply that much weaker and incomplete until you make the proper offering to archaic game design.

I could see someone making a case for Skill Vendors if they were hidden somewhere in the world (promotes exploration). Or if you had to use the skill several times against training dummies or whatever (demonstrates its use). Or if they had any gameplay use whatsoever. As it stands, the extent of the Pro-Vendor side seems to be it being confusing when abilities just pop into your bar/spellbook. Er… okay. You could just, you know, continue not using the skills until you you feel comfortable opening the spellbook and reading what they do (which is exactly what you’d do even with Skill Vendors). Hell, just roleplay the experience by not reading anything until you double-click on a random NPC in town somewhere.

As I said at the start, my main problem with Skill Vendors is not necessarily with them per se (although they are terrible), my problem is what they represent. If a development studio thinks they are a good idea – or worse, didn’t even bother analyzing their inclusion – what other nonsense is going to be brought back? Attunements? 40-man raids? Oh wait…

Beta Impressions: Wildstar, Part 1

So I have been “in” the Wildstar beta for a while now. My motivation to play it has been pretty low though, for a few reasons. First, the strong NDA meant that really even hinting that I was playing it could revoke not only my own beta pass, but also that of the person who gifted a pass to me. Second, I find myself growing increasingly stubborn when it comes to overcoming (or even learning) game mechanics/designs that I find annoying.

Almost like Wind Waker...

Almost like Wind Waker…

Before I get into that though, let me frame my experiences. On the whole, I fully expect Wildstar to be a great themepark MMO. The art style is bold and gamey, but also fun in a well-made way. Wildstar sort of doubled-down on the whole “floor AoE effects,” but it works on an intuitive level pretty quickly. Games like The Secret World and Guild Wars 2 had the same floor effects thing, but the relative rarity meant it always felt gimmicky rather than integrated. When you’re applying Expose Weakness from Stealth to every enemy in a long column and your other three attacks all have cone targeting however, you get into the positional mindset pretty quickly.

Speaking of stealth, I picked the Stalker, aka Rogue, as my first class because stealth mechanics are one of those things that can inadvertently break games or otherwise indicate how serious the designers take mechanics. I can’t say much about long-term viability since I never got past level 10, but I can tell you that Stealth lasts indefinitely and has no cooldown outside of combat. Compare that to the Thief in GW2 and draw your own conclusions.

Overall, combat is fun and visceral in that ineffable WoW-like way. Attacks have punch. The world is pretty populated with things to click on and interact with. I chose the Scientist “path,” which means I need to have a camera bot go scan stuff in the environment occasionally. Worlds look like worlds, with hills, mountains, and secret paths. The general game attitude is WoW meets Borderlands, especially when it comes to the Level Up prompt. You can double-jump. And so on.

Good job on further minimizing quest text, Carbine UI Dept.

Good job on further minimizing quest text, Carbine UI Dept.

It’s the little things though, you know? It’s one thing to have a Twitter-length quest text, but it’s another to have that and make it hard to read the dialog boxes. Who the shit thought it’d be a good idea to put most of them at the top of the screen? Then, you’ll get ambushed with Challenges out questing, which have universally been “kill X mobs in Y amount of time.” Every time it has happened, I stopped looking around at anything else and tunneled my way to the finish line, only to forget what I was doing afterwards. Which isn’t a big loss given the lack of quest text, I suppose, but I sorta felt like the content was on a conveyer belt and I had to act on consuming it immediately. The fact that you can click on your quest list and get a directional arrow plus rangefinder means you don’t really need to even understand where you are or what you’re doing anyway.

Then I leveled up, unlocked a slew of new Skills, and have since leveled up twice more without having encountered a Skill Trainer to actually unlock said Skills. “Ah. This is still a thing, then?” Hell, I don’t even know how I would go about looking for a Skill Trainer. My Stalker is currently logged off in what I assume to be a quest-hub city, and my cursory tour of the place has not revealed a Skill Trainer. Do I spend 30% of my meager wealth taking a taxi to the capital (last known location of a trainer)? Or do I continue leveling and hope that I’ll eventually run across a trainer in the next half-dozen levels? And who the hell thought this arbitrary bullshit was worth fishing out of the garbage can of bad MMO design?

Seriously, if your Trainers are glorified Skill vendors, it’s not worth implementing them. Maybe if each Skill required you to practice on a training dummy or otherwise integrated into your game’s fiction somehow, then it would be worth it.

I understand such complaints might seem pretty weak and hyper-specific, but that’s where my head is when it comes to MMOs these days. I have abandoned all pretenses that any specific MMO is ever going to be the MMO, or that I even want one to be, so it’s getting difficult to muster up enough cares to dance around their various idiosyncrasies. Given how the beta is getting turned off this week though, I’ll put some more time into it and see what develops.

Hearthstone and other Game News

According to the Blues, Blizzard’s F2P “Free to download, optional in-game purchases” Hearthstone will be released for real in a matter of weeks:

How close to the end of the beta are we? Don’t need an exact date, because I know that would be horrendous, but is this a matter of days or weeks or months?
I can’t say exactly, but it is soon. Not months.

Although there are a number of annoying bugs still kicking around, I have largely considered the game to be ready for Prime Time since the closed beta. The level of polish when it comes to sound effects, the implied physicality of the game pieces, and everything else is pretty astounding considering the size of the development team. For a while there were rumors floating around that the game wouldn’t be released until the iPad version was up, but it seems like that might be referring to the planned single-player Adventure Mode.

Whatever the case, I am very much looking forward to the release and any potential card tweaks that might go along with it. To an extent, it’s easy to sit on the sidelines and call the release of new card sets/expansions as “greedy,” but goddamn does it get annoying after a while when you see the same dozen cards get played in game after game. The metagame is in a healthy state of flux, but the core staples of most every deck do not.

In news that I likely care about more than any possible reader, apparently there is a 4th (5th?) entry in the Deception series called Deception IV: Blood Ties and it’s being released this month. While it is obscure as hell, the Deception series was a set of rather groundbreaking PS1 games that were the precursor to games like Orcs Must Die. Essentially, you set up a number of nefarious traps in a mansion and then must lure trespassers to their doom by controlling an otherwise unarmed Gothic lady.

Here’s a video from Kagero: Deception 2, which is the sort of foundation of the series:

The graphics were pretty hideous even by the time the 3rd game was released, and the plot was Japanese nonsense, but the gameplay? Equal parts brilliant and hilarious. A large part of the game revolved around chaining trap combos, both because traps had cooldowns and because getting the bonus currency was required to unlock more traps/upgrade existing ones (and there was no farming). A fairly simple chain would go like this:

  • Bear Trap at bottom of stairs.
  • Giant Boulder crashes down stairs, knocks target into back wall.
  • Push Wall knocks target back onto Bear Trap.
  • Repeat.

Sounds quaint, right? Well, it should, considering Deception started doing it in 1996 and Kagero in 1998. Those were good years – FF7 was 1997, FFT was 1998 as was Xenogears.

…all of which happened almost 20 years ago. Sigh.

Beta Impression: Titanfall

Let me just put it out there that this abbreviated Beta Impression should by no means be indicative of anything. Titanfall had me by the nucleus accumbens before I even got out of the goddamn tutorial. I can sum up why in one hyphenated word: wall-running.

Run for about 30 meters or so...

Run for about 30 meters or so and then jump…

...wall-run, leap off, double-jump (!), and then pull yourself into the 2nd window.

…wall-run, leap off, double-jump (!), and then pull yourself into the window.

If I had to use an un-hyphenated word, it’d be “mobility.” Take away the guns and giant death machines raining down from sky, and Titanfall is everything that you loved about Mirror’s Edge. I mean, double-jumps! I haven’t had this much fun simply moving around since… well, Mirror’s Edge and maybe Tenchu. I’m spending so much time belaboring this point because I had a big stupid grin the whole time I was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-ing every single match. Goddamn is it fun to run around.

Now, Titanfall has some problems. And I don’t mean graphical problems (I had 50+ fps at high everything) or beta-esque problems like bugs or whatever. I mean, some pretty structural problems, or at least issues to keep in mind. First, the guns are a bit ridiculous. There is your standard assault rifle, sniper rifle, submachine gun and shotgun that is a one-hit kill (sigh). Then there is also the “Smart Pistol.” What does it do? Oh, it locks onto players and instantly kills them when you get three locks.

Titanfall's version of the noob-tube.

Titanfall’s version of the noob-tube. Except worse than that, really.

That screenshot is from the kill cam I watched after wondering how I instantly died. You might notice that the guy is cloaked. Actually, every player has a cloaking device by default, although the Smart Pistol can defeat it (taking a few seconds longer to lock on). You might also notice how the line curves a bit towards the end. Yeah, Smart Pistol bullets can bend around in mid-air. You don’t have to lead your target or even aim directly at them – as long as they’re within the blue box on your screen, you’ll get your locks, and just pull the trigger.

Look at that Pro Skill.

Look at that Pro Skill, killing me in midair at a full sprint.

Now, this gun is also tremendously fun to use, especially when you use it to kill the NPC fodder running around as they die in one lock. But every time you die to it, you’ll be thinking “Bullshit.” Doubly so when you’re dueling some guy who’s dancing around the sky and instantly kills you because he doesn’t have to aim.

About the biggest, most important thing I can talk about is the 6v6 limit to matches. I mean, I filter out anything that isn’t 24v24 or higher in Battlefield 3 & 4. While I was playing though, I have to admit: the environments felt pretty busy. Admittedly, this is entirely because the devs seed the battlefield with NPC fodder troops that you can kill for XP and to accelerate your Titan timer. As some other bloggers mentioned, I didn’t entirely notice all that much damage coming from them either, but it’s possible that is a beta thing. Still, it’s usually worth shooting them to get your goodies faster. Plus, they definitely add to the sort of manic ambiance with their shouts, gunfire, and even random quips.

How are the Titans themselves?

It feels all Warhammer 40k up in here.

It feels all Warhammer 40k up in here.

The Titans are fantastic. You get to call one in every 4 minutes, and the timer speeds up by 15 seconds every time you kill a Pilot. They feel powerful without feeling omnipotent, and it’s sometimes correct to call one in and not pilot it – letting the AI engage with the enemy is a great distraction as you cap a strategic point. Every player has an anti-Titan weapon by default, so it never devolves into that depressing Battlefield scenario when a tank rolls by and you can do nothing about it. Plus, if shooting rockets at a Titan doesn’t sound badass enough, you can run up to and “Rodeo” (in-game term) one yourself, which involves scrambling on top and shooting your weapon into the circuitry.

Despite being positively juiced about this game, I still want to make sure you come away with a wet blanket firmly wrapped around your shoulders. Because for how amazingly fun and slick it feels – I let out an audible groan of pleasure when my Titan snatched me out of the air and deposited me inside the cockpit like a goddamn anime – I cannot help but worry this is one of those wirehead moments. In other words, I worry it’s all surface-level pleasure without deeper substance.

I guess it’s arguable as to what substance Battlefield or the latest Call of Duty have, but I feel with Battlefield at least that there is a good variance in map experience precisely because there are 32 different enemy players to run across. While getting matched against 6 clan members isn’t a total shut-out here necessarily (you can still kills NPCs), matches last less than 10 minutes and you can get stomped even faster than that.

They absolutely nailed the sound effects.

They absolutely nailed the sound effects.

Supposedly the PC version of the beta is going to be opened to the public soon, so I recommend trying it out for yourself if you can. My interest in the game went from around ~20 to over 9,000 based on playing it all day Sunday, but I don’t know if I’m willing to pull the trigger on even the discounted pre-order price of $48. I have over 250 hours in PlanetSide 2, over 100 for BF3, and only about 38 hours in BF4. Will Titanfall meet or exceed any of those? Hard to say. There are unlocks, achievements, XP, and all the “normal” FPS trappings. I just… sigh, I just don’t know how long the honeymoon will last, you know?

Until it does end, I suppose I should be getting back to getting busy while I can.

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.

Beta Impression: Battlefield 4

I have been playing the Battlefield 4 beta these last few days, and I’m not quite sure what to think.

40 fps on High without current video drivers.

40 fps on High without latest video drivers.

It certainly isn’t the jump in quality from Battlefield 2 to 3, that’s for sure, although there are some interesting moves. For example, the default rocket launcher has a tracking mode that activates when the Recon class designates a target with their binoculars; this sort of solves the incredible power discrepancy between Engineers that had unlocked the, er, lock-on launcher versus newbie players.

Another interesting change was how they gave the Recon class (aka snipers) C4 charges. While this makes roof-top campers extremely annoying – they can drop C4 at the elevators and wait for the door opening sound for an auto-kill – it also creates an amazing tension in the class. Do you run out and C4 that tank while risking being caught in close-quarters with a sniper rifle, or do you hang back and try and snipe with a tank blowing you and your team up? Giving snipers claymore mines and assault classes C4 makes more thematic sense, but reversing those roles makes for more interesting gameplay decisions. Even better, the thermal Binoculars you get not only lets you lock on to vehicles for your teammates to kill (you get bonus XP when they do so), but it lets you more easily spot enemies running around that are too far to hit. Or, honestly, that you aren’t skilled enough to hit. Just spotting them is basically 1/4th a kill though, and it’s a useful service to do so.

Win-win.

However, some design changes have gone in the wrong direction. Technically, it was Battlefield 3 that “introduced” the concept of the medic class having to actually unlock their core ability, i.e. to revive people, but Battlefield 4 is taking that to ridiculous extremes. It takes 11,000 Assault-class XP to unlock the Defibrillator, which I hope to god is a placeholder value. Perhaps if smaller maps were available it might not be so bad, but actually getting that amount of XP on a class that otherwise brings nothing interesting to the table is a massive chore; not only do the other classes have easier ways of racking up easy XP, but remember that BF4 (and BF3) made the change to a regenerating HP model too. Between that and the near-zero Time To Kill numbers, the ability to throw a Med-Pack is only ever useful when you find yourself dueling someone from behind cover.

That tower is just bad news anyway.

That tower is just bad news anyway.

The unlocking situation gets even more ridiculous when you look at the Support class, aka the ammo guy. While I suppose it was annoying/immersion-breaking when a single Support dude could drop an ammo box and spam infinite grenades over the wall, putting the ammo box behind a 52,000 (!) XP grind-wall is an extreme overreaction. The most obvious trickle-down effect is that it makes every class weaker by extension: what good is an Engineer without rockets? Given how you respawn with full ammo, the smart move is then to play both aggressively and carelessly by spamming everything you have and then effectively suicide yourself for Round N+1.

While there has also been some grumblings over the idea of “Battlepacks” – random lockboxes filled with camos, dog tags, XP bonuses, etc – as someone who played Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer for a while, I don’t see it as such a big deal. Yes, it is a cynical cash grab given how you can pay money to buy those things. However, as far as I can tell, you do not actually unlock more powerful weaponry from these boxes. Which automatically makes them less of an issue than ME3’s lockboxes where opening a rare Widow or Carnifex/Paladin was basically the start of your game.

Beta is beta though, and this one is more restrictive than most. Overall, I can’t say that I’m too impressed. It’s honestly been so long ago that I uninstalled BF3 that I forget if being able to spawn inside a vehicle from the Deploy screen is something new to BF4 or not. And, really, that’s kinda what it comes down to: why do we need Battlefield 4 again? Once all the maps are unlocked, then perhaps we’ll see where the differences lay. Plus, supposedly Commander Mode is back.

But right now I do not see any reason why I would be compelled to purchase Battlefield 4 on Day 1 as opposed to when they bundle the game + first Map Pack together. Or, really, when they bundle the game + Season Pass.