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Defiance

For the past few weeks or so I have been playing Defiance. As a refresher, Defiance was a subscription-based, TV show tie-in shooter that has since gone F2P. The game plays and handles a lot like an over-the-shoulder Borderlands, in the sense that waves of enemies appear and are dispatched with a large assortment of random weapons.

In crowds, enemies become armor-plated bullet sponges.

In crowds, enemies become armor-plated bullet sponges.

At this point, I think the show is more popular than the game, and that is too bad. Defiance has story quests that are voice-acted and pretty-well put together. You get a vehicle almost immediately after character creation. There are a number of “arkfalls” at any given time, which are dynamic random events which tend to congregate players around specific points on the map. There are a bunch of (repeatable) side-quests which involve racing, sniping, and other such things.

That said, the biggest problem with Defiance is a more fundamental one: the game is only fun with a fun weapon.

Loot in Defiance is random, just like in Borderlands. There are a number of rarities and status effects and such, but the actual number of gun types are pretty well defined. In the course of my ~20 hours of play, my favorite loadout involves a machine gun that pretty much empties a full 75-bullet clip in three seconds and a shotgun that shoots grenades. I was having a lot of fun running around with these weapons when I got them, but as I have scaled higher in “EGO Rating” (roundabout levels) enemy health has scaled such that my favorite weapons are no longer viable. You can upgrade old weapons to near your EGO Rating, but you can only do so once. And I have since outleveled them again.

In the meantime, I am at the mercy of RNG dropping a higher-level version of the guns I enjoy, or really any weapon that is serviceable. There is somewhat of a push to make all of the weapons viable, but there isn’t much you can do to, say, pistols to make them fun to use. Even with super-high damage and a fast fire rate, you would likely be better off with a LMG with 10x the magazine size. Rocket Launchers face the same sort of issue with faster, higher magazine grenade launchers outputting more DPS overall while giving you a buffer in case you miss your shot.

To say nothing about, you know, a shotgun that shoots grenades with 12-14 rounds in a clip and a 250 shell capacity vs the smaller explosive round.

Oh, Von Bach, never change.

Oh, Von Bach, never change.

In any case, I’m not entirely sure how much longer I will be playing Defiance. As mentioned, the story scenes are actually quite amusing in the sarcastic banter sense, and I’m interested in seeing where it goes. The weapon issue though… it does make it difficult sometimes to slog through waves of enemies with crappy weapons to get there.

Impression: Firefall

When we last left Firefall, it was in the beta and I was labeling it “Firefail” in a moment of supreme cleverness. Basically, an early tutorial quest that required me to pick up a handgun wouldn’t complete, and a later re-attempt at playing the beta found me unable to download the final 0.04 MB of the file.

This time around, everything worked and I have spent ~13 hours across last week getting a feel for the game.

Booty Shorts are the future.

Booty Shorts are the future.

Firefall is a F2P 3rd-person shooter MMO, vaguely reminiscent of Mass Effect + Borderlands. You play as an ARES pilot, a sort of mercenary with the ability to swap in and out of battleframes, which are themselves the equivalent of classes. Different battleframes have different abilities and primary weapons, and each battleframe levels up independently of each other. At certain levels, you unlock Perks which can (usually) then be applied to your character no matter the battleframe you are wearing.

There are story quests of sorts you can follow in Firefall, although the main thrust of the game has more to do with random, open-world questing than normal MMOs. For example, a 15-minute story quest and a 2-minute quest to repair a generic Thumper generally give the same amount of XP.

The open-world part of questing is emphasized by the literal open-world: aside from needing to click on towers to push back the “Melding” – and the level-based mobs, a huge change from the early beta – you can generally run anywhere. And the world is absolutely HUGE in this game. Huge and vertical, even. Considering every battleframe has a jetpack (of differing quality), this lends itself quite nicely to exploring.

One of the better Glider jumps I've encountered.

One of the better Glider jumps I’ve encountered.

As always, there are downsides. Although the world is huge, it also feels relatively empty. Part of this is literal emptiness, but part of this also comes from the vast distances between quests and the cash shop-based restrictions to moving around. For example, you can purchase a cash shop vehicle right away, or wait until level 25 to get one with a cooldown. Technically you can craft 1-time use transportation solutions (Gliders) too, but it’s generally easier to just turn on auto-run inbetween waypoints as you browse Reddit on your phone.

I like how you have one character that swaps battleframes rather than a stable of alts, but in practice everything ends up feeling more restrictive than less. If you’re playing Assault, I hope you enjoy your grenade launcher primary, because that’s the same weapon you’ll be using forever. If you swap to Engineer for a change of pace after 12 levels, suddenly you’re going to need to hoof it back to the starting zone and kill level 2 mobs again, assuming you even have low-level weapons to use. Since the story missions aren’t particularly rewarding, the end result is you repairing Thumpers 200 times just to get back to where you were in the first place.

CardioFall

CardioFall

The shooty bits are fun for fans of shooty bits, but… it’s hard to describe, but there’s some essential element missing. “Substance” is the best word I can use to describe it – you feel like you are shooting at ghosts all the time. There is technically collision, mind you, it’s just that the enemies never feel like they belong anywhere or behave particularly rationally. On some of the random missions you will walk into a room that is filled with 30+ enemies and get mowed down without understanding why the room had 30+ dudes in it. Was it intentional? A bug? Was it actually a hidden group quest? I actually survived that cave, but mainly by abusing the poor AI rather than any sort of fancy shooting on my part.

Overall, I don’t anticipate playing Firefall for much longer. The game is F2P and it does seem like you could get a lot of gameplay in legitimately without feeling too much like a 2nd-rate citizen. Hitting level 40 (the cap) supposedly gives you the ability to purchase one of the 10 cash shop classes, although you can technically get them off the AH for in-game currency as well. That said, it’s hard to imagine hitting the cap and playing the same routine missions again and again, this time with a different primary gun.

So… Firefall. Certainly not the worst F2P game I have ever played, but there are better options.

Borderlands Charm

Prior to clicking this Kotaku article about Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, I had close to zero interest in the game. It’s not that I disliked the franchise or BL2 – I have 115 hours on the latter – I simply got extremely fatigued with the gameplay by the end. Which was just about a full year ago, apparently. Huh.

In any case, watching the 10-minute explanation trailer sort of reminded me why I liked the series to begin with. Maybe TORGUE and Hammerlock were never all that funny to you, and that’s fine. In fact, neither are all that interesting to me on their own as characters. But the writing. It’s not that it’s brilliant or anything, it’s just… utterly unique. What other game can slot in surprisingly tasteful BDSM and Nietzsche jokes into their gameplay videos? And it fit? There are a million other first-person shooters out there, but there is only one Borderlands.

Or two, I guess. And a third on the way. Hmm. I wonder what the intro song will be this time?

P.S. Not paying full price though.

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.

Review: Dead Island

Game: Dead Island
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 80
Completion Time: ~35 hours
Buy If You Like: A melee-focused Borderlands, killing zombies

Wha… who… wow. Why didn’t anyone tell me how good this was?

My initial expectations for Dead Island were low. All that I knew beforehand was that it had one of the best videogame trailers of all time, and that the game itself had nothing at all to do with said trailer. Somehow, hearing that the trailer was misleading was enough for me to imagine the game itself would be bad, since “misleading = bad.” Plus, I heard someone somewhere mention the 4-player co-op had traditional RPG roles like tank, rogues, ranged, and thought “Eh?”

What I was not expecting was for Dead Island to be one of the most interesting games I have played this year.

A “melee Borderlands” really is the best way to describe how Dead Island plays. You start out as one of four character classes whom all have three-branch talent trees, you pick up random weapons with random stat spreads, and you smash zombie face in an almost entirely open-world environment. While it is all done in first-person, all the traditional trappings of action RPGs are there: life bars, damage stats, gaining XP, picking up and completing side-quests from other survivors, and gaining levels. Much like Borderlands (again), the experience feels incongruent at first (“Headshots aren’t instant kills?!”), especially when the default weapon in most every other zombie game is a gun, not a police baton you modified with nails or a machete heated to 200° with laptop batteries, wires, and duct tape.

Dammit, Sister Mary. I just upgraded this metal beatstick!

But after a while? I was hooked. Want to explore the beach? Explore the beach. Want to drive back and forth in a truck, running down zombies and trying to navigate the the debris-strewn roads? Do that. Loading screens are few and far between, zombies are everywhere, and randomized loot ensures that even if there isn’t some kind of specific secret hidden in that forgotten corner of landscape, your time wasn’t exactly wasted. All enemies level with you, with the end result being that you can (and will) die to 2-3 standard zombies as easy at level 1 as at the level cap, if you aren’t careful.

There are really only two major negatives to Dead Island, or just one depending on how much of a curve you grade zombie games. If you are looking for a zombie game that really shakes up the narrative conventions for the genre, A) you will be disappointed here, and B) really? Stop me if you have heard this before: zombie outbreak occurs, you are inexplicably immune, your travels take you to a hidden bio-corporation working on unethical research (may or may not have involved creating zombie plague), race against time to stop/avoid entire site being nuked from orbit. Cliches aside, and excusing the sort of unresolved micro-stories various quests represent (bitten guy wants you to bring insulin to trapped brother, who you never see again anyway), it was unquestionably refreshing to have gone from that special form of insipid RPG questing to doing things that actually make sense. Collecting three crates of food might be superficially similar to collecting 10 bear asses, but at least the former makes sense.

Is it, ah, still necrophilia if she’s a zombie?

The second negative is not as easy to handwave away. You see, the entire first half of the game consists of exploring the beautiful, open-world resort and city areas doing things that make sense to do in a zombie apocalypse. Inexplicably, the developers decided to switch gears and start feeding you through the cramped, repetitive hallways of sewers, a City Hall built by M.C. Escher, prisons, and abandoned hospital wings. Could we please, like, stay outside? You know, leverage the one feature that sets Dead Island apart from nearly every FPS zombie game ever made? The indoor zones are not bad – aside from the piss-poor decision to not include maps for these areas – but it definitely starts feeling like “more of the same” and “Resident Evil did this better in 1996” after a while.

I would be remiss if I did not briefly talk about the co-op. While I only actually ever played with one specific friend for 2-3 hours, I can definitely see the appeal. It simply feels good to be surrounded by zombies, knowing that you are severing limbs and curb-stomping back-to-back. And for what it is worth, the developers definitely want this to be the way you play Dead Island. You will frequently get little notices that “ThugLife4Life is Nearby” which means that jumping into his/her game is a single button-press (J) away; dropping out is just as easy and non-disruptive, and you keep all the goodies you might have gotten. Plus, as I alluded to at the beginning, a lot of the various talents Skills you can pick benefit your fellow players too – from buff auras, to higher Medpac healing, to straight-up MMOish Threat mechanics (Sam B has +30% Threat via Decoy, Xian Mei has -15% Threat via Spectre and can get bonus damage from backstabs).

I love the smell of 150 damage/second Molotovs in the morning.

Ultimately, I found Dead Island to be a perfectly good and oddly refreshing FPS zombie experience, with friends or by oneself as I did for the last 32 hours of gameplay. The visuals are drop-dead (ouch) gorgeous, the loot system way more satisfying than Diablo 3, the melee-focused combat surprisingly satisfying (1-2 seconds of slow-mo when a zombie head is liberated from its zombie neck never gets old), the constant threat of death kept me on my toes, and I had a good time overall. While there is not much in the way of replayability beyond a New Game+ mode, the four characters do end up playing quite differently if one is looking for an excuse to run around Banoi again.

And, hey, it looks like Techland is working on a sequel titled Dead Island: Riptide. So maybe sometime soon we won’t even need an excuse.