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Impression: Magic: Legends

It’s bad.

Syp is giving Cryptic some additional grace, but the open beta for Magic: Legends is perhaps the worst open beta for a game I have played. Sure, there are objectively worse ones out there, but the first impression missed so hard that it’s flying off into space.

What is Magic: Legends (M:L)? Once upon a time, it was supposedly going to be an MMO based in the Magic: the Gathering universe. Instead, we’re getting an isometric ARPG in the literal vein of Diablo. Which… is not the worst thing in the world. I have played all games in the Diablo franchise, along with Torchlight 1 & 2, and dabbled in Path of Exile. Do UnderMine and Children of Morta count? I don’t do any legendary-grinding in these games, but am otherwise fully onboard with the general gameplay.

At first blush, M:L looks just like those games. A lot of mouse clicking to move around and attack, some special abilities, extremely gorgeous backgrounds, and so on. I can forgive the 20 FPS given that it is beta – something is clearly not optimized – but there are two things that kills the experience.

First, there is no loot. At least, there hasn’t been after 2+ hours of play. There are artifact slots and such, so that I know these things exist somewhere, but items and gear do not drop from enemies normally. Sometimes there is gold, most times there is nothing. I do not need a full set of gear from every mob, but I have no real idea what the moment-to-moment motivation for the game is supposed to be without that dopamine hit, or chance thereof.

This is especially problematic given the second issue: the gameplay isn’t fun. Characters have three baseline abilities based on their class. All other abilities are tied to “cards” that you slot into your “deck,” like in traditional Magic. And just like in traditional Magic, what cards you draw are random. Using an ability causes it to both go on cooldown and be shuffled back into the deck and new ability replace it.

So… chew on that a minute. You are playing Diablo 3 or Path of Exile or whatever, and each time you use an ability, it disappears from your bar and is replaced by something else entirely. You are then stuck with those abilities until you use them on something else, or perhaps just cast it on the ground. Oh, and you are also limited by your mana meter, so it’s not like you can rapidly cycle through abilities either. Do that over and over, clearing an entire map, and enjoy the 500g and zero items you receive. Then go spend that currency buying booster packs of random abilities to slot into your deck. Whee!

I kinda get what devs might be going for here. Having dead abilities is a natural consequence of deck building; presumably you would want a deck with a lot of AoE cards if you’re farming, then swap out for more single-target abilities for bosses. Things might get better once you unlock more than two ability slots too. And by going straight for currency farming at the beginning, there is no bait-and-switch that happens to the average player once they hit the endgame.

At the same time, it feels like a colossal disaster in progress. Pushing buttons isn’t fun, the loot isn’t fun, and the monetization strategy isn’t fun. How much can realistically change in Open beta? If the answer isn’t “the whole damn thing” then Cryptic is in trouble.

My Mod/DLC Dilemma

I started playing Torchlight 2 a few weeks ago, and I am having some issues. Now, I did not like the original game all that much, but picking up the sequel for $5 during one of those crazy Steam sales seemed safe enough. And so far, I am not experiencing the same acute symptoms of frustration as in the first game. Except… now I kinda am.

My biggest gripe with the original game was that the loot system was broken. Specifically, there was no real sense of gear progression in a hack-n-slash Diablo-clone genre that is based entirely on gear progression – I used the same “legendary” level 3 necklace all the way into the endgame, never finding an upgrade. While I have not ran into this problem as much in Torchlight 2, the contours of the issue remain in place. For example, I ran into this gearing decision the other day:

We're back to getting Best-in-Slot at level 7, I guess.

We’re back to getting Best-in-Slot at level 3, I guess.

Maybe “higher level = better” is too simplistic a progression design, but… is it really?

The more pressing concern in Torchlight 2 though, is how a lot of things that should be rewarding are really not. Each main area map has a Locked Golden Chest which contains, as you might imagine, a lot of loot. The key to this chest can drop randomly from any mob on that particular map, or from a specific fairy mob 100% of the time.

Compelling design, right? It would be, if these chests dropped something more than vendor trash.

Random loot is random, but after spending more time than strictly necessary opening these chests up and walking away with nothing of any value, I am finding myself souring on game in general. Indeed, even the extra-large treasure chests at the end of boss encounters reveals greys and greens more often than not. Why should I be fighting bosses when smashing pottery is clearly the more profitable activity?

Par for the course.

Par for the course.

In Torchlight 2’s case though, there is a “solution”: mods. In fact, the #1 highest-rated mod in the Steam Workshop is one that tweaks Golden Chests (and boss chests) to always drop a Unique item. That’s not as broken as it sounds – items are still random, scaled to your level, and sometimes class-specifc – and does a lot to fix what I otherwise consider a problem. There are mods for all sorts of things, in fact, including Skill tweaks, doubling the amount of gold drops, Respec potions (base game only allows reshuffling of last 3 Skills), improving game textures, increasing view distance, and even additional whole classes. Indeed, one of the big selling points of Torchlight 2 was its modability in comparison to Diablo 3.

Thing is, I don’t like using mods on my initial play-through of a game. Hell, I usually don’t even like loading in DLC that affects the core game, even when I’m playing the Game of the Year version that bundles it all together.

My situation is a bit unique (and self-inflicted) insofar as I fancy myself a game reviewer. But even before this website, I preferred going in vanilla and raw. Not all my friends had the extra spending money for the expansions and whatnot, so telling them Diablo 2 was better with Lords of Chaos installed really just means “the base game is deficient.” Well, perhaps not deficient in D2’s case, but you understand my meaning.

Good game design is supposed to be good out of the box. If developers are stumbling around for the first several months from release, that stumbling needs to remain part of the overall narrative. I failed to mention in my Fallout: New Vegas review that the game was literally unplayable for the first two weeks without downloading a crack that fixed the DirectX issues; it’s an important detail to know for when the next Fallout game is released, lest it too require Day 0 patching from players to fix what the devs rushed to production.

I suppose some of this harkens back to that debate over whether MMOs (etc) are toys vs games. There is no wrong way to play with a toy, no real rules to govern your interaction with them. In this sense, mods are sort of like adding salt to your meal – some chefs might see that as an insult, but perhaps your individual taste skews more salty than the others sharing the meal. Ergo, developers letting mods fix any subjective “problem” only makes sense. Keep the vanilla pure, and let players add the chocolate and sprinkles as they wish.

Personally though, I am much more interested in the game portion of things, or more specifically: experiences. Show me the genius of your rulesets, the compelling nature of your narratives, the excellence of your craft. Anyone can imagine a stick into a lightsaber, just as anyone can turn a crappy game good with tweaks. I am interested in what you can do, Mr(s) Game Man Person, not mod developer XYZ. I want to be excited that you are releasing another game, not that the modding community has another opportunity to fix a deficient product. And besides, only one of those two parties is getting paid. Hint: it’s not the person/people improving the game.

It may not be entirely rational, but there it is. Odds are that I will keep trucking along in vanilla Torchlight 2 so that I can give an accurate report on its (so far) many failings. It is worth noting that while you can import your vanilla save into the “game + mods” version of the game, you cannot thereafter go back – neither your character nor your gear will appear under the default game any more. While that probably has little meaning beyond the people interested in Steam achievements, it sort of highlights how even the developers believe a segregation between the two ought to exist.

In which case, I shall play their game and complain about it, rather than fix things myself.

Review: Borderlands 2

Game: Borderlands 2
Recommended price: $20 + $10 season pass
Metacritic Score: 89
Completion Time: 30+ hours
Buy If You Like: Funny and nonsensical cel-shaded FPS games

Some (most?) of the humor is a little juvenile, but some had me rollin' all the same.

Some (most?) of the humor is a little juvenile, but some jokes had me rollin’ all the same.

Borderlands 2 is the cel-shaded, “why so serious?” smash-hit FPS pseudo-Diablo-clone follow-up to the original breakout Borderlands. Taking control of one of the four classes (or five with DLC), you set off on an adventure of mayhem and random looting across the now-much-more-varied landscape of Pandora, helping the heroes of the original game try and stop Handsome Jack from taking over the world.

To be honest, I am having a difficult time reviewing Borderlands 2 after having spent 130+ hours playing it. If you played the original, BL2 is better, longer, and more… Borderlandy than before. If you haven’t played Borderlands before, well, prepare to experience one of the frighteningly-few games out there with a distinct style. Said style might be nonsensical ultraviolence, but at least it is consistent and generally amusing.

The basic flow of the game will be familiar to anyone who has played a Diablo derivative: get quest, kill mobs, get random loot, repeat. There is a decent range and variance of mobs, but the AI controlling them is not especially robust; every encounter either involves mobs rushing to melee or shooting from range. In fact, since all the visible mobs aggro after the first shot and many mobs simply don’t exist until you get within range, an entire swath of the strategic playbook (Stealth, sniping) consists of blank pages. This is no different than what occurred in the original Borderlands, so if it was fine for you then, it will continue being fine now.

Not your standard quests. Well, they ARE, but still...

Not your standard quests. Well, they ARE, but still…

What saves BL2 can be summed up in three words: guns, guns, and guns. The trick that the Borderlands series pulls off is not merely emulating the loot-centric gameplay of Diablo, but how the loot itself can change how you approach the encounters. If a really kickass shotgun drops, for example, you might find yourself suddenly getting more up in psychos’ faces than you were just five minutes ago. While the character talent trees stamp down on this more freeform behavior by virtue of weapon-specific bonuses, respecing is only a trip to town away. And sometimes that minigun that shoots missiles is just too much fun to fire to care about trivialities like your +15% critical hits with sniper rifles.

Once you complete the game proper, you unlock “True Vault Hunter Mode” which allows you to redo the game from the beginning while keeping your level, cash, and gear. The enemies in this mode get new abilities, more health, and hit significantly harder as you plow your way to the level cap of 50. While this difficulty extends the life of the game quite a bit, it also leads into some counter-intuitive behavior. You see, sidequests typically reward you with unique items that are scaled to the level you were when you started them. Ergo, the “correct” way to play TVHM difficulty is to skip ALL of the sidequests until you reach level 50, and then go and complete them for the highest-level version of the unique items. Otherwise, the unique items may as well not exist, as they will inevitably be replaced by even the most generic level 50 drops.

As I mentioned before, I have clocked in over 130 hours into Borderlands 2, with around ~20 of those hours being from two of the DLCs. Although I chose to play solo the whole way through, I’m positive that the experience would have been even more entertaining with a group of friends. Hell, the DLCs even include the equivalent of 4-man raid bosses, if you are into that sort of thing. By the time you start to question why, exactly, you are chain-farming the last boss for legendary drops, Borderlands 2 will likely have generated twice as many hours of entertainment as your last non-Skyrim single-player games combined.

So get in there and start shooting some faces.