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Missed Effect

Mass Effect: Andromeda was finished over the weekend.

My overall impression? Serviceable. Adequate. My /played time was about 90 hours, so it is a tad difficult to ascertain whether the characters blossomed by the mid-game or if it was a sort of Stockholm Syndrome effect. Well, I can say for sure that I immensely enjoyed Peebee and Drack’s company. Vetra too, perhaps, but she’s no Garrus. Cora can take a hike.

The combat and general environments are easily the best the series has offered. I played the entire game on Hard, which was appropriately named. It has been mentioned before, but a lot has been done to incorporate waist-high barriers into the environment in a logical manner. In fact, a sizable portion of the game have none. Which is real shame given how many enemies have beam laser effects, which effectively melt you outside of cover. Still, Hard is Hard, so it was a welcome challenge (most of the time).

The environments and the Frostbite engine in general were exquisite. I got a little tired of the theme planet trope (Desert planet! Ice planet!), but the terrain overall was varied and the organic vistas were amazing. Indeed, I can see now why such a big deal was made regarding wonky character animations given how outrageously polished the rest of the game looks – it seems so out of place.

What also felt out of place were the poorly-implemented mechanical aspects of the game. Fighting feels great. Switching abilities mid-battle feels less great. Downtime inventory management feels awful. Scanning things give you Research Points, which you then use to buy weapon blueprints, which then take resources collected from driving around to craft, which then take Augments and/or Mods you receive from fighting to improve. I’m sure it sounds like a reasonable way to tie all the player experiences together, at least on a whiteboard. In practice, you end up wasting tons of Research Points because every single gun is available from the start and you don’t know how it feels to shoot till you get one in your hands. By the mid-game though, you’ll have needed to pour all your points into upgrading a specific type of gun (e.g. Black Window) through its various iterations (e.g. III, IV, V, etc) to maintain combat effectiveness. So… either settle on something early, making the multiple pages of menus irrelevant, or try all the things and always wonder whether a specific gun sucks, or if it would have been good at max rank.

I played a little bit of the Andromeda multiplayer, and it was… basically ME3’s multiplayer. ME3’s multiplayer was a hidden gem and significantly extended my playtime of the game well beyond the (original) poor ending. That may have been a time and a place thing though, as I had basically zero drive to continue playing Andromeda’s multiplayer, despite an objectively more refined combat system. For the uninitiated, it is a 4-player Horde game mode where one caps out at level 20, but items/weapons/character options are gated behind lockboxes. Open a Black Widow sniper rifle? Now you can take it with any character. Unlock a second one, and now you have a Black Widow Mk 2 with slightly higher stats. And so on.

So far, most of this has been high praise, so you might be wondering why the game is “serviceable” and “adequate.” It’s relatively simple: Andromeda is not better overall than any of the prior trilogy. Graphics and combat? Better. Characters, plot, themes, cohesive narratives, emotional gravity, witty one-liners? Not better. I find it extraordinarily silly to judge Andromeda “on its own merits” considering it has Mass Effect in the title. Andromeda is better than a whole lot of other single-player RPGs, yes, but better Mass Effects (overall, mind you) exist. If you had to make an exclusive choice between all the titles, I’d recommend one of those other ones instead.

And perhaps that is part of the reason why Andromeda may be the last in the series. At first, I was a bit sad, but it kinda feels like the right move now. The Mass Effect name has a lot of baggage attached and, outside of the various character races, there wasn’t exactly a whole lot tying Andromeda to it. Yes, all these people are from the Milky Way, there are various Easter Eggs and such pointing to Reapers and Shepard, and so on. But there didn’t have to be. The fact that it was tied to the franchise just made the world-building easier – no need to explain five humanoid races tooling around with each other relatively peacefully. Andromeda could have been the story of five human nations from Earth and little would have changed, narratively. Hell, the eponymous “mass effect” was uttered like twice in the whole game, always in reference to shields. Eezo sickness could have been any other miraculous plot disease.

Ultimately… I dunno. Andromeda is certainly better than any random given RPG out there. Andromeda is not better than any given Mass Effect title. It is worth experiencing, but it is not essential to experience right now. Perhaps in another couple of years when we finally get some more concrete idea as to whether Bioware is closing the Mass Effect door for good.

I Get/Don’t Get GW2

Since reinstalling the client a little over a week ago, I think I have spent more time reading about GW2 than I have playing.

The initial issue was as I described: picking a class that I wanted to play. I’m not sure how normal people do this sort of thing, but my standard operating procedure is a combination of getting hands-on while also reading the latest news about said class. Nobody wants to play a class about to be nerfed. The other issue is that you can read about how powerful a given class can be, but if the button combinations required to get there aren’t fun to push, then it doesn’t matter.

GW2_Space

Quite nice.

My original thought was Thief or Mesmer, so I started there. Then after playing a while, I realized something: if you aren’t playing GW2 for the WvW gameplay, why were you even playing? The game’s narrative is background noise, endgame progression is wardrobe-based, dungeons are about speed running exploits, and world PvE content consists of Champion trains and dragon zergs. You don’t even really have anything to look forward to while leveling either, as you can generally unlock every ability you are ever going to use by level 31, even under the revamped system. The only really redeeming feature seems to be WvW.

Or is it?

I’m still conflicted myself. I ended up going Necromancer as a class, which I had avoided at the time because of all the bugs and other issues. As it turns out, Necros are pretty damn powerful if you just ignore pets. Between that and the ability to really annoy zergs of any variety (PvE or PvP) from the relative safety of range, I felt like I had found a better home, class-wise.

Issues remain, however. It’s been three years, but I still remember all these level 30 zones I am going through, and the non-existence of their narratives. Combat feels floaty and insubstantial. The economy has inflated massively, and yet there really doesn’t feel like there is anything of value I can do/gather/create for cash. The more events I go though, the more it feels like I’m just mindlessly grinding for no reason. There might not be a mechanical difference between this approach and grinding out quests in WoW, but it emotionally feels different.

I was about to pack it up for good (again) when, in the course of doing an easy achievement daily to satisfy the 3 achievement daily daily, I just… sort of looked around.

GW2_Trees

Something something forest for the trees.

Those are trees. Duh, right? But looking at them, I began to really (re-)appreciate the sense of space that GW2 manages to generate. Each of those are an individual tree that you can walk around, get stuck on, and use to block projectiles coming at you. Other games might have a higher graphics fidelity than GW2, but I haven’t played one that quite felt the same walking around inside. There is almost a Skyrim-esque feeling to the terrain, insofar as you can reasonably look at an area and decide “hey, I want to climb that mountain over there” and be able to do so. This really comes through in the jumping puzzles, but those are just a byproduct of the underlying design allowing you to play in a remarkably detailed 3D space.

The only skyboxes in GW2 appear to be just the sky.

So, I feel like I “get” GW2 now – it is the best exploration MMO I have ever played. It’s just too bad that exploration isn’t enough for me as a player. I either need a reason to explore, or the ability to do something interesting once I arrive. I’m just not getting that feeling from GW2, and I’m not sure that I ever will. But if I ever get the desire to really walk around in a fantastical fantascape, I know which game to boot up.

Dragon Age Online

After around 20 hours of Dragon Age Inquisition, I am more convinced than ever that this is all an elaborate beta testing of the inevitable MMO sequel. Seeing other Heralds running around and closing rifts would not at all have seemed out of place. Hell, there are already dungeons, bosses, grouping, abilities with cooldowns, action combat, mining and herb gathering every 5 feet, crafting, gear upgrades, something approximating reputation meters, companions, mounts, talent trees, and repeatable/grindy quests.

After 20 hours, I am also convinced I am playing this game all wrong. Witness:

Do all the things.

Do all the things.

Basically, I have 4 Inquisition perks, 67 “Power,” and hit level 10… all before recruiting another party member beyond the default ones. No, I did not stay entirely within the Hinterlands; I simply did most of everything aside from the Main Plot that naturally unlocked as I leveled up. If they didn’t want me completing the swamp zone until after the first major encounter with the Chantry, perhaps they should have made the enemies stronger.

Or… maybe they did, and I didn’t notice because I’m goddamn level 10. Oops.

Although I have clearly screwed the game up for myself this way, I am not entirely convinced it is my fault. The genre in general – and Dragon Age in particular – is fond of having plot progression tied to permanently closing areas and eliminating quests. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in of itself, but if I am always paranoid that this particular foray into Zone X might be the last chance I have to acquire Something Something Y, you can bet I am going to do all the things.

At least I'll never have to run away from bears again.

At least I’ll never have to run away from bears again.

It is one of those unfortunate Design Catch-22s wherein you give the player a variety of activities to complete (in case they don’t like a particular kind) and then the player ends up doing everything. What’s the real alternative though? Only having a very limited selection of quests? Relying on a player’s self-control to move on from an area simply because one has become a god amongst men?

Hah! We’re MMO players: we pay by the month for the privilege of performing pointless activities.

In any case, an hour or two after I took that screenshot I advanced the plot by one degree and suddenly recruited four new party members. I am guessing that there is still one more out there somewhere, if only because my total party is otherwise mirror images of each other: male/female shield warrior, male/female mage, male/female ranged rogue, and then just male 2H warrior. Perhaps it will be a melee rogue, just to shake up the symmetry.

I’ll find out eventually, I suspect. Just as soon as I feel like advancing the plot one more degree. In the meantime, I got some more shards to find.

The Problem with GW2’s Questing

[Update: Please note the missing link photo]

Reading some of the positive comments about Guild Wars 2’s “Explorer-friendly” questing, I cannot help but feel… confused. I understand that there are people out there that do not like traditional questing. That is fine. The problem presents itself when ArenaNet decides to go through the motions and try and placate those of us who like our themeparks to have, you know, themes. And let’s not kid ourselves: Guild Wars 2 is a themepark. Maybe one with a few sandbox rides, but a themepark all the same.

Rather than attempt to explain the problem again, and why it is a problem how ArenaNet is handling it, I am going to simply show you. My apologies to those with 16.6k baud modems.

Step 1, Start doing the Personal Story.

Step 2, decide you want to help farmers for a while.

Step 3, Get a little ahead of the curve.

Step 4, Start getting worried.

_________________________

[Edit: The following picture was accidentally left out of the series, and provides some much needed context for the remainder]

Step Missing Link, I have done all that you asked.

If the above is not immediately clear, I was looking at my map to see if there were Renown Heart quests undone in my endeavor to finish level 7 and start the next step in the Personal Story quest. The only available quests were set for level 8 characters, although I never saw what was down in the South-West. While it is possible to quest above your level, GW2 makes it abundantly clear that it takes levels very seriously – as evidenced enough by the fact the game will de-level you down to the “appropriate” level for questing to be challenging. [end-edit]

_______________________

Step 5, Just do it.

Step 6, Back to doing what you want to do.

Step 7, Have some fun.

Step 8, Go play another game.

To be clear, I have nothing against an Explorer-based leveling game, or one that allows you to reach max level solely by PvP or chain-running Events or even grinding mobs. Hell, I do not have anything against strict sandboxes either, even if I do not play them all that much.

The problem here is one of coherency. The Personal Story thus far is perfectly serviceable, all the way up to the point where you choose to attend a dinner party and discover you need to go play outside for an hour for an entirely arbitrary reason, e.g. you haven’t leveled enough. As Keidot pointed out in the comments yesterday, it does make a certain amount of theoretical sense to structure the game this way. If you can level solely by the instanced Personal Story quests, what is the point of the outside world? Grouping them up better (instead of spacing each quest out by 2 levels) could potentially leave you performing nation-defining epic actions by level 10, diminishing the weight of your future exploits. Clustering them sounds good, e.g. 1-10 and then 15-25 (etc), until you realize that there had better be 5+ levels of interesting grinding/Event activities to participate in.

I do not have an easy solution to this problem. And believe me, it is a problem. It is one thing to be given a vague motivation to go out and do random Renown (aka Heart) quests, and be satisfied. It is quite another to be following a storyline and then be constantly interrupted to complete tasks that have nothing at all to do with the storyline itself. People talk about joys of not having to read quest text anymore, and maybe they even believe that, but this sort of textual background radiation is what differentiates the character and tone of one MMO against another.

And nevermind what this suggests more generally about the designers’ (future) abilities to pace their own content.