[Dark Souls 2 ] 45 Hours later
I’m continuing to progress through Dark Souls 2. Things have really started coming together.
Which is a shame, because it only serves to highlight how awful the general design philosophy is/was in this game. When first starting out (especially as a Sorcerer) you really don’t have the tools to survive well, presuming you weren’t already a veteran of the Souls genre. Each defeat reduces your maximum HP by 5% down to 50%, and the consumable that reverses that is not is ready supply. And you wouldn’t really know that unless you looked things up. Nevermind the invasions from other players who are likely to kill you. Which, by the way, counts as a regular death meaning your HP goes down too.
At a certain point though, things improve. My character was heading towards a pure Sorcerer build, but then veered off into Hexer and I’m loving it. Early on you barely have enough casts to step 20 feet from the Bonfires before running dry, but now I have 50 Dark Orbs, 75 Soul Arrows and whatever else I want to slot in. And those consumables? I have 38 of them ready to go.
Aside from being bullied in No Man’s Wharf, I encountered no other PvP invasions for probably another 20ish hours. Until Iron Keep. The fight was actually going my way for a bit, until the invader popped the Warmth spell on the bridge, a stationary AoE healing spell. Then he got in a stable rhythm for dodge-rolling my Affinity/Dark Orb casts and I was stuck either trying to bait him into overextending or run into melee myself. Eventually I baited him out, but an ill-timed block on my part (instead of just dodge-rolling) meant I got staggered and then he executed some combo attack on me that deleted 70% of my HP. Then he finished me off when I tried to stand up.
After the fight, I was kicking myself for not slotting in Dark Fog. See, Dark Fog is a ranged, obscuring fog that can poison foes very quickly. Aside from using it for area denial (like around his Warmth spell), it would also be good for casting spells through to hopefully give opponents less time to react. Plus, most Hex spells are hard to distinguish during the cast, so it can also bait them into rolling before/after the damage is done.
But the thing is… that’s dumb. Dark Fog has some PvE applications, but there’s a reason I didn’t already have it “equipped” in Iron Keep. That’s when I realized this is all by design. The threat of PvP is a “balancing” mechanism that keeps you from focusing on pure PvE (not equipping optimum souls-farming gear/spells), or if you ignore it, actively slowing your progress by killing you with invaders. Indeed, there are numerous spells in the game whose only real purpose is as PvP fodder – the “homing” spells are harder to dodge but deal less damage than normal, for example.
I understand the design logic. Adding PvP increases the design depth (“useless” weapons might be good against human players) and adds longevity and relevancy to your game. From what I have seen on some forums, Dark Souls 2 still has a relatively thriving PvP scene despite being eight years and two sequels old. That can be considered a design win, even if I don’t personally care for it.
Luckily for me, I figured out how to disable PvP via Windows Firewall. So I did.
Time will tell if I continue playing however. One of the common criticisms of Dark Souls 2 is how much of it involves “gank squads,” e.g. enemy ambushes. I can absolutely confirm that the majority of the game indeed feels like jump scares. While the original Dark Souls had plenty of surprises, Dark Souls 2 takes them to another whole level with just an absurd amount of harassment. I appreciate that enemies do not technically pop into existence (except when they do, like the Pursuers… and Forlorn… and NPC invaders…) and thus you can often snipe them from certain angles if you are aware of them. But it gets really exhausting stopping at every single doorway and swiveling the camera around to check the corners all goddamn day. Earthen Peak in particular took ages.
“So why keep playing?”
Because I want to play Elden Ring but don’t want to spend $52 (current sale) on it. Other games exist, but when I develop an itch to play a particular genre, playing something else as a distraction doesn’t make the itch go away.
Plus, you know, I do have fun after a fashion. The game is gorgeous, the dopamine hits from defeating bosses/unlocking Bonfires are legit, there is a tangible sense of both character and player progression, and the buttons feel good to press. In fact, if not for the HP penalty for dying (which amplifies the gank squad problem), I would rate Dark Souls 2 very high. There are a lot of improvements it brings to the formula, which I might talk about in a later post.
It’s just hard to enjoy a 1,000 mile journey with a rock in your shoe.
[Dark Souls 2] Day…WTF
I started playing Dark Souls 2 a few days ago. And I have been in a near-constant state of aghast since.
See, the devs messed with the formula, but they did so in cruel and unusual ways. It started when I made it to the first formal Bonfire only to find no option to level up. I talked to the NPC nearby twice, but still didn’t know what was going on, so I thought maybe I had to unlock it further on. So I went forward down the only path that was visible: the one leading to Heide’s Tower of Flame. Needless to say, I was very confused as to how the armored knights were an appropriate challenge for new players who couldn’t even level up yet. Then again, this was Dark Souls.
So, spoiler alert, you have to talk to the NPC near the fire THREE times before it is revealed that she is the only way you can level up in the game. You can teleport between Bonfires right from the get-go, which I suppose is handy since you’ll be coming back to the starting area dozens of times.
After dying a bunch of times to the armored knights – which were not as obviously “you came to the wrong neighborhood” as the skeletons in the original Dark Souls – I then understood something fundamental: Dark Souls 2 features failure cascades.
As you may be aware, dying in a Dark Souls game means you drop all the Souls (upgrade currency) you had collected up to that point, you get sent back to the last Bonfire you rested at, and all enemies in the area respawn. If you manage to get back to your corpse you can collect all those dropped Souls, but if you die beforehand, those initially dropped Souls are gone forever. In terms of harsh death penalties in games, it’s the industry standard for pretty fucking rough.
In Dark Souls 2, dying ALSO reduces your maximum HP by 5%. Per death. Down to a limit of 50%. What in the ever-loving Christ is the point of that? The game still prominently includes “surprise, you’re dead!” traps and ambushes, which means you spend a lot of the game with less than max health, which then makes it easier for you to die again. There are Human Effigy items you can consume to reverse the HP reduction, but they are a limited resource (at first?) which only serves to excessively punish people learning the game. Did I mention you must be in Human form (no HP reductions) in order to summon friendly NPCs/players to assist you with boss fights?
Oh, and get this: regular enemies stop respawning in an area after 12-15 resets. One might assume that this would make things easier for struggling players… but think this through. If you’re dying a bunch, about the only thing that you can do outside of “git gud” is farming Souls so you can level up and gain higher stats. But now the enemies you farm no longer exist after a dozen resets. In my particular case, I got caught in a failure cascade on the way to re-attempt the Pursuer fight. Killed the enemies on the way, started the boss fight, desperately collected my dropped Souls, then died to the boss again. Repeat a bunch of times, and now the enemies on the way to the boss aren’t respawning, and realize that if I die before retrieving my dropped Souls, not just those accumulated Souls are gone, but so are any potential Souls on that path to the boss. Again, what the fuck?
In the game’s defense, there are technically ways of getting enemies to respawn. First is the Bonfire Ascetic, which is a consumable that can be used to essentially “upgrade” an area to the New Game+ version. This, of course, means all of the enemies that respawn are the NG+ versions of themselves, which might not be an appropriate solution for someone trying to farm Souls to overcome regular enemies. The second option is joining a specific Covenant that unlocked infinite spawns… in return for a massive increase in enemy attack and defense, and a decrease in damage you deal for as long as you stay in the Covenant. So, yeah, not a great solution either.
I honestly don’t understand what the devs were going for with these changes. Did they just not like players farming Souls and experiencing incremental progression that way? Were they trying to save players from themselves? Did they intend to double-punish people who weren’t able to retrieve their corpse? The Bonfire Ascetic mechanic is a cool addition, but everything else they “added” to the formula feels like hot garbage and I really want to know why/how they thought it was a good idea.
Impression: Potion Craft
Potion Craft is one of the most brilliant gameplay experiences I have had in years.
The premise of the game is that you are a new alchemist moving into an inexplicably abandoned former alchemist house. As the title indicates, your job is to wake up, craft potions for townspeople, get paid, buy ingredients, experiment a bit, go to bed, repeat. Unlike a lot of other titles in this sort of storefront genre, there is no looming debt payment or other time constraint whatsoever. It’s just you, the ingredients, and a bit of alchemy.
It’s that very alchemical gameplay though that is so fundamentally brilliant and elegant and intuitive.
To craft a potion, you must move a potion icon around a map and land on a specific, potion-shaped effect. To move around the map requires you to place an ingredient into the caldron and stir. At the beginning, you start off with a limited amount of basic herbs and mushrooms. Hovering over each one reveals the properties of that ingredient, showing you where it will move the potion icon. What you will notice is that there is a sort of baseline distance you move, and then a further distance denoted by a dotted line. If that extra distance is desired, you must place the ingredient into a mortar and then pestle it as desired. Put the resulting mash into the caldron, stir, and repeat until you reach your destination.
Everything about this is so deliciously analog. When using the mortar & pestle, you do not have to grind things up fully – you can choose to stop at almost any pixel distance. Additionally, the quality tier of the potion is dependent on how close you end up overlaying the potion icons. Just touching? Tier 1. More than half? Tier 2. If you want Tier 3 though, you start slowing way down, grinding herbs just so, stirring the caldron ever-so-slightly, and diluting the mixture with water (which moves the icon back towards the center of the map) drop by drop. Until, until… ahh. Perfection.
What continues to amaze me is how… correct all of this feels. The alchemical map starts off nearly blank, and you explore its boundaries by experimenting with what herbs you have available. Finding a new potion effect on the map is exciting because you don’t know what it is until you brew it. Thankfully, Potion Craft does allow you to save custom recipes (limited by magic paper you purchase) so you don’t have to manually recreate every single potion every time. But as you help out your herb/mushroom suppliers, you get greater access to new ingredients that have different pathways. This then allows you to create the same potions with different (and usually) fewer total ingredients, improving the efficiency of your business.
Seriously though, I am deeply, deeply impressed with this gameplay. Indeed, I have spent the last three days trying to figure out if there is a term for what the designers have accomplished here, by so tightly marrying the concept of alchemy with this gameplay that embodies it. The closest I have gotten is “the opposite of Ludonarrative dissonance.” If you have better words for this, let me know.
Having said all this, I do want make an important distinction here: the gameplay is brilliant… but not necessarily engaging long-term.
There are a set of tasks that reward XP that sort of guide you through the general game, which is fine. But after about 8 hours, I have seen pretty much everything I imagine I will be seeing in Potion Craft. It is sometimes fun to realize you can use different herbs in novel ways to improve the efficiency of a recipe, but at the end of the day you are still selling a potion to a random customer for X amount of gold – once you have enough of a income stream, it doesn’t matter too much. And all that XP? It grants you Talent points which you spend to… improve the uncover distance of the alchemy map, increase bonus XP nodes on said map, and increase profit percentages. It’s a very shallow, closed loop.
There does appear to be an ultimate goal to create the Philosopher’s Stone, but it all seems kinda arbitrary. “Craft this precursor with these five potions, craft stage two precursor with these ten potions with an eclectic mixture of effects, etc.” This was all much less interesting than exploring the original map, trying to figure out how in the world you would make it past that obstacle, or figuring out that a potion which previously took 5 herbs to make can be done in two. The process novelty is very finite, in other words.
Be that as it may, I do commend the designers of Potion Craft and encourage anyone subscribed to Game Pass to give it a shot. It is a very unique, grokkable experience which is very rare these days.
Battlefield may just not be for me anymore.
I wasn’t there at the very beginning of the franchise, but I caught Battlefield 2 at just the perfect moment in college such that I abandoned console gaming and spent all my limited monies purchasing a gaming PC to play it at higher fidelity. Battlefield 2 consumed me. And even after all these years, there are experiences with that game that are not replicable – grabbing the Commander reins during a losing battle and RTS’ing my teammates to uncertain victory is a top 10 gaming memory. Shit, just having a Commander role at all was something else. Sneaking deep behind enemy lines and getting an unrequested radar sweep was a gentle reminder that someone out there recognized what you were doing and wanted you to succeed.
I understand why the Commander role was removed in Battlefield 3 though. The difference between a team with a Commander and one with an empty seat was enormous. Nothing in the game proper prepared you for that critical role either, so the only practice you got was typically when your team was losing and the previous Commander abandoned ship. And even if you were an expert? Better hope someone else didn’t grab the slot or that other players went along with your vote kick.
In any case, Battlefield 3 was fantastic, Battlefield 4 was good with some annoying bits with unlocks/Battlelog, Battlefield 1 was a bit too oppressive, and Battlefield 5 was hot garbage. Between the series trendline and the poor news articles, I didn’t have high hopes for Battlefield 2042. And yet I am still disappointed.
I played Battlefield 2042 for about 7 hours via EA Play, which I get for “free” from Game Pass. One of the first options you are presented with is whether you want to allow Cross Play, e.g. get matched up with console players. I chose No, as console players typically get a generous Aim Assist to “level the field” with mouse & keyboard players. Then I had to quickly reverse that decision because it was literally impossible to find a match. Actually, it was still difficult to find a match considering you don’t really “look” for matches, you just get auto-sorted into one (or an empty lobby). I think there was maybe one game mode that allowed you to manually look for a lobby? But those were primarily custom XP farms, like the one where everyone just gave each other ammo, and you get kicked for shooting at each other.
When I actually got to play the game, it was… basically Battlefield. Sorta. There was a lot of criticism about the pivot to Specialists at release, and I agree conceptually. What do they bring to the table that simply having a “specialist tool slot” would not? It’s also kinda weird having these named, unique-looking Specialists when fights are supposed to be 32v32+. It is precisely due to the larger battles that I felt like the Specialists weren’t all that special. Can one of the Sniper guys fly a drone around? Who cares? The enemy is back-capping Point A 1000m away with two tanks. Meanwhile you have a thumb up your ass pressing Q. I guess technically the Sniper can equip whatever other gear they want, even tossing a bunch of C5 packets on the drone like the San Francisco PD. It’s clever, but again, the scope is a bit too small for how games play out.
After a few sessions, it occurred to me that nothing really felt like it mattered. Yes, in the broad view, nothing matters. The nihilism felt particularly acute in Battlefield 2042 though. It’s already one thing that you cannot select specific servers to play on, and always get thrown into a mostly-empty map any time you accidentally press Escape too many times. But you’re also getting thrown together with console players, with whom you fundamentally experience the game differently. Then there is the BattlePass deal, whereby you are no longer really working towards gun unlocks in a satisfying way. Maybe it ends up being all the same in the end, but it feels worse when you “unlock” several items that you cannot actually touch because you haven’t spent however many dollars buying the BattlePass.
All I know is that I did not feel particularly satisfied playing Battlefield 2042, even when I won. I could psychoanalyze it further – as if there is anything left to say on the topic – but if a game is not sparking joy, what is the point? Play something else. So I am.
Hitting a Nerve
Tobold wants me off his lawn. He has a history of political posts that claim “centrism” despite being wrapped in the language of right-wing culture wars, and the recent Races are racist post is no exception. In it, he laments:
It is a sign of the times in which artists live in constant fear of being attacked for slights they never intended that Wizards of the Coast in the first playtest material for One D&D removes stat modifiers from races. In the new version of Dungeons & Dragons, choosing your race is mostly cosmetic. Orcs aren’t strong anymore, instead they “count as one Size larger when determining your carrying capacity and the weight you can push, drag, or lift.”. And to avoid comparative negative stat discrimination, positive stat bonuses are gone as well. The “2-3 feet tall” halflings are now just as strong as the “6-7 feet tall” orcs, in order to avoid racial discrimination. We will have gnomish barbarians and orc wizards.
Gnome barbarians and orc wizards, oh no!
Let’s take a moment to talk about the game design topic though.
This change just reflects what modern multiplayer game design figured out a decade ago: prescriptive racial modifiers only encourage min-maxing and otherwise limit design space. Look at the state of endgame World of Warcraft. Does anyone still think it is a good idea that the race you chose on the character select screen should have such an impact on raiding or M+ or PvP 15 years later? Maybe you say “yes.” Well, the end result of that is a faction imbalance so massive Blizzard finally buckled, and is making most activities of the game cross-faction in the upcoming Dragonflight expansion to prevent the entire edifice from collapsing.
Which is good idea, by the way, because factions are dumb too. “Let’s divide our playerbase and foster different and hostile identities.” Oh, now people are quitting in droves because they are stranded on dead servers/factions and none of our world PvP systems are viable. *Surprised Pikachu face*
Compare all that with, say, Guild Wars 2. I think technically each race has a special ability, but they are irrelevant at all stages of play, which allows players to pick a race based on aesthetics or fantasy. Want to be an Asuran Warrior instead of Charr or Norn? Go for it. One of my first characters 10 years ago was a Sylvari Engineer, because the thought of a plant-person running around with a flamethrower was hilarious to me. Still is, actually. If GW2 was more “traditional” fantasy surely I would have negative modifiers for being around flames, if I were allowed to be an Engineer at all.
Was any of that what Tobold really wanted to talk about? Nope:
I am not sure what purpose races serve in a fantasy role-playing game if there isn’t actually any difference between them. If they are all the same and lack profile, races have been effectively removed in order to appease the thought police. But races remain nominally in the game, because a much bigger part of the D&D customer base would be deeply offended if you’d just remove all fantasy races. It is a bad compromise that will make nobody happy. The thought police will still be triggered by the mere existence of the word “race” in the rulebook. And the players will have lost interesting options in character creation. Can’t we just admit that the real world is complicated, and be allowed some refuge in much simpler fantasy worlds?
You would think that a centrist is all for “bad compromises that make nobody happy,” but the follow-up comments demonstrate that is not the case. When I pointed out that, historically, CRPGs gave female characters Strength penalties for similarly dubious reasons, he replied with:
So you are saying that god is sexist, because (s)he made women less strong than men? I don’t understand your objection to a game rule that reflects reality.
Well, there it is. A Rogue can make a successful Reflex Save in a broom closet hit by a Fireball (which also sets nothing on fire) to avoid all damage, but it’s important for reasons that fantasy game rules reflect “reality.” But only certain “realities.” And those certain reflections of reality are more important to a game’s design than, I dunno, any consideration of what the design leads to, e.g. prescriptive race/class combos that force players to choose between their own fantasy and numerical success. Nevermind the extra social pressure to be helpful that inherently comes from being a part of a group.
While I had been trying to avoid the bait, the third time was not the charm. In an unnecessary paragraph, I threw in this at the end:
“Of course, that’s not the real issue here, is it? I guess you’ve traded your armchair game designer hat for an imitation MAGA one so you can fill your retirement with Boomer culture wars. Which… OK, I guess. Perhaps you can make a little safe space around the D&D table where you can’t get triggered when the “thought police” removes your +2 modifier.
In retrospect, not my proudest moment. However, it certainly hit a nerve, with Tobold going off quoting “They came for the socialists…” and how evil triumphs when good men do nothing.
Here’s the thing though: if you use the word “woke” as a pejorative and talk about the “thought police” being “triggered” while also apparently defending gender-based modifiers as being a justified reflection of (fantasy!) reality… you may want to take a moment and ponder on what “left of center” even is. This is not neutral language. Unless it was being used ironically in a way I did not detect, it hits about the same as Ron DeSantis’ victory speech wherein he used the word “woke” 5 times in 19 seconds:
“At the end of the day, we were not going to let this state be overrun by woke ideology,” DeSantis said. “We will fight the woke in the businesses, in government agencies, fight the woke in our schools, and never surrender to the woke agenda. Florida is the state where woke goes to die.”
Perhaps even pointing that out is ipso facto thought policing, in which case… weewoo weewoo, I guess.
I understand the desire to keep politics separate from one’s hobby. Although, that sort of presupposes politics weren’t already deeply ingrained from inception – art is usually a product of its time. What I do not understand is how or why this particular hill is the one to die on. Not only does it make no practical difference to the experience of D&D – you literally can make up whatever rules you wish or use any edition to run your game – it is not particularly interesting game design in the first place.
Indeed, here is a quote from the Principle Rules Designer for D&D, Jeremy Crawford:
“For quite some time, we have not liked how the choice of race in the game had often too much weight on the player’s choice of class,” Crawford admitted. “Fans often talk about this—that connection between race and class is not something we as designers actually desire. We want players to pick those two critical components of their character and choose the two that really sing to them so they don’t feel like they’re pigeonholed. [In Monsters of the Multiverse] people will get the floating bonuses we introduced in Tasha’s Cauldron. If somebody is making a character, and wants to recreate the bonuses that existed previously, the advantage of the floating bonus system is they can do exactly that.”
Here is another one:
“Contrary to what many people might think,” said Crawford, “those ability score increases that are in those different options, they’re not there for game balance purposes. They are there strictly to reinforce the different archetypes that have been in D&D going all the way back to the ’70s. […] It really has been just about archetype reinforcement, and because it’s not there for game balance reasons we give people the option in Tasha’s Cauldron to take whatever those bonuses are […] put them in any ability score you want.”
If you want a traditional, archetype-driven high-fantasy campaign wherein Orc babies light up when the Paladin casts Detect Evil, go right ahead. I personally ran D&D campaigns for six years that featured nary a dungeon nor a dragon. Do what you want!
But if you are insistent on being outraged by this change, irrespective of your ability to articulate a game design counter-argument, cloaked in the language of far-right cultural wars, maybe some introspection is in order. And if the notion of introspection itself feels like self-censorship to be fought with the strength of Niemöller… well, you kind of got your answer right there, eh?
[Cyberpunk 2077] Terrible Design
Cyberpunk 2077 has undergone a ton of changes since its disastrous launch. I was not keeping track of everything they fixed and tweaked, but suffice it to say, there was a lot. Some of which was immediately indicative of… well, idiot designers. That may sound harsh but let me give you an example: there is an early talent (Dagger Dealer) that allows you to throw your equipped knives. What was missing from the launch of the game until literally February of this year was any way to retrieve your thrown knives. Some designer thought this talent up and some programmer put it into a game where there are legendary knives, and no one thought that maybe losing them forever was a bad idea? Again, this was fixed in version 1.5 which I am currently playing. But the fact that it was even a thing outside of alpha is mind-boggling.
What I am coming to understand is that Dagger Dealer is a symptom of deeper issues.
The overall leveling system is just a mess. You gain XP and gain character levels, which grant you Perk points and occasionally Attribute points. The latter are very important because they determine the maximum level of perk you can select within that Attribute. Additionally, each Attribute has multiple Skill Trees associated with it. So for example, the Reflexes Attribute contains the Assault, Blades, and Handguns trees, each of which contain 17-20 Perks that can have multiple tiers.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! Each Skill tree has its own XP meter that increases by utilizing that specific Skill in various ways. The more you use Handguns, the more Handgun XP you generate, and eventually you work your way down the reward track up to the limit of the Attribute. The rewards are usually little enhancements (Recoil reduction on Handguns, etc) but sometimes they are Perk points which you can actually assign anywhere. While that could lead to some interesting decisions wherein you start farming Blade XP to generate extra Perk points to put into Handguns or whatever, the emphasis should not deviate from the word “farm.” Because that is what it takes.
All of that may sound complicated, but none of it is particularly interesting.
I could live with all the overcomplicated shenanigans, but what I cannot stand is a Talent/Perk/Skill system with so few synergies. It is like the designers didn’t even try. I scoured the various trees and the closest thing to interesting that popped up was a Reflexes 8 Perk in the Blades tree called Stuck Pig that increases Bleed duration by 3/6/9 seconds. That is notable not because it’s actually any good, but because there is no “inflicted by a Blade” qualifier to it. Some things other than Blades inflict Bleed, so that would be an interesting choice and/or build to work towards if Bleeds were your thing. If instead you put any Perk points into Handguns, well, all of them turn off the moment you equip anything else.
And, Jesus Christ, don’t get me started on the crafting system. Because I’m going to anyway.
Crafting is governed by the Technical Ability Attribute and subsequent perks in the Crafting Skill tree. The most important ones are those Perks that unlock the crafting of Rare (5), Epic (12), and Legendary (18) items. In many games, there is always a tension between player crafting and found loot: A) if crafting is better, why search for loot, vs B) if loot is better, why engage with crafting at all. Cyberpunk kicks this up a notch with Iconic gear – these are weapons/armor with unique effects that you can continually upgrade… provided you dump a bunch of Attribute points into Technical Ability. If you don’t, those Iconic items might be good for a mission or two before trash drops start dealing more damage.
Aside from that, crafting largely sucks. You need to purchase weapon/armor “specs” from vendors to unlock the ability to craft that item in that specific tier. Just because you can craft a Rare sniper rifle does not mean you can craft the Epic version of the same sniper rifle, even if you unlocked Epic crafting via Perks. Also, the spec for that Sniper Rifle costs 75,000 credits which is just about what it costs to just purchase the Legendary version of that Sniper Rifle from the same vendor. At a certain point you can farm practically infinite amounts of credits via crafting anyway (purchase components, craft X gun, sell to vendor, cycle vendors), but the point is that the system as a whole makes no fucking sense. What was the harm with a more reasonable weapon spec cost? Woohoo, I get a “cheap” Epic Sniper Rifle by dumping Attribute and Perk Points into a tree that does not otherwise enhance my ability to deal damage with said Sniper Rifle. Christ, I bet that I would deal more damage with a trash-tier Sniper Rifle and those points spent in Reflexes instead.
By the way, Cyberpunk does feature a Respec button. The hilarious thing – in a comedy of errors sort of way – is that it only refunds Perk points, not Attribute points. Thus even though I am 40 hours deep into the game and realize how terrible Crafting has been for me, none of it matters because I can’t shuffle many of those points elsewhere because I’m limited based on Attributes, not Perks. I guess there is an argument that people would game the system by switching to a full Crafting build, upgrade all their shit, get infinite money, and then swap back to a weapon-specific build, but come on.
Know what else is disappointing? The cyberware parts of Cyberpunk. The game is predicated on body enhancements and everyone certainly looks the part. But the thing you find out after browsing a few Ripperdocs is that all the enhancements are… just random buffs locked behind Attribute gates. Sometimes you will find a common-tier upgrade not locked behind such a gate, but the vast majority are tied to your character’s Body or Reflexes Attribute, which means a Technical Ability/Intelligence character (cough) doesn’t have much to gain by cyberware. Which is really fucking bizarre, right? Compare that to how Deus Ex handles things – augments grant gameplay-changing abilities and are otherwise a big deal. In Cyberpunk, they are non-choices.
Ultimately, that is the biggest disappointment of all: everything in Cyberpunk (outside of dialog) feels like a non-choice. Can you “choose” to build your character around using Shotguns and Katanas for roleplaying purposes? Sure. Place your Attribute and Perk points in the corresponding slots. But none of that is interesting. And to me, there is no such thing as an uninteresting choice – there are choices and mere decisions. You decide to use Shotguns, and everything else follows. Notwithstanding the banality of having to decide on a specific weapon to use in the first place, there is no room for synergy choices within Skill trees or trying different strategies once Attribute points have been committed.
I am not certain this part of Cyberpunk 2077 is fixable. Being able to Respec Attribute points would help, or perhaps granting more Attribute points overall. Perks would have be radically reworked to introduce synergies though, and I’m not certain designers who had to wait a year and half to noodle on how to fix throwing knives is up to the task.
Borrowed Power, Borrowed Time
The Blizzard devs have been on a bit of a interview circuit since the reveal of the next WoW expansion. Some of the tidbits have been interesting, like this particular summary (emphasis mine):
- Borrowed Power
- The team reflected on the borrowed power systems of the past few expansions and admit that giving players power and then taking it away at the end didn’t feel good.
- As they thought of a way to move forward without borrowed power systems, they realized that the only talent system used to fill those gaps by giving you something new every expansion that would not be taken away at the end.
- The goal of the new talent system is to grow on it in further expansions with more layers and rows.
- They want the new talent system to be sustainable for at least a few expansions and what to do at that point is an issue to solve then.
In other words, Blizzard recognized the failings of the “borrowed power” system – after three expansions! – and decided to bring back talent trees as a replacement. All while acknowledging the reasons why talent trees failed in the first place… and simply saying the equivalent of “we’ll jump off that bridge when we come to it.”
You know, I’m actually going to transcript that part from Ion Hazzikostas for posterity:
And I think we’ve built this system… you know, I mean, could we sustain that for 20 years? Probably not. But we don’t realistically… we think of, you know, there’s a – there a horizon of sorts where you want to make sure this will work for two or three expansions and then beyond that it’s sort of a future us problem. Where so much will have changed between now and then we can’t… it’s not really responsible for us to like, you know, make plant firm stakes in the ground. And if we’re compromising the excitement of our designs because of we’re not sure how they’re going to scale eight years from now… we’re doing a disservice to players today and eight years from now won’t matter if we’re not making an amazing game for players today.
I don’t technically disagree. When you have a MMORPG with character progression and abilities that accumulate over time… at some point it becomes very unwieldy to maintain every system introduced. Not impossible, just unwieldy. It reminds me of when CCGs like Hearthstone or Magic: the Gathering start segmenting older card sets away from “Standard” and into “Legacy” sets. Want to play with the most broken cards from every set ever released? Sure, go have fun over there in that box. Everyone else can have fun with a smaller set of more (potentially) balanced cards over here.
Having said that… is it really an insurmountable design problem?
My first instinct was to look at Guild Wars 2, which recently released its third expansion. The game is a bit of an outlier from the get-go considering that there is no gear progression at the level cap – if you have Ascended/Legendary Berserker gear from 10+ years ago, it is still Best-in-Slot today (assuming your class/spec wasn’t nerfed). That horizontal progression philosophy bleeds over into character skills and talent-equivalents too: whatever spec you are playing, you are limited to 5 combat skills based on your weapon(s) and 5 utility skills picked from a list. You pick three talent trees, but those trees don’t “expand” or get additional nodes. The only power accumulation in GW2 is in the Mastery system… which is largely borrowed-power-esque, now that I think about it.
So GW2 is doing well in the ability/feature creep department. For now. Because that’s the rub: ArenaNet is on expansion #3. WoW is on expansion #9. Are we prepared for six more Elite Specs per class? Outside of it being a balance nightmare – which is hardly ever ArenaNet’s apparent concern – I could easily see more Elite Specs being slapped onto the UI and nothing else of note changing. So the problem is “solved” by never granting meaningfully new abilities to older specs.
And… that’s basically the extent of my knowledge of non-WoW MMOs. Surely EverQuest 1 & 2 have encountered this same issue, for example. What did they do? I think FF14 is accumulating character abilities but not yet hitting the limit of reasonableness. EVE is EVE. What else is out there that has been around long enough to run into this? Runescape?
Regardless, it’s an interesting conundrum whereby the choices appear to be A) not grant new abilities with each expansion, B) have Borrowed Power systems, or C) periodically “reset” and prune character abilities before reintroducing them.
Bethesda recently removed the Nuclear Winter battle royale mode from Fallout 76, and replaced it with Fallout Worlds. This new feature is intended to satisfy the promise of modding within Fallout 76.
Essentially, it allows you to spin up your own Private World (a feature that already exists) but then tweak a large number of “developer” settings. For example, you can remove building restrictions, remove crafting restrictions (i.e. infinite materials), give yourself infinite ammo, crank up/down NPC damage and a number of other settings. Access to this feature does require a “Fallout 1st” subscription, same as normal Private Worlds, although there is a free “community” version that is intended to… something. Advertise the feature? Give bored people something else to do?
There is a catch though: while you can clone your character over to Worlds, they cannot come back.
A large number of people in the Fallout 76 community consider Worlds a waste of developer time. Originally, I did too. What’s the point? Why spend developer time on a feature that has no progression? All of the time you spend in Worlds doing whatever is isolated to Worlds alone, even if the only thing you tweak is goofy things like exaggerated ragdoll effects or more frequent rad storms. I suppose it might also be nice for those people who want to test out certain Legendary builds without needing to track down/grind out specific weapons.
The counter-argument that got me though was this: who says you have to come back?
Almost three years ago, I made the argument that Fallout 76 was a survival game. And, well, I sure as hell ain’t playing ARK on default settings. There isn’t anything approaching the ridiculousness of dino babysitting for literal real-world hours in Fallout 76, but there is an argument to be made that some elements of the experience diminish fun rather than facilitate. Things like grinding out multiple Daily Ops just for the free ammo to feed your minigun so you can use it in Public Events. Infinite ammo would cut out a significant possible gameplay loop, but again, some loops are better than others.
There is also the fact that a solo world is what many people have been asking for all along. Private Worlds already exist as a feature under the subscription, and has the bonus of allowing you to preserve your unified character progress in Adventure Mode. But what is that really? You also level up in custom Worlds, possibly at a faster rate. The two things you miss are the sort of Season rewards – most of which can be boiled down to resource gifts – and… other people. You can invite others to your own Custom Worlds, and they can even rejoin that specific Custom World without you having to be online, but there is otherwise no random people drifting in.
And that’s the real downside, not the forked progression. Other people have certainly been distracting during story progression, but Show & Tell is a strong motivator for emergent gameplay. I can’t tell you how many times I have strolled into a random person’s CAMP just looking to browse their vendor wares and then end up shamed how great their camp looks compared to my Oscar the Grouch roleplay (or at least that’s what I keep telling myself). I have built elaborate nonsense in ARK and Valheim and similar games before with full knowledge that none would witness its greatness. It’s easier in those games though, because other people never existed to me. Here, it’s different.
Having said all that, I have no particular desire to fork over subscription money to access Fallout Worlds. I now understand the appeal though, even if it’s not directly appealing to me. I happen to enjoy rummaging through literal post-apocalypse garbage and slowly accumulating all the things.
If you don’t, well, Bethesda has you covered now.
Fighting the Game Mechanics
I just completed Orwell, a sort of Papers, Please-style game that demonstrates the dangers of mass surveillance. As an Investigator, your job is to comb through a few suspects’ Facebook pages, text threads, and anything else you can get your hands on (including medical records) to glean info and connect dots to stop further terrorist attacks.
The game is actually pretty slick in an AR sense, and reminded me of that one old (2012 is old, right?) Youtube video, Welcome to Life. There is no fourth wall – you the player agree to terms and conditions and your participation as an outside observer is intended.
Overall, the game was decent entertainment across the six hours I spent playing. The frustrating part though was how often I ended up having to fight against the game mechanics.
One of the central conceits of the game is that you have to upload information to the Orwell system as “Datachunks.” Sometimes this is straight-forward factual information, like phone numbers or email addresses. Other times you have to exercise judgment and restraint based on context. If someone says they live in “Wonderland, on the other side of the rainbow” or whatever, uploading that will actually make that their address in the system. That example is benign, but as this is a game with multiple endings, you can actually screw things up depending on what you submit and what you don’t.
The problem I faced rather early on though is that Orwell is a videogame. And as a videogame, progression is based on “flags” which must be tripped before you can continue. There were at least four instances in which I could not progress until I uploaded a specific Datachunk that was not otherwise immediately obvious as being necessary. Once I did so, there would be a totally unrelated phone call or whatever I could listen in on to get more information and continue onwards. But as I mentioned, the game makes it clear that you shouldn’t just upload ALL of the Datachunks lest you pollute the profiles and/or possibly implicate an innocent person.
There is no option to just end the day, or move forward with the information you already have. I suppose it would be more frustrating to basically soft-lock you out of finishing the game at all if you end up missing a crucial bit of information. Nevertheless, Orwell felt like it existed between a visual novel and a Hidden Object game, the latter being a hypothetical one in which you could “lose” by clicking on the wrong thing.
I don’t have a solution to this problem; the Orwell devs don’t either. It’s a shame that an otherwise delightful experience could encounter so much friction in execution based on game mechanics.
Redfallen on Face
Posted by Azuriel
Redfall was recently released and the results… aren’t great.
Developed by Arkane Studios Austin, the same developers behind Dishonored and Prey, Redfall is a $70 game (also on Game Pass) pitched as an open-world, story-driven, action-shooter. The premise is that some vampires showed up in town of Redfall, and you are one of four characters with special powers that can do something about it.
The problem is that the game is terrible. And it is terrible for a lot of fundamental reasons. You may or may not have heard already about the braindead AI or the incredibly lazy art assets. Those are embarrassing corners cut that can be glued back together – update the AI, add some shaders to the chimney, ensure each area has different dead body models.
What cannot be fixed is the overall direction of the game and the utter destruction of any semblance of “immersive sim” the studio is known for.
The “open-world” in Redfall is basically dead. The enemies you face are vampires, a cult of humans working with the vampires, and more humans working with a corporation that attacks everyone on sight. However, the game itself is structured like a looter-shooter: you gain XP to level up and gain skill points to upgrade your powers, and you can loot more powerful guns from drops or in certain containers. So things play out like Borderlands… minus the inventive weapons, the vehicles, the enemy variety, the humor, or simple enemy density.
It is “immersive” that there are no NPCs running around outside, because vampires. It is also “immersive” that there aren’t zombies or a more filler enemy type that you plow through. But the end result is that you spend a lot of time walking around an empty world where 99% of the buildings are boarded up, desperately seeking any gameplay, only to face the same two enemy types over and over.
Amusingly, Phil Spencer (head of Xbox) addressed this vision problem in his recent apology tour:
Phil does say that they are committed to continue working on improving the game, but I have no idea how they imagine that will go. If they are going for a Borderlands vibe, they are going to need more enemies, like vampire dogs, necromancers, or anything else that might fit the “vision.” What they got right now doesn’t work. Like there is supposed to be a spooky vibe, but all the game systems revolve around you farming XP and getting better guns to farm XP faster. And while you can sort of handwave away the human body count, at a certain point the sheer number of vampires you kill as a matter of course gets ridiculous.
When it comes to game vision pivots, Fallout 76 successfully went from no NPCs to a more traditional Fallout NPC experience because the systems were already there. You technically already talked to robots and got quests and the game world supported all of that. It’s hard to imagine Redfall changing in this way. It’s not like Arkane can suddenly start leveraging their Dishonored or Prey experience, and fully committing to the Borderlands direction would make it even more generic than it already is.
Redfall was and is simply a bad idea.
Posted in Commentary
Tags: Arkane Studios Austin, Dishonored, Embarrassing, Game Design, Prey, Redfall