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Impressions: Overwatch Beta

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

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

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

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

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

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

You have no chance to survive, make your time.

You have no chance to survive, make your time.

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

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

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

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

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

Characters

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

Big fish, little pond.

Big fish, little pond.

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

Like I said, crazy OP.

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

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

Torbjorn is a much better Builder in every way.

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

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

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

Bottom Line

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

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Impression: Craft the World

[Note: Day 3 Blaugust]

The aesthetics work really well, actually.

The aesthetics work really well, actually.

Craft the World is a game billed as “a unique sandbox strategy game, the mix of Dungeon Keeper, Terraria and Dwarf Fortress.” What initially attracted me to the game was the comparison to Dwarf Fortress, which is one of those mythical games that someone you know spent 6000 hours playing, but you didn’t even bother looking at after seeing the screenshots. I am led to believe there are texture packs for Dwarf Fortress, but considering I can’t even bring myself to play FF12 due to graphics alone, I figure I’ll wait until some fan recreates the entire thing in an actual watchable format.

In the meantime… well, Craft the World.

Right now the game still feels like it’s in beta. I am playing in the “Campaign” mode, which I understand to be an extended tutorial. The problem is that I have no idea how to “beat” the campaign. There’s a 40-60 minute timer which dictates when a monster portal opens, and I have been defeating said monters each time they appear. I think I read something about defeating a boss, who will then drop the portal for the next campaign world. Or something about completing all the “tech trees” to unlock it. Or something.

The actual gameplay is both interesting and somewhat vapid. Instead of controlling an actual character, you are the disembodied cursor simply marking which squares you want dug/built/collected/attacked. If a dwarf is available and feels like it, he will go over and start working the squares. So the gameplay cadence is queuing up a lot of work, spending time in the crafting menu, and then watching your dwarves (hopefully) carry it out. Resources are only collected two items at a time, and said items are only actually available once the dwarf makes it back to your Stash. So the end result for me was usually watching the dwarves go about their business, eyes glazed, and then realize 5 minutes later that they were all standing around idle.

Technically, you can control a dwarf directly at any time if you want to get more hands-on. In fact, you pretty much have to to get any sort of reasonable construction project going. Not only do you have an increased object placement range (uncontrolled dwarves can only reach 2 squares instead of 3), but your controlled dwarf has full access to your entire inventory. Otherwise, yep, the dwarves have to carry over the supplies two items at a time; not a whole lot of fun when you’re trying to get them to build a ladder down a mineshaft.

As I mentioned in the beginning though, the game feels Beta-ish. The controls have clearly been designed around an eventual tablet version, as hotkeys are limited and damn near everything revolves around left-click. There are quests/tasks in the Campaign mode which are either broke, or frustratingly vague. For example, one quest was to start a farm by planting Wheat. I actually had some Wheat, but nothing I did seemed to work in terms of getting it planted. Then I thought perhaps I needed “Grain” first, e.g. seeds, but no amount of Wild Wheat harvesting produced any. And, you know, the quest clearly says to plant Wheat, not Grain. I eventually completed the quest after collecting enough Wild Wheat, which shouldn’t have worked based on the description, but whatever.

In the meantime, I’m willing to give it a little bit more time to get more interesting. I can’t help but feel like there is something there, some nugget of fun waiting to be uncovered. At the same time, I also kinda feel like the devs missed everything that was actually fun about the games they were inspired by. Terraria this ain’t, that’s for damn sure.

Beta Impression: Hearthstone

Yes, I made it into the beta with that ridiculous email and Press™ credentials. It just goes to show you that with hard work and a can-do attitude Camus was right. Embrace the Absurd.

Anyway… Hearthstone!

Momentum is extremely fluid.

Momentum is extremely fluid.

For those not following along at home, Hearthstone is a free-to-play CCG made by a small team at Blizzard, all of whom likely had an awkward conversation with their bosses as to why they were apparently hiding their goddamn genius game development and UI skills under a bushel.

Indeed, that is exactly the first thing anyone should talk about when it comes to Hearthstone: it has perhaps the best UI in any game ever made. It is both visceral and whimsical, simultaneously. You know that feeling in a pillow fight, about ten seconds in, when you are just wailing on somebody and clearly winning before Jason knocks over the lamp and your mom comes upstairs and makes everyone go to bed? It is kinda exactly like that. Or close enough that I am going to continue using this ungainly metaphor for the rest of the post.

The basic premise of the pillow fight is that each player creates a 30-card deck, limited to 2 copies of an individual card, and then tries to reduce the opposing player from 30 life to zero in a turn-based manner. A few unique gameplay wrinkles show up immediately. First, players have to choose a Hero to represent them, corresponding to one of the original nine classes in World of Warcraft. Each class has their own unique set of cards that cannot be used by the others, although there is a large portion of “neutral” cards that can go into any class’s deck. In addition to the unique pool of class cards, each hero has a “hero power” which is an ability that costs two resources and can be used once each turn. The Paladin hero, for example, can create a 1/1 creature whereas the Warlock can pay 2 Health to draw a card (ala Life Tap).

The second gameplay wrinkle comes from the gameplay flow. Each turn, a player gains another resource point (aka Gems, Crystals, whatever), up to a maximum of 10, with them reseting at the start of each turn. While there are technically “Secret” cards with hidden triggers that can be played, there is otherwise no action possible during an opponent’s turn.

Finally, combat plays out a little differently than you might expect, coming from SolForge or Magic: the Gathering. Summoning Sickness and Haste (i.e. Charge) is all there, but there really is no concept of “blockers”; unless your opponent has a creature with Taunt, you are free to send your units to attack the player or his/her creatures at your leisure, in whatever sequence you choose. While the optimal move is sometimes obvious – sending your 1/1 into that 5/1 – the math becomes exceedingly fuzzy when you start having to compute whether it’s better to just send all the damage to their dome and hope you maintain enough initiative to win the damage race.

Here is an example of some strategery:

This Warlock is in for a bad time.

This Warlock is in for a bad time.

It’s turn 7, and the Warlock has a 7/7 mob. On my side, I have a 3/2, a 1/1, and a Young Dragonhawk (1/1 with Windfury, which lets it attack twice per turn). In my hand is Raid Leader (2/2, gives my other creatures +1 Attack), Blessing of Might (gives creature +3 Attack), Lord of the Arena (6/5 mob with Taunt), and Shattered Sun Cleric (3/3 that gives a creature +1/+1 when it comes into play). My moves? Blessing of Might on the Young Dragonhawk, Shattered Sun Cleric also targeting the Young Dragonhawk, and then playing the Raid Leader. Attack the Warlock directly with all my creatures, dealing 6 + 6 + 3 + 1 damage to the dome, bringing him to 8 life with more than lethal damage still on the board.

Why play this way? There are a few reasons I chose to, and a few more that argue for a more conservative approach. Warlocks have a lot of removal by default, including Hellfire that deals 3 damage to everything. As amazing as my 16 damage was the prior turn, a single Hellfire would have wiped my entire board and left the Warlock with a 7/4 creature wailing on me. I could have perhaps played the Lord of the Arena and then Blessing of Might on the Dragonhawk, dealing 12 damage and leaving a sort of Taunt barrier that would survive (and trade) a Hellfire. Or I could have done my big play like last time, and sent the 6/2 Dragonhawk into the 7/7 as its second attack and finishing it off with the 1/1, having dealt a total of 9 damage to the Warlock.

Having actually wrote all this out, it has become apparent that my original play was monstrously dumb. A single Hellfire would have wrecked me, to the point of not being able to recover. At the time, my thought process was that the Warlock had to remove my Dragonhawk or lose the next turn, so he’d send in his 7/7 targeting my 6/2, leaving it as easy picking on my next turn… which would be irrelevant because I’d have lethal damage available anyway. Shit, I was probably just too damn excited to contain myself. “Sixteen damage in one turn! Ka-Pow, right in the kisser!”

While there are moments of high excitement, there are also moments of extreme depression. Hearthstone, like many (most? all?) CCG games, forces one to become intimately acquainted with the Three Sisters: Tempo, Card Advantage, and RNG. Take a look at this screenshot which, days later, still causes me to groan:

JESUS, C'MON!

Seriously?! C’MON!

My opponent is at 1 HP, and it’s their turn. They send their 3/3 (which makes a 2/1 at death) at my 5/5, and then the 2/2, and then send a 1-damage fireball at my 1/1 creature. Approximately 247 days or five turns later, whichever is worse, the Mage wins. Wins. I never draw a creature with Haste Charge, or any “direct” damage (by Paladin standards), and nothing on my side of board lives long enough to attack. I created a 1/1 each turn only to have it pinged away.

You will have games like this, and it will suck. It is not quite on the same level as being Mana Screwed in Magic, but games possibly grinding to a halt is at least one problem that Scrolls solved beautifully – in Scrolls, you either turn a card into a resource or discard it to draw 2 new cards. With Hearthstone, some heroes like the Paladin have a severe problem with running out of steam. There are technically some Paladin-specific trickery to “solve” this issue – Divine Favor is a 2-cost spell that let’s you draw cards until you have as many as your opponent – but that is heavily dependent on actually having said cards in your collection, and drawing into them at the opportune moments.

Speaking of which…

The Business Side

So where are the Hearthstone F2P hooks? Well… it’s kinda weird. I mean, not really, but it sorta is. Here is how you spend money:

Almost... reasonable?!

Almost… reasonable?!

You can buy 5-card booster packs for 100g or at an escalating discount; they come out to be $1.50, $1.43, $1.33, and $1.25 apiece in the various quantities. Entrance into the Arena (which used to be the Forge) is 150g or $1.99. Purchasing boosters for 100g is almost always a waste of precious gold, considering that even if you go 0-3 in the Arena, you will receive a booster pack at a minimum in addition to some other prizes. Supposedly, if you win 7 or more Arena matches, you will make enough gold to purchase another entry. I went 4-3 and came out with 45g and some dust (used to create cards) in addition to the booster, so I technically “paid” a 5g premium for a series of fun games and dust instead of simply having a booster.

What are sources of gold? There are basically two: daily quests and winning matches against people. The “daily quest” is really just a random quest that asks you to win 3 matches, kill 40 creatures, play some games as a specific class, and so on, with a reward of 40g. Winning matches gives you 5g after you win a total of 5, e.g. 1g apiece. I think there might also be a gold award when you level a class up to 20.

So you can sort of see the outline of the F2P hooks. You are not going to be playing in the Arena every day without forking over some serious cash. Being competitive in the Ranked games will require Legendaries and other power cards, which come from random packs. All pretty standard for a CCG, really.

But honestly? Blizzard is pretty much doing everything wrong if their goal was pure F2P exploitation. There are no special classes of booster packs (more expensive versions that have guaranteed rare cards) like in SolForge or the upcoming Hex. You can play the equivalent of Booster drafts using in-game currency. And the biggest jaw-dropper once you think about it? You can manually create any card in the game via the dust. Including Legendaries. Yeah, it takes like 1600 dust to craft a Legendary and your sole source of dust is going to be from activities that involve money (e.g. boosters or Arena), but again, you can substitute in-game currency for the costs. So, eventually, a person that spends $0 can have a full set of all the cards in the game.

Probably around the same time a new set comes out, but hey.

Bottom line: Hearthstone has some legs. In fact, it’s about to have a few more pairs after it chops the current (and upcoming) competition off at the knees. The game is fun, the UI is a feast for the senses, and the few issues I do have with the game can easily be addressed by the end of Beta. This Impression post is already absurdly long, but you can be certain that there will be more to say about Hearthstone in the weeks and months to come.

First Impressions: Card Hunter (beta)

I got into the Card Hunter beta last Thursday.

It is rare anymore for me to spend a lengthy amount of time playing the same game. Game developers these days front-load their daily bonuses in such a way that the most “efficient” way to maximize your playtime is to switch between 3-4 titles. And yet I spent ten hours playing Card Hunter on Saturday, and another six on Sunday. So, spoiler alert: I really like this game.

Card Hunter grabbed me from the word Go. In essence, this F2P browser-based game is a tactical, turn-based RPG where your abilities come in the form of random cards. Instead of building an entire deck on your own, a character’s game deck is actually the sum total of the cards associated with that character’s equipped items. This might sound complicated, but it is the exact opposite – after about 5 minutes of looking at the screen, the system becomes immediately grokkable and engaging. For example, here is a character sheet:

I have an immediate urge to go play right now.

I have an immediate urge to go play right now.

All of the cards along the bottom are the sum total of the deck. When you look at a specific item…

Kinda funny how it's pretty much always going to be purple = epic from now on.

Kinda funny how it’s pretty much always going to be purple = epic from now on.

…you can see what cards it contributes to the overall deck. As you might imagine, weapons usually contribute attack cards, armor contributes armor cards, and so on. Occasionally though, you will have some items that contribute cards from outside their “theme.” Most items are limited to certain classes, of which there are three: fighter, cleric, and wizard. You can have either human, elf, or dwarf versions of any of those classes, with the differences being the typical D&D tropes; elves have low HP and fast movement, dwarves have the opposite, and humans are in the middle.

How does the game play? Fabulously.

Yes. YES!

Yes. YES!

As you can see, the “setting/lore” of the game is retro-D&D, and it is adhered to from start to finish. All characters are represented with those figurines, and all the maps are exactly like this one (with different terrain and such, of course). The game’s F2P currency are slices of pizza, the battles are all prefaced with D&D-module write-ups, and there is clearly some tension going on inbetween the new DM Gary and his rules-lawyer brother Melvin in campaign mode – not to mention Gary’s awkward crush on the pizza delivery girl. Change some names around, add in two more teenagers, and Card Hunter could have described my high school D&D experience to a T.

As far as the game flow goes, it is pretty intuitive. You and your opponent take turns playing one card from any of your characters’ hands. You don’t have to alternate which character’s cards you play – if your warrior has 3 attack cards and someone within reach during each of his/her turns, you can wail on them 3 times. When you and your opponent pass turns in sequence, the Round ends, everyone discards down to two cards, three cards are drawn (one of which is always a movement card), and any Round triggers fire (e.g. players starting their turn in lava take 10 damage, etc).

The strategic brilliance of this combat system simply cannot be praised enough. Yes, the card-based nature of abilities can lead to immensely frustrating, if not outright impossible scenarios. In the screenshot above, for example, my elven mage has drawn all movement cards, severely crippling any initial attack I could muster. Defeat can (and will) be drawn from the jaws of victory even if you are careful. Here was a moment I exclaimed “You have got to be shitting me” out loud:

I mean, come on!

I mean, come on!

The above screenshot was taken from the dreaded Compass of Fucking Xorr level, right from where you might imagine is an insurmountable advantage. The armored dogs are dead, I have the last mercenary backed into a corner with 5 HP, and all my dudes are (barely) alive. It’s a new Round, my turn, and… look at the bottom. Don’t see many red cards, do you?

In fact, I drew exactly one attack card, and it only deals 3 damage. That larger card in the screenshot is a “seen” card that I know is in the merc’s hand, and it’s a doozy. Basically, any time you would deal damage to the merc, he rolls a d6: on a 4 or higher, the damage is reduced by 3. Like many Armor cards, it also has the Keep quality, which means it stays in his hand after triggering, ready for the next reduction in damage. And from fighting this guy, let me just tell you that his attack cards all deal 6+ damage from two squares away.

I did kill the merc on the turn after this one, as he just happened to draw a “drawback” card that caused him to discard all his armor cards. But it was a close one either way.

In any event, I am having a blast with Card Hunter thus far. That might sound strange after I just dedicated a few paragraphs to describing what could have been a terrible RNG-based wipe, but that kinda goes with the TCG territory. Who hasn’t been mana-screwed in Magic: the Gathering before? Part of tactical thinking should include the possibility of things going wrong – if games like Frozen Synapse taught me anything, it would be that. If nothing else, it keeps you on your toes.

I’ll go over the other elements of Card Hunter, including the ever-important F2P bits, next time.

Unfair Impressions: Darkfall: Unholy Alliance

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. You know you are batting in the Big Leagues when you can bamboozle people into believing you are a member of the Press™ despite running a blog that is barely eking out Google pagerank from an Amazon book review and a bioterrorism article written in 2004 that happened to use the phrase “in an age” in the title. I suppose that this is sort of the gaming blogger dream though, wherein people send you free things and you write about them; instead of, you know, the standard procedure of having to purchase things to write about, like some kind of animal.

Whatever the case, Aventurine has inexplicably included me on their Press mailing list for Darkfall: Unholy Wars, and I am now entitled to the game itself along with 30 days of Press™ subscription for free. Rather than allow this inevitably comical misadventure go to waste, I downloaded and patched the game last Wednesday night.

It is worth noting why this post is labeled “Unfair Impressions”: basically, I have zero interest in Darkfall: UW. In fact, I would say less than zero interest. The sum total of what I know about Darkfall is that it is a full-loot FFA PvP game that some say is the most skillful MMO out there. They also say it’s terrible playing by yourself. Fantastic. Let me wander around, lost and confused, as I endeavor to stay as far away from other people as humanly possible.

Well... they got the 2004 look down, at least.

Well… they got the 2004 look down, at least.

Okay, I’m not going to mention how godawful ugly this game is. Not even once. The screenshots really speak or themselves. And as far as I’m aware, my settings are dialed to the max.

I am in the first town. I’m pretty sure this area is still a sanctuary, but I’m nervous about accidentally left-clicking someone. Okay, let’s follow the tutorial. “Buy an axe.” Alright, let’s see…

Way to maximize useless screen-space while not allowing movement.

Way to maximize useless screen-space.

…good god, is this the vendor interface?

Alright, nevermind, let’s go out to a monster spawn.

Trust no one.

Trust no one.

Halfway across the bridge, I notice a dude standing around. Is he a ganker, waiting for me to cross into no man’s land? Is he AFK? Can I gank him? It seems like a trap, so I shuffle away and swim into the river. My default strategy when I feel threatened is to make killing me as annoying as possible. Not that it ever stops anyone, but I derive the same satisfaction I imagine a puffer fish feels when swallowed by… whatever it is that chokes on a puffer fish before dying to its poisonous organs.

Don't mind me. Please.

Don’t mind me. Please.

Monster spawn time. Cave spiders. I… think they shoot poison at me, but it is hard to tell. There are 4-5 people in the cave killing spiders already. Do they know each other? Is this zone still protected? I give everyone a wide berth and hang out in the cobwebs. I kill a spider and loot its tombstone. Leather. Spider… leather? But wait, my little achievement tutorial thing says I must skin the tombstone. But I already have… or have I? Okay, let’s kill another spider. Except another doesn’t spawn in my area, and now there are more people in the cave and it’s late and I want to play something else.

Alright… how do I log off? I binded myself to a stone in town, so maybe I can hearth back? After searching the painfully bad UI, I see the option. I click on the button and… wait. Still waiting. I get that it would be too easy to escape a ganking if it were quicker, but a full 120-second hearth timer?

Good lord, maybe this was a bad idea.

Bioshock Infinite Impressions: Day 1

I am hoping things get better than this.

Granted, I do not consider myself “in the game” quite yet; given how prominently Elizabeth displayed, I’m guessing everything up to her will still be considered tutorial. Of that tutorial though, some things are becoming more and more clear to me:

1) Fantastic visuals have the opposite effect on me.

The visuals, objectively, look awesome. The visuals are also immensely distracting. When I am trying to shoot a guy with a pistol, seeing a particularly well-done cumulus cloud in the background adds nothing positive to that gameplay experience. I had the same issue with Battlefield 3 in the beginning – it was difficult to “see” enemies amidst the Ultra-High settings – so this is something likely to get better over time, e.g. when I start tuning out the visuals.

Just gotta ignore all of this.

Just gotta ignore all of this.

Incidentally, I never had this problem with Borderlands 2, and I think that is because the moments of cel-shaded beauty are more spaced out, and act as breaks inbetween more functional battlefield back-drops. I don’t want ugly games, of course, just games where you are not overloaded with visuals at time when precision and quick reflexes are called for.

2) Thus far, the theme isn’t all that compelling.

In the original Bioshock, the theme was taking Libertarianism to its extreme conclusion – a gaming subject matter particular novel for its time. Bioshock 2 introduced the opposite, showcasing the nefarious side of Collectivism. While it is still early yet, Bioshock Infinite’s theme of religious extremism slash Isolationism slash historical fetishism is… somewhat rote in comparison.

Bigoted religious cults in videogames are right up there with zombies, Nazis, and demons when it comes to stereotypical bad guys. This might be the first time we have seen such (intentional) overt racist imagery in a game, but I feel like I can already plot the rest of the story from here. There is still plenty room for surprises… yet Bioshock Infinite is going to have to surprise me, lest its thematic message be no different than the one you have seen dozens of times in the 32-bit era, or watching Glenn Beck for more than ten minutes.

Also… aside from some nice clouds and sunsets, so far the underwater motif of the original Bioshocks feels worlds better than open sky of Infinite. There was implicit danger at all times in the ocean, along with a sort of fantastic plausibility; underwater buildings are more impractical/expensive versus impossible. Conversely, in Infinite, sometimes it is not especially noticeable that you are in the air at all. Just look at that screenshot up there again.

3) Console Port

The very first sign a game is a console port is when it is Checkpoint-based. My dismay at discovering there was no Quick-Save was both immediate and visceral. Technically Borderlands 2 is also Checkpoint-based, but the difference is that A) those Checkpoints are a known quantity (you know where they are), and B) you can still save at any time when you Exit the game.

Ugh, really?

Ugh, really?

I am going to trooper on, of course, and perhaps it is a little unfair of me to expect brilliance from Minute 1. But given that I broke my Day 1 Embargo for Bioshock Infinite, I am a little bit weary of Buyer’s Remorse. I mean, I passed on Far Cry 3 for $30 for god’s sake!

Here is to hoping that I get blown away in the game proper, instead of musing as to whether I might have more fun playing Recettear like I was two days ago.

And The Rest

Let’s go ahead and wrap up the rest of my Guild Wars 2 impressions.

Point 10: Making Bank

Guild Wars 2 has, by far, the best inventory management system I have seen in a videogame. And it was a feature I only discovered accidentally in my final few hours of playtime.

This needs to be in all games, ASAP.

It is called the Collectible Tab and it is to my eternal shame that I did not take a screenshot.

Essentially, the Collectible Tab is hundreds of organized, square silhouettes that represents all of the trade and crafting goods in Guild Wars 2 (and maybe more besides). Instead of you needing to waste precious bank space with your stacks of Jute scraps (e.g. Linen Cloth), you merely drag it to the Collectible tab and it automatically gets sorted and contained in its own little square. Or, you know, you can simply right-click the item and select the “Deposit Collectible” option. From anywhere. And by “anywhere” I mean, literally, anywhere you can open the Inventory screen. Farming bandits and find your bags are overflowing with the pilfered trophies from corpses of men you murdered in cold blood? Two clicks and you are done.

I did not think to check whether there is an upper-limit to the stack size of items stored in the Collectible Tab. All I know is that I no longer will need to do my OCD WoW bank routine wherein I manually alphabetize herbs by expansion, rarity, and the aesthetic qualities of the icon. Simply put, the banking system in Guild Wars 2 is built out of win.

Point 11: The AH on the other hand…

There is a very specific thing that happened to the AH, for a very specific reason, and it has soured my experience with it somewhat. What happened was this:

Oh, RMT. Is there ever a bridge too far?

Basically, ArenaNet took the ability of players to retrieve their successful auctions from anywhere, limited it to the Trading Post NPCs, and then are selling consumables in the cash shop to allow you to pick up your items anywhere… for 5 minutes. Considering you can teleport to within 30 yards of the Trading Post NPCs at any time from any where, this might come across as a tad… nitpicky. Entitled, even.

But let us be clear what is going on here. You can sell, buy, and browse the AH from anywhere in the game world at any time. And during the first beta weekend, you could also pick up your successful auctions (money and items both) from anywhere as well. Now you cannot, and there is consumable cash shop item that temporarily restores the functionality. Granted, the Trading Post NPCs did not have much of a purpose before, but that is a design problem with an easy solution, e.g. remove them. Or leave them as reminders to those who forgot you can access the AH from anywhere by pressing “O.”

I can recognize the cognitive dissonance between my accepting as intuitive the fact that you cannot withdraw from your bank from anywhere, and the obviously analogous Trading Post situation. Maybe this is only an issue with my seeing the monetizing team in action – had this been in the first beta weekend, it might be that I wouldn’t have thought any different. Nevertheless, I seen what they did last summer, and I had/have a problem with this change.

Everything else about the AH is fantastic, although I must admit that Buy/Sell orders somewhat diminishes the thoroughly soothing gameplay I find in searching for AH bargains.

Point 12: Guilded

I did not actually join a guild, but I thought this was a good idea:

Kinda like a Background Check.

When you click on a Guild invitation, it takes you to a screen that allows you to actually look at said Guild’s roster before joining. This is another of those common sense features that you wonder why are not in more games. The only thing missing is a Cover Letter and perhaps a list of three things the Guild is bad at.

Point 13: Minecrafting

This is 100% a personal preference thing, but I’m not a huge fan of the crafting system in Guild Wars 2. There are a number of surprisingly complicated base recipes – when was the last time you saw a game that requires you to construct a wristguard strap and wristguard padding before combining the both with a 3rd ingredient to make a pair of gloves? – but the vast majority of recipes comes from the “Discovery” system, aka the Trial & Error system.

Oh, good.

Or, perhaps most likely, the “Just look at the damn Wiki” system.

The bow in the above picture is a lame example, of course, but I otherwise find zero entertainment in such “just try it!” crafting systems. My brain simply doesn’t work that way; I am too damn methodical. Do you know the first thing I did when I built a crafting table in Minecraft? I put a piece of wood in the first empty square. Then I put another piece of wood in another square beside the first. And then I moved the second piece of wood over one square. And then moved it again, in sequence, around the remaining empty squares. Then I added a third piece of wood, and repeated the process. If you asked me to crack the combination code to a briefcase, I would start with 0-0-1 and end with 9-9-9, X number of hours later… if I did not simply throw the briefcase out the window beforehand.

Don’t get me started on Word Finds, or that Doodle God app.

I saw the following quote during the first beta, but I forgot to specifically notate it:

Originally posted by Linsey Murdock

Cooking is considered our advanced craft. It will cost you more money, karma, and time traveling the world than any other crafting discipline.

Pro Tip: Every cooking recipe in Guild Wars 2 is a real recipe for real food in real life (or a basic approximation). If you think you are close to figuring out one of the combinations, google a recipe for the food you suspect it might be, and odds are, you can find a bunch of recipes for things like that to try out.

If you like this sort of thing, you will like Guild Wars 2 crafting quite a bit. If you don’t, you will probably be Alt-Tabbing to the Wiki like myself.

Incidentally, this is also true of the crafting system:

Originally posted by Linsey Murdock

The way leveling XP gain works in crafting is this: For leveling a discipline from 0-400, you will gain 10 levels along the way. By maxing out all 8 disciplines, you will gain 80 levels. That means you could dedicate a character to crafting, feed it all the mats you get on other characters and level it all the way to 80 without ever needing to kill a thing. As hardcore crafters, we think that is pretty cool.

__________

Conclusion

That about sums up my impressions of this second beta weekend. If/when the third beta weekend comes along, my tentative goals will be the following:

  1. Test the Norn/Charr areas more thoroughly to see if I run into the same pacing issues I experienced in Queensdale.
  2. Verify whether it was user-error in Queensdale after all.
  3. Level a character high enough to see how the “trinity-less” dungeons work.
  4. Sell my gems on the AH so I’ll have more than 10 silver to rub together.
  5. Continue being angry at puppies, rainbows, and the laughter of small children.

So look forward to that. I know I am.

Guild Wars 2: First Blood

So apparently I still pre-own Guild Wars 2.

Have you ever received a rebate check for a product you do not remember purchasing? That is about how I felt towards this Beta Weekend part deux. “Oh. This is still a thing, isn’t it?” I asked myself, rhetorically. “Better get on with it, then.”

When we last left our brave adventurer, I was on Point 5. So…

Point 6: You will never be as cool as me

Exhibit A:

Badass GW2 character, i.e. me

Go ahead, you can stare.

I was tempted to leave that glamor-shot in its full resolution – you know, for the ladies – but it is already dubious as to whether the RSS feed can handle this level of BAMF, let alone with an extra thousand unfiltered pixels. Horatio Mazuma simply has that effect on people.

Point 7: Combat still feels… meh?

I spent a lot more time playing as the rogue Thief this time around, aka Horatio, and I am beginning to doubt the… legitimacy (for lack of a better term) of the combat system. When running around with double-daggers, your five skills are:

  1. Auto-attack.
  2. Heartseeker: Leap attack; more damage the less HP target has.
  3. Leaping Death Blossom: jump behind enemy, inflicting 3 Bleeds.
  4. Dancing Dagger: Ranged snare that bounces between 4 enemies.
  5. Cloak and Dagger: Inflict debuff and then stealth for 3 seconds.

Sounds cool, right? And it is. There is a kind of intuitive logic to those abilities, a sort of rhythm when you use them. Something woefully missing with many other weapon “combos.” For example, bust out a sword + pistol and you get:

  1. Auto-attack.
  2. Infiltrator’s Strike: Shadowstep to enemy, press again to teleport back to original location.
  3. Pistol Whip: Stun, then stab with sword.
  4. Black Powder: Basic shot + blinds nearby enemies.
  5. Head Shot: Basic shot + interrupt.

Those might sound alright, but in practice it just feels weird. None of those have a feeling of rotation or synergy, and it feels especially awkward to me when I couldn’t use Infiltrator’s Strike to “charge” to the next enemy because the return teleport option doesn’t go away for a long time. I suppose that this weapon combo may be better suited for PvP than PvE, now that I think about it. All I know is that the combat felt bad during this time period, and felt similarly bad when I was on the warrior unlocking other (possibly PvP) weapon skill sets.

Incidentally, the “play melee at your own risk” warning applies the same as before. I joined a “group” of players for a nearby event on two separate occasions with melee characters, and both times the mobs suddenly gained 2+ levels to “compensate” for the number of participants with predictably bad results. Nothing quite like running a level 6 event and then have a swarm of level 8 ghosts instantly spawn and mow down the front ranks.

Indeed, the more I experience the combat system in general, the less legitimate it comes across. Presumably you are supposed to be circle-strafing all the time to avoid positional damage, right? Or at least actively Dodging. But I am finding it incredibly difficult to ascertain the difference between a “Dodge this or else!” attack and a run-of-the-mill claw to the face attack. The mobs with a breath weapon? Sure, that’s simple. However, I am not in any particular mood to start memorizing the arbitrary Poker tells of a hundred different fantasy monsters when I am grinding XP yet again. In fact, let’s talk about that too.

Point 8: Quest Contortionist

By which I mean: the questing in Guild Wars 2 is disjointed.

You are given a “My Story” plot-driven series of quests which, at first blush, appears to be the “point” of the PvE game. There is some murder, some intrigue, a little treason, and enough hooks to get you to want to see where all this is going. But… you can’t. After finishing a quest wherein we decided to gather evidence against a particular government official, I found that the next step of the quest was 1.5 levels away. So… yeah. I opened my map, looked for a “quest heart” in my level range that wasn’t already filled in, and teleported to a field I knew bandits frequented so I could start farming the 0.5 levels I needed to gain before I could reasonably complete the quest hearts I found. Apparently there is an expectation that you will be filling in every heart and every Event in the area, or perhaps supplementing the XP gaps with WvWvW.

Or purchasing the +50% XP potions from the cash shop. Just sayin’.

Thing is, I did not care about these stupid farmers with their Israeli Settlements in centaur country. None of that had anything to do with the plot against the crown, which I was just in the middle of solving. Why am I out here again? There is zero connection. This is not equivalent to the sort of expansion-wide story arcs of WoW; this is literally a quest saying “I think Minister Wi was involved. Go gather evidence from that cave (Recommended level: 8).” And instead of doing that, I need to kill the spiders infesting the apple orchid because pies.

Point 9: Sharing is Caring

Remember how individual looting was the sort of wild-idea innovation that felt so good that you wonder why so many MMO companies did not jump on it earlier? Well, I have another one of those: individual resource nodes.

Genius!

If the picture is not clear enough, both myself and the esteemed Luke Duke [Ass] are mining the same Copper Ore node. As in, both of us are getting the customary 3 ore from this node. What makes this noteworthy is that to reach this node, we had to defeat 5-6 giant spiders to get there. Had this been, say, WoW or many other MMOs, I would have either glanced warily at my competition and went elsewhere, or attempted to ninja the node while Luke Duke [Ass] was occupied with spiders. Instead, we each had a common cause, a reason to work together, to get to the same exact location. It was 1+1 = 2, rather than the zero-sum game it typically is.

_________

More impressions about crafting and other miscellaneous items will have to wait.

The Guild Wars 2 Preview for the Rest of Us

With all the bourgeois previews (mostly) behind us, it is time for the Everyman take on the Guild Wars 2 beta.

I was going to split this post up and sell them to you across three different days, but you know what? I think you can handle it. So buckle up, girl scouts, and get ready to earn your Too Long; Read It Anyway merit badges.

Point 0: Selling Games is Hard

I decided to prepurchase the preorder by prepaying on Friday, which admittedly was cutting it close given that’s when the beta weekend began. Credit card in hand, I zipped over to the ArenaNet site and witnessed the impossible: the Guild Wars 2 Digital Edition was sold out.

Yes, an infinitely reproducible digital good was sold out.

Please take... my... money?

Now, obviously, the actual digital data being infinitely reproducible is not the underlying issue; it probably has to do with a concern for beta server populations. As Blizzard can recently attest, the status quo is apparently being shocked that anyone, let alone millions of people, are willing to pay money to be in betas. Perhaps we should take this as a good sign.

I bring this up though, because A) I found it amusing at the time, and B) I simply went off to Gamestop.com and bought the digital edition there. I tried Amazon first, but apparently Amazon, bless their hearts, don’t recognize “prepurchases” wherein you buy products that don’t formally exist yet… and run-of-the-mill preorders don’t come with beta access.

In a way though, I am kinda glad that I bought from Gamestop. Not only was I supporting a retailer who is in open defiance of the increasingly anti-consumer game industry – a retailer, mind you, that was merely selling beta codes and not any actual product (the client was downloaded on ArenaNet’s bandwidth dime) – but ArenaNet also lost whatever X% retailer cut Gamestop takes out. Now that’s a marketing screw-up with teeth.

It’s 2012. Buying games shouldn’t be this hard.

Point 1: PvE is SWTOR meets Warhammer meets Rift

Disclaimer: I haven’t actually played Rift. Also, I don’t care what MMO did what first.

I played up to level 12 as a human Guardian (e.g. paladin), level 8 Norn Ranger (e.g. hunter), level 6 human Thief (e.g. rogue), and level 4 Charr Warrior (e.g. PvP god-mode). If you are like me, none of that probably means anything to you, but I am including it for reference purposes. The important thing is that I spent the bulk of my playtime as a weak-ass melee paladin, which is triply redundant for reasons that will become obvious shortly.

Click the map below for a larger version:

"Dynamic" is a marketing buzzword, like webinar and synergy, that needs to die.

You have probably heard a lot about “dynamic questing” and “revolutionizing the quest experience.” If that sort of thing is in Guild Wars 2 (or the beta), I did not see it.

What happens is you have a main storyline quest that puts you into your own instance ala SWTOR. Each step of said quest greatly outpaces your own level, which forces you out into the world to level up. The general idea is to open your map, go towards the empty heart icons which are “quest hubs” of sorts, and hope you kill enough stuff or encounter enough dynamic events to level you up enough to tackle the other empty hearts. Generally speaking, I was NOT able to complete every hub and dynamic event I came across AND still have achieved the appropriate level to move onward. That is to say, I did everything I could see to do, and I was still 1-2 levels below what the game recommended I should be at to continue the story quests.

Redoing dynamic events or straight-up grinding mobs was certainly possible, but considering this is a game that sells +50% XP potions in a cash shop, I would start getting worried.

A few months ago, WildStar put out a Dev Diary in which they explained how they took the traditional quest log text and pared it down to a Twitter length of < 140 characters. This was derided at the time by Syp at Biobreak as “dumbing down” quests. Guild Wars 2 beats WildStar to the punch by having no quest text at all. The “dynamism” of GW2 questing is that you never have to talk to NPCs: simply walk in their vicinity, glance at the upper right corner to see what they want you to do, and then do one or all of those tasks. Dynamic Events are the same: get notification, head towards orange circle, do multi-part Public Quest.

The first real human quest hub, for example, is at a farm. Once you get close enough, the quest tracker indicates you can water plants, feed cows, or kick in wurm holes. You can talk to an NPC for additional explanation – perhaps explaining the mechanics of watering plants – but it isn’t necessary. Each performance of any of those activities increases a completion meter, which means if you were bored enough, you could complete the whole thing by watering corn. Or if you wanted all combat, just kick in the wurm holes. Every 10 minutes a “dynamic” event of bandits attacking said farm will begin, which is separate from the quest hub itself. On one character, the bandits started setting fire to the bales of hay at the farm, which may have been some indication that an earlier stage of the Event failed, I dunno.

There is (voiced) text in the story quests, but everywhere else reading is at least implicitly discouraged. It got to the point where I loathed to even read what they wanted me to do in the quest tracker – with all this crazy activity happening around me, I felt out of place standing slack-jawed in a field, staring into the upper-right corner of the screen. “Reading? How quaint.” And I am a reading guy!

By the way, allow me to confirm the total marginalization of grouping. Essentially, the only reason why you would need to group in a specific party is for chat purposes and possibly to see each other on the minimap. Otherwise, there is no kill stealing, there is no loot ninjaing, and everyone gets shared credit for everything provided you tag the mob too. Remember the Firelands daily quests wherein a warlock could drop one debuff on everything and get shared credit, compared to melee classes that were largely screwed? Same deal here, same weaknesses.

If you are wondering how Dynamic Events scale with (increased) player participation, the answer is “Badly.” As the number of players increase, the number of mobs ramps up and so do their level. The farm I talked about earlier has a recommended level of 2; with about a dozen level 2 players nearby, we were besieged by LEVEL 5 BANDITS, all of whom had ranged attacks. Needless to say, playing a melee class that requires placing runes on the ground for enemies to stand on was a recipe for disaster (and instant death).

Point 2: Combat System

Speaking of disasters, had I not played a rogue on Sunday, I would have written off all melee classes in Guild Wars 2 PvE. You might want to anyway, just to be on the safe side.

It is not so much that soloing was impossible, it is the simple fact that melee have zero advantages compared to ranged, and every possible disadvantage. Dodging wasn’t necessary for the mobs I encountered in the world, but any time I was in a juiced-up dynamic event, the sheer press of ridiculous damage either killed me instantly or had me frantically trying to kite while ranged players merrily AoEd everything down. Some mobs’ “Dodge this!” cues are more obvious than others, but as anyone with a functioning brain stem can imagine, melee classes have less time to react to them assuming they even notice the animation at all amongst the sparkles and general fisticuffs.

I did happen to face one level 11 elite mini-boss as part of some event with some other players nearby. By that point, I had actually discovered a reasonable weapon setup on the Guardian, and the whole experience might be transferable to dungeons.

Ring around the rosy.

Basically, while six ranged players were dealing damage (and running away when the boss randomly started heading their way), myself and another melee were trying to snare the boss without getting instantly killed by it’s melee. With a Greatsword equipped, I would do a charge/leap attack that Blinded the boss (next attack has 100% miss chance), maybe place a rune down if he didn’t immediately turn around, and then run away. Next was ranged AoE snare via the Greatsword, and right before the snare wears off, pressing the button again causes all those snared to be pulled towards me, AoE Death Grip style. Then running away. I then swapped to my scepter + shield, giving me access to a ranged root and some weak ranged auto-attacks. The shield unlocks a channeled ability which knocks back all hostiles in a dome around me, which I used at one point when a ranged player was trying to rez the other melee before the boss finished him off.

If all that sounded cool, well, it kinda was at the time.

Then I rolled a ranger, and had four or five different snares/roots by level 8. My base auto-attack as a brand new level 1 character was chucking an axe which ricochets off up to five enemies. In short, I could have done anything my Guardian did and more (i.e. actually dealing damage to the boss) with a class that has it easier anyway. ArenaNet apparently took the page (it’s only one page long, after all) from Blizzard’s Cataclysm raid design book in which melee can be replaced by ranged with no downsides. At least there’s no trinity, amirite?

Other than that? Combat in general feels about 85% of WoW, on a visceral level. As means of comparison, I would judge Aion’s beta combat at 50% and Warhammer’s beta (PvE) combat at 60%.

Point 3: Dungeons

Couldn’t test any, given the first dungeon is at level 30.

And, no, ArenaNet will not be having any lower-level dungeons than that.

Point 4: “Battlegrounds”

Whoo, boy.

When you zone into the Mists –  a sort of PvP lobby that includes training dummies, vendors, bank access, various tutorial NPCs, and so on – you are auto-leveled to 80, all abilities/traits are unlocked, and you given a full set of PvP gear. You can purchase additional weapons and gems for free, if you want to try different set ups.

It is, in a word, overwhelming. And you can do it from level 1.

The Guardian *does* have some vaguely interesting area-denial abilities.

Joining a BG requires talking to an NPC and then choosing a specific server to join, which is decidedly retro. Once inside, you will play one of the two (2) BGs they have available until you forcibly leave; in other words, there is not a “leave BG” button at the end of the match. The two (2) BGs they have are both 8v8 Conquest-style maps with three capturable nodes and a different pair of gimmicks. One gimmick is the existence of two mini-boss NPCs which you can kill for a boost of 50 points and a team-wide, 30-second buff. The other map’s gimmick are the trebuchets, which allows you to deal ~50% of a player’s lifebar in damage if you hit them. It would probably be pretty powerful if you coordinated said attack with your team, but you always have the option of destroying the enemy’s trebuchets if you want to deny them the opportunity (and it can be rebuilt later too).

Commenting on PvP combat itself is probably useless, considering how important class balance is in informing the overall tone. However, I have some pretty foolproof (BG-specific) observations thus far.

  1. Don’t play Guardian. Paladins suck, as a general rule.
  2. Warriors are PvP gods. Again, as a general rule.
  3. Expect to be eternally snared, rooted, and otherwise CC’d. For example, Warriors have 2-3 gap closers, 7-second snares (most others are ~3 seconds), and stuns/knockdowns/roots. You can and will be killed in a CC-chain if two people are involved, or down to 25% HP if just the warrior.
  4. Classes won’t be balanced around 1v1, so burst DPS classes (warriors, rogues) will rule most BGs. Remember, it’s only 8v8.
  5. Classes won’t be balanced period, given skill ceilings. That is to say, if Move X is absurdly powerful, expect people to say “Dodge it, noob.” Or imply that you should have chosen a different weapon/skill loadout that “counters” it, with your psychic powers.

Some of that is facetious, some is inevitable.

The other interesting thing is… well, that’s it. You can earn Glory Points (aka Honor) for winning or leading the boards in some category, but I did not get the impression that the Glory rewards are stronger items, just cosmetic ones. For as lopsided and “unfair” that WoW BGs can get with the gear differences, I have always enjoyed having a purpose to play in addition to whatever fun is involved – losing stung less knowing I was still (slowly) crawling towards a new upgrade, and winning felt Double Fine (so to speak).

So, we’ll see how long people can enjoy playing two maps with just one game type with no overt rewards.

Point 5: WvWvWvWvWvWbbbbbbfffftttp

Most everything you need to know about WvW can be summed up in this picture:

Yo dawg, I heard you like "world" in your world pvp, so...

Without anything to enhance your movement speed, it takes 2:25 (two minutes, twenty-five seconds) to run from the starting waypoint to the center of the middle keep. If the keep isn’t “contested,” a second waypoint will be available there if you own the structure, but from what I experienced, a single squad of three dudes is enough to disable the whole thing.

Personally, I don’t know why people enjoy this type of gameplay.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s tons of fun shooting people with cannons or arrows from the tops of walls. But the sort of knock on the keep gates, push enemies back, then… kill the big NPC boss? I mean, everyone’s favorite map in WoW is Isle of Conquest, right? And then all the crazy stupid amounts of FPS-crushing AoE? And how it is both easy to instantly die and impossible to remove the enemy from the field? Sign me up.

To explain what I mean with that last bit, you are probably aware of ArenaNet’s “revolutionary” take on death mechanics. Once you hit zero HP, you go to a downed state wherein you actually gain half your HP back but only have 4 abilities. If you manage to damage an enemy that dies, you rally, and self-rez. If everyone leaves you alone, you can press 4 to self-heal until you self-rez. A cannon can drop you in 2 hits without heals, but it takes 3-4 to “kill” a downed enemy. Enemies can “finish you off” by pressing the Interact button near your body, forcing you out of the downed state and into actual death.

But here is the thing: as long as you don’t release, you can always be revived.

So in the WvW battles I was involved in, there was a “natural” sort of pressing the attack, and then falling back to regroup. Each time though, the dead would patiently lay there, dead, gambling that the front would move back their way in the time it would take to release and run back. And they’re right, it’s typically a shorter to wait. What this also means is that a wiped attack can spontaneously regenerate if one (1) dude makes it to the field and starts rezzing people when no one’s looking. Which is great if it’s your group that died, and it is frustrating beyond measure when an outpost you successfully defended for over an hour falls in the two minutes it took to walk somewhere else looking for things to do.

All that being said, what WILL be fun about WvW is if you have a group of guildies running around with voice-chat. A small, coordinated group of 7-8 people can cause a LOT of havoc away from the zerged zones, perhaps behind enemy lines even. You may not be able to hold anything, but it will at least force the enemy to muster a task force to retake their own structures.

By yourself, though? Boring as hell. Unless you happen to be in a cannon with the enemy at the gates.

I could do this for hours. And did.

Final note: you are leveled to 80 while in WvW, but you only get the equipment and skills you zoned in with (there are vendors and banks inside though). This wasn’t a problem in the beta, of course, but I can imagine WvW being next to impossible against any group of actual level-capped players (and their level 80 gear). I suppose you could be on Supply duty – run to set of boxes, click, run back to structure that needs repaired, click, repeat – or even potentially manning the cannons, but it seems bizarre to make such a point about leveling someone to 80 only to make gear matter.

Conclusion

I might have some more to say about the other systems inside the game (crafting, etc), but that will have to wait.

Rather than suggest it’s worth $60 right now, let me just say I am not unhappy with my prepaid preorder prepurchase, at this time. Of course, it is “worth it” in the sense that there is no subscription fee, and thus I am grading it against (potential) hours of amusement per dollar, rather than any sort of long-term MMO rubric. In some respects though, I don’t feel comfortable judging the game right now either way, simply because I have seen less than half the classes, and none beyond level 12 (of 80, PvP doesn’t count). I somehow muscled through the low-level paladin experience in TBC for Christ’s sake, and no one would posit the 1-84 gameplay as being indicative of anything in comparison to endgame WoW, right?

So, I remain fairly ambivalent, albeit looking forward to the next beta weekend.

Rethinking Diablo’s Day 1 Purchase

[Edit: Impressions below were highly colored by my incorrect assumptions about D3’s talent system. See comments or my follow-up post for more info.]

Looking back, I am not sure exactly what I expected when it came to the Diablo 3 beta.

All I know is that this wasn’t it.

Am I blinking through tears of nostalgia, or is shit really this blurry?

Let me give a quick preface here. Over the course of this weekend, I defeated the Skeleton King (e.g. beat the beta) as a Witch Doctor, Monk, Wizard (co-op), and Barbarian; I only got the Demon Hunter to level 7 before I could not stomach it (both the class and beta) any more. I have played both the original Diablo and Diablo 2 several times, racking up probably around 300+ hours in the latter. I have played and beaten Torchlight, even though I hated its loot system with a passion. Basically, I enjoy hack-n-slash action RPGs as much as the next person.

I was completely underwhelmed by the Diablo 3 beta.

It is difficult for me to enunciate precisely why. Was I expecting too much? Do rose-colored glasses only work in one direction? Have I “grown out” of this particular sub-genre? It is tough to say. Although these specific issues did jump out at me in the ~10 hours of beta gameplay:

Issue 1: Pointless Weapons

After you hit level 2, the type of weapon you choose to equip is 100% irrelevant (with the very glaring exception of Demon Hunters). And I do not mean in a “daggers strike faster than swords but both amount to similar DPS” sort of way. I mean that in a “you will never attack with your weapon again” sort of way.

My Witch Doctor started with a dagger, got a mace, and then a bow, but my left-click was always a blow dart and my right-click an AoE snare. There is never even an option to attack with the pointy or blunt object you are going to be very visually carrying around for the next hundred hours. If the weapon has a higher DPS, you equip it, no questions asked.

You could replace your generic attack button in Diablo 2 with a spell, of course. The trivializing of weapons in Diablo 3 though, is a sign of a deeper, systemic design shift. It reduces the weapon slot to just another generic item slot – reduction to a “stat stick” – and homogenizes all weapon drops into simply “can equip” and “can’t equip” categories. Should I dual-wield or carry around a 2H sword? It is an utterly meaningless distinction in Diablo 3; if weapon speed does impact ability use in some way, perhaps making it hit faster, it does so in a completely oblique fashion.

For me, this also led to a visual dissonance that I was not quite able to shake. Seeing a Barbarian Cleave with a dagger simply looks dumb. Likewise for a monk running around with two glowing swords infused with holy power… that teleport to her back/hips each time an ability fires. And when I see a Wizard running around with a completely non-magical 2H broadsword simply because it somehow makes Magic Missile hit harder than a magic wand…

Oh. Carry on, then.

…nevermind, that looks pretty badass, actually.

Issue 2: “Talents”

I take back every nice thing I said about Diablo 3’s talent system.

In my defense, the last word I had heard was that unlocked abilities were going to go into a “pool,” from which you could select any combination to fit in your available slots. That sounded amazing, nuanced, hitting all the right customization buttons without falling into any design traps. What we got instead is the goddamn Fischer-Price of talent systems, which somehow manages to suck all the fun out of selecting abilities and laughs, laughs, at those wanting to plan ahead.

Essentially, you have six buttons: 1-4 and left/right-click. Your left-click is always going to be one of a handful of abilities. Now, there is “customization” in selecting Runes, which are like the sprinkles that go on your vanilla ice cream cone: they either straight-up buff the given ability or change its nature in subtle or overt ways. But as I was unlocking these abilities and Runes, I always stopped, switched to the new skill for a few mobs, and made a determination of which one I liked better. And then I ceased ever caring about the choice.

To be clear, I don’t like talent trees either. Maybe if I had access to more abilities and Runes the choices would feel more meaningful. Maybe if I encountered more varied enemies/encounters it would cause me to rethink my ability load-outs. But then again… this is a Diablo game. The life expectancy of any individual mob is 0.2 seconds, so in a very real way which ability you are spam-clicking is completely irrelevant.

I dunno, it simply feels weird to look at a class like the Witch Doctor and think, “I’m never going to use Corpse Spiders as my left-click ability,” and then realize six ability unlocks are totally useless for you. I am (probably) always going to pick Zombie Dogs as my Defensive Ability, which similarly collapses 15 squares on that “600+ points of customization!” matrix.

Issue 3: “Baby WoW”

As I was playing co-op with an ex-WoW friend, he uttered “baby WoW” as the description of what these sort of games made him feel like he was playing. And you know what? I’m starting to feel the same. That is kind of the whole schtick of hack-n-slash, of course, the mowing down of corridors of mobs while you mop up the loot debris field in the wake of your passing. It is also tough to criticize spam-clicking in a world of rote ability rotations and the common “strategy” you develop for the execution of the average MMO mob.

At the same time, while I was going through Diablo 3 I could not help but feel somewhat patronized. This Skinner Box lever is completely unadorned. Of course, if you prefer yours fast and loose, then get ready to go to town; I may just turn in for the night instead, if its all the same to you.

Ultimately though, I did have some level of fun with the beta. Co-op was pretty slick with there being zero interruption when people slide in and slide out. Classes like the Monk and Wizard were genuinely fun to play. While I thought the graphics were completely underwhelming (to the point of being ass-ugly) in the first zone, the actual dungeon looked remarkably better. The physics in the game were amusing enough to keep the illusion of dynamic battles for the most part.

Bust out those 3D glasses.

The answer to the $64,000 $60 question though – is Diablo 3 still a Day 1 purchase? – is a lot more fuzzy than it was before this weekend. If I did not personally know a few people who are still getting this Day 1, people I would like to play co-op with eventually, I’d be inclined to wait a few months for the first price drop. I suppose I still have three weeks or so to mull it over.

Chances are I’m going to need all three of those weeks to decide.