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Impression: Star Wars Battlefront 2

I managed to play a few hours of the Star Wars Battlefront 2 (SWBF2) beta this past weekend. I had not actually played any of the prior titles in the series, nor does the Star Wars IP hold any particular cachet with me. I have played and been a fan of the Battlefield series for over a decade though, so my impressions are based more around that.

In short: it’s decent fun.

One of the first things that should be addressed is the Star Wars-ness. I mentioned that the series holds no particular cachet with me, but that does not mean I am unable to appreciate cool sci-fi battles when I see them. In this regard, SWBF2 hits some seriously good notes. Being a part of a Stormtrooper charge through a wooded area, blaster fire going every which way, is exactly as cool as you can imagine it being. I am also incredibly impressed by how the other map can cast the player as a Droid. I think the hitboxes are the same as the more common human ones, but it remains an interesting experience seeing your Droid teammates scurrying about.

The space battle map is whatever. I’m not a huge fan of flying vehicles in this or any Battlefield game, entirely because I lack whatever faculties are necessary to shake someone off my tail. I have fun shooting people, launching missiles, etc, then someone gets behind me and I inevitably die. I know that it’s possible to lose someone, because I have been “lost,” but I cannot do it.

On a mechanics level, the game has a pretty interesting approach. There are four base classes in the game, and each class has three abilities (in addition to different weapons). Abilities are all cooldown-based, with the exception of the Specialist’s Thermal Goggles, so there is always a tension between using it ASAP to eek out every possible advantage, or “saving it” for when you might really need it. Do you chuck a grenade in the off-chance someone is in that hallway, so that you can chuck a second one later? Or do you wait for a specific situation? Beyond that, the four classes themselves seem relatively balanced – Officers are pretty bad solo, but shine in groups – and each organically play out quite differently due to said abilities.

Where things falter quite a bit is in the teamplay department – the only teamplay is accidental.

Again, I come from a Battlefield background, and I also recognize that EA might not want to copy all (or any, apparently) of its systems. But the lack of squads, the regenerating health, infinite ammo, infinite abilities (after a cooldown), no spawnpoint choice, no revives, no Spotting… in every way, SWBF2 is an arcade shooter. I can appreciate the fact that some things wouldn’t make sense in the Star Wars universe – shock paddles bringing Storm Troopers back to life, etc – but there is so very little connecting you to the rest of your team unless you’re playing an Officer, who in every other way is worse than any other class you could have chosen.

The hero system sort of wraps this all up in a big bow. As you complete objectives and get kills, you earn battle points, which you can spend to respawn into battle as special characters, vehicles, etc. The money-shot heroes cost 5,000 points, which take a rather significant amount of time to accumulate, and thereafter lock your team out of choosing said hero until you die. From my few hours playing, I can say that the ones using Lightsabers are OP as shit, as they dance around one-shotting everyone, then dancing away to regenerate a health pool five times larger than normal. There are still some “more powerful than normal” options for the rest of us plebs, but there are still limited slots.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the current Star Cards P2W fiasco.

At the end of each match, you gain a number of Credits which can be spent in increments of 1000-1100 to purchase crates, which then hold three random “cards.” These cards can be improved abilities for any of the classes – including the heroes – or even alternative abilities that replace other ones. Or they can be cosmetic things, emotes, etc. Cards have different levels, with higher levels corresponding to better bonuses. At the beginning, you can only equip one Star Card, but as you gain more cards for a particular class/hero, that class/hero “levels up” and can equip up to three.

The fiasco part of this is that the entire system right now is pretty much naked Pay-2-Win. These crates can be unlocked during normal play, or you can unlock as many as dollar bills you have. Since character levels appear to be derived by how many Star Cards one has – as opposed to, you know, how long you have been playing said class/hero – not only will buying a ton of crates give you more options, they will specifically allow you to equip all of them. And these are direct power increases. Lower cooldowns, damage reduction, regenerating health, more “ammo” per clip, etc. It might not be impossible to take out a fully-decked out player as a brand new player – unless we’re talking about the Star Card that gives Boba Fett 100% damage reduction during Rocket Barrage – but in a FPS the margins between winning and losing are measured in milliseconds. Every percentage bonus counts. Especially when your target survives with 1 HP and regenerates to full a few seconds later.

As if that was not bad enough, the real problem here is that this is SWBF2’s entire progression system. While you can eventually earn a crafting currency to construct exactly the Star Card you desire, there is otherwise zero means to acquire better (or any) cards of a particular class. In the Battlefield series, playing as Assault will let you unlock more/better Assault abilities, using the same gun will unlock components for said gun, and so on. In SWBF2, it’s all lockbox RNG. I can appreciate the occasional incentive to try out a different class based on a good loot drop, but as the primary progression mechanism? That’s dumb.

The whole Star Cards thing probably deserves its own post, assuming you haven’t already read 37 variations by then. But, yeah, it’s basically as bad as it looks.

Overall Verdict:

Unsurprisingly, the jury is still out.

As mentioned before, the game is decent fun. If you are looking for an arcade shooter and like Star Wars, then it is probably a no-brainer. If I were eventually purchase SWBF2, I expect it to follow the same trajectory as TitanFall 1 & 2, for the same reasons. Just something to play around with for a few hours here and there, to kill time. As opposed to the trajectories of Battlefield 2, 3, and 4, which remain mentally compelling and engaging to this day.

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Reroll

There is a fascinating game design conundrum that I have encountered twice now, which can summed up by “Reroll.” This is not rerolling in the MMO sense – although it is arguably an issue with WoW’s Legion expansion vis-a-vis Legendaries – but rather in the sense of creating new accounts to take advantage (or mitigate damage) of random rewards. It is a conundrum with no good solutions, and it’s harder still to even imagine which solution is least bad.

The first time I encountered the Reroll dilemma was with the mobile app Puzzle & Dragons. After spending 20-30 minutes going through the tutorial, the game gives you one free pull on the Crack Machine, aka Gashapon, aka Lockbox, aka et cetera. This always results in a super rare (or higher) monster from a wide list of such, and represents pretty much the only guaranteed way to get one of these super monsters as a F2P player before the heat death of the universe.

(You can earn cash-like currency for future pulls on this same machine, but they aren’t guaranteed to be as rare a result as the first pull.)

The problems are many, and there is a deep gradient of bad for all of them. First, you could get a weak monster. While any rare monster is better than the starter monsters you normally get, it’s a fact that some of the pulls are absolutely abysmal in comparison to what you could have received.

Second, in the worst case scenario, you could get an okay monster. This is the worst case because… what do you do? Settle immediately? Reroll? If a result is terrible, the course is pretty clear. When it is technically alright, but not great, it’s hard to justify any particular decision.

Now, imagine you get “best” result: a super rare, super strong monster. Congratulations! Now you get to enjoy not using it for 20+ hours. Each monster has a point cost associated with it, and stronger ones cost more points. The only way to increase the team point limit is to level up your account, which requires getting XP, which requires going through dungeons and such.

The very first time I played Puzzles & Dragons, I got a middling result and just kept it, not knowing any better. While it was a middling monster, it had a lower point cost, which meant that I could use it right away. And I did so for many, many gameplay hours. When I realized my “mistake” later on, I decided to reroll for a better result. After a few dozen rerolls, I finally got a fantastic pull… that I couldn’t use until much later. I ended up quitting the game altogether before I even got to the point at which I could even field the monster.

The second time I encountered the Reroll dilemma was here recently, after installing Shadowverse. I might do a larger post on Shadowverse later, but the short version is that the game is Hearthstone: Anime Boob edition. The relevant point though is that after an extremely quick tutorial mission (which you can even skip), Shadowverse rewards you with almost 30+ free packs of cards.

I think you can see where this might be going.

None of the packs you receive are guaranteed to have any particular rarity. That said, opening all your free packs usually results in around 4-5 Legendary cards, but you can technically get as many as 6-10. Like any other CCG, some Legendaries are better than others, and of course even the good class-specific ones might be “wasted” if you don’t like that class’s mechanics. And thus… reroll.

The sad part in Shadowverse’s case is that there is both a Steam and mobile version of the game. Rerolling on mobile is easy in the sense that you just have to delete some app data and you’re good. On Steam? No rerolling, as your account is linked to a Steam ID. Had I done some research ahead of time, I would have discovered you can reroll a bunch of times on mobile first, and then link your mobile data to Steam and basically be good to go. Instead, I am stuck with my poor Steam results, unless I want to only play Shadowverse on mobile from now on. Or create new Steam accounts for just Shadowverse.

Or perhaps it is better this way, e.g. no rerolling. If I could reroll, I would. Perhaps the designers are simply saving me from myself. On the other hand, getting a bad result is kind of demoralizing. And unlike with Puzzle & Dragons, Shadowverse is ultimately a competitive game where having weaker cards is a real disadvantage.

I am not really sure what the design solution is here. Fundamentally, the problem arises from the intersection of free (random) stuff for new players and ease of new account generation. Tying accounts to more permanent things such as Steam IDs (ala Shadowverse) is perhaps one way with resolving the latter issue, but A) limiting mobile is harder, and B) it doesn’t address the simple fact that random rewards can radically impact your power in these games.

Simply removing the free stuff “resolves” the whole issue, but then you lose out on the “first hit of crack” lockbox effect and generally make the new player experience arguably worse with no catch-up mechanisms. Removing the random element might also “work,” but just changes the baseline and removes any sense of excitement.

So… yeah. dilemma.

Beta Impression: Battlefield 4

I have been playing the Battlefield 4 beta these last few days, and I’m not quite sure what to think.

40 fps on High without current video drivers.

40 fps on High without latest video drivers.

It certainly isn’t the jump in quality from Battlefield 2 to 3, that’s for sure, although there are some interesting moves. For example, the default rocket launcher has a tracking mode that activates when the Recon class designates a target with their binoculars; this sort of solves the incredible power discrepancy between Engineers that had unlocked the, er, lock-on launcher versus newbie players.

Another interesting change was how they gave the Recon class (aka snipers) C4 charges. While this makes roof-top campers extremely annoying – they can drop C4 at the elevators and wait for the door opening sound for an auto-kill – it also creates an amazing tension in the class. Do you run out and C4 that tank while risking being caught in close-quarters with a sniper rifle, or do you hang back and try and snipe with a tank blowing you and your team up? Giving snipers claymore mines and assault classes C4 makes more thematic sense, but reversing those roles makes for more interesting gameplay decisions. Even better, the thermal Binoculars you get not only lets you lock on to vehicles for your teammates to kill (you get bonus XP when they do so), but it lets you more easily spot enemies running around that are too far to hit. Or, honestly, that you aren’t skilled enough to hit. Just spotting them is basically 1/4th a kill though, and it’s a useful service to do so.

Win-win.

However, some design changes have gone in the wrong direction. Technically, it was Battlefield 3 that “introduced” the concept of the medic class having to actually unlock their core ability, i.e. to revive people, but Battlefield 4 is taking that to ridiculous extremes. It takes 11,000 Assault-class XP to unlock the Defibrillator, which I hope to god is a placeholder value. Perhaps if smaller maps were available it might not be so bad, but actually getting that amount of XP on a class that otherwise brings nothing interesting to the table is a massive chore; not only do the other classes have easier ways of racking up easy XP, but remember that BF4 (and BF3) made the change to a regenerating HP model too. Between that and the near-zero Time To Kill numbers, the ability to throw a Med-Pack is only ever useful when you find yourself dueling someone from behind cover.

That tower is just bad news anyway.

That tower is just bad news anyway.

The unlocking situation gets even more ridiculous when you look at the Support class, aka the ammo guy. While I suppose it was annoying/immersion-breaking when a single Support dude could drop an ammo box and spam infinite grenades over the wall, putting the ammo box behind a 52,000 (!) XP grind-wall is an extreme overreaction. The most obvious trickle-down effect is that it makes every class weaker by extension: what good is an Engineer without rockets? Given how you respawn with full ammo, the smart move is then to play both aggressively and carelessly by spamming everything you have and then effectively suicide yourself for Round N+1.

While there has also been some grumblings over the idea of “Battlepacks” – random lockboxes filled with camos, dog tags, XP bonuses, etc – as someone who played Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer for a while, I don’t see it as such a big deal. Yes, it is a cynical cash grab given how you can pay money to buy those things. However, as far as I can tell, you do not actually unlock more powerful weaponry from these boxes. Which automatically makes them less of an issue than ME3’s lockboxes where opening a rare Widow or Carnifex/Paladin was basically the start of your game.

Beta is beta though, and this one is more restrictive than most. Overall, I can’t say that I’m too impressed. It’s honestly been so long ago that I uninstalled BF3 that I forget if being able to spawn inside a vehicle from the Deploy screen is something new to BF4 or not. And, really, that’s kinda what it comes down to: why do we need Battlefield 4 again? Once all the maps are unlocked, then perhaps we’ll see where the differences lay. Plus, supposedly Commander Mode is back.

But right now I do not see any reason why I would be compelled to purchase Battlefield 4 on Day 1 as opposed to when they bundle the game + first Map Pack together. Or, really, when they bundle the game + Season Pass.