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Inflection Points

In Divinity: Original Sin, I have definitively hit an inflection point in terms of character power. And that is kind of a shame.

Basically, once you hit level 15 you can start learning “Master” level skills/spells. As one might expect, these can be extremely powerful. For example, one of them is Meteor Shower, which drops 30 little fireballs in a specific area, each of which can deal a few hundred points of damage apiece in addition to spread fire in the area. These powerful spells cost a lot of Action Points – generally meaning needing to wait around multiple turns to save up enough AP – and are limited to One-Per-Battle in terms of cooldowns.

The issue is that you can game the hell out of the system. The AP cost is entirely irrelevant if you happen to spot a group of enemies before engaging in combat, for example – AP only exists within combat, so go nuts for the alpha strike. Hell, I bring down the stars on even one dude, because why not? It’s always been powerful to initiate combat with a “free” spell, but up till now those spells didn’t necessarily gib your target.

Another of the Master level skills allows an Archer to fire 16 arrows in a 45-degree arc. Great for groups… or, you know, if you want to effectively one(16?)-shot bosses from point-blank range. Oh, and hey, there’s a low-level Ranged Power Shot skill that increases damage by 20% at the cost of accuracy. Which would normally be an issue if not for the fact that Arrow skills auto-hit as long as the target is in range.

MMO players will recognize this phenomenon as “Optimizing the fun out of the game.” As I have mentioned previously though, the optimizing process itself is what I find fun to begin with. And it has been pretty fun figuring this out. The problem is that the game is now “solved,” and I am in one of those positions at the end of a Civilization match where winning is a foregone conclusion, but for the long, tedious march to an official win condition.

I said this situation is a shame because I’m not so sure it was necessary. Up until this point, effective AoE in Divinity was actually decently limited. Yeah, there were combos and such that you could set up, e.g. dropping Oil in an area and then lighting it on fire. But none of it was enough to one-shot groups by itself. Hell, often those combos ended up being counter-productive. The Oil+Fire combo was good for setting people on fire, but the resulting smoke prevented targeted follow-up attacks until they moved out of the area.

This scenario sort of reminds me of Final Fantasy Tactics, when you are suddenly given an excessively OP party member (Orlandu) for basically no reason. The game was challenging up to that point, and considerably less so afterwards. Why? What was the designer reasoning?

Sometimes inflection points are inevitable. At the beginning of a game, your character’s options for skills and magic items are likely limited, so there might be less room for synergies. More options means more combos means more opportunities for OP results. Simply not giving anything new past a certain level isn’t a particularly good design, so the devs might actually be trapped in that regard.

And, hey, I’m not blind to the fact that it probably feels good, both as a player and as a designer, to reach the endgame and feel like a total badass. Every wizard dreams of the moment they go from shooting Magic Missiles into the darkness to altering the fabric of reality itself. This is why games like WoW end up giving you +5% upgrades each tier instead of a more measured 1% – anything less feels unrewarding.

The fundamental problem is that I found the Divinity combat system rewarding as-is. Even with good equipment, things felt dicey all the time. I’m sure that someone out there had a lot of fun going from dicey fights to forgone conclusion ones, but that person is not me. And I cannot help but wonder if it was necessary at all. If super-skills are necessary, do they need to be this particularly powerful? Why 30 meteors instead of, say, 10? That would still be a huge improvement over the standard Fireball spell.

In any case, I am continuing to play Divinity and hopefully wrap things up soon.

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CR: The Prince

Just as a petty “I told you so” per Supercell’s latest patch notes:

Prince: Charge speed decreased by 13%

  • The Prince is currently the most used card in the game, but despite very popular opinion, he isn’t overpowered when looking at his win rates. However, his ability to take down a tower on his own when left unchecked can be quite startling. Slowing down his charge speed a notch will give more time to react and counter.

So, yeah, like I said, the Prince is the most used card in the game.

Now, they say in there that he’s not overpowered when looking at his win rates. Personally, I’d like to know what those win rates actually are. But honestly, that doesn’t really indicate to me that he isn’t overpowered. I’m no longer running my Prince because A) he’s level 1, and B) everyone specifically keeps direct counters to the Prince in their deck. For example, I’m running the Witch, melee Goblins, the Goblin Hut, and can technically toss my Giant Skeleton in front if needed. If I didn’t have to worry about the Prince destroying a tower in 9 seconds by himself, I’d be swapping out at least two of those for more offensive cards.

So, to me, a card that everyone uses is de facto an overpowered card even if the card does not necessarily guarantee a win. Good players take note of the metagame and include counters. It seems obvious said good players with said counters would win more often, bringing down the overall win rate of the most popular card. But the Prince is popular for a reason, and his mere existence suppresses the diversity of the rest of the decks. The Prince is like Hearthstone’s Dr. Boom – he won’t instantly win you the game, but every deck you create has to keep him in mind.

In any case, Supercell seems to have a monthly balance schedule, and I anticipate seeing the Prince nerfed again in April. If not because he is literally overtuned, then because he will continue being the most popular card in the game for his ability to force an answer from your opponent or die.

Pacing

Pacing is an incredibly important concept in game design. Pacing can be defined by the ability of a game to remain fun and novel for a player throughout the beginning, middle, and end of the gaming experience. In other words: for a game to end while you are still having fun. Otherwise perfect games can be destroyed by bad pacing, even if you had immense amount of fun while playing, simply because you often remember your final experiences with a game more than the first ones.

Pacing is also almost entirely subjective, often depends on variables outside of designers’ control, and is sometimes impossible to force.

I was thinking about pacing the other night as I was playing Fallout 4. I am basically at a point in the game where what I do doesn’t matter. I am level 46, I walk around in the highest-level Power Armor 24/7, I have 25,000+ caps, and have more than enough supplies to build whatever kind of Settlements I want, if I ever cared to do so.

There is nothing left to challenge me. This fact was rubbed in my face last night when I fell down into a basement area and a Legendary Alpha Deathclaw walked into the room, 10 ft away. I shot it with a Gauss Rifle around 3-4 times and it died, never having the opportunity to even attack. This is on Survival difficulty.

For all intents and purposes, I am done with the game. But the game isn’t done.

This is not Fallout 4’s fault, per se. RPGs are always tricky to balance, even when they are on rails, simply because grinding XP to out-level challenging content is a pretty standard, time-tested strategy. Add in an open world, and pacing pretty much goes out the window. Or, at least, there is an implicit expectation in open-world games that the player will supply their own pacing.

Unfortunately for me, I am utterly incapable of pacing myself.

At this point, what I should be doing is ignoring everything but the main story and plowing forward. And that is precisely what I keep intending to do. At the same time, I do not anticipate playing Fallout 4 again until after the first DLC get released, at a minimum. In such a scenario though, there is always the possibility that I put a game down and never pick it back up again. I would rather breeze through trivial encounters in order to experience interesting side quests than possibly never see them at all.

Of course, I would rather experience them in a challenging, tightly-paced manner even more.

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.

[Hearthstone] Remaining Concerns

My Press™ coverage of Hearthstone has been pretty glowing thus far, so I wanted to talk today about some lingering concerns about a few issues that cropped up in the last week. I do not believe these to be structural problems necessarily – I feel like they could be fixed within the Beta – but I also have no idea how Blizzard will address them, if at all.

1) Unbalanced Heroes

On paper, the nine Heroes you can pick between are balanced. Here is a rundown of their powers:

  • Druid – Hero gains +1 Attack until end of turn, and +1 Armor
  • Priest – Restore 2 health to target
  • Warrior – Hero gains 2 Armor
  • Paladin – Put a 1/1 creature into play
  • Rogue – create a 1 attack/2 durability weapon, or +1 Attack to weapon this turn
  • Warlock – Lose 2 Health and draw a card
  • Hunter – Deal 2 damage to enemy Hero
  • Shaman – Create a random totem (usually 0/2 creature w/ ability)
  • Mage – Deal 1 damage to a target

By the way, all of the listed abilities cost the same amount of resources (2 crystals).

One of the more annoying classes to play against.

One of the more annoying classes to play against.

The problem in reality is two-fold. First, there is a huge difference in synergy between a Hero’s powers and the class-restricted cards. The Priest’s ability, for example, combos ridiculously well with one of the default Priest cards: Northshire Cleric, a 1/3 creature that let’s you draw a card when a creature is healed. In fact, entire mechanics revolve around and/or become enabled by the Priest’s ability. Enrage, for example, is an ability that triggers an effect when the creature is damaged. One of the most common cards that uses Enrage is the Gurubashi Berserker, a 2/5 creature that gets +3 Attack each time it’s damaged. Smashing into a 2/2 will beef the troll up to a 5/3, which is nice… but also puts it within range of a lot of counter-attacks. A simple heal from the Priest though, puts it back to 5/5, letting it snowball further. Then you have goofy cards like the Angry Chicken, which is a 1/1 with Enrage: +5 Attack. Obviously you need to combine that creature with some other effects to boost its Health, of which the Priest has many.

By means of comparison, nothing combos with the Hunter ability. In Magic: the Gathering, the devs eventually created the Bloodthirst mechanic that boosted a creature’s stats (or some bonus effect) if it was played the same turn as the opponent taking damage. No such thing exists in Hearthstone, at least for now. And while Rogue decks need no assistance, the Combo system on Rogue cards have nothing to do with the Rogue’s ability; at least the Druid, Warrior, and Warlock are thematically consistent with their class cards. Then again, perhaps we should look at the Priest as an outlier rather than the bar that other classes should reach.

The second problem is related to the first: what class cards are available by default radically changes the strength of your deck. Now, sure, technically everyone will be able to unlock all 20 basic class cards by simply playing against the computer (assuming they didn’t want to challenge players). But take my word for it: many of those early games suck. Hard.

Through either a combination of the first issue or the second, I can already tell that some Heroes are being left in the dust by the Beta population. I would say more than 95% of the Ranked games I have played have been against either the Mage, Rogue, or Priest. For a good reason: they’re strong.

There are a few clever things Blizzard is already doing to (presumably) combat this trend. One of the types of daily quests is to win 2 games as a specific class. When I logged on yesterday, for example, I had to win 2 games as a Druid and Warrior (two separate quests, as I had missed yesterday’s daily). Having played neither before, I created custom decks for both and then went for a spin against some human opponents. Those games played out very differently than my normal games, and were pretty fun to boot, although I doubt I will be spending much time with them until I luck into some of their non-basic class cards from booster packs.

The other clever move to improve class experimentation, if not promote diversity, is how Arena mode matches start by forcing you to pick between three random class Heroes before you start the actual Draft process. The other day, I had to pick between the Hunter, Druid, and Shaman, all of whom I had never played with before. While they let you mouse-over their Hero powers from that specific screen, the more critical aspect of the Heroes is ultimately their selection of class-specific cards. Spending some time in your collection looking at all of the class’ cards – which, by the way, Hearthstone allows you to do even if you don’t own them – is definitely recommended.

For the record, I chose the Hunter. And went 0-3.

Worst possible Arena result, I think.

Worst possible Arena result, I think.

2) Unbalanced Cards

Beyond the Hero issue and the class-specific card issue, I have a problem with the card balance in a few locations. Basically, I don’t feel like strictly-better cards should exist in a CCG, especially not when it appears it’s being “balanced” around rareness. Take a look at the following:

Balance!

Balance!

There is precisely one scenario in which you might choose the raptor over the gnome: if you were playing some kind of Beast deck (e.g. with the Hunter). And actually, you might put in the gnome even in your Beast deck; por que no los dos? At least with the Ooze, you can convince yourself that there are certain scenarios in which blowing up the opponent’s weapon is better than whittling down their blockers for free.

By the way, only the Paladin, Warrior, and Rogue are likely to ever have weapons equipped. That Ooze is pretty much a dead draw 90% of the time in my experience.

A few other cards are simply ridiculous. Pint-Sized Summoner, for example, pretty much single-handedly caused me to lose an Arena game (I had no targeted removal at the time). Bloodlust is probably balanced, but 100% of the games in which I lost to a Shaman have been due to that one card… and a bunch of suddenly bloodthirsty totems. And so on.

3) Over-reliance on Taunt

This section is going to be short, because the title sums it up: Taunt is both ubiquitous and pretty much the only means of combat shenanigans.

This should have been a combo, dammit!

This should have been a combo, dammit!

In case you aren’t aware, Taunt is a creature ability that forces an opponent to only attack the creature with Taunt, as opposed to being able to attack any creature or just smash the opponent’s face in directly. Without Taunt, basically whoever drops creatures first is at a huge advantage since they can decide to attack any “special” creatures their opponents play with their own creature or ignore them. Pretty much the only rational strategy then becomes A) play special creature and then immediately drop a Taunt meatshield, or B) beef up a Taunt creature and control the board. An all-in-one package example of the latter is Ancient of War, which is an absolute bomb drop in Arena, by the way.

4) Playing first puts you at a huge disadvantage

Another shorty, but basically I never ever want to go first when playing Hearthstone.

Each player draws three cards before a game, and can choose to send any (or none) of the cards back and draw different ones. Whoever goes second draws a fourth card during this phase, and thus can fish for their deck combo cards or removal that much deeper. Plus, after the first player’s turn, they get a 0 crystal card called “The Coin” that will temporarily give you 1 crystal for a turn. So, basically, going second you can cast a 2 crystal card on your turn 1, or 3 crystal card on turn 2, and so on. What makes it even worse is that The Coin counts as playing a card/spell, which can trigger all sorts of nonsense, such as a Defias Ringleader suddenly giving the Rogue a 2/3 and 2/1 creature on turn 1.

Conclusion

Having said all that, I do feel like these are solvable problems. For the most part. Given the simplicity of the resource system and the mechanics in this first set, I am not quite sure how things will get balanced. The Knife-Juggler and Pint-Sized Summoner could be reduced to 2/1 and 1/1 respectively, and still be worth playing. But what about those Hero powers? The Hunter power can’t be reduced to 1 crystal or the damage increased to 3. Would they buff the Hunter class cards instead? What if a player doesn’t actually use those “balancing” cards?

Time will tell upon release exactly how broken some of these interactions are. Time will also tell how much we or Blizzard particular care. I probably have the most fun in Arenas (I went 8-3 and 9-2 this weekend, the latter of which resulted in 310g) where dropping game-changing cards is the norm, and Ranked matches sorta feel like 2v2 Arena in WoW somtimes. I would rather it be balanced of course, but this is also a CCG – there being only a few viable decks at the upper-end is pretty much par for the course. But if Blizzard wants to do some (more) groundbreaking things with their game design, they are going to have to fix the above four issues at a minimum.

As the PlanetSide Turns…

A few weeks ago, SOE released a new weapon: the pump-action shotgun. New weapons in a F2P game is somewhat expected, with two different SMGs having been released the month before. I am starting to get the impression that a metaphorical corner has been turned with these shotguns though.

The problem? The shotguns offer a one-hit kill (OHK) at ~7 meters and less. A one-bodyhit kill.

It is nothing new that some guns are better at others at various ranges. Bullet damage decreases the farther it travels, and there are wild swings both in terms of Rate of Fire and Bullet Velocity amongst each factions’ arsenals. The difference this time, IMO, is reaction speed. If I see an enemy at the same moment he sees me, the fight comes down to a number of factors. Sometimes pulling the trigger first is the difference, especially when “bullet flinch” (which has thankfully been decreased) can cause your counter-attack to miss its mark. Of course, even if the enemy has a gun advantage over yours, you can still win with either better aim (headshots), luck (headshots), or environmental awareness (ducking behind cover, etc).

With the new pump-action shotguns, this has all changed. The outcome of any encounter is boiled down to a single variable: did the guy with a shotgun miss? If he didn’t, you’re dead. If he did… you’re probably still dead a few moments later. Your gun having a 1.27 second Time-To-Kill is meaningless when the shotgun’s is 0.00 seconds.

If you believe that the short OHK maximum range is a good enough downside, well, I would ask whether you play PlanetSide 2 at all. You see, for however large the “maps” are – and they are extremely huge – all of the infantry action typically takes place within 7 meters anyway. There are medium engagements, sure, but they are either always brief or consist of steady exchanges of fire from cover. The latter is necessary because tanks and jets will murder you in moments if you are spotted on open ground. Ergo, between the need for cover and that all capturable objectives are located in small sheds, a short-ranged weapon is no downside at all; especially not one with such a high payout.

In PlanetSide 2, you are either sniping or in bayonet range.

Honestly, something like this is probably less nefarious than it is inevitable. There are only so many “sidegrades” a design can accommodate before the number of permutations reveal downsides that aren’t downsides at all. Care has to be given to how the game itself plays out most commonly. A 30-second cooldown that increases damage by 10% is not the same as 100% damage cooldown every 5 minutes, no matter what it says on paper. Similarly, a gun with a low rate of fire and a high reload timer is irrelevant in a firefight that ends as soon as it begins.

There undoubtedly would be havoc unleashed should SOE come out and nerf the $7 shotgun, so I am not entirely sure what the solution to this newfound problem can be. Indeed, I have already resolved to purchasing the shotgun myself; not to fight fire with fire, but to eliminate the fire-starter before he can even react to the heat of my flames. The only reason I have hesitated is because, much like the SMG before it, another pump-shotgun variant is slated to be released soon. And it is entirely possible it will be more powerful than the original, which is how it worked out for the Vanu SMG.

Perhaps this new one will hit so hard it kills you again on the respawn. Or shoots explosive shells that damage tanks. Or both. The sky (up to 7 meters) is the limit.

Resistance is… Probably Not a Good Idea.

My (probably futile) attempts at conquering the Gratuitous Space Battle campaign mode continues. After looking at the available ship options, I decided to change races to the Empire. Some of the different races get access to unique weapons or ship layouts, but for the most part everything is the same. Except maybe not for the Empire. Most of their ships look like space stations, and come with a ridiculous number of standard module slots to match.

That and basically everything else likely means nothing to you, but just roll with it for now.

So my fleet composition looks something like this. First, the I-Point, which is essentially a damage-soaker featuring multiple shield generators and power plants to match. Under most circumstances, a ship will likely have ~200 shield HP, but the I-Point has 800+. It has a few weapons, but it’s orders are simply to close to EMP range and otherwise take the hits. Stuck in rigid formation behind it is at least one I-Help, which is a Frigate whose sole purpose is to use the Empire-specific shield-mending beam on the I-Point and on anyone else  nearby. Tank and heals old-school style.

The big surprise, at least as far as effectiveness goes, came from the I-Battery. This ship design is fairly unique in what I have seen thus far, with it capable of housing 8 weapons in a Frigate hull. As tempted as I was to put missile launchers in every slot, I decided that I would instead go with the almost-as-good ranged Plasma Cannons. Cost-wise, the I-Battery were surprisingly cheap, which gives me leave to build 1-2 of them each turn.

Finally, rather than replace any of my Plasma Cannons with anti-fighter laser weapons, I decided to simply field a bunch of fighters myself, flying Escort mode around my I-Point. They are not as powerful as the fighters of other races, but they are the fastest in the game.

I was undefeated for a while, conquering planets at a pretty good clip under my balanced doctrine… until disaster.

Hey, this looks familiar.

Hey, this looks familiar.

With a full fleet that was poised to take over a few isolated systems, I was instead attacked by a six cruiser complement of one of the DLC race ships. Their loadout? Missiles. ALL the missiles. I took special care in putting at least one Guidance Scrambler on each one of my ships, and their combined effort up to this point was usually enough to clear the sky. Not these missiles though, and not in this volume. I was annihilated by a specialized force – a missile force – and thus came full circle.

I did not give up yet though. Oh, no. I made an I-Screen ship, with Point Defense Mk 2 in every weapon slot to shoot down enemy missiles and nothing else. Remembering my failure with the fighters last time, I nevertheless fielded four squadrons of 16. And this time, I also made special orders for all ships to follow Vulture orders, e.g. always target the most damaged ship in range.

Remember me now?

Remember me now?

The result was almost comical. I don’t know whether it was the Vulture orders or the extra squadron or something else, but my fighters blew two of the ships up and crippled two more before my cruisers even got within range. The I-Screen largely turned out to be useless, as the range of its anti-missile guns was too short to prevent them damaging the shields of the I-Point, and yet it was too fragile to place in front (defeating the purpose of the tank). In any case, the revenge was sweet.

But it would not last.

Misty remains of Judgment.

Misty day, remains of Judgment.

Riding high on my prior victories, I was complacent until a nest of vipers landed in my lap in the form of five Parasite cruisers. It almost didn’t seem fair… for them. I had a slightly bigger fleet than before, after all. As it turns out, the Parasite race has access to an AoE flak cannon that simply shredded my fighters like so much tissue paper. Even with the combined might of my fleet, I was not able to collapse even one shield amongst their ships. Instead of the normal Guidance Scramblers that deflect missiles, they have a version that turns the missile around and causes it to hit you, all with a greater range.

My fleet destroyed once again, I attempted to mount a counter-offensive with a new fleet after 10 turns. The result was even worse than before. Then, they captured my only planet with a shipyard, effectively ending the game.

There is no reloading saved games in GSB. One’s failure is absolute.

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I should note, in passing, that the most frustrating aspect of GSB campaign mode is also one of its most novel. You see, 100% of those fleet compositions I talked about are player-generated. In the vanilla game, you could submit your own fleet as a sort of “puzzle” (aka Challenges) that other players could battle and then rate. I played a few of these maps, but it all felt a bit pointless after a while, especially when it didn’t reward Honor (the in-game currency for unlocks). Wrapping this all up in a cloak of purpose via campaign mode though, did indeed breathe life into the concept as evidenced by my repeated head-banging.

Of course, this also means campaign mode operates with no rhyme or reason, as you charge headlong into truly random and insipid battles that you cannot hope to prepare against. Specialization beats Generalization every time, but the player is never afforded the luxury of anything else. It reminds me of the great debate of Critical Hits in paper D&D. On the one hand, rolling a 20 and getting double-damage feels awesome. On the other hand, the players will always face hundreds more dice rolls against them than they ever will roll against individual mobs. Ergo, players are more penalized by critical hits than they benefit, increasing the chances of a Total Party Kill… unless the DM fudges the rolls behind the screen.