The news of the week is Facebook buying out the Oculus Rift, which is perhaps the least impressive technology to see other people use. I’ll be honest: I poured out a sip of bourbon in memoriam to independent development and the noble goal that was Kickstarter, which increasingly seems to be an nightmare engine fueled by hubris and wanton optimism.
Actually, none of that last sentence is true. Well, other than the Kickstarter bit.
I did release a heavy sigh at the news, but in the scheme of things it might not be so bad. There are a couple ways of looking at it. For example, this penultimate paragraph from Penny Arcade represents a rather inspiring take:
Before yesterday, The Oculus Rift was technofetish gear. It ceased to be so in an instant. If you want to know how you get to the future described in books, any of the futures, it happens when technology has broad social meaning. I’m not going to tell you it’s not fucking weird. I’m as surprised as anybody. I don’t like the idea of a fully three dimensional banner ad anymore than you do. But do you want to live in a society where telepresence and virtual reality are… normalized? This is how that happens. I used the shitty, old Rift, and I thought I was underwater. Think of every corner they had to cut because they were trying to make this thing in the finite realm of men. Now imagine the corners restored, and the corner cutting machine in ruins.
Perhaps you’re not an optimist. In which case, actually consider the alternate realities:
> Just promise me there will be no specific Facebook tech tie-ins.
Why would we want to sell to someone like MS or Apple? So they can tear the company apart and use the pieces to build out their own vision of virtual reality, one that fits whatever current strategy they have? Not a chance.
Now, as the scathing Reddit posts below that point out, had Microsoft bought out the Rift he could have just swapped the names around: “Sell to someone like Facebook or Apple?” It really seems to be no difference… except for two things. One, I don’t want Microsoft or Apple to have sole control over the Rift. Apple’s version would likely not be PC compatible and Microsoft would likely bundle it into every Xbtwo purchase. It might “just” be a monitor on your face (the size of a small book) right now, but shit man, it’s 2014 and I still can’t take screenshots of PS3 games without hundred-dollar hardware to trick the DRM or whatever. And two? Sony has VR, Google has pseudo-VR, and now even goddamn Facebook has VR. It’s only a matter of time before the ghost of Steve Jobs releases the iEyes and whoever is running Microsoft releases a more expensive, lower resolution version that requires a constant internet connection.
Competition, people – it’s a good thing.
Having said all that, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. In fact, I barely care about VR at all. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool conceptually. The frugal side of my nature is excited at the prospect of basically one $300 headset replacing all the monitors and TVs in my house. But that’s when pesky reality starts popping up. I already wear glasses and it’s hard enough finding earphones I can comfortably wear for more than an hour.
But the VR problems are deeper and more systemic to me, in much the same way as console MMOs. For example, can you see the keyboard with these goggles on? Some people can type without looking, but essentially pulling yourself out of whatever just to remember where the ‘B’ key is will be annoying. Controllers don’t really get around this issue, especially considering how much more limiting the lack of buttons will be (imagine trying to play WoW with an Xbox controller). Then I wonder: do I really want to be craning my neck around for 2+ hours? And to what end? Unless you go full nerd, the practical application will be the equivalent of the Lean key in most games; you are still aiming with your mouse/gamepad, not your face.
I’m sure the immersion is all there and maybe that’s enough. From where I’m sitting though, all I’m hearing is “touchscreen monitor,” like I want to be playing games in (more literal) zombie posture all day. No thanks. For me, the Oculus and other headsets are basically conceptual means of being able to play games fully reclined on a Lay-Z Boy or laying down. Actually, nevermind, no access to keyboard/mouse that way. So, err… yeah.
Basically for Tycho’s wordsmithing:
People like games for all kinds of reasons. Perhaps they are flattered by them somehow, told what they want to be told about themselves and vile, unnamed others. Oh! And occasionally games are fun. Even if they don’t model class tensions for some reason. Obviously, they would be better if they did!
You can also be surprised by a game, have it come outta nowhere and create for itself some immaculate mental foyer in your… brain house. Just run with it. It’s much trickier when a game is known to you. But what if a game is not just as good as you wanted, but was as good as they said? The annals of gaming yournalism are lined on each side with the crucifixions of perfectly good, even great games that simply didn’t conform to the narratives that they themselves created. But it actually happened this time. You know? They weren’t retroactively made a heap of fucking liars. Let ‘em ride that shit around for a bit.
He’s referring to Titanfall, so it’s somewhat topical to boot.
Game: Prime World: Defenders
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: Unrated (likely ~58)
Completion Time: 28 hours
Buy If You Like: Tower Defense, Grinding, TCG
Prime World: Defenders is a Tower Defense game I bought in its Beta (what we used to call pre-purchasing) almost entirely based on a relatively glowing Penny Arcade review. I would not necessarily say I am a tower defense-er – I do not specifically seek the genre out – but I am pretty open to this gameplay in a general sense. Indeed, the only real problem I have with Tower Defense games is how binary things end up being: you are either murdering the enemy masses or you are overwhelmed. Well, there is that problem and the other intrinsically related problem in that there is always an optimal configuration of towers/abilities that usually renders entire levels moot.
But, hey, Prime World is Tower Defense plus TCG elements plus you can use magic spells; surely it could not fall into that same trap. As it turns out though, the things that make Prime World: Defender unique are the very things that make the game worse.
The central game conceit is that the player’s tower arsenal is represented by TCG-esque cards that can also individually level up to gain in power. The player also can gain levels, which only really affects the unlocking of tiers in the “talent tree” – something that ends up being more of an unlock menu since choices aren’t mutually exclusive. Winning battles will result in five cards being shown and then shuffled together, with the player choosing one effectively at random; up to two additional cards can be selected by paying in Silver. There is also an in-game “store” in which to purchase booster packs of cards, although it is entirely contained within the game – there is no RMT going on here.
As an aside, isn’t it sort of sad that we have to put in disclaimers like that?
Beyond the leveling mechanic, there are a few other interesting things going on. You can use Magic spells (which also level-up) during combat, for example. I also appreciated the ability to trigger the next wave early, which not only ramps up the difficulty but also gives you bonus resources, making it an interesting strategic decision. At first, anyway.
When it comes to Tower Defense games, I always use Sanctum as my high-water mark for the sub-genre (I count Orcs Must Die! in a different category). Under that sort of rubric, Prime World… is no Sanctum. For each story mission that you unlock, there are three satellite maps attached to it that correspond with Easy/Medium/Hard. These satellites are basically random battles in a typical RPG, allowing you to farm in-game currency and get additional cards/towers. The overall map structure in these random battles varies very little (there are less than 10 unique maps), but the empty squares available to place your towers might be filled in with rocks, enemy towers, or power-ups that boost the efficacy of any towers placed there. Enemy composition is variable as well, along standard genre lines such as mass of weaklings, tough tanks, flying enemies, and so on.
The overall effect of this random battle setup makes completing said random battles fun… at least for a while. The problem that arises, and my core complaint about the game, seems inevitable in retrospect: grinding/farming is required. The story missions increase in difficulty pretty linearly, although you will likely experience huge leaps every 4-5 missions. Sometimes the leaps will be in the form of Boss encounters, which feature an ultra-tough mob that standard towers are unlikely to defeat; other times mob HP just scales out of control.
Simply put, it does not matter how awesome your tower strategy ends up being when the game is balanced around you leveling-up your towers. And, indeed, if you dedicate enough of your time to power-leveling at the beginning, certain towers will basically allow you to coast to victory with no thought required. A level 1 tower costs the same the place on a map as a level 25 tower, despite the latter dealing +800 more damage and having a greater area of effect.
I do not necessarily want to give the impression that the game is broken or anything. It’s just that, well, I was stuck on one of the story missions for the longest time, trying all sorts of different strategies and tower setups. I even looked up how other people were completing the mission. Nothing I did worked… until I dedicated 5 hours to farming random missions and got enough currency to upgrade my towers five or six levels apiece. The whole time I was farming, I was winning those missions using, literally, three of the same tower.
The whole game isn’t like that, but this particular story mission was a badly tuned break in the progression curve. And the sad fact is: this is technically a viable solution to every mission. Will you still feel clever replaying a tricky mission over and over knowing that you could technically just out-level it? And sometimes have to? Those questions are something you will have to answer for yourself.
If you are a fan of Tower Defense games, I would say that Prime World: Defenders is a solid entry in the sub-genre. If you care less about the sub-genre and more about compelling games themselves, well, you will probably still have fun for a while. As an on-and-off-again MMO player, I experienced considerable pull towards playing “just one more map” and farming money/XP fodder for my towers. As long as you know what you are getting yourself into, you will probably be fine with Prime World: Defenders. Just to be safe though, I would wait for a Steam/bundle deal.
In the event that you didn’t read last Friday’s Penny Arcade, they talked about the Cryptozoic Kickstarter for a “MMO-TCG” called Hex. Basically, Hex is Magic Online meets WoW TCG meets cards that can get socketed gems, equip gear, gain XP, earn achievements that expand artwork and upgrade cards to foil versions. Also, there will be PvE, apparently including dungeons and raids. And all of this is Free to Play.
Of course, just like with Hearthstone, calling a TCG “F2P” is criminally misleading.
I have some concerns with Hex. First, while I am frankly excited about the unique opportunities involved with an all-digital TCG – cards that buff your creatures do so for the rest of the match, you can put tokens on cards that get shuffled into your library, and all sorts of crazy nonsense that physical card games couldn’t pull off – this game skews so heavily towards Magic Online that I’m surprised Wizards of the Coast hasn’t issued a takedown notice.
Seriously, look at this video:
I’m not talking about Apple’s “rounded corners” copyright bullshit, I’m talking about Grand Theft Mechanics. Creatures have summoning sickness, there is First Strike, Haste, seven cards in the opening hand, 20 life per player, four copy limit on individual cards, 60 cards per deck, land cards, instants, discrete turn phases (Draw phase, main phase, declaring attackers/blockers/combat damage, end step), and even the goddamn Stack.
That’s not even really my concern here though. My concern is what occurs about 200 times in the bottom right corner of that video: spamming of the Pass Priority button.
This is alpha footage, things can change, etc etc etc… but not really. Magic is an incredibly nuanced card game with thousands of pages of technical rules that few follow to the letter in non-tournament settings; friends usually don’t ask each other if there is any response to their Draw Phase, unless one of them was packing a relevant card in their deck. My initial few weeks with Magic Online was a brilliant experience because the game reminded you of all the sort of routine Upkeep triggers and the like that can bog down/derail completely a physical game when you forget one. Trouble is, Magic Online is going to ask you every damn time because it has to. You can manually change your settings to ignore certain steps if you want, but again, Magic is an incredibly complex beast – if you aren’t careful about when you cast a spell or use an ability, you can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in an (cough) instant.
So that’s concern number one: the Pass Priority button is going to simultaneously be annoying as hell and be the reason you lost a perfectly winnable match. It’s also incredibly high-brow for as much as Hex is being marketed as “easy to get into.” I was a tad disappointed at first when I watched the Hearthstone duels and realized that there would be no “in response I play X!” back and forth. But seeing Hex and being reminded about how cerebral Magic can get… I think the Blizzard folks are on the right track, at least for a casual audience.
Concern number two? You’re going to spend probably $100-$200 a month playing this F2P game.
Look at this paragraph from the official website regarding the above card Extinction:
Every last troop in sight bites the dust. This card will be a crucial staple of many control decks in any tournament format for a long time to come. In other words, in addition to being awesome, these will be quite valuable to all types of players. If you’re dungeon crawling instead of tournament crawling, you can even keep troops off the board for another two turns while you finish your master plan, with the all-powerful equipment Grips of the Unfortunate!
Translation: everyone will be paying out of the ass for this “crucial staple” of a card.
Even if you don’t see yourself competing in the sort of obvious P2W Constructed deck format (or presumably high-end PvE raiding), you will still probably be spending many times the average monthly subscription if you are remotely interested in the game. It is all right there in the Kickstarter page:
For experienced TCG players, we have designed the card set around Booster Draft and Limited play. We have engineered the card sets to launch three times a year, like a standard TCG.
In Magic Online, a Booster Draft = eight players buy three booster packs apiece. Open pack, take one card, pass remaining to the left, repeat. Build deck. Limited = buy six booster packs, open them, build deck. Booster packs in Hex will cost $2 for 15 random cards, which is half of what WotC charges. Magic Online rewards the winners of these mini-tournaments with extra booster packs, such that those coming in 1st and 2nd place can generally leave with a profit of a few packs; I assume Hex will reward similarly. Everyone keeps the cards they play with, so you don’t leave empty-handed if you lose, but… well. Suffice it to say, I finally overcame my game subscription aversion when I realized I spent $24 in the course of a one hour in Magic Online. Suddenly, a mere $15/month seemed like a total steal. Cue WoW purchase.
Frankly, Booster Drafts and Limited are the best Magic tournament formats to play in because there is no Pay 2 Win pressure – everyone starts with the same random chance to get good/bad cards, and skill plays an exceedingly strong role thereafter. But, again, in Hex you are looking at dropping $6-$12 to participate in “content” that evaporates after an hour, if you’re lucky. This is to say nothing about the fact that new sets will come out three times a year, which means most of your cards will be unplayable in Standard settings (which is the big set and its two smaller components in Magic). You can still play older cards in Magic, but only in Extended formats where most people are still packing the overpowered cards of 5 years ago, not the leftover garbage from your Limited games that just became old news.
If you haven’t noticed, I am extrapolating a lot about Hex from how Magic Online worked, but Cryptozoic has already stolen so much shit I feel safe that they will keep the theme going here. Perhaps Hex will feel a little different since it will have a PvE aspect, where some of your “outdated” cards might find a long-term home. Perhaps you could even earn boosters from said PvE – that would at least make the F2P claim less of a bald-faced lie. But make no mistake here: Hex, like any TCG (digital or no), will contain the two worst components of consumer-gouging videogame design: Pay 2 Win and gamble boxes.
And goddamn it if I’m still reacting like an ex-junkie, credit card in shaking hand.