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Star Cards

You may have heard a lot of people talking about how bad the Star Cards are in Star Wars Battlefront 2 (SWBF2), but there appears to be a dearth of information on what the cards actually do. Well, I took some screenshots, and will transcribe a lot of them here before.

Among the four classes, the following two abilities are in all of them:

  • Brawler: Melee kill regens 50/65/75/100 HP
  • Resourceful: All abilities recharge 10%/15%/20%/28% faster.

I did not experience much melee action in my limited time in the beta, so I’m not entirely sure if there is a special damage bonus for attacking from behind, ala the kill sequences from the Battlefield series. Somehow, I doubt it. Resourceful though, is a particularly impressive bonus. I don’t know the default cooldown for most abilities, but assuming 30 seconds, that results in the cooldown being 27/25.5/24/21.6 seconds. Not that this is a WoW raid or anything, but over the course of 5 minutes that means you can press the button almost 14 times instead of 10.

The other noteworthy Star Cards:

Officer

  • Officer Presence: Reduce HP Regen Delay by 20%/25%/30%/40%

Heavy

  • Defender: Gain 4/6/7/9 score for each hit you take

I was not able to test Defender, but this seems just a bit insane. Is there an internal cooldown? Otherwise, I can imagine some people rolling out Heavies and soaking up some long-distance fire for a few minutes before suddenly coming back as a Hero and murdering people. For reference, you typically get zero points for dealing damage until and unless the target dies.

Assault

  • Assault Training: Gain 20/26/30/40 HP on kill
  • Vanguard Refresh: Refreshes your abilities on kill 25/23/21/18

The Assault class in general felt extremely weak in the beta, even though it technically has more HP than the Specialist. Getting up to 40 HP on a kill would go a long way in fixing that. Additionally, Vanguard Refresh is just a straight-up upgrade to the default Vanguard ability, which sees you put away the blaster for a shotgun and quicker movement. Not sure what the bonus does exactly though.

Specialist

  • Stealth: Remain hidden when firing, and deal 65/75/100/150 extra melee damage.
  • Infiltration: Scrambler: Marks enemies for allies and scrambles scanners in 10/11/12/14 range.
  • Trip Mine: (replaces Thermal Binoculars) Laser Tripmine with a 30/26/22/16 cooldown.

The Specialist is really quite absurd all-around, even before the Star Cards IMO. Yeah, they will die to a Heavy in a reasonably fair fight. However, the E ability gives you an infinite-clip burst-firing gun, makes you invisible to radar, shows everyone else on your radar, and causes you to speed around the map. Have I mentioned that getting a kill resets the timer too? Adding the Infiltration: Scrambler to that and/or the Trip Mine is just bonkers.

The biggest Star Card offender from a blogging perspective is Boba Fett. Here are his upgrades:

Boba Fett

  • Acute Concussion: Concussion lasts 1/1.5/2/4 seconds longer
  • Quick Refill: Jetpack refills 20/25/35/40% faster.
  • Fuel Efficiency: Jetpack burns 15/18/21/25% slower.
  • Death from Above: during Rocket Barrage, take 50/60/75/100% less damage
  • Intense Barrage: Rocket Barrage fires 30/40/50/70% faster (more rockets)

As you can see, Death from Above in particular goes from 50% damage reduction while using a very visible ability to complete immunity. Intense Barrage adds more missiles to said attack for free. Or you can combine the two Jetpack cards together to get a much larger Jetpack uptime.

The characters aren’t the only problem either. Here are three cards from Starfighter:

  • Bomber has 5/10/20/40% more HP
  • Fighter deals 2/4/7/10% more damage with primary fire
  • Fighter takes 50/100/150/200% longer to lock onto with missiles.

If you are in a fairly even dogfight, but your opponent has 40% more HP or they deal 10% more damage, or you have to wait 200% longer than normal to get a lock-on… well, that’s not really a fair fight anymore.

Things can always change, of course. I don’t think that the Star Card system itself is going to change, but there will probably be tweaks to the exact percentages. And entirely new options/cards.

That actually might be where most of the concern should be centered. Because as we all know, the payment structure of games inform their ongoing development, which means the designers have incentives to create more powerful Star Cards later on. When they are undoubtedly added into the game “for free,” the average player might be able to craft the first two tiers with regular currency, but whales and competitive gamers alike will have it maxed out as soon as the servers are up.

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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.

SWTOR Retention Predictions

Discussing retention in an MMO without accounting for social ensnarement is like discussing weight loss without accounting for calories. It is something so fundamental that I have to imagine that the only reason it is not brought up is because it is taken as a given. And yet I have now read multiple blogs talking about SWTOR’s lack of retentive capacity based on story, story, or even god forbid, gameplay with completely straight faces. Here is Gordon from We Fly Spitfires:

And this, unfortunately, is BioWare’s big mistake. They sacrificed on so much in order to squeeze in a fully voice acted ’story mode’. It’s why there are so few classes, so few starting areas, limited racial choices, a small number of Flashpoints and Warzones, and only a single line of progression for each side. Likewise, once the shine of the story mode wears off, you realise that the gameplay is pretty generic if not shallow and outdated. Nils has a good write-up on the subject and, if you agree with him, you’ll probably also come to the realisation that WoW’s gameplay actually has a surprising amount of depth to it (at least in comparison to The Old Republic).

To get this out of the way, WoW’s combat definitely does have a more visceral cadence to it than my experience with the SWTOR beta. At least, it does once you pass certain level thresholds with a given class. Rogues before Cheapshot are hideous. Paladins were garbage for years until multiple class revamps later. And so on.

Having said that… really? Are we seriously to the point at which we are holding WoW up as an example of compelling gameplay as if Cataclysm never happened? Even if we agree that there are two (or more) different definitions of gameplay taking place – the moment-to-moment, and say, the minute-to-minute – I am here to argue that while they are helpful, they are ultimately secondary at best.

Retention in MMOs come down to the people. Daily quests are not compelling gameplay. Heroics are not compelling gameplay. Grinding mobs is not compelling gameplay. What is compelling is that you are doing things either with or for other people. These otherwise asinine activities are utter tripe on their own, divorced from the Show & Tell aspects. When I did 20+ days of daily quests to unlock the exalted Tol Barad trinket on an alt, it did indeed feel good to work towards something tangible. But what made the trinket tangible? The PEOPLE. The knowledge that my geared alt would be useful in a guild raid situation, that some random person could appreciated the amount of investment that went into earning it, that it was useful in the context of other people.

So tell me, exactly, what it is about SWTOR that prevents such meaning from possibly existing in whatever arbitrary trinket they have at the ass-end of a huge endgame grind. We have all endured unfun things in WoW either for the promise of fun later, or because friends make it fun to do unfun things together. What is the difference here? And perhaps more pointedly, if compelling gameplay is the defining factor for retention, why aren’t we still playing WoW? I did not quit WoW because the gameplay changed, I quit because the game ceased to be fun. Great gameplay is not enough for long-term retention. Nor would I even say it’s required. It helps, no doubt, just like voice-acting and emphasis on stories helped get feet stuck in doors of people whom would have never gave yet another MMO a chance. Whereas moment-to-moment gameplay has to compete against every new game released, your social circle is a lot less replaceable.

SWTOR could very well end up flopping due to lack of retention. But if it does, I’m betting the traction loss comes not from lukewarm gameplay or limited instances, but lack of guild infrastructure, social incentives, RPing opportunities, and the other touchy-feely aspects of the game. In any case, considering SWTOR needs 350k-500k subs to operate in the black (even counting the Lucas cut), predictions of its eventual demise are a little ridiculous unless you believe it will be less successful than Rift (currently at ~475k).

Unfortunate Obsolescence

It occurs to me that we – or more specifically, I – have well and truly crossed the barrier beyond which old, amazing games go to die, unplayed and forgotten.

For example, today you can buy Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II on Steam for $1.24. I have heard many, many great things about this game over the years (and it indeed has a 91 Metacritic score), but I never got around to experiencing it. And so when I saw it up for 75% off, I decided to take a look at the game’s page. What I saw was this:

This probably looked amazing to my 14-year old self.

I just couldn’t do it. Whatever it was that this game could have added to my life experience is gone forever.

Of course, this is not just Dark Force II’s problem. Have you tried booting up Planescape: Torment lately? I wrote an awful, awful review of the game back during the height of my JRPG fandom phase a decade ago, and have always wanted to return to give the game its proper dues. But that is unlikely to ever happen. I tried, I seriously tried. Planescape always had a super zoomed-in camera compared to the Baldur’s Gate titles, and combined with the 640×480 max resolution was simply too much. I could not bring myself to get out of the morgue, the technical/compatibility issues notwithstanding.

To bastardize a phrase: the flesh is willing, but the spirit is weak.

Who though, in all honesty, is going to go back and play Fallout 1 & 2 after being introduced to the franchise via 3 or New Vegas? There are hundreds of classic games like this. Certain ones, like Chrono Trigger and the like, can survive rerelease after rerelease without changes. But these others? Not going to happen. I talked about the haunting legacy of Deus Ex in regards to its modern-day prequel, but who is going to play the original if they have not already? I understand there are mods that do amazing things to the visuals, but that presupposes a desire to go through the trouble to begin with.

Indeed, I feel the entire gaming industry is entering a bizarre new landscape with the advent of the App/Indie/F2P Age. I wrote over 60 RPG reviews back in the day, and every single one of them had a Replayability score. Now? Who cares about replayability? Story choice is fantastic, but the typical likelihood of my actually going back through New Game+ or its equivalent is somewhere between zero and no way in hell. I’m not looking for something to kill my time anymore – time is the one precious thing I ain’t got anymore. Any game that wants another roll in the hay is competing against an entire library of unplayed Steam titles, indie or no.

And that, sadly, also goes for older titles regardless of their presumed timelessness. So when I see people complain about, say, Syndicate looking like this instead of this, well… that latter game is dead and gone. I just went through an Eeyore routine with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, sure, but I would rather some remnant exist in a modern form than nothing at all.

So, In A Nutshell

From what I played over the weekend, Star Wars: The Old Republic is probably worth the $60.

This is not to say there were no pressing issues afoot. Light/Dark side issues aside, some of the game mechanics feel they came out of a time capsule buried when Gary Gygax was still alive. Talent trees? How quaint. But seriously, there was another matter which was important enough to submit proper beta feedback about:

For serious.

I am not sure who was the first game designer who thought it would be fun to present players with the dilemma of stopping mid-quest/dungeon to trek all the way back to their trainer to get Rank 3 of Explosive Shell for it’s increased damage, or simply Troopering (*rimshot*) on without it, but they deserve a Rank VII Punch to the face. If there was some kind of RP scene showing you how to get a little more juice out of your grenade shots or whatever, I could understand and appreciate that. But if I can level up in the field and magically grow stronger and tougher to kill from one moment to the next, I should be able to get that +10-20 damage in those same moments. Even Gygax let our Fireballs deal 8d6 damage when we went from 7th to 8th level!

Also, this isn’t a complaint per se, but if you roll a female anything, hope you like butts.

The Ass-Cam of Star Wars: The Old Republic

Mind the gap.

The SWTOR Ass Cam© is not over-utilized, but is something I don’t remember during my Jedi “Why so serious” Knight playthrough.

Trapeeze accident, thanks for asking.

Finally, Bieber done grew up on Korriban:

Lucas::Jar-Jar as Bioware::???

That about sums up my Star Wars shenanigans. I won’t see anyone at release, but definitely at the first price drop and/or after we see how the endgame shakes out and/or after we learn by what voodoo magicks Bioware plans to use in rolling out timely content patches. Even a phoned-in Molten Front daily hub would likely be over three hours of voiced work for 8 different classes.

I do wish SWTOR the best of luck. The better they do, the more likely Blizzard gets off their lazy “$1 billion in cash we don’t know what to do with” asses, and the more gamers win.

P.S. I hope there is an achievement for getting to level 50 with zero Social Points.

Ye Olde Republica

After spending roughly 15-20 hours with the Star Wars beta this weekend, I am telling my financial advisers to upgrade The Old Republic from “junk status” to “maybe after the first few patches.” There have no doubt been hundreds of beta impressions out there, so allow me to skip the foreplay and write the impression that I wanted to read on Friday.

Actually, let’s have some foreplay first, so we all start on the same “lights on or off” page.

Preface: Lights On

I am not that much of a Star Wars “fan.” I very much enjoy the setting and general zeitgeist, but I feel its true conflict and drama potential is irreparably crippled by the inane, one-dimensional Good vs Evil aspects of the mythology. As someone commented in SWTOR General Chat on Saturday, “Jedi strive to be as Data in all things.” Perhaps the monastic order bit makes Jedi less of the Lawful Good cliche hero, but in many ways this is worse because they do not go far enough. Going all dojo as the only means of controlling an inherently corrupting Force… now that would interesting. What is orders of magnitude less interesting are do-gooders who strive to have no relationship with any they save, and otherwise go out of their way to be as forgettable as possible. Makes for some compelling stories, let me tell you. Oh wait, you probably already know since none of the movies involved Jedi actually behaving Jedi-ish.

The above is important to know precisely because, having played KOTOR previously, I believed the talent at Bioware was criminally underutilized in making yet another Star Wars game. I was more than fine with having “good or evil” consequences for certain dialog options, but when “good” is being defined so… brainlessly, it snaps my suspension of disbelief. And on this front, I want to report two things: A) the Light side is indeed being as inanely adjudicated as ever, and B) Bioware is doing the best they can anyway.

For example (I wouldn’t consider these spoilers, but whatever):

In #5, refusing to have sex with the guy gives you Dark Side points. No, seriously.

I numbered those pictures so I could provide additional context into how monstrously dumb they are, but you know what? They speak for themselves. Well, except for #5, which still boggles my mind. In what universe does it make sense for an Imperial Agent to get Light Side points for sleeping with a guy threatening to blow her cover? And to get Dark Side points for refusing?! Now, I did [Flirt] with the guy a few times, but does that somehow justify what would amount to rape in several States (since coercion was involved)? And keep in mind that this is the same game where Jedi kissing is the inevitable path to the Dark Side.

Clearly the Light Side is in favor of prostitution and no-strings-attached casual sex.

In which case… Light Side it is.

Jedi Knight, Level 7.

This is probably everyone’s default choice, so I figured it would be as good a place as any. I did not get a chance to play every class’s starting area, but out of the ones I did, this one was the absolute worst. I almost uninstalled by the time level 5 rolled around.

It has been said by others before, but you never quite realize how unbelievably polished and solid WoW’s combat system feels until you try other games. I played in both Warhammer Online’s and Aion’s beta, and all of them (SWTOR included) feel ever so slightly off. This game is a lot closer than the others however. Indeed, by the end of my total experience I could probably accept this sort of combat as a new Normal.

There is no auto-attack, and you don’t miss it. As a melee, the time inbetween the 1.5 second GCD is filled with parries and sparks and other exciting things. Some people have pooh-poohed the fact that you will be taking point-blank blaster fire and lightsaber hits until your HP reaches zero, as if 30 years of RPGs with exactly the same goddamn thing never happened. In fact, I remember whacking on a droid in KOTOR for 5 solid minutes, because my dual-bladed lightsaber had trouble with his 20/– DR.

Combat is exciting as a Jedi Knight, and in general, for several reasons. One, you get Force Leap early, which means you are constantly flying towards mobs ala warriors in WoW. Two, and in somewhat of an innovation on the MMO formula, mobs actually hang out in logical groups, typically in 3s and 4s. Since you get cool AoE moves early as well, my Jedi was flying into groups of Flesh Raiders, stunning the weak ones with a spin attack, using a reactive off-the-GCD move when I parried something, and then working a rotation otherwise. Not as solid as WoW, but close. Then again, Force Leap (aka Charge) does actually work off/up ledges, across obstacles, and otherwise doesn’t fail because a pebble or twig was in the way.

Storywise though, I am not a fan of the Jedi Knight. No hooks to keep me interested, no interesting choices; basically a snooze-fest.

Sith Inquisitor, level 11

Now here we go. Beginning area is basically cut & paste from the Korriban area of KOTOR, including plumbing the depths of the tombs. I wouldn’t be surprised if the layouts are the exact same. Story is a lot more interesting, good dialog choices, nice conflict options. The Inquisitor plays a lot like an old-school Shadow priest, what with the 10-yard channeled snare spell and such. It felt nice shooting Lightning, but I cannot help but wonder how fun it will be doing it ad infinitum. The last two levels before I got my tank companion were brutal though, like playing a mage without Frost Nova.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is that each class has a channeled ability to recharge health/mana (etc). Jedi Knight has Introspection or whatever, while the Inquisitor has Seethe. Seethe. You literally pace with your hands behind your back, back and forth, as darkness falls around you. Way better than pushing a stein with a bread roll stuff in the top through your face ala WoW.

Also, there was a section where I could use a knockback to knock mobs off the ledge and into the abyss. They died, and I got full XP.

Trooper, level 10

This was the class experience that immediately gripped me by the balls, and threatened to never let go. You barely have time for 2-3 dialog choices before your ship gets blown up, and you stumble out into a heavy fighting zone with blasters and explosions going off every which way. My two buttons at level 1 is a stream of blaster rifle fire (i.e. Strike in WoW) and a Concussive Grenade (i.e. lol level 1); both are instant-cast, and the latter knocks mobs every which way. I’m running around, helping people under fire, getting additional objectives in the field, and suddenly realize… I want this as a game. Not as an MMO, but as a game.

True, some of the Light/Dark side choices break the immersion (recovering stolen medicine for hurt soldiers = Dark, giving medicine to the thieves = Light), but there is a lot of drama potential here. Plot hooks are planted, primed, and fired. And as a Trooper, I feel a lot more freedom to make decisions the way I would want them to be made. Hey, the ends sometimes justify the means, know what I’m saying?

Also, I feel kinda bad for having the prior impression that the Trooper was going to be like those faceless Rebel mooks in the dumb helmets from the original trilogy. I sometimes wonder if Bioware spent a lot more developer resources making them extra badass to dispel that very notion. You’ve seen the cinematic, right? When a trooper tries to take out a Sith with a goddamn knife? That’s how badass playing a Trooper feels like.

Imperial Agent, level 5

Time was running out on the beta, so I didn’t get as far as I liked. Much like the Trooper experience though, the Imperial Agent felt like it was, is, and should be its own separate game. I basically randomized the character and name, but my lithe, biracial cyborg may almost be my favorite character. It is just too bad that I don’t think the Imperial Agent playstyle – cover mechanics are kinda lame when you get accidental aggro – is going to be my cup of tea. What little of the story I have seen, I like. A lot.

In any event, this is running long. Further musings will need to wait.