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Overwatch’s Mark-Hitting

There is an interesting post up over at MMOBro asking whether or not Overwatch is missing the mark. The conclusion Tyler comes to is this:

For what it is, Overwatch is a solid game. The core gameplay is strong, the art is fantastic, and the action is plentiful. But it is an incredibly narrow game. It’s a fantastic experience for those who crave intense, high octane competitive play, but very unwelcoming for everyone else.

Having spent the last week playing Overwatch 2-5 hours a day, I am inclined to agree.

Most of the criticisms brought up by Tyler are legit. While single-player campaigns in games like COD and Battlefield are generally superfluous, they are value propositions and used extensively to sell boxes via commercials. Blizzard appears to be treating Overwatch more like a MOBA in the sense that they are crafting a lore-rich story and intricate characters that have nothing at all to do with the game itself. Or maybe the straight Team Fortress 2 comparison is more apt.

Regardless, it does feel a bit jarring to have all these production values without a production.

Overwatch_Tunnel

Probably my favorite place in all the maps.

Also, it is very much true that Overwatch is not a particularly welcoming game. The average Time-To-Kill varies, but it very often can be “Instantly.” Junkrat and Reaper can often kill 3+ people practically out of nowhere with their Ultimates, which is kind of a big deal in 6v6 matches.

Indeed, the team size is small enough that a skilled veteran can often single-handedly lock down a match by themselves or a complete noob on your side can result in a demoralizing, grinding loss in an otherwise even match. I’m not sure what kind of matchmaking Blizzard had active during the Beta (assuming they had anything at all), but it didn’t seem to be working that well. The fact that the teams stay the same from match to match (there is no team shuffling) just encourages people to bail to try and find a different server with the possibility of a better team, which just increases the queues for everyone.

Having said that… this is technically still beta. One of the criticisms from Tyler was:

That in and of itself is not necessarily a problem, but there’s nothing else to the game. Blizzard has repeatedly shot down the idea of offering any other game modes.

This is not entirely true.

In fact, if there is contrary info out there, I’d like to know where, because Kaplan has said this:

Yes. The version you are playing now is what will go live at launch (there will be some bug fixes etc…). We also have Competitive Play, which was a feature that was live in Closed Beta. We removed it from Open Beta because we received a ton of great feedback on how to improve the system. We had a tough choice. It would have been awesome to have the feature in for Open Beta and Launch. But we felt like we could really improve on some things so we opted to have the feature come out shortly after launch. We’re hoping that our efforts in the Closed Beta to try to get things done quickly and at high quality aren’t lost on our community — but we also never want to sacrifice the quality of the game by putting something live that isn’t up to our standards.

We’re also working on a TON of post-launch features and content. It’s going to be a pretty amazing summer…

Indeed, Overwatch has borrowed Hearthstone’s Brawl mechanic in which there is a weekly mode with “crazy” new rules. This past week it was random hero selection upon death, and the ability to switch heroes disabled. Not only was this a brilliant, relatively stress-free way to experience characters you might feel bad for picking in a normal match, if Hearthstone is any indication, it is also a test-bed for future mechanics.

Just think about how much live data Blizzard could pull from any given match, in terms of whether stacking three Roadhogs was effective given X or Y factors. Seems dumb now, but maybe that very thing will inform a future, more robust AI for bots down the road. Or when the Brawl from before was normal Overwatch but 75% shorter cooldowns.

Far-fetched? You be the judge:

Hearthstone_Shadowcaster.jpg

Playtesters and didn’t even know it.

So, in the final before-launch analysis, I conclude that… Overwatch is fun. I wish I was playing it right now. Assuming that Blizzard fixes the matchmaking and horrible DC experiences, it will absolutely become a part of my “I don’t know what to play right now” rotation. You can easily get four matches done in 30 minutes, which starts to make you wonder if Blizzard’s master plan (assuming there is one) is to fill in the holes in WoW’s design with other games. Waiting for dungeon queue? Play some Overwatch. Which is absolutely easier to jump in and out of than Hearthstone or Heroes of the Storm.

However, much in the way that raiding isn’t for everyone, neither is Overwatch. If you are John Q Casual, there isn’t much for you to do (at the moment). The scope of the Battlefield series is such that you could always tag along a squad as a medic or supply guy and generally not be nuisance while rendering material assistance to your team. In Overwatch? You’re a straight liability, even if you are a healer. Especially if you are a healer. Because the better players might assume you’re competent and not pull a healer themselves.

So as I mentioned before, I agree with Tyler. If you’re looking for quick bursts of kinda frustrating, often amusing FPS action, Overwatch is pretty damn good. Just make sure that is what you’re looking for before you throw down $40/$60.

In An Age (of) Game Awards

Since this appears to be a Thing now, let me hand out a few awards.

Overrated Game of the Year: Witcher 3

Witcher 3 conclusively proves that all that particularly matters in gaming awards is that it looks pretty and has an interesting story; gameplay and rational design systems are 100% optional. Which, actually, is a fact that I should have already learned from Bioshock Infinite, which managed to bludgeon its way to several awards in 2014 based solely on its visuals and media narrative, not the garbage story or weak gunplay.

Seriously though, search your feelings on this – you know it to be true.

Actual Game of the Year: Metal Gear Solid 5

Yeah, I went there.

Look, the question you need to ask yourself is “what does Game of the Year even mean?” If that means “which game had the most engaging gameplay, the tightest game mechanics, and the elegance of harmonious, interlocking design,” then MGS 5 is Game of the Year no question. Go ahead and try to argue some other game got gameplay better.

Did MGS 5 go off the rails towards the end story-wise, when Konami presumably had Kojima’s balls in a vice? Yes. Would one final chapter mission DLC wrap everything up to a ridiculous degree and catapult the game into gaming legend? Absolutely. Does it immeasurably suck that none of this happened? Crushingly so.

But goddamn if the act of playing MGS 5 wasn’t the best game experience all year for me. Witcher 3 probably had better voice acting and a more coherent story, and I spent more time in Fallout 4 overall. Nevertheless, I feel MGS 5 deserves Game of the Year more than the others because it got the actual game bits so, so right.

Game of the Year after Mods and DLC: Fallout 4

Calling it now.

You Can’t Go Home Again Award: Pillars of Eternity

I remember having nothing but fond memories of the Baldur’s Gate series, playing them for many, many hours during a time period where I was otherwise beholden to JRPGs only. Pillars of Eternity was indeed a return to form, and I thought those same good feels would return.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, they did not.

As it turns out, the pseudo-real-time combat of PoE (and by extension Baldur’s Gate) isn’t actually all that fun to me. Back in the day, it was novel and interesting, but I just can’t stand the tactical sloppiness anymore. You can’t simultaneously make positioning super important and not allow me to fine-tune my character’s movement, especially when two pixels are the difference between your tank tanking and allowing the assassin to slip through the doorway.

Also? Sitting around and auto-attacking for days isn’t especially engaging.

I love tactical games, queuing attacks, and so on. Pillars isn’t tactical though, as you have no idea when an attack is going to fire, if a potion will be quaffed in time, or pretty much anything else. Not necessarily a deficiency in Pillars itself – it is true to the form it is imitating – but it represents a gameplay type that simply doesn’t work for me any more.

Best New Feature in a Game: Hearthstone’s Tavern Brawl

I may have talked about Tavern Brawl from time to time already, but let me just say that Blizzard came up with game mode here that nobody asked for, but nevertheless ended up being exactly what the game needed. It’s hard now to imagine what Hearthstone was actually like without it. Did we really just grind Ranked or play Arena all day? Gross.

The brilliance with Brawl is actually manifold. Half the time you have to create decks from your own collection, but the other half of the time your collection doesn’t matter; this means that a new player has a shot to win against someone who has been collecting cards since beta. The weekly format means A) variety of play styles, and B) drives the Hearthstone conversation in interesting ways. On Blizzard’s side, Brawl also affords them the opportunity to playtest new cards, game modes, and receive real-time feedback on the same.

Of course, Brawl isn’t perfect. Some weeks, the rules are just crap. Brawls frequently jack up the RNG to insane levels. There have been quite a few repeats. The 2-3 day “cooldown” in-between Brawls doesn’t really need to exist, IMO.

But overall? Tavern Brawl is exactly what Hearthstone needed, right when it needed it.

Most Anticipated Game of 2016 (Thus Far): Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

I asked for this.

Runners Up:

  • Mass Effect: Andromeda
  • No Man’s Sky
  • Final Fantasy 15
  • Star Citizen (?)

Game I Would Really Like to See Out of Early Access: The Forest

Oh, and Starbound. And The Long Dark. And Darkwood, which was a game I technically backed in goddamn 2013. Now that I think about it, there isn’t a game I want to ever see in Early Access anymore.

Good RNG, Bad RNG

I feel kinda bad for having sung the praises for Hearthstone’s Tavern Brawl mode right as they released perhaps the worst iteration of it possible. This past week’s Brawl is “Encounter at the Crossroads,” and follows the (intentional?) pattern of every other week’s Brawl giving you a deck to play with. Instead of being filled with Webspinners, your deck is filled with completely random garbage cards, and up to three Legendaries. It ends up being 15 Neutral cards and 15 Class cards, for the record, and they are completely random – Mad Scientists in decks without Secrets, cards that trigger off of dragons without a single dragon in the deck, and so on.

My utter disgust with this week’s Brawl got me thinking: what’s the big deal? There is RNG everywhere, so why hate this kind? What’s so worse about this RNG as compared to the Webspinner Brawl or the spell one the week before?

I think my biggest problem is that this was Blind, Lingering RNG. Last week, you didn’t know what kind of creature you would summon… other than that it’d be an X mana cost one, it would come before the spell resolved, and you knew what was in the rest of your deck. You knew how much removal you were packing, you knew what synergies existed, you kinda knew what to expect from your opponent.

With a Crossroads deck, you know nothing Jon Snow. You didn’t even know whether to mulligan your shitty opening hand; if you threw anything back, chances are you’d get something even worse.

Spoiler alert: I lost this game.

Spoiler alert: I lost this game.

One of the benefits to RNG is the very thing that people often complain about: RNG can determine games. Yes, there will be games that you lose to coin flips. Yes, it feels awful when you’re winning to suddenly fall behind through no fault of your own.

At the same time… randomness can make things interesting. Randomness can challenge you, present you with scenarios you’ve never encountered before, and allow you to overcome defeat through judicious use of probability. Do you play around that 10% chance that the Piloted Shredder pops out something that destroys your strategy, or do you play it safe? That sort of thing is (or can be) an interesting decision, and different people have different thresholds of comfort when it comes to percentages.

I mean, imagine the opposite case with no RNG. Losing from your opening hand. Or at least your only hope being that your opponent has as bad a hand as you do. It feels bad, man.

This is what this Brawl has felt like all weekend long – inevitable lingering losses. I played in the neighborhood of twenty games to complete my dailies, and I was never blessed with those same insane, on-curve openings that I would routinely experience the sharp end of. In most of the games, I would have been better off conceding in the first two turns. Could you imagine someone feeling the same in the Spell-Minion or Webspinner Brawl? Don’t get me wrong, you could get way screwed out of nowhere in those Brawls. But that’s the thing: it’s immediate. It’s more fun, even on the receiving end. At least in comparison to being behind, with nothing good to play this turn, and knowing you have a 99% chance of drawing into even more garbage the next turn.

There’s RNG and then there’s RNG. This is the latter, it sucks, and I hope Blizzard never does it again.

Tavern Brawl

Taking a cue from Syncaine, I want to talk about Hearthstone for a second.

For a long while there, I had largely stopped playing Hearthstone. For one, I had gotten back into WoW (for two months) and thus did not have room in the game rotation for it. Then when I stopped playing WoW, I wanted to dedicate more time to clearing out my Steam backlog. Even when I did feel the inclination to play, I stopped myself, as I lacked the necessary drive to see what the metagame was up to, updating my decks, and so on. It all just felt like a vicious circle that ensured I wouldn’t boot the game up again.

Enter the Tavern Brawl.

This game was over in a hurry.

Blizzard fixed Warsong Commander just in time.

Released a little over a month ago, the Tavern Brawl is an additional game mode for Hearthstone that largely evens the playing field between veterans and newbies, whales and F2Pers, all in one brilliant swoop. Each week there has been a new Tavern Brawl with new rules, and each one lasts from Wednesday to Monday before leaving forever. Here are the ones so far:

  • Ragnaros vs Nefarion
  • All creatures grant a Banana (random de/buff card) on death
  • Decks are 7 class spells + 23 Webspinners
  • Spells summon a random creature of the same mana cost

For the first and third Brawls, the cards in your collection did not matter in the slightest. The second and fourth Brawls did sorta rely on your specific selection of cards, but the structure was such that you generally wanted to play the game way differently than normal anyway. For example, while you could bring a standard Ladder deck to the Banana Brawl, you could also achieve success by flooding the board with small creatures and relying on the Bananas to buff later creatures enough to close out the game. Similarly, the most recent Great Summonner Brawl rewarded decks just stacking 30 spells and no creatures.

The above isn’t the brilliance of Tavern Brawl though. The brilliance is in the reward structure.

Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), I lost this one.

Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), I lost this one.

To generate interest, Blizzard is giving away a free booster pack for the first Brawl win for the week. That’s fine, whatever. The real genius is that Brawl matches count for your Daily Quest completion. Including, incidentally, the 10g for every 3 wins passive quest.

Up to this point, if you had a Daily Quest to win five games as a Warrior or Paladin, you had to complete them in Arena, Ranked mode, or the even tougher Casual mode (tougher because matchmaking is determined by MMR instead of Rank). That can be stressful, as Hearthstone suffers from the same thing that affects all CCGs: net-decks. Which means your goofy theme deck or whatever is going to be routinely trounced by someone piloting the same well-oiled killing machine they saw a Pro use to hit Legend two days ago. Not even Rank 20 is safe from net-decks, especially since some veterans will tank their Rank down to 20 for some easy wins to complete their own Daily Quests or grind wins (which gives golden character portraits at 500 wins).

Tavern Brawl removes any performance anxiety you might have in terms of completing Dailies. Sure, you still have to win games for most quests. Yeah, most of the Brawls come down to rolling dice. But here’s the thing: rolling dice is fun. Losing to Face Hunter or Freeze Mage is considerably less so. If you don’t care about your Ranking on the Ladder, why should you be matched up with people who do?

Tavern Brawl plugs that gameplay hole so well, you’d swear it had a spot in the Amigara Fault.

Overall, Tavern Brawl is a huge win on every front. It auto-generates news on HearthPwn every week; it offers a wildly different game experience to break up the static Ladder grind; it makes Dailies fun; and it’s rewarding for new players and old. If this is supposed to be the New Blizzard we’re disappointed with, well… they still seem capable of being pretty damn clever with their game design.