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Dirtbound

In Starbound, I have officially surpassed the number of hours I spent playing Terraria. And I am more convinced than ever that Terraria is the superior game.

Simply put, Starbound is a game of multitude of systems that have zero synergies with each other. Dig dirt, mine for ore, create armor, and so on. Pretty basic stuff, right? Not really. The actual crafting mechanics in Starbound are terrible, as are 99% of the items you can craft. Your “tier 1” armor is made from iron and woven fabric (made from plant material), but tier 2 is made from tungsten and cotton wool. Not only does this skip Copper, Silver, and Gold ores, but I’ve been playing 20+ hours since the 1.0 release and have encountered a grand total of three (3) cotton plants.

I can understand if the cotton bottleneck was intentional. But it’s not: the interplanetary gas station sells every fabric type other than cotton.

Starbound_GasStation.jpg

Bold move, Cotton, let’s see if it works out for them.

You can’t explain that.

Indeed, it seems like the devs simply abandoned any attempt to structure progression in the face of a billion procedurally generated worlds (filled the same three enemy attack types). Matter Manipulator modules are a sort of upgrade currency that can be found in nearly every box, everywhere. So are the tech cards, which unlock double-jumping and the Metroid-esque ball rolling. Getting those upgrades early kinda sorta maybe trivializes a lot of the content that comes later. And it’s not as though you get more of them in more dangerous areas – the algorithm basically puts one in 25% of all containers.

Then there is the fact that the best items are drops, full-stop. I mean, I get it, trying to balance gear progression around both player crafting and dropped loot is hard. But the fact that there are effectively zero good weapons from crafting means that that entire element is gone from the game. So your whole desire to dig for ore is reduced to the amount you need to craft the next tier of armor. Without the desire to dig though, you don’t, which means you’re just exploring the surface of the world and missing out on all the dungeons/set pieces that exist beneath it.

“But what about building bases and such?” Yeah, that’s still there. Given the default “survival” mode requires constant eating, it makes sense for even a story-focused character to stake out a simple farm. But honestly? It’s about a million times easier just coming across an already-built set piece randomly, and then planting your flag on it. Or tearing one down and transplanting it elsewhere, as opposed to crafting the individual components.

I don’t know. There are a million more things going on in Starbound than Terraria, but Terraria actually has synergy between what its got. In Terraria, the houses you build unlock NPCs you need, and the act of building settlements attracts monsters and even bosses. The deeper you dig, the more dangerous stuff appears. You can actually craft cool shit in Terraria. All the pieces fit together into a cohesive whole. In Starbound? Not so much.

Starbound Again

I played through and “completed” Starbound about 5 months ago, and my conclusion was:

And now, even if the devs end up finishing Starbound, I will have already consumed the lion’s share of the game’s novelty – that ever-finite motivational resource. No more character wipes? Then I’m already at endgame. Character wipes? I already know where to go, what to look for, how to overcome the obstacles, and basically speed my way through normal progression. Assuming I can be bothered to do so a second time.

I’m here to say that I’m wrong, and pretty much all fronts. At least, so far.

For the most part, I wasn’t planning on coming back to Starbound, but I needed a game I could sink my teeth into that also did not require uninterrupted time. Clash Royale and Overwatch used to be my “don’t know my schedule” games, but I’m still adapting to cohabiting with another human being.

And that’s a problem with a rather large number of games, actually. Meanwhile, Starbound is two clicks away from Save & Quit, and they fixed the “issue” with you being teleported back to your ship if you exit the game. Which I had utilized previously as a tricksey way of not having to climb out of the planet-sized hole I dug, but nevermind.

The, ahem, core mechanics of Starbound have not changed, but the tech tree, what minerals show up where, the quest structure, essentially enough has changed to make the experience fresh again. For example, one minor change the devs made was to introduce a sort of invulnerable ghost creature to the moons that contain your FTL fuel. While it is tacitly annoying (and deadly) in the same way as I talked about those Wasted SOB Purifiers before, they achieve a similar purpose – change the way you approach the game. Before, the most deadly thing about stocking up with infinite FTL fuel were meteor showers, which could only kill you in the two seconds before you burrowed underground. Now? It’s a risk/reward decision on how much fuel you grab on the surface (i.e. not much), and meanwhile you’re actively playing the game so as to not get stuck in a hole while getting chased.

So, yeah. The game definitely feels more finished than it did before. I will say though, that the first couple of story missions have been the exact same as the ones I played through previously. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing… so far. We will see how things progress as I approach the endgame. Considering I already have 32 hours in Starbound, perhaps it doesn’t matter.

Then again, the bar Terraria set is still at 50 hours.

Impression: Craft the World

[Note: Day 3 Blaugust]

The aesthetics work really well, actually.

The aesthetics work really well, actually.

Craft the World is a game billed as “a unique sandbox strategy game, the mix of Dungeon Keeper, Terraria and Dwarf Fortress.” What initially attracted me to the game was the comparison to Dwarf Fortress, which is one of those mythical games that someone you know spent 6000 hours playing, but you didn’t even bother looking at after seeing the screenshots. I am led to believe there are texture packs for Dwarf Fortress, but considering I can’t even bring myself to play FF12 due to graphics alone, I figure I’ll wait until some fan recreates the entire thing in an actual watchable format.

In the meantime… well, Craft the World.

Right now the game still feels like it’s in beta. I am playing in the “Campaign” mode, which I understand to be an extended tutorial. The problem is that I have no idea how to “beat” the campaign. There’s a 40-60 minute timer which dictates when a monster portal opens, and I have been defeating said monters each time they appear. I think I read something about defeating a boss, who will then drop the portal for the next campaign world. Or something about completing all the “tech trees” to unlock it. Or something.

The actual gameplay is both interesting and somewhat vapid. Instead of controlling an actual character, you are the disembodied cursor simply marking which squares you want dug/built/collected/attacked. If a dwarf is available and feels like it, he will go over and start working the squares. So the gameplay cadence is queuing up a lot of work, spending time in the crafting menu, and then watching your dwarves (hopefully) carry it out. Resources are only collected two items at a time, and said items are only actually available once the dwarf makes it back to your Stash. So the end result for me was usually watching the dwarves go about their business, eyes glazed, and then realize 5 minutes later that they were all standing around idle.

Technically, you can control a dwarf directly at any time if you want to get more hands-on. In fact, you pretty much have to to get any sort of reasonable construction project going. Not only do you have an increased object placement range (uncontrolled dwarves can only reach 2 squares instead of 3), but your controlled dwarf has full access to your entire inventory. Otherwise, yep, the dwarves have to carry over the supplies two items at a time; not a whole lot of fun when you’re trying to get them to build a ladder down a mineshaft.

As I mentioned in the beginning though, the game feels Beta-ish. The controls have clearly been designed around an eventual tablet version, as hotkeys are limited and damn near everything revolves around left-click. There are quests/tasks in the Campaign mode which are either broke, or frustratingly vague. For example, one quest was to start a farm by planting Wheat. I actually had some Wheat, but nothing I did seemed to work in terms of getting it planted. Then I thought perhaps I needed “Grain” first, e.g. seeds, but no amount of Wild Wheat harvesting produced any. And, you know, the quest clearly says to plant Wheat, not Grain. I eventually completed the quest after collecting enough Wild Wheat, which shouldn’t have worked based on the description, but whatever.

In the meantime, I’m willing to give it a little bit more time to get more interesting. I can’t help but feel like there is something there, some nugget of fun waiting to be uncovered. At the same time, I also kinda feel like the devs missed everything that was actually fun about the games they were inspired by. Terraria this ain’t, that’s for damn sure.

October Surprise(s)

October is shaping up to be a busy month.

Hearthstone is going to have its first (and only) beta wipe coinciding with a large rebalancing patch. And apparently more opt-in beta waves. Which is an important distinction from open beta, which this will not be. The good news is that there isn’t going to be any further beta wipes, so progression for those that are in the beta is going to be permanent thereafter.

The “rebalancing” is of most interest to me (of course), as Blizzard is going to have a thread a needle made out of graphene. I have talked about some of the imbalanced cards before, but the most salient point is that the devs do not have the same access to the balance “knobs” as they do in, say, WoW or Diablo 3. Hypothetically, making the Pint-Sized Summoner go from costing 2 mana to 3, for example, is an enormous balancing change that has wide-ranging repercussions on how (and if) the card is played at all. I would personally change the Pint-Sized Summoner to be a 1/1 or maybe a 1/2; the former makes it a dead draw against Mage and Rogue decks, but honestly, I don’t feel like an Arena game should revolve around whether you have a turn-2 removal spell in your opening hand. Maybe they could change it to be only 1 mana off the cost of creatures and leave the rest alone?

Speaking of digital card games, Hex will be beginning its Alpha testing on October 8th. To be honest, even with the weekly Kickstarter updates, I sorta forgot about the fact that I pledged $85 (!) to this game nearly 5 months ago. And even more honestly, Hearthstone kinda sucked all the oxygen out of the CCG room. For however lame its been to go 0-3 or my most recent 3-3 record in the Hearthstone Arena, at least I could choose to pay $0 for those games; going back to $6 drafts will be rough. The Alpha test will give everyone 4 copies of all PvP cards, so at least I won’t have to decide whether to “waste” all my Kickstarter packs before the game comes out (which hopefully dilute the skill pool a bit).

Although I have not been playing it regularly, PlanetSide 2 is due for a huge optimization patch on October 23rd. I’m not actually all that excited about it, even though the devs are supposedly touting a ~30% gain in frame rates across all types of computer configurations. Why? First of all, this optimization work is at the expense of everything else. Changes to the Infiltrator class? Pushed back. New air weapons pushed back. New continent pushed back. And so on.

A fire was clearly lit under someone’s ass about poor performance, but with players leaving in droves, I’m not sure that chasing after the ones that left over computer issues is a winning proposition. And that leads me to reason number two: it’s all really a cynical ploy to get the game ready for the PlayStation 4. “Cynical” as in they only bothered caring about performance nearly a year after release, and only when the opportunity to cash in on a new market presented itself.

I’m a little bitter, if you can’t tell. Every time I get the bug to go play some more of PS2, I hit Instant Action and am sent to some deserted facility that changed hands an hour ago. And when I do happen to find some action, it inevitably dies down quickly and I’m left staring at the 5, 10, 15 minute capture timer. “Open world” and “emergent gameplay” is nice and all, but when I end up playing longer on my phone waiting for something to happen in the main game, something has gone horribly wrong. Ain’t nobody got time to wait around empty bases.

Luckily for me, and rather unfortunately for Sony, Battlefield 4 comes out October 29th.

I am not really all that certain I will be purchasing it on Day 1, although I had a blast playing Battlefield 3 for the six or so months that I was doing so. Looking back in my archives, I didn’t really talk about my experiences with it all that much. Basically, I see it as PlanetSide 2 without the waiting. While BF3 is technically more similar to Call of Duty than a sort of “open world” like PS2, the reality is that all PS2 brings to the table (or my table, anyway) is the ability to hop into a vehicle or airplane without having to wait/steal it from someone else. Every single other thing is better in BF3 – the shooting, the graphics, the action, the tactics, the depth. Again, technically, PS2 can have deeper strategy via Outfits and the like, but to the average player in the average game session, BF3 can’t be beat.

I haven’t really been following the Battlefield 4 news all that closely, but I find it interesting that the new game modes are being heavily skewed towards Call of Duty. Not that CoD invented any of them, of course, but I am more referring to that sort of play-style. Domination, Defuse, Team Deathmatch, Squad Deathmatch, and Rush are all CoDish to me. Conquest is still there in all its glory though, and Obliteration sounds somewhat interesting with its hot potato gameplay. But sometimes I just feel like shooting people in the face, you know? So that’s probably okay. Plus, technically every game mode will be available in all 10 maps, so it is not as though you’re stuck in the same handful of maps for every Conquest game.

Also coming in October: Terraria‘s 1.2 Patch, Don’t Starve‘s final two content patches (October 1st and presumably the final one 3 weeks later), and I guess GTA Online.

Regarding the latter, I am, of course, holding out for the PC release.

Review: Terraria

Game: Terraria
Recommended price: $10 (full)
Metacritic Score: 83
Completion Time: 50+ hours
Buy If You Like: 2D Minecraft, procedurally-generated Metrovania platformers

WHY IS THIS SO FUN?! *sobs*

WHY IS THIS SO FUN?! *sobs*

Up until I started playing a few weeks ago, the entire mental space Terraria occupied for me can be summed up as “that 2D Minecraft knock-off.” I am not even sure which game came first, and it did not seem to matter: Terraria was just another game about digging for ore and crafting better pickaxes to mine for more ore. In only two dimensions.

After seeing an entire weekend evaporate in a flurry of clicking pixel blocks however, I am here to say that Terraria is not just a 2D Minecraft clone. It is an unholy union between all the addictive parts of Minecraft combined with legitimately entertaining Metrovania gameplay with a liberal dose of SNES graphical/musical nostalgia thrown into the mix.

Terraria starts out innocently enough, with your character equipped with a copper sword, axe, and mining pick. The beginning hours will be spent chopping trees, building your first crafting station, killing some slimes to turn their quivering innards into fuel for your torches, and so on. Much like Minecraft, zombies and other uglies come out at night which drives you to create shelter and then start digging underground for wont of something else to do.

C'mon, this is easily more explainable than the average Minecraft schennanigans.

C’mon, this is easily more explainable than average Minecraft shenanigans.

While it might not initially seem so at first, there is a surprising amount of depth (har har) to Terraria’s gameplay. While you are hunting around for Copper and Iron ore, you will of course encounter enemies in the deep places of the earth. You will also frequently encounter priceless clay pots of a forgotten age which can be broken and looted for coins. You will eventually start coming across chests filled with goodies/equipment, and even crystalline Hearts, which can be broken and then consumed to increase your HP.

As you hit certain milestones, the world around you changes. Once you have accumulated 50 silver pieces, a Merchant will hang around your house, provided you build a room for him to sleep in. Finding and hoarding bombs will cause the Demolitionist to start peddling his explosive warez. And once you surpass 200 HP, there is an increasing chance the Eye of Cthulhu (the first boss) will settle its gaze upon your growing hamlet.

Not only does all this progression feel natural, it is also addicting. Your hunt for better ores to craft better armor and weapons to make your life easier leads to encountering stronger foes and ever more secrets. While crafting is a lot less complex than with Minecraft – you can talk to the Guide to see every craftable item that a given ingredient can produce – it simultaneously feels a bit deeper. Hitting Diamond could be accomplished relatively quickly in Minecraft, at which point you were essentially in the endgame. Contrast that with Terraria, where the natural hardiness of your foes directs your exploration of the whole of the game map before culminating in a Final Boss… whose defeat unlocks the Hardmode version of your world, with new enemies and even harder bosses.

I... I'll see myself out.

I… I’ll see myself out.

Of course, all of this implicit progression leads to a necessarily more finite resolution. While there are quite a few different set pieces to play around with, you are probably not going to spend the same amount of time building castles and mountain fortresses here as you would in Minecraft. That said, my game clock read 53 hours by the time I finished off the last of the Hardmode bosses and crafted the final piece of my ultimate armor. I could farm these bosses a few more times for their exclusive material drops – who wouldn’t want to run around with a flamethrower? – but it almost seems superfluous at this point. What would be next? Would I reroll a new character in a new procedurally-generated world? I could. But I feel I have already mastered these mechanics, and would simply arrive at the same destination a bit faster this time around. Hell, I could even equip my new character with the flamethrower and best pickaxe in the game to further speed along the process. Or I could go play something else.

Overall, the only real regret I have with Terraria was having spent all the time up to this point thinking of it as just a 2D Minecraft. Both games share many similar qualities, but why would another instance of “cause one to lose all track of time” or “become obsessed with mining better ore” be considered a deficiency? Both games are fun, in slightly different ways. Indeed, I am not even sure which one I would recommend first to someone who has played neither. Show Minecraft first, and like me, you might be a tad disappointed in the more limited forms of customization and Terraria not quite comparing to the sheer scale of an infinite 3D world. With Terraria going first though, you run the risk of having the person balk at Minecraft’s lack of direction and flat sense of progression.

Yes, that's a lava moat below a lever-operated trapdoor.

Yes, that’s a lava moat below a lever-operated trapdoor.

In any case, having indie game companies force these tough choices on us when the AAA industry is falling over themselves pumping out derivative, 6-hour long sequels is ultimately a good problem to have.