Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The state of DLC

           Remember when games used to come out well, you know, finished? Believe it or not this used to be the norm and I'm starting to think it was about time that we perhaps revisit the notion. Think about it, you buy a game for £40 and that's it, no further payment required to get the full experience. That sound good to you? Well it certainly does to me.

            For a good long while I was fully supportive of DLC in games, provided of course that it was of a certain quality and actually enhanced the experience but things are getting out of hand. I'm thinking particularly of that old favourite 'Day 1 DLC' that is becoming more and more popular as time goes on. This strikes me as simply outrageous, if it's available from day 1 then it was in all likelihood ready far enough in advance to be put on the disc and given to everybody included in the initial price. SimCity springs to mind as a prime example of a company (oh look, it's EA... we'll be re-visiting them later) really taking the piss with this. 4 separate packs of DLC available for £7.99 not on release day but 3 days before the game launched. The packs themselves don't contain anything near £7.99 worth of content and the attempt to pass this off as acceptable practice is downright insulting. Part of the 'justification' of this is to give certain retailers or editions exclusive content. It would appear that nobody presiding over such discussions has ever looked up the word 'exclusive' in a dictionary, they might be surprised to learn that in fact it doesn't mean 'free to some but available to others at an inflated cost'.

            Now there are certain instances when this kind of practice can be at the very least tolerable: if all the content in question is cosmetic only. Cosmetic stuff is fun, still lets you show off online with your genuinely exclusive multiplayer skin should you be inclined and most importantly does not effect the balance of the game in any way. Frequently in games now, particularly in first person shooters, these DLC packs are granting early access to weapons of gear potentially imbalancing early levels of online play and this has to stop. There is no situation where it is ok for someone to be penalised for either not being able to afford or simply not wanting a special edition or not having the specific retailer near to them.

            Don't get me wrong, in the right circumstances DLC can be a credit to the game and indeed help to do what it was originally designed to do and extend the life of your games. In the case of some DLC packs, Mass Effect 2's 'Lair Of The Shadow Broker' for example, they serve as a happy medium between a small content pack and a full blown expansion pack providing a genuinely interesting and worthwhile experience. Sadly these form a minority and far more of these releases end up being poorly thought out or very obviously just preying on fans of the license in question.

            In this age of more and more digital content it's now almost out of the question that DLC will become a thing of the past and I haven't even touched on day one patches rolling out to fix things that should by all accounts have been sorted out before release, but that's a subject for potentially another time. We can but hope that the quality of DLC improves across the board rather than it being the search for diamonds among zircons that it is now. I wouldn't hold your breath though, asphyxiation is a nasty way to go and it's the only way I see that ending.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Diablo III First Impressions

            I can sum up all my activity this weekend in a very short and easy way, the Diablo III Beta. This opened up to everyone Friday evening (UK time) and closed at 6pm on Monday. Most of that time I was either asleep, eating, at work (briefly) or playing this game. I’ve been looking forward to this for a good few years now, slowly burning away in the background of everything else, being delayed over and over again but maintaining my interest. Now it’s nearly here and I have finally had a chance to play the newest addition to the series that demolished hours of my younger self’s life. Throughout my playtime I completed the available Beta quests with each of the 5 classes so as to get a feel of each one and a thorough going over of the game itself.
            For those who don’t have any experience of the series the Diablo games are isometric dungeon crawlers. You pick your class at the beginning and as you explore deeper and deeper into the dungeons you find better equipment and gain experience from fighting monsters to level up and get new skills. There has been a big gap between Diablo II and III (around 12 years) so it’s about time we were treated to a new adventure. The graphical overhaul from the previous iterations is clearly apparent but given the gap that’s hardly saying anything. Suffice to say the game looks great, not mind blowing but really solid. One thing to be wary of is screen glare, the game itself is very dark and can quickly become quite hard to see in a brightly lit room. Gameplay remains very much the same at its core. You click to move around, click to pick things up, click on enemies to make them die and so forth. It’s incredibly simple to pick up and, with a new levelling system, easy to understand for old hands and beginners alike.

The core of each character is of course their unique skills and abilities. This time around instead of picking skills from various skill trees each of the 5 classes gains skills automatically as they level up. In the early game (at least from 1-10) it is the case that every level either grants a new skill or an upgrade for an existing one. There are 6 active skill categories: primary attack (bound to left click), Secondary attack (bound to right click) and then 4 other skills categorized accordingly per class (bound to 1-4 on the keyboard). You may only have one skill from each category active at any one time and each category has 4 skills available once unlocked. Experimenting with the various skills to find the perfect combination for you is all done simply through a menu you can access at any time. There are also several passive skills that you simply choose to turn on which buff you in some way, such as damage reduction. The steady pace you unlock the new skills is well designed but might be perhaps over simplified for the more RPG orientated players out there. I was sceptical at first but there is enough variety in what is available, even at lower levels, to placate my slight disappointment in this area.

Given the limited amount of the game available in the Beta there’s not too much to mention in the way of a story, what I have come away with is plenty to say about the classes you can play. We have Barbarian, Wizard, Witch Doctor, Monk and Demon Hunter to choose from and I couldn’t resist giving them all a try. Initially I planned to play them all to 13 (the level cap in Beta) but ran out of content at 10 on each of them, you can go back and play it all again and every time you leave and come back everything respawns but once through each was what I wanted so that a) I have more surprises come launch and b) that was enough to get an good impression to write this piece. The order I chose to play the characters in was for the most part starting with what I was least interested in and saving the best until last. However this wasn’t quite how it worked out since I had no idea at all about the Monk, so started with that.

The game lacks character customisation beyond male or female so looking at the character models I decided the guys beard was stupid so rolled a girl. Word to the wise, the picture you get is not what you actually end up with, all the clothes their wearing, yeah you don’t get that. So I spawn in the world of Diablo III clad in underwear and a brass knuckle, smashing. It’s a fairly standard affair of follow the path, speak to the guy with the great big yellow exclamation mark above his head, do what he asks, rinse repeat and so forth so I’m just going to talk about how each class plays and my feelings on them from here on out. The Monk is a close combat focused character; your primary attack is a quick firing punch that builds up Spirit. Spirit is then spent on using other skills, the first of which is a kick that sends enemies flying in an arc in front of you. This gets upgraded later on to be a flaming kick that hits everything near you which is as powerful as it is awesome. This combined with the second primary attack that becomes available which puts a decent amount of range and multi-hit potential to your standard fighting and the healing skill you get seemed slightly overpowered for an early game skill set. That said the Monk was a pleasant surprise and I thoroughly enjoyed playing her.

Next up was the Barbarian, always low down on my list of characters I want to play. Both the male and female look ridiculous so I went with the male since he seemed more Barbarian-y. I was very quickly surprised by this class. Yes his attacks are a little slow but bloody hell is it entertaining to watch things fly way when you hit them, or better yet simply explode. Another close combat class as you probably guessed the Barbarian charges Fury with his primary attacks, either a strong single target or my preferred slightly weaker swipe that hits more dudes. Fury is spent on stronger attacks but drains slowly when you’re not bashing things. I stuck with the initial secondary skill, a magic hammer, and a ground pound that stuns everyone around you for the whole thing, they were working well and whilst I experimented with the combat leap it seemed temperamental as to whether it would work properly. Not too much beyond hit them over the head but I did have a smile on my face while doing it so Barbarian gets a thumbs up despite my initial writing it off.

Moving on to my Witch Doctor, I named him Voodoo because I’m imaginative like that. Similar to the Monk I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this but I did know that I didn’t like the aesthetics of the class so decided to get it done early. This one plays very differently than what I’d had so far (and possibly the most of all 5). You have a mana pool which replenishes automatically and reasonably quickly but all your attacks, including the primary skills use it, albeit in such small amounts it doesn’t appear to notice. These primary skills include a poison dart and throwing a jar of spiders which attack for a brief time until they automatically expire. The spiders are rubbish so Poison darts it was and once I’d gotten an upgrade to fire 3 at once it wasn’t too bad. The secondary skills available were an AoE which slowed enemies down and unleashing a stream flaming bats as a flame thrower. The AoE won out as more useful overall. The unique stuff came when I was able to summon a pack of three zombie dogs as pets to fight alongside me. These ranged from either being ok to being utterly useless, against the final boss of the Beta they died pretty damn quick and against a group of hulking great Elite monstrosities they died immediately and resulted in my only death of the entire weekend. I’m not 100% sure how I feel about the Witch Doctor. It seems to me to be a bit of a ‘quirky’ character choice and I don’t think I like it. I reserve the right to change my view on this later as at higher levels it might be more fun.

Now we get into the 2 classes I was really looking forward to, starting with my Wizard. Similar to the Witch Doctor the Wizard has an Arcane Power reserve which depletes with the use of secondary and other skills but recharges quite quickly on its own. Staying at range and blasting away with magical projectile attacks is the game here but should you get overwhelmed there is a spell that freezes everything around you for a few seconds so you can put some distance between yourself and the targets. Remember earlier when I said the Monk felt a bit overpowered? That was nothing compared to the Wizard. The first Primary skill is great and the first secondary, affectionately known by me as ‘the ice ray of death’ is downright amazing. It slows targets down, evaporates their health bars and drains arcane power slowly enough that even large groups can be destroyed without difficulty. Once these two were upgraded to do more damage and increase the slow effect respectively there was no stopping me. The Wizard was exactly what I had hoped for, fun spell slinging although certainly ridiculously powerful in the early game.

Finally I came to the Demon Hunter. The class I’ve been looking to playing more than any other. Cassie (named for the monster hunting titular character of the superb Hack/Slash comics) was the most fun of all and exceeded any expectations I had for the class, it was time to start up a few hours of dual wielded hand crossbow badassery. The first thing I noticed was that the orb on the right of the character information, my pool of whatever energy the class uses, was split in 2. One side is Hatred which is generated over time and by Primary skills and used by other offensive skills, the other side is Discipline which you use for tactical skills like placing traps or acrobatic rolls to get out of trouble. Unlike Hatred your Discipline restores only over time and much slower. Using a combination of these tactical skills and offensive attacks the Demon Hunter is an incredibly strong class. Laying down caltrops which slow enemies down, retreating slightly then letting rip with piercing arrows that seek additional targets or a rapid fire skill which constantly drains Hatred but allows you to stand and unload what is the medieval equivalent of a minigun. Should they get too close you have the option to throw down more caltrops and retreat or later on employ a dash style move to instantly put some range back into the equation. Again a rather overpowered class, especially if played well, but so much fun and just plain cool. I fully expected this to be my favourite class but by how much I couldn’t have begun to realise.

So with that my Beta experience was over. I went into it like a kid in a candy shop, wanting to do everything and grinning like an imbecile. It didn’t disappoint and May 15th can’t get here fast enough. I will certainly be playing through multiple times in the future since at least 3 of the characters are too much fun to ignore and being able to put the difficulty up (not an option this weekend) might help mitigate their powers. I now need to find games to occupy myself for 3 weeks, and moan that Dragon’s Dogma comes out less than 2 weeks after this since I now will likely not be able to tear myself away to play it.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Has Hell Frozen Over?

Been a while since I wrote anything now, but hell I’ve been too busy playing games to write about them and I don’t get paid for this so fuck it. ‘What have I been playing?’ you might ask, well inquisitive types out there let me provide you with an answer. Mass Effect 3 and before that SW:TOR but mainly Mass Effect 3. I decided not to review this particular title for the simple reason that anything I wrote would be fanboyish gibbering with the occasional minor niggle to be objective or whatever. In any case I don’t see much dethroning it from game of the year for me. I was shocked and stunned by one particular aspect of Mass Effect 3, one thing I would never in a million years have dreamed up, one small aspect of a huge game that has changed my views on Bioware as a company. Bioware, those crazy sons of bitches, have made me like multi-player (thought I was going with the ending there didn’t you, well we’ll have none of that nay-saying here thank you very much).

As a general rule I am a solitary gamer. Partly this comes from the sorts of games I enjoy the most being single player experiences and the other reasons are to do with my disdain for the large part of the population of this planet. Sure I play with friends occasionally and that is how Mass Effect 3 lured me in. I started off just having a few rounds with people I know and it was fun, more fun than a simple horde mode as any right to be I might add. However it wasn’t even simply enjoying myself that has led me to put as much time into the multiplayer on this game as I have, no that lies firmly at the feet of the unlock system. Rather than a conventional system that unlocks extras as you play and level up etc, etc Mass Effect 3 rewards you with credits for finishing special tasks on waves 3, 6 and 10 of a game. The tasks themselves are either kill 4 marked enemies, activate 4 devices around the map or hold a certain position until a download completes and each one is progressively harder but should you finish the one on Wave 10 you get the big bucks. These credits are used to buy the unlocks, so far so standard but there is a catch. Credits buy Packs which include entirely random unlocks from simple one use equipment to guns and new characters. The unlockables are split into categories of rarity and the more expensive the Pack the higher the chance of getting a Rare or Ultra Rare item. What they’ve done is put the trading card mentality into a video game entirely unrelated to trading cards.

The thrill of opening one of these boxes and not knowing what you’re going to get is much greater than it should be. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, or even just a nostalgic throwback to ‘Pokémon’ or ‘Magic The Gathering’ I collected when I was younger but the mystery of the unknown coupled with the genuine excitement of unlocking something you want is very real. Obviously it can go the other way too, it is frustrating buying a ton off Packs and getting nothing you want, need or will ever use but you just dive back in and in a few rounds try again. The hunt for the rare and shiny things lurking in these packs has led me to do something I would never have considered in the past, I have played with random people from the internet. *big dramatic fanfare*

My experiences so far? Mixed is as good a word as any, I’ve had the odd group of people who knew what they were doing and together we have done quite well but more often than not at least one person just runs off on their own and dies repeatedly (usually a first time Vanguard) and probably moans when I stop bothering to pick them back up, I don’t know because I don’t communicate with these people but I assume. So well done Bioware and the team behind Mass Effect and its multiplayer. You have created an incredible trilogy of games and added in a feature that got one of the biggest advocates against multiplayer to venture out and do some. Yes it’s much better with people you know and I don’t see my playing with randoms becoming a regular thing but I have had a go and didn’t hate it. Back to a more regular schedule now, until another game comes along and devours all my free time. I’m looking at YOU Diablo III!

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Review: Resident Evil Revelations

            The Resident Evil series has been going for quite a while now and shows no signs of slowing, indeed there are going to be a total of 3 new additions this year in ‘Resident Evil 6’, ‘Resident Evil: Operation Racoon City’ and the recently released 3DS title ‘Resident Evil Revelations’. Now as I said in my previous blog I am a big fan of the older title in the series and that they are not what they used to be. Does ‘Revelations’ restore faith in the franchise? Does it work on 3DS? Is it any good? Well let’s see shall we?
            ‘Revelations’ is set in between the events of Resident Evils 4 and 5, in it you primarily take the role of series staple Jill Valentine however control does switch to other recurring character Chris Redfield as well as a few others. Ditching the far more open areas seen in ‘Resident Evil 5’ almost entirely the action this time takes place on board a cruise ship in the Mediterranean Sea. This ship, The Queen Zenobia, has been hijacked by a terrorist organisation called Veltro and infected with T Abyss, essentially an aquatic version of the T Virus. Jill and new partner Parker arrive on board to search for Chris and his partner Jessica who have been investigating Veltro’s activities. Of course everything starts to go wrong and the story begins to twist and turn from here on.
            The use of a cruise ship as a setting was a great choice and, perhaps ironically given the subject matter, a breath of fresh air. The ship allows for an old fashioned feel as it’s all very confined which is exactly what I want in a survival horror game. Narrow corridors, junctions that could contain enemies, creepy sounds and flicking lights. It’s all here and the general eeriness it creates helps build a tension I haven’t had in a Resident Evil game since ‘Nemesis’ way back on PS1. The good old key fetching is back too; found a door with an anchor mark on it? Guess what key opens that one? Granted it’s not rocket science but having an explorable environment with areas to revisit again takes us back from 5’s linearity and firm mission style levels. The game is set out in an episodic format which is not ideal as it breaks up the action fairly frequently, of course this was to facilitate short play sessions being on a handheld so can be forgiven somewhat. Auto-saves also have to be given some leeway for the same reason, of course I’d prefer to have to find a typewriter and decide whether it was worth some of my finite ink supply to save the game but the bus journey isn’t that forgiving to this style of play.
            The 3DS does show off what it can do here, graphically ‘Revelations’ is fantastic although it does suffer quite badly from the splitting that occurs with the 3D mode if you don’t look it straight on. Given that most of my handheld gaming is done on buses I played the majority of the game with the 3D effect off because of this but it doesn’t detract from the experience. What does hamper the public transport player is a difficulty to see what is going on when the light levels outside are high or changing. The game plays best in a darkened environment ad the game itself is dark, this coupled with a sunny afternoon commute lead to quite a few monsters having Jill’s face for lunch. The game makes an effort to use the touch pad, your inventory is primarily controlled by it and there are a few doors to unlock by doing puzzles on the touch screen but they do seem slightly forced, as if they threw them in just for the sake of using the touch stuff. What was cool (although no less shoe horned in) was a finger print scanner for a few doors late game that as far as I could tell actually responds to your finger print only. I tried getting a friend to use it after it registered my print and it didn’t work so either he did it wrong or it genuinely does register your print.
In terms of non touch controls ‘Revelations’ does pretty well. The camera is a bit wonky sometimes but apparently this is improved by the Circle Pad Pro, an accessory that adds a second thumb stick, but I couldn’t justify the asking price to move the camera for one game so persevered, trust me it’s in no way a hindrance to go without it. Aiming a weapon puts you in a first person firing mode which helps alleviate the targeting issues of the old games, what I did find out to my horror is that you can strafe while aiming by holding L, moving and aiming in Resident Evil should be mutually exclusive. I will not be swayed on this. The only truly annoying control related issues were the dodging system which is rubbish and the swimming sections. The swimming might just be a personal issue though since you push up to swim up and down to go down and no matter what I constantly tried to work it as if the y axis were inverted.
The enemies on offer are perhaps the biggest disappointment in the game. I get that they were going for bloated, decayed sea monster type things but on the whole all the basic enemies are incredibly similar and bland, the bosses are a little better sometimes but nothing stands out as particularly impressive (except returning favourites the Hunters). This is a shame because the Zenobia itself has a surprising amount of character, a good mix of maintenance type areas, an impressive great hall complete with operatic soundtrack and lots in between. It would have been great if the same levels of design could be seen in the enemies that roam her halls.
Aside from the 8 hour or so campaign, bolstered by missions (read: achievements) there is also Raid Mode which allows you and a co-op buddy should you wish it to take on sections from the game with bigger, badder and more numerous enemies. Completing these gives you points to spend on weapons which let you complete harder Raid levels and so on. There are missions for this mode too and all the missions come with a reward associated with the mode they were acquired in. There is also a totally not a gimmick street pass mission exchange that allows you to get missions by being near other people who have the game.
Overall I was impressed with ‘Resident Evil Revelations’. Sure it has it’s drawbacks but it is a damn fine game and by far the best 3DS original title to date. The return to enclosed spaces is welcome and makes it feel more like Resident Evil of old. Graphically impressive and with ultimately tight gameplay this is definitely worth picking up if you are a fan of the series or simply looking for a great addition to your 3DS collection. A heartening step in the right direction for the Resident Evil franchise, ditching the supporting partner is the next step that needs to happen to get the it back to where it should be. Being alone makes all the difference in creating a scary atmosphere and that is exactly what a survival horror game should be aiming at. As it stands though ‘Resident Evil Revelations’ is the best outing for the series in some time, ‘Operation Racoon City’ and ‘Resident Evil 6’ have a hard act to follow when their releases roll around later this year.


Sunday, 29 January 2012

My Thoughts on Resident Evil 6

            You’ve probably seen the launch trailer for Resident Evil 6 by now and if you are of the same mindset of just about everybody I know then you are drooling and giddy with anticipation. This is where I step in and attempt to dispel all that joy and happiness; I’m nice like that you know.
            It starts nicely enough by reintroducing Leon Kennedy and showcasing some pretty classic Resident evil scenes. We get enclosed corridors, T Virus zombies and some good looking city street sections. This is the sort of thing I’ve wanted from a Resident Evil game for some time, back to the roots of 1, 2 and 3 which I love so much. I can even forgive the later sections which show Leon in action in a more fast paced frantic style, partly because I could perceive these being more limited and also because sliding under an attacking zombie, spinning around and scoring a headshot on another one is damn cool. Unfortunately this is where any and all praise I have ends.
            You see Leon is but one of three playable characters in this outing, the other two being Chris Redfield and an unknown mercenary type, these two appear to have their own play styles and here problems start jumping up all over the place. First up we have the new guy who from snippets of dialogue I have theorised is somehow naturally immune to the virus, he states ‘Not me, just my blood. Well the world can have it if someone ponies up the dough’ in response to his blonde companion (possibly Ashley from Resi 4?) saying ‘The world needs you’. This guys sections seem to be chase sequences where you flee a hulking nemesis type creature with a mechanical claw like arm. There looks to be a lot of corridor style ‘make it before he catches you’ bits interspersed with a melee focused action combat system and punctuated with what could be QTE battles with the tyrant. If this was to occur only a few times in the game I could maybe be content but I imagine it will be split almost equally three ways and a third of the game with this as a base is not on for a Resident Evil title.
            Now the major disappointment, Chris’s part. When I saw what was going on here I couldn’t help but say out loud ‘What the fuck…’ here we have Gears of Resident Evil. Chris looks like he’s going to play like a god awful steroid pumped behemoth power sprinting to cover and opening fore with automatic weapons. If that weren’t bad enough his enemies look very like the Las Plagas infected of the last outing, as well as non-infected gun toting gang members. There is so much I loathe about the inclusion of this sort of gameplay in a Resident Evil title that it’s hard to put it into a coherent structure not punctuated by profanity but I shall have a go. Why include Las Plagas AND the T Virus when it’s the later that we all want to see back? Las Plagas was rubbish in 5, if that is what it is in 6 it’s going to be rubbish again. More to the point why have non-infected people shooting at you? There is simply no need and the only thing I can think of for its inclusion is to try and lure in people from GoW and its countless clones. Don’t misunderstand me here I have no problem with cover based shooting, as you may know the Mass Effect series is one of my all time favourites. My issue is that they’ve put it into what I was hoping would be a survival horror game like its predecessors. These mechanics have no place in a Resident Evil game, not even a little tiny remotely justifiable place.
            So that’s that over with. I can only hope that the 3DS ‘Resident Evil Revelations’ which I have recently started and will review shortly puts some faith back into a steadily declining franchise. A friend of mine made a point the other day that I shall end on. There’s nothing wrong with them making the huge budget titles such as this one to bring in the big bucks, but why not release shorter, perhaps serial ‘proper’ Resident Evil games on XBLA or PSN? Given the taint that has been put on the series already I could totally go along with this. Several hundred points for a spot of true survival horror that we very rarely get these days sounds good to me. Hell they wouldn’t necessarily have to be short, ‘I Am Alive’ looks to be a stunning game and that’s going to be download only. So how about it Capcom, give us purist fans what we want, please?

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Star Wars: The Old Republic - Review

            To say that ‘Star Wars: The Old Republic’ (henceforth referred to as SWTOR) has consumed the increased amount of free time I’ve found at my disposal lately would be somewhat of an understatement. This has not come as a shock given my adoration of Star Wars itself and of Bioware who have once again created something sublime. In case you are unaware SWTOR is a new MMO set in the Star Wars universe and I have been looking forward to it for some time now. At one stage I tried to convince myself I could go without it, that I wouldn’t bother. This lasted well-ish until about 11am on the day I could pick up my pre-ordered (I was going to cancel it, honest…) copy of the incredible Collectors Edition. When it comes to collectors items like Sith lord statues or other such ornaments of awesome proportions I am worse than any magpie, in am inexorably drawn to them as they are to shiny things. The box alone for this edition was one of the shiniest things I’ve ever seen. Luckily people I know knew me better than I did and I have ended up not only with the game but several other incredibly cool extras and am sitting pretty in a nest full of glittering SWTOR related stuff. Having tortured the magpie analogy enough at this point I’ll get on to a review… of sorts.
            Until I sat down to write this I’d never tried to review an MMO before and as it turns out they are somewhat tricky to encapsulate, the reasons for this will become clear as I proceed. The one thing I wanted to test more than any other was Bioware’s claim that a major focus was in the writing and that the single player experience would be as exceptional as the multiplayer. Under normal circumstances I would never even dream to question Bioware’s ability to write, they have proved time and again that they have some of the very best writers in the industry but this was a strange prospect to me. A single player focus in an MMO, something almost tautologically muliplayer? In an effort to see the validity of their claims I decided to solo the game all the way to the level cap (50 at present). At time of writing I have just hit 46 after a month of solo play and I am ashamed of any doubts I had before beginning. The class specific quests serve as your main story line and are incredibly tight, well paced and thought out. I can only comment on the Jedi Consular story to any degree as my other characters are not far enough into the game (3 or 4 alts in the 15-20 level range) but all early indications point towards the same, the Trooper in particular looks very promising indeed. They have even managed to incorporate the standard Bioware choice conversation wheels with Light Side and Dark Side conversation options scattered in amongst the normal ones, very much the same as ‘Mass Effect’s Renegade and Paragon options.
            Perhaps the power of the writing is best illustrated in my responses to these conversations options. Normally in games I lean towards the Dark Side/Renegade options. Not because I want to be a badass but because they are either more fun or more usually that if I were to put myself in the same situation I don’t think the goody goody option would be how I would react. The galaxy is out to get you and being incredibly nice to everyone seems like it wouldn’t achieve all that much. As my Consular I have been compelled to take the Light Side option almost every single time. I realised after some time that the game was very subtly forcing me into a role play scenario. I was doing the actions I thought would be right for my character and not myself which threw out two conclusions. Firstly that unlike ‘Mass Effect’ (to keep the same comparison) I was not projecting myself onto my character, and secondly that I think that was exactly the desired effect. As an MMO people will very rarely limit themselves to one character so if the story worked in a way to put you as that character you could theoretically end up playing 8 characters (assuming you limit yourself to one server) all the way to 50 in exactly the same way, making the same decisions because that’s what you would do. What they have done instead is write the stories or characters in such a way that those same 8 characters can be taken all the way to level cap in 8 different ways without you having to resort to unnatural decisions making. This is a triumph beyond what I was expecting and I doff my cap to the writers who worked on this, they deserve serious credit.
            The gameplay is fairly standard MMO affair and if you’re used to the genre you will pick it up instantly. If not however it is still easy to grasp. Using a combination of WASD and the mouse you navigate the environments pursuing your main quest and picking up side quests along the way should you wish. You do this until the game requires you to travel to a new planet where you discover new characters, quests and repeat the process. Each planet also has a ‘main’ subquest which is in many cases as good as the main quest proper to help you keep going and distract you from the repetitive nature of the tasks. Written down this sounds tedious in the extreme but the story pulls you through along with the inexplicable desire to make your level and stats go up to get to the next piece of equipment. For example I recently acquired an orange lightsaber crystal that I can’t use until I level up a bit. I can’t really explain why but I want a bitchin’ orange double bladed lightsaber. On second thought that doesn’t really need explanation since ‘because it’s awesome’ seems to suffice but you get my point. Right back to mechanics, you get a standard MMO skills tray which allows you to put 12 skills along the 1 - = button on your keyboard and you simply use them to defeat the enemies you find as you complete quests. Both of these grant experience points towards the next level along with exploring new areas but quest rewards are by far the most noticeable gains.
            What sets this somewhat apart from other MMOs in terms of gameplay is the companion system. As you progress through the game you meet certain characters who end up staying with you aboard your ship and one of whom you can bring with you to aid in combat. This is a huge help to the solo player and most of the companions offer different boons to their use, you simply find the one which compliments your play style the best and stick with them. Where the companions really come in though is in the crew skills you can take. As with most MMOs there is a crafting system which allows you to make items of a certain type. You can have up to three skills but only one of them can be a crafting skill and the others must be gathering skills. As well as the standard way of gathering materials (finding them in the world) you can send your companions on missions to find them for you. These missions vary in length of time from 3 minutes at low level to over an hour for higher levels and whilst away the deployed companion is otherwise unavailable. The benefits of this are that you find rarer, better and exclusive items which cannot be found exploring or looting as well as making use out of your other companions which would otherwise be doing nothing. Once you have the materials you can make items that you have learned the schematics for, these are either bought from the crating trainer, found in lockboxes or from certain missions themselves. Being able to make your own gear is useful as well as fun, and if you join a guild as I have you have a group of people with lots of different crafting skills so you can make and trade items with each other rather than paying large amounts for gear in shops or from the auction house.
            SWTOR also has ship based combat as a sort of mini game. Once you get your ship you can accept missions which take you into an on rails shooter portion of the game. These missions last about 5 minutes and more and more unlock as progress through the levels, they also reset daily so you can do each of them once every 24 hours. They are highly profitable, particularly the first time you complete them, and contrary to popular opinion are incredibly entertaining. I wasn’t sure what to expect the first time I loaded up one of these missions but when I realised what was going on I couldn’t help but smile. Everyday you get the chance to take a break from standard mob bashing and play something that makes me think of ‘Star Fox’ which is high praise indeed.
            I could go on and on about this game but wary of the length I’m going to reign it in here. There are admittedly lots of points I haven’t covered but this is what made the game so hard to review. I have played most days for a month and have not quite hit the level cap on 1 character, there are 7 others to explore. 7 more stories and 3 or 4 more play styles I’ve barely scratched. Although the Jedi and Sith are pretty parallel the others are somewhat mixed up giving slight nuances to get used to. I haven’t done any Flashpoints as these are group missions and I wanted to focus on the single player play. I have experimented very little with PvP because by the time I started there were quite a few level 50s out there with PvP specific gear meaning I died. A lot. All that said though I have experienced enough of the universe they have created to offer informed opinions. SWTOR is a solid game, fantastically well written, beautiful environments, well disguised quest objectives that distract from ‘go here and kill x of creature y’ and I look to my future explorations of this galaxy with anticipation. Of course there is work to do on it, MMOs are never perfect at launch and there have been a few issues but Bioware seem very much on top of it with regular patches to aid the situation. A big one is going on right now actually, how else do you think I found the time to write out some 1800 words on it!


Monday, 16 January 2012

Rage Quitting... not so bad after all

            I very rarely get angry in everyday life. Well to be more exact I very rarely do anything about getting angry in everyday life. I have always been very conscious of hurting other people (physically or otherwise) so when I do get angry I keep it to myself, don’t act on it and otherwise just get on with stuff. I discovered some time ago that this is certainly not true of my temper in or at video games; indeed it appears that quite the reverse is the case!
            The very first instance I can remember of game related rage was a result of ‘Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga’.  The game itself is fantastic; along with much of the rest of the titles bearing ‘Shin Megami Tensei’ but there was a breaking point I reached in this particular one. I’d been grinding for a while and was on the way back to save my progress as you do. In sight of the save point I encounter a random battle which goes less than well. It turns out that there is an enemy in this particular area that when it back attacks you and uses a certain combination of moves then you are helpless to watch as your characters slowly lose all their health due to being stunned over and over again. I didn’t get to make one attack; I lost a lot of experience because of the game over and at this point hurled the PS2 controller with all my strength at the nearest wall. This was a costly action of course as I had to then buy a new controller but I was totally overtaken by rage.
            In recent memory nothing has incensed me more than StarCraft 2 multiplayer matches that I’ve lost. Fair enough if I deserved to lose, but if I should have won (or feel I should have won) then all hell breaks loose. Fist slams on desk, strings of intelligible swearing pour from my lips as I attempt to find some combination that rightly sums up my opinions of either my opponent or myself. I remember when I first started playing and thought to myself ‘I’ll always be mannered and never leave a game without saying GG first’ oh how naïve of me that was. I never went so far as to openly abuse the other player but I had definitely rage quit a good number of games before I stopped playing about a year ago (partly due to a string of such incidents but primarily because I had stuff to deal with I wasn’t doing).
            Up to this point I agree that this all seems pretty negative and in support of the media’s ‘video games make people violent’ bullshit but hear me out. For those of you out there similarly adverse to conflict as myself these interactions can offer a great way of releasing everything held in from the everyday frustrations you otherwise bottle up and put away. Yes there are occasionally some consequences, such as a new controller perhaps, but they are only ever to you. This is hugely appealing to me since it gives me a medium to have violent outbursts that don’t hurt anybody and free me up of pent up stress and anger or whatever else.
            That games can cause such reactions in me just helps to cement in my mind just how powerful a force they can be. It’s not just anger of course that they tap into. I have never cried and almost never been even remotely sad at a TV show or movie, Aerith’s death in Final Fantasy VII will cause sadness every time I see it. The point I’m rambling somewhat towards is that games can generate emotional responses beyond what a lot of people expect. So yes games can make you angry but that is no reason to damn them or regard them as dangerous or damaging. In fact what they should be is praised for along with anger they can also produce happiness, sadness and any other emotions you care to mention as well if not better than any other entertainment form. Everyone needs an escape or a release occasionally and I can think of no better way of acquiring either.