Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Starcraft II Beta Grumbles

The Starcraft II Beta has been chugging along at a frenzied pace, changes rapidly coming and going as the game approaches its July release date. There is no doubt that this game will consume a significant chunk of my life in the coming years, but that doesn't mean its perfect. In my two months of beta playing, I actually have garnered quite a few complaints about the game's design that are likely to remain unresolved going into release.

First and foremost, the new Bnet is a lonely, desolate place. The removal of chat channels, or really any sort of social interaction past the friend list, forms a stark contrast to the raucous liveliness of Warcraft 3's community, unsavory as it may have been at times. I find it hard to believe that Blizzard considered spam so much of an issue that they would slash any social materials outside of the friend list from Starcraft's infinitely long development. It is confirmed that chat channels won't make release, and that is just a darn shame. At least we have Facebook integration! What a joke.

What I find most mystifying about Bnet 2.0 is the two name identifier system. This makes it difficult to find your friends and distinguish people from each other, reminding me of the Wii's reprehensible friend code system. Blizzard says this is so anyone can have the display name they want, but I suspect this is a veiled motive to protect the more innocent users from harassment. At least one can make funny name combinations for trolling the official forums.

The matchmaking of B2.0 is laudable; it's a great improvement over Warcraft 3's. The division system is an excellent way to divide the user base up and ensure that the games each player finds are fair. My complaint about divisions is that they are also wastelands, where players chase carrots on a stick against specters. I don't think I've ever played against anyone in my division; if I have, I have no way of knowing besides the taxing process of examining every opponent's profile. Divisions need to be more personal. A second problem with the matchmaking is that the game currently puts randomly assembled teams against arranged teams, a totally unfair setup. I can only presume that this is a beta oversight and absolutely cannot be intended for release.

The Zerg race's design is questionable. Though I find the unit composition and each unit's role fine, there are some glaring omissions. It's sad that the lurker, a proud unit within the Starcraft heritage, was cut during development. It could certainly fill the role of a cloaked attacker, which the Zerg currently have none of. The Zerg also lack any cliff-walking units as well, a touted new feature that only went to Terran and Protoss. Most frustrating about the Zerg race is the macro mechanic of spawning larvae. It is boring and gives no room for error. The queen must spawn every forty seconds, without fail, or efficiency is permanently lost. Terran and Protoss have more options on how to use their racial abilities, and allow the player to use the ability multiple times if they store up energy. I stopped playing Zerg because of this punishing mechanic. Zerg is just too hard for me to play effectively in its current iteration. A large consensus among the community is that the race just doesn't seem finished when juxtaposed with Protoss and Terran.

I got extremely vexed by the removal of wireframe casting a couple patches ago. It allowed players to use direct target abilities on other units in a control group. Blizzard removed this because they felt it made the macro mechanics too easy. This is a disappointing reversal of policy from what I've seen throughout the game's development. Nor was casting via portrait ever an option either, two tools I completely expected to be standard issue. The modding community will suffer if these changes are not able to be overridden in the map editor. Starcraft could also benefit from a 'formation move' command. Right now it is far too annoying to move a large group of different speed units across the map. My UI complaints strongly parallel the adage of 'two steps forward, one step backward', which is where SC2 is almost certainly headed.

The brightness in my eyes towards the Starcraft II experience may have faded just a little bit with my prolonged exposure to the beta. I have realized that this game won't be perfect, and on top of that, it will cost $60, but by no means is the magic gone. I have found Terran to be the perfect race to settle down with to eventually dominate the ladder. The campaign remains shrouded in mystery but promises a great delivery. Custom maps, larger multiplayer games, and whatever other surprises Blizzard still holds up its sleeve have yet to take the stage. I can only wait with anticipation for July 27th.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Assassin's Creed II

Debuting in late 2009, Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed II sets lofty goals, striving to be the paragon for what every sequel should emulate. That mantra should be keeping what is good about the prior game(s), while overhauling and improving the more lackluster parts. I am happy to say that ACII is mostly a success in that department.

In ACII, we move the setting to Renaissance Italy, and continue the story within a story from the perspective of Ezio Auditore, and are much improved in that department. Not only with the plot, but in delivery as well. ACI was guilty of hosting deluges of dialogue that made me zone out multiple times; we have a bit more effort here. The cutscenes and spoken lines are nicely broken up into smaller pieces with bits of humor and even some emotion added. The plot's still a little convoluted, and the designer's decision to end the game with little resolution after introducing aliens is somewhat reprehensible, but overall, I found myself greatly enjoying the story. The inclusion of famous historical characters like Leonardo da Vinci only increased my interest.

What's most overhauled after story in ACII is the progression element of the game. Where the first Creed was repetitive and boring, going from assassination to assassination without the slightest derivation in formula, our sequel here keeps some mystique to its formula as the game unfolds. I was pleasantly surprised multiple times while playing ACII; I never expected to use Da Vinci's flying machine or battle on a horse-driven carriage, brief as those scenes were.

Along the line of progression, ACII also includes a money system for improving yourself. Spending money to build your town and equip yourself is addictive, though somewhat superfluous. By mid-game I had so much money that any sort of thriftiness was unneeded. The fun diversions of pickpocketing and looting corpses swiftly became pointless and consequentially avoided. The same fate befell most of the optional side quests. However, I did greatly enjoy the Prince of Persia derived tombs littered throughout the game.

Combat was good in the original, though somewhat easily exploited. That doesn't change much in ACII, though there are a ton of new options in combat, including disarms and poisons. My sneaking suspicion is that many of these additions are superfluous except to give the animators more excuses for creating gruesome fatalities (Not that I mind). Combat in ACII may be a tad deeper, but it's still easy, especially with almost unlimited health from medicine. The combat rarely gets boring though, and that's a credit to the design.

The best feature of ACI was definitely the living, breathing simulacrums of ancient cities in the Holy Land. While Creed the Latter has more beautiful cityscapes to explore, it falls short in execution. Far too much time is spent in Venice, while Forli and Rome have maybe twenty minutes of action each. It really feels like these two areas got passed over in an effort to get the game out on time. Venice takes up half the game, and we never get a break of it (Those damn canals!). Too much time is spent in the same city without a break in this game. ACI's presentation was far more enjoyable, with being able to break up the time spent in each city very evenly.

I played through ACII on Xbox, avoiding the shackling and controversial DRM on PC, which forces an internet connection to play. I wouldn't recommend the PC version on that virtue alone. Of course, this will be hypocrisy at its finest when Starcraft II releases, for I've been playing the beta with quite a fervor. Blizzard will pose the same restrictions, along with no LAN, and a $60 price tag. But, one can make an exception for Blizzard, right?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Kry Reviews: PAX East

Penny Arcade Expo hit the east coast last weekend, in a show not lacking for attendance. The convention had pretty much everything your contemporary nerd can want for. Not to mention the choice of locale of Boston, which despite being an awesome city, I did not get to tour much of; I spent all waking hours at PAX, mostly.

PAX East 2010 was my first con since Origins 2002. This one was a lot, and I mean a lot, more packed. It seems foolish that there was never a gaming con held over here before (and very few nerdy cons in general). Well, with it being the first, perhaps I can forgive the prime error of selling too many tickets. The con was unfortunately oversold and/or the convention hall was too small. I found that out almost immediately on the first day, when I arrived half an hour early to go to the Keynote speech but found myself not even able to wait in line. This problem would rear its ugly head everywhere in the convention.

The de facto standard I found was an hour – hour and half wait for more niche panels (and that was only to get average seating). I didn't even bother with any of the bigger ones, as much as I would have liked to attend a panel by the Penny Arcade guys. The Exposition Hall had similar waits to try out any new games (Two hour wait for Starcraft 2, at least; good thing I got in beta already!). It was totally ridiculous and frustrating. Thankfully, I eventually found a nice reprieve with the tabletop game section. They had an excellent selection of tabletops, and more importantly, no wait to get them.

I got to try the more mainstream titles Settlers of Catan and Munchkin, both of which are great titles. I'm definitely hungry for more Catan. Seemingly everyone was though, as all the copies of that game were checked out several times for tournaments. A little bit of poor planning by PAX there as well. Betrayal at House on the Hill was a very interesting board game I got a couple tries in on it as well; it's a nice campy, horror-themed game that generates a 'haunted house' board randomly every game to keep it entertaining. One of my travel mates was ecstatic to play this game as it had gone out of print, and I will vouch that it was time well spent. Last, I tried Starcraft: The Board Game. Never again! That game is a complicated mess. I spent an hour trying to figure it out and was happy when it came time to give up.

Speaking of Starcraft, I hung out at the Blizzard/Nvidia section for a lot of the convention (by virtue of waiting in line, of course). I actually won myself a second beta key by playing in a Blizzard promotional 1v1 game. The game was Protoss vs Terran, and I came back from him destroying my main base with a whole lot of stalkers. I took the economy advantage back quickly with a well defended expansion and came in for the kill, ruining my opponent's day in the process. If people weren't dubious of my claims of having never played beta before, they certainly were after while I was exhibiting my mastery of hotkeys and build order, although my 60 APM was totally gosu.

PAX East 2010, clusterfuck that it was, was a show with a great amount of potential. I'm glad to hear that the convention has already been announced to reoccur, and in a bigger venue. I'm sure my complaints are well known by the show's staff, so I'm willing to forgive and forget in expectations of much greater things next year.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Kry Previews: Starcraft II

Starcraft II's beta FINALLY arrived last week, to a collective sigh of relief. Or perhaps a mass cry of rage at people finding their inboxes empty. Sadly, I have no beta key myself, but the mass influx of information coming from streams and videos has kept me quite sated, and quite ready to post some thoughts about how eager I am to play this game.

First off, let me preface this commentary by saying that I never really played Starcraft. I got into Warcraft III first, and by that time Starcraft was way past its prime. And indeed, when I tried out the campaign last year, it was a very frustrating experience; many of the things I took for granted as standard RTS items had not yet been invented in SC. Also, I tried to play SC the same way as WCIII, which was quite a mistake. The two games are fundamentally different.

But anyway, I got interested in SCII as soon as it was announced as the next strategy game from Blizzard. I've been following it quite rabidly since it was revealed seemingly an eon ago; that only served to psyche myself up and make the wait more unbearable. The game looks absolutely gorgeous now, especially from the HD videos being uploaded on Youtube. Not only are there beautiful visuals, but the system requirements, as always for Blizzard, are surprisingly low for the level of detail.

Not being a big SC player and having no beta access leaves me with little credence to make any commentary on balance, so I'll spare that (also the game being beta, and changes constant, already the first patch has come out at time of writing). One thing to note is that throughout the development process I have always been amused at the tears and rage from the whinier hardcore players over convenience changes like being able to select multiple buildings or having your workers automatically mine. Blizzard's paradigm is that mindless busywork like that should be lessened, and be replaced with other macro mechanics that offer intelligence and strategy in maximizing your economy. How people can be against that completely boggles my mind.

The single player and map editor are not in the beta unfortunately. Whenever Starcraft II comes out, expect a detailed review on the campaign, which Blizzard has hinted at it being quite epic, despite being limited to only one race. The map editor needs no introduction, to those unfamiliar with it, I only need say that the replay value of SCII will multiply tenfold with the creativity of the Blizzard modding community. I'm eager to try it out myself, if I recall correctly editing will be done with a C-based language; I may need to brush up on that!

Hopefully, watching all these videos will help me get ready to play SCII when it comes closer to release. I'm also really hoping that PAX next month will have the beta for me to try out, else I will be a very sad panda. Speaking of which, my journal on the visit to PAX will be next month's entry. It should be very exciting, my first big con since Origins seven years ago.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Kry Reviews: Estiah

Estiah is a browser MMO that I spent most of my winter break playing. Unfortunately, my gaming pc was on the fritz, so only the slimmest of pickings were available to me. To put things in perspective, the last time I played one of these games was Utopia some eight or nine years ago. The genre is as addictive as ever.

I was surprised to find information and publicity about Estiah quite scarce. It was created in 2008 by a couple of jaded ex-World of Warcraft players, though it bears little resemblance to WoW. Anyway, the game’s story is a pretty blunt. “You’re in fantasyland, go level up and clear dungeons”, would surmise it quite well; no high marks there, but then again that’s the story and setting of most MMOs these days, so it’s not really a detriment. The story mainly exists to explain why your character must use decks of playing cards (‘charms’) instead of actually using equipment.

Estiah, at its core, is basically a card game with a pervasive element of progression. It’s certainly an interesting fusion of two genres, and what I immediately liked about the game was its unique method of handling character development. You level up through boosting four standard attributes by working various daily jobs or mastering skills. Your attributes determine which types of charms you can use in your deck, and skills are rewarded mainly through battling with charms, but also from non-combat activities. These attributes do not directly affect gameplay at all, only what charms you are able to equip. Two special attributes also exist that determine your health points and the maximum number of cards allowed in your deck (‘spirit’). You get action points every couple of hours, which are the currency for boosting skills in arenas, PvP, or dungeons. There exist three tiers of class specialization so to provide incentive towards reaching the later levels.

Unfortunately, this progression element adds questionable elements to the game as well. What I particularly dislike is the extreme amount of metagaming needed to keep a competitive edge. A player should not need to be playing the system from level one, but that is unfortunately the case in Estiah. This problem is caused from having skills that reward health and spirit exist (at the least, exist that early), which corrupt the whole system by giving unfair advantages to those who exploit the game mechanics. This forces a standard for everyone to keep up that just isn’t fun. Another problem is that it’s necessary to study all the encounters beforehand due to the limited actions awarded per day. This kind of research would not be as significant a pre-requisite if there was a smaller penalty on action points lost for failing encounters. Also, one last concern is that the long leveling time and high degree of specializing mean you might be stuck with something you don’t enjoy. In a free game requiring a significant amount of dedication, that kind of commitment is not too appealing.

So I guess what killed Estiah for me was the massive amount of time I would have had to dedicate to a game that just didn’t seem worth it. However, if you’re the kind of player who thrives on min/maxing and is looking for an extra activity on the side, you may consider giving Estiah a go. I wouldn’t recommend it otherwise. It’s an all or nothing sort of game.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Kry Reviews: Left 4 Dead 2

Left 4 Dead 2 debuted mid-November, some might say in the shadow of Modern Warfare 2, to fairly strong reviews and sales. As I said in my prior thoughts on the demo, I was left with a very positive impression. After ravenously playing through all facets of the game, I can confirm those initial vibes. Left 4 Dead 2 is one of those seemingly few sequels that truly shine as an improvement in every way over its predecessor.

What really stands out is how much the atmosphere has changed over the first game. Where L4D1 heavily utilized darkness, in the process masking bland cityscapes and wilderness, to set the mood, L4D2 uses it sparsely. Most playable levels now happen in daylight, with visibility rarely impeded even on the darker levels. Indeed, the game takes on more of an action dynamic now (instead of emulating the survival horror genre, which was a bit of a stretch anyway).

Now, with all this additional scenery, Valve has labored to make the settings more interesting. Besides the Southern flair adorning everything in the game, each campaign strives to be unique, even telling a little bit of story besides ‘escape the zombies’. Some examples include attempts at stopping the zombie virus, survivor holdouts, or the military being up to no good. Those plots are extraneous of course, not affecting the gameplay; one of the beauties of the L4D series being that it does not need a cinematic storyline or labyrinthine plot.

Along the aforementioned 'action' line, L4D2 is designed to be much more ‘open’ than the original. The premier strategy there was to go from corner to corner throughout each level; very boring. New special infected, most notably the goo-shooting spitter, have been introduced to render this playstyle much riskier. Also, many new panic events force the survivors to stay on the move rather than bunkering down to stop an onslaught. And lastly, a more subtle change is that melee knockback is now limited to further punish sloppy play. These changes make the game much more exciting, though it can be rough for veterans to adjust to. An especially notable example would be the bridge finale, which the survivors must cross under an unrelenting swarm; it is the hardest challenge offered yet from the series.

There are new weapons and items, but no increased inventory space; survivors are forced to be more selective with their options. Each of the main weapon classes (shotgun, rifle, sniper) have had some variants added to help people tailor the guns more to their preference, but ammo piles are more limited so conservation is a key should one want to keep the gun they're most comfortable with. Melee weapons are an effective addition, but replace your pistols and have a bit of a learning curve (especially when dealing with latency). Bile bombs, taking up the projectile spot, lure infected to the target/area thrown at and serve as an excellent utility to get out of a tough spot. There are also: defibrillators to revive dead survivors, adrenaline shots to give a speed/minor health boost, and fiery/explosive ammo packs, which sound cool but are impractical.

L4D2 has some new interesting game modes as well. Realism is an addition to Campaign offered for masochists who find expert too easy. Within Realism, no teammate glows are offered, infected have more health and dead survivors are only revived by defibs or beating a level. Too bad the mode is trivialized by the one-hit kill magnum pistol. Another addition is Scavenge mode, in which survivors and infected duke it out in an attempt to find more gas cans than the other team. This mode fills a niche for shorter time length games. Versus Mode from the first game is back and offers an improved scoring system with less emphasis on surviving the level and health kits used, and more on total distance traveled; also the scoring total per round has been approximately halved. The tighter score really keeps the pace up and the game competitive.

As with the demo, L4D2 suffered from an imperfect launch. The game was slightly delayed, though I had no expectations to be playing at midnight anyway. For the first couple of weeks, achievement tracking was wonky and repeatedly dropped, frustrating players. The game still has some unresolved problems, most notable of which of course is server selection. Never does it seem to be I can find a game where all 4 (or gods help me, 8) players can find an acceptable ping without a couple tries, but hey, it's in a much more playable state than this time last year. My field of view complaints from the demo also still stand, the guns are much too zoomed in to the point of ridiculousness. And then there are the little things that add up: invisible objects, getting stuck, either as a survivor in some corners, or as a charger infected on traffic cones or mailboxes. Perhaps most infuriating is during expert campaign when special zombies cheat and slash you whilst stunned.

But still, what an improvement over the first game, which I can't really imagine booting up again, unless it's playing the levels ported over to L4D2. I'm really interested to see where Valve takes L4D2 with DLC content (and if they charge for it). They recently announced the first update, The Passing, which includes, among other things, a meeting with the beloved cast of the first game. As a final note, if there were to be yearly installments of Left 4 Dead that offer as much as this sequel has, well I’d be happy buying them all!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kry Reviews: Modern Warfare 2

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 debuted last week in a huge splash that Activision is calling the biggest launch of anything ever. Unfortunately, this debut is a bittersweet one for me and my brethren who play on PC. Not a month ago, I was sold as a day one purchase of this game. However, many unexpected, negative things have cropped up about the game, and it is no longer even on my purchase list. Were it not for a roommate buying it for his Xbox and letting me get a quick playthrough of the campaign in, I'd not even have this review.

So what are these blights on the PC version? Firstly, MW2 is priced at $60, $10 above the standard for a new game on PC, which is unheard of; I do not want to support a price hike. Secondly, Infinity Ward, the developer of MW2, has stripped all control away from the end-user with MW2. All support for dedicated servers has been replaced with a matchmaking service, which means there will likely be no user custom content. And worse, within the service, multiplayer has been capped at 9v9. One of my favorite things about other war shooters, like Battlefield 2, are massive battles like 32v32. Taking that away from me was what really did MW2 in for me.

Once again, I played Modern Warfare 2 on the Xbox. As I mentioned in my prior review of Call of Duty 4, console FPS isn't really my bag, so my thoughts on the game only touch base with the campaign. And with regards to that, Infinity Ward's got a pretty sweet formula down (for those unfamiliar, it involves lots of explosions and dramatic narratives). It kept me pretty enthralled throughout the entire game, though that's really not long, maybe 5-6 hours tops. Unfortunately, the story in MW2 is extremely convoluted and left a good experience somewhat marred. The gameplay hasn't changed much from the original besides the addition of a few new interesting weapons and technologies, but when you're making a sequel to a near-universally acclaimed game, there isn't much you need to innovate on. One other small bright note though; the grenade spam so prevalent in the first game seems much toned down here.

Moral of the story; if you really need some Modern Warfare 2 in your life, get it on the consoles. Activision is attempting to set a very dangerous precedent with this release, and it is my fear that it will be successful. If not with MW2, than perhaps with publishing Starcraft 2? I know I have not the willpower to resist that purchase. Oh well, only time will tell.