Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

I finished Shadow of Mordor and have been enjoying the DRC as a dessert. The Arkham-style combat with better stealth (I should probably play Assassin’s Creed if it is like this) is just great. There is not a lot of variety in saying it, but I remarked many times, “The gameplay is so good.” It ranges nicely from stalking lone orcs to pit-fighting against dozens, with side dishes of giant monsters, packs of scavengers, and “try using this move!” side missions.

The central story is good. At a couple of points, when you see the obvious stand-ins for characters in The Lord of the Rings, I am torn between being annoyed at the Theoden expy and liking the idea of demonstrating that this is something Saruman does, not a one-time trick with Theoden. The side missions are also good, although the missions to free captive slaves are more or less the same. I briefly resented having weapon-based missions that tried to make me use one particular trick, but it made me get better at the game and I found myself much more effective when I used everything instead of just my favorite tricks.

The difficulty is low, although that is part of how I approached the game. Starting out binging on open world content is a lot like level grinding, so I was stronger than expected for most of the game. The structure of the game also fit quite nicely with how I wanted to play it, rewarding stealth and mobility more than “kick in the door.” Branding came at the perfect time for me, because I was tired of killing enemies only to have them keep respawning; making them permanently yours effectively gave me a progress bar as I took over most of the map. After a very easy Lord of the Hunt DLC, I am finding the Bright Lord DLC somewhat more challenging, as [spoiler] is not as tricked out as Talion.

This has been one of the best games I have played this year, if not the best. Strongly recommended. And oh look, the holiday Steam sales are on their way. Go for the Game of the Year pack.

: Zubon

Sharing, Spoiling, and Scavenger Hunts

Discovery-based fun became harder to design with the internet. Many designers are still working with concepts that made sense in their youth but not in an online world.

Pre-internet, in many games the discovery of hidden things played well as a social game of shared information. Take the Cult of the Vault challenges in the Borderlands games or any similar “find these things hidden in out of the way places” setup. It takes a special kind of obsessive player to catch ’em all because the symbols could be any size, on any surface, half-obstructed, down a dead end you have no reason to visit, etc. It makes a lot more sense to think of this as something you do with your group of friends, and you trade locations or hints on where to find them. On an internet forum, you might do that, pooling information to see who has found what where. That is a great social process. The output of that process is a complete spoiler list, which then eliminates the social game of shared information. That is an undesirable but natural outcome of releasing that sort of game into the internet, where we have become very good at coordinating this sort of information-gathering.

If you are fortunate, you can find a site with tiers of spoilers. Click A for vague hints of where to look, B for narrow ranges and more explicit hints, and C for screenshots or videos. If you are really fortunate, you are playing when many others are playing and can just ask for the right level of spoiler, “am I on the right path here?” And if your gaming friends are local rather than online, you can get back to that social process, perhaps mutated because at least one person in the group will have looked at the full spoiler list.

And so it goes for any hidden but compilable information. If you are on the forefront, with the early adopters and first researchers, you can still participate in that social information game. You can be one of those people compiling information that will eventually be part of a spoiler list, because it is exciting to share where you saw X or how you figured out the formula for Y. But that window is narrow, because if it is happening publicly it can only happen once unless you are part of another group that is going through the same process while explicitly avoiding others’ spoilers.

This may not be a horrible thing. If content locusts are descending on a game and moving on, and you are playing games years after the fact, having the spoilers available to consult is better than nothing after having missed the social game. You need other players to have the social game, and most video games do not sustain populations that way (or the population center moves on to another part of the game so much that it might as well be another game). It is a bit of shame that is happens in days or hours.

If I may reminisce, I remember the early days where complete information was not available. We approached Asheron’s Call’s spell research as if we could create a new spell using the spell components the way you might mix something in a chemistry set, only later realizing that there were fixed spells with fixed formulas (and finding the formula pattern was the shared information project). In the early days of Magic the Gathering, there were rumors of cards because no one know exactly what was in the sets. I usually like my games to have known, fixed parameters, but there is beauty in the unknown.

: Zubon

Kitchen Sink

Realm Grinder‘s development path reminds me of WildStar, in that it is gradually coming to an approach of “just throw everything in and hope it works together.”

One of my first impressions of WildStar was that it decided to use all the systems and hope for synergy. It has races, classes, specializations, paths, factions, and more, most of which have advancement systems built in. It has static quest NPCs, quests that appear in the field, challenges specific to your path, and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few types and their names. There are achievements and unlocks and multiple parallel and overlapping advancement systems, the way other games staple them on between expansions but here building them in from the start. There is crafting and PvP and raids and city upgrades, and any sub-system you can think of from any other game probably exists in WildStar in some form.

For me, those never really gelled into something coherent, but maybe it did for you, and they have had a year or two of development time since I last looked in on them.

Realm Grinder did not have the pre-release development time that WildStar did, but it seems to be following the same path in terms of sub-systems. I mentioned initially that it launched with six factions, so you could range from clicker play to idling to offline. Then heritages let you keep a feature from each faction. Then the unlockable neutral factions launched. Then you could unlock a good or evil prestige faction that stacked on top of the original factions. Then Mercenaries let you combine upgrades from various factions. Then bloodlines let you take a bit of any faction and include it in your current build. The latest major release added research, which has six paths of trait trees themed around the six original factions, where most of it is accessible to all factions but there are faction-specific upgrades in each tree, and it is only available to the original six without using the prestige add-ons. A small update added challenges for the original six factions, which are mostly faction-specific but can provide bonuses across factions. And I might be missing a few in this kluge of limited, general, specific, overlapping, and mutually exclusive upgrade trees. The menus now have sub-menus to store all these buttons. And they are actively adding more, as research for neutral prestige factions is under development.

Despite all that, at any given time, your options are relatively limited and clear. If an option is not available for your faction, it is grayed out or not visible. Once you have chosen a faction and a bloodline, there are no other choices to make until you get to the late game of Mercenaries and research. Other than that, no, you just take everything available. Even the new research system offers more upgrades but not more choices until you get a few reincarnations in, because “select 4 of 4” is not really a dilemma.

If you are not sure which tier of the game you should be in, “the latest one you got access to” is usually the right answer, and failing that look at the order things were added. Each reincarnation you start with one of the base factions, move to a prestige neutral faction, go back for a prestige good faction, switch to Mercenaries, then go on to the research system. It is a lot like playing an MMO, where you go through the expansions in the order they were released. Realm Grinder lacks explicit levels, but it does have lots of numbers measuring your progress, and the major question is when to switch between progress methods (and which one fits your playstyle/time).

: Zubon

Irony

In Boom Beach, there is an enemy base configuration called Fearless. It has lots of big guns, but the enemy headquarters is too close to the beach, so the lossless way to approach it is to bomb the two big guns by the beach, drop tanks to clear a few small guns, then have everyone huddle in the corner like scared children while they safely plink away at the HQ. Perhaps “Fearless” refers to the enemy commander who thought putting his HQ in front of the defenses was a good idea.

: Zubon

Momentum

The loot system for Borderlands is both a selling point and a major problem with the franchise. I dislike Diablo-style loot in general, but Borderlands seems especially damaged by the way you break up your rampage with a stop to compare stats on equipment. Playing the Mechromancer, she comments on how much she loves reading numbers (granted, she’s an engineer and that might not be sarcasm). Games need some downtime, some lows and highs, but this is a poor method for inserting lots of pauses. Again as the Mechromancer, the pauses are especially annoying because a lot of her power comes from a time-limited robot who gets stronger as it racks up kills, so if you pause to read stats, you are wasting time on your robot and losing its extra power if you were on a roll.

The Mechromancer herself gets on a roll. I played through the whole base campaign without using Anarchy because I’m an accuracy-loving kind of gamer. Pet plus sniper rifle made me happy. Returning to New Game+, I have been going with Anarchy, which gives you a lot more of “shoot in this general direction.” But the massive damage is really nice, especially once you get to full stacks. Life is different at +700% damage.

Losing that momentum is basically a “I might as well stop playing” moment. If you die and lose 150 stacks of Anarchy, you now get to go back after whatever killed you while doing 1/8th the damage you were doing before. Good luck with that! Or maybe you didn’t die, just accidentally hit R. Oops, you threw away a lot of work because you pressed a key that is right there, often with the screen chanting at you to press it. Death is usually a break in the action. Reloading is often something you do during a break in the action. Having either potentially end your play session is undesirable.

: Zubon

Kill Ten Orcs

I have been playing Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (I know), and I am finding the gameplay rather satisfying. It uses the same base mechanics as the Batman: Arkham * series, which is good. It is, however, more than a little bloodier. Batman does not kill anyone; Talion puts his sword through every skull he can. That dude’s gotta have some serious upper body strength, the way he’s moving steel in and out of bone.

I need to start paying more attention to the missions. I have been enjoying the open world aspects of it a lot: wander around, sneak up on uruks, gather herbs, maybe find a little boss mission. Most satisfying boss missions? When the captain is vulnerable to ranged attacks. Get in the right position, one fully charged headshot, assassination complete, gg.

: Zubon

PMI Code of Ethics

When getting my PMP certification, one of the principles hammered repeatedly in the training materials was “no gold plating.” “Gold plating” is going beyond the approved project to give the customer more than was asked for. You give the customer exactly what was asked for, says the code of ethics, and you get approval through an integrated change control process if you want to go beyond that.

When crafting in Shop Heroes, you can randomly get a critical success, which raises the quality of an item. Higher quality items are worth more, are stronger, and break less often on quests. The customer, however, ordered a lance, not a good lance, and will not accept a good lance to fill that order. You can spend energy to suggest the good lance (at a higher price) or spend another 10 minutes crafting a lance. If you get “lucky” with crits, that customer might be waiting a half-hour while you keep trying to work down to his standards.

: Zubon

Bad Habits

I decided to play a bit of Borderlands 2 and see the quests I never did back in the day. I also stumbled into the Minecraft Easter egg, which was kind of neat.

I was playing as the Mechromancer. Her bullets bounce off surfaces to hit targets, and she has a pet that flies around to kill things. If you ever want to get in the worst possible FPS habits, play a character who negligently runs around and fires shotgun blasts in the general direction of enemies. And it works. It seems like that should not receive positive reinforcement.

: Zubon

Books

Asheron’s Call had (technically has) in-game paper you could write on. You could get a single sheet or an entire book. This may sound weird to the modern MMO player, but it was important at the time.

RPers, lore-hounds, and fan fiction writers would write stories in them. Some might exist in a single copy, or amateur scriveners might copy from one book to another. There was a library near Hebian-To (and elsewhere, but Hebian-To was the active spot I knew on Morningthaw) where people would gather to read the official in-game stories or share their own. There was not such a thing as a bookshelf where you could contribute player-written lore, but people might drop books for others to find or stand about as librarians/booksellers.

Beyond RP, books were extremely useful because Asheron’s Call came out in 1999. In 1999 you did not have wikis, extensive spoiler sites, or even a second monitor to refer to while playing on the other. Even if you had a second monitor, as the previous sentence suggests, finding info was a different matter; Google was still a new thing at the time, founded in 1998. Having a book of locations and directions was really helpful, and getting a book of location coordinates from a guild leader patron was a huge boon for a new player.

Sometimes it does not feel that long ago, and sometimes I remember that some of our readers have never known a world without MMOs.

: Zubon

Humble Monthly

The Humble Bundle folks are trying something new, a monthly subscription service. So you pre-pay for games without knowing which games. That sounds bad.

Spending $150/year on games I don’t know and probably won’t play seems like a bad investment. In the early days of Humble Bundle, I bought quite a few out of a mix of supporting the charity of the week and the indie developer of the week. Years later, my Steam catalog is bloated, and I have liked a small percentage of the games. Over time, the Humble offerings have expanded in various directions, and they more or less feel like a perpetual Steam yard sale on indie games through a different store front.

If I had more trust in their curating, this would probably be a great deal. If you buy almost every Humble Bundle, this is for you. If you maybe see a few games you like every few Bundles, bad. And I’m not especially sold on LootCrate-style deals where you pay someone to go buy things for you, but then I have rather niche tastes for my major interests.

: Zubon