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

[GW2] The First Raid

Last night with a new higher coordination strategy my guild took down the first boss in the first wing of Guild Wars 2’s first raid. We did it with half of our team downed at the last 30 seconds or so before the Vale Guardian would get enraged. ArenaNet’s first foray into the realm of raiding is quite good for high difficulty, coordinated group content, and I feel if the winds of Guild Wars 2 shifted with Heart of Thorns, that wind has turned to gale force.

Vale Guardian Overview

The first boss has many pretty simple mechanics, and I have to say with the combination of these, ArenaNet has forged a very intense encounter. The main mechanics are (1) boss leashing, usually with a single high-toughness tank, (2) slowly moving pulse damage AoE’s (seekers), (3) teleport AoE’s, and (4) the circle of lightning wipe. In later phases there is also a (5) bullet-hell break bar and (6) pie-shaped floor-is-lava. Mid-phases occur as well where the boss splits to the three pieces of pie.

What ArenaNet gets really right is that builds matter. For the seekers, they can only really be knock backed. They aren’t adds in the kill sense. They are just floating balls of AoE damage, which can turn from a nuisance to death easily. So, it is usually required that a couple people be on “beater” duty to knock any swarthy seekers away from the DPS (damage-per-second) pile. All of the sudden bear bow knockback can be pretty good!

With mid-phases and the wipe circles, group builds also matter. Mid-phases require condition builds because one of the three split bosses can only be damaged with conditions. The split bosses can also only be killed by destroying their very resilient breakbar which requires stuns, knockdowns, and more knockbacks. The wipe circles usually occur away from the boss melee range so four people have to run in to the wipe circle before it wipes the group. Without a ranged weapon that can be a serious DPS loss.

Already this is quite different from the dungeon fare of stack might, stack self, and swing away.

Vale Guardian Review

The progression of the boss is very good. The first phase is pretty easy. The third phase (after the second phase of a boss split) isn’t so bad because only one piece of the tri-piece pie has a damaging floor. The final phase gets to breakneck speed as only piece of the pie is safe to stand on and there are extra seekers. On Friday night we were barely making it past the third phase. Last night we were hitting the third phase almost every time.

Each mechanic also gets some depth, which adds to the level of achievable player skill. For instance, the teleport AoE’s are easy enough to walk away from since they are about the size of a player and give a few seconds of warning. However, they can also be dodged, and skilled players can be less careful of finding that hard-to-judge safe spot where they can maintain DPS by simply dodging through all the scattered teleport AoE’s. The wipe circle also has some depth in that it will only appear in the pie pieces where players are standing. If players keep to one pie piece (which is what they should do), then it is much easier for the group of 4 to go stand in the wipe circle when it appears. However, if one unlucky soul gets teleported on to lava floor just as a wipe circle looks for a place to spawn… well, that’s a tough bit to pull through.

We were not the best group composition. We were definitely close, but I was a condition necro with all ascended Sinister gear except for exotic Sinister armor (since I was asked only last week to look into being a condition build). The groupthink appears to be that only condition engineers should be brought with their high potential for DPS. If nothing else I should have at least been in all ascended viper gear, right?

We also made many mistakes on the final run. Lots of players went downed. We weren’t knocking away seekers very well throughout the entire boss fight. Players weren’t being very careful of what pie they were standing in or watching for teleports in the final phase, which are just about a death sentence. There was definitely room for improvement. Yet, we won. Many pick-up-groups (PUGs) have beaten Vale Guardian. It’s “raid” hard, not really hard.

Enraged Berserker

What I don’t like about the raids is the enrage timer. For the Vale Guardian there is an 8-minute timer. After 8 minutes the Vale Guardian gets 200% damage boost. So basically it can start one-shotting players with ease. Last night we weren’t really having trouble with that in part because we were largely composed of “meta”-capable builds such as revenants and what not. We kicked a PUG dragonhunter (ranged guardian) because the commander wanted a chronomancer (time-warping mesmer) to add more group DPS.

The timer compounds the pressure that already fairly exists. Yet, it also homogenizes the current groupthink towards “supported glass”-builds, which was acidicly prevalent in the time of Guild Wars 2 dungeons. We only wiped once due to enrage last night, and at that point it didn’t matter anyway because we were so scattered. The mechanics of the fight were good enough to keep us on our toes.

What I don’t like is that the timer presses group builds towards an edge. It doesn’t want to seem to allow builds where DPS is sacrificed for some survivability. I feel the raid could be a lot more fun if more players felt they could bring knockbacks or spread the healing out instead of DPS, DPS, DPS. Raids, I feel could be more fun, without that extra pressure. Groups can employ a wider range of builds instead of going towards that one.

Now, I fully agree that an enrage timer probably needs to exist. A group of 10 players in nomad gear, which is full tanky gear, grinding away at the boss for half an hour should probably not be feasible. Yet, I feel with only 8 minutes on the timer for this boss (I think the final wing boss has less?), it is too razor’s edge. ArenaNet had a beautiful chance to push a variety of builds, professions, and play, and I feel the timer undercuts that all.

This erodes the “play the player, not the class” philosophy that so many believe Guild Wars 2 to promote since the playerbase believes that certain classes are required. There are also classes that are deemed worthless. Thief is the main one it seems, but necros and rangers and even guardians appear lower in the pile. Is ArenaNet going to raise their “raid stock” somehow? They didn’t with necros and rangers throughout all of the dungeon age.

To be devil’s advocate, according to Dulfy the Vale Guardian has 22,000,000 HP. With the enrage timer and 1 minute per split phase that requires a per-player DPS of about 6,000 damage-per-second. As a sub-optimal condition necro, I’d say I was hitting 6,000 DPS pretty easily with some spiked up to 10k, and some hardcore raiders boast 20k+ DPS at spike, which when averaged out saves crucial seconds for the whole group.

So many mechanics affect DPS. For example, there are +10% attack speed mushrooms located at the three-pie piece pillars around the arena. Hitting those is a very nice DPS boost. Not being teleported is another huge DPS sustain. Not being downed another one. Knocking seekers away so they don’t affect players trying to DPS is a big one that we struggled with.

Yet, what I think this adds up to the player path of least resistance is that relying on internalized DPS (full DPS glass gear) is easier than relying on skill, therefore go DPS. I believe ArenaNet has likely created, for at least this first boss of the wing, an encounter that can be killed without full glass DPS players, but the skill required to do so is higher. The reliance on group cohesion is higher. It’s much easier for players to go full glass and pick up for other players mistakes.

 Fin

Ultimately, Guild Wars 2’s raids are a serious boon to the game. I haven’t felt that small group struggle since perhaps getting to the Hall of Monuments in Guild Wars 1 so long ago.  Guild Wars 2 had many similar moments of triumph, but it was a triumph of the herd led by a few commanders. With 10 players it becomes a lot less hive-like where a few dead drones are necessary.

I am hoping that as players get familiar with the raid mechanics, the community will open up a bit more to teach players wanting to try out raids. I think ArenaNet succeeded in making difficult group content, but I hope in the end the acidic, exclusive raider mentality doesn’t grow roots in my favorite MMO.

I am definitely looking forward to taking on boss 2 (Gorseval!) as well as running more guildies through the Vale Guardian.

–Ravious

p.s. If you haven’t read Jeromai’s thoughts, they are pretty good and thorough!

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

[GW2] Four Map’s Metas, pt. 2

The first part dealt with the really good entry in to the Heart of Thorns’ map metas. Now we get in to territory that I feel could use some smoothing.

Thanks to Aspeon who commented on there being an event timer, which is super helpful! I personally like GW2 Ninja’s, but I believe it’s kind of all the same.

Tangled Depths Overview

Much like the first two maps Tangled Depth is about the outposts. There are four, similar to Auric Basin, and again like Auric Basin building them up helps the final meta event.  Continue reading [GW2] Four Map’s Metas, pt. 2

[GW2] Four Map’s Metas, pt. 1

The Heart of Thorns expansion brought with it four new open world PvE maps. Each map has a “meta”, a map-wide goal, much like the core Dry Top and Silverwastes. Overall, there is good and bad. I hope that ArenaNet takes the time to smooth out the rougher issues, and I hope they learn from what works.

To just jump in, the overall issue I have is the player knowledge requirement of when a map starts. I have to remember that the Auric Basin boss occurs on the odd hour. I think Verdant Brink resets half an hour earlier with night then occurring an hour and twenty minutes later. No idea about Tangled Depths, which is not fun, and Dragon’s Stand does its own thing.

It was easy enough to learn one map, Dry Top, which reset on the hour, every hour. Silverwastes, like the new Dragon’s Stand, was map dependent; although, the latter is timed. Now there are a bunch of new maps with varied start times, and I feel that there needs to be something in-game, such as the map UI, that tells players the timed status of the map. Then armed with that knowledge, and knowledge of how long I can play, I can make pretty good decisions on what I want to do. Anyway, off to each map… Continue reading [GW2] Four Map’s Metas, pt. 1

[GW2] Masteries and Markets, Part 2

Besides masteries, the other giant gameplay piece is the markets. They are moving and shaking! The current drivers are precursor crafting, guild halls, scribe crafting, and collections. Plus, ArenaNet really brought the stock up on a lot of items.

With precursor crafting, the big ticket is getting to and getting through the second tier. I have been working on Dawn, a greatsword precursor, and I really enjoyed getting through Tier 1. It was a collection where I basically had to save the free peoples of the realm. Very thematic. I did it, got my flash new recipe for creating the first step and hit a gorram wall. This crappy, mangled weapon required 10 Elonian leather and 30 Deldrimor ingots! Leather raised in stock quite a bit from that step alone, which is there in some fashion, I believe, for every precursor’s precursor. Continue reading [GW2] Masteries and Markets, Part 2