Shadow Wars

I finished Middle-earth: Shadow of War. Apparently, when they removed the cash shop, they also removed the grind from the epilogue. What I expected to be a multi-week slog was instead a few quests, and I could have completed it in a night had I not been pacing myself for a marathon.

The downside of the epilogue content is stacking up the pace-breaking captain messages. Enemy captains announce themselves when they see you, and you get a message every time an allied or enemy captain dies by anyone’s hand. By “message,” I don’t mean a bit of text. I mean stopping the game for 5-20 seconds for an unskippable cut scene. In the fortress assaults and defenses, there might be more than a dozen captains. Nothing breaks your rhythm in a game like pausing every 10-30 seconds for 5-20 seconds during big fight scenes. It is usually not that bad, but once heads start rolling, they keep rolling and keep pausing the game.

The endgame is basically the answer to “I wish I could keep doing this forever.” The fundamental gameplay of the series is good, so if you just want to keep killing orcs and captains, you will never run out of orcs and captains. I have had a great many games where I have kept playing just because I enjoyed playing, and I very well might pop into Shadow of War again. I expect to play a bit further and try the expansion content.

The game as a whole is fun. It is mixed, but it is fun. The pacing is a bit off, although I don’t know how much of that is the original design versus what has been added and removed since release. Removing the cash shop was a big thing, and it let me buy the game. I was not interested in buying a single-player game with lootboxes.

: Zubon

Although really, how often do we play our MMOs as single-player games?

Difficulty and Luck

Playing a bit more Sentinels and looking in on the community, I find that some of the heroes and villains are extremely swingy and can go from steamroller to steamrolled based on a lucky draw, especially at higher difficulties. Cosmic Omnitron can potentially defeat the heroes during initial setup, Citizen Dawn can potentially prevent the players from ever having any cards to play (not a technical first turn loss, but a guaranteed loss from setup), and Wager Master can potentially win or lose on the first turn.

Some people like the higher difficulty and say it feels like a more satisfying win when you overcome the opponent. I look at that, and it feels more like luck that you had a chance to win at all. You can make the right decisions and improve your odds, but even at their base difficulty, villains like Cosmic Omnitron and Akash’bhuta can get a lucky draw and play 10 cards in a turn. Granted, that can effectively be an enrage timer, in that you need to defeat the villain before that roll of the dice comes up, but it still makes winning and losing more of a roll of the dice than I usually like in my strategy games.

I am using Sentinels of the Multiverse as my example here, but it is far from the only game where the challenging content has a significant luck-based factor on whether it is “challenging” or “impossible” (or, if luck goes the other way, “accidentally trivial”). That’s not a satisfying challenge for me.

: Zubon

Sentinels of the Multiverse

I have been playing more Sentinels of the Multiverse and digging it. I have been playing the solo, computer version, so I cannot speak to the original, intended experience, but this has been entertaining.

I was initially down on the game, as the link suggests. The base game has some content, but most of it comes from its various expansions, so you start the game and immediately see that 90+% of the content is behind a paywall. It’s not even a bad monetization system. The base game is inexpensive, and the additional content is available both in discounted packs and in very small units if you want only a subset. But it is not a good welcome to the game.

After being down on it, I played through all the original content at all difficulty levels, because I started having fun after giving it a fair shake. It is entertaining. You get superheroes, you beat up supervillains. The difficulty is not that high, except when it is; different villains and environments have different difficulty ratings, and some of them synergize, and some heroes work better or worse for each. Not knowing going in, you basically have a crapshoot and may end up with a team missing something really important for that villain, or you may steamroll. With some foreknowledge of what is in each deck, you can definitely steamroll even the higher difficulties, although ridiculously perverse pulls from the villain deck are possible (and counterable, if you have the perfect cards in hand).

Lately, I have been unlocking the variant characters. You can do this for free with a click, but I have been going through the story challenges. Some of those are simple, like “put Bunker in all three of his modes during one game.” Others can be extremely particular, like defeating a villain with a specific card with another card in play after using two other specific cards in a certain order, or recursively demanding. I was listing what you need to do to unlock the Freedom Five, but it was so long I got tired in the first phase of it. You need to unlock ten characters and intentionally lose at least four games, and then you can set up a particular lengthy fight. Basically, you are recreating part of the backstory of the game, and over time the developers have been defining “recreate” more narrowly or using more complex bits of story. Engineering the right circumstances can be an interesting juggling act as you need the fight to go long enough to cause X, but you cannot cause Y, and hero A must be incapacitated but hero B cannot and maybe C needs to deal the final damage.

And then you can stop that nonsense and go back to an old fashioned slugfest, which is the base fun of the game. You get to play superheroes, have some neat abilities, and fight villains with neat abilities that you can counter or just brute force through.

An acquaintance was enthusiastic about the original version of this game a long time ago. I probably should have listened then. This is not the best cooperative game I have seen, but it has been fun enough for me to want to buy more of it and play with the other heroes, villains, and environments. And the latest stuff has team and villain modes, which I have not touched yet, so there are still multiverses to visit.

: Zubon

Shadow of War

I finished Act III of Middle-earth: Shadow of War, and I do not know if I really need to complete the epilogue. At its best, it will be more of Act II; at its worst, it is a famous grind.

Shadow of War released to much anger as it included microtransactions (mostly loot boxes) in a single player game. That deserves all the hate it got and more. That was removed from the game before I got it; we all have a responsibility not to reward that sort of monetization, but we can be forgiving of mistakes.

Shadow of War has basically the same gameplay as Shadow of Mordor, which has basically the same gameplay at the Batman Arkham series, which is good. Even at its worst, the basic gameplay is good. Shadow of War/Mordor replaces the gadgets with magic powers. It does stealth better than the Batman series with a more satisfying open world.

Act II of Shadow of War is the heart of the game and the series. If “more of the same” sounds great after Shadow of Mordor, or after having played that a long while ago, Act II of Shadow of War is exactly what you want in life. It can feel like a bit of a grind, in that you are doing the same thing in several lands, but hunting orcs is what the game is about. The Act II storylines are OK, not stellar, but generally enjoyable. The main storyline is good; Carnan’s storyline is a tour of the game’s beasts, which is the equivalent of the vehicle section in most similar games.

Act III is very good. It is short, but it culminates the story nicely with a great dark reprise. The first part of it is better; the actual climax fight is rather easy, is interesting for its characters but not its mechanics, and ends in a willfully unresolved story bit. OK, fine, but the dark reprise makes everything worth it. It may even push me into and through the epilogue grind.

I have my gripes, but ultimately Shadow of War does what it is supposed to. It is an open world game where you dominate and murder orcs. The story takes seriously what is going on, rather than ignoring that your hero’s methods are enslavement and murder. You get your power fantasy violence, your self-sacrificing heroism, and your moral reflection.

But you’re probably here for the violence, which is executed well.

: Zubon

Godzilla in Mordor

I put off getting Middle-earth: Shadow of War for a long time because of the initial loot box issues, which I believe are gone now (at least in the PC version). And, of course, waiting on a Steam sale.

My first impression while playing is that “more of the same” of this formula is a good thing, whether you have another of these games, an Arkham Batman game, Assassin’s Creed, whatever. I like the stealth and combo gameplay with collectibles and quests.

My next impression was that the game has inelegant complexity of the “let’s throw in everything” sort, starting with all the complexity of the original and embellishing it at every point possible, such as adding specialization options to each skill, adding loot with quests and unlocks and levels, adding several categories of variables to orcs, and adding several new subsystems including a follower grind. But then I got enough practice and character capacity to murder my way out of most issues, which is what the game is about.

Just yesterday I got to the kaiju fight. Amongst the things I was expecting in a Middle-earth game, a Pacific Rim-style kaiju fight against a balrog was NOT on the list. But you know? That was an amazing moment. Half of that quest/fight amounted to an extended quicktime event, but I will forgive that for a kaiju fight against a balrog.

: Zubon

Currency Degradation

Monetary policy as a major electoral issue feels like a weird thing in American history. William Jennings Bryan and the cross of gold speech, bimetallism, all that — reading about it in high school, I understood that it related to farmers’ debts, but currency reform as a primary presidential issue? What?

As a gamer, especially in MMOs, this should resonate with us all now. Continue reading Currency Degradation

Differing Pasttimes

This is not exactly a new insight, but I still occasionally find it odd that people find it odd that people spend X amount of time on games, when they spend >2*X amount of time on television.

Last year, I completed the 10×10 challenge, which is to play 10 board games each 10 times. That’s 100 games, and that would be an undercount in that you play other games (just not 10 times) and you might play more than 10 times. So that is way more than the average American plays board games, even counting “board games” broadly to include card games like poker.

But that is still just two games per week, and you are below the average American if you watch two television shows per day. Heck, I’ve known people to watch two episodes of Law & Order per day pretty consistently. It would not be odd to watch two movies per week, and most movies are longer than most board games.

Gaming is not exactly an obscure hobby these days. Everyone has games on their phones. I suppose treating any hobby seriously and intentionally is unusual.

: Zubon

AlphaStar: Maybe?

Big news in gaming this past week is that Google DeepMind turned its attention to another game and had a dominating victory, this time StarCraft II. But are we seeing the same sort of thing we did with Go and Chess? I’m not sure, and I am probably not going to look deeply enough to make a judgment, but I wanted to pass along a couple of links.

For those who missed previous DeepMind adventures: Google has a machine learning setup that it is turning loose on games with amazing results. Go was long considered a space where humans would continue to beat computers because it has a very large decision space. As it turns out, no, modern computers can trounce that, and AlphaGo is the best player in the world, getting even better when it completely ignores the human history of playing Go and starts with only the rules, playing itself millions of times. AlphaGo was so good that human commentators could not see what it was doing and were laughing at its “mistakes” as it beat the best human players alive. Oh, it turns out humans have been playing Go suboptimally for hundreds of years. And then AlphaGo got better.

StarCraft II is a similarly large next jump, a game without perfect information, in real time, with an even larger decision space. I can just point you towards the DeepMind AlphaStar post on it. AlphaStar can beat professional StarCraft II players, apparently pretty consistently. You can see more discussion from the team at their Reddit AMA.

I found this counterpoint rather compelling. The argument is that AlphaStar is winning through superhuman clicking capabilities, not superhuman strategy as was the case in Go. AlphaStar was, so the argument goes, executing strategies dependent on perfect micro, telling individual units where to move and attack. AlphaStar will always win fights between even numbers because it can perceive and act quickly enough to target individual shots, and its strategic difference is favoring units where this advantage matters more in terms of perfect placement.

I am not qualified to comment on the extent to which AlphaStar is making human-imitating spam clicks versus effective clicks. I do find it compelling to point out that AlphaStar engages in 1500+ APM at critical moments, particularly the example of having three units teleport simultaneously to three different points for an attack. Even if you were capable of perfect precision, I cannot see a human using the mouse and keyboard fast enough to do that … while also engaging in 19 other clicks in the same second. Being able to act without an interface and off camera is really big, and it is not the sort of mastery intended here.

AlphaStar is intended to demonstrate human-equivalent or -superior decision-making. If it instead teaches itself to exploit human-superior clicking, that can lead to a win but not the goal, like the machine learning story about the computer who learned to win games by making the opposing computer crash. That is not winning within the game.

In the end, though, this is probably the most important comment. Yes, there is a lot to be considered in terms of what restrictions the computer needs in terms of speed and accuracy, but ultimately this was the proof of concept. With more time and practice, we should expect AlphaStar to do amazing things within the game.

And remember, AlphaGo got better than any human had ever been by learning from humans. It got better than that by learning on its own. Twice.

: Zubon

Customizable Difficulty

One feature I enjoy in Slay the Spire and Spirit Island is that both games have highly customizable difficulty, both in type and degree. This lets you pick how difficult (or easy) you want your game to be.

Slay the Spire has its base game and then Ascension. There are 20 levels of Ascension, each of which dials up the difficulty a little more, usually by adjusting a number or two. About half the levels are increasing the damage, health, and movesets of normal, elite, and boss enemies.

Slay the Spire also has custom runs, which let you pick one or many modifiers to the game. Want more control over your starting hand? Here are several options. Want more randomness? More options. Harder fights, easier fights, trading off one thing for another? Screens of options. Or try the daily mode for a random set.

Slay the Spire also supports mods now, so you can adjust the game to the limits of your competence.

Spirit Island has its base game and then adversaries. You can decide that your invaders come from one of four European nations, each of which has base modifiers and then levels 1-6 of increased difficulty. The “base” difficulty of each nation varies, so the game comes with a chart showing how each adversary & level ranks on a scale of 1-10. (They considered having the “levels” just be the difficulty level, but it caused more confusion trying to explain why the numbers might be “1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10,” and then people referred to the top level as “six” anyway.) The next expansion adds more adversaries and a way to combine them for stacking difficulty. And then there are two levels of lowered difficulty (which can stack). (I should try dialing difficulty all the way up and all the way down at once.)

Spirit Island also has scenarios, which let you pick a set of modifiers to the game. Most of these make the game more difficult. All of them make the game different. One makes everything faster, one focuses on guarding the island’s center and another the island’s coast, and another adds a chance for random buffs to the spirits or invaders. Several add and remove win and loss conditions. I am particularly fond of one named “Second Wave” that lets you keep the same island after completing a game, reset some variables, then keep playing with new spirits.

Sometimes you want to try new things. Sometimes you want to challenge your limits. Sometimes you want to faceroll.

: Zubon