Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Servers Gone Wild(Star)

Today marked the first day of Wildstar's pre-release name reservation system, whereby people that had pre-ordered the game (like myself) would be able to log in and reserve a name for use once the game launches later this month. Sounds cool, right? A guaranteed way to be able to get your chosen name ahead of time instead of having to race everyone else on launch day for it. Well...not so much.

Being merciful: it was poorly executed; to be less merciful: it was a shambles from beginning to end.

To begin with, the name reservation system was meant to go live at 1pm Central, but once 1pm Central rolled around with the system (a) nowhere in sight, and (b) the site running as fast as molasses uphill, Carbine pushed the time forward to 3pm Central. Oh well, these things happen. Cue 3pm Central, and the site is almost unusable still. Half the time it didn't show that you were logged in correctly, and then even when it did, the "Reserve" button did not actually do anything. After 90 minutes of constantly refreshing the page, hoping the "Reserve" button showed up and actually connected me to the system correctly, I finally seemed to get through and was able to reserve my chosen name. I was wanting to hit something by the end of it though, as the process was about as annoying as something gets without you being able to divorce it. Carbine repeated their mantra that their site was under heavy load and people should just continue to keep trying, all through the afternoon, before one of their devs posted on Reddit that there were some background issues affecting the site that they were trying to track down.

Then, a couple of hours ago when I went to double-check that the reservations were still there, I found that I had to again reserve them. What happened to the reservation from earlier? Did it vanish into the ether like some kind of electoral manifesto pledge? What would have happened if someone else had tried to reserve my names in those intervening few hours? Why am I asking you all these questions? Either way, I duly reserved them - again - and this time they seem to be sticking, for now at least.

I feel this whole situation was handled very poorly by Carbine, which is annoying because I genuinely like almost everything they have done with regards to Wildstar, both in terms of the game's development choices and the obvious good humour they have placed in the game and its promotion. As highly as I think of them though, I can't give them a pass for the sloppiness they dished out today. It needed to be a much simpler system, perhaps incorporating some kind of queue so that constant refreshing / prayer wasn't required in order to try and reserve your name of choice. Carbine knew exactly how many pre-orders they have sold up to this point, and should have been able to gauge extremely accurately the amount of load they would need to plan for in these first couple of days of the system going live. No one is looking for perfection (and if you are then you're going to be sorely disappointed, in all walks of life), but when mistakes are made based on information already known at the time, that's when my patience and good grace is tested, and judging by the Internet I am not the only one to think like this today.

Here's the bottom line: Wildstar looks like a great game, and based on what I've played of the beta, it delivers as a cutting-edge MMO experience. I like the game, and I like Carbine, but they are fast going to lose people's good wishes if they have many repeats of today's nonsense. Some people have already tried to draw parallels between the name reservation debacle and how the launch of the game will be; I for one think it's far too early to draw those sorts of conclusions. Even the best of us has a bad day on occasion, and Carbine have done too many good things for me to write them off over one incident. At the same time, if things like this happen again in the future then it becomes a pattern, not a one-off. Right now it is a one-off - and let's hope that's where it stays.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Wildstar vs. The Elder Scrolls Online

Thanks to both of the NDAs being lifted on each of these games (Wildstar's first, to no one's surprise) I wanted to give a run-down of what you can expect from these if you choose to pick one or both up.

I played a few beta weekends for Wildstar, and a couple for TESO. Wildstar is very fun and innovative, with fresh twists on established MMO mechanics, and TESO, well, isn't.

I half-considered ending this piece there, but I suspect most of you will want more details, so here goes...

Wildstar is just plain fun. I've been following its development for a couple of years, (and watching the dev team's awesome Devspeak videos) so was familiar with the tone and setting of the game, and whilst there's not a great deal terribly original (other than Paths, which I'll touch on), the game is extremely polished, looks and runs amazing, and is just generally very fun to play. It's your usual MMO fare, so pick a faction, pick a race, pick a class, and uniquely for Wildstar you also have to pick a Path. Paths essentially let you play the game the way you want, and tailor to different playstyles; there are four available: Soldier, Explorer, Scientist, and Settler. The Soldier receives special combat quests, the Explorer receives jumping and cartography quests, the Scientist gets quests to find and identify new objects and species, and finally the Settler constructs new outposts and waystations that give anyone that uses them various buffs and protections. This is one of Wildstar's best features, and really sets it apart from any other MMO. I personally played an Explorer, and some of the jumping puzzles were quite devious in their own way.

Wildstar's "telegraph" system is something that's been seen in other MMOs, but not quite to this quality or scale. Essentially, every mob (and even your own abilities) will place down patterns on the ground to show where they are about to strike, and it's up to you to move out of the way before the attack completes and hits you. Different mobs have different telegraphs, and if you let some of them connect they can outright kill you in one hit, so it's best to try and avoid them when possible. This adds a bit more interactivity to MMO combat than I've seen before, and puts the onus firmly on the player to survive, instead of being able to blame the RNG for an unlucky hit. Essentially, if you die it's because you suck at avoiding being hit.

Questing is fun, if not terribly original. In addition to receiving quests from the zone you will also receive quests based on whichever Path you selected. There are group quests, which often require needing to kill a large raid-type boss with a group, or several groups if they're strong. Housing becomes available at level 14, and PvP is also something you can do, although I haven't yet. Carbine also have a lot planned for endgame (for max level characters), including 40-man raids (as well as easier 20-man raids), instanced areas, dungeons, and open PvP. Hamidon, this is not. Ok, I've talked up Wildstar enough, and it's time to turn to the elephant in the room.

So...The Elder Scrolls Online...well, it's not enjoyable, or at least it wasn't for me, nor for around five people I know who all tried it, none of whom particularly liked it. Essentially, when I was playing TESO (admittedly this was about 2 - 3 months ago; I'm sure some things have likely changed since then) it felt like I was playing an early alpha of a game that was being made five years ago. The graphics were...functional, I guess, but nothing amazing to look at. Combat was again, functional, but really not memorable in any special way. The devs have commented that their AI is "groundbreaking", but I can't say that I personally noticed much in that direction.

Beginning at the start though, the warning bells for TESO were ringing even in the tutorial. First off, the game is fully-voiced (unlike Wildstar) and the voice actors themselves are pretty stellar, including Michael Gambon (Albertus Dumbledore from most of the Harry Potter films), John Cleese (Monty Python, A Fish Called Wanda), Jennifer Hale (Femshep from the Mass Effect series) and Kate Beckinsale (from most of the Underworld films), amongst others. So yes, the voice acting is great. Sadly, it's downhill from there. Half way through the tutorial I found a rack where you could see various weapons, and needed to choose one for your character to start with. I clicked one, tried it out, and then tried to click another, only to find that you get to choose one and that's it. In pretty much every tutorial I've played you get to mess around with whatever weapons and abilities you want before making a final selection; not so in TESO, and this put a bad taste in my mouth right from the get-go. You can switch between first and third-person at will, which is a nice touch, but finding interesting things to do is a laborious exercise. Unfortunately, much of the game world is simply empty, marked by rocks, or trees, but not much else, not even random mobs on which to grind experience. TESO's world doesn't actually feel like one, but instead feels like a group of staging areas set one after the other.

TESO's UI's is also clunky, and was clearly designed for fans of the Elder Scrolls series. You don't get a minimap, just a compass at the top of your screen which gives you the general heading for certain quest locations. I am very anti-compass and pro-minimap, so this was particularly aggravating for me, needing to open the full map constantly to properly see where I was actually going. Some quests were interesting, but the totality of the problems were just making me not particularly enjoy the experience, and after a few hours I quit and did not look back. So, full disclosure: maybe the game gets tons better down the line (I think I was 5 - 6 when I stopped), but I kinda doubt it. It's my belief that Wildstar is going to blow TESO out of the water for sheer enjoyment. The only saving grace for TESO may be the number of Elder Scrolls fans out there, because if you loved Morrowind and Skyrim then you're probably going to like TESO a lot more than the average person, such as myself. Still though, I don't think there are enough Elder Scrolls fans in the universe to be able to keep this subscription-only game going; at this point I think Zenimax are attempting to recoup as much of their development expenses through box sales and subscriptions as they can, before converting the game to free-to-play down the line. I will be stunned if there has been no free-to-play announcement for TESO within a year of its release.

This will be the World of Warcraft vs. EverQuest Star Trek Online vs. Star Wars: The Old Republic Guild Wars 2 vs. The Secret World of our time. Two big MMOs enter, but who will be left standing at the end? It's my sincere belief that Wildstar is the superior game, and the one worthy of spending your hard-earned money on. The release dates are right around the corner (4th April for TESO, 3rd June for Wildstar) so it won't be a guessing game for much longer. Go Wildstar!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Upcoming Games Of 2014 - Part 2

Getting back into it, we begin with...


Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Expected: 11th March 2014 (NA), 13th March 2014 (EU)

This may be Respawn's first game but don't be fooled, this was the studio formed by Jason West and Vince Zampella following their firing from Infinity Ward by Activision in 2010. They formerly masterminded the Call of Duty series, including Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2, before the unceremonious break-up which resulted in them taking legal action against Activision (the suit was later settled, reportedly very much in West and Zampella's favour).

At first glance Titanfall might seem like your average sci-fi space mech combat fare, but dig a little deeper and there's more going on here. It may not be exactly re-inventing the wheel, but Titanfall looks to combine the best elements of the most popular shooters in recent history, incorporating elements of Tribes (wall-running), Mechwarrior (the, er, mechs, aka Titans) and utilising Valve's Source engine (that powers games such as Portal, Portal 2, and Team Fortress 2) to boot. March is only a couple of months away, so it won't be a long wait to see whether their Call of Duty success was a flash in the pan or an indicator of grander things to come.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Developer: CD Projekt RED
Publisher: CD Projekt / Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Expected: Q2 2014

The latest title in The Witcher series, Wild Hunt continues the story of Geralt, protagonist of the first two games. Sporting the all-new REDEngine 3, the game looks phenomenal in the screenshots and videos released so far by CD Projekt RED, and certainly seems to rival The Division for best-looking engine of this new generation of games.

The Witcher 3 is said to sport the largest world of any open-world game released to date, with the developers boasting that its environment is "20% bigger than Skyrim", which is certainly noteworthy. Hopefully the title will have the gameplay to back that up. Wild Hunt is also said to be 64-bit only due to the new game engine; given that most PC gamers worth their sodium are already using 64-bit CPUs and OS' then this shouldn't be a problem, and is likely one of the big reasons why the visual fidelity of the game looks so exquisite.

Expect to see a release date announced for this very shortly.

Watch Dogs

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Expected: Q2 2014

The game that took 2013's E3 by storm, Watch Dogs looks to combine an open world (in this case: a near-future Chicago) together with open-ended gameplay, with an emphasis on technology. Hacking traffic lights, cell phones, reading people's emails and obtaining personal information, this is what Watch Dogs is about. Essentially it seems like a slightly lower-tech Deus Ex: Human Revolution, although not linear.

I'll come right out with it: the game looks amazing.

We were already meant to have our hands on it, but the original release date of November 2013 was delayed by Ubisoft, with a spring 2014 now promised, and the extra time being used for "additional polish". I have a hard getting angry with developers and publishers when they are going to use the time to improve the game, especially when it's something like Watch Dogs which from everything I have seen and read looks like it could be something truly spectacular.

Hopefully we'll see a concrete release date going up for this in the very near future.


Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix
Expected: 25th February 2014 (NA), 28th February 2014 (EU)

Last but not least we have the reboot of Thief, the stealth series popular in the late 90s and early 2000s. The protagonist from the original games, Garrett, returns in this new title, and he must again satisfy his Robin Hood-esque compulsion to steal from the rich whilst remaining undetected, and using shadows, stealth, and subtlety to his advantage.

Following the success of Dishonored, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and even indie games such as Mark of the Ninja, stealth seems to be back in fashion, and Thief was one of the genre's original progenitors. Hopefully it can make a welcome return after a decade's absence, as I know many people think of it rather fondly.

And that's about it. No doubt there will be surprises from left-field in gaming this year, but hopefully there will be more than a couple on this list which actually turn out to be worth the wait.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Upcoming Games Of 2014 - Part 1

Time once again for my round-up of the best looking games that aim to be gracing store shelves in 2014.

In no particular order, we begin with...

Dragon Age: Inquisition

Developer: EA BioWare
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Expected: Q4 2014

The third game in the Dragon Age series, Inquisition is looking to roll back some significant mis-steps BioWare made with Dragon Age II, generally considered to be a lacklustre sequel to one of the best RPGs of all time, Dragon Age: Origins.

Highly reused environments are out, replaced by a large open(er) world with a much greater emphasis on exploring, rather than being shepherded down a tightly-controlled linear path. The overhead camera, sorely missing in DA2, makes a welcome reappearance, as will being able to give item drops to party members, rather than most of them being locked solely to your main character.

It's been a rocky few years for BioWare, with Dragon Age II, The Old Republic, and Mass Effect 3 all under-performing, both in terms of sales and quality. Can BioWare turn it around? I hope so, but my phasers are set to "cautiously optimistic" on this one.

Tom Clancy's The Division

Developer: Ubisoft Massive
Publisher: Ubisoft
Expected: Q4 2014

A title that seemingly came out of left-field at 2013's E3 but went on to win many Game of the Show accolades, The Division is a tactical third-person shooter set in New York after a rampant pandemic has left the city a wasteland. You'll need to find friends, gather supplies, neutralise threats, and find a way to survive in harsh environments following the catastrophe.

The Division is probably the single most beautiful game I have seen so far of all the next-gen engines. Running on Ubisoft's Snowdrop engine, from the video I will link at the end you will see it looks absolutely stunning. The multiplayer operates in a persistent world, so grouping up with friends might be the way to go to maximise your returns here, since soloing may be challenging.

My only concern is, given how ambitious this title seems to be, will it be ready by this time next year? I'm hopeful, but wouldn't be surprised at all to see this slip into early 2015. Hopefully we'll find out more in the months ahead.


Developer: Carbine Studios
Publisher: NCsoft
Expected: Q2 2014

The only MMORPG to appear on my list this year, Wildstar looks to be a fresh take on a stale genre. Frankly I'm tired of the WoW clones by this point, and Wildstar's art style has minor similarities with WoW, but the comparisons basically end there. Set on the planet Nexus, Wildstar is a sci-fi themed RPG which has some novel ideas about customisation and combat, namely that it should be fun. Unique combat mechanics, coupled with the Path system which basically lets you further customise your character beyond race and class to deliver precisely the kind of gameplay experience you want, make this the most exciting MMORPG I have read about in years.

Sadly my beta invite got lost in the mail, but I hear through the grapevine that the game plays as good as it looks. Carbine are also doing social media right, and their "Devspeak" videos are absolutely worth looking at as they detail the game's humour and mechanics in ample measure. The only concern I have is with its payment model, since the game will be subscription but you'll be able to buy an in-game item called CREDD which will act as a one-month subscription. I'm not sold on this, but I'll wait to see how it actually all works before making a final judgement.

No release date has been announced yet, although the beta has been going on for about six months now, so it can't be much longer until release. Expect this to hit store shelves around the Spring.

Lords of the Fallen

Developer: Deck13, CI Games
Publisher: CI Games
Expected 2H 2014

Unfortunately there's not a lot of information about there about LotF yet, but the little there is looks very interesting. Tomasz Gop, former senior producer for The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, is the executive producer here, and comparisons have been made to Dark Souls when it comes to the game's setting.

Three classes have been announced (warrior, rogue, cleric) with skill trees devoted to each, and the game's art style certainly tickles my fancy. Again, details are scarce, but I have it on good authority that new information will come to light in January, with more to follow later in the year. This one's flying under the radar, but worth keeping an eye on.

South Park: The Stick of Truth

Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Ubisoft
Expected: 4th March 2014 (NA), 6th March 2014 (EU)

After a year's delay following original publisher THQ's implosion, The Stick Of Truth will finally be released in March. South Park Studios are extensively involved in the game's development, and South Park co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone wrote the game's script and provided the relevant voices. Expect bathroom humour, pop culture references, and swearing aplenty. This one will definitely be Not For Children (although no doubt many will buy it for their kids).

Basically, if you like the show you'll like the game, and if you hate the show then you'll hate the game. Hopefully there'll be enough content here to justify a full-priced game; god knows they've been working on it for long enough if that's any indication.

Stay tuned for part 2 of my 2014 wrap-up, coming as soon as I have the time to write it.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Next Big MMORPG?

It's been a difficult period for MMOs these past couple of years in the gaming industry. We've seen Star Wars: The Old Republic crash and burn, although BioWare continue to poke its corpse; we've seen The Secret World not become the breakout hit that Funcom needed it to be, although it's doing a little better these days following its free-to-play conversion; and we've also seen Guild Wars 2 have probably the best launch and post-release period of the three. I've already written about NCsoft's forthcoming Wildstar, and Bethesda continue to beaver away on The Elder Scrolls Online, but last week saw perhaps the biggest pretender to the MMO throne partially unveil what it has in store, and boy was it interesting.

I am speaking of course about SOE's EverQuest Next, revealed to the public last weekend at SOE Live, Sony Online Entertainment's version of Blizzcon.

First thing first: the game looks amazing, hands down the best-looking MMORPG that I have seen to date. This is due in no small measure to SOE's proprietary ForgeLight engine that currently powers PlanetSide 2. It's not all about the visuals though, EQN has a lot going on under the surface to where this might actually be the prophesied "WoW-killer" foretold so long ago.

At first glance, perhaps the most eye-catching feature is the destructable environments. The entire game world is made up of voxels (think three-dimensional jigsaw pieces) which can be broken apart at will by the game. Of course, some areas will always be safe (certain outposts, towns and cities, most likely), but even just in the conception stage this opens some tantalising avenues for gameplay that really haven't been seen before. Fencing a bunch of mobs together and then blasting through the ground so they fall to their deaths below sounds appealing, as does actually digging into the ground in order to mine mineral deposits in certain areas, or even finding new areas underground to explore.

Another interesting snippet is that at any one time there will be one primary world quest for everyone on a particular server. These "rallying calls", as they're known, will advance in stages, at a pace dependent on how many players are participating and how much everyone is doing. The example given by the developers so far is to create a new settlement off the beaten track. Initially the area might need securing from wildlife, so that would need to be taken care of first. Then materials could be needed to actually construct the settlement, and bandits may appear that need to be repelled, defences might need to be constructed, etc. Each server would advance at its own pace, and (presumably) rewards would be handed out proportionally to those players who have contributed the most to the various stages. On paper, this sounds like an more advanced version of public quests, initially seen in Warhammer Online and refined in Guild Wars 2, but worldwide across the entire server, not delineated by zone, as is usually done in MMOs today. Provided these are varied enough, and there is enough to keep players interested in contributing to the objectives, I can see this kind of system being somewhat of a metric used to "score" your server against others (similar to WvW rankings in Guild Wars 2 currently).

Developing from an idea first used in Guild Wars 2 (again!), the class and skill system is unique, too. There will apparently be 40 classes (!), and, as seems to be becoming the norm these days, you will be able to have eight skills equipped at a time. Four of these skills are derived from your class, and four are determined by the weapon you are holding at the time. SOE's twist here is that you will actually be able to learn abilities from other classes and add them to your own repertoire; this will lead to your class actually becoming your class, completely tailored to the skills you want to use and the weapons you want your character to wield. Speaking of weapons, crafting also looks to be significantly different. Instead of having to start with common materials, make hundreds of crappy things and then selling them or breaking them down for materials, then rinse and repeat with higher-level materials, SOE have said that each material will have specific uses that will remain useful for the entirety of the game, rather than the usual Copper -> Tin -> Iron progression for mining, Linen - > Wool -> Silk for tailoring, etc. This is reminiscent of Ultima Online, where certain materials had certain properties, such as silver weapons doing double damage to undead monsters. In addition, SOE have said that crafted weapons and armour will actually look like the materials they're constructed from, so you won't need to inspect another character's paperdoll to see what they are using, you will just recognise it by how it looks.

Perhaps one of the biggest announcements by SOE, and I'm surprised they were able to keep a lid on this up to now, was that there will be a second EQN-based game - to launch this year - called EverQuest Landmark. Think Minecraft but in EQN gamespace. Players will be able to claim particular areas of land, construct buildings, points of interest, etc. They will be able to sell their creations on SOE's Marketplace for real money, and if their works are used in other buildings (the example given is that if you make a tower and then someone constructs a castle that incorporates your tower) you will automatically earn a cut of that castle's earnings. The very best areas and buildings stand a chance of making it into the full version of EverQuest Next. This sounds like a very interesting way to both build up interest in the EQN brand, but also appeal to players' artistic interests, as player-made content is very popular right now in several Valve games (TF2 being the most popular) and moddable games such as Minecraft and even Skyrim. EverQuest Landmark will be free-to-play and is meant to be released before the end of 2013, so expect to hear news about this in the very near future.

All in all, I am very interested in EverQuest Next. I enjoy MMOs and have played most of the major ones on the market today, but too many are content to try and make WoW 2.0, forgetting that the original World of Warcraft was released in 2004, almost a decade ago, and that the gaming industry of today is very different from the gaming industry of back then. The fact that WoW's subscriber numbers drop seemingly every quarter is just more evidence that people are looking for something fresh and original, and EverQuest Next could well be it (because god knows it sure wasn't TOR). SOE have apparently rebooted EQN twice, abandoning much of the work they had already done and starting over, because they felt that it wasn't of a high enough quality. That a company is willing to keep iterating like that, and eat what must be significant financial costs every time they do so, makes me very interested in what is to come. If SOE can deliver on even half of what they have unveiled so far then expect EverQuest Next to be a significant shake-up of the MMO sector - and perhaps even as big a shake-up as the original WoW created, all those years ago.

EverQuest Next will be a free-to-play title and is expected to be released sometime in 2014. Anyone interested can sign up for the beta by clicking here.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

A New Challenger Appears

What will be the best MMO that launches this year? If you said The Elder Scrolls Online, or even Neverwinter, then you'd probably be right, but you might not be...

WildStar is an MMO that's flying a little under the radar right now, which puts it right up my alley. It's a sci-fi / fantasy MMORPG in development at Carbine Studios, and our old friend NCsoft are the publisher (since they own Carbine). I'll link some videos and screenshots through this post, but I already know the first thing that will come to mind is, "This looks like WoW". Well, no surprise there, since Carbine has a bunch of ex-Blizzard devs on its payroll, but if you think it's going to be just another generic WoW clone then I believe you will be sadly mistaken.

At first glance, the story seems fairly ordinary: the location of the planet Nexus, home of the long-dead alien race the Eldan, has been discovered once more, and everyone heads there to grab as much treasure and alien technology as they can find. Ok, not the most original, but no mention of elves yet so I think overall we're ahead.

There are two playable factions, the Exiles and the Dominion. Each have four races available (only three of which are announced right now, so each faction has one more race to come), and there's none of that any-race-can-be-any-class nonsense you found in Guild Wars 2, classes are tied to certain races only.

On the Exiles bench we have:
  • Humans - Two hands, two feet.  The usual.
  • Granok - Beefy rock-monsters.
  • Aurin - Space Elves.  Goddamit.
  • TBA
And on the Dominion side:

And for classes:
  • Warrior - A melee damage dealer, they hit things with large weapons.
  • Spellslinger - A ranged DPS class akin to a Hunter from WoW or Ranger from GW2.
  • Stalker - A rogue-type class which can stealth and uses sharp blades.
  • Esper - A caster / support class that seems similar to the Mesmer from GW2.
  • TBA
  • TBA
Where things get really interesting is the Path system. Paths are almost like vocations / super tradeskills for your character, that change the way you play the game depending on which you have selected. They are based on the Bartle test, which was an attempt to ascertain what type of gamer people are in four key areas: Killer, Explorer, Socialiser and Achiever (those interested can take the Bartle test here, it will give you a random selection of thirty questions). In WildStar you can choose one of four Paths:
  • Soldier
  • Explorer
  • Settler
  • Scientist

Any class can choose any path, and they change the way the game plays for you. Soldiers, for example, get special missions to kill enemies, protect allies, destroy areas, etc. Explorers can unlock new areas and mini-zones where they will receive specialised quests of their own, and can even link remote areas together in a personalised fast-travel system. Scientists examine and manipulate wildlife and discover aliens relics to unlock new abilities. Not much has been announced with regards to the final path, the Settler, but you are said to be able to create and upgrade outposts in order to expand the frontier for your faction. Paths really sound interesting, and I can't think of any other game which has does something like this previously. The fact that you can bring along friends to mix and match different playstyles could really bring this Path system to the fore.

Unusually, Carbine have already stated that both player and guild housing will be in the game, not just envisaged for an expansion but actually at launch. This makes it something of a rarity among MMOs, which often pay lip-service to the concept (I know WoW devs have been talking about it for, oh, six or seven years now) but rarely follow that up with actual action. Heck, I think the last MMO I played that had player housing was Ultima Online back in the day, and that was a looooooong time ago.

The private beta is ongoing at the current time; those interested can sign up for beta consideration, with the game currently slated to be released later this year. No word yet on what kind of subscription model WildStar will use, but since it's an NCsoft-owned developer and is being published by NCsoft themselves, I think it's likely the game will mirror Guild Wars 2's system of buy-to-play, where you pay $60 for the game and there are no recurring subscription fees on top of that. I personally am very much in favour of that system, and so I hope that is what they choose to go with.

With the ability to include both sci-fi and fantasy elements, WildStar could well be the game that gives TESO a run for its money as the most eagerly-anticipated MMO of this year...

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why EA Is Not The Worst Company In America

You may have read that, for the second year in a row, Electronic Arts was recently named the "Worst Company In America" by Consumerist. I am here to tell you why that is not the case.

First off, EA was up against companies like Bank of America, AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast. So you're trying to tell me that EA are worse than two cellphone companies fleecing you for 4G, one media conglomerate fleecing you for cable TV and Internet, and a bank that's fleecing you for, well, pretty much just being alive? Sorry, I'm not buying that.

I'm not giving EA a pass here, either. They have serious issues right now and have made some major mistakes over the past few years, but I simply don't subscribe to the theory that that somehow makes them the "Worst Company In America".

Let's be honest, EA have been on a downward spiral for quite some time.

To start off with, and probably the one that's top of my personal list, was the mediocre ending to the Mass Effect trilogy. The three games, perhaps one of the strongest RPG franchises in recent history (the original Mass Effect hit the XBox 360 in 2007 and made the transition to PC in 2008), built a relationship with you over the first two games by giving you plenty of decisions to make and promising that those decisions would matter in the final resolution. Well that didn't happen, and the ending to Mass Effect 3 boiled down to an A, B, or C ending, that was later expanded by 33% to an A, B, C, or D ending following the (justified) outcry. Put simply, the games wrote a bunch of cheques that in the end BioWare could not cash.

Unfortunately, the writing had been on the wall with regards to Mass Effect 3 for a while. The lead writer of the first two games (and essentially most / all of the Mass Effect universe lore), Drew Karpshyn, was instead writing Star Wars: The Old Republic at the time, and so had next to no involvement in the conclusion. The average-at-best ending was a tremendous letdown, and turned what should have been one of BioWare's crowning achievements into the whimper heard around the world, as people figured out that the emperor was not wearing clothes so fine that your eye couldn't see them, but was simply butt naked.

And then we've got the more recent issues with SimCity's always-on DRM system in Origin, that most game companies seem to actually be moving away from except for Blizzard and EA. It was exactly the same problem that Blizzard had dealt with a year earlier (in that case with Diablo III), in that so many people were trying to connect to Origin to play their (legitimately-purchased) game, that a great number of people were just not able to authenticate and so could not play until EA added additional server capacity and disabled some game features to free up even further capacity. It was the height of arrogance for EA to decide that what people wanted was an experience similar to the previous SimCity games, but without any of that, you know, being able to play without being connected to the Internet, nonsense. For several days many people simply could not play the game, or when they could, found that their newly-created city did not save (and EA, in their infinite wisdom, created no local save option, only cloud saves through Origin). Since Origin is wholly owned by EA then they knew precisely how many pre-orders of the game they had sold and should been easily able to account for that with the requisite server capacity. Even if they had budgeted the correct amount of hardware, this wouldn't mean that this type of always-on DRM is not anti-consumer, because it clearly is; the SimCity issues (and Diablo III issues) just highlighted it for all to see.

Next up, we've got the nonsense over EA thinking it's ok to bring in microtransactions for a game you've already paid full price for. I'm of course talking about Dead Space 3, the latest game in the franchise, that EA seem to be doing their level best to run into the ground. "Hey, microtransactions seem to work really well for mobile games, so why don't we throw them into a $60 retail game and see what happens?" You can well imagine that this conversation took place at EA Towers a year or so ago. You know what the biggest difference between retail and mobile games is though? Mobile games are often completely free or sold at a minimal cost, which is exactly part of the reason that people have less of a problem dropping a few dollars here and there in the first place. EA are already having their cake and eating it too by charging $60 instead of the usual $50 for PC games (they and Activision led the charge on that), but now want to start nickel-and-diming you for better weapons? Of course you don't have to buy them - and I hope most people won't - but it represents a worrying development in EA's thinking that they believe they can directly migrate features from mobile gaming to traditional gaming. Bottom line - if I've already given you $60 for a game then I am not going to be giving you an extra few bucks for some weapons, either. This is blatant moneygrabbing of the highest order.

Finally, I come to The Old Republic. I'm not even talking about the game itself here (but beyond the single player story it wasn't much to write home about, which is a problem when you're talking about an MMO) but BioWare's implementation of the free-to-play model which TOR transitioned to in November 2012, almost a year after its retail release. Calling TOR's current model free-to-play is being somewhat generous though, as it has so many restrictions it's more like an endless demo rather than something like League of Legends, PlanetSide 2 or The Lord of the Rings Online, all free-to-play games which do not have contempt for their players as TOR seems to. Take a look at the comparison table on TOR's site and you will see just how bad their free-to-play system really is. Want bank access on a free account? You have to pay real money for it. Want to run some Operations (TOR's version of raids)? You have to pay real money for it. Want to do some PvP Warzones? You're capped at five per week unless you pay for more. Free accounts cannot equip most purple items (the highest quality) without paying for the privilege. Oh, and I hope you aren't attached to hotbars, because free users in TOR only get two of them and have to pay for more (although you should be grateful since they used to only get one). Locking off parts of the UI and charging money for them? I think that might actually be one of the more despicable things I have seen in any game, and I voluntarily bought Brink.

So yes, whilst technically TOR is "free-to-play", it's perhaps the worst implementation of a free-to-play system I have seen in any game to date. Ironically, perhaps TOR's best feature, the single-player story, is completely free with no restrictions whatsoever. That would be the only reason that I would ever recommend that anyone should try TOR out, because the story (at least for the Warrior, which I completed) is truly exceptional. Beyond that, forget TOR ever existed. I could not be more disgusted with BioWare's tentacles oozing out from TOR and making a direct run for your wallet. I guess the meeting for TOR's free-to-play conversion went a little something like, "Hey, let's consider everything that every successful free-to-play game has done with regards to monetisation and then toss that out of the window. Time for lunch!"

Ugh. The more I write the more I think that maybe EA deserves that award. But no, while I think they have done a lot of crappy things recently (and apparently their board agrees, since John Riccitiello was recently ousted as its CEO) and has lost its way significantly, I still don't think they're worse than the likes of AT&T and Bank of America. Let's be honest though, it isn't a complete wash for EA. They were still willing to take risks over something like Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which they published under their EA Partners label (and the sad news is that EA are apparently ending that program). Whilst no one could say what happened with KOA was a success (with it ultimately leading to the implosion of 38 Studios), that was hardly EA's fault. By all accounts KOA was a solid initial title (that I recently picked up on sale for $8, so will be trying it out myself) that suffered from significant financial mismanagement behind the scenes. So anyway, at least EA's soul isn't completely beyond saving. As it stands though, even Angel would find himself hard-pressed to see where to start here.

I truly hope that EA turns it around.  The forthcoming appointment of their new CEO will do much to indicate in what direction they wish to go. Personally, I hope they move away from the flagrant pennypinching and "pay for everything" attitude that has been so pervasive in EA's culture these past few years, and that they actually make a return to treating their customers with respect and trying to earn your money, rather than believing that they have a god-given right to it.

The ball's in your court EA...

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Site Changes

Readers with eyes may have noticed that I've done a little spring cleaning around here.  The layout has been "freshened up" a little, and I have changed the name to Unbooted (but the old domain will redirect here for a few more months at least).

I hope you like the changes.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"We'll Solve This The Old-Fashioned Way - With Violence"

I posted an article over at Destructoid about violence in games (specifically BioShock Infinite, but also touching on other titles) which I'll link here, on the off chance that anyone wants to take a look at it:

Friday, April 5, 2013

Infinitely Biological

I just finished BioShock Infinite an hour or so ago and wanted to at least get this article started while everything was still very fresh in my mind.

BioShock Infinite is an amazing game, an amazing experience, and everyone should play it.

I would absolutely say that BI is right up there with Portal 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and the original BioShock as one of the best games made in the past ten years, easily.

I ordinarily do not pre-order games anymore, post-Brink (of which I shall never speak again), but when the first reviews started to roll in on the Monday (for the Tuesday release), specifically 10 / 10 on Destructoid and 91% at PC Gamer (honestly I think that's a tad low, but it's still a great score), I figured that since it was going to be a light gaming year (unless TESO or Neverwinter rocks then this is basically it until Watch Dogs and South Park: The Stick of Truth at the end of the year) I would go in on it, especially since GreenManGaming were doing a very nice deal of $60 + $15 credit + X-Com: Enemy Unknown + The Darkness 2.

That first night I loaded it up and expected to do what I usually do which is mess around for a few minutes, have a bit of a look around and then put it to bed with an expectation of picking it back up again in a few weeks or maybe a couple of months.  As someone is fond of constantly reminding me, I have yet to finish BioShock 2 and that came out several years ago.  I figured BioShock Infinite would probably go the same way.

It did not.

Once I started playing I just could not stop.

BioShock Infinite is a breathtakingly beautiful game.  Visually, the art style just pops and has sex with your eyes everywhere you look; from hummingbirds buzzing around, to intricate signs and paintings, to the buildings slowly moving up and down, there is always something new and vibrant to look at.  The floating city of Columbia is nothing less than a feast for your eyes.

Gameplay-wise, there isn't much different here from the original BioShock, at least not initially.  One hand carries your weapon du jour (you can have two equipped at once and switch from one to the other via a hotkey), whilst the other houses your current vigor (like weapons, you can have two equipped and can swap at will).  Vigors are essentially plasmids from the original BioShock (now powered by salts, not Eve), fantastic abilities which verge on magic in some cases, with varied effects.  I don't really want to spoil these here because they are quite fun, but broadly you can lift enemies in the air or surround them with a murderous...murder...of crows, for two examples.  In addition, if you hold down the button for them it will instead place a "trap" version of the power on the ground which will then trigger the next time an enemy walks over it.  This is fairly useless early on, but becomes more important down the line when it helps to at least have a basic plan other than running into the middle of a pack of enemies, shouting "Leeroy!" and toting your gun.

With the introduction of the skyrails though, all bets are off.  These are essentially train tracks in the sky, and you can zoom along them (forward or back, fast or slow) using your skyhook (which also nicely doubles as your melee weapon) and even land on enemies when you dismount, which will usually kill them or at least make them think intensely about their chosen career path.  This element of verticality literally brings a whole new dimension to combat, and changes zones from being simple straight progressions to something much more open and engaging.

The real standout aspect of the game though, as with the original BioShock, is the story.

You play as Booker DeWitt, a disgraced former Pinkerton agent (think Blackwater but turn of the century) down on his luck, hired by persons unknown to retrieve a woman called Elizabeth which will erase some rather considerable debts you have incurred.  I am certainly not going to spoil the story here, other than to say it is mind-bending, intricate, and nothing other than a masterpiece.  I think it is something that will be the new gold standard when it comes to story-based shooters, and perhaps just stories in games altogether.  If I have one criticism (and this seems to be a common point shared by others) it's that you get the story doled out in pieces fairly regularly for the first 3/4 or so of the game, and then in the last thirty minutes the narrative just goes into overdrive and it's story, story, story, thrown at you left and right.  For someone like me, who is a sucker for a good story that is well told, then it was less of an issue, but even so it still felt a little jarring in places.  Moving some of the story elements a little further back into the game might have helped a bit with this sense of overload near the end.

Coupled with the story is Elizabeth herself, arguably the best part of the game and perhaps more important than Booker himself.  She is with you for most of the game (with some notable exceptions), and might be one of the best characters I have seen in any game.  Her mannerisms, her facial expressions, everything about her screams that she is just a person and not a character in a game.  She is not targeted in combat (other than some scripted sequences) so you do not have to babysit her, and she will assist you when engaged against enemies.  If you are taking some hits she will sometimes toss you health, if you are low on salts she will often find some for you, and she can also find ammo and sometime even money.  In addition, she will spot the more powerful enemy types and mark them on the screen for a short time so you know where they are.  She can even pick locks for you, revealing hidden areas.  In short, she is a delight, to the point where you genuinely miss her presence during those periods of the game when she is not with you.

Elizabeth's other main ability is the ability to open tears into other universes and bring things through to help you.  These could be weapons, cover, sometimes even guardians that will protect you for a short time.  Making the best use of these tears can sometimes be challenging, and while there is no limit to the amount Elizabeth can open for you, she can only open one at a time.  Of course, you also need to find out why Elizabeth has this ability in the first place...

I also want to mention the voice acting, which is phenomenal.  Veteran voice actor Troy Baker voices Booker, and newcomer Courtnee Draper is the voice of Elizabeth; both turn in accomplished performances.  Draper particularly shines as Elizabeth, bringing true depth and emotion to what could have been just another generic game companion.  Jennifer Hale, better known as the Female Commander Shepard from the Mass Effect series, also makes an appearance as Rosalind Lutece, and a personal favourite of mine, Keith Szarabajka, plays Cornelius Slate (but to me he will always be Holtz from Angel).

As I said I am not going to spoil anyone here and reveal any plot details, but the ending of the game really elevates it from being great to truly exceptional.  BioShock's ending was criticised quite heavily in some quarters for being something of an anticlimax and Irrational have not made the same mistake twice, crafting a story that twists and turns but has real impact and a genuine resolution at the end.  It is so good that I am considering buying the season pass for the DLC (which is unheard of for me), because if all the three announced pieces of content are up to the standard of the main game then I have absolutely no problem in doing so.  Like Oliver Twist, I just want more - more Columbia, more Elizabeth, more Booker, more everything.

In an era where some game companies are happy to produce shit and then try to charge you through the nose for it (looking at you EA), BioShock Infinite stands out as one of the best games I have ever played.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Would you kindly go pick it up?