Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Best Games of 2012 (Part 2)

And we're back with the final five games of my 2012 rundown.

Up first...

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Expected: 2H 2012

The next expansion pack for the juggernaut that is World of Warcraft was revealed at 2011's Blizzcon, and from the details it seems that the game is going to be shaken up considerably, as well as increasing the level cap from its current 85 to 90.

The Pandarens (humanoid pandas) are added as a playable race, as well as the Monk class.  Pandarens do not choose Horde or Alliance, but play the game as neutral to both factions until level 10 where they make a choice about which to join, which is certainly an interesting way to add them into the game.  Additionally, Monks will be able to tank, heal and DPS through their specialisations.

Talents are also being revamped in MoP, with talent trees being removed in favour of a tiered system in which you can select one new ability from a choice of three every 15 levels (so 15, 30, 45, 60, 75 and 90).  These skills will be broadly based on the three talent trees that currently exist for each class, but can be chosen completely independently of each other every time you make a selection.  Blizzard recently stated that they felt the old talent tree system was unfixable, and that a simpler system would be beneficial to players who felt they had to "min / max" all the time in order to be a good player.

The release date isn't exactly set in stone, but summer seems to be the earliest that it is expected to ship, if not later.  Since The Old Republic, The Secret World and (probably) Guild Wars 2 will have been released by then, WoW's dominance is going to challenged by several different players.  We'll see if they can deliver the goods under pressure, or whether their recent loss of subscribers turns into a flood.

Mass Effect 3

Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Expected: 6th March 2012 (NA), 8th March 2012 (AU), 9th March 2012 (EU)

Slated originally for the holiday season of this year before being delayed to March of next year, Mass Effect 3 will be the final installment of the trilogy started by the original game back in 2007 (on the Xbox 360, 2008 on the PC).  One of my favourite game series ever, I have high hopes for ME3 since ME2 hit almost all of the right buttons in 2009 and was the one of the leading candidates for Game of the Year.

As was the case in ME2, you will be able to import your existing saved game from ME2 into ME3 to continue the story of "your" Shepard.  BioWare have stated that over 1,000 data points are tracked and affected by this process.  Enemy AI is believed to be much improved, and there are said to be many returning characters from the first two games who will make an appearance in the third as it attempt to tie up the storyline of the Reapers.

ME3 will also be the first game in the series to incorporate a multi-player mode to the game.  Known as "Galaxy at War", the multi-player campaign will not see you take control of Shepard as in the single-player, but you will instead create an entirely new character from one of the major races (human, drell, asari, krogran, salarian or turian) and will work towards what has been termed "galactic readiness".  This is completely optional, and you can choose to do as much or as little of it as you wish.  The galactic readiness level can also be fully achieved from the single-player game, so you don't lose anything by not doing it.

Considering how phenomenally successful the Mass Effect series has been I think it's highly unlikely that this will be the final outing for Commander Shepard and his team.  If BioWare listen to the protestations of myself and the Internet at large then Mass Effect Online will be swiftly kicked into development following the release of ME3.  I think the Mass Effect universe is ripe for an MMO-style game, especially since their only competition would be the recently-released Star Wars: The Old Republic (so they'd essentially be competing against themselves).  Barring an MMO, I expect to see other stories set in the ME universe, possibly starring Shepard and other established characters, both in DLC down the line and perhaps a full title in a new storyline (as is the case with the upcoming God of War IV on the PS3).

The Secret World

Developer: Funcom
Publisher: Funcom / Electronic Arts
Expected: April 2012

Funcom's newest MMO looks set to be released in April of next year (although I think it's still possible that date will slip).  Set in the real world, TSW explores what would happen if all of the scary stories, myths and legends that you have ever heard were actually true.  Hollow Earth, werewolves, vampires, global warming, ghosts; all of these things which clearly do not exist are part-and-parcel of TSW's lore.

The three factions of The Secret World are already well-known: the chaos-embracing Dragon, manipulative Illuminati and ancient Templars, and while you will be able to team up with members of other factions for PvE quests and missions, for PvP it is strictly your own faction versus the other two.

TSW has the potential to change the MMO landscape considerably, with its focus on real-life locations and incorporating puzzles and search engine use into quests.  It has some grand ideas, but the variable here is Funcom itself.  Their last title, Age of Conan, received decidedly mixed reviews, and transitioned to a free-to-play model after release.  With no levels or classes, TSW might appeal to MMO purists from games such as Ultima Online which had you select a number of skills from the dozens that were available in order to make a character that was truly yours.  Funcom have stated that there will be hundreds of skills available at release, with the possibility of more being patched in down the line.

I have been following TSW's progress for a few years now, and think it really could be a game-changer.  I'm just not sure Funcom have the chops to put such an ambitious project together and deliver on what has been promised.  The beta is apparently underway and hopefully we'll get further details as the release date approaches.  This one could be Big, but could also be Terrible.  Fingers crossed folks, I think it's going to be a bumpy ride.

PlanetSide 2

Developer: Sony Online Entertainment
Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment
Expected: "2012"

You knew it would be here somewhere.  The sequel to PlanetSide, the original (and best) MMOFPS that has ever existed, PlanetSide 2 is a "re-imagining" of the original game, with all-new models, physics and gameplay to satiate what has been a vastly under-represented aspect of the MMO genre.

Regular readers will know how likely I am to explode while writing anything about PlanetSide, so I'll try to stick to the facts and avoid the hyperbole.

PlanetSide 2 abandons the classless system of the first game in favour of class-based certification trees that will unlock skills and abilities as you progress further in the tree.  Six classes are known to be available at release, two of which are confirmed to be the Engineer and the Infiltrator.  It's probably not too much of a stretch to think that the Medic will be another of these six, and perhaps MAXs from the first game as well.  You will, however, be able to change classes on the fly whenever you respawn, so you are not locked into any one particular class or playstyle.  This gives some added flexibility, especially to the support classes who enjoy pewpewing it up every once in a while.

Sony have also created an all-new engine to power the game.  Known as ForgeLight, it uses state-of-the-art graphics and employs hardware physics acceleration through Nvidia's Physx to deliver what seems to be a truly next-gen gaming experience.  Some of the screenshots I have seen of PS2 have been breathtaking, since even at its height I doubt anyone ever described the original PlanetSide as "beautiful", unless blocky textures and rock-like grass were your thing, proving that (at the high end at least) gameplay trumps visuals every time.

The three factions from the first game return in the second, namely the Vanu Sovereignty, Terran Republic and New Conglomerate (in order of most to least skillful - hyperbole alert).  Each faction receives two empire-specific vehicles, the Scythe and Magrider for VS, Prowler and Mosquito for TR and the Vanguard and Reaver for the NC.  Vehicles will be sideways customisable (for example you'll be able to make your vehicle have faster acceleration but a lower maximum speed as a tradeoff) as well as aesthetically customisable, and since Sony have already stated that PS2 is going to be free-to-play then you can bet that a lot of these sidegrades will be available for purchase in the in-game shop (but will probably be available through gameplay as well).

I've been waiting for a sequel to PlanetSide for years now, and I can only hope that Sony are going to do it right.  The development team have been actively engaging the community on fansites such as PlanetSide Universe, and I have a measure of confidence that this will actually come out right.  Yet the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and it doesn't look as though we have much longer to wait.  Beta is imminent and my guesstimate at release would be around the summer of 2012.

Still waiting on my beta invite.

BioShock Infinite

Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Expected: "2012"

Rounding out my list is perhaps the best-looking single-player shooter I have seen in some time, BioShock Infinite.  From the brain of Ken Levine and Irrational Games, who mainlined the first (and best?) BioShock but had little more than superficial input into BioShock 2, Infinite is not a direct sequel to the other games (it is set in an earlier time period, 1912) but instead shares their themes of open world gameplay and user choice as to how to solve the problems presented.

Infinite is set aboard the sky-city of Columbia, which was created over a decade earlier by the United States government to be a "floating showcase" that would promote America around the globe.  Instead, the occupants quickly grew to infighting, leading to a war between what became the Founders (pro-American and anti-immigrant) and the Vox Populi (freedom for all).  The US government disowned Columbia and it faded from memory, until persons unknown hire the main protagonist of the game, Booker DeWitt (i.e. you) to infiltrate Columbia and rescue a woman named Elizabeth who, according to them, has been held hostage there for more than a decade.

So you're in Columbia, have found Elizabeth, the rest should be easy, right?  Wrong.  Her "jailer", a mechanical construct known as Songbird wants her back, and will tear the city (and you) apart in order to do so.  Elizabeth also manifests the power to rip apart the walls of reality and import "things" from adjacent realities, so you may be in a situation where you are stuck between two large groups of mobs, and Elizabeth will offer you several choices as to what she can "pull in" from other realities.  It may be a choice between a train, a gun and a bomb, and the player has to decide what to have her summon and how to use it.  This gameplay aspect alone has me very interested in this game, because that promises to be a mechanic that will not get old.

You have your standard BioShock tonics and abilities you can find in a bottle (in Infinite they are called vigors) as well as nostrums which are passive effects that can be "slotted in" to your character, making you deal more damage or be able to jump higher, for example.

Along with Mass Effect 3 I think BioShock Infinite is shaping up to be the single-player experience of 2012 (although Irrational won't confirm the lack of any multi-player modes, it seems unlikely at this point and even if featured will probably just be a tacked-on forgettable portion, similar to BioShock 2's).  I have high hopes of this one.

And that's all she wrote, folks.  I hope you've seen details on something you like.  It certainly looks like 2012 is shaping up to be a banner year for PC gaming, with several AAA-quality titles due to hit our platform.

Roll on January!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Site Notice

Just a brief note to say that I am in the process of transferring the domain for my blog to a new registrar, so in the coming days you may see some erroneous 404 or other messages when attempting to visit

It should only take a day or two to straighten out, if any problems happen at all, but you should still be able to reach my blog through the fallback address in the meantime.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Best Games of 2012 (Part 1)

Time for my annual run-down of the best-looking games that are expected to ship in 2012.  As always these are in no particular order, so no emails about "how could you put game X under game Y".

Getting us up and running...

Developer: 38 Studios / Big Huge Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Expected: 7th February 2012 (NA), 10th February 2012 (EU)

The first game from former pro baseball player Curt Schilling's 38 Studios, Reckoning has been getting a lot of good press recently, as well as putting out some action-packed teaser videos on their site.

Described as "a mix-up between God of War and Skyrim", Reckoning has strong graphics, as well as the involvement of two heavy-hitters in the game's development.  Noted fantasy author R.A. Salvatore is helping to craft the world's lore and story, and Spawn creator Todd McFarlane is assisting with the game's visual style and artwork.

Players are free to specialise in whatever skills they choose, and (for a fee) can have their talents reset by certain world NPCs should they wish to try out something new.  On the face of it this seems like the game that Dragon Age II promised but did not deliver, leaving Bethesda free to show BioWare how it was done with the hugely successful Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as the breakout RPG of 2011.

A couple of the best trailers for Reckoning are embedded below, and you can of course find more of them and more information on the official site, linked above.

Known initially as Project Mercury at 38 Studios, it was also announced that an MMO was under development which would be set in the same universe as the single-player game that eventually became Reckoning.  For now, this MMO is still known as Project Copernicus and there is next-to-no information about it publicly available.  If Reckoning is a success then no doubt further details about Copernicus will be forthcoming.

Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games
Expected: 2H 2012

The sequel to 2009's superb Borderlands, Borderlands 2 seeks to amp up the action with four new playable characters (but don't worry if you liked the four from the original game, they will still be appearing in the sequel as NPCs) as well as new locations, better enemy AI and more loot.

So far the two announced playable characters are Salvador "the Gunzerker", a man able to dual-wield any two guns in the game.  Dual rocket launchers?  Dual SMGs?  This is the guy for you.

The second announced character is Maya the Siren.  Her abilities are not yet known, although in the first game Lilith said that she was "one of six" Sirens in the galaxy, and Maya appears to likewise be another of those six.

The final two characters will likely be announced by Gearbox in early 2012, ramping-up to an anticipated release date of mid-to-late 2012.

I was a big fan of the first game and am glad to see Gearbox stepping up and making improvements for the second.  Other details are quite thin on the ground so we'll have to wait until the trade shows start up again in early 2012 for more information, but Borderlands 2 promises to be a game worth watching for in the coming year.

Guild Wars 2

Developer: ArenaNet
Publisher: NCsoft
Expected: "2012"

Promising to be one of, if not the biggest MMORPG launch of 2012, Guild Wars 2 is a sequel to the original Guild Wars released back in 2005.  Whereas the original was more of a proof-of-concept than anything else, in that it had limited appeal but excelled in certain specific areas (namely from a technological standpoint of having only one heavily-instanced server, and no monthly fee), the second game seems to be more traditional MMORPG fare, along with less instancing and still no monthly fee.

Hot off the presses yesterday was the announcement of the eighth and final class, the Mesmer, so hopefully the beta is right around the corner (we may learn more on Wednesday when the Mesmer is "officially" announced).

The fact that Guild Wars 2, like Star Wars: The Old Republic before it, is focusing so much on story, is one of the unique elements to this MMO.  Typically story falls by the wayside when you venture into MMO territory, and you have to go back to single-player games to get storylines of any worth (Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Skyrim, Fallout, etc.).  If TOR and then GW2 can turn this around then perhaps an interesting and well-written story can return to the MMO scene once more.

Dota 2

Developer: Valve Software
Publisher: Valve Software
Expected: "2012"

Dota 2 is a tricky one.  Technically not a direct sequel to DotA (Defense of the Ancients), since that was a player-made mod for Blizzard's Warcraft III, Valve turned around and hired Icefrog, one of the developers who had been working on DotA with updates and bugfixes, and tasked him to make a spiritual successor to the original mod, this time using Valve's Source engine.

The result seems to be an almost total conversion of the original, with added Valve secret sauce like voice communications and enhanced network support thrown into the mix.  DotA has a very enthusiastic fanbase who seem to mostly be on-board with Valve's plans.  Other games which draw heavily from the original DotA, such as Riot's League of Legends and S2's Heroes of Newerth, have seen critical and commercial success (especially the former, with HoN trailing LoL somewhat), so clearly what has now been termed the MOBA genre (multiplayer online battle arena) has potential for growth.

More interesting is the fact that both LoL and HoN are free to play; LoL by design and HoN as a later conversion.  Valve have said previously that they have a free-to-play game in development, so will that turn out to actually be Dota 2?  If not it seems they will have a tough sell to current HoN and LoL players who are already getting a MOBA game for free, although the Valve brand name carries considerable weight still these days, so perhaps it's something they could pull off.

The beta is currently well underway and Valve will likely announce a release date early in the new year.

Diablo III

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Expected: Q1 2012

Originally planned for 2011's holiday season but pushed back by Blizzard a couple of months ago to early next year, Diablo III has seemingly ascended from being a simple game to an experience.  You either played Diablo and Diablo II / let them rule your life or you didn't, and those were apparently the only two choices.

Freshly revamped for today's top-end graphics cards, Diablo III will be the first game in the series in over ten years (the Diablo II expansion pack Lords of Destruction was released in 2001) and the masses have clearly been waiting with some anticipation, as D3 chatter reaches fever pitch around certain Internet message boards and websites.

Unfortunately, the one thing people recall most often of the original games, alongside their popularity, is the amount of hacks and cheats that were available.  Map hacks, item cloning, duping, as well as a myriad of other exploits, were frequently employed since security in the former games was close to non-existent.  Blizzard's bold yet controversial decision on how to counter that in Diablo III is to require a permanent connection to Blizzard's matchmaking service in the background of the game.  This will allow Blizzard to see exactly what you are doing at all times and where and how you are doing it.  In short, cheating will be virtually eliminated overnight.

The downside of this system is requiring you to be online at all times when you may only be playing a single-player game.  Various DRM systems (such as the one used by Ubisoft in Assassin's Creed 2 that I have previously mentioned) have started to require this, but my anger for it is somewhat abated by the fact that you will, of course, require an Internet connection in order to play the game online in the first place.  In fact, the amount of time you actually play Diablo III by yourself will likely be minimal or non-existent, so for me this is a minor issue.  The only big ding that Blizzard have set themselves up for with Diablo III is the fact that there will be an in-game auction house that you will be able to buy items at with real money.  This goes directly to the heart of the "pay-to-win" issue and is the biggest problem that I and many others have with the game.  Whether it will be enough to stop me buying I'm not sure, but I think it represents the first step down a path that I am not sure will be good for gamers, and certainly not good for games.

Either way, there is no denying that the hype for D3 is off the charts, and the game itself is probably only a couple of months away.

That's all for part one of my roundup; stay tuned in the coming days for part two.

Monday, December 12, 2011

BREAKING: Final Guild Wars 2 Class Announced

ArenaNet and NCsoft eliminated the 1% of doubt today, confirming that the Mesmer would be GW2's final class.

The reveal was originally slated for Wednesday, but was leaked early by Danish site GameReactor.  This led to confirmation by the team on Twitter, with the full announcement still set for Wednesday.

GameReactor also leaked a video detailing some Mesmer skills.  This has been taken down, but thanks the magic of the Internet is back up on Youtube, and embedded below:

I doubt this video will last long before the takedown notices start flying around, so check it out while you can.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

News About The Old Republic

BioWare recently decided to lift their cloak of secrecy surrounding Star Wars: The Old Republic, so since I am no longer bound by the NDA I figured it was time for a TOR-themed post detailing what I feel are the game's strengths and weaknesses.

I have been in the beta for approximately two months now and have raised several Sith Warriors (to 16, 9 and 6), a Sith Inquisitor (to ~6), a Jedi Knight (to ~10) and a Bounty Hunter (to 6) so I would certainly say I have a feel for the beginning areas of the game, and less so with the latter aspects (I didn't want to go too far and spoil it for myself if I decided to play it at launch).

Starting with the positives: it feels very BioWare.  And by that I mean if you enjoyed KOTOR and the Mass Effect and Dragon Age games then you are probably going to like TOR because it very much has that BioWare new car smell.  Even when I began playing the game was very polished, and while there were bugs here and there (which I dutifully reported, because that's the reason I was there in the first place) none of them were game-breaking for me.

While it had already been known for some time that TOR was going to be the first fully-voiced MMO, and I went into it with that understanding, until you actually play the game you can't really see how that is going to affect the experience.  Most people probably skip all the extraneous quest text anyway, boiling most quests down to (1) what do I have to do, and (2) where do I do it?  In voice conversations there are the typical three BioWare responses in any given interaction with an NPC.  You can either be a hardass, an angel or the third option which usually straddles the two somewhat.  You will sometimes gain Light or Dark points for conversation choices (these are marked before you choose them) which apparently affect your character's progression down the line, although I never got that far.

One nice touch in quests and NPC interactions is that every once in a while you will be thrown a curveball that only you can decide how to deal with.  Without going into too much detail (I don't want to spoil anyone) I was offered a quest by one particular person to obtain something for him, and he directed me to his assistant in order to get the details.  When you speak to her she not only fills you in on where to go, but also that if you bring the desired item back to her and betray her master then she will make it worth your while.  It's up to you to decide who you want to side with, and after having done it both ways on two different characters I can say that there are satisfying payoffs on both ends.

While the class quests are completely dependent on what class you are playing at the time (i.e. the Sith Warrior story is totally different to the Bounty Hunter story), side quests can be done with any class or even in a group.  Groups have a maximum size of four members, and usually break down into a tank, a support / healer and two DPS.  When grouped, during conversations with NPCs each character rolls a number and the person with the highest gets to make the conversation choice for the entire party, although you will only gain Light or Dark points for yourself, even if a party member makes that selection (so you won't get namby-pamby Light points on your Dark character if someone else happens to win a roll while grouped and chooses a Light option).  One nice touch is that if you are in a separate area of the map to someone else who has initiated a conversation, you can still participate holographically (you will be prompted on-screen when they begin).  It's a cool way of "virtually" keeping the group connected even if you are spread out.  Additionally, you can hit "Escape" at any point during a conversation to abandon it (say you mistakenly chose option A when you really meant to hit B); you can then start it afresh as if the previous attempt never occurred.

Certainly, TOR's greatest feature is its heightened focus on storytelling.  This was not hacked together by some High School Metalworking grad, but instead the storyline flows naturally, with meaningful choices having to be made on a regular basis which (presumably) will affect your character's later progression.

As to the downsides of the game...while the graphics are acceptable I wouldn't go as far as to say they were pretty.  Graphically you are looking at a level approximately that of the Mass Effect games; not exactly cutting-edge but enough to do the job they need to and no more.  The game also desperately needs an option to be able to import key bindings from other characters, as every time I made a fresh person I had to go through the laborious process of getting my keys set up the way I wanted, time after time after time.

There is also the use of instancing in the starting areas of the game.  While I understand why this was done (to help alleviate server lag from too many people in one zone at once, and in order so that they don't need to enable server queues as often) I know it isn't everyone's cup of tea.  I personally had no real issues with the zone instancing for the brief period I was aware of it (typically you will only notice when you are grouped, when one person is in a different instance than the other members.  You can switch between instances although only once every thirty minutes).

Other than that I found TOR to be a remarkably polished MMO.  Let's not forget it's been in development for five years, and that BioWare are a very good developer, but still, a Star Wars MMO would be quite an easy thing to screw up, and I did not get the impression of that at all.

TOR is different to every MMO on the market today, but the question is, is it different enough from the elephant in the room known as World of Warcraft, or even the plucky up-and-comer, Rift.  My gut instinct says yes, as the anti-WoW backlash is reaching quite epic proportions recently (WoW has lost almost 2 million players during the past year, standing at just over 10 million currently, from the high point of 12 million at the beginning of this year) and people are yearning for something fresh and new.  TOR's problem is that next year there are two big MMOs scheduled to be released.  Funcom's The Secret World is currently slated for April (although this may slip since the beta hasn't even started yet) and then NCsoft's Guild Wars 2 will probably follow a few months later.  This doesn't give TOR a tremendous amount of time in which to build a userbase free from even fresher competition than itself, but that's the way the cookie crumbles.

I have not decided whether or not I will be playing The Old Republic.  If I can talk some more people I know into it then certainly I would be more inclined to plonk down the $60 that EA are demanding for it (another inauspicious MMO first - thanks EA!).  Either way, I believe it's a solid game that will more likely than not be a success.  I'm sure Richard Garriott and Realtime Worlds felt the same way about Tabula Rasa and APB though...

Sunday, October 30, 2011

And Then There Were Two - The Downfall Of id

Like many others I had identified Rage as a game coming out this year that I was interested in.  While I'm not a big post-apocalyptic fan (excluding Borderlands, which was great fun) I figured that with id's record it would at least be something worth investigating.

How wrong I was.

id, for those not in the know, are one of the oldest and most well-known PC developers in existence today.  Based near Dallas, Texas, they are the developers who made the iconic Doom and Quake series and have generally had a reputation for excellence even at the cost of delaying their games to make this happen.  That was ok though, because id knew that a quality product was the most important thing a game developer should deliver.

At launch, the PC version of Rage was a buggy mess.  The most egregious issue was texture popping, highlighted in the following video:

There was also the issue of a near-complete lack of any meaningful graphics options on the PC version (v-sync, anisotropic filtering, etc.).  id stated that this was due to a design decision to have the id tech 5 engine (id's new proprietary engine running the game) dynamically change these options for best performance on whatever machine you were using, but in practice these are standard options that any decent PC gamer will want to adjust manually.  One of Rage's several post-release patches later put these options in the game following the outcry over their exclusion.

Granted, the issue of texture popping was primarily a graphics driver problem that mostly (but not exclusively) affected AMD cards over Nvidia, but it highlighted some poor communication between id and AMD in particular.  Also unhelpful was that AMD (ATi) released the wrong set of drivers on launch day, instead releasing drivers with components that were several years old and gave horrific performance in-game.  Nvidia owners experienced less of these issues, but a cursory search of the Steam forums on launch day saw plenty of problems being reported by those users as well.

AMD eventually put out some fixed drivers that seemed to resolve the worst issues, and id patched Rage a short time later to include more graphics options and other fixes.  Launch day is everything though, and from that standard Rage was surely found lacking.

Unfortunately id chose not to make the PC edition the lead development version (as was the case in all of their previous games).  Instead all the versions were iterated at once on the new id tech 5 engine, with principle resources being devoted to the PS3 and X-Box 360 versions of the game.  Seeing such a PC-centric developer take a decision such as this is highly disappointing.  Granted, console sales are going to be a company's bread-and-butter, but to essentially have 1/3 of your game-base broken at release does not make you good no matter who is playing it.  Perhaps some of these issues could have been avoided if more attention was paid to the PC version.

Contrast this to how other companies have handled the PC with regards to multi-platform releases.

DICE, for example, had no qualms about beating the PC drum, making the PC the lead platform for Battlefield 3 and are now reaping the rewards (its current Metacritic rating is 90 and they have sold over five million copies across all formats.  By comparison, Rage's current Metacritic rating is 79 and while that is hardly bad, it's not exactly the universal acclaim that id are used to).

One of the year's other major releases, Deux Ex: Human Revolution, also did the PC version right.  While not the lead platform, Eidos Montreal had a PC-specific version of the game ported by Nixxes Software.  All the usual PC bells and whistles were included (at launch!) and there was even DirectX 11 support thrown in for those with appropriate hardware.  DEHR currently has a rating of 89 on Metacritic.

Kotaku recently reported that the mixed reception for Rage, coupled with its serious technical issues, had resulted in work on id's Doom 4 being "indefinitely suspended" (although this was later disputed).  True or not, serious questions have to be asked of id following this decidedly-average release of Rage.  While the underlying game is meant to be a decent shooter, it also does not seem to have much that sets it apart from the dozens of other shooters released in the past few years.  I suspect that Rage will ultimately be remembered in a similar way to Bulletstorm: a fun and enjoyable shooter that has little replay value or much to keep it in the memory past the first few weeks.

Prior to Rage's release I had always thought of id as one of the "big three" PC developers (alongside Blizzard and Valve); a studio that treated its customers with respect, had a strong PC slant and a culture of excellence.  In my eyes and many others, Rage has diminished my opinion of id.  Time will tell whether their future projects can redeem them or if they are destined to become the next Sierra or 3D Realms of their generation.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

What Is PlanetSide?

I knocked together a quick explanation of what made the original PlanetSide so great, and why people should be hyped for PlanetSide 2, over at Destructoid.  I figured people who read here might want to take a look at it, so here it is:

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Guild Wars 2 Within (Good) Touching Distance

Since it's coming up on twelve months since my last check-in with Guild Wars 2 I figured it was past time to post an update, since the past year has seen reams of new game details pushed out by ArenaNet and NCsoft.

It is already known what the five playable races of Guild Wars 2 will be: heroic humans, plant-like Sylvari, diminutive Asura, combative Charr and hardy Norn.  While I felt that the original Guild Wars was a solid (though not spectacular) title, I wasn't crazy about having no other playable races other than humans, and it's good to see ArenaNet address this in the sequel.

Guild Wars 2 will have eight professions, seven of which are already known and the eighth being close to a sure-bet.

First off there is of course the Warrior.  No MMO can truly call itself a game without having a Warrior class, and Guild Wars 2 is no different.  Warriors are weapons-masters, equally at home with a mace or an axe as with a sword or hammer.  They are able to aid their allies using banners and shouts, and some of their abilities will strike multiple opponents at once.

Their unique mechanic is adrenaline.  Warriors will be able to store adrenaline and then unleash it to supercharge some of their attacks.  If hitting things with large, metal objects sounds like your thing then the Warrior profession is probably for you.

Next up, the Elementalist.  As the name implies, the Elementalist is a master of the four planes - earth, air, fire and water.

Elemental attunement is their unique mechanic.

When attuned to Earth, the Elementalist gains defensive bonuses; Air attunement continually damages nearby enemies; Fire attunement grants area-of-effect damage and Water attunement will heal adjacent allies and give access to crowd-control abilities.

Elementalists can also employ glyphs and signets to augment and enhance their abilities.

Another directly-returning profession from the first game, the Ranger is a master of ranged weapons though are also capable of utilising melee attacks in a pinch.  They are able to conjure stationary spirits to buff their party as well as placing various kinds of traps that are triggered when run over by an enemy.

Animal companions are the unique mechanic for the Ranger.

Their companion can be set to passive, aggressive or defensive (as is the standard in MMOs with pet classes), and the Ranger will also gain various unique abilities based on which pet he is using at the time.  Aquatic animals have also been confirmed to be available in Guild Wars 2, since approximately 20% of the game's content is said to take place underwater.

The Guardian was the first original class announced for Guild Wars 2.  Essentially a combination of a Protection Monk from the first game and the standard defensive warrior found in many other games, they are heavily-armoured tanks able to buff and defend their party members.  Guardians can conjure spirit weapons to fight at their side for a short time, and also place wards on the ground which may have either a beneficial effect for their party or a detrimental effect for enemies.

The unique mechanic for Guardians are their virtues.

The three virtues are Justice, Courage and Resolve.  Justice passively grants them additional burning damage to their attacks, and can be activated to grant this ability to their teammates for a short time.  Courage passively grants them a free block every 30 seconds, and can be activated to pass this ability on to their party.  Resolve passively regenerates some of the Guardian's health over time, and can be activated to give this ability to their allies for a short time.

The Thief is a new class to the Guild Wars universe.  They seem to be largely based on the Assassin from the first game, along with some other bells and whistles thrown into the mix.

A Thief can use various blinks as Assassins could in GW1, and can also steal enemy weapons in order to utilise their abilities for a short time.  Thieves also employ traps which can be used both to damage and control enemies.

The Thief's unique mechanic is initiative.

Thieves have ten points of initiative, which regenerates at a rate of one per second either in or out of combat.  Initiative is used to power the Thief's attacks and allows various abilities to be chained together as needed.

The Necromancer is the penultimate returning profession from the original Guild Wars.  As the name suggests they are able to summon various undead pets which are able to both buff the Necromancer and attack enemies.

Necromancers have access to well and mark spells.  A well is a PBAoE effect around them which buffs allies, such as increasing health regeneration or reducing incoming damage.  A mark is a ground-based spell which can be triggered either by a certain condition (i.e. an enemy walking onto it) or manually by the Necromancer himself.

The unique mechanic for the Necromancer is life force.

Necromancers will passively gain life force as they cast spells, and will gain additional amounts when creatures near to them die.  When a certain amount of life force is reached, the Necromancer can choose to activate his Death Shroud ability, transforming him into a spirit and granting additional, more powerful, attacks.

The Engineer is a completely new profession.  They are very much a ranged damage and utility class that has the ability to perform several different functions depending on what is needed at the time.

Engineers are able to use various weapon kits which give them the temporary use of a special weapon (e.g. a flamethrower or a machine gun) and also backpack kits, which give them a specialised set of skills for a short duration (e.g. a bombing kit giving access to various explosives).  Engineers can also construct movable turrets which can have various effects, from dealing direct damage to enemies to even healing allies.

The unique mechanic for an Engineer is their tool belt.

Tool Belts give access to different skills depending on which weapon kit and backpack kit you are using.

It seems that if you want to be able to do almost anything and everything then playing an Engineer is for you.

While the eighth profession has yet to be formally announced, many believe that it will be the Mesmer returning from the original game.  Given that ArenaNet have stated that the final profession is a directly-returning one, that they will wear light armour and will affect people's minds in some way, then it is not too much of a stretch to believe that it's likely to be the Mesmer.

Hopefully ArenaNet will confirm this before the end of the year.

Since any race can play as any class then this grants a wide variety of race / class combinations which should be able to satisfy a great many people.

The over-use of instancing was something that was recognised as helping to prevent the first game from being the massive success that it could have been.  NCsoft and ArenaNet seem to have taken that on-board with the sequel, and now the only instancing in the new game will be for dungeons (as is the same for most other MMOs) and also in your own personal storyline.

I want to touch on the personal storyline here, because if done right it could be something which truly sets Guild Wars 2 from any other MMO out there.  At character creation you will make various decisions for your fledgling avatar which will strongly influence how their story gets played out, and this will continue as the game progresses.  Other players can be invited into your storyline (and you can visit theirs) but it is chiefly for you and you alone.  Decisions you make will affect how NPCs act towards you and what additional equipment is made available for purchase.

Many MMORPGs have paid mere lip service to having your decisions actually matter, and GW2's approach could be something which really helps to make it unique.

Turning to combat, Guild Wars 2 seems like it will have an extremely flexible and powerful system, quite different to most other MMOs you will have played.  Different skills from different professions will be able to interact together to produce new, sometimes unexpected, effects.  The often-cited example is that of a Ranger firing a hail of arrows through an Elementalist's wall of fire: the arrows will be lit aflame and will deal additional fire damage to the target.  

There will be no auto-attack in GW2, only damage dealt from using your abilities effectively.  You will also be able to dodge certain attacks from mobs, so if you see an opponent hold his sword over his head as if he is about to stab downwards, rolling out of the way will be an option and you will take no damage from his attack.

You will also be able to obtain and use various traits for your particular profession.  Traits will modify certain skills and abilities according to personal choice; for example you may slot a trait which grants a knockdown to every seventh melee attack you make, or one which reduces the cooldowns of your skills.  Think of them as talent points as seen in other MMOs, since you will be using them to further customise your character.

When talking about combat you also have to consider death, and in this regard Guild Wars 2 is taking quite a fresh and dare I say FPS approach.  Upon reaching 0 health your character will not be killed but will instead go into a downed state, giving you a new set of skills.  Killing an enemy while you are downed will restore you to life and put you back in the thick of the action.  In addition, every profession has the ability to "resurrect" downed players even from the beginning of the game, so this should help to keep things dynamic and punchy instead of just running from graveyard to graveyard, hoping the next leap will be the leap home.

This is certainly an original approach, as I cannot think of any other MMO putting this kind of system in their game.  As I said, it's really something that FPS games have tended to embrace in the past couple of years, notably Borderlands.  ArenaNet run the risk of trivialising death to the extent that players no longer take the necessary caution they would with more challenging encounters.  On the other hand, you can just concentrate on having run rather than having to plan an escape route in advance should things not proceed how you wish them to.  I think the jury is still out on whether this will be a good idea or not, although once more it is one of those features which will help to set Guild Wars 2 apart from almost every other MMORPG out there.

And that's really where we are right now.  ArenaNet seem hopeful that the beta will begin sometime before the end of 2011, and release should then be a few months after that.  My guess would be Q1 2012 as the best bet on when to see Guild Wars 2 on store shelves.  If they can deliver on much of what they have promised then expect this subscription-free MMORPG to create waves in the industry and perhaps cultivate a new standard for online role-playing games.

And PlanetSide 2 needs to hurry up as well.