Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Year Of Pain

Note: This post contains mild spoilers for the Mass Effect series.

It's been a rough year to be a PC gamer.

I don't mean from the numbers.  Recent analyses have shown that PC gaming is still not dead yet (again!) and is, in fact, doing extremely well with regards to sales and subscriptions of premium and MMO content.  No, what I am talking about is being let down by so-called triple-A titles that promised much but in the end failed to deliver (bonus credit if you can name at least one of them before reading the rest of this post).



First off, the behemoth known as Star Wars: The Old Republic.  After playing in the beta I could say it was a game that was fun for the most part, although the UI looked like it was designed by chimps.  Still though, the single-player storyline (which varied for each class) was enjoyable and engaging, in the classic BioWare style.

I was on the fence about picking it up, because while the story parts were very good (and some of the general quests had storylines that were also very engrossing) it lacked several of the features that modern MMOs have been incorporating for years.  The PvP system was flawed at launch, matching max-level characters with relative newbies and only boosting their stats as compensation for this disparity (when in reality the max-level characters had many more skills available in order to slice and dice their lower-level opponents); the worlds / zones did not flow together well and were not connected together in any meaningful way (thus removing some of the immersion that makes a good MMO, which makes you feel like you are in another living, breathing world); both raid and dungeon content was extremely buggy on launch; there was no dungeon finder, which made trying to get a group of people together to do a particular instance (or "Flashpoints" as they are known in TOR) an exercise in talking in General chat on your home fleet trying to attract people's attention; and there was no combat log.  At all.  Yep.


Some of these issues were fixed post-launch (there is a somewhat functional combat log now, as well as a group finder for dungeons) but really, these were things that should have been in the game at release.  BioWare did several difficult things right (notably the single-player story which was probably the best in any MMO to date) and then seemingly a few easy things wrong (combat log, dungeon finder tool).  This prevented what could have been a great launch and a memorable game, and turned TOR into "that game that is fun until you finish the story".

TOR's subscriber numbers have also been going in the wrong direction.  In May it was revealed that, while the game had 1.7m subscribers at launch (a healthy base on which to build), this had shrunk to 1.3m a handful of months later as word spread of its significant problems.  No numbers have been released since May, although if I had to guess I would imagine that they are hovering around the 1m number now and possibly a little under it.

There has been strong speculation that TOR will soon become a free-to-play game.  It is already free-to-play up to level 15, and by all accounts this program has been successful in bringing in many players that would not ordinarily shell out $60 on a blind purchase.  The next step is to go fully free-to-play in the Age of Conan or Lord of the Rings Online style, and I feel this is inevitable.  I would expect to see an announcement later this year confirming that TOR is transitioning to a free-to-play model, and that this change will happen sometime in the first half of 2013.


So that's one disappointment of the year, headed up by BioWare.  Next up on the list is a game by BioWare (you may have heard of them, they were traditionally a strong PC studio until very recently) which was meant to be the grand finale to what has been perhaps one of the best game franchises in recently memory, namely the Mass Effect series.

The original Mass Effect made a slightly delayed PC debut in May 2008 and became an instant classic, bringing true depth and decision-making that actually mattered (or was said to matter in the long-run...) to a futuristic third-person shooter which incorporated heavy RPG elements in its execution.  The story was probably one of the best that BioWare had crafted to date, weaving in a tale of sentient robots that were bent on destroying all life in the galaxy every 50,000 years.

The ending to the first game left everyone wanting more, and Mass Effect 2 (arguably the best game in the series) arrived on the scene in January 2010, this time a simultaneous PC and 360 release, with the game even appearing on the PS3 for the first time a year later.  A slimmed-down inventory management system, an overhauled squad combat system and a triple-A voice cast (including Battlestar Galactica's Tricia Helfer and Michael Hogan, Martin Sheen as well as Carrie-Anne Moss of The Matrix fame) helped to propel the game to stratospheric heights.  While it's usually in the middle that a story sags, ME2 advanced the narrative while keeping the action fast and immersive, with a finale that set up tantalising possibilities for what would be the final game of the Mass Effect series, theoretically its crowning glory.

Mass Effect 3 was finally released, after a delay of several months, in March of this year.  I'm not going to tell you it isn't a great game, because it mostly is, or that you shouldn't buy it, because you probably should.  What I will say is that rarely have I felt more let-down at the end of a game or even a series of games than I did at the end of Mass Effect 3.  Having the ability to import your own saved games into Mass Effect 2 and then into Mass Effect 3 helped give the game tremendous continuity, believing that my decisions (at least all of the major ones) would have significant and detailed consequences when it was time for the endgame.  Even as recently as January, Casey Hudson (the game's director) had said that the endings would be nuanced and not a simple matter of "an A, B or C ending".  Unfortunately, BioWare delivered an A, B or C ending and then fully failed to understand why players were angry about this.  They felt let down that a company which had promised (and previously delivered!) so much would make such a basic mistake.


Perhaps in the end BioWare were a victim of their own success, that by making so many variables in the first two games (quite literally hundreds of separate decisions) it would be impossible to deliver on them in any meaningful way.  I still feel though that they could have done much better than they did.  For the most part, Mass Effect 3 stood toe-to-toe with the previous games, both in scope and execution.  Yes there were some niggles, but these could be overlooked.  The ending though, the ending that would ensure that this would be a game series still lauded 20 years from now even if were just an average ending, this can only be considered a failure.

Post-launch as the nerdstorm raged, BioWare quickly promised new DLC that would "expand" on the ending without directly changing it.  While the DLC addressed some of the issues from the ending, it was basically an exercise in turd-polishing: no matter how much you polish it, the thing is still a turd.  They did manage to add in an extra ending though, so perhaps we should be grateful that you can now choose from an A, B, C or (new improved!) D ending instead of just A, B or C.


I felt compelled to include the above meme that was doing the rounds shortly after ME3's release, because it illustrates the main problem with the game more succinctly than my words ever could.

For myself and many others, the ending was a disappointment.  The game was tremendous, the series was tremendous, but BioWare had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with its final resolution.  This brings me back to my main point though, that BioWare, since their takeover by EA, have become a studio in decline.  Indeed, since EA purchased BioWare they have spread the BioWare name far and wide across many of their myriad studios, when in fact the true BioWare, the people who made Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age: Origins and the first Mass Effect, were a comparatively small number of people, many of whom have now left the company.

The numbers do not lie though, and BioWare's recent significant missteps (TOR, Dragon Age II, Mass Effect 3) indicate that they have problems.  BioWare used to be one of the "big three" PC developers (along with Valve and Blizzard) who could be relied upon to produce excellence every single time.  Now that EA have got their tendrils into them (EA purchased BioWare in late 2007) they seem to be dragging them down, stifling their highly creative nature in favour of more populist measures that will guarantee sales instead of quality.  I don't know if this will change.  Perhaps the forthcoming Dragon Age III (likely years away and not even officially announced yet) will be the acid test of how closely BioWare and EA are listening to their fans, but that's something we won't find out for several years.


Finally in this race to the bottom I turn to Blizzard, usually a studio that can guarantee greatness, sometimes for the low, low price of $15 a month.  I'm not talking about their WoW cash-cow though, but Diablo III which was finally released in May of this year.  The sequel to the phenomenally successful Diablo II and its expansion pack, Lord of Destruction, Diablo III was announced in 2008 although had been already been in development for some time by that point.

I'll address the elephant in the room first, which is the always-on Internet connection required by the game.  I've already said how much I don't like it and do not care for it.  The launch was plagued by server issues which meant that people could not play their legitimately-purchased single-player game because they could not connect to Battle.net.  Whilst Blizzard have tried their best to emphasise the upside of this (and it's a short list, believe me) the fact remains that its chief purpose is to serve as always-on DRM (by their own admission) and also to legitimise its real money auction house system, to guarantee to people buying items with real money that these are legitimately-obtained items that were not simply created by an exploit (since this was rampant in Diablo II).

Ok so the DRM sucks, but what about the game?  I'm afraid it's average, at best.  I'm a fan of dungeon-crawlers (the original Dungeon Siege remains one of my favourite games) but D3 adds little to the genre.  What's there is fun, in small doses and with your friends helping out, but it isn't the "ohmygawdz I can't stop playing this game" that has led me to 10-hour sessions of WoW or even things like BioShock.  People who enjoyed the other Diablos will probably enjoy Diablo III (I never played any of them before this) but it isn't inexactly reinventing the wheel either.  Monsters drop loot, you collect it and progress through the story.  Want to play a higher difficultly level (it goes Normal -> Nightmare -> Hell -> Inferno)?  Well you can't, because you have to progress through the difficulties in a linear fashion (i.e. you  must first finish Normal in order to unlock Nightmare, and then finish Nightmare to unlock Hell, etc.).  I don't really care to be forced into finishing the game three times before I can take on the hardest challenge, but that's how Blizzard want things to be.


And speaking of how Blizzard wants to do things, I hope you like kiting because that's all you will be doing in Inferno mode.  Want to try a heavy life-leech build and see if you can progress that way?  Well you can't, because Blizzard have been extremely quick to nerf builds of any class (even the melee classes) which promote a playstyle other than kiting.  I'm all for a game being challenging, but locking me into a single way of playing no matter which of the classes I have chosen?  No thanks.  The fact that some of the mobs are quite literally impossible to kill on the highest difficulty also does not engender happy thoughts about the game.

The story in Diablo III is laughably bad.  Granted I'm not expecting Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings", but games like BioShock and Mass Effect have shown that it doesn't have to be one or the other when considering storyline and gameplay (and heck, D3 almost fails to qualify on either count).  Since I hadn't played either of the first two games I got the backstory filled in by some friends and so thought I had the gist of it all.  It turns out I shouldn't have bothered, since the story is told in fits and spurts and feels like it was written by a second-year creative writing student with a hangover.  How Blizzard could think this is acceptable in 2012 boggles the mind.

So all in all it's a fair game with bad DRM, poor story, silly progression and one method of play on its highest difficulty.  It becomes (slightly) more fun with friends, but the fact that you have to endure so much just to get to that point is the hardest thing about it.  It certainly was not worth the wait, I know that much.

Blizzard also cut PvP from the game in order to make their launch date.  They have said that it will be added in in a later patch, but as of the time of writing there is no date for this and most people believe it's months away, and possibly won't even be out this year.  Since you can now buy (and sell) items using real money I have qualms about how all that is going to go down.  Success may mean spending hundreds of dollars on the auction house (which is now seemingly ok because Blizzard are getting their cut) and that is right out of pay-to-win 101.  We'll see once it comes out but I'll be surprised if it's enough to get me to fire up D3 again.

So, we've had three bad games this year (or at least two bad games and a bad ending) from titles that were meant to be strong, so PC gaming is dead, right?  Fortunately its corpse is still up and running and doing quite well these days, at least if you listen to EA.

There is hope for the future.  In less than a month Guild Wars 2 will be released, one of the most highly-anticipated games in the past few years (sound familiar?).  I have played the Guild Wars 2 beta and essentially love almost everything about it, especially the subscription fee of $0 a month, so I have confidence that it is going to be a success.

We've also got games like Torchlight 2, Borderlands 2 and Dishonored due out later this year, and so I'm hopeful of a latter-year reversal on our early-year problems.  It's disappointing that so many "big" games from "big" publishers and developers did not turn out to be worth the wait, but maybe this will just let others step up to the plate and show the bigger guys how it's meant to be done.

It certainly seems to be true that "the bigger they are the harder they fall".  I really hope the big guys are taking notes because while we can absorb some failures, for PC gaming to remain strong we have to have some truly great games (well designed, critically received and strong sellers) to point to.

I think at the end of this year we will have some more examples of these.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012