Thursday, March 5, 2015

A New Challenger Appears



I wanted to put the word out about a new MMO currently in the middle of its funding period on Kickstarter (seemingly where many games are birthed these days).

MMOs are probably my favourite genre of games. I enjoy the massive worlds to explore, the sense of community with dozens / hundreds of other people occupying the same shared space at the same time, and the feeling that I am in a living, breathing world.

I played WoW from launch until mid-2009, and - love it or hate it - it was the MMO distilled and refined into perhaps the best example of what the genre could produce. Since I'm allergic to sunlight and people I've played many MMOs, including Rift, WildStar, The Secret World, The Elder Scrolls Online, Defiance, Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2, Allods Online, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, Lord of the Rings Online, Neverwinter, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Ultima Online, City of Heroes, PlanetSide and PlanetSide 2, and probably some others that have slipped my mind. Some were pretty good, with distinct ideas and innovations, but none have managed to scratch the same itch that WoW managed to for almost five years.

In 2015 the MMO is essentially an endangered species. They take longer than traditional games to develop (due to needing more content), they cost more, have a more nuanced potential playerbase, and - last but by no means least - every so-called "WoW-killer" has failed to kill WoW. WoW didn't do everything they did first, but they arguably did it best. Blizzard acted as a giant sponge, absorbing the best features from other games and incorporating them into their own. The fact that they've continued to do this after WoW's release is one of the reasons that the game is still the most successful MMO on the market, and that shows no sign of changing anytime soon.


Enter Crowfall.

Crowfall just passed the $1m funding mark on Kickstarter, which for a game with not much behind it is impressive in its own right. Their goal was $800,000, which was raised in a matter of days. Clearly there's a lot of people jumping onto this bandwagon - but why?

It actually goes back to probably the most mainstream MMO that I never played, called Shadowbane. Shadowbane was a PvP-centric MMO released in 2003, that had (at the time) the unique draw of making the world changeable. Powerful guilds could capture keeps and castles, construct new fortifications, and generally become their own version of a Mafia kingpin. Technical issues plagued the game at launch, and whilst still highly regarded, it was eventually shuttered in 2009.

Crowfall is being developed by ArtCraft Entertainment, with its two founders being J. Todd Coleman, original Creative Director of Shadowbane, and Gordon Walton, former Executive Director of Ultima Online, Star Wars: Galaxies, and Star Wars: The Old Republic, amongst others.


I would strongly urge everyone to take the time to watch Crowfall's pitch video they made for Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/crowfall/crowfall-throne-war-pc-mmo (top of the page) as it really explains both the problem in MMOs and their potential solution better than I can. Crowfall uses the mantra "Living heroes, dying worlds". Your character lives forever, but the worlds they play in do not. There will be campaigns that may be as short as a few weeks or as long as a few months, and at the end of every campaign the rewards will be divvied up based on your contribution, the winner, and what the initial stakes of the created campaign were. The greater the risk, the greater your reward.

This does solve a problem that has existed in MMOs for almost as long as MMOs have existed, particularly in MMOs where PvP is a large part of the experience. Powerful characters and guilds snowball in their power very quickly, to where the big get much bigger, and the weak get much weaker. It constitutes barriers to entry where the end result is not many people enjoying the experience, even those at the top of the food chain. Crowfall's time-limited campaigns are meant to be a solution to this, with discrete end points that essentially act as reset buttons for the world state.

Obviously the details of this system are not exactly set in stone just yet, but the novel idea has already got me thinking, and actually quite interested in this project despite my never having played Shadowbane (though I did play UO quite extensively back in the day). Full disclosure: I have backed this project on Kickstarter.


Crowfall's alpha test is slated to begin later this year, with beta following next year, and release planned for Q4 2016. These are aggressive timetables and I'd be surprised if they were not delayed, as that's basically how MMO development works.

Twelve classes (archetypes as they are known) are planned, with all currently detailed on the official site crowfall.com

I'm trying to temper my enthusiasm, since I've been burned before quite extensively on multiple occasions. I do like people trying something out of the norm though, and not just attempting to make the latest in a long, long line of WoW clones. At the end of the day not even WoW offers an experience similar to what Crowfall proposes. Maybe MMO developers are starting to understand that not only is WoW unbeatable on its own territory, but that by trying to simply copy the world's flagship MMO they are just hurting themselves in the long run. If people want WoW then they will play WoW, not WoW-lite.

Maybe Crowfall will be great, maybe it won't, but they're at least defining their own terms. That's something we should all get behind, recovering WoW-addicts or not.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Upcoming Games Of 2015 - Part 2

Onto my final batch of games for this year, starting with...


Overwatch

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Expected: Q4 2015

Blizzard's first new IP in over ten years, Overwatch is a multiplayer team-based shooter very much in the vein of Team Fortress 2, and has a similar "cartoony" style. The game recently made headlines for the fact that Blizzard's trademark application for the name Overwatch was suspended, due to a different company filing a game-related trademark under the same name two months before Blizzard did. Whether this will result in Overwatch receiving a name change, or Blizzard throwing a big pile of money at the competitor in order to secure the name for themselves, is unclear.

Overwatch itself looks to be a fun mix of tactical gameplay and team-based shenanigans, with twelve classes proposed for launch, each settling into the offence, defence, tank, and support quartet. The usual caveats about betting against Blizzard apply here, as their Rumpelstiltskin-like ability to turn straw into gold has been demonstrated on countless occasions over the lifetime of the company. Team-based multiplayer shooters are very popular at the moment (see Battleborn below), and it will be very interesting to see what Blizzard's take on this growing genre looks like.




The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Developer: CD Projekt RED
Publisher: WB Games (NA), Bandai Namco (EU)
Expected: 19th May, 2015

Already delayed twice, Wild Hunt is now slated for release in the Spring of this year. The sequel to the highly regarded The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, Wild Hunt continues the story of Geralt, the titular Witcher, who must battle a mysterious group known as the Wild Hunt as they threaten the Northern Kingdoms.

Based on a series of Polish novels, the Witcher games have come to be highly regarded RPGs in their own right (although I would say that the first one was quite wonky in places). Created using CD Projekt's entirely in-house REDengine, the game promises breathtaking visuals, a game world "20% larger than Skyrim", and a day / night cycle which can change monsters and the environment around you. Watch the trailer and I think you can agree that they certainly don't seem to be lying about the graphics. Hopefully the gameplay will be able to back that up.




Batman: Arkham Knight

Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: WB Interactive Entertainment
Expected: 2nd June, 2015

Arkham Knight is the latest in Rocksteady's Batman series, the first two games being Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. The most recent Batman game, Arkham Origins, was developed by a different studio (WB Montreal) and as a prequel was not a direct successor to the other games. This is probably for the best, as Arkham Origins received average reviews, and is generally considered to be the weakest of the most recent games in the series, which technically it probably isn't even part of.

Arkham Knight though seems set to be a return to form for the Dark Knight, and noted voice actor Kevin Conroy reprises his role as the voice of Batman himself. The Batmobile will finally make an appearance as a player-controlled vehicle, and can be remotely summoned to appear at a nearby location whether you're on foot or gliding through the air.

The game has been delayed twice already (it was originally slated for release in June 2014, then October 2014), so hopefully the third time's the charm here.




No Man's Sky

Developer: Hello Games
Publisher: Hello Games
Expected: 2H 2015

One of, if not the breakout hit of 2014's E3, No Man's Sky is a procedurally-generated adventure game where you quite literally have to explore the universe, discover new life forms, and boldly go where no man has gone before (sorry ladies). The debut title from British indie developer Hello Games, this is is probably the game I am most interested in, alongside Rebel Galaxy. Unfortunately it's going to be a timed exclusive for the PS4 at launch, but a PC version has been confirmed after that period of exclusivity ends. Whether that's six months, a year, or longer is unclear, but the chances of this appearing on the PC in 2015 are slim. I'm still hoping though.

The randomly-generated nature of the game means that there are over 18 quintillion (18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) planets to be discovered in the universe, each with its own unique wildlife, geography, topography, and other mysteries to be discovered. Find something new for the first time and your name name is permanently attached to it for the rest of the game, meaning that someone else who examines that planet / animal / area in their game sees your name as its discoverer, forever.

Expect to hear a lot about this game during the next few months, as it looks it could very well be the first must-own game on the PS4 - and hopefully not too long after, the PC.





Battleborn

Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games
Expected: 2H 2015

Gearbox's first new IP in a while following the success of the Borderlands series, Battleborn is a multiplay "cartoony" online shooter, in a similar vein to Blizzard's Overwatch (Battleborn was actually announced first). Similar to how Borderlands mashed up the RPG and FPS genres, Battleborn seems to be adding some MOBA action into the mix. So FPS + RPG + MOBA... that's a lot of balls to keep up in the air. And since Gearbox were responsible for Colonial Marines, they know all about balls.

As you would expect there are several different factions to play as, and several characters within each faction, each with a unique style and set of abilities. Gearbox have said that they hope to have around 20 characters ready for the game's launch later this year, with more to follow post-release.

With the phenomenal success of the Borderlands series, it's difficult to bet against Gearbox on something like this. Couple that with the fact that sci-fi games seem to be very much in vogue, and in particular multiplayer sci-fi games, and it's quite possible that Battleborn checks almost every box that people are looking for. There's no release date yet, but hopefully we'll hear something at this year E3 with regards to that.

 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Upcoming Games Of 2015 - Part 1

Time for my annual look at the games I think are worthy of attention this coming year. A reminder that these are in no particular order, but are just titles that have caught my eye as something to watch that could be worthy of your cold hard cash.

Starting up...

Fortnite

Developer: Epic Games
Publisher: Epic Games
Expected: 2H 2015

The latest title out of Epic Games, most notable for the Gears of War and Unreal Tournament series, Fortnite is envisioned as a free-to-play co-op game whereby you scavenge the land and build a defensible fortress in the day, only to be besieged by zombies and others monsters at night. You can choose how to keep the bad guys away, and you can choose from several classes.

Since this is going to be free-to-play then the usual caveats about pay-to-win apply here. Done well (League of Legends, PlanetSide 2) it could be no issue, done badly (Star Wars: The Old Republic) it might be a monstrosity. I'm hoping for the former. It's also interesting to note that this will be a PC exclusive at launch, with console ports a possibility down the line.




Rebel Galaxy

Developer: Double Damage Games
Publisher: Double Damage Games
Expected: 2H 2015

The debut title from Double Damage Games, the new studio of former Blizzard developers Travis Baldree and Erich Schaefer (they created both Torchlight games too during their tenure at Runic Games), Rebel Galaxy gives you a randomly-generated universe each time you start up a new game. Build alliances, go on missions, become a trader... it's really up to you.

I will admit, this is one I am very much looking forward to for this year. I am a big fan of the Torchlight series, and what these guys were able to do on a shoestring budget is nothing short of amazing. For a long time (certainly at launch) Torchlight II was a better Diablo III than Diablo III, until Blizzard got the memo and finally fixed it a year or so post-release. Still though, these guys deserve their accolades and I am very much looking forward to seeing what they can do with one of my favourite genres. Rebel Galaxy will be a PC / PS4 title at launch, and will hopefully drop towards the end of this year.




Shadow Realms

Developer: EA Bioware
Publisher: EA
Expected: Q4 2015 / Q1 2016

Much has been written about BioWare's recent exploits (a lot of it by me), but with the excellent (although not without its flaws) Dragon Age: Inquisition it seems as if they have recaptured some of their mojo from previous years. Shadow Realms is slated to be BioWare's latest game (probably sandwiched between Dragon Age: Inquisiton and Mass Effect 4), and is a 4v1 asymmetrical co-op game that looks like it ripped off The Secret World's art style in a big way.

There will be multiple classes available at launch, each with their own abilities, weapons, and combos, and each game consists of four heroes vs the shadowlord. The shadowlord can possess any NPC mob, giving it extra health, damage, and abilities, as well as being able to change the map (break down walls, create monster spawns, etc.) and fight against the heroes directly. The shadowlord essentially seems to be the AI director from the Left 4 Dead games, but with an actual person calling the shots instead of Skynet. It sounds great, but since it's modern BioWare then it could be not-great. Time will tell.




Evolve

Developer: Turtle Rock Studios
Publisher: 2K Games
Expected: 10th February 2015

The one game on the first part of this list with a definitive release date, Evolve is yet another asymmetrical 4v1 co-op game (although it is going to have an single-player campaign) in a similar vein to Shadow Realms above. A team of four players (or "hunters" as the game calls them) receive assigned missions which they have to complete, all of the time avoiding / killing a player-controlled enemy monster. The team comprised of four hunters always has the same makeup (one each from assault, medic, support, and trapper), but there are several characters available for each slot). The player controlling the monster also gets a choice between several forms of monster, and during the game can consume smaller enemies to evolve into newer forms (hence the title).

I've heard nothing but good things about this game from several sources, and since Turtle Rock were the developer behind the original Left 4 Dead then the pedigree is strong with this one. The game's only five weeks away, and has all the hallmarks of being the first big contender of the year.



Stay tuned for part two my roundup, coming soon.