…and quietly regards the menu up behind the counter. After a few thoughtful moments, the philosopher inquires: “What is Good”?*

Previous whining aside, quite a few of the games that I’ve dabbled in lately have been enjoyable. Warframe, for instance, didn’t chase me away through poor gameplay, but through frustration with the systems. And maybe a little bit because of repetitiveness. Still, after my last post I resolved to update the beast and peer once more into its depths, and my conclusion so far is that the refreshed beginner experience is a massive improvement. Plus the new diegetic menus look fantastic, and it’s all based around a ship of my own with its very own slightly unhinged AI. That last point is actually a bit of an achilles heel… I do so love an AI on the edge; cf. Shodan, Helios, GLadOS, et al.

damn that Braton Prime...

Much improved over the original grey wastes.

There’s also been some flirtation with Mass Effect, which I really appreciate in terms of being able to play a character who has… social issues, is ruthless, generally unpleasant, yet is still on the side of the angels. People who don’t take shit will get stuff done. Yes, they can be overbearing, and will often be disliked, but they’re effective. And the morality system isn’t either/or… a character can have shades of the upstanding do-right crusader without having to sacrifice their ability to intimidate the contents of their enemies’ bladders straight into said enemies’ breeches.

I mentioned the issues with the starting experience, though, and it’s odd… you’d expect the light-armoured Vanguard class, for instance, to be less effective early on than the tougher Soldier. However, since the Soldier is the Mass Effect equivalent of a straight fighter, he’s tremendously reliant on gear… and while early pistols are pretty good, the same cannot be said of the assault rifles, even should you find one. Same with the early armour – both characters found an excellent suit of light armour early on, and while that’s great news for the Vanguard, it means that said warrior/biotic hybrid is just as tough as my supposed tank. If the game takes the standard approach of linear strength gain for warrior types and exponential gain for mages, this start doesn’t really bode well for a pure gunner.

Torchlight II made its much-belated way onto my roster thanks to the Steam sale, and it’s been a rollicking Diablo-flavoured pile-up-the-corpses ride. It’s also a prime example of how to do early levels right – even with the basic attack and one skill, the characters feel fun and competent. Particularly the Engineer. It’s always great to have a nice, simple “kill all the monsters until they die” game to fall back on.

My real fallback, though, has been the incredibly fun Super Hexagon. I first heard of this game in connection with the Hexos encounter in Brawlers’ guild, and eventually picked it up during the same Steam sale. I’d play this game just for the music, but there’s also something almost hypnotically entertaining about navigating the mazes in this game. And even when I do incredibly poorly – which, let’s face it, is often – it’s still easy to jump back in. But before endorsing the game unequivocally, allow me to quote a few one-line Steam reviews…

30 minutes of playing this and I can no longer recognize any colours. 11/10

Dark Souls on drugs.

I now understand why the number of the beast only consists of the number 6.

This game enjoys the pain of others, and feeds off of their misery.

The game I play when I feel like I should cry myself to sleep.

Do you want your friends to hate you? Get them this game. 10/10

Now bear in mind, each and every one of those reviewers recommended the game.

Oh delightful geometry, tell me your secrets...

Oh delightful geometry, tell me your secrets…

It really is great to just fire up for a few minutes at a time, in between other, meatier titles or simply whenever you require a mental reset. I’m honestly pretty terrible at twitch games, but that music…

Between these titles and the ongoing wrestling with Disciples and (sort of) Fallout 3 – whose worst deficiencies I’ve managed to fix, through some hacking around in the config – it’s been a good couple of months here behind the desk. That’s discounting a brief flirtation with Wildstar, which looks brilliant but as an MMO comes off as toxic, and a couple of others like Bastion and Space Hulk that didn’t really capture the imagination, but weren’t really bad. Plus there’s Human Revolution: Director’s Cut waiting on the desktop, where I can finally take on the game as it was intended… with a goddamned silenced sniper rifle. Going to wait a bit on that one, though. Savour the anticipation. Also, distance the experience from the base version that I played earlier in the year, which was astoundingly good.

Yeah, everything’s looking pretty good on this side of the fence.

 

* This would be more funny if you were a moral relativist.

Expect to hear more about it here in coming weeks.

Riiight. Well, that worked out magnificently.

So, what has been the goings on since that rather cheerful review of Warframe? The honest answer should be “many things”. Troublesome, since it’s easier to maintain a regular posting schedule with a focus on a single subject. What has been occupying my attention – quite significantly – is tangling with the opening areas of a few different games.

Warframe was the first betrayal. I quit the game some months ago, somewhat put out by the fact that the starting experience engendered an impossibility of actually getting anyone interested in the game – an issue since supposedly addressed by an overhaul, but too late. Starting players would have no good mods for damage and survivability, and the crafting system made actually building one’s first decent weapon prohibitively difficult, if at least one wanted it before the extreme difficulty jump that was the Earth region. So most people introduced to the game would simply lose interest at that step in the linear path. While a good game, its teamwork-oriented nature meant that chasing away one’s fellows was in the end an unforgivable sin.

In leaving Warframe, I resolved to once more throw myself into the headwaters of Nostalgia. Deus Ex: Human Revolution was mentioned some time ago, along with the miserable abomination that is Fallout 3. While the attempt had met with mixed success, Human Revolution was worthy, and so I hoped to repeat this success.

Casting the lingering shadows of Fallout from my thoughts, the next obvious choice was the latest extension of a franchise dear to me for some time; that is to say, Disciples III: Resurrection. Perhaps the fact that this was in fact a redesign of the original troubled Disciples III release should have been a warning sign. Alas, no.

Everyone hates imps...

This is the most basic enemy possible and it has 40 evasion. By contrast, character starts with 10 accuracy if they’re lucky.

Here the hideous hydra that is early-game misery once more raised its ghastly heads. Enemy packs seem to be statted for some other series, with early enemies being far too heavy on evasion for the meager abilities of starting units. Crowd-control units with abilities such as paralysis and baleful polymorph have had damage added to them, and despite the concepts of elemental immunities and general armour having been removed, somehow the designers of this game saw fit to retain units immune to physical damage as a mainstay of the undead faction. In short, a mess, particularly early on.

Possibly the most tragic aspect of this whole struggle is that, upon muddling through the early levels of the campaign, the game becomes much more enjoyable. Buried under the dross is an actual, enjoyable title, ruined by poor starting progression – indeed, I would have dismissed this game entirely in the first hour were it not for a combination of stubbornness and lingering affection for the magnificent second entry into the series.

In between playing the early areas of Disciples – of whose campaign I have yet completed only two of the four races’ stories – I attempted to mitigate the exhaustion by trying my hand at a few other games, most notably KOTOR II. This game received near-universal praise; surely it couldn’t be another dud?

Perhaps I was in the end the architect of my own dismay. You see, after spending twenty or so minutes scrabbling in my brain to remember which feats were useful back in the halcyon days of D20 3.0, I elected to play the prologue. The expectation was an introduction to the game mechanics and perhaps, like some other games, a small starting advantage in experience transferred over to the campaign.

Oh, how deeply one can be cut.

ffffuuuu

I have a bad feeling about this…

You see, the prologue is not played as the character which one has carefully sculpted from base clay only moments previous. Oh no. Instead, the player is treated to a sequence played as an astromech droid. For anyone not familiar with Star Wars canon, let it be known that these droids are not even vaguely humanoid, being instead mechanical caretakers of their ships. And this ship was in dire straits indeed – near-obliterated, with segments of the hull open to the gaping void of space. Exciting! Except that no indication of how or why this happened was forthcoming, and the debris-ridden mess was only relevant in that it provided a reasoning for obtuse puzzles. As I directed the wretched automaton around this ship, with its peculiarly unwilling portals and surfeit of scrap metal, I did eventually come across my character. Huzzah! Truly a moment of triumph, seeing my prospective avatar… slumped on a sick-bed, portended to be unable to even survive until the ship could put into port.

So much for heroism.

Dude, she's like, in a coma...

So heroic!

It seems that the only real reason for having the character present at all was to justify being unable to open doors into hard vacuum, though by this point dark thoughts of carelessly slaying this in-game incarnation were already gathering behind my brows. But no, I soldiered on, eventually fulfilling the meaningless tasks designed to bring the ship into port, and then…

On the plus side, apparently booty shorts are still a thing in the future.

On the plus side, apparently booty shorts are still a thing in the future.

And then awoke in a glass jar, alone and with no materiel, in a seemingly deserted complex. At this point I resolved to put aside the game for another day, possibly during the recuperation period from severe brain damage. No advancement of the story had occurred, no meaningful interaction with the universe had been achieved. I had, to paraphrase, not yet begun to play.

Why are these games so terrible in their early stages? Even the acclaimed Mass Effect, another title which I recently started playing, is much less pleasant when the character is in its larval stages. Surely it is common sense to introduce the player in such a way as to engender satisfaction rather than frustration? To leave one craving more, rather than desiring respite from the exhaustion?

Back in the early days of gaming, demos were an accepted part of a game’s release. Gamers could play through the first act – in part or in its entirety – and assess their enjoyment of the product based on this glimpse. Some years ago, game demos fell out of fashion – and looking at this crop of games from years past, it is not difficult to see why. Shoddy implementation, poor balance, little encouragement to the player – even in the case of the suddenly popular Early Access model, the intent seems to be to fleece the prospective player before they have had more than the most cursory glimpse afforded by overly optimistic publications and developers.

Perhaps this is simply a hazard of casting one’s attention back to games of yesteryear – though today’s offerings are an unexciting bunch. Still, it is dispiriting that so many make the same misstep coming over the threshold, and I have my doubts that the trend has passed.

So, what to do when, after quitting WoW, one realises that most single-player games are bug-ridden piles of dreck? Why, start playing a new MMO, of course!

Small because for some reason my connection's giving me hell with uploads. QQ.

Small because for some reason my connection’s giving me hell with uploads. QQ.

Weeelll… MMO might actually be stretching it a bit at this point. Face-to-face player interaction is pretty much limited to missions and clan halls.

The game is, at its core, a competent and rather pretty third-person shooter. It adds a few gimmicks like wallrunning and there’s a melee combat system that the devs promise will be getting some polish Any Day Now™. The main divergence is in the classes.

By now it’s pretty much no secret that I’m a raging altoholic. That means when I want to play a game, I want something where I can fire up a different character and have it play like nothing else in the game does. Warframe mixes up the shooter base with unique abilities based on the player’s titular Warframe – that being some sort of bizarre and usually slightly creepy bio-tech combat suit.

Each ‘frame has its own advantages and disadvantages. The starters are Excalibur, a sort of swordsman-type frame with a powerful AoE blind; Mag, a caster-type with magnetic abilities; and Loki, who really has little business being offered to new players, as he’s an advanced tactical stealth frame who really comes into his own once the player has acquired a few mods and knows their way around the game.

Mods? Mods. Mods are basically cards that slot into your frame and various weapons to give bonuses or abilities. All equipment levels up, from frame to melee weapon, but only the frame gains stats as it levels, and ten only at an incremental rate. The real strength unlocked by levelling is that it allows a larger budget for mods on an item. Mods also gain levels from fusing with other mods, and higher levels cost more points. This means that, while levelling, one can either equip a few levelled-up mods, or can diversify and equip several different bonuses.

There’s a polarity-matching system et cetera that’s a bit tedious to explain, but the net effect is that one has a surprising amount of leeway in build.

When starting out, one picks a starter from the three frames above. Other frames with different abilities can be crafted after gathering their parts from the relevant bosses and building them based on a blueprint from the Market. The player doesn’t have different characters for each class; instead everything is shared, and the player merely equips a different frame for the alt experience.

All of this is great. I’m glossing over a lot of depth here for the sake of an overview, but trust me, it’s there. But the frame collection system leads to the inevitable monkey under the rug: this game is free to play. Dun dun dunnn!

Penny Arcade approaches Warframe with their usual tact and nuance. Frames pictured: Excalibur and god alone knows what that other thing is.

Penny Arcade approaches Warframe with their usual tact and nuance. Frames pictured: Excalibur and god alone knows what that other thing is.

As with most F2P games, you can if you like buy most of the weapons and frames available, along with a host of cosmetic contrivances. The difference is that most F2P games don’t make absolutely everything that impacts gameplay available ingame. All platinum buys you is time… with one stark exception. Inventory space reserved for frames and weapons is severely limited, and extra slots can only be bought with plat.

One does get a starting allowance sufficient to buy a few slots, and the slots certainly aren’t expensive, and moreover there’s a thriving ingame economy based around trading Void mission keys and mods for plat, so a player determined not to spend a cent can quite conceivably attain everything in the game. My personal philosophy is that if I’m enjoying the fruits of the developers’ labour, and – importantly – it doesn’t feel mandatory, it’s fair and right to pay for the privilege.

That point about mandatory spending is crucial. I understand that developers produce these products as a business venture, and that at the end of the day it must make money. Too many games thrust this crass commercialism into one’s face, though, with gating of content and grinding for anything worthwhile. What makes Warframe for me is that I don’t feel any of that pressure to ‘donate’, and perhaps perversely, that ensures that I have already made a small purchase and will doubtless make more in the future.

This is more or less what you'll be looking at most of the time, barring maybe all the darkness. Not my screenshot, since apparently I suck at snapping pics while anything interesting is going on.

This is more or less what you’ll be looking at most of the time, barring maybe all the darkness. Not my screenshot, since apparently I suck at snapping pics while anything interesting is going on.

Well, that might be a bit strong. What really makes Warframe for me is the setting. It’s popularly described as being about ‘space ninjas’, which conjures up nineties-era cartoon images. Personally I feel the experience is more like playing a highly agile space commando slash superhero. Reawakening thousands of years after a war which the Warframes – or rather the Tenno – supposedly won, but which left the solar system largely uninhabitable, the player winds their way through the planets and moons now occupied by distinctly posthuman factions. Not a lot is known about the war or those who fought it, since the Tenno apparently can’t remember and those who created them are all dead.

There’s a fair bit of very suggestive backstory, but not a lot of definitive lore. Players can explore the infested derelict ships left behind by those who made the Tenno, and can travel to the Void using special keys to take on the better-preserved structures left behind. What exactly the Tenno are is still a mystery, except that they were cast into the selfsame void as a drastic measure and came back afflicted yet powerful, and were bound to the Warframes as living weapons.

Perhaps this sounds a bit cheesy, but to me it echoes the maxim “Endure. In enduring grow strong.” That’s a pretty good trope to use as a hook, and I’m very interested to see where the story team takes this game.

As far as gameplay goes, some of the early-game is a bit rough – Earth in particular is a massive jump in difficulty compared to the two preceding planets – but it’s being ironed out with some feedback from the community. Despite being a release title for the PS4, officially the game appears to still be in extended Beta, and changes come thick and fast. Some mechanics are a bit rough around the edges, and  there are balance issues between frames and weapons, but overall that doesn’t prevent the game from being fast-paced, frenetic fun in nice manageable segments of 5-20 minutes.

Expect to hear more about it here in coming weeks.

Earlier in the year I traded my subscription in for three-month game time cards. Current one runs out at the end of the month, and I’m not renewing it.

If you're doing something, do it properly.

If you’re doing something, do it properly.

Horribly enough, there’s no option to supply Blizzard with a “why I’m unsubbing” message if you’re on prepaid, which calls into question every single thing they’ve ever said about reasons why people unsub. They’re just not getting feedback from people who are using game cards, and in my experience, that’s most of the player base. Not to mention that I switched to prepaid partly because I wasn’t sure if I’d want to keep playing.

This has been a while coming. I submitted an ingame CS ticket explaining one of the issues – to whit, that Blizzard seems to think that grinding on alts is gameplay, and I tend to think that playing different characters with different abilities is gameplay. But there’s no room in 500 characters for all of the reasons, so in order of “hey I should remember to put this down”, here we go:

  • Alts. I’m an altoholic who has spent the entire expansion playing a single character. I dislike feeling that time spent on an alt means less effectiveness on my raiding toon. I dislike having to grind stuff on alts that I’ve already unlocked on my main – and yes, the commendations and timeless isle stuff is much better, but commendations were after a huge chunk of the base quit already, and timeless comes at the end of the expansion, when Blizzard admit that they relax the rules. That doesn’t bode well for alt-play in the future.
  • Melee DPS are second-class citizens, and I don’t see that going away. I like smacking things in the face, but Blizzard’s encounter designers don’t seem to believe in this as a valid playstyle, and their graphics team can’t seem to figure out how to make non-casters look and feel impressive.
  • Timeless Isle style content doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t want to run around looking for rares and arriving just too late, or grinding mobs to spawn a better mob that I don’t get to before someone kills it, or doing anything involving fucking Shaohao rep. But at the WoD announcement, TI-style content was trumpeted as the way of the future. Yeah, not my future, thanks. I’d rather they look back at Domination Point.
  • Artificial gating. The worst was requiring us to earn reputations in order to spend our valour, and that persisted right up to Shado-Pan Assault, aka the final tier of valour gear. Fantastic idea there, guys. Totally not still bitter about that shit. This feeds heavily into the alt issue, because climbing those gates the second or third time was just never worth it. But it’s also the little things, like putting major content hubs out in the middle of bloody nowhere with no quick way to get there. Sure, flight paths let you see the world… but it’s five minutes that the “player” is not actually playing the game.
  • A minor point: I went on holiday, and didn’t miss the game at all. I was relieved. That’s not something you want your players feeling – that not playing feels like a pressure draining from behind the eyes, that the distortion this pressure caused was robbing everything else of its delight.
  • Finally: boneheadedness, specifically on Blizzard’s part. The current Blizzard design team is very sensitive to criticism, and seems to respond to any well-considered argument with “well, that’s true, but another segment of our playerbase experiences [x hair-raising idiocy] differently” or the old favourite “players on the forums are not representative of the overall base”. As I pointed out earlier with regard to unsub reasons, Blizzard is not above using non-representative data when it supports their view. There’s a term for that, and it is confirmation bias.

    The current design team take months to fix issues that players feel very strongly about, apparently simply because they don’t want to admit that they came up with a poor design. They blame players for not testing for them, especially in PvP, even when issues are pointed out to them before the content goes live. They carry elements that are not fun forward – see again rep gating for valour gear, culminating in not even having a valour tier for the latest content. All in all, the design team come across as childish and stubborn.

That final point is something that’s been building up throughout the expansion, and something that is going to carry over to the next. The design team is unable to deal with the fact that they make poor decisions, and that they are dealing with a sophisticated customer base with intimate knowledge of a product that’s been running for a decade now, counting the beta. Their arrogance and stubbornness is as galling as any griefer in LFR.

So yeah. Not sure what’s next… maybe Deus Ex, maybe more shooting, maybe more coding, maybe BDSM or becoming a florist. What’s certain is that it isn’t going to happen in Azeroth.

One capturable pet left. Just one.

Oh seasonal pets, how I despise you

Oh seasonal pets, how I despise you

Upon starting the Zookeeper achievement, I set forth with high spirits to capture blue versions of every pet. That is, until discovering that one f the pets could only be caught during Summer. Around that point I more or less decided “eh, fsck it” and caught whatever specimen was the first to pop up in my beady sights.

Lately, with our raid schedule in flux and le wifelet less interested in playing, I’ve taken to hunting down rares again. Also been doing the Pandaria trainer dailies, which give an average return of 1-2 stones per day. That’s allowed the upgrade of most of my tradeable army as well, barring the beasts and flyers.

It seems sadly ironic that I complained about unusual types’ stones likely rarity via battling. As it turns out, there are far fewer exotic types which need upgrading, but a veritable army of more mundane family pets. If the stone drops for battling those mundane families were more common, that’d be great… but after countless battles, it seems that the drop rate is in fact exceedingly low, even from the highest level pets.

Of course, none of this is news to regular pet battlers. It turns out that some enterprising souls even offer to upgrade tradeable pets, and beast, critter, flying and mechanical stones command a premium above the other types. C’est la vie.

In other news, as a consequence of said schedule flux, I’ve spent a significant portion of the last week gearing my alliance paladin. She’s a little rough around the edges, but at least has some Timeless Isle gear and a coin-bought weapon. Oh, and a classic plate bikini from BC, but that’s neither here nor there.

Apparently I don't love her enough to take screenshots. Whoops!

Apparently I don’t love her enough to take ingame screenshots. Whoops!

Something shocking as a horde player was doing the Underhold and Downfall LFR instances, and finding that much of the more annoying trash – ie. the orc armies with their shredders and turrets et al – were simply skipped by the alliance. This happens in both instances, and was particularly headache-inducing in Downfall – the first two rooms have thus far been responsible for more wipes and group-drops than any of the bosses that I’ve seen, including Garrosh. Yet the alliance get to simply breeze through? I get that they wanted a moment of coolness, but… really? For the difference to be this stark?

That first trash pull sets the tone for the rest of the instance. Horde Downfall runs see players – especially tanks – leaving the instant anything goes wrong, or even looks as though it might. Entire groups will disband rather than face that trash, and this after an hour’s wait for DPS players. Even upon success, the players are taciturn and judgmental to an unusual degree. The overall experience is exceedingly negative.

By contrast alliance queue times are quicker, the players less likely to drop out, and overall are more relaxed. Sure, there are blowhards and elitists and even trolls, but it’s nothing like the horde experience. And the really sad thing is that alliance players probably don’t even know how good they have it.

I’ve maintained for some time now that, despite their continual whining about story focus, alliance players get it way easier in gameplay terms. Seeing that spill over into raids is infuriating to the point of actual sickening rage.

By your powers combined...

By your powers combined…

It’s sadly ironic that the achievement image for Celestial Family is the least interesting of the pets, and the one that I got last. Almost like they knew she’d be the unfavourite.

And now, dear friends, we can look back upon the celestial tournament with the benevolent glow that comes of having received the rewards, and we may in good cheer conclude…

No, bugger that. It was an RNG-ridden slogfest, with opponents specifically designed to ratchet up the RNG factor. Hell, miss chance in general seems to have gone for a ball of spit this past week or two. No, in the end I’m glad that I did it, but I’d recommend some serious self-examination before trying this, lest super-cheap virtual squirrels cost thee a 24-inch screen.

Peace out.

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