It must have been a month back or so, I reckon. Stranger said he was ready, that he’d carry on the line. That he was going to play it… that it was time for Mass Effect 2.

Sometimes us folk wonder whatever happened to that poor deluded soul.

Okay, elaborate dramatics aside, I actually did run into a little trouble starting up with ME 2. From the start, it’s pretty clear that the game is very different from the first, at least in terms of its combat systems. As an example: I actually played a Vanguard up for the sole purpose of importing the save into ME2, and then promptly turned her into a Soldier, simply because Soldier was a literally nigh-invincible battering ram in the first game.

Didn’t take too long to realise that Bioware, in what was probably an eminently foreseeable move, had excised the skill that had resulted in said capability. Oops. Shepard is also a lot more fragile – shields fold in around a second of sustained fire, and the character has become some sort of concrete-based vampire or perhaps an exotic slime mold, attaching to cover in order to rapidly regenerate a health pool that otherwise lasts approximately as long as a puddle of piss in the Sahara.

A cross-section of your average fight.

A cross-section of your average fight.

So, being the intrepid and self-reliant challenge gamer that I am, I gave up.

No really, I went and played some Disciples III instead, since I still haven’t finished the blasted game, what with having no motivation to get past the self-righteous elves and their campaign. The mission that’s been holding me up was literally going to a human fortress and kicking them out of the homes they’d built over generations. This because some pointy-eared bint insisted that it would help mitigate the approach of some nebulous evil.

Anyway, after finishing that scenario and experiencing the joys of playing an elf slumlord, not to mention being teased a fight against a dragon but having no such fight materialise*, I went back to the stars. Via the Mass Effect wikia.

It feels a bit like cheating. See, I’m not terribly comfortable with walking in incompetent. I’m especially unhappy with the idea of missing out on upgrades, or rather of achieving a less-than-ideal result at all, both of which are a serious possibility in this game. Gone is the random loot – instead, the upgrade or resources that you miss in a mission may be lost forever. So yeah, I went and looked at some build strategies, and I look for upgrades in the missions before the shuttle even leaves the docking bay.

Thing is, I’m enjoying the game. There’s something that sits on the back of my neck and whispers “efficiency, you missed it, you’re doing it wrong” otherwise – but with the aid of these outside resources, much progress has been made. And hell, it isn’t like the game’s design is actually such that it’s really necessary to look this stuff up – being much more action-based and linear than its exploration-minded elder sibling, simply being thorough would net everything in the game so far. So it’s just a peculiar mental crutch.

Which doesn’t make it feel any less like cheating.

On the plus side, the combat in ME2 is much more entertaining… which it would really have to be, given how much more of it there is. Where ME felt like a story-based game that let the player largely take their own direction, the sequel is very character-focussed, and has dropped planetary exploration entirely in favour of mission-based gameplay – the dreaded corridor shooter disease. Ah, but these corridors are so very pretty, and can be even prettier. See, Soldier Shepard has access to an ability called Adrenaline Rush. Personally, I’m not convinced that’s adrenaline…

PCHOOO

PCHOOO

See, to me that just looks like Commander Shepard has access to the very best drugs. And it just keeps getting better as the game goes on…

Bow before me, puny miscreants!

Bow before me, puny miscreants!

…until it’s getting so stylised that you’re not even sure that anyone’s occupying a reality congruent to that of the good Commander.

VTec just kicked in, yo.

VTec just kicked in, yo.

Fortunately, I adore bright colours and delightfully warped environments. Very fortunately, as it turns out, since the active nature of combat means that you’re hitting this Dreamtime-device promptly every ten seconds or so. This is the Soldier’s new gamebreaker, the ability to slow time and do extra damage. So yeah, I probably would have been just fine that first time around, before I pussied out. I just didn’t know it yet.

 

* Dragon blue-balls are the worst blue-balls. Ask any DnD player.

A previous edition of Attention Deficit Gaming established that the new interface for Warframe was pretty awesome, everything looked good, and running and gunning against comically outmatched opponents was still hilarious. And thus it was that I resolved to play for a while longer. How’d that work out? Not really as well as expected.

See, one of Warframe’s selling points for one such as myself is the crafting and levelling of a myriad of strange and fantastical weapons. And also a bunch of very generic ones, which tend to be fairly reliable and effective. New toys are released on a very nearly weekly basis, so there’s always bars that need to go up. But here’s the thing; while I’ve been away, a bushel of shiny new items have been released. That’s good. Predictably enough, I’ve also been booted from my clan due to inactivity. That’s bad. Very bad.

See, with the exception of a couple of sidearms and a poisoned dagger, all of the new releases are locked up in the clan tech tree. Not a bad thing, if you’re playing regularly; not a bad thing if you’re working toward them as a newbie. On the other hand, this arrangement is an atrocity to a returning player. What this means is finding a group of players that will let the returning player copy their hard-earned blueprints while occupying one of their limited clan slots.

Excalibur can't believe this shit either.

Just offscreen: a flipped table, spinning end-over-end into the infinite void of space

If leeching off the work of the players who’ve spent the time and mats on unlocking sounds like scumbag behaviour, congratulations on possession of an only mildly tarnished soul. Sure, it’d be possible to set up a personal clan, farm up the mats and unlock the weapons that way – if one felt like spending months doing so. This is not the sort of goal in which one heartily engages when casually playing while evaluating a possible return, and it seems a poor design to encourage the thought.

The choice then is rather bald-faced: take advantage of others, grind for months or spend real cash. Unfortunately, weapons are a poor value prospect; the same enormous variety means that the inordinately high price of items in the cash shop looks like a bit of a joke. Naturally, this is intentional; it encourages running content to acquire shiny rewards rather than buying one’s way to boredom. So, then, there’s the implicit fourth option: quit once again. Find something else and play that instead. There’s no lack of ‘else’ on my desktop, and so for now Warframe takes its place back in Limbo once more. Which is a shame, because I was really looking forward to trying out that flame-blade and shield combo they’d just introduced.

Lights out.

Lights out.

Stands to reason that, when making a shooter, it’s pretty important that your guns not suck. Well, it’s a good thing Mass Effect is a story-driven RPG, rather than a straight blast-‘em-up in the vein of Warframe, because… wow, did they drop the ball when it comes to the pointy end of the stick.

This shape seems so familiar, but frustratingly, it's eluding me right now.

This shape seems so familiar, but frustratingly, it’s eluding me right now.

The weapon models themselves aren’t bad – barring perhaps that one sniper rifle model which was designed by a guy who wasn’t going to let being on the weapons team stop him from building a suspension bridge – and I do love the way that they fold up neatly for storage in the Ninja Turtle equipment harness. Thing is, there are only two models for each weapon class – one sleeker model that looks a bit lozenge-y around the edges, and another boxier model that comes with optional pretty lights that change colour like those Nikes the cool kids wore in the 90s.

So, a bit short of a visual feast, even considering the inevitable palette swaps. For even more sameyness, all weapons in any given type seem to share the exact same sounds. But what about when it comes to using them? Let’s break it down by types. Yes, I’m ignoring the rich story and nuanced background in favour of reviewing the weapons from a game released more than half a decade ago. I came here to shoot stuff and earn Renegade points, and I’m all out of dialogue options. Deal with it.

Pistols come heavily recommended by practically every guide on the planet, and it isn’t hard to see why. They’re pretty accurate, can maintain a decent fire rate, and do fair to excellent damage – plus there’s the ability to use them as a cheap and dirty sniper rifle with a few points in the associated skill. But more than that, pistols actually feel like they should – there’s visible recoil, a nice flash, and the pistol firing sounds are… excusable. Yeah, that’s the furthest I’ll go for “pop pop pew” sounds, even in spaaace.

"You know what would be great right now? If my weapon suddenly became a useless piece of shit for like six seconds."

“You know what would be great right now? If my weapon suddenly became a useless piece of shit for like six seconds.”

Shotguns are surprisingly handy. Most gaming shotguns have all the range of a kitten batting a ball of string, and will hit approximately as hard outside of their designated effectiveness bubble. Mass Effect’s shotguns pack a fair wallop close in, but across-the-room distances aren’t too much of an issue either, and while you’ll still get some spread at least it doesn’t seem to nerf damage based on distance. Which is to say, shotguns weren’t balanced around PvP. What horrors have been unleashed on gaming by “competitive balance”…

Sound-wise, the shotgun roar reminds me more of something heavy being dragged out from underwater than of a weapon’s report, and I can’t help finding it slightly hilarious that the early shotguns fold up smaller than a pistol. It’s a class that feels great to use, though, in the handful of moments before your heat overloads. Which is exactly what you want happening in the close quarters where a shotgun would be most useful. Genius design, lads.

Assault rifles have no weakness, excepting perhaps the exceedingly poor damage that early-game buzzguns are saddled with. And I do mean buzz – the assault rifle has the least feel and feedback of any of the weapon types. Hold down the trigger, vague droning happens and you’ll occasionally catch a flash of light in the air as enemies’ health bars steadily recede. Oh, sure, the reticle grows as you hold down the trigger, and it’ll overheat unless you implement a modicum of restraint in timing your bursts, but the gun doesn’t really seem to react much. The whole business is reminiscent of a lady’s familiar intimate aid – it’ll hum along to a more-or-less guaranteed satisfactory conclusion, but it’s missing that certain something by comparison with the Real Thing™.

Nevertheless, the all-round usefulness of the assault rifle has led to a schism in my mind… my logical, min-maxing superego wants to use the assault rifle for everything, because it slices, it dices, and it’ll even cut through a coke can from before they went all environmental on us. Meanwhile my Slaaneshi id is screaming that it wants to be entertained, dammit, so grab something – anything – else, and go to town.

Id’s argument has grown steadily stronger since its discovery that Immunity + Shotgun + Storm = Good Times.

Hey dere, dollink. Doink anyting later?

Hey dere, dollink. Doink anyting later?

If pistols are the darling of every guide, sniper rifles are the proverbial unwanted nephew living under the stairs. Unjustified? Not entirely – without a significant investment in the skill, sniper rifles bob and weave like Jackie Chan on a vodka bender. Later-game sniper rifles mitigate this problem, and the more points (or aim stabilising mods) you invest, the better it gets. Much like the fandom of a certain under-stairs dweller, I’ve developed an inordinate fondness for the sniper class of weapons – while a lot of the game’s combat takes place at bad-breath range, there’s enough left over to make standing back and picking off enemies a worthy sideline. This is particularly true when fighting miserable pirates or mercenaries who tend to huddle behind cover, and after dealing with the dismal pile of annoyance and uselessness that is the Mako, picking off enemies from across the valley can be therapeutic in the very best way. Moreover, the tendency of sniper crosshairs shake and rattle under fire might seem like a nuisance, but it also makes these rifles as a class the best candidate for actually making the user feel like a part of combat.

That last sentence may seem paradoxical, given the stand-off nature of a marksman’s weapon. Try then to understand that, despite everything this post has said up until now, combat is actually pretty enjoyable. Boggling, isn’t it?

Grenades are, strictly speaking, more of a consumable resource than a weapon, but they still bear mentioning. Mostly because, well, why are they frisbees? The travel time is atrocious, timing the explosions is unpleasant, and they never seem to have the explosion radius that one would expect even with a high-ex mod. There’s also no way that I’ve found to replenish them between missions, unlike medi-gel, so they come down to being somewhere between too frustrating and almost too precious to use.

The second game in the series awaits, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to it. By all reports the developers made some fantastic missteps in terms of combat, combined with a few inspired improvements. I’ll be happy just as long as their assault rifles don’t immediately draw comparison to dildos.

As mentioned in my last post, games are, in fact, fun and there are many good ones. Games whose flaws are so minimal as to be almost not worth mentioning, games even whose glaring, gigantic flaws can be excused by the rest of their gameplay.

But those just aren’t as much fun to talk about, so instead this is going to be a hit piece on Marvel Heroes. Yeah, I’m inevitably biased; firstly, it’s free to play. Call me traditional, but I prefer to buy a game and then be done with paying for it – WoW’s sub model at least lets you know what you’ll be paying each month and doesn’t limit content based on the fee. Secondly, there’s a bit of an issue in that the game’s servers seem to be located somewhere in Eagleland, which leaves my connection feeling a bit like a couple of tins with some string. Look upon my lat, ye mighty, and despair*. Tragically for an ARPG, lat makes everything I do feel slightly disconnected, especially looting – picking up loot takes a second or so for the server to work out what’s going on. That doesn’t mesh well at all, given the genre’s hack-and-slashy active gameplay.

A minor issue is that looking at the chat window cost me IQ points. Yeah, just turn that off as soon as you can figure out how.

Coming into the game you’re immediately greeted by a couple of cutscenes. Most of these are done comic-style ingame, but the intro is – for some reason – played straight in 3d. The ingame scenes are at least better – they seem to be intended to invoke the “breakfast cartoon” style of the eighties and nineties, which isn’t a style I really enjoy, but it’s at least competently executed. Personally I found most of them a bit narmtastic, although Doom looks suitably epic in the intro.

"It seems to run on some form of electricity!"

“It seems to run on some form of electricity!”

I picked Captain America as my starter hero, largely because he seemed the most likely to play like a paladin. Welcome to the comfort zone, population me. Considered going with Storm just for something different in the start, but in the end found myself glad that I hadn’t – she sounds like a screechy self-righteous headmistress. “Stop throwing MISSILES in my CLASS!” – except with more lightning. Also, playing a caster? I don’t even. But mostly, it’s because I would never have been able to enjoy playing as Captain America, Leet Hax0r. Apparently the first thing our favourite retro hero did after thawing was get an IT certification.

The first actual gameplay issue that I came across was MMO respawns. There’s no breathing room, no space to get your bearings – mobs just keep. Coming. Back. And MH seems big on ranged mobs, which is fair enough because every character has a spammable travel power – sprint, charge, short-range teleport or whatever, so melee doesn’t have as hard a time with ranged enemies as in some other games. Still, it means constantly either shrugging off gnats or veering off to deal with the irritants. Every overland area is basically the Molten Front.

Also, for a superhero game, the powers don’t feel very heroic. Yeah, I picked a guy who dresses in a flag and beats people up, but still – I unlocked a couple of attacks and they’re just not very exciting, or even easy to differentiate. Throw shield v1, Bounce shield which basically looks the same and should really be a passive, a shout that gives “inspiring” quotes and looks like an emote rather than an effect, Hitler Face Punch or whatever, Shield Bash… my starting gear actually gave me a rank in shield bash, which I couldn’t use because it was too high level. Theory is that it was there for some flavour earlier in the game lifecycle, but then later on they restricted the abilities you could assign.

There are quite a few interface cues that don’t make any damn sense whatsoever, even looking through the eyes of a developer. In Warframe I could see why they approached their piss-poor interface the way they did, because as a dev their associations and paths make sense, even as from a UI design perspective they’re an atrocity. In MH I just get the idea that things are duct-taped on when someone realises they need [x feature].

In my wanderings Downtown – the first real open-world area – I saw quite a few different heroes. None of their abilities were very interesting – I didn’t see a single cast that made me go “hey, what’s that?”. Now granted it was a levelling zone, and people aren’t exactly going to be pulling out the lazor annihilation radius for thugs, but still. By comparison with the satisfaction of laying down a Flame Hammer in Torchlight, it’s a little disappointing to see so little wow-factor going on. Sound design is a particular weak point, and the designers really should know better – many’s the fine ability that can be saved by a nice meaty THWANGGG or a delicious thrumming GZORP instead of tinfoil rattling and old Nokia ringtones.

Trying to follow the main quest through town is all well and good, but I spent ages wandering around trying to even figure out where my main quest was, and eventually getting it confused with a sidequest. I am not a filthy gaming nub, but this shit was inadequate. It wouldn’t have impacted my enjoyment if I was just there to freeform through, which I suspect is the real strength of the game. Being that I had a couple of specific goals, that ambiguity was massively annoying. Points of interest aren’t really clear, quest directions are exceedingly poor, and the map is rather basic.

Green Goblin seems to have upgraded his glider with... a shield gun? Tsk tsk, shields are for heroes!

Green Goblin seems to have upgraded his glider with… a shield gun? Tsk tsk, shields are for heroes!

If it sounds like there isn’t a lot to recommend the game, well, that’s not strictly true. Characters do feel very different, so there’s probably a lot of replay value. Bosses aren’t as impressive when you’re a veteran of Cataclysm, but they’re still pretty damn good for their genre. Bugs aren’t immediately front and center, crashing the client on a regular basis. There’s even a raiding system that was recently implemented, though apparently everyone just shows up as Wolverine. Huuuge surprise there.

It isn’t my cup of tea, but it wouldn’t take all that much for it to make that jump. Well, except for the lat. That’s pretty much a coffin nail regardless.

 

* Bizarrely, one of the few interface details I really liked was how the latency display broke down into components, showing what exactly was taking so damn long. Okay, so I already *knew*, but that’s beside the point – it’s cool!

…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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 32 other followers