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valkboring

This is Valkyr. She…

Wait.

No.

This is Valkyr.

BLOOD AND DEATH

BLOOD AND DEATH

She was, as I’ve mentioned, one of the first frames that I built, and for a very long time she sat unloved and underappreciated at the bottom of my inventory.

In terms of playstyle and abilities, she reads like Joss Whedon’s wet dreams. Originally a different design, the original Valkyr was captured by a society of scientists who literally worship profit. She was experimented upon – hence the restraints and semi-exposed internals of her frame – and, when she was freed, came out of it with a bloodthirst second to none and the melee skills to tear apart enemies much larger than her slight, if athletic, build.

Tell me that somewhere Whedon didn’t just feel a tingle in his special place.

There’s been some discussion over whether professional genital-stabbing* was the “original” River Tam Valkyr’s skillset as well, or if the experience twisted her sufficiently to alter her void imprint and thus her powerset. It’s the sort of lively debate that can never really be settled and will flare up forever through the community, so naturally the developers have no pressing desire to answer either way. At least it keeps the little bastards from crying for more buffs, right?

The thing about Valkyr, though, is that she’s fairly mod-heavy if you want to squeeze the best out of her. Here’s my build – it’s not perfect, but it works pretty well.

It's distracting how they watch you operate. Or however the hell it is you install these things.

It’s distracting how they watch you operate. Or however the hell it is you install these things.

I go with Armored Agility rather than fan favourite Steel Fiber, because while the extra armour is nice to have, more speed on a melee fighter is its own reward. She’s also the only character that I build without a shred of power efficiency, despite the abominably high cost of Warcry. Rage feeds back energy whenever anything’s dangerous enough to do significant damage, and that energy fuels Hysteria, which gives healing along with its plethora of other effects. Warcry’s aforementioned cost becomes moot with a little added duration and Eternal War. I do wish that the added duration came in the form of Primed Continuity, but I wasn’t around for that one, so Narrow Minded is the order of the day and my group (if any) can take their chances at being in my initial Warcry radius.

The biggest thing on there, though, is power. Not quite all of the power, because Transient Fortitude has, shamefully, yet to be fully ranked, and that Blind Rage really should be rank 6, but I have to fit these mods on other frames as well and re-formas go slow when you rank up all over the starchart instead of leeching on Draco.

Anyway… power turns Warcry into the difference between a turbocharger and a JATO rocket. With a Berserker build melee weapon, you’ll be slotting Spoiled Strike just to get the speed down to where you’re capable of clicking fast enough. It is glorious. Hysteria can compete with a flying Scindo, of course… but only just. Cleaving Whirlwind is particularly rewarding, because the spin2win combo hits really easily at high speed and the stagger when you screw up and spin too far is hilarious. Oh, also damage or something. Probably important to someone.

I don’t see very many Valkyrs out there. Might have something to do with how they’re supposedly not very good at endgame – defined nebulously as Defense wave 40 or 60 minutes in Survival – but my theory is that, like me, a lot of people built this slightly odd-looking**, mechanically unusual, mod-heavy “edgy” frame, then discarded it as unsupportable. Turns out that going back with a fresh eye, a better idea of the game’s synergies and a whole pile of rares makes her a completely different animal.

 

  • * Link is work-safe, I swear
  • ** This is the only frame on which I use a purely cosmetic helm, because her default helm is an atrocity. And I use Kara rather than Bastet, because ew, you got your catgirls in my techno-organic sci-fi dystopia.
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Soldier (formerly Vanguard) Shepard has, once again, saved the galaxy. All in all a very satisfying game, with an exciting and engaging conclusion. I enjoyed Mass Effect 2 more than its predecessor; the first had the unenviable task of providing the setting’s ludicrous amount of background, which it pulled off with aplomb. But the pacing, the character focus, the humour of ME2… all in all, they make it a much more accessible and enjoyable game. It deserves more than one run-through. So, for the sake of symmetry, I promptly imported my ME1 Soldier to become a Vanguard.

Vanguard is not terribly high on anyone’s recommendations for ME2, it seems. Still, I was drawn to it for the same reason I loved warriors in WoW, and why Excalibur was always my favourite in Warframe: the ability to charge across the battlefield and test one’s brute strength against the enemy’s miserable tracheas. Or, you know, trachea-like protrusions. We’re being inclusive here.

So, how’s it going, one might wonder? Well… let’s give an explanation in the form of a delightful and whimsical pictoral journey through the average fight, guest starring Renegade Commander Bloodlust the Totally A Vanguard All Along, You Guys.

If you can't see Shepard, you may be only moments from gruesome dismemberment.

If you can’t see Shepard, you may be only moments from gruesome dismemberment.

First, the setup. Pick a target, preferably behind some handy cover. Try to flank the enemy, wherever you end up; the Vanguard offers unparalelled ability to use the enemy’s cover against them, and to pick off the isolated and weak.

Or you could scream a mighty oath to the Blood God, and charge at the toughest thing on the field. Like a real N7 operative.

I am a pretty, pretty peacock.

I am a pretty, pretty peacock.

Next, hit The Button. At this point, Shepard’s trademark hallucinogens kick in. You will feel a great pressure building behind you; power, in a wave to sweep all before it. You may hear voices. This is normal. Everything is okay. Everything is all right. It is all proceeding as the World Tree had foreseen, and whispered to the Elders that they might preserve its wisdom. This is the day. It’s all coming together now.

Lo, there do I see the line of my people, back to the beginning.

Lo, there do I see the line of my people, back to the beginning.

This is the important part. Shredding through the feeble gauze that we cast over ourselves and call “reality”, you are cast adrift in time and space. You will feel a rushing sensation, and be permeated with the deep knowledge of the ancestors. Do not join them; not yet, it is not the hour.

"Reality" is what we make of it. I choose horrible burning.

Life is what we make of it. Shepard chooses horrible burning.

Emerge changed, bursting with the insight of your ancient protectors and enough entheogenics to kick-start the Rapture. The realisation dawns, then; your ancestors were the murderous, brutal beings who clawed their way over everything in their path to ensure that one day you would stand here, having been tried and found worthy in the callous void of space. Their wisdom is flame and blood, and you will share it with your enemies. It could never have been any other way.

Yeah, good thing the screen obscures when you're already in trouble, huh?

Yeah, good thing the screen obscures when you’re already in trouble, huh?

As the kick fades and you look around at what you have wrought – as the still-burning bodies fade slowly to ash – realise that, after charging into a tactically infeasible position and being brutalised by unexpected reinforcements, you still somehow have most of your shields. Even as your health is low enough that the screen looks like an insomniac’s eyeballs and the sounds all around you are dulled to a vague thumping, the world just a backbeat to the thrumming of your heart.

You are alive. You will do this again. And oh yes, you will love it.

They will be sure that you do.

 

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.

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.

There’s a post up on WoWInsider asking “how bad is raiding for melee?“. Take note of the assumption there… the question isn’t “is raiding worse for melee”, but rather “how much worse is life in melee range”. My answer? Harder than ranged, but easier than Cataclysm.

Lest we forget, Cataclysm’s raids – and even 5-mans – were the most hideous collection of anti-melee mechanics imaginable. Taking any melee at all to a tier 11 raid basically meant gimping your raid group. And it wasn’t just the mechanics – balance issues between melee and ranged were bad enough that in the end Blizzard simply dropped an extra 10% AP for melee only onto one of the standard raid buffs.

Now, anyone who relied on their weapon for most of their damage got a bit of the short stick in 5.2 and 5.3. That’s mostly looking better now, but it’s pretty clear that WoW’s design team has serious, long-running issues trying to balance melee DPS at all. Now that that’s out of the way…

What I really want to talk about is movement and positioning. I’m seeing a couple of responses to the tune of “I’m a mage, but…” or “as a healer…” that basically talk about how melee don’t move out of bad. To these people, I propose an experiment; put autoattack on a bar somewhere, get into a range where you’re autoattacking, and simply stay there. Don’t DPS unless your autoattacks are in range, and simply see if you can keep up any pretense of damage while staying alive. Oh yeah, and no standing in front of the boss, even if it doesn’t cleave; remember, for anyone who can be parried or dodged that’s a 15% damage penalty.

There’s a reason why ranged players stay the hell out of melee range. It’s bloody dangerous there. So it’s pretty insulting that range are speaking about how melee don’t have difficulties of their own, they’re just not trying hard enough. Hell, enhancement shaman’s major cooldown is based around temporarily turning them into a ranged spec. It’s pretty clear that there are advantages to being ranged.

There are a couple of points boiling over onto each other here. The first is that making characters run away from bad is an easy way to make people feel active. The next is that persistent ground effects are an easy way to ratchet up tension and introduce quick decision-making. Moving from the puddle into the fire isn’t a good choice, and situations like this lend themselves to strategic positioning – drop the fire here, so when the puddle lands I can go there. Lastly, landing patches of bad as projectiles will often give players the opportunity to pre-emptively move away. This is all good stuff so far; taking advantage of these conditions is simply good design.

The issues creep in with the extra constraints that melee have. Most obviously, they’re limited by range – while ranged players have a depth of 30-40 feet from the hitbox to park their bad in, melee need to be right up against that invisible circle. Some bosses have large hitboxes, which is great… but bosses designed around surviving specific floor mechanics seem to have a habit of living in tiny hitboxes. That’s not great for our face-smashing chums.

Complicating the above even further, melee don’t get to position themselves in front of the boss. That space is reserved for the tank, usually because of some sort of cone effect that either applies a debuff or simply does a ton of damage straight off the bat. Even if this weren’t the case, melee still get to deal with dodge and parry mechanics, which are a serious disadvantage at best and a nightmare at worst. This means that only the rear half of the boss’ hitbox is actually home territory for us. So a simple puddle that’s just a 5×5 foot blotch somewhere out in a ranged player’s 30-40 foot zone can easily mean a significant reduction of a melee player’s available space… and this gets worse with multiple melee.

The traditional answer that ranged come up with at this point is that tanks should simply move the boss. Well, leaving aside that some bosses can’t be moved at all, tanks are melee players as well. They’re dealing with the exact same positioning issues that we have, barring the requirement to attack from behind, but they at least get the option to move into open space that’s convenient to them. Non-tanks, being less important, get to suck it up and chase around the bad that the tank was getting away from in the first place while the ranged players mostly stand still and keep going full steam ahead.

The above is even discounting tank swaps and other mechanics that cause the boss to spin round and target other players… Iron Qon was particularly bad for this, but many bosses will turn and suddenly start parrying the melee while they apply whatever manner of bad they prefer to some arbitrary player. These little turnabouts can be atrocious when the boss decides to turn as the player hits a keystone attack – Colossus Smash, say, or a Templar’s Verdict.

Even further reducing the available space, tanks and sometimes the melee will be constrained by healer availability. Standing way out on the far side of a boss because that’s the only spot you can find that isn’t occupied by some flavour of instant death doesn’t help anyone when the next AoE pulse kills you because you’re out of range of the healers on the ranged side. This is especially problematic with large bosses.

Now, melee don’t have a choice between moving and doing less damage versus standing still and dying. No, the melee choice is often a dichotomy of move and do no damage at all or stand and die. Our decision-making process has to take this into account. All of these constraints mean that melee move differently than ranged. It’s easy to see… just go and run Stone Guard with Jasper up. A ranged player chained to a melee will inevitably end up bitching and whining that they’re being killed because the melee are moving wrong… meanwhile the ranged player’s first instinct is to run to clear ground away from the boss, where the melee’s choice is to strafe around and find a relatively safe spot next to a boss. It’s not the melee’s fault that they’re not heading for the obvious safe ground – we just don’t have that option if we want to be effective at all.

Next, we can talk about projectiles. A lot of mechanics nowadays mark a patch of ground before they land, and a descending bolt of doom will appear that moves toward this patch. Bolt lands, boom, dead. Unfortunately, when these bolts target melee we simply don’t have as much time to move as ranged do. Witness the Embodied Gloom’s mechanics in SoO, or for an even better example, the rogue bosses of Battlefield: Barrens and their poison patches. Those poison bolts were ridiculously punishing to melee thanks to their large size and, while ranged could dodge them, they landed instantly in our range.

There are any number of other effects that tend to disproportionately affect melee – whirlwinds, mobs that need to be kited, etc – but in raids, it’s mostly availability of safe space that kills us.

Note that when I mentioned available space earlier I didn’t mention the room under the boss. This is partly because large bosses tend to have damage mechanics or at least a simple knockback for anyone sharing their groundspace, and partly because standing under a large model is a good way to completely ruin any chance of escaping from voidzones. Much more difficult to run from something you can’t even see, after all. This gets worse with the visual clutter that many classes apply to obscure the battlefield as an incidental part of their roles. In between bobbing and weaving through Stampede pets, other melee, AoEs, Healing Rain/Efflorescence/HW:Sanc/whatever else, it can be easy to lose track of which group of pixels is your character. It might be fine if we didn’t have to play zoomed way the hell out, but some bosses – Immerseus, I’m looking at you – have killer effects that can’t even be seen until zoomed out to the point where the character’s basically indistinguishable from their minimap dot.

So that’s the explanation of why melee die a lot and seem to be moving very differently from how ranged expect. So, what are the solutions? They’ve all been suggested before – fewer close-range AoE pulse effects, less focus on ground effects in melee range, subtler spell effects, targeting ranged by preference, etc. The biggest issue with retargeting mechanics out at range seems to be that healers would be affected as well, and healers are upward of the priority pile. Also, if melee aren’t getting targetted, ranged players tend to get very sarcastic.

What about making melee players tougher? Some melee do wear plate, which is a fair chunk of mitigation – but that only applies to physical damage, in a world where most raid damage is elemental. Worse, though, a lot of melee wear leather or mail. Rogues probably get the best of the deal, with Feint giving a significant reduction one AoE. But in raids, casters are often much better protected than even plate-wearers, with their passive mitigations and armouring spells that reduce magical damage. There’s something a bit off with that. Even pets are given a base AoE damage reduction on the understanding that micromanaging movement is difficult, and at some point anything in melee is going to end up in bad..

As far as positioning is concerned, Blizzard has been making quiet noises to the effect that expertise and hit aren’t very interesting as stats. I’d at least like to see expertise or its replacement giving us the ability to hit the boss from the sides or front without losing such an obscene amount of damage as we do at present. Giving us more places to go can only be better. We’ve been in the same place for two expansions now.

Turn-based games are a heavy abstraction; the concept of everyone having their go like so many redcoats is a little laughable. Still, I’ve always had a fair-sized soft spot for anything that gives me time to make my choices, and it was in a turn-based game that I was first really introduced to the idea of competitive balance.

Disciples II is a turn-based strategy with four playable factions. It follows the familiar overland/battle map conventions, as one might expect, with battles being fought between parties of up to five units and one leader. It’s an old game; not quite as old as the games I’d experienced before, like Fallout or StarCraft, but in that range.

StarCraft has long been held as the pinnacle of competitive balance despite the asymmetric unit types available to each of its three races. Because factions are balanced around their entire package and the tactical options available to them, balance is an intricate and iterative process rather than an absolute. Because strategy and composition are so important, balance isn’t easy to see at first – it emerges.

Being much more limited, the balance of a game like Disciples is much easier to grasp. Each faction can produce largely the same basic types of units – warrior, ranged attacker, caster, a flavour unit and a special unit. Tech trees mean that all of these units develop in different ways, and the different factions approach different units from completely different angles – the undead faction’s ranged attacker does no damage but causes paralysis, where dwarves have the option of a tough single-target gunman or a fire-resistant flamethrower who attacks the entire enemy team as though he were a caster. The flavour and special units take this further to provide some pretty fun choices.

Still, looking at the overall packages, it was easy to see where weaknesses crept in. The demonic legion had powerful casters and good map access as a result of all of their leaders being flying types, but were over-reliant on slow, two-space units that levelled slowly and never quite seemed to match individual units of the other factions. The dwarves were ridiculously tough and had excellent access to a wide range of elemental attacks, but took the most experience to level and suffered heavily with their universally poor initiative scores. The empire had units which levelled very quickly and dealt well with consecutive fights thanks to their healing, but they had little access to elemental attacks and were individually very squishy. Then there was the undead horde.

The undead faction had a number of tricks. The paralysis unit mentioned above had the potential to turn anything up to a capital city battle around, and was an AI breaker – the AI always underestimated a party with a ghost in it, since they had no damage. Undead casters had a tree as extensive as the legion, but containing such delights as high-initiative elemental attackers with complete immunity to physical damage – aka the damage type of around 80% of the units in the game.

This physical damage immunity carried over to their special unit as well – a relatively low-hp high-cost fighter unit that levelled about as quickly as a second-tier fighter. All phys immunes paid a cost in base health, meaning that they were vulnerable to casters – theoretically, since any of the phys immunes could out-init a caster – and overland spells – again theoretically, since the undead faction had a spell which could replenish fog of war. Oh, and nearly every horde unit was immune to death-element damage, including the aforementioned phys immunes.

So then what was their balance? Low territorial advancement. The only undead hero with overland flying capability was the relatively weak warrior type, and their territory control units were ground-bound and had a very limited movement radius. A theoretically disadvantaged empire opponent might have trouble in the earlier levels and find their party entirely outmatched coming up against a levelled undead opponent, but the same empire player would be able to keep his units out in the field much longer without having to return to a city, level their units faster, and gain more territory. This is an advantage that’s much harder to put into clear terms, and it was also the first step toward understanding the StarCraft level of game balance. There is more at work than the simple unit vs. unit math.

That, of course, is a strategy game. Every role-playing type game that I’ve ever played has, by comparison, been completely and hopelessly unbalanced – junk builds, entire unviable classes, perks which are basically traps for poorly informed players, etc. And that was (mostly) fine, because those games were meant for single-player action or in the case of ARPGs like Diablo I/II, it was easy enough to reroll. That was an accepted feature of the genre, and it even seems to have been the case for the early years of World of Warcraft.

Here’s where we get back to whining my usual subject matter. WoW is pretty tightly balanced nowadays. You really have to work at it to make a non-viable character. And yet… some classes just feel like they’re balanced by different criteria. Yes, I’m talking about warriors again, as usual.

A warrior actually has some pretty decent party tricks, but the emphasis here is on party. Mobility, mitigation, even snare-breaks are farmed out to abilities that require party members*. That’s not considering things they don’t actually have, such as for instance healing or dispels. Useful in PvE, and indispensable in PvP.

Warriors seem to be balanced around the strategic level – and as far as I can tell, they’re the only class that’s set up this way. It’s… weird. And despite the effectiveness that a supported warrior can bring to bear, it inevitably feels like playing the roadie in a game where everyone else is a self-contained rock star.

or a banner in the case of Intervene, but that’s clumsy as hell and leaves warriors in the position of being the only class needing to use a placeable CD, a target click/macro and multiple GCDs to have a snare-break…