A Matter of Perception?

New EdenI’ve never been very big on playing PC games outside of MMORPGs because, as silly as it sounds, the experience just never seemed as appealing as plopping-down on the couch or as stable as gaming on a dedicated console. Why? Probably because the majority of my offline computer gaming is based entirely on the C:/run era of Mega Man X and such celebrated gems as Skunny the Squirrel.

But what does computer gaming have over consoles, anyway? It’s not like the graphics are THAT much different better! At least, that’s what I thought before this morning.

A few months ago, my girlfriend surprised me with a copy of BioShock Infinite because she’s cool like that. We were both completely enchanted by the original and there’s something about dystopian fiction that demands my attention. But when we fired it up and took our first few steps through the lighthouse, we couldn’t believe how ugly it looked! Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not talking about the art direction or style! The textures were terrible and it seemed as though we kept finding worse and worse immersion-murdering examples at every turn. If someone told us that Infinite was released before the BioShock, we would have believed them.

It was the technical limitation of the console that was holding the visuals back as I’m sure 2K had to make some sacrifices to balance resources between eye candy, framrate and all of the other backstage magic required to render an entire floating city. I understood completely, but I just couldn’t get interested in the setting or the story, stellar though I’m sure they are. And so BioShock Infinite sat unplayed, ceding playtime to The Last of Us and, oddly enough considering the circumstances, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

LighthouseA couple of weeks ago, I came home with a brand new Radeon HD 7950 because I wasn’t happy with Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn running just fine. The GPU came with three free games: Tomb Raider, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and you guessed it – BioShock Inifinite! But I didn’t install or play it until this morning, and when I did, I was blown away.

The differences between the console and PC versions are night and day. Columbia is gorgeous, the framerate is seamless, and suddenly that familiar sense of wonder that Rapture burst with is spilling out onto the streets.

I’ve always been a firm believer that graphics don’t make a game – mechanically, Infinite would be every bit as fun in either iteration – but they certainly enhance the experience. However, I don’t think the enhancement is intrinsic to the quality of graphics; I think it has very much to do with player perception of the game’s theme, setting, characters, etc. As I mentioned before, I have no problem playing (a slightly upscaled thanks to Wii U) Skyward Sword whatsoever, and in fact, I think the graphics a great! They fit so well with everything about Skyward Sword that in a way, I often forget they’re even there.

In Infinite’s case, my understanding and perception of the game left me disappointed that it did not meet my own visual expectations. You may have had a completely different experience.

Until now, of course. Which has me rethinking my attitude toward PC gaming entirely.

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The Fine Line

I play video games to have fun.

My girlfriend and I logged into The Secret World to run some Nightmare Dungeons this past Sunday morning. No one in our cabal was kicking around at 6am, so we jumped into a pick-up group.

Anyone who plays MMOs knows that you’re rolling the dice when you play with a PUG. We’ve had some annoyances in the past, but by and large, we’ve met some great people and have a high opinion of the TSW community as a result.

But this time was different.

Now, despite the fact that I’m end-game, I don’t know everything there is to know about The Secret World. I don’t crunch numbers, I don’t craft theories, I don’t min-max, or anything like that. I build decks that I enjoy playing, and TSW’s 500+ abilities ensures that I can play a role numerous ways and correct any deficiencies on the fly.

A particular DPS in our group was armed to the teeth with QL10.4 gear, The Secret World’s best. When he landed a monstrous critical hit on The Darkness War’s first boss, I lost aggro and we had to wipe.

“what the hell was that come on man”, he scoffed when we regrouped before sending me his own tank build entitled “REAL G SHIT TANK” and then rattling off a list of reasons why I suck. I’m always open to suggestions, so I added it to my collection and resolved to take a look at it later. But I knew what went wrong: I had to really lay on the aggro to keep him covered, and so I did.

When we got to the third boss, who uses an ability to break aggro, the DPS ate it again. “gay”, he opined with grace and tact. I realized he must have been getting frustrated; who wouldn’t? So I changed some things up, and the next few boss fights went off without a hitch.

In the meantime, he kept posting messages in group chat that were intended for his cabal between snarky comments:

“DPS really sucks,” he said, and then quickly added, “my* DPS really sucks”. Humility? Not this guy. Misstell.

Then out of nowhere, “a lot of cabals really hate me”. Can’t imagine why.

When we reached the final boss, my deck was nearly unrecognizable with abilities I’d never used before. After a few wipes, he asked, “landiien can you dps”. I told him, “I could, but it’s melee DPS… >.<“. “switch to dps,” he commanded.

A few moments went by while everyone altered their abilities, when suddenly he asked, “what the hell kind of group is this that use melee in NM dungeons”.

“Somone who usually plays as a tank,” my girlfriend responded, “Would you relax?”

I’ve cleared The Darkness War several times before this with the same deck I always use to tank. Up to that point, I’d done my best to understand his frustration, accept his suggestions, and to be as cordial as possible. The guy had managed to insult and ridicule everyone on the team, and had murdered the mood of an initially chatty group. Suddenly, I realized, I was working.

“Good luck,” I told the team, “I play this game to have fun. This isn’t that serious.”

And we left.

It doesn’t matter how good your gear is, how knowledgable you are, or even how skilled; when you’re playing with a group, it’s all about working together.

He could have been the best player in the entire game, but he still left that dungeon short on bullion and with a sixteen-hour timer before he could try it again.

Dust Complete!

As the credits started rolling on Dust: An Elysian Tail yesterday, I dropped the controller and shouted, “Thank. GAWD.”

Not because I didn’t enjoy the 18 hours spent slicing my way through to completion, but because I decided to do so on the Hardcore setting where a single hit will almost always kill you and where spikes, lava or any other environmental hazard will make your blood boil in frustration.

There’s a section in Cimmaron Caves with pockets of spikes on the ceiling and floor. Simple enough to navigate on their own, but not when there are giant poison-spewing bulbs laced throughout. I think I must have spent five hours watching Dust bounce around like a ragdoll into death. I’m pretty sure it took me longer to reload my save than it did to die.

There’s no aerial recovery in Dust: Any Elysian Tail. This means that if you take a hit from an enemy or, say, get splashed with posion juice, you’re going for a ride. Usually into spikes. I went through three Revival Stones on the final boss from just bouncing around in lava. At one point, I’d grabbed Gaius in that swanky mid-air dive-bomb and watched in abject horror as I plummitted for what seemed like an eternity directly into the river of hot death below.

Frustrating.

The combat is a lot of fun, but I quickly realized that the most effective way to dispatch enemies was to knock them into the air, perform a three-hit combo into dive-bomb, then repeat the process on any airborne baddies until none are left standing. I was disappointed to find that Dust doesn’t receive any new attack combos even though the combat never actually felt stale.

But those are really my only complaints! I loved that the game kept feeding me new abilities up to the very end, because even something as simple as double-jump breathed new life and avenues of exploration into the stages. It was great to see so many other indie characters hidden throughout, and solving the environmental puzzles to get to the numerous treasures was thrilling.

Dust is a great game, and I’m not going to caveat that with “considering its development” or “for an Xbox Live Arcade game”.

Dust: An Elysian Tail is a great game. Period.

Next, I think I’ll pay a visit to The Kid and see if we can’t set this calamity straight.

The Greatest Series I’ll Never Play

I’m cursed.

Years ago, I was following the upcoming release of Mass Effect with intense interest. I was on a deployment when the prequel novel, Mass Effect: Revelation, was published, but I still managed to get my hands on a copy and finish it two days later.

When Mass Effect finally launched, I just didn’t have the time to devote to it. So I put the controller down and vowed that I would return for a full playthrough when I could. But each time I picked it back up, I never seemed to make it very far beyond the initial Citadel visit. At first, I had numerous obligations and distractions to blame. Eventually, I started to get burned-out.

Then Mass Effect 2 came out.

Then Mass Effect 3.

With each release, friends and critics raved. “The first Mass Effect kinda sucks,” they’d confess, “Just start with Mass Effect 2! It has a comic that catches you up to speed and let’s you make the important decisions!” That would be the logical thing to do, right?

But I can’t. Why? Because I want to experience everything firsthand. Call me crazy, but I just can’t get over the feeling that blasting through a condensed version might cheapen the experience. How could the story still be as impactful? How would I make those critical decisions without getting to know the people and places that I’d be sending into danger? I have to finish Mass Effect first!

But I can’t. Why? Because the thought of playing through The Citadel for a sixth time makes my stomach turn. It takes hours to get through that first chunk of content, and I refuse skip a single side story or mission.

And so I’ve come to accept the fact that I’ll probably never play through the Mass Effect series.

Also, that I may be a snobby perfectionist.

Gamification at the End of the World

When I got home from work yesterday, I felt like crap.

Around 5:30 yesterday afternoon, I downed some Nyquil and crashed on the couch. My girlfriend tenderly woke me at 12:30 in the AM and passed me the Nyquil again. Another capful, and I was out cold.

I had a dream:

I was standing in a rundown warehouse with a large group of people wearing dirty, makeshift clothes who were strapped-up with guns and supplies. I got the feeling that I didn’t know anyone there, so I kept to myself and watched. Suddenly, a newcomer walked into the room and demanded everyone’s attention.

We all gathered around, and he began to break us all off into groups while passing-out what looked like eyeglass cases of varying colors to each one. He handed one to me last before walking back to the center of the room and explaining that each of the cases held a mission objective.

We would get one point for every zombie we killed in pursuit of the objective if we completed it in the time alloted, two points if we did it in half the time, and three points if we did it in a third of the time.

And then my alarm went off.

So, frantic, arcade-style co-op shooter? Or the foundation for quests in a zombie apocalypse MMOFPS?

A Question of Value

Yesterday, I was forced to make a critical decision.

With the transition from active duty military service to civilian college life looming on the horizon, money is tight. As a spoiled gamer used to having the latest and greatest on release date, it’s a grim and sobering reminder that money sucks and that we live in a cold and bitter world.

Life is hard.

That’s why I was ecstatic to find that I was sitting on $50-worth of Best Buy certificates. A new game! A fix! But which one? I’d played both the Rhythm Thief & the Emperor’s Treasure and the Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance demos via the 3DS eShop, but I only played KH3D once whereas I found myself replaying the Rhythm Thief demo and loving it every time.

So that choice was clear! …At first. On my way to Best Buy, I realized that this may be the only game I get for some time. If Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy was any indication, I’d blast through Rhythm Thief in a single afternoon. Kingdom Hearts would probably last considerably longer.

I posted my seemingly insurmountable problem on Facebook before leaving.

It would turn out that I really didn’t have a choice, because my local Best Buy wasn’t carrying Rhythm Thief anyway. So, still conflicted and a bit disappointed, I grabbed a copy of Kingdom Hearts. My girlfriend fired-up a demo for Mario Tennis on the gigantic 3DS XL that I don’t need but still want for no valid reason while I wandered off in the games section for the hell of it. That’s when I noticed Little Big Planet Vita.

I hadn’t even considered it! I closed my eyes for a moment and dreamed of a time when I could have walked out of the store with all three games, back when the world made sense and the sun seemed brighter. I realized that LPB’s online features meant an endless supply of interesting levels to jump and swing through, but I still felt as though I would get more out of a story-driven RPG, and so I left with Kingdom Hearts. Also, because my girlfriend flipped a coin.

A few Facebook friends raised some great points on that post I left. “Rhythm Thief will sell out and not be reprinted,” one predicted, “KH3D will probably stick around long enough to see a price drop.”

He’s probably right about Rhythm Thief. Based on the comparatively low number of player reviews on the eShop, it’s probably a safe bet that copies aren’t flying off the shelves. Is that a testament to the quality of the game? Of course not. It does, after all, have five-out-of-five stars. But if the average consumer is in the same position I found myself in yesterday, it starts to become clear why niche genres and new IPs alike tend to struggle. Hell, Best Buy didn’t even bother to stock Rhythm Thief.

I always feel frustrated when a low-profile or niche game doesn’t get the attention I feel it deserves, and I would write it off as the result of gamers who were too “cool” or closed-minded to give it a chance. Of course, that’s a completely ignorant and elitist way to look at it; there’s a myriad of factors involved.

For me, and probably for many gamers, it was a question of value: The biggest bang for my buck.

I’ve heard the staffers on IGN’s Game Scoop podcast say “vote with your dollars” many times, implying that your purchases tell the industry what you want more or less of, but what happens when you can’t afford to vote more than once?

A Look Back at Gravity Rush

I really wanted to love Gravity Rush. The brief demo I played prior to release got me really pumped for what I believed would be the Vita’s first killer app.

The core gravity-shifting mechanic is a double-edged sword. The sense of speed, the animation, and the cinematic camera angles make for a thrilling experience while exploring, but in the heat of battle, things can get a little clunky and cumbersome. Enemies become difficult to track, getting into position to deliver an attack takes a bit too long and becomes frustrating when speedy enemies dash away just when you find the sweet spot, and Kat’s single aerial flying kick is lamentably the only weapon in her arsenal outside of the special attacks, which seems somewhat broken in a game where you spend most of your time falling (technically) through the sky. It certainly doesn’t ruin the experience, but I became painfully aware of it toward the end of the adventure.

At times, the world can feel like an empty lobby. There’s a lot of room to explore in Heckseville, but not a lot of incentive to do it. You’ll find bountiful amounts of crystals and occasionally come across a married couple who continually phase in and out of your reality like ghosts, and not much else. The NPCs that you can speak with change between missions and are marked on your map along with a decent amount of side missions (composed of only a handful of types). You’ll talk to a few NPCs, do a side-mission or two, and then engage the next chapter of the story. Once you’ve finished it, you’ll talk to the new NPCs, do some side missions…

The production values and fantastic art direction keep Gravity Rush from slipping into mediocrity. The sweeping score captures the action perfectly, and the environments are impressively detailed (though, the sections could stand to be a bit more visually distinct from each other) with park benches, NPCs milling about, and a lot of other great details. It’s a shame that your interaction with any of it is minimal.

There are no interiors to explore, though there are some interesting dreamlike environs to soar through. Throughout, I couldn’t help feel as though the game suffered for this. I could only imagine the kinds of dungeons and puzzles that could have taken advantage of the gravity shifting mechanic.

The ending leaves the door wide open for a sequel, and while I don’t think I’ll be playing through Gravity Rush again anytime soon, I’m eager to see what’s in store for Kat and her friends in the future.

A Numbers Game

I run a casual 24-member Illuminati cabal in The Secret World, and there has been a noticable drop in member activity since Guild Wars 2 went live. That’s just the nature of the MMORPG beast. But a long-time member voiced some concerns last night that got me wondering. We’ll call him Bancroft.

Bancroft and another member were discussing how excited they are for the upcoming 10-man New York raid due out this fall when Bancroft added, “If we can even get 10 people online at the same time”. He explained that he’s noticed less and less people online during weekday evenings and that Guild Wars 2 was the reason. He’s right: Five of our members play, and four more have shown an interest in joining them.

He went on to lament that he’d been looking through Chronicle, The Secret World’s stat-tracking service which takes a page from World of WarCraft’s Armory, and found that almost every cabal he came across only had 20 – 30 members. Bancroft’s point was that he feels too few people play The Secret World. He’s considering making the jump to Guild Wars 2.

Bancroft’s perception is that numbers are dropping, and it’s probably a product of the recent stream of bad news surrounding FUNCOM. The Secret World didn’t sell as well as they’d hoped it would, and there have been some significant layoffs to include lead designer Matt Bruusgaard. As a result of the shake-up, Issue #2, the latest content update, has been pushed back. Does this affect the morale of the players? Most definitely.

But why is it that the enjoyment players get out of MMORPGs seems to scale with the number of people playing? I can understand how potential players might use this as a basis to judge the value and quality of a title, but for someone who has been playing since closed beta and who sang its praises all the while to lose interest? Why?

Not to mention that groups in The Secret World are capped at five players. I run Nightmare dungeons, the game’s challenging end-game content, for hours every weekend with cabal members. Even now, it’s very rare that we need a pick-up player to fill a spot. If there were only 20 players in the entire game, what would that matter if you always found four others to group with? And if a game has 20 million players, would that matter when you can only play with four of them at a time?

Farewell, City of Heroes

I’ve been playing MMORPGs since Ultima Online. Until recently, nothing captured my interest and imagination like City of Heroes.

There have been few games, MMO or single-player, that really made me feel as though my character were an extension of myself. It’s all thanks primarily to the stellar and yet unmatched customization options the game was well-known for, but it went far beyond that.

Your hero was more than just looks; you’re character was a theme. Your powers, your costume, your aura – each piece invaluable in creating this persona.

The first few heroes I made felt like side-kicks, and even though I brought some of them into the 30s, I just couldn’t get over that. So I resolved to make a character who screamed hero. I remember spending hours on molding his body and designing his costume. I remember spending time at work thinking of the perfect biography.

I remember climbing to the roof of that Winn-Dixie the day the game came out, and reading the instruction booklet over lunch.

Eventually, I’d perfected my patriotic hero and called him Anthem (later renamed Anthem Aegis after a server transfer). The inspiration for his costume came from two of my favorite classic superheroes, Superman and Captain Marvel. I never made another hero after him.

Well, unless you count a brief stint in Champions Online.

That same sense of pride and uniqueness, I have never felt in a game since. In the end, I was:

The Courageous Unbreakable
Anthem
Saved the World

And owner of some 570 badges at a time when there were only 600 to be had.

I did some searching and was able to find only one link to Anthem on City Info Tracker; a profile that I must have created on a whim and abandoned shortly after. It doesn’t have my badges listed, but there’s a screenshot and that biography I put so much heart into.

It’s too late now to download and play City of Heroes. The main website has been stripped of its sidebar, and any links in Google that lead to a download page direct you to Paragon’s farewell message. I wish I’d played more in the last three years or taken more screenshots (there have been a lot of new computers throughout), but I’ll always have the memories: Earning my cape, obtaining my aura, my first fight with Lusca, preventing a power plant meltdown, assailing the Rikti Mothership, fighting alongside Statesman, and countless others – those aren’t going anywhere.

So farewell to City of Heroes and to 2,649 hours on patrol.

Getting into The Last Story

I can’t seem to get lost in The Last Story.

Aside from Callista, who is kind of the cookie-cutter JRPG female lead so far, all of the characters have interesting personalities and quirks, and I’m eager to learn more about each of them.

The story has just started to flesh itself out; I can tell that things are about to get epic.

The combat is addictive and surprisingly tactical.

But the equipment system and summon circles have started to leave a bad taste in my mouth.

The prospect of leveling-up equipment is exciting. Upgrading the weapons and armor you find unlock new potential and abilities such as “Crit Chance +20%” and “x3 Slash Damage”. Eventually, items require components to upgrade them further, and there’s nothing wrong with that!

The problem I have is that dungeons, such as the ship I just fought my way through, have a limited number of enemies. If you want to grind for exp and items, you can use the summoning circle found in each locale to spawn a group of baddies.

But it’s the same group spawning in the same locations. Occasionally, you’ll summon a batch with higher HP who deal more damage, but it’s still very much the same fight.

In that same ship, Zael could kill the summoned skeletons with a single hit thanks to a weapon that inflicts additional damage on the undead.

Summon. Attack x6. Collect items. Summon. Attack x6. Collect items. Summon. Attack x6….

Unabashed grinding. It’s optional, sure, but what happens when the few groups of enemies scattered throughout the dungeons aren’t giving you enough experience to match the power of the bosses at the end? You’re going to have to do some grinding.

The environments have been almost completely linear so far. Why not throw in additional groups of enemies that you can only reach by exploring the intricacies of a dungeon?

The necessary items in equipment upgrades are clearly a way to prevent you from grinding these circles and breaking the game. You’ll quickly get to the point where the experience from summoned enemies does very little in advancing you to the next level; eventually it won’t be worth the time. So if a particular circle only brings you up to level 15 from, say, level 10, and the equipment you want to upgrade comes to a halt because you haven’t obtained the necessary items yet, why offer a way to grind if you’re going to bottleneck progress, anyway? Why not just run the numbers so that the battles you fight up to that particular point already put you at level 15?

It just seems a little lazy and unnecessary, but at such an early stage in the game, maybe I’m just missing something.