Monday, March 31, 2014

Enjoy the Reaper

Reaper of Souls was just released last week and I have to say it’s the Diablo experience that should have been what we received when Diablo 3 first launched. I’ve literally been playing Reaper of Souls non stop for the last week. It significantly improves upon all the small updates that Blizzard has been sprinkling since the launch of the original game. Blizzard should be proud of the expansion they have released and I hope they continue current their current game design philosophy.

One of the biggest changes in Diablo’s latest update was the new and improved loot system. All stats have a much smaller ranged which means randomness isn’t as large of a factor. Blizzard also developed a smart loot system which places a priority on the primary stat of the item depending on the hero you are currently playing. Players no longer need to hope for that perfect drop since the release of the Mystic. The new NPC allows players to reroll one item’s properties to another property or even a higher number of that same property for a cost of disenchanted materials and gold. You can only reroll one property per item and every reroll will cost more gold. It’s a wonderful system that helps players acquire perfect gear to slaughter the denizens of Diablo 3.

Adventure mode is a breath fresh air in Diablo 3. The original game had players just repeat the same quests over and over again doing the same exact areas since anything else would result in less gear or experience. Adventure mode fixes this with two new options, bounties and rifts.

 Bounties provide objectives in each act for the player to complete and reward the player with experience, gold, blood shards and rift keys. Most of them revolve around the idea of going to an area and wiping out most of the mobs plus a specific champion pack. Some bounties require you to kill specific bosses or cleanse a cursed chest/shrine. Cursed chests and shrines are new additions to Diablo 3. They usually require the player to kill a certain amount of mobs in a small time limit in order to receive a bonus chest of loot. Clearing five bounties in an act will net the player additional experience, gold and a Horadric Cache. These caches are filled with rare items, a chance at some specific set of legendaries, more rift keys, blood shards and various gems.

The second option in Adventure mode requires 5 rift keys. When the player acquires 5 rift keys they can open a rift which contains a randomized dungeon. The rifts usually contain multiple levels and each level is the same map layout that you find in the original campaign. However the monsters sets are completely randomized and you may face act 4 monsters while in an act 2 area. Champion and elite packs of enemies are scattered throughout the rifts along with new shrines. The new shrines are incredibly powerful providing players with short buffs such as 400% damage increase, immunity shields, no resource cost, and super fast movement speed. The main objective of the rifts is to kill enough monsters to spawn the rift guardian. Rift guardians are reskinned bosses from the campaign and always drop a significant amount of loot which includes chances at forgotten souls (the legendary disenchant material which is very useful for all sorts of crafting and rerolling), 40+ blood shards, and various other pieces of loot and gems.

Blood shards serve as a form of currency that the player can use to buy randomized pieces of gear from a vendor. So far this is the only use for blood shards but I believe Blizzard has more ideas for ways to use blood shards that they are saving for future patches. The gear that you can buy is usually a rare but once in a blue moon you will receive a legendary. After spending more than 1500 blood shards, I was able to receive a perfect rolled set of legendary gloves. I was in a state of disbelief when I saw the stats that were rolled on the gloves and immediately called my friend to let him know. It was probably one of my happiest moments in Diablo 3 to receive such a huge upgrade especially since I hadn’t received anything worthwhile for quite some time.

One of the biggest changes that I am happy about is the revamped skills for my class. I believe all the classes have had changes in regards to skills but I’m only familiar with Barbarian changes since that’s my class of choice in Diablo 3. When I first played Diablo 3 at launch, there were only a handful of builds that people were following which eventually turned into one builds that almost every barbarian was using. The inclusion of element specific runes for each skill now allows the user to a variety of builds that are all fairly equivalent. I still play my bread and butter build where I use a basic attack with my Hammer of the Ancients but I was able to effectively try different builds that still work efficiently. I had a lot of fun playing a ranged Barbarian which was a very unique build in the early days of Diablo 3 but may make a come back since it deals so much more damage in Reaper of Souls. Overall I expect a lot of build  diversity among the classes and expect a lot of gear drops to influence which skills players take.

My only concern with this expansion is the rate at which I’ll receive upgrades since the only items that improve my gear are legendaries. I receive one legendary about every 90 minutes to every two hours and most of the time its some useless legendary that is only worth the forgotten soul that I get from disenchanting it. Most people will hit this wall where the only upgrades are available from legendaries since rare items are available in abundance. I hit this gear limitation in about the first day that I played since rare items are constantly dropping and are the only use of blood shards. Other players who are playing at a more casual approach may not reach this for a few days to a week. Blizzard has been watching the drop rates of legendaries and has adjusted them fairly recent to drop more frequently.

I’m also wondering how it will be possible to efficiently farm the higher tiers of Torment (the hardest difficulty). Most of the gear that I’ve seen does not seem to have high enough stats to tackle the later Torment difficulties. As far as I know each level of Torment only increases how many items you find and not the possible stat ranges of each item. My concern here is how gear progression will work when it comes to mobs having ridiculously high health and damage output when our gear may not scale as high.

I would highly recommend Reaper of Souls to anyone who wants to feed an addiction to acquiring loot and crushing monsters. Blizzard has redeemed themselves from the failure of Diablo 3’s initial launch and has earned a great deal of respect. I look forward to each and every patch that Blizzard plans on releasing for Diablo in the upcoming months.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Splinter Cell: Blacklist, a true successor to Chaos Theory

Splinter Cell Blacklist is probably one of the best games I’ve played in a very long time. I’m a huge Splinter Cell fan and I have to say that it is equal to the quality that Chaos Theory brought to the table. I’ll admit that I was at first a little disappointed at the way the game played but in the end I was proven wrong. This is Splinter Cell at its finest. It takes best of worlds, Conviction’s fluid gameplay and Chaos Theory’s emphasis on stealth. Splinter Cell Conviction was a great game but it was not a great Splinter Cell game. It lacked a lot of the features that made the original Splinter Cell games so fun. However Ubisoft has learned their lesson and made an outstanding game within the Splinter Cell Franchise. This review is mainly going to focus on only single player aspects since I haven’t had a chance to play online yet.

At first the lack of a light meter and sound meter had me worried about whether or not Ubisoft was trying to bring the Splinter Cell franchise back to its roots. The Splinter Cell franchise has evolved into a quick and action oriented stealth game.  Blacklist has three distinctive play styles, Ghost, Panther and Assault. Ghost (my preferred style) grades the player based on avoiding enemies or knocking out enemies without being detected. The player receives extra efficiency points for every guard they leave untouched. Panther style awards points to players who kill enemies without being detected. Assault is your typical guns blazing approach and doesn't rely on stealth at all.  I actually went through the entire game as a Ghost on Perfectionist. Perfectionist is the hardest difficulty which prevents the player from seeing through walls in sonar vision and removes the ability to Mark and execute. I was extremely satisfied with this difficulty since mark and execute was a simple "I win" button.

The stealth works different in this game. The player can still be detected in the shadows but they have a certain amount of time before they are detected. The time is influenced by how dark the environment is around the player. I believe higher difficulties also reduce the time available before detection. The old splinter cell games worked differently. The darkness would provide you with cover for as long as you were still covered in shadows. However in Blacklist, the player must stay out of line of site, similar to how Metal Gear Solid series operates. This is fine because it keeps the player from feeling safe in the darkness. It forces them to become more proactive.

Blacklist provides a huge arsenal of weapons for Sam to use and upgrade on his journey to stopping terrorists. Honestly I didn't see a need for all these weapons for a stealth play through since I barely shot any bullets through the main campaign. The weapons are more for the Panther and Assault play styles which depend on killing foes. Sam Fisher also gets to choose different sets of armor that suit either a stealth or combat play style. The player gets to choose from 3-4 stealth suits and 3-4 combat suits. The stealth suits make less noise and provide higher stealth rating but very low armor. The combat suits are the exact opposite of stealth. The difference between each of the stealth suit is just a higher stealth rating. The combat suits work the same way with progressively higher armor rating. The higher quality suits require the player to purchase the previous suits except for the ultimate version. The ultimate version of each can only be unlocked through finishing the specific set of side missions.

The Splinter Cell series isn't really known for having an amazing storyline but I did enjoy the campaign’s story. A group called the Engineers are planning to attack the United States unless the United States removes all soldiers from every country around the world. Sam Fisher has to find out who the Engineers are and stop all attacks. Blacklist’s campaign missions alternate between stopping the Engineers’ attacks and gathering information about the Engineers’ plan. The side missions are more about gathering general intel on the Engineers and other enemies. Almost every mission in the game has some extra objectives such as gathering data drops, capturing high value targets and hacking laptops. The player is awarded cash to upgrade armor if these extra objectives are completed.

I honestly don’t have any real problems with Blacklist. I think it’s a well designed game with a variety of enemies in each level. I did think the game was a little on the easy side since I was able to complete it with relative ease on the hardest difficulty as a ghost. The only thing I really didn’t like was the way they portray Sam Fisher in this game. However Ubisoft has been constantly changing his personality with each new Splinter Cell game so this is nothing new. I think I would appreciate them giving Sam a break and introducing a new protagonist for the Splinter Cell series. Splinter Cell Blacklist is tied with Chaos Theory as the best Splinter Cell game. If you only had time to play one game from the Splinter Cell franchise, Blacklist would be that game. 

Friday, January 31, 2014

Yogg-Saron, The fiend of a Thousand Faces

In all the years I have been playing games, I think there are only a handful of boss fights that I will always remember. Yogg-Saron is one of those fights that will stay with me till the end of time. World of Warcraft has had many expansions each filled with unique boss encounters but I believe Yogg-Saron is one of Blizzard’s greatest achievements.

Yogg-Saron in the WoW universe is one the ancient creature known as the Old Gods. Vanilla WoW players may remember C’Thun one of the old raid bosses found in Ahn’Qiraj which was the first Old Gods encounter. Yogg-Saron, like the other Old Gods was imprisoned underground by the Titans and stripped of its powers. Ulduar was the prison constructed for Yogg-Saron and six watchers were assigned to stand watch for the eternal imprisonment. Four of the watchers, Hodir, Thorim, Mimiron and Freya were boss encounters found in Ulduar who were corrupted by Yogg-Saron to serve him. After defeating the four watchers you can request their help during the Yogg-Saron fight.

The primary mechanic that persist through all three phases of the Yogg-Saron fight is your Sanity. You start the encounter with 100 sanity and when the counter drops to 0 you become Insane. While Insane, the player is controlled by Yogg-Saron, increases their damage by 100% and health is increased by 300%. Basically one person going Insane can be the reason why an entire raid of 25 people end up failing the encounter. So how does a person lose sanity?  Well certain mechanics during Phase 2 and Phase 3 will reduce a player’s sanity.

Phase 1 starts off with Sara (Yogg-Saron’s avatar) in the center of a saronite pool. When players enter the room, green gas clouds begin to appear around Sara and  move in a circular motion around her for the duration of Phase 1. Creatures known as Guardians of Yogg-Saron begin to spawn at fixed intervals, at an increasing rate. The only way to move on to Phase 2 is to deal enough damage to Sara but the only way to deal damage to Sara is to kill a Guardian near her so that the explosion from the Guardian’s death will damage her. If a player stands within the range of a cloud, another Guardian will spawn which can hinder the raid if too many are spawned and not enough damage out put is available. The raid needs to kill about eight guardians near Sara to push the phase. Sara will cast three different debuffs to raid members that will give them increase in damage or healing but also make them more vulnerable to damage. The Guardians of Yogg-Saron will also cast an attack that will hit everyone in the raid and reduce healing received. Raid members have to make sure they interrupt as many of those spells as possible to minimize damage.

Phase 2 will begin with Sara turning into her true form, a val’kyr and Yogg-Saron will emerge from the pool of saronite. Now Sara will begin to cast a new set of debuffs on random players. Psychosis is a straight damage and sanity reduction. She also summons slow moving beams which deal lethal damage to players. Malady of the Mind is another debuff that deals some damage, reduces sanity and will jump to another player when it expires if someone is within a close distance. It also fears the player which moves the player in a random direction. All other players must move away from the player afflicted with Malady of the Mind or it will continue to spread to other raid members. The last ability she can cast is Brain Link. Brain Link will link two players together and both players must be within a certain distance of each other or they take damage and lose sanity every second. Just based off Sara’s ability we can see that the encounter relies heavily on pay attention to your surroundings and knowing when to spread out and when to group together.

During Phase 2 Yogg-Saron will summon three types of tentacles. The largest tentacle will cast a debuff that reduces damage the raid will do and stacks up to 4 times. The medium sized tentacles will spawn various curses and poisons on the raid which must be dispelled by healers or anyone who has the ability to remove the debuffs. The smallest tentacles will grab a nearby player preventing them from moving. The raid will have to kill the tentacle to release the player.

To push into phase 3, players will need  deal enough damage to Yogg-Saron’s brain. Throughout phase 2, portals will spawn around Yogg-Saron that will teleport a player into one of three rooms. These rooms will have floating skulls that will drain sanity when facing them and will have mobs that need to be dealt with before getting access to the brain  room. When they reach they brain, they only have a small amount of time to actually damage the brain before Yogg-Saron drops their entire sanity to zero. Players have to leave the brain room and teleport back into the main room with all the tentacles and Sara before he casts his sanity wipe. The portals open every minute or so and the raid must coordinate who goes through which portal since only one person can take each portal.

At the start of Phase 3 Yogg-Saron will now have 30% of his full life. He will begin summoning Immortal Guardians that deal more damage at full health. However they cannot be killed unless Thorim is helping with the encounter. Yogg-Saron will begin casting Lunatic Gaze every so often which reduces sanity of any player that is facing him. He will also begin to empower the Immortal Guardians which allows them to regenerate their health. If you only bring three or less watchers with you then he will also silence the entire party for four seconds. Phase 3 is all about managing the Immortal Guardians and damaging on Yogg-Saron before he enrages and wipes the raid.

Each watcher that you bring down with you to the fight will make the entire fight much easier. Mimiron increases the raid’s movement speed by 20% and reduces the attack speed and casting speed for all tentacles. Hodir will reduce all damage taken by 20% and has a chance of casting a protective ice block around a player when they are about to die. Thorim increases the raid’s health by 20% and will kill any Immortal Guardians at low health. Freya will increase all healing received and will generate Sanity Wells which will regenerate Sanity for any players standing in them.

Since all the watchers seem to provide very useful buffs, why would a raid want to leave them out? Well bringing only one or none of the watchers will grant the raid better rewards. If the raid is able to accomplish killing Yogg-Saron with zero keepers then they were rewarded with an exclusive mount, Mimiron’s Head. I think its one of the best looking mounts in game and reminds me of Dr. Robotntik’s ship.

Alone in the Darkness (Yogg-Saron with zero keepers) is one of the best fights in any game. The amount of coordination and skill required to even complete this encounter with gear only available at that time is impressive. It requires all 25 players to be performing at their best to even stand a chance at obtaining Mimiron’s Head.  I wanted to end this post with all the voice work of Yogg-Saron that you hear through out the fight and at different parts of Northrend. Blizzard did a wonderful job in finding the creepiest sounding voice for Yogg-Saron. I hope other developers will take a page from Blizzard’s boss fights and try to make unique and interesting encounters full of different mechanics.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Playstation 4: The Future is Here

Playstation 4’s launch has been more successful than I anticipated, selling more than 2.1 million units globally. I was fortunate enough to grab one off Amazon at launch last month and was able to mess around with it. Unfortunately there hasn’t been a game that caught my interest so my Playstation 4 has just been collecting dust. I did get to mess around with the different features and play through Contrast and Resogun which came free with Playstation Plus.

The Playstation 4 box is surprisingly thin. It comes with a power cord, one controller, the PS4 system and an HDMI cable. Luckily the power cord is just a single cord and doesn’t have a bulky power brick attached to it. Right now I have the PS4 laying down horizontally but I might invest in a stand to secure it in a vertical stance to save some space. The power and eject button are extremely small and I actually couldn’t find it the first time I tried powering up my console.

The PS4 UI seems like an evolved form of the XBM found on the PSP and PS3. Every time you add a game to your console another icon for that game is created. Right now it doesn’t seem like a problem but when we start having a larger collection, the menu will become cluttered and increasingly annoying to navigate. There isn’t much customization features available for the UI such as setting custom backgrounds or changing the color of menu backgrounds but I believe Sony will add those features in future updates. I hope there is some sort of way to organize your collection by folders that doesn’t require an automatic sort by name, genre or some other predetermined method so that I could tailor my collection to my needs. I would also like an updated Trophy system. I prefer the way that Xbox live achievements work where if you press the guide button while an achievement is popped up you get taken to that achievement in the guide menu. It’s not a deal breaker but it certainly makes it easier to hunt for achievements/trophies if it would work similar to Xbox. Sony added a percentage next to each trophy indicating how many people have acquired that specific trophy which is nice to see how you compare to the general public.

There hasn’t been a single game that I am willing to pay retail for the PS4. But this is something I expected since it’s still very early into the launch. I didn’t want an Xbox 360 until Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was released which was about 6 months into the life of the 360. I expect 6 months down the road I’ll probably end up picking a bunch of games that either dropped in price since the launch or some new games that have been teased for a mid 2014 launch. I did get Contrast and Resogun for free with my Playstation Plus subscription. As long as I continue to update my Playstation Plus every year I’ll continue to keep these games and any other Sony decides to give out for free.

Contrast is a basic 3D platformer with an interesting mechanic of going into a 2D shadow world. It has some clever moments for some of the puzzles but its a short game so many of the mechanics aren't as deep as I would have liked. The story line seems a little sparse offering very little incentive to revisit it. The lighting effects demonstrate the power of the PS4 especially since its an early release game and developers will eventually learn how to properly utilize the PS4 in the future.

Resogun is actually probably the highlight of the PS4 launch. When I first started playing Resogun I didn’t really understand any of the mechanics or why my humans were dying. The game doesn’t really teach you anything at all and I ended up having to look online to figure out the different mechanics and reading the manual in the in game menu. However after I understood the game, it became one of my favorite games to play. You’re basically flying a ship that can shoot either left or right and you move along a 2D plane that is essentially a circle. You’re objective is to clear through the enemies and save any humans who are imprisoned in boxes. Releasing humans vary from having to kill certain green glowing enemies to maintaining a combo during a certain time. However losing human’s doesn’t really serve a penalty. You can win the level without saving a single human. Saving a human and placing them at the safe point will gain you bombs, lives, shields or extra points. The real objective of the game is to try to continue to beat your high scores and try to get your name on the leader boards. It’s very similar to geometry wars but I think I still prefer geometry wars over Resogun.

The share feature for the PS4 is better than I expected. I always wanted a way to stream gameplay so that my friends can watch me play but until now there really wasn’t a way to do it without the aid of a PC. Pressing the share button brings up a menu that allows you to connect to your Twitch account very quickly and start streaming right away. You can even change the button to do different things like taking a screenshot or record the last 15 minutes of gameplay if something incredible just happened. Its definitely a feature I expect to use going forward when I have a collection of games available to play. There is even an app that allows you to watch other PS4 streamers which is a good way to see some gameplay footage of games that might not have a demo available on the marketplace.

The best aspect of the PS4 is the controller it self. When I first saw images of the controller I was skeptical that it would be better than the current 360 controller. However after actually picking up the controller, I can safely say it’s probably my favorite controller of all time. Everything just feels right, the way that your hand rests and curves to the controller, the weight of the controller and even the trigger feel great. I haven’t had any games that use the center touch pad so I can’t comment its responsiveness. The directional pad is still the same great directional pad we had from Playstation. The share and option button might feel a little too high up but other than that the controller fits perfectly in my hands. One huge negative is that you can’t turn off the light on the front of the controller. This can become a problem because the light will glare off a television set which can become distracting. The best part of the controller is the headset port at the bottom. It allows you to connect any regular headset to the controller and you can choose to have in-game audio to be played through the headset. This allows for those gamers who have irregular gaming hours or really late night sessions to play without waking up the entire house. This headset port also allows you to use your headset’s microphone which prevents you from having to buy very specific first party microphones that you’ll only end up breaking a few months down the road.

PS4 may not have a great line of games right now but it sure does deliver an amazing console experience. Sony has done a great job in marketing the PS4 towards the needs of traditional gamers. Sony just needs to make some UI improvements and start releasing some must have games for the PS4. I’m looking forward to the future of gaming on the PS4.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Arkham Origins: A Disappointing Dark Knight

Arkham Origins is the latest installment of the Arkham Series developed by a new team, WB Montreal. After the critically acclaimed Arkham Asylum and Arkham City I was expecting Origins to be just as refined as those two games. However with a new development team, I was already concerned that the team would not understand the nuances that made the previous two games amazing. Arkham Origins fails to meet the high standard set by its predecessors.

The first thing I noticed as soon as I played was the changes to combat. I felt like the enemies were slightly faster than the previous games which meant the player needed to use the counter button more often or dodge over enemies. This increases the length of combat making it become very repetitive. WB Montreal did try to add in a new enemy to the mix who can counter your hits or requires to press the counter button twice. However the enemy doesn't really increase the difficulty or abolish the repetitiveness. The main problem might be the fact that the balance between Predator Maps and Combat maps is tipped in favor towards combat. The addition of the shock gloves completely removes any skill required to perfect the combat system. The shock gloves allow the player to hit through most enemy variation without any penalty. This makes the combat increasingly more repetitive and I pretty much opted out of using them since I enjoyed perfecting my combos and raking up huge 50+ hit combos. Overall combat in this game is disappointing compared to the refined combat found in Arkham City.

Arkham City added challenges that could be done during the main story where the player has to do some thing very specific such as glide for a very long time or use certain gadgets in a fight. Arkham Origins tries to improve upon those challenges through their Dark Knight Challenges. The challenges during campaign are broken up into three types, Shadow Vigilante (combat oriented), Worst Nightmare (predator oriented) and Gotham Protector (miscellaneous objects such as gliding and stopping a crime in progress). All these challenges have 15 ranks that have to be completed in chronological order. The Shadow Vigilante isn’t too bad since most of the combat doesn't require anything specific other than having certain special combo takedown moves. There are plenty of opportunities to complete each rank since there is always a crime in progress or just a random group of thugs on the street to fight. The Worst Nightmare challenge track is where this system fails and the game designers make a huge mistake. Since there are already a limited number of predator maps the player has to actively remember to do each challenge. It becomes even more of a problem since specific ranks of Worst Nightmare can only be done in a select number of rooms predator rooms which do not respawn. If you’re not following a guide then you’re most likely not going to finish the Worst Nightmare challenge on your first play through. Another annoying problem was that one of the last ranks of Worst Nightmare require a very specific set of events to occur which can only happen in a small number of rooms. You need to have three people near a propane tank, with two of them knocked out and then attach a remote claw to the one standing to make sure all three are knocked out. The Gotham Protector track is relatively easy until the very last challenge. The player needs to stop a crime in progress in each district however the game is glitched and won’t count or spawn certain crime in progress for some districts. I did manage to get lucky and a crime in progress counted for another district even though it wasn’t located near that district at all.

The Arkham Origin sidequests are completely boring. Granted Arham City side quests were very short and weren't anything too special, Arkham Origins’ sidequest become extremely tedious. One of the side quests is to fight 20 groups of thugs. But this can’t be completed until the end of the game which means it’s just a time sink and pushes the repetitiveness of combat onto the player who wants to finish the game 100%. Another sidequest is just to fight 4 sets of very large groups under the disguise that these are gang wars. The Enigma data sets are another low point of the sidequests. The puzzles required to reach a data set are very basic and require very little thinking. Arkham City had placed Riddler Trophies all over the map in plain site but had elaborate puzzles to solve which had satisfying solutions. 

Its clear that WB Montreal didn’t want to take any risks with this franchise and tried to give us a little more of what Arkham City offered. However the changes they did make towards have generally turned out worse then Arkham City. Aside from combat changes, WB Montreal changed how the player gains skill upgrades and level ups. In Arkham City you’re experience was based off how high of a combo you achieved plus some increases for variation. WB Montreal instead awards experience for not taking any damage, not breaking a free flow combat or using a lot of variation. There is also a bonus experience given depending on how they rank the fight, as in taking no damage and defeating the entire combat encounter in one free flow combat will net you the most bonus experience and the highest rank. They also rank each fight as different difficulty levels depending on how many enemies and the types you fight. I’ll admit at first I didn't like the way experience was awarded but thinking back on it, it helps promote learning a diverse moveset to try to maximize you’re rank to level up faster. The upgrade system is complete downgrade to the one offered in Arkham City. Arkham City pretty much allows the player to take any upgrade that were available and ignore anything they don’t need early on such as armor. Arkham Origins forces the player to take certain upgrades such as combat armor to gain combat skills. What’s even more frustrating is that you are required to take every combat armor upgrade before you can even get a new combat skill. They also prevent the player from receiving the critical strike upgrade and reduced combo for special takedowns for awhile which makes the combat extremely dull and repetitive. WB Montreal did make an excellent change towards health regeneration. Instead of health regenerating based on combat experience, Batman’s health will recover full after a combat or predator encounter. It makes the game slightly easier but it’s a much more convenient.

The level designers at WB Montreal seemed to lack the understanding of how enemy types work in the Arkham series. Towards the later half of the game, there are a set of sniper’s that respawn at the top of the buildings in the Diamon District. However these sniper’s are placed in a position where it makes navigating that section of the town a nightmare. Even if you start taking down the snipers, they are positioned in a way that alerts them to your position which makes for an even more frustrating to deal with. New Game Plus also begins to suffer from the new enemy placements. It seems like the level designers just placed armored enemies in the most inconvenient spots and literally placed as many as possible throughout the maps. The problem with placing too many armored or shielded enemies is that there are only a few ways to deal with them which makes fighting them more of a chore then an exercise in skilled variation combat. The motto that WB Montreal should have stuck with was a “less is more” which would solve all these problems. Another problem with level design is the large central bridge that serves no real purpose other than one boss fight. It doesn't allow easy access to the top half of the map since the player has to glide across the large bridge but luckily WB Montreal realized this and added in a fast travel method.

WB Montreal did a wonderful job with the storyline. I was a little disappointed that Black Mask doesn't have as large of a roll as the trailers make it out to be but the overall story does take some inspirations from the famous Killing Joke comic book. They did a great job in showing a younger Batman who is still in his earlier years and doesn't rely on the help of others and arrogantly tries to handle all the situations alone. We get to see Batman’s first encounter with the Joker and how the Joker becomes infatuated with the Dark Knight. I absolutely loved how they portrayed Bane in Arkham Origins. They made him a strong fighter who has an excellent mind for combat strategy which is more accurate to the comic books. The Bane in Arkham Asylum and City was more of just a brute who had no real fighting technique. I was disappointed in the 8 assassins since they each get very little show time. I think I would have preferred a smaller selection of assassins but each getting a larger portion of the game time. Two assassins are extremely brief encounters that I wouldn't even count as a major part of the game. One of them wasn't even a real boss fight and just a way for WB Montreal to progress the story.

Boss fights have always been tricky in the Arkham Series. Asylum had some terrible boss fight but could be forgiven since it was their first attempt at a new mechanic. However Rocksteady completely improved most of the boss fight in Arkham City and has one of my favorite boss fights of all time (Mr. Freeze).  Arkham Origins’ boss fights fall somewhere in between Asylum and City. I did not like the Bane fight at all since the dodging mechanic felt off since Bane could change his charge direction if you dodged too early. I did love the Deathstroke fight and is easily one of my favorite boss fights in this game. It is a one on one free flow combat fight that does an excellent job in adjusting the free flow combat style to one enemy. The Firefly fight was also another interesting fight that revolved around gadget use. It was an easy fight but it was still pretty fun to throw batarangs and batclaws at Firefly to bring him down to your level.

I tried the multiplayer for a bit but it was pretty much dead by the time I started playing it. Matches took forever to create and require all 8 players to start. When you finally get into a match, the third person shooter aspect feels unrefined. Its something I would avoid unless you need to get the achievements like I did which then I suggest finding others who will create matches just for the achievements. The other game modes are very similar to Arkham City. You have New Game plus which is tougher enemy types and no counter icons above enemies and I am the Night Mode which is a one life type of deal to beat the campaign. I didn’t find I am the Night Mode any more difficult then New Game plus but I was a little nervous on the Bane fight since I ended up dying on it in New Game Plus. You also have the Challenge Maps, Custom Maps and Campaign Maps which makes its return from Arkham City. I really wish WB Montreal would have just left out two of those types of maps. It was one of the biggest negatives of Arkham City. Challenge maps are essentially the combat and predator encounters found main story mode of the Arkham game. The combat maps go through four rounds where your goal is to score as high as possible reaching certain high scores to achieve medals. Predator maps require you to do three different goals which earn you medals while you clear out the encounter. Campaign Maps just take 3 maps, either 2 predators and 1 combat, 2 combat and one predator or 3 of predator or combat encounters and forces you to obtain the medals of all three maps. Campaign maps also require you to add extra criteria by giving you like 4 or 5 different requirements such as no silent takedown, weapons are active in combat or no detective vision in predator maps. By the time you finish the last map you need to have used all the criteria to succeed. Campaign maps are just single challenge maps but with the ability to toggle as many of the extra criteria from the campaign maps. You’re essentially doing these challenge maps over and over again if you want to complete the game 100%. It would be fine if the experience really differed between them but I literally played each map as if they were the same. It would have been great if WB Montreal would have left all this repeated content out but unfortunately my need to complete Batman games 100% forced me to endure these challenges.

My review of Arkham Origins seems very negative but that’s because the bar was set extraordinarily high for the Arkham series.  If this was just another game and not attached to an already popular and well refined IP, it would have been great. However after playing Arkham City which came out two years before this, it’s hard to recommend Origins over its predecessors. Arkham Origins is more like an Arkham City DLC. Those who really enjoyed Arkham City and want more of the same, Arkahm Origins will fit well. For most people I would recommend only Asylum and City and if they really enjoyed those to try Origins. Its not a bad game, it just doesn't live up to its predecessors. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

Blizzard’s latest mega hit is their brand new collectible card game. I’ve been lucky enough to receive a beta key a few weeks ago and would like to share my impressions and any improvements that I feel like should be made. I haven’t played Blizzard’s original World of Warcraft trading card game but I believe it has had a large amount of influence on the way Hearthstone was designed. I have played a few different card games in the past and Hearthstone feels like a more simplified version of Magic the Gathering. However even though the basic concepts are very simple, Hearthstone has great depth with regards to strategy and play styles provided by each class type. I won’t go into the basics of how the game works or any particular strategy since most gaming sites have flooded the internet with those types of posts. I want to give my personal impressions of playing through the beta in the last two weeks.

So far I’ve loved the game. I’ve been looking for an entertaining card game to play and Hearthstone has hit the spot. I generally prefer playing in the constructed play mode over the arena mode. Arena feels too RNG for me, since I never get any of the useful class cards and I generally avoid things that involve RNG. However Arena has the most value in terms of gold spent. You can buy regular sets of booster packs at 100 gold or enter the Arena at 150 gold. Basically it comes down to spending 50 extra gold on the chance to make more gold, arcane dust, gold cards or an extra pack. Arena mode will always give you one pack no matter how many wins you have. I don’t feel like this is a problem since I’m not forced to do arena and people who really despise arena can just use their gold on buying regular packs. You also always break even at 7 wins and anything higher will always be a profit. However 7 wins isn’t always possible since the deck you have might just be truly awful or just run into some bad luck with card draws.

Arena mode is probably where most people will want to spend their time. The Arena mode gives you a chance to sometimes use the cards you normally wouldn’t and see some awesome combo’s that you would have normally disregarded. It’s definitely an interesting mode that lets you come up with some very random decks but I feel the randomness can sometimes be a bit too much. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and get a bunch of cards you need and other times you’ll end up with a terrible deck. Arena also throws away the 2 card limit rule and allows the player to have as many of the same cards as they want. This becomes a problem when trying to predict what an opponent can do because you can no longer rule out cards just because they used two of them. However this isn’t much of an issue if you always expect the unexpected in Arena. I think the RNG issue of getting the right cards is something that needs to be addressed.

The first solution is to allow the player to postpone some of their selections until the very end. This would allow players to return to that selection with a better idea of how their deck will work. I’m not sure how many selections they can postpone but I think the range from 3-5 should be enough to allow the player some flexibility and still have a randomness associated with the deck that gives the player a unique play mode.

The other solution I have is a bit more dramatic in terms of the change to arena. The player would be able to see all 30 sets of selections and then would be able to pick one card from each set in any order. This would greatly minimize the randomness associated with deck building in arena but it would also make Arena much more like constructed play mode. I’m guessing this won’t happen since people generally like to be surprised in their decks from Arena.

Hearthstone lacks any social features at all other than incorporating your friends list. During player matches in both arena and play mode, both players can only use six different emotes, a greeting, a well played, thanks, sorry, oops, and a threaten. This works for most of the time since I feel like most online communities end up having people curse at you for playing certain cards or just talk nonsense which really hurts the long term community.  However I would like the ability to add players I face as a friend after a match so that I can eventually have a rematch against them. I’ve had quite a few matches where both us were pretty much even for most of the game. There isn’t even a general chat where you can discuss the game or find players to match up against. You pretty much have to become an active member of a forum to find new friends to play against.

Another feature I would love to see is a tournament mode where players can face off against each other in a tournament fashion and crown someone the winner. It would be nice to have a tournament mode for both random players and one with friends. Logistics would be the biggest problem for the random player tournament since not everyone can dedicate an entire afternoon to gaming. However I think a friendly tournament mode would work best for people who just want to make a day out of the event. Maybe even allow for an entry fee that gets split up among the top three winners which would give incentive to play in this mode.

One thing I noticed about the game right away was the fact that the basic deck can only take you so far. Eventually you will reach a point where you’re only facing people who have bought a good amount of packs and will end up losing to them constantly. Farming for packs doesn’t seem reasonable since it takes at least 30 wins in play mode to get enough gold for a single pack or 45 wins to get an arena entry. However that first set of 40 packs for about $50 will help you secure a lot more wins when you end up in the higher ranks. It’s hard to resist the temptation of buying even more packs since there are so many cards available.  Even after buying 120 packs, I’m missing about 128 cards (this includes 2 copies of regular cards to make complete sets) with about 25ish being legendary. I’m tempted to get another set of 40 packs in order to close out that gap but I think I’ll resist my urge in order to conserve some money. I’m sure Blizzard has made a killing off Hearthstone since almost everyone I know that has a beta key has spent on average about $50.

My overall experience with Hearthstone has been great.  I believe Blizzard has created an awesome cash cow with a lot of opportunity to expand their future revenue. Hearthstone is very welcoming to new players who may have never picked up a card game before. It also has enough depth to keep players entertained for months especially with all the different types of decks available. I look forward to Blizzard continuing to add new cards classes through future expansions for Hearthstone.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Downloadable Content

Downloadable content (DLC) has been a major part of current generation of consoles. I generally like the idea of downloadable content but I feel like some developers have been abusing it. I don’t mind paying for new content that helps invigorate my desire to play the game by adding content that enriches my experience. It does bother me when a company tries to make a cash grab by removing features that should have already been in the game only to force users to pay for it later on.

My earliest experience with DLC goes back to the very first Splinter Cell on the original Xbox. I didn’t have Xbox live at the time but I was able to bring my xbox to a friend’s house and download the new levels. Surprisingly, the extra levels were all free which is something you rarely find nowadays. I remember when I was reading up on the original Xbox, Microsoft stated that developers would be able to update games such as sports titles with current rosters and updated stats through downloadable content. Obviously most sports titles just release a new edition every year instead of using DLC but it certainly was an interesting approach.

While DLC may have its origins in providing players with more content for their favorite games, it has been used more recently as a passive deterrent to used game sales. Developers hope that players will hold on to their copy of a game until all the DLC is released therefore reducing the supply of used games available. Other developers figured out that they could attach DLC to brand new copies which would also dissuade people from purchasing a used copy. Some developers even decided that they would use online game passes to convince users to buy new or at least for used copies to provide some revenue through purchasing an online pass from the developer. Fortunately online passes are becoming a thing of the past since companies like EA are removing them from current games and finding alternatives to deter used game sales.

My current issue with DLC is the idea of season passes. It sounds great on paper, the player get a discount on a set of DLC and the developer gets the money early to produce the DLC. However what happens if the developer goes under before all the DLC is made. Does the player get a refund for the amount of DLC they are missing or are they just out of luck? While there haven’t been any cases of this occurring yet, it still makes me weary about purchasing any season passes from developers that aren't as well known.

Another issue I have with more recent DLC is the fact that costumes are becoming more related to micro transaction instead of as incentives to completing the game in unique ways. In Ninja Gaiden Black for the Xbox, the player would be awarded different costumes based on the difficulty they beat. Harder difficulties usually had the more popular costume choices that ended up looking amazing and helped the player feel rewarded for beating the harder difficulties. However in Ninja Gaiden II for the Xbox 360 the costume rewards for beating the harder difficulty were just color swaps whereas the purchasable costumes were significantly different. I don’t mind the idea of adding new costumes that let player personalize their character, it just seems like developers are getting rid of any incentives that players used to have before the days of DLC. Imagine if you played Metal Gear Solid and you weren't rewarded for either of the endings. You would have to buy the active camo or bandanna off the games marketplace in order to be able to use them. It doesn't really make a huge difference in gameplay but you also don’t have any rewards that make subsequent play through more enjoyable.

I would like to see DLC as a way for developers to try out new ideas that might have not worked in the original game. Developers could experiment with ideas that didn't make it in the retail copy because of time shortages or budget restraints. They could use it as a test for ideas that may be incorporated in sequels. Alan Wake is a good example of how the developers were able to throw in a new idea into the DLC that definitely kept the gameplay refreshing. Remedy, the developers of Alan Wake tossed in the idea that the player could shine light on words that would then spawn safe areas or even items for the player to use. It was a risk but since the DLC is much shorter than the campaign, it wouldn't be a huge issue if the player disliked the new mechanic.

DLC is definitely something that will continue long into the next generation of gaming consoles. I like to support developers, especially ones that seem to want to provide quality experiences instead just trying to make a quick buck by releasing the latest version of their game. I honestly don’t mind the idea of buying costumes if it will help the developer continue to create more games. While I do miss the old days of unlocking new costumes and accessories in games, I understand that game development costs have risen with each new generation and developers could use the extra cash to help offset those costs. I just hope developers are not trying to nickel and dime the consumer by taking apart a finished game and selling it as extra content.