Friday, March 24, 2017

First Impressions of Mass Effect: Andromeda


Despite my feelings about the ME3 ending, I picked up Mass Effect: Andromeda last night. Here are my initial impressions from about an hour of play.

Facial Animations

I usually don't pay attention to internet complaints about graphics. To my non-artistic eyes, pretty much every modern game looks good.

However, the facial animations in ME:A are horrifically bad. Lips move, but the entire rest of the face has been botox-ed into immobility. My current head-canon is that it's a side-effect of the cryogenic sleep process, and everyone's face has simply not thawed yet. It looks really terrible, and is extraordinarily distracting.

I'm playing with the default Sara Ryder, and her eyes have pupils which are not centred correctly. It looks like she constantly has her eyes half-rolled up.

The biggest problem, though, is that's there's a clear mismatch between the quality of the head model, and the quality of the animations. This actually makes the problem worse. Maybe if the models hadn't been aiming for "realistic" so hard, the animations wouldn't stand out so much.

ME:A graphics spiked in quality the moment the characters put on their helmets.

Now, that being said, perhaps you get used to it. It wasn't nearly as distracting at the end of my play session.

Story

The story is just starting up. It's interesting how they leave everything from the original series somewhat ambiguous. In some ways, it's like the story is set in Mass Effect universe, but ignores the plot of the Mass Effect games.

So far, the writing is okay. It's not good, but it's not bad either. It kind of reminds me of a author with potential writing her first novel. It could get a lot better, but it might not either.

One interesting thing Bioware has done in conversation this time around is to categorise responses as either emotional, logical, casual, or professional. It's a very explicit way for you to define your character, especially as not all choices have all options. Sometimes you have to decide between emotional or logical. But other times, you might have logical versus professional. My tentative feelings on this system are positive, as it provides a nice framework for choices.

As a side-effect, options which are purely informative are also labelled, so you can go through all those without accidentally making a true choice.

Combat

Now we get to the outstanding part of the game so far. The combat is excellent so far. Powers work well. The shooter mechanics are crisp and nice.

I'm probably going Tech/Arms, and the tech powers are interesting, and combo nicely with each other. There's a lot of powers and skill trees for RPG enthusiasts to enjoy.

Combat feels good in this game, and that's a major positive for the game.

Conclusions

When you think about it, the facial animations are probably disproportionately distracting. But I can guarantee you that it's the first thing you notice when you start playing the game. The story is very generic at the moment, but hopefully the writers hit their stride and pick it up as the game goes on. But the combat mechanics are quite fun and well done.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Issues with the Current World First Race

If you've been following the top guilds and the World First races in WoW, you'll notice that a lot of the top guilds have been calling it quits. I think the higher-than-normal burnout has two intertwined causes, and it's hard to propose solutions without understanding those causes.

First, I don't think the long hours during the race itself is an issue. The world-first guilds have always raided intensely during the first couple of weeks. Ciderhelm talked about it in his guide to Time Management way back in Vanilla/TBC. You raid intensely for two week, and then have a very relaxed schedule for the next four or five months.

The current issue facing edge guilds is that to be competitive, each raider needs multiple "finished" characters.

First, the multiple part. Edge raiders need multiple characters for split runs as well as to swap characters around to have an optimal setup. There's always been a degree of this in WoW, but the number of characters needed has steadily increased. I believe that edge raiders are now expected to have four or five characters they can switch to for progression.

Second, the "finished" part. A finished character is one which is fully geared and maximized from the previous tier. This is the major change in Legion. Before Legion, it was fairly easy to finish a character, especially if you were in a guild which regularly cleared Mythics.

But Legion increased the amount of work to finish a character significantly. Now you need Best-in-Slot legendaries, maximized Artifact Power, and Warforged/Titanforged gear to be truly finished.

Now, this is actually great for those of us who play one main character and aren't at the cutting edge. There's always the chance of upgrading. Maybe you'll get a titanforged piece, or a new Legendary. I've only got 40-something points in my Artifact Weapon, so more AP is always useful.

However, for the edge raider, this is murderous. Where Ciderhelm once touted a intense two weeks, then a relaxed schedule for 4 months, the modern edge raider spends all her time trying to finish her character, chain-running content for AP and the chance of titanforged gear.  And due to the first requirement of needing multiple characters, she has to do this on four or five characters. No wonder they are burning out.

The big problem, of course, is that the longer path to finishing a character is excellent and enjoyable for the vast majority of the population, even if it is burning out the edge raiders.

In the next post, we will look at potential solutions.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Virtual Core Set for Magic: the Gathering's Standard Format

Background

Magic: the Gathering has several constructed formats. The flagship format is called Standard, and basically consists of all sets released in the last couple of years. As new sets are released, older sets rotate out, so the pool of cards from which to build decks changes regularly.

Lately, the Standard environment has had a lot of issues. Earlier this year, WotC banned 3 cards, the first time cards have been banned in around five years. And even after that, the resulting environment is not perceived as healthy, and there are calls to ban more cards.

Proposal

Right now, WotC really has only one way to affect the Standard environment: banning cards. New sets in the pipeline have already been finalized. Changes made to sets in production won't show up for over a year.

I propose that WotC add a new Virtual Core Set for Standard. This would be a list of already printed cards from older sets which are now legal in the current Standard.  I envision a starting list of about 50 cards, 10 from each color, which are "staples" of traditional Magic. The Core Set would not be cards that you build a deck around, but be mostly utility and sideboard cards to help weaker decks challenge the stronger ones.  Not the stars of your deck, but role-players. "Engine" cards, finishers, and "flashy" cards would come from the current sets in print.

A candidate staple for the Virtual Core Set

Advantages:

  • This would provide a second, less-drastic mechanism for tuning Standard. Instead of the only option being to ban or not ban cards, WotC could first try adding or removing cards from the Virtual Core Set. If Standard needs a little more graveyard hate, rotate in some more graveyard hate.
  • This would allow WotC to add cards to Standard without affecting Limited formats. This allows WotC not to have to worry damaging a good Limited environment by reprinting a strong card meant for Standard.
  • Allows WotC more breathing room when it comes to reprints. Sometimes reprints are necessary, but don't fit in the set thematically, or have to replace a new card. This avoids that issue.
  • Cheap. There used to be a Core Set made up mostly of reprints. But since most players already had the cards, and the Core Set was at a lower power level, it didn't sell well. A simple list of allowed cards has a minimal cost, in contrast. There should be a healthy supply of most cards that would be in the Virtual Core Set from previous sets.
  • I think a Core Set would provide a stronger "baseline" for Magic in Standard. There would always be a little counter-magic, a little burn, etc. that adds additional support for the main themes from the released sets.
Disadvantages:
  • Standard legality becomes more complex. Right now, it's just cards in the legal sets minus a handful of banned cards. Standard would become cards in the legal sets plus cards in the Virtual Core Set minus the banned cards. Depending on how often the Virtual Core Set changes, keeping track of whether a deck is legal or not would become harder for more casual players.
  • Virtual Core Set cards might oppress or crowd out new cards. For example, let's say Counterspell was added to the Virtual Core Set. Obviously it would displace any counters from the new set, and may end up killing whole potential strategies.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Updates

Well, last month was pretty much a bust as far as blogging goes. Hopefully, I will do better this month.

World of Warcraft

My guild slowly moving through Heroic Nighthold. I think we're 5/10 now. Our biggest enemy, really, is time. We're a 2-nights-a-week guild, but we spend the first night on Normal Nighthold. So we don't really get a lot of time in on the current boss. But so far it's been steady progress, killing a new boss each week.

I have my 4-piece set bonus, so I'm pretty set.

Otherwise, not a lot is going on in WoW. I leveled a Demon Hunter to max and finished that story line. It was perfectly fine, but there's just something about the demon hunter mechanics that I can't warm to. I'm not really sure what it is, but I just don't enjoy demon hunter combat. It may very well be that demon hunters are too mobile for me.

FFXIV

I haven't been playing FFXIV a lot. I've done the latest 24-mans, and they're fun. I still have one 8-man trial to go.

Otherwise, I've been kind of down on FFXIV. I play a tank in that game, but I don't like large pulls or speed runs. However, the community seems to expect speed runs in all content lately, and the dps have taken to pulling for me.

It's an interesting contrast to WoW. In WoW, the "go-go-go" crowd is segregated into Mythic+ dungeons. I haven't done a single Mythic+, and any regular mythics or heroics I do are nice and relaxing.

But in FFXIV, you're expected to do a wide variety of roulettes each day. On the one hand this is good because it keeps queues hopping, and sends veteran players back to help newbies. On the other hand, that means the veteran playstyles dominate all facets of the game. Tanks are expected to speed run and pull big. Healers are expected to switch to cleric stance and do damage.

There's really no room to play in a more relaxing fashion if you prefer.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Return to Karazhan: Nightbane

Last week, my guild group that has been running Karazhan semi-regularly unlocked and beat the "secret" boss, Nightbane.

The unlocking mechanism is basically a speed run. There are 6 or so crystals scattered around Karazhan, and you have about 6 minutes to reach each crystal in turn. It's mostly trash, as you only have to kill 3 bosses (Opera, Moroes, and Curator). We even use invisibility potions at one point to skip a couple packs of particularly nasty trash.

It was pretty fun, though I am not super-thrilled with Blizzard making speed runs the only challenge in lower content. I haven't done a single Mythic+ yet, for example. But I don't know. So far, speed runs have proven to be the only enduring challenge in low level content. And perhaps having speed runs filters the "go-go-go" crowd out of regular dungeons.

Nightbane itself is a pretty straightforward fight. It's very similar to the old Nightbane with a dragon, skeletons, and charred earth zones on the ground.

The one really interesting mechanic is Ignite Soul. Ignite Soul is a debuff which targets one player and lasts for 9 seconds. On expiry, damage equal to the target's current health is dealt to the other players in the group. So the player with Ignite Soul has to stand in the charred earth and get her health down to 25% or so when the buff expires. So the healer has to watch them, avoid healing them (but don't let them die), and heal everyone else up high enough to take the coming hit.

It's a neat mechanic. The fight overall is quite decent. It even has Nightbane fearing everyone, just like the old fight. Though this time, I don't think anyone can break it early consistently. Heh, that brings up memories. I think the fear was what I complained about in the original fight.

Nightbane also drops a mount. The loot mechanism is interesting. If no one in the group has already killed Nightbane this week, it's a 100% drop for one of the players who don't have the mount. Otherwise the chance of the mount dropping decreases by 20% for each person who has already done Kara. So it's really aimed at people who run Kara once a week in a steady group, but allows a group of 4 who already have the mount to guarantee the mount for the 5th person.

All in all, Nightbane was an good fight. It's a bit unfortunate that it's locked behind a speed run, but the run is pretty doable with a decent group. It's actually a decent challenge for a stable 5-man group that doesn't raid.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Critique of the Story of Pillars of Eternity

This post contains major spoilers for Pillars of Eternity. Seriously, I will be discussing the ending and everything.

I bought Pillars of Eternity in March, 2015, almost two years ago. Yesterday, I finally finished the game. This post is an examination of what I see as the flaws of the story.

I should note that Pillars is a very good game, especially if you like old school Baldur's Gate-style isometric party RPGs. In particular, you may find the elements which kept me from finishing the game attractive to you.

A World With No Triumphs

My first mistake with Pillars is that I like to play paladins. And Pillars is not a paladin-friendly game. The world is somewhat dark, and the game delights in giving you quests and situations where there are no good choices, and you're usually picking the least-bad choice.

For example, in Act II you have to ally with a faction. One faction is city knights, who are arbitrarily discriminatory (basically, your soul has to come from someone who fought for the right side in the country's war of independence), and who are creating an army of clockwork knights which they are going to imbue with human souls. The other factions are a bunch of thugs and vigilantes who you generally encounter beating up people you need to rescue, and the local crime syndicate.

I didn't want to ally with any of them, but the game forced me to choose one.

But the thing is that every quest in the game is like this. There are no unambiguous wins to be found, and no one who is likable, worth saving, or even worth caring about. Or if there are such people, you won't be able to help them in any way.

Event the one good thing you do in Act I, getting rid of the cruel local lord, is arbitrarily overwritten in Act III. The lord comes back from the dead and slaughters the people you left in charge. I was like, "Really?"

I found my reaction to this to be very similar to my reaction to books like Game of Thrones. After a point, I stopped caring, and ended up dropping the game for months at a time. This position, though, is a personal one. Lots of people like grim works, and if you like this kind of work, you'll enjoy Pillars. I don't care for overly hopeless works, and as a result I didn't like much of Pillars.

Ultimate Truths That Clash

The basic structure of Pillars goes something like this:
  1. In Act I, you learn that children in Dyrwood are being born without souls, called Waidwen's Legacy. It may be natural, it may be the result of the death of a god's avatar fifteen years earlier, or it may be the work of soul mages called animancers.
  2. In Act II, you learn that Waidwen's Legacy is being caused by a conspiracy called the Leaden Key, using ancient Engwithan technology. They are acting partially to discredit and end the study of animancy.
  3. In Act III, you learn that this is really a power-play among the gods, with one of them trying to usurp the other's powers. The different factions of the gods have different philosophies on how the problem is to be solved, and you have to ally with one of them.
  4. In Act IV, you learn that the gods were created long ago by the Engwithans, because they learned that there were no gods, and they feared what people unbound by faith would do.
The major problem of the last two Acts is that the two "layers" of knowledge don't really work with each other. For example, the final choice you make at the end of the game is based on the truths of Layer III, on the gods and their philosophies, and not on Layer IV.

The main villain, Thaos, is working to empower one of the gods with the stolen souls. This works with Layer III. But in Layer IV, Thaos is revealed to be the one originally created all the gods back in ancient times. It's never really explained why he now works to shatter his original vision. The Layer IV truth of Thaos is opposed to the Layer III truth of Thaos.

As well, if you have a game with a pantheon, there are two ways you can go. The gods can be an active, literal presence in the game. Or they can be mysterious beings that may or may not exist. Act III chooses one path, and Act IV chooses a different path. The whole question of whether the gods are real or not is somewhat pointless when your character has communicated with them, obtained their blessing, and has observed that they have dominion over their portfolios.

I think Pillars of Eternity would have been far better off if they had chosen one of the two final truths and discarded the other. Either the divine power-play, or the truth about the creation of the gods, could have worked. But both together simply don't. They conflict and create holes in each other.

A final point is that the last layer of truth in particular is very heavy on the "tell instead of showing". You find out about it mainly through conversations of a past life where the conflict between telling the truth about the gods or spreading their worship was more central. This adds to a basic feeling of unimportance around the last truth.

Conclusions

Pillars of Eternity has an interesting story. However, it was a little too dark, hopeless and "unlikeable" for me. As well, it has one "reveal" too many. The last reveal, rather than enhancing the story as whole, undermines and weakens the previous reveal, as well as the motivations and actions of the main villain.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Exchange of Material

I've been thinking about Magic: the Gathering lately. One thing I've been musing about is the complexity of "fat" creatures, that is creatures with toughness greater than power.

For reference, creatures in Magic have power and toughness. When one creature blocks a second creature, they deal damage equal to their power. If that damage is higher than the toughness, the creature dies. Two important differences between Magic and Hearthstone. First, in Magic the defender chooses which creatures block (or not block) which attacker. Second, damage done to a creature is wiped away at end of turn. It isn't permanent like in Hearthstone.

In any case, consider a very simple board. Jane has a 2/2, and Sally has a 2/2. Jane attacks with her 2/2. Now Sally has a choice: she can either take 2 damage, or block with her 2/2. If she blocks, both creatures will die. It will be an even exchange of material.

A similar situation happens if Sally has two 2/2 creatures. She can block, but will still exchange material.

However, let's consider what happens if all the creatures are 2/3 creatures. In the first scenario, if Jane attacks, Sally simply blocks and both creatures bounce off each other. There's possibility of a simple exchange here.

In the second scenario, it becomes foolish for Jane to attack. Sally would block with both 2/3 creatures, and kill Jane's creature without losing one of her own.

Simply adding that extra point of toughness makes exchanges less likely. But exchanges are good for the game. They simplify the game state. The high toughness creatures lead to a more "stalled" board, which becomes more and more complicated.

High power doesn't display this. If the creatures where 3/2, exchanges would be just as prevalent.

I think it's good for PvP games to be able to exchange resources. Otherwise, the board state builds and builds, until one side gets a sudden advantage and overruns the other side.

I think healing plays a similar role in MMOs, especially PvP. It prevents the exchange of material until a certain threshold is met. For example, Eve PvP might be more interesting without logistics ships. An outnumbered force could attempt to come out slightly ahead in each exchange of material.

But with healers, you either have enough firepower to get past the healing, or you don't. Or you have enough crowd control to disrupt the healing long enough to kill something.

In any case, evenly exchanging material in PvP is good. Anything that makes exchanging material harder, even as small as a single point of toughness, should be considered very carefully.