One of things I maintain on this blog site is a “wish list”. It’s over there on the left side toolbar, at the top, red text on a green background (with no apologies to color blind readers). I typically keep this pretty much up-to-date with a variety of gift ideas. These are things I “want”, and even though I do have the financial wherewithal to buy them for myself I don’t “need” them, so they are gift ideas.
During the Holiday season last year, I received some duplicates. Specifically my Sister and my Mother both ordered the silent sweep wall clock that I had been lusting after for several years. We all got a good laugh out of that since I had been “wishing” for this clock for at least five years, and then when I got one, I ended up with two!!
Anyway, I kept the one my Sister bought and my Mother volunteered to send hers back to amazon for a refund or a gift card. Well, she surprised me by trading it in for a game that I had on my list: Nike+ Kinect Training. It arrived a couple of weeks into January, but we’ve been dealing with several minor disasters in the last few months, so I really didn’t even look at it until March. Well, I’ve finished my first 4-week training session with it and wanted to post my impressions.
In a nutshell, it's a really good product and great at what it does. If you have an Xbox360 and a kinect, and have any desire to “get in shape”, there are a lot of worse options. For example, playing Dance Central, while fairly taxing from an aerobic standpoint, is not going to be nearly as effective, nor as quick, as Nike+.
The first session with Nike+ is a kind of “evaluation”. The game asks you to so some basic exercises and stretches as a baseline. It does a pretty good job of making it impossible to “cheat” since the kinect sensor is what is evaluating you. It’s doesn’t really let you lie and say “Oh sure, I can jump three feet to the left while clearing a 6-inch hurdle!” or “Yeah, running in place for 90 seconds is easy!” You might think you can, but when it comes down to brass tacks, you probably can’t.
Once you finish the evaluation, the game allows you to select a main goal and then tells you how you stack up against other players in your same age group. The idea here is that the “competitive” athlete/gamer is going to want to try and increase their score over time. Frankly, I found it pretty demoralizing. A typical “easy run” for me is a quick 6 mile run. I bicycle to work at least one day a week. I’ve completed a half-ironman triathlon in the last decade. In my mind, I’m generally pretty fit for my age. But, according to my evaluation, I scored in the bottom 1/3 of players my age. That doesn’t encourage me to play more, it makes me depressed!
Once you get into the main game, the workouts in Nike+ are really well balanced. Depending on what goal you have selected, there are strength workouts that use your body weight as resistance, flexibility workouts, and cardio/aerobic workouts. Even though the workouts can be as short as 25 minutes, you will sweat!!
A lot of the exercises are a lot of fun too! There is one where you stand in the middle of your room and virtual walls come from one side or another, with a small “gap” or space. The goal is to move your body to avoid the walls. It’s a lot harder than you would think, but it’s a lot of fun. Another interesting one is “dodgeball”, where the game throws virtual soccer balls at your on-screen avatar. Rather than moving a joystick or D-pad to dodge, you have to actually move your body to avoid being hit. Fun!!
BUT (and there is always a big but):
The game really expects you to be in reasonably good fitness and fairly flexible before you start. There is no (so-called) couch-to-fit workout. As I mentioned, I’m in pretty good shape for my age, and some of these workouts are very difficult for me. I actually had to stop doing some of these routines because I just plain ran out of air. And the supposed "cooldown" stretches are simply a non-starter. As a runner/cyclist/triathlete, I have really tight hamstrings; I had one real life personal trainer describe my legs as “like a bowstring”. I just don’t have the flexibility to do many of these things.
The most eggregious problem is that the workout will not adjust the workouts to accommodate a chronic injuries. After over a decade of running, coupled with poor posture and ergonomics of working in an office, I have a bad left knee. But the game still expects me to do to deep knee squats and deep lunges. While some people might say “no pain, no gain”, I’ve found that to be wrong. Plus, we’re not talking about “oh that’s a little sore” kind of pain here. When I tweak my left knee, it’s more like “rolling on the floor screaming” kind of agony. I’ll often get a zero score on some exercises simply because they aren't possible for me to do. In one notable session, I quit the game in frustration because it gave me several things to do that I could not complete, and then after 20+ minutes of not-working-out, it asked if I wanted to do another set! No, I don’t want to waste my time doing pointless stretches that I can’t do!
Finally, there is the kinect tracking itself. Most of the time it is pretty usable, but occasionally it just goes wonky. It will sometimes tell me to "slow down" when I'm already motionless, or miss me doing a rep of something I've done perfectly, or count a rep of something I didn't do. It might tell me to “go lower” when I’m sitting on the floor, or ask me to move my feet further apart when I’m already spread-eagled. Sometimes I just need to turn slightly without changing my position or form and suddenly I’m “doing it right”. While the tracking is better than pretty much every other kinect game I’ve played, it’s far from perfect.
Despite these pretty significant drawbacks, it is a really fun and challenging workout routine. It’s definitely not as good or as valuable as having a real life personal trainer that can adjust the workouts to accommodate different failings and strengths. I’m also kind of mystified why such a product exists at all. It’s really targeted at the casual “hard core” athlete, who happens to own an XBox360 and a kinect (a real ‘hardcore’ athlete would be paying for a real personal trainer). I just don’t see this game having a large market.
Having said all of that, if you’re looking for a fun workout game – or if you’re playing Dance Central to “get in shape” – you should definitely give this one a spin. Now that summer is here, I’ll probably be playing this less and going outside more, but when the weather starts getting cooler in the Fall, you can be sure I’ll be picking this up again!
I recently finished both of these outstanding games and I wanted to talk a bit about them with respect to one another. If you’re a skimmer and don’t care to read the massive wall-of-text that is in front of you, let me say this up front and save you some time: I liked Tomb Raider better. Why I liked it better is a much more complex issue. So let’s compare the two games. (This is a *SPOILER FREE* comparison.)
Tomb Raider is a complete reboot of the 1996 franchise of the same name. I played about half of the original Tomb Raider game when it was first released, but never finished it. I was a 30-year old man at the time and the supposed draw of a low polygon-count pneumatic Lara Croft wasn’t enough to encourage me to play any of the successive games. The new reboot is a new storyline that does not require any knowledge of the prior games, nor is it a continuation of any of the storylines. Essentially, other than being connected by name, it is a new game.
Bioshock Infinite is the followup to the Bioshock games originally released in 2007, with a sequel in 2010. I did not play either of those games, but as a gamer I am familiar with the basic setting and storylines of both. This new game is set in a completely new environment and doesn’t depend on the earlier games in either story or background information. Essentially, other than being connected by name, it is a new game.
Games, like all entertainment, really need to have a strong initial hook. The first few minutes of gameplay are crucial in getting the player involved with the game. There are lots of different ways of accomplishing this. Tomb Raider has great hook, Bioshock Infinite does not.
Both games start in a rainstorm.
Tomb Raider opens with a two and a half minute long action-packed cutscene that shows you a massive disaster, a near-drowning, and a shipwreck, before the titles even come up. The player doesn’t even have control until three and a half minutes into the game and does not know the details of the games backstory or the various character’s motivations, but it is crystal clear that some Bad Stuff™ is happening. When the player is given control, the very first thing you see is the heroine hanging upside down in a kind of meat larder. Without any exposition at all, it is obvious that goals are to escape and survive. Standing still and doing nothing doesn’t seem like a good option since, based on the initial cutscene and current situation, it seems like that will result in a Very Bad Thing™. You’re literally less than 5 minutes into the game and already you have some real motivation to play the game.
Bioshock Infinite starts in a dinghy being rowed towards a lighthouse. You are forced to listen to some inane chatter between two NPCs in the rowboat with you, and while what they say is moderately important to the story (once you know it) it isn’t interesting and you really don’t have enough information (yet) to understand what in the hell they are talking about. (Watching it after you finish the game, you can see what is going on, but on an initial playthrough… no.) After more inane (and initially meaningless) exposition, you are given the direction: “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.” What girl? What debt? Why should I care? Even when you reach Columbia, the motivation to continue seems tenuous at best. The first few hours of the game are more of the same. Long exposition pieces that eventually make sense, a seemingly open world to explore, but no real reason to care about it.
This is an aspect where Tomb Raider stands out far ahead of Bioshock Infinite. I played both of these games on a mid-range PC. Tomb Raider’s crazy hair TressFX were disabled by default, but I played the original Doom on a machine that could barely pump out 20 frames per second. I turned TressFX on the first chance I could, and while it did impact my framerate, it was still a very playable 40 to 60 frames per second.
Bioshock Infinite seemed like it was using a graphics engine from last decade. Aside from the main characters, all of the NPC models look creepy and fake. (Hello from the Uncanny Valley!) Exposition is handled by having the characters speak during the game, which removed jarring cutscenes, but at times in the game there was overlapping dialoge which led to me missing story points. The overall texture quality seemed to be mediocre, but they were well applied and did not alias or tear. The ambient NPCs and enemies only seemed to come in one or two flavors, and while the overall enemy count was probably higher than Tomb Raider, you only fought one or two “types” at a time, giving the impression that they were all Bad Guy Clones. The environment was actually the high-point of the graphics, but that very pretty background scenery was just that: background scenery that didn’t have any real impact on the experience and definitely did not make up for the poor rendering.
On the other hand, the character models in Tomb Raider had very high poly counts and looked very realistic, almost movie-like. Textures were well-rendered and there was minimal artifacting or tearing. There were a few cases where “creepy eye” syndrome was apparent, but it was rare. Cutscenes appeared to have been rendered with the in-game engine (albeit with the settings set to maximum) so they did not feel very disjointed or out-of-place. Enemy models had a lot of variety and it very rarely felt like you were fighting enemies from the Bad Guy Press-O-Matic factory, and the environmental effects were well done. The only real graphical complaints I had were that the shadows cast by the TressFX were a bit too blocky and led to some really bad artifacting on Lara’s face at times (it sometimes looked like a really bad scar or a dark colored zipper), and that the physics engine did not deal with water effects very well during the game’s many sections where a character was wading. One section of the game (about one-third in) had me literally shaking from fear due to the environmental graphics.
Map design and gameplay
Both of these games fall into the general bucket of First Person Shooters, but they play very differently. For reference, I played both games on “normal” difficulty.
Tomb Raider is a fairly short game, but it has a lot of optional side content for the meticulous player. Basically, the core gameplay in Tomb Raider is a shooter. The maps are well designed to “feel” open, with large unobstructed areas allowing for a lot of mobility. The areas of the game that take place in smaller, constrained spaces never felt like the player was pinned down, unable to move into a more advantageous position, or limiting in playstyle. The gated content was well done, with obvious connections between areas, but it never felt artificial or manufactured. Optional content was off to the side, but never really hidden. Depending on the player it was easy to experience or ignore.
Each map section was fairly large with only minimal loading screens, adding to the feel of a unified world.
One of the things I really liked about the map design in Tomb Raider were the “timed” sections. When Bioshock infinite wanted you to move along quickly, it would have an NPC urging you on and played very dramatic fast-paced music. But in reality, if you put down your controller and walked away, nothing would happen. The urgent mucis would continue playing and the NPC would keep calling out “Hurry! We need to get there!” In Tomb Raider, when you hit a section where you had to move quickly, if you didn’t move (usually in less than a second) the game would kill you. Hanging from a burning rope above a spike trap? If you don’t jump to a nearby ledge before that happens, the rope burns through and you die. This led to me reacting very quickly in some situations, usually without the time to completely consider my options, just taking the first visible opportunity to survive. This was extremely fun and injected an interesting challenge into the game.
Enemy battles were generally pretty well balanced. Ammo was plentiful and easy enough to find, and I was usually full. When a fight was designed to be an ammo sink, it worked pretty well and I would have to start thinking about making shots count in the next fight or until I hit the next ammo store. Occasionally I would run out of ammo for my “favorite” weapon(s) and be forced to fall back on one that I was less proficient with or less ideal for the fight, adding to the challenge. But that situation would be remedied quickly at the next ammo supply.
Bioshock Infinite, on the other hand, is a longer game with almost no optional content. As a result, the map design felt very linear and tightly constrained. I always felt like I was trapped in a very small map with connectors to other very small maps. Loading screens popped up frequently, making the world feel much more segmented. Even the layout of the maps seemed archaic. Whenever I came to a fork in the road, I had to force myself to take the path I would not have normally have chosen; my instinct was to pick the path that moved me into the next area. I believe the intent of the map was to deceive the player into going the “wrong” way and then having them backtrack to the less obvious “correct” way, but in this case the map designer missed the whole “less obvious“ part of that concept.
Fighting seemed to be all or nothing. Small, ambient fights were so trivial that it wasn’t uncommon to come out of the fight with more ammo than when you started. On the other hand, some of the larger fights required magical, unexplained (or expected) triggers to complete. For example, there are at least three fights with infinitely respawning enemies that continue until the player takes a specific action, targets a specific enemy or passes a certain point on the map. Nowhere in the game are these triggers shown or explained. Basically, the player learns about them by dying and repeating the same fight again and again (with less ammo each time!) until they stumble across the “secret”. By changing the “trick” in each fight, the player is corralled into changing their gamestyle in order to progress. One fight requires a Rush to get past, another requires Stealth, and third requires Sniping.
The final battle in particular was extremely frustrating to me. Some of the earlier boss battles were challenging, but I was forced to repeat that final battle no fewer than twenty times and look up hints on the internet before I managed to beat it. To be honest, I’m not certain I could do it again.
In my opinion, Tomb Raider is a much better designed game.
Another reason Bioshock Infinite feels like a game from the last decade is the weapon system. While there are about a dozen different weapon types in the game. The player only has access to two of them at any given time. In order to pick up a different weapon, you need to drop one of the two you are carrying. While this is supposed to present a tactical decision, what it really ends up meaning is that once you pick your favorite weapons you end up using them for the remainder of the game. Since I never really knew what was around the next corner, I ended up using the most flexible weapons (for me, the machine gun and the sniper rifle) 90% of the time. The only time I switched away from these two was when I ran out of ammo for one or the other. Even then about half the time I just suffered along with a dead weapon until I found ammo for it.
The “special power” alt-fire abilities functioned the same way. Even though you had a handful of these to choose from, you only had one active and one swap ability. (The others are available on a menu.) And similar to the weapons, once you settle in on a favorite Vigor (as they are called) you will rarely, if ever, use any of the others. This is compounded even more by the fact that ALL of the special abilities use the same “ammo”. If you run out of salts, you can’t use ANY of them, so if you have salt, you might as well use your favorite one.
Tomb Raider is much more forgiving with weapons selection. Even though there are fewer of them overall, once you acquire a weapon, you have access to it. (There are a few places where the game strips all your weapons, but you get them back pretty quickly.) Switching between weapons is quick and painless, allowing the player to use the best weapon for the task at hand. The player can switch from a sniper, to close combat, to knockbacks, to flame attacks with fluidity, even within the same fight. Have a one-shot “open the can” type situation? Pull out the pistol, take the shot and swap back in less than a second, saving “important” ammo. This really allows the player to play the game they want to play, rather than the game that the designer decided was appropriate (or required) for the situation. Even the boss battles allow the use of any weapon type.
I found myself making a lot more tactical decisions (and having more fun) with Tomb Raider’s system, so it wins in this respect as well.
(NOTE : I will not be spoiling either story here, so if you haven’t played the games, you’re safe reading.)
The story in Tomb Raider is pretty much a throwaway excuse for a bunch of people to be shooting at you. That doesn’t mean it’s a dull or uninteresting story, but it is pretty predictable. Most of the really neat parts of the story are told in optional ways; only the bare minimum to get you to the climax is revealed in mandatory cutscenes. If you just go through the game with the goal of finishing it and don’t seek out all of the optional books, puzzles and trinkets, you won’t even know much of the backstory or the motivations of the characters (including the main antagonist). On the other hand, if you do make the effort to find all of the story tidbits, there is an amazing amount of background material available that paints a fairly robust (albeit unoriginal) backdrop for both the antagonists and the environment.
Bioshock Infinite’s story starts off extremely slowly. The vast majority of it is non-optional, with only minor story elements being “off the track”. Even if the player isn’t interested in the story, it will be force fed to them, willing or not. And, oh my, what a story it is! This is easily the strongest point of Bioshock Infinite. As you play the game and the plot unwinds, amazing things happen. This story starts to suck you in and makes you want to see what happens next. (Something that the game design itself never does.) When you finally reach the climax, you may think you know how it is going to end, but (unless someone has spoiled it for you) you will NOT see this ending coming. This is the kind of complicated story, dealing with very human elements, that will leave you thinking about it for days after you finish.
As much fun as the Tomb Raider story was, Bioshock Infinite is BY FAR a better narrative. Both are entertaining, but one is a “movie” that you go see and enjoy, while one is a “film” that has you considering the different character’s motivations for days afterwards. Tomb Raider’s story is a fun-filled adventure that we all can enjoy; Bioshock Infinite’s story is one that leaves one questioning if they would have made the same decisions or if the characters did the right thing. We fantasize about being an actor in one, and agonize over the choices we made in the other.
The last-decade gameplay and graphics, poor enemy balance and slow plot development really turned me off to Bioshock infinite. I never really felt like I -had- to get back to the game to complete it. I felt like I was grinding out the game to see the story. Even though the story was well worth it in the end, the game never really felt “real” to me. The motivation to “bring us the girl and wipe away the debt” never really hit home for me. I never really cared about Booker until the finale’s big reveal.
Tomb Raider, on the other hand, pulled me in right away. I felt invested in Lara’s character immediately. The game triggered my survival instinct fomr the frist few seconds. The background story, while unoriginal, was pretty well developed and revealed at a good pace. Map design felt fresh and exciting and enemy balance kept me on my toes without being overly difficult or easy. While I was running through this game I always felt as if I wanted to continue playing it, not just finish it for the sake of finishing.
Both are great games, but for very different reasons. As I mentioned in the opening, I preferred Tomb Raider to Bioshock Infinite. (As of this writing Bioshock Infinite has a metacritic score of 95/100, and Tomb Raider is ranked at 86/100.)
This posting is a result of a comment
made by a GW2 player
. GuildWars2 is running a month-long "april fools" gag that is a throwback to the 8-bit games of your youth. I say "your youth" because even though I was playing video games at that time, I completely missed the 8-bit gaming era.
I was playing video games on home systems like the Atari VCS and ColecoVision in the very early 1980s, then switched to online gaming in 1986. While all the kiddies were going ga-ga over their silly super mario B.S., I was shooting down people in AirWarrior (Kesmai, 1986), tossing fireballs and lighting bolts at wizards in OrbWars (Simutronics, 1987), glomping along as a self-healing tank in Dragon's Gate (AUSI, 1990), and playing against Real People in countless other modem-connected games. When Ultima Online was released in 1997 I was already a 10-year veteran of online gaming. I was sucked into EverQuest the day it released.
I didn't circle back to consoles until the PS3 was released in 2007. Today I have a PS3, an XBox360 and a Nintendo Wii nestled under my 50-inch plasma TV, with an easy way to set up a PC system and use the TV as a display. My PC is not a top-of-the-line system, but it is definitely better than average. I am no longer able to boast that I am a hardcore online gamer simply because I have more varied interests than I did when I was in my late teens and early 20s, and thus devote less time to playing them.
My point is that 8-bit "nostagia" is completely lost on me. It doesn't exist. I don't look back on the nintendo-era with longing. I play online games for the competitve aspect, not because I want to recapture some bygone era of my youth. Quite frankly, when I was in that age-group, I could not wait for the future!! In 1986, while all of those cracked-out hyper-kids were learning controler codes, I was dreaming of the day when a world-wide network would exist, with data rates in the hundreds of kilobits per second and sub-second latency! To me, the high-point of my gaming "career" was in late 2000 when I was asked to be a Phase 1 alpha tester for DAoC, exactly one year prior to it's release! I played DAoC fulltime and nonstop. When it was released, I logged in 5-8 hours a day during the week (while holding down a full time job) and was online 12 to 14 hours a day on weekends. As a tester, I already had the client when the game went live so I was able to log in a good 12 hours before regular players got in. Anyone who was playing at release on the Percival server would recognize the name of my character.
That was pretty much all I played until mid-2007. I made several month-long excursions into other games, one of which was the original Guild Wars, but DAoC always called me back. I was internet-famous (which, I know from experience, means next-to-nothing), and I had a close connection to many of the Devs. I won't claim to have had any control over development decisions, but I know from speaking to many of the people involved that they actually considered my voice to be as valuable as any designer of the game. Near the end, I was actually allowed to design an end-game weapon which became the "go to" choice for my class within a day after it was added to the game. Those are the memories and times that I
long for and look back on with pride. Not jumping.
I'm not a jumper. I play the jumping puzzles in GuildWars2 for one reason, and one reason only: they grant 5 to 10 acheivement points each. They are, as the saying goes, a means to an end. I don't enjoy them and They. Are. Not. Fun.
I will complete this stupid "super" puzzle thing (just like I completed the Halloween jumping puzzle and the Holiday jumping puzzle) because it grants acheivement points. I won't enjoy it. In fact, I've been dreading
this content. The entire 8-bit look (to me) is a reminder of a time when the games I wanted to play just weren't ready yet; when a "high speed" connection was a 2400 baud modem and 1250ms latency times; when I was paying $6 per hour in online fees and the several months where my monthly bill was in excess $1000. These are not things I want to remember. It doesn't make me go "Oh, cool!" It makes me go "Oh, no!"
To the people who say "but this is optional content; you don't need to do it" I would like you to show me how to get those acheivement points without doing this content. I would like you to show me how to get these (so called) exclusive skins without farming PvE for hours upon hours. PvE players can get Badges (the rewards from killing other players in WvW) without actually killing other players, by doing a jumping puzzle
. Where are my jumping puzzle rewards from killing other players? Or from doing anything OTHER than a jumping puzzle? Why is it that they can get WvW rewards from doing PvE content, but when it's a PvE gating issue, suddenly it's "optional content" that doesn't need to be completed? How can I get those rewards without doing the tedous, annoying and difficult PvE puzzles? sPvP? WvW?? Why not??!?
May 1st can't come soon enough.
Recently I read another gamer’s blog
linked to me on G+
I'm nearly 15 years older than the author and I both agree and completely disagree with his blog.
I agree that no game will ever recreate that "first time" feeling, but I disagree that gamer ennui is the result of getting older or from limited play time. It's not that things were better or brighter or shinier or less expensive or more fun when we were younger. If you have kids, or even if you know some kids, try showing them some of the games that you found so compelling when you started playing them. I would be very surprised if their reaction isn't along the lines of "Really? You thought this was fun
I hit my own personal gaming doldrums around 2005. I was wandering around on the show floor at E3 in Los Angeles, a virtual video gaming nirvana, and all I could think was "another FPS", "another RTS", "another platformer".... Despite being surrounded by the best new games that were coming out in the next year or so, I was so jaded that I really couldn't see the improvements in gameplay. All I saw was the same old gameplay wrapped up in prettier graphics.
The real problem is unrealistic expectations.
We older gamers are jaded and cynical. We've seen the "man behind the green curtain" (how's that for an old
reference, eh?) and we recognize the tricks that developers use to make games seem fun when they are really just padding lackluster content. But many new games actually ARE offering new and improved gaming experiences. Better NPC AI, more involved and emotionally touching stories, more dynamic scripting, and, yes, better graphics.
You're NEVER going to recapture that "first time" feeling. But that doesn't mean that today’s new games can't be just as engaging and fulfilling as new games were when you first started playing them. When you start with the expectation that a new game is going to be as compelling as the very first MMO you played (Ultima Online, EverQuest, or for most people, World of Warcraft), or the very first RTS (Dune, Command and Conquer or WarCraft III), or the very first platformer (Super Mario Bros for most people), or the very first ANYTHING… you're already setting yourself up for failure. It's just not going to happen!
That’s not to say that new game types don’t pop up occasionally. I mean look at the original Portal (which really doesn’t qualify as a “new” game any longer). When it was released in 2007 (six years ago!) there was nothing like it. It was heralded as a groundbreaking new game type. And it was. It was new, it was original and even though it was still a FPS type game it really did recapture that “first time” feeling. Similarly, we’ve seen new “first time” games in the RTS genre with the MOBA style games. But those games are going to be few and far between.
Some of the difference is
the actual games. Today's games aren't designed to be long-term investments of time. Oh sure, there will be a very small percentage of players who will get “hooked” on a specific game and play it until they master it. But generally speaking, even the triple-A games of today are designed to be completed in six to ten hours of gameplay. For a “hardcore” adult gamer, that is going to be anywhere from one to five sessions with a game. Assuming you are setting aside about an hour a day for gaming related pursuits, you’re probably going to burn through a game in a matter of a few days. Regardless of how much hype is developed about the newest title, the marketplace is pushing developers into smaller, tighter and shorter games. The expectation of a long-term “relationship” with a new game is just not realistic in today’s game market.
The real key to getting maximum enjoyment from a new game today is not to look for the long-term play, or a brand new experience. You don’t go to a movie or watch a TV show with the expectation of a life-changing experience, or to become a fanboy/girl. You expect to be entertained for a couple of hours, and maybe have something to think about for a day or so afterwards. We always wanted our video games to be more like movies and TV shows, and guess what? We got that. Games are no longer life-sucking vortices that will happily vacuum up every free moment of your time. Instead, today’s games are spot entertainment that can be enjoyed after a long day at the office and eating dinner with our families, or for a few hours on the weekend when we’re done with the kids’ soccer game or mucking out the garden beds or taking a long bike ride with our Real Life friends.
If you go into a new game with the expectation of being entertained and nothing more, you’ll find that the games today are no worse than the games of our youth. And, in many respects, are actually quite a bit better.
This seems to be the season for gushing about Guild Wars 2, and I haven’t posted a blog in a long while. Plus my head feels like it is full of dead bugs and oil blackened cooking oil. So here we go.
For those who aren’t completely familiar with the Guild Wars 2 World-versus-World-versus-World (aka WvW; wuvwuv; or DubVDub), the way it works is this: All of the game servers are placed into brackets of three. Each of these matchups battle over four complete zones, each of which is big enough to take about 5 to 10 minutes to run across. Each particular zone has about a dozen control points (castles, towers, and the like) that earn varying amounts of “points” for the server that controls them. After two weeks, the points are totaled up, and the server matchups are re-sorted so that winning servers fight against winning server and losing servers fight against losing servers. There’s a lot of nuance that I’m leaving out, but that is not the point of my discussion, and there is plenty of information on the inner strategies of WvW elsewhere. The takeaway here is that there are three (relatively balanced) "teams" and the areas are HUGE.
So here is one of the fun little things that happened to me this week.
I was playing in the Eternal Battlegrounds (the “neutral” zone out of the four). I had just zoned in and popped open the map to get an overview of the fight. I saw a few crossed swords not too far from my location, and a Commander icon sitting outside of an enemy tower that was under attack, only about a minute’s run away.
Now this particular tower is a bit unique in that the approach comes up on the “back” of the tower, and the front gates are on the opposite side from the main road. It’s build into a steep hillside, and the “front gate” is accessed from a small level plain. The only way to get to the front gate is to climb a narrow set of steps right along the outer wall, or to go way around the too-steep-to-climb hill.
I’m frantically checking my map every few seconds as I run. I can see on the map (and hear in the map-chat) that my team is about to breach the gate. Typically when the gate goes down, there is a furious melee and then the tower will be captured in a matter of only a handful of seconds. So, I’m scrambling to get there as fast as I can.
As I climb the steps, suddenly an enemy player drops over the tower walls right in front of me. They had seen that the tower was lost and were making an exit out the back. I was so shocked I didn’t even have time to react before he was up and running. I wheeled around, but by the time I had recovered from my surprise, he was long gone. So I turned back to the tower and started up the steps again.
Once again, an enemy player dropped right into my sights. Only this time, he wasn’t alone. This time, there were four of them, and they were looking for an easy kill while they fled from their obvious demise. They took a few swings at me, but I’m moderately defensively built and I knew they weren’t interested in a protracted fight, so I just played a delaying tactic and generally kept moving up the steps.
By this time the gates had gone down, the tower had been captured (Darn, I missed it!) and my team had swept in. The zerg crashed over us as we fought and washed the few enemies away. I joined the zerg and we flooded down the road towards the closest supply camp.
For the next few minutes, what followed was unexciting zerg surfing. We crashed into the supply camp and captured it in seconds. The small group of defenders was downed almost instantly. The zerg turned towards the next tower and started running….
Along the way, the commander that was (supposedly) leading the zerg took a right turn. The zerg, of course, being a mindless horde, didn’t notice and kept trucking down the road. I stopped to follow the commander, along with one other person. The three of us climbed a small rise into a cave that ran behind the enemy tower that the zerg was swarming towards. As I crested the hill and got a view of the interior of the cave, I saw red names. First one or two, then five… no, more! I immediately flipped around and started fleeing. There was no way the three of us were going to survive this many enemy players. My only chance was to get back to the zerg and hope they noticed.
Luckily, I only had to run for a heartbeat. Somehow, the zerg had finally noticed the commander had peeled off and they were coming to our position. When the friendly zerg came over that small hill, I was awash in friendly green names. Again, I turned. Battle was about to be joined! (Open-field fights are always my favorites because of the mobility they offer. I’ve always been a player who hunts around the edges of a big fight.)
Imagine my surprise when I turned to see that the enemy zerg was MUCH larger than I had thought. There were at least 100 enemy players! Way too many for our zerg to handle, but we were going to chip off a few. But wait, their nameplates were different…
Unbeknownst to me the few enemies I had seen coming out of the tunnel weren’t charging in to fight us, they were running for their lives from the third server zerg, right behind them. When our force appeared, they were sandwiched between two enemy teams. Instantly chaos erupted. There were at least three times as many enemy players as there were friendly ones, but the enemies were fighting each other as well as us! In fact, it was obvious that we were the smallest force in the fight. All of the heavy DPS jumped right in and started swinging. Our ranged players spread out and were firing like mad.
I jinked to the right to get out of the main furball. I’m not sure how it happened, but I found myself on the flank of the enemy backline. I found a player with low health, hit leap, snare, frenzy, and they went down. 1-1/2 seconds later, I had a kill and two Badges. I looked up and lo and behold another player with low health, trying to exit the fight, right in front of me. Leap, snare, swing, bleed, and down they go!
The fight went on like this for about two minutes. My timing was perfect, and every time I was looking for an ability it was available. Kill one, pop a 5 second buff, leap and attack another. Swing a few times, dump conditions, debuff them, and that’s credit for another kill! I was right where I loved being, on the outskirts of a three-way mashup, and given a license to kill with impunity. No one was paying attention to the lone warrior.
All in all, I got credit for ten kills and never went down a single time. Our zerg, despite being smaller, was able to take advantage of the other two team’s inattention to us (and their single-minded focus on killing each other) to win the day.
Is it just me, or am I amazing?
After the Thanksgiving holiday I came down with a horrible horrible cold. While I was busy being brutally sick I played one of the unplayed games that was on my Steam list. In this case the game was a very “noir” style game called LIMBO. I played the demo when it was first released and bought the game when it was on sale several months ago, but I had never actually played it. LIMBO is very reminiscent of a much older video game called Another World. That game came out just as the modern “story” games were starting to make an appearance.
Way back in the dawn of coin-op video games, there was no way to “win”. Ever. If you were very very good, you might be able to play for a goodly long time. But there was no “end” to the game; it would just get progressively harder and harder to continue until you ran out of virtual lives and you walked away. There was no incentive for designers to give the player any way to “finish” the game. In fact, they would go to enormous lengths to make sure that the player did not win, and kept pumping quarters into the coin box.
There were a few outliers, like one infamous laserdisc powered game that asked the player to complete 30 randomly ordered “screens” to get to the end and rescue the Princess. And there was the Adventure game on the Atari VCS where you controlled a red square trying to kill a green squiggle with a black line. But there were few and far between. The vast majority of games were games that you were guaranteed to lose.
As personal computers started making inroads into home entertainment, game designers started designing “story” games. At first these were role playing beasts, intended for the hardcore grognards that grew up on the original Dungeons and Dragons (and had barely outgrown it). As more powerful graphics processors started to make an appearance, we started to see action/adventure type games appear. Another World was one of the first side-scrolling adventure type games and it has since been ported to pretty much every computer system ever created.
Keep in mind that Another World was designed when many game developers still thought that games were supposed to be unbeatable. While it is not a difficult game to beat (I think I ran through the whole thing in a handful of hours) it was brutal in terms of the player body count. After the initial cutscene, the player’s first action had to be performed in 5 seconds or the main character would die. On the second screen, there were at least two different ways to kill the character. The idea was that the player was going to die, and die a lot. But it was never an unfair death, and each time they would learn something. “Oh, those little worms have poison claws!” Splat! “Oh, that lion can jump further than me!” Whoof! “Hey, that alien man has a personal shield he can shoot me through!” ZZAP!!
Anyway, the reason for this little trip down memory lane is to illustrate why I really enjoyed LIMBO. It isn’t a difficult game, but your little character is going to die, over and over again, usually in brutal and horrendous ways. It will never be an unfair death, but it will almost always be something that you didn’t expect. Once you know that tall grass can conceal a bear traps, you can easily jump over them, but until you know what to look for… well, let’s just say that it will be a learning experience.
Almost all of the puzzles are extremely logical and are pretty obvious. That’s not to say that they are trivial. For example, one of the first puzzles is to use a log to cross a pool of (deadly) water. The problem is that the log is at the top of a tree that you’ve already passed before you get to the water. That you can only climb by jumping up to a cleverly concealed rope hanging from one of the tree’s branches. The clever part is that the rope looks like just so much background environment imagery that many players will look right at it and not see it at all. With the exception of one notable mechanic, the game does a great job of teaching the player what they need to know in order to solve each puzzle. Anyone who was able to complete Portal will likely be able to figure most of these out. (I did have to resort to “cheating” on one puzzle, but I’d like to think that was because my disease-addled brain wasn’t seeing the answer. At least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.)
The game world is done in faded sepia tones and really has a “creepy” kind of vibe. When the occasional splash of color appears, it really stands out (as intended). There really isn’t any introduction to the “story” (such as it is) but it only takes a few minutes of play to realize that your goal is somewhere “that way”, the guys with the bows are “bad” and there are a LOT of ways to die. Eventually you will find out what you’re after, only to have it snatched away from you at least once. By the time the game winds to its conclusion, the reward you get is well worth it.
Overall, it was a fun game and a good investment of an afternoon.
People have funny ideas about what it means when an MMO "fails". In particular I’m thinking about two very specific “failed” MMOs that have been released in the last few years. Warhammer: Age of Reckoning (aka WAR) and Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR). Interestingly, aside from both having a colon in their name, they both were published by Electronic Arts.
WAR, for all of its flaws, was not a "failure" for EA. It made back all of their invested money in initial box sales and then some. Right now, as long as they have enough subs to pay for the network connection and the handful of people left maintaining it, it is still a "success".
I’ve “worked” (ie volunteered time as a stunt dev) on MMO products for over ten years. When a game goes into maintenance mode at the end of its commercial life, it really only takes a few people to run the thing. A skeleton crew is usually going to be one server guy who does the coding/scripting, an artist, and one real “dev” (who is usually a mid-level manager in charge of the team and takes the blame from upper management and also plays community face as a side job). On average, they probably are paid about $100k each per year, for a total outlay of $25k per month.
Commercial office space isn’t cheap, but a small team doesn’t need a lot of room. A 600 sq ft office would allow for two “private” offices (one of which doubles as the company “conference room”) and a small cube farm with 4 8x8 cubes. In a major metro area, commercial space rents can be as high as $5 a foot for primo space. Still, even assuming the worst, that is only $3000 a month in office rent.
Network connections, server hardware, and technical upkeep is practically free on these games; they are usually going to be piggy-backed onto a newer, faster, shinier game and get the hand-me-downs. Still, there are some minor maintenance costs: office supplies for the staff and whatnot. For the sake of argument, let’s assume around $1k per month.
That bring the total “cost” to maintain an older MMO s only $30k per month. Assuming they are still selling subscriptions at $15/month, that means they really only need about 2000 active subs to break even.
An older, niche game like WAR is sure to have a solid ~20k subscribers. That’s about 1/600th the subscriber base of WoW. If you look at it from a bitter ex-gamer perspective, you might say that such a small market share is a complete and unmitigated failure. Clearly their product sucks, since they can’t even boast to have a 1% share of the overall space. But, at $15 per sub, and with almost no overhead at all, those 20,000 subscribers generate around $270,000 of profit every 30 days, or $9k every day. Personally, I would consider a product that pays back $9 every day to be the exact opposite of a failure!
SWTOR has a similar story.
SWTOR is an MMO which I had absolutely zero interest in from the day it was announced. I went to several of the big initial announcement’s made and BioWare never demonstrated to me that they were going to deliver anything other than a re-hashed WoW-clone... in a sci-fi setting... with more voice acting. (Which, as it turns out, was exactly what they delivered.) All the talk of the “third pillar” of gaming being story telling sounds great, and probably works wonderfully in a single-player game where the developers can control the pace and gameplay much better. But in an MMO? No so much.
MMO players are finicky, terrible people that will rip a design to shreds and optimize the hell out of progression. 99% of the content you design will be completely ignored. The remaining 1% will be played exclusively since it is the fastest/easiest path to the best part of the game (whatever that is).
Despite creating a single player game in MMO clothes, BioWare still sold 1.7M boxes. Maybe it was on the shoulders of a grand old IP, but regardless they sold a lot of boxes. Even with a publisher's cut of only 50% of retail, that means EA pulled in a sweet $42.5M just in box sales!
And since the “average” player took about three months to figure out that they were paying a monthly fee for what is essentially a newer version of Knights of the Old Republic (now with more voice acting!) each of those 1.7M players poured an extra $45 into the pot.
As stupid as SWTOR turned out to be, it was profitable within a month after release. It made a boatload of money in the first three months. It _continues_ to be a profitable title for EA to this day. A failure? As an MMO, it most certainly was a failure. But as a money-making game? From a development standpoint, SWTOR was a smashing success.
Having said that, I personally don't play either of those game and I don’t recommend either one of them. Personally, I think that the DikuMUD MMO design paradigm has played out and I can’t see anyone choosing them when there are so many other, better choices in today’s marketplace. But just because a game isn't generating truckloads of money doesn't mean it is a "failure". There's plenty of room in the MMO-space for smaller niche titles too. And as long as there are enough players to support those smaller niche titles, they are going to continue to be successes in their own rights.
Guild Wars 2 has been released for over two weeks. To say that I’ve been playing it a lot would be an understatement. Even after taking an week away from the game for PAX, I’ve managed to get my “main” character up to level 49 and have completed all of the personal story quests up to level 54. (I finished the level 54 part last night.) While I really like the concept of the “personal story”, and it really is a great improvement over the static storylines found in the earlier Guild Wars games, it does have some rough spots.
I've found that the personal stories only tell you a tiny little piece of the overall story taking place in the game. This is true in many parts of the game, just as it is in life. We only see what we can see, and only experience what happens in the game world while we are there. The rest of the story keeps going without us, and a lot of other story plot items keep occurring when we are not present.
That’s not to say that one must be logged in continuously to see the whole picture. The pace of the story is completely dictated by the player and the amount of time they play. With respect to pacing, the “personal story” is a complete success! If I play for 20 hours straight over a single weekend, I can experience the first two “episodes” of my story. And if I take a week off from playing for a vacation in Seattle, when I log in a week later, the "my" story has not advanced without me; I pick right up where I left off.
But what does end up happening is that the larger meta-story is being told in multiple places, by multiple characters. This is similar to a typical high-fantasy book. Two well-known examples of this that come to mind almost instantly are the Lord of the Rings and the Wheel of Time series, but it's really true of almost any good story. In the Lord of the Rings, once the Fellowship is broken, there are several sub-stories that develop: Frodo and Samwise go to Mordor, Merry and Pipin are kidnapped by Uruk-Hai, and Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas persue them. In the Wheel of Time series, each of the main characters has their own story which contributes to the overall plot: Rand becomes the Dragon Reborn, Perrin comes to grip with being a wolfbrother, Mat adopts his past lives as a great general, Egwene becomes the Amerlin, Nynaeve becomes a… well, whatever. Each of these sub-story threads is separate and distinct, but each is an integral part of the overarching story. Since a book is a written media, we get to experience all of these distinct parts. Not simultaneously, but as invisible observers to the story we do get to see ALL of the pieces and parts of the overall story.
But we are actual characters in the story in GW2. We simply cannot be in all places, at all times. We can't experience the entire story. It's as if we were reading the Lord of the Rings or Wheel of Time, and we were only able to read a single sub-story of the entire book. The Lord of the Rings would be a lot less epic if we only followed Aragorn, and only found out what happened to Frodo, Sam and Smeagol as “background”. The Wheel of Time would be a lot less compelling if we only followed Rand’s story and the other main characters were simply people that we saw occasionally and didn't get to know intimately.
The upshot of this is that making different story choices and following multiple paths can result in wildly different stories. This is great for replay value since every playthrough of the personal story can be completely different. One time through you can follow Frodo and Sam, the next time you might follow Merry and Pippin, and the time after that you might be following Gimli and Legolas. There might be some parts of the story that are the same (the Fellowship, for example) but others might be completely different, and take place in areas of the world you didn’t even know existed on the first playthrough (Isengard vs. Mordor vs. Helm's Deep).
On the other hand, you never really understand what is going on in the bigger picture (and really not even in your own story) unless you play the game multiple times. There is just so much going on "off camera" that you really only see about 10% of the action. The rest is delivered in cutscenes, but that doesn't have near the impact or tangibility of avtually playing it. Being told "so-and-so fought a great battle in such-and-such place" is compeltely different from actualy being part of the battle and fighting next to the main character. (Especially when you almost lose, but then manage to succeed!)
Other story problems manifest in several ways.
In order to accommodate flexibility in player choice, the meta-story is broken into little pieces. The player gets to make several choices as they progress which selects which pieces they see. Continuing my prior examples, when the Fellowship breaks, the player chooses which character they will follow, or whenever two of the main characters in the Wheel of Time meet, the player can “switch” from one story thread to another. More or less, these switching points occur every ten levels, after three or four story missions. For the sake of discussion, I refer to these ten-level chunks of the story as “episodes”.
The episodic nature of the personal story is readily apparent when dealing with the major NPCs in the story. I’ll use an example from my character’s personal story. (WARNING: this paragraph will contain spoilers, skip to the next break if you want to preserve yourself.) I created a sylvari mesmer. One of my character creation questions asked me to choose what time of day I awakened, and I selected to awaken in the dawn. As a result of this choice, my level 10-20 episode dealt with a mini-story involving the Hylek and a major character in the meta-story, a sylvari Firstborn named Treehearn. I played alongside this NPC for several missions, and the spoken cutscenes told me that he was impressed by me and was going to be watching my progression. And yet, when he re-entered my “personal story” at level 50, my mentor introduced him to me, he was completely oblivious to our prior missions. He did not say “Oh yeah, I’ve met you and you’re doing great since we last adventured together.” Instead it was if we had never met and he had forgotten completely about me. All it would have taken to stitch together this discontinuity would have been a single line of dialog: “Yes, I’ve met him/her, back in Caledon Forest. I’m glad he/she is here to help.” Instead, it was a jarring discontinuity that really took me out of the game.
(That’s it for story spoilers; it’s safe to read again.)
Now I know WHY this is done. Other players will have experienced different low-level episodes from me and will probably not have met the same characters that I did. Thus, those NPCs won’t know those players and thus can’t “remember” them, since they’ve never met. Recording voice and animations for every possible combination of story choice is probably not practical, but may have been simulated by creating a more procedural cutscene display engine. Rather than popping out each pre-rendered cutscene as a whole chunk, each cutscene could have been comprised of smaller one- or two-line bits that are displayed in sequence, making it appear as a continuous cutscene. This would allow for a lot more flexibility in dialog and allowed those continuity preserving lines to be inserted (or omitted, depending on the writer’s intent) into the cutscenes.
Another issue is transition between episodes. Since the player is allowed to select which story thread they will follow several times during the game, occasionally they will end up with completely new (to them) NPCs in a completely new (to them) environment, with a completely new (to them) backstory and lore that they haven’t been exposed to (yet). For example, at one point in my personal story, my character (a sylvari mesmer) chose to learn more about the Quaggon. This choice resulted in my personal story introducing me to a new NPC (a norn warrior), going to a new far-off zone (the Shiverpeaks), to battle against evil forces I had never heard of (Jormag, the Ice Dragon). The problem is, as a sylvari, I hadn't yet learned any of the lore of the Shiverpeaks regarding the norn race and their long-standing fight against Jormag and the Sons of Svanir. Luckily for me, I had played a norn guardian during beta and had seen the personal story of the first two norn zones so I (as a player) was able to make the transition. But a new player who hadn’t already played multiple characters would have been completely lost by this sudden abrupt story transition.
Even worse, (and much harder to solve) that particular part of the story really seemed to have been designed for players who had selected to join the Priory. (I had chosen The Vigil.) The whole zone was full of Priory NPCs. The zone-wide meta-event was kicked off in a Priory outpost. And that meta-event was completed with Priory NPC helpers.
When the three factions were introduced, I did one mission with each of them. During the mission I did with the Priory characters, I developed a deep-seated loathing for them. The mission itself was a lot of fun and I probably enjoyed it the most out of the three faction missions I did. But I really disliked the Prior characters and their methodology was completely dissimilar from my own preferences. In short, I just could not stand the Priory and their entire outlook. (In a way, I guess that's a testament to the quality of the story, since it did invoke a emotional reaction from me.)
And yet, here I was in a zone that was more-or-less being run and managed (albeit badly) by Priory NPCs. As a member of The Vigil, my intial reactions was "Why am I helping these bozos? Can't they solve their own problems? Shouldn't I be helping The Vigil somewhere else?" I would have been much happier if all of the local (unnamed) NPCs were wearing the tag of a Vigil class. I strongly suspect that one of the other two options I did not select led to a zone where that was the case. On future playthroughs (with other characters) I will make those other selections.
A potential solution to this discontinuity is to develop a way for each NPC to have multiple names and selectively display a different name based on player faction affiliation, but that would be extremely difficult to implement and could lead to other technical issues such as different players seeing different NPC names while playing together. Alternately the game could limit the player’s options to ONLY allow them to go to the “right” zone for their given faction; while that’s a much easier technical solution, it would make the game a lot less flexible and would negatively impact replayability.
Guild Wars 2’s “personal story” is not a perfect solution, and it does have some pretty significant problems. The “episodic” nature of the personal story is really a mixed blessing. While it can lead to some weird continuity problems, with amnesiac characters and jarring transitions, it adds a lot of replay value to an already fairly epic game plot. Rather than metering out lore and story as walls of text hidden in quest dialogs (does anyone read those anymore?) it’s told in an entertaining and engaging way. Being able to make different characters and see completely disparate events and people in the story, while telling a coherent and unified meta-story is a fantastic improvement over prior storytelling in MMOs. I just wish it worked a little better.
Elementalist was the second caster class I tried. Like the Engineer, this profession simply didn’t sit well with me. Probably because my playstyle revolves more around a longer, drawn-out fight, and I absolutely hate dying. The Elementalist is more about hitting hard, dying a lot, but taking the opponent with you.
I played the Elementalist during a four-hour "stress test". The starting weapon for my Elementalist was, like all other casters I tried, a Scepter. I quickly paired that with an off-hand Focus. I only used this one weapon combination for my entire play session.
The Elementalist’s class mechanic is a bit weird. Rather than having two weapons they can swap between, they have four elemental attunements that they can select from. Each attunement changes the weapon abilities. For example, while wielding a Scepter, the #1 Fire ability is a high DPS attack, but with the exact same weapon, the #1 Water ability is a triple-shot of ice. There are four different elemental attunements (Fire, Water, Earth and Air) and they each have a separate focus, although there is a bit of overlap between them. Generally speaking: Fire is all about damage; Water is mostly support; Air is for mobility; and Earth is for control.
And herein lies my first and biggest problem with the class. Just like all other professions, weapon skills unlock with use. Unlike all other professions, the Elementalist needs to unlock each weapon set four times, once for each element.
To avoid confusion, when starting out, only the first element (Fire) is available; the other three are locked until the character gains experience. Water unlocks very quickly (I believe that was at level 3 or 4). Air unlocks shortly thereafter (level 5 or 6), and Earth unlocks at level 9 or 10.
Switching attunements is similar to changing weapons on other classes. If all five weapon skills in Fire are unlocked, when the player unlocks and switches to Water for the first time, only the first Water ability is available. As they are used, subsequent abilities unlock. When Air attunement unlocks, the player is forced to train their weapons skills yet again. While this seems very similar to other profession’s training different weapon skills, in practice it ends up being much more frustrating. By the time I had unlocked the final attunement (Earth), I already had access to several high DPS abilities, some medium DPS utility abilites and a few low DPS mobility abilites, all already on my toolbar, only two button presses away. Forcing myself to not use those skills in order to unlock the new Earth skills was not enjoyable and really limited my play options.
Having to repeat this process for more than one weapon set was beyond my capacity for tolerance. Particularly when, after unlocking the third attunement (Air) I found myself switching back to Water or Fire (mostly Water) in most fights.
I believe that most players come the Elementalist profession for the Fire attunement. I actually found that Water was the most useful for my playstyle. The #2, #3 and #5 abilities are all ground targeted and have a short time delay. My strategy in a fight quickly became a kiting tactic. I would run away, drop the GTAE at my feet as a I ran, and the poor sots chasing me would run right through an ice field, or into the AE range of an ice grenade. And if they actually managed to catch me, all of these abilities granted me a small heal at the same time.
Once I had developed this playstyle, it was extremely difficult to unlock the Air abilities. Even though Air and Earth both provide a lot of new utility, the later attunements are arguably weaker than the first two. (In my opinion, Fire and Water are the strongest attunements.) This made it even more difficult to work through Air and Earth, since the player is forced to ignore the powerful abilities they have already unlocked.
In the four hours I played the Elementalist, I was able to develop up to level 11, unlocked all five of the Fire and Water skills, four of the Air skills, but only one of the Earth skills for a single weapon set. This, in my opinion, is far too slow character development. On every other class, I had unlocked all of the basic skills and abilities by the time I had reached level 10, and spent the next 10 or so levels refining my playstyle. I can see it taking up to level 20 to simply unlock all of the weapons abilities on the Elementalist.
I was initially excited by this profession and thought it would be challenging and fun to play, but after I tried it, this class is simply not the right choice for me. I will break from posting a "build" here, since I do not feel that my play session really was able to generate anything worthwhile.
After I completed running through all of the heavy and medium armor classes, it was time to start running through the light armored ones. In Guild Wars 2 these are called “scholar” professions, but let’s be honest here. It’s an MMO. These are casters!
I traditionally do not play caster classes very well. As I’ve said several times, I tend to prefer heavy armor classes, getting into the mix with the melee, and fights that tend to last a relatively long time. Casters are everything that I have not described. They are lightly armored and tend to die quickly. To make up for that lack, they output tremendous levels of damage, leading to the popular phrase “glass cannon”. I strongly suspected that I was not going to enjoy playing a caster, so I picked the one that was least attractive to me as my initial foray: the Mesmer. For reference, this was my second character created during BWE2, so any bugs, issues and imbalances that I mention were present at that time, but may have been fixed, resolved or corrected by now.
Like all of the caster classes, the Mesmer starts with a single one-handed scepter as their initial weapon. I was surprised by the #2 skill on this weapon and actually didn’t figure out how it worked until much later, which prompted me to return to Scepter. This is a “block” similar to the warrior’s Mace #2 and offhand Sword #5, but instead of just timing out and doing something if you weren’t attacked, the mesmer’s Scepter #2 chains to a followup skill. In this case, if the block fails (ie. you used it when no one was attacking you, or the attack does not come in the very short 2 second duration of the “block’ effect) the ability simply goes on cooldown and nothing happens. But while the block is active, the followup skill allows you to “cancel’ the block and trigger a second effect. For this ability, that happens to be a ranged Blinding beam effect. Effectively, this wraps two weapons skills on one button. Press once for a very short duration single-attack block; double-tap for a ranged blind effect. It’s worth noting that this dual-skill ability meshes very well with the scepter #3 ability which puts Confusion on your opponent, making them take damage when they use any ability. Confused and blinded (or blocked) means that they are doing damage to themselves
, and not doing any to you.
It’s also worth mentioning that using this weapon effectively is pretty difficult. I completely missed out on the utility of these skills at first, even though I used a Scepter for nearly 10 levels of play time.
The first off-hand weapon I found was a Focus. Scepter and Focus were my ranged mainstays on the guardian, so it seemed to be a good match to try out. The Focus #4 is mostly a utility skill, putting down a speed/snare wall. I used this to good effect in a Personal Story mission where I ended up kiting hordes of bandits across the instance and back. But when I unlocked Focus #5 (summons an illusion that blocks projectiles), I started to realize that this profession was not at all what I expected.
Mesmer is not a caster class. Well, it is in that it wear tissue paper armor, and generally speaking it doesn’t go around hitting people with large chunks of virtual metal. But for playstyle? The Mesmer is a Tank class! Even though I still had not developed any real synergies between the weapon skills, out of my five weapon skills, two of them were almost completely defensive abilities. And both of them had a small offensive component which allowed for a very “active” tank style, much like my beloved Reaver from DAoC. Where the Reaver was a completely reactional/positional fighter, doing most of its damage after triggers from the opponent or form being in a specific position during fights, the Mesmer is more of a “control” fighter. The Mesmer dictates where the fight will go and uses that to their advantage. The Scepter #2 and #3 abilities are a perfect example. By Blinding and Confusing an opponent, the Mesmer is basically telling you to stop attacking them. A poor player who mashes buttons and doesn’t pay attention to conditions will fight a Mesmer and lose and not realize what killed them. A good player fighting a Mesmer will be forced to switch strategies several times during the fight to avoid killing themselves.
The biggest similarity between the Reaver and the Mesmer is this: Most people that play them are not going to get it. Oh sure, they’ll have fun and there will be one or two “faceroller” abilities that will make everyone go “Holy Crap! Overpowered!” (For the Reaver this was the infamous Leviathan.) But for the most part, outside of those simple combos, the “average” player will not be very effective. But for the player for whom the class “clicks”, they are going to be able to (in the words of one of the DAoC devs) “bounce sparks off the ass of anyone else.”
My point is that is going to be my longest profession posting. You’ve been warned.
The next weapon I found was a Sword. I wasn’t really enjoying the offhand focus, so I unlocked the offhand sword abilities first. #4 is another dual-ability skill, but used traditionally, it is simply a second single attack block, just like Scepter #2. #5 summons an illusion that fights for you. It was about this time that I realized that the “block” abilities on Scepter #2 and Sword #4 had a followup skill. For the sword block, the followup is a ranged daze/interrupt. It also is a “leap” finisher, even though you don’t actually leap and it acts like a projectile. So for this ability, a single tap is an ordinary block, and a double tap is a ranged interrupt, on a 15 second cooldown.
Offhand Sword couples very well with Scepter for a very defensive style of play. Of the seven weapon skills you have access to, two of them are blocks, and one of them summons a pretty tough “pet” illusionary swordsman. Drawbacks of this combo are that using this weapon set effectively requires a lot of skillful finger dancing (two of the abilities are a double-tap to trigger) and the lack of “on demand” illusion summoning. With the right utility skill selection, this could be a very effective (albeit hard to play) weapon choice.
Since I already had a Sword, I switched to Sword/Focus. The Sword mainhand abilities really captured me, particularly #2. I believe that this is going to be one of the two “faceroller” Mesmer skills. This ability makes the Mesmer immune to damage for about a second or two, while unleashing a pretty massive melee attack, on a ten second cooldown. As expected, while this can be a devastating ability against an unskilled or inattentive opponent, it is very easy to dodge or simply move away from. The sword #3 is yet another dual-function ability that seems straightforward, but will really shine in the hands of a skilled player. Press the ability once to summon an illusionary swordsman that leaps at your target (which is, in fact, a “leap” combo) and snares them. Press it again quickly to swap places with the illusion and root any enemies nearby. This ability is great for mobility, allowing the Mesmer to enter a melee fight from range (twice.. if you count the illusion), or it can be used defensively to snare/root opponents before making a quick (and potentially invisible) exit. Finally, the Sword’s 3-attack spam chain applies 10 stacks of Vulnerability on the opponent, followed by a boon canceling effect. This is pretty powerful in a more subtle way. Rather than straight up hitpoint damage, this effectively nerfs the opponent’s armor, making them much easier to hurt, and stops them from using HoT regens, or damage boosters of their own. Mainhand sword is a very solid weapon choice!
Since I was happy with my mainhand Sword, I explored the offhand options. I had already unlocked offhand sword and focus, but neither or those seemed to be all that compelling to me. Sword/Sword does provide a very interesting mix of offense and active defense, but it didn’t really grab me. Sword/Focus also provides a nice mix of offensive punch, with a more passive defense and some great utility, but again, it did not grab me.
Offhand pistol, however, did. The #4 ability does a CRAZY amount of burst damage. It summons an illusory pistolier who uses a skill similar to the thief’s Pistol/Pistol “Unload” ability, shooting like ten times in two seconds. Of course, to keep this ability from being crazy overpowered, the pistolier only unloads this ability once every dozen seconds or so. Still, as a ranged burst DPS skill, it is pretty impressive. This skill is probably going to be another of the Mesmer’s “overpowered” abilities since it does provide a fire-and-forget very high burst. The catch is that since it is burst, a skilled player can turtle (with a shield or other defensive ability) for a second and avoid most of the damage and then ignore the pistolier. They won’t even need to waste time killing him, since he doesn’t DO anything outside of that small burst. The #5 ability is a bouncing attack that will hit three targets and apply a different effect to each one. In order, it applies a 2 second stun, a 2 second daze, and, finally, a blind. The catch is that it only applies one effect per “bounce” so against a single target, it will NEVER apply the daze or the blind. And with uncontrollable bounce, this skill will undoubtedly result in over-agro and additional (unintentional) pulls. Still, the #4 ability is really powerful and easily makes up for the unpredictability of the #5.
Similarly, offhand Torch is another winner. The #4 ability (called “the Prestige”) grants the Mesmer three seconds of stealth while applying blindness to adjacent opponents. This can be used as an “head start” on escaping from a fight gone bad, particularly if triggered right after the mainhand Sword #3 snare/root. When the Mesmer reappears, they apply three stacks of Burning on any adjacent enemies. This ability has so much utility and different potential uses that it boggle the mind. On the other hand, it is not very straightforward to use. The Burning DoT is applied as a PBAE, and it is a three-second delay after casting, so it is not a normal DoT. The stealth is only three-seconds long, and slow running speeds make it a poor alpha-strike ability. The blind is applied with the stealth, and only absorbs a single attack, which will likely be made while the Mesmer is stealthed, so it can’t even be used as a normal defensive ability. However, this combination of effects, when used properly, can turn the Mesmer into a blinding, stealthed, fireball. The Torch #5 is equally useful, but in a much more subtle way. It summons an illusory caster that applies a damage shield to allies, and confusion to enemies. Either way, this discourages the opponent from hitting the Mesmer, and makes for a great defensive tool.
The first two-handed weapon I found was a Staff. Now a lot of people really like Staff Mesmers. I am not one of them. My biggest gripe with the Staff is that the effects are unpredictable. The spam attack shoots a slow ball that hits multiple people, friend and foe alike. For friendly targets, it applies a random
boon. It might apply Fury, or it could apply Might, but never both. For opponents, it inflicts one random
condition: maybe Burning, maybe Bleeding, or maybe Vulnerability. Staff #2 summons a illusionary caster that uses the Staff spam attack. Staff #3 summons an illusionary caster that acts like a Ranger DPS pet: it’s not great damage, and it tends to die fast. #4 is a defensive armor ability that triggers when you get hit. Now, I’ve never been a fan of abilities that require me to take damage to trigger. The whole reason I’m using the ability is to avoid
damage, not cause it! In any case, the effect of the armor spell is, of course, random
. There are five possible effects, two of which are good for the Mesmer (Protection or Regenration) and three that are bad for the opponent (Confusion, a snare, or Blind), but you don’t get to select which one you get or apply. It’s random
! The final Staff ability is the one that everyone loves to see and is actually kinda neat, but with a very long 40 second cooldown, and seven completely random
effects, it really didn’t make me want to use Staff. You might notice the word “random” being used a lot in these descriptions. That’s why I couldn’t stick with Staff. I’m all for a little randomness. I don’t want my weapon to do exactly the same damage every time I use it. But I do want to be able to rely on it doing damage every time, and not surprise me with a bonus buff or heal every once in a while. Having said that, I will happily take advantage of every Chaos Storm I see, and combo the hell out of it.
And what Mesmer discussion could ignore the two-handed Greatsword? This weapon has been the star of many YouTube Memser videos, and for good reason. Who expected a caster class, using a giant two-handed sword would be using it to shoot laser beams at enemies from long range? Who saw them having the ability to stab the sword into the ground and have the tip stab back up and apply Vulnerability to a foe that is well out of melee range?? Who expected them to swing the sword in a cone AE in front of them and knockback enemies (potentially off a cliff)??? No one did, that’s who! And yet these are the three Mesmer Greatsword “melee” abilities. The other two abilities are a summon that brings an illusory Greatsword Warrior that uses Whirlwind Attack, and a giant sword toss that hits three enemies and summons an illusory Warrior. Greatsword is flashy, it’s fun, it’s pretty simple, and it’s mostly effective. I expect this will be the “go to” weapon for newbie Mesmers. The problem with this is that the spam attack has a very loud sound effect that plays on every shot, and it can get annoying really fast.
The Mesmer’s special class abilities all involve the illusory summons. The Mesmer can “shatter” them at will, providing one of four different effects. Managing and shattering the illusions (especially for a Greatsword user) is really going to separate the good from the bad Mesmers. A Mesmer that ignores his shatters and just uses the normal abilities is going to be okay. A Mesmer that uses the normal abilities and knows when to shatter and which shatter to use, is going to be amazingly powerful.
The simplest shatter is Mind Wrack (F1). This makes all of your current illusions explode right where they are, causing AE damage to everyone nearby them at the time. While this seems straightforward, it really is situational. If you had three melee illusions in a fight with a single opponent, this would be three AE bombs going off right next to them. On the other hand, if you had caster illusions fighting, using this would be pointless since they would explode far away from any opponents.
One of the more interesting shatters is Cry of Frustration (F2). Similar to mind Wrack in that it causes illusions to explode where they are, but rather than doing damage, each clone applies 5 stacks of Confusion to nearby enemies. Confusion is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful tools in the Mesmer arsenal. It causes damage each time a skill is used. So, with three illusions, a single Mesmer could potentially apply fifteen stacks of confusion to multiple foes, causing each of them damage for their next fifteen skill usages. Even if the Mesmer dies in the fight, the conditions can persist, allowing the Mesmer to do additional damage even when they are no longer an active participant in the fight!
Diversion is the third shatter, and it is a bit unique. This shatter makes the illusions charge their target, then interrupt them. This is especially useful with ranged illusions. Since they will likely have different distances to cover, they will arrive at the target at different times, providing three different interrupts. Also, since shatters are not technically an “ability”, it may be possible to use this to interrupt an enemies’ channeled attack even while stunned or knocked down!
The final shatter is a defensive ability. Rather than exploding the illusions for an effect on the enemy, this one puts an effect on the Mesmer. What it does is allow the Mesmer to completely avoid one attack for each illusion. If they shatter all three illusions, the Mesmer would be invulnerable for the next three attacks.
I did not experiment much with the three Mesmer heals, and stuck to the default one for the duration of my play session. The secondary option is a projectile reflection/heal, which would be very useful when fleeing from a fight, and being shot at the whole way. The healing mantra is something I really wished I had experimented with. At the time, I didn’t understand how Mantras worked. Essentially, these are pre-casted spells that you “load”, and then can be triggered instantly at any time, even while in the middle of an channeled ability without interrupting it
!! The catch is that the pre-cast is slow and forces you to stop moving, so it can’t be chained. Which is a good thing since the cooldown on the healing Mantra is only 8 seconds!
The Mesmer has a wide variety of utility skills. This was the first BWE that had the tiered utility skills, and after buying all of the passive Signets, I really did not test many of these skills. Due to time constraints (and skill point limits) during BWE2, I was not able to experiment with very many of them. Here are the ones I did try out:
Signet of Inspiration – great signet that gives a random boon every ten seconds. I can’t tell how many times it would magically pop out a speed boost when I was running, or a health regen in a close fight. The active ability allows you to buff everyone around you with the same boon. It’s a 1 point skill, and I would make this one of my first purchases! I kept this loaded for my entire play session.
Signet of Domination – increased power. I may have already been capped on power since I was concentrating on keeping that stat very high, but I did not see any appreciable return from this signet.
Signet of Midnight – adds duration to boons. I thought this would pair well with the prior skills, but the durations were so short that the additional time was nearly insignificant.
Signet of illusions – adds health to the illusions. This was useful in learning how to shatter. It kept my illusions alive long enough for the “shatter now!” message to stumble around in my brain before running down to my fingers and jumping on the F-keys.
Blink – teleport. This was a fun one for getting around, but unlike some of the other classes “jump” skills, this one requires there to be a valid path to your target. It cannot be used to teleport through, for example, a jumping puzzle. If you try this (and I did!) all that happens is that you move in the direction of your target up to the edge of your current platform, and then stop. Still, this has some pretty obvious mobility uses in a fight.
I did not try any of the Mantras, I wish I had!
I did not play with Portal Entre, I wish I had!
I did not try Decoy, which would be a great skill for a non-torch using Mesmer.
I was playing a PvE character, and only made it to level 20 (and just barely that!) so I was not able to try out any of the elite skills.
For my trait, I went into the Chaos line choosing the Descent into Madness trait. While this may not have been a good PvP choice, it was a ton of fun in PvE and world exploration. The reduction in falling damage was neat, but being able to summon a Chaos storm on demand was even better. I was climbing up on rocks and things in fights just so I could drop down and pop one.
Overall, the Mesmer went from being a class that I was almost completely not interested in, to my favorite class in the game. I will be playing one of these guys as my “main” character come release time. At first I was treating the illusions as summonable allies or pets (a la the Necromancer) but once I started to understand the shatters, the class really started to wake up for me. I hope to get better at managing the illusions as I play it more. I ended this play session at level 20, from 100% PvE play. My final spec can be found HERE
(I told you this was going to be a long one! I'll edit typos later....)