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Procrastus Interruptus: Me Whining About Planetside 2 And Amalur

Maybe it's the fact I have not been to the gym for a good while, but I don't particularly feel like playing any games today, and one could just as easily attribute that to me becoming bored of what I have been playing.  Seeing how me being bored about what I have been playing lately is typically the subject of this blog, lets elaborate.

Sameycide 2: Your Persistent Worldly Ganking

Contrary to how it may appear, I really do not like to dump on a game or a developer, particularly SOE's Planetside 2 which, as perhaps the only massively-multiplayer first person shooter to truly be one, is a game I dearly hope succeeds just so it can push PC gaming forward, technically speaking.

Unfortunately, I can only play it for so long before I realize it suffers from terrible game design flaws on too many facets.
  • The low-visibility combat model just glorifies ganking tactics.

    Success in this game is entirely about exploiting the visibility model.  You will only manage to get more kills than deaths by sneaking up behind people or waiting behind corners or hiding in trees, ect.  Most of the time, you will not see who killed you.  Great simulation of guerrilla warfare, sure, but if you try to play this like it's SWAT 4 or Tribes or Unreal Tournament or Counterstrike you are just going to get ganked by the people who have figured out the best shrubs to hide behind.

    However, it's even worse when you add powerful explosives to the mix: you basically just run up before anyone realizes you're an enemy and explode them.  At one point, I had a massive pack of friendlies guarding a choke point and watched as, two or three times, an enemy infiltrator managed to kill giant clumps of about 12-15 players at a time by lobbing C4 packs.  Sure, the enemy infiltrator would die afterward, but he'd just come back and do it again, and who could blame him?   A 15:1 KTD ratio is a stupidly big payoff for a brief jog.

    It's the same problem I mentioned about blowing Sunderers with anti-vehicular mines: there's simply not enough time to react to do anything about it, not unless you know it's coming and have your gun poised and ready to gun down the C4/Mine chucking enemy, and even then you might fail to stop them because the time between enemy identification and hosing them down with fire is less than the time they need to drop all the mines in their inventory.

    This model just goes against my grain of anything resembling fair and balanced gameplay I have seen in about 30 years of gaming.  Yes, I know Planetside 2 is based off of the spunk gargle weewee type of FPS that are popular right now, but I don't care if driving a nail through your dick is popular, I'm still going to stay that is stupid.   This kind of quasi-realist bullshit is not conductive to self-perpetuating, fun gameplay unless you get your rocks off screwing others, and it's really no wonder that so many communities involved in spunk gargle weewee games become such bastions of overwhelming hate when the players willingly subject themselves to this perpetual abuse over a long period of time.

    What's the solution?  My armchair game designer mind thinks that C4 and anti-vehicular mines need to be heavily nerfed: they simply do far too much damage per second compared to any other anti-vehicular alternative, and I can't excuse that simply because they have to be deployed at point blank range because, thanks to the visibility model, deploying something at point blank range is remarkably easy. 

    However, the main problem is how exploitable the visibility model is.  Jacking up the proximity radar upgrade for vehicles by double would at least provide an effective countermeasure against them (and, besides, having a 10m proximity radar is just silly: 20m, 40m, 60m, 80m, and 100m unlockables seems a lot more reasonable).  If necessary, the design could take that to the next level by making proximity radars automatically spot enemies, or even to allow manually spotted enemies to stay spotted a little longer instead of vanishing the very moment they step out of view: even Battlefield 3 does that much, which suggests that when Planetside 2 aped BF3 they did it wrong.
  • The "pay to win" model is pretty awful. 

    It is not that the starting guns they give you are completely untenable:
    • Sure, you'll get dominated at close range by SMG/Shotguns and dominated at long range by anything with better accuracy, but the starting guns still put out enough damage that you can defeat players who have shelled out real money for better guns. 
    • Sure, your MAX is only half-armed to defeat any one target, but having the flexibility to engage two kinds of targets is good, too. 
    • Sure your Lightning's default shooter is absolutely pathetic, but hey, it's enough to kill most infantry in a couple seconds if you can land every shot. 
    • Sure your Mosquito/Reaver/Scythe lacks the rocket pods that, like your lacking C4 or anti-tank mines, are the easy path to massive free kills but... well, you can throw a grenade once a respawn?
    So F2P players aren't completely unarmed, just at a obvious disadvantage until they grind 40-70 hours to unlock a great weapon and maybe half again that to unlock its attachments.

    I am not even bothered by the idea of experience boosters or the greater experience and certification gain rates of subscribers because, given that players have a variable amount of time to play in a day, that playing field would not be level anyway.

    No, the problem emerges in the cumulative effect of everything.  For example, the speed in which you accumulate infantry resources is influenced by whether or not you're a subscriber.  That means that the faction with the most players who have paid to win will have the most resources to pull vehicles and deadly infantry explosives and dominate.

    You know what's funny?  They actually sell you the ability to look like the enemy in the online store.  Not literally, of course - you can't disguise yourself to look like the spitting image of an enemy soldier from another faction.  However, on the crowded battlefield, I only really have time to make out colors against vaguely-soldier like silhouettes the most time, and what they sell is camouflage that can replace most of those colors with that of another faction.  Innumerable times, I nearly shot my fellow Terran Republic troopers because they were wearing this white and blue camouflage that made them look more like New Conglomerate.

    What's the solution?  Maybe I've said this before, but the solution is to make absolutely everything that affects the game balance not something you can pay to get.   This means all weapons and equipment that can be unlocked via Station Cash would no longer be.  It would also mean that gain rates for resources (infantry/vehicle/aerospace) would be the same regardless of if you're a F2P or paid player.  About the only thing being sold on the store would be experience/cert gain rate boosters (which are okay because different people have different amounts of time to play anyway) and decorative things such as camouflage (arguably game-affecting) or hood ornaments.
  • There's just no point to taking territory.

    This is a problem the original Planetside had, too.  Sure, you get resources and other little perks for holding territory, but ultimately you just go back and forth over the same territory so often that it just becomes another part of the seemingly-endless certification grinding.  After awhile, the mind starts to go numb, and I can only dwell on the pointlessness of it all. 

    What's the solution?  Well, I can not say the incentives for taking territory are bad, it is really more a matter of the constant back and forth becoming mind-numbing.  Maybe the game should be balanced to make snowballing to complete map domination easier, followed by continent locking, and that will help mix things up a bit by forcing me to undergo a change of scenery instead of just playing on Indar all the time.  Perhaps we are already on the way to doing that with the inclusion of the lattice system, as the lack of back-hacking involved will make it that much harder to thwart a winning empire.
Even with all my complaints against it, Planetside 2 is still a game I can enjoy in small doses from time to time, especially if I am in a good squad/platoon that knows what they're doing.  Then I can get a certain semblance of feeling in control of the game, instead of perpetually victimized by it.   However, play it for long enough in one sitting, and eventually it reaches the point where I can no longer stomach this cruelly-balanced, incredibly grindy, pointlessly perpetual scenario.  At the end of a day of playing Planetside 2, I am often left feeling there are far better returns for my entertainment time.

Heapdoms Of Inventory: The Self Doubting

While I was initially impressed with the game, I'm afraid the honeymoon is over for Kingdoms of Amalur

Part of the problem is I'm once again entertaining thoughts of altaholicism, the tendency to be unable to decide on which character class to play.  This game is actually quite flexible, it gives you the ability to mix and match the three kinds of skills in combinations in some fairly fixed ratios: all your points to one of the classes, half your points to two of the classes, or a third of your points to all three of the classes.  You can spend your ability points wherever you like, unlocked ability tree tiers permitting, but if you deviate from those ratios you will not unlock the next rank of "destiny" class benefits as quickly.

I've learned that each class combination is actually quite viable, and a better way to think of it is in terms of the gameplay experience each build offers.  It seems like the experience being offered, as pertains to class difference in Kingdoms of Amalur, is made up of the following parts:
  • One normal-windup, medium-hitting weapon: the longsword.  This weapon generally leaves me with just barely enough time to avoid enemies while still landing some pretty solid damage.  I have noticed that it is possible to knock lighter enemies up and juggle them with the longsword alone, which is pretty cool.
  • Slow-windup, big hitting weapons.  (e.g. Greatsword, Staff, Hammer.)  As you could imagine, huge weapons will generally hit enemies very hard when they do.  However, they swing slowly, and I find myself caught mid-animation, unable to dodge enemy assaults, more often when using one. Consequently, using heavy weapons requires strategy, but sometimes even that's not enough because the enemies are attacking too often for slow swings to be particularly viable.  I recommend having a faster weapon in your secondary weapon slot for those situations.
  • Fast, high-mobility weapons (e.g. Daggers, Fayblades.)  While not doing much damage per hit, the nice thing about these weapons is that the individual attacks are usually done quickly and so you are not stuck in mid-attack animation if you suddenly need to dodge out of the way.  Of course, if you chain enough hits together with these smaller weapons, you can probably do about as much damage per second as a slower weapon.
  • The longbow.  Kind of a boring mechanic, really: click button to launch arrow, and you quickly run out of arrows which are replenished over time.  I suppose if I had to figure out a niche for it combat, it would be as a fast-casting attack spell.  I've seen videos where you can knock up enemies with one weapon and juggle them mid-air with a bow, a move rather shamelessly borrowed from Devil May Cry, but a move rife with over-the-top awesome nonetheless.
  • Hotbar attacks, which are mostly spells, but sometimes spell-like gimmicks.  With a hotbar attack selected, line up an enemy and right click a button to use that attack.  Hotbar attacks can be found on all the ability trees, but mages have a few more than the others.  Spell damage is quite hefty in Amalur, especially on the upper tier abilities, and so (given adequate ability point investment) things can die the absolute fastest with them.  If I unlock too many of these, it's really annoying, because my hotbar fills up with a bunch of junk that I hardly have any use for; it's far better to focus points in a few hotbar attacks you know you are going to use and keep your hotbar clear of the useless junk. 
  • Oddball weapons.  The chakram and the scepter.  I'm not saying they're bad, I'm just not sure how to categorize them. The chakram is sort of a long-ranged melee weapon with some semi-long animation times - pretty wicked cool, but not the easiest weapon to master.  The scepter eats mana and converts it into a long ranged attack, like a bow that uses mana instead of arrows, but there's not as many interesting tricks you can do with the scepter, and that mana would probably be better spent on attack spells which are pretty much long ranged anyway, so what's the point?  People who like the idea of magic wands, or warrior/mage hybrids who want a ranged weapon, may get some good use out of the sceptor.
  • Stealth kills.  Generally restricted to daggers, if you have a pretty good amount of points in "Assassin's Art" (which increases sneak attack damage) and have enough of other such modifiers working in your favor, you can approach in stealth and instantly defeat enemies in silence, one-by-one.  You may even be able to take out a whole group this way!  The stealth killing animations are unique to each enemy and wicked cool, too!  However, if you do not do enough damage for a one-shot kill, you just end up with a slow, generic "backstab" attack that leaves you vulnerable to a followup from the now-quite-alerted friends of whoever you just got done stabbing.

Basically, the above list are of parts of game mechanic in Kingdoms of Amalur that you mix-and-match to come up with a character you are happy with playing.

In time, I figured out that focusing on a single class's ability list mostly unlocks more hotbar attacks  (because that's what generally lives at the mid-to-top range of the ability list) so multi-class generalists can actually be just as effective using weapons (which are at the bottom of the ability list) as specialists, especially if you choose to invest fully in a few weapons.  The main exception is the longbow, which does require investing in higher tiers in order to get significantly powerful.  Conversely, if you invest completely in just one class, leaving out any one ability before higher tiers unlock is virtually impossible due to the mandatory point investment in lower tier abilities, stymieing any sense of single-class ability picking freedom considerably; you must multi-class if you want to avoid taking certain abilities.

Initially I was playing a mostly Mage-focused character, and I learned to dislike spells because they make combat too easy.  I usually just dodged around the battlefield and threw my "mark of flame" spell's doom dust, detonating it when I felt I had enough of them "marked," and repeated until I was out of enemies.  With that tactic, there was none of the gameplay depth of weaving between enemies, timing when I can get away with launching my weapons attack animations; just sprinkling doom dust.  Maybe spells would be more fun if I deliberately avoided using "mark of flame?"

Currently, I'm playing a character whose ability points are evenly-spread between all three of the classes, and maybe that's the most appropriate for an indecisive fellow like me, but I can not help but wonder if I am missing out on something really cool at the top of individual class ability trees.  This ever-present nagging doubt is the worst part of altaholicism.

Yet, my altaholic tendencies are not as bothersome as Amalur's all-pervasive inventory management.  Through normal play, I am constantly tripping over chests and hidden caches full of items.  They go in my inventory, which has a limit of how much can carry.  I eventually need to manually go down the list and see if there is anything worth keeping (most of the time it is not worth keeping) and right click on everything I don't want and click, "Add To Junk," a separate list of "junk" items, that can then be sold to a merchant or destroyed (for a minor return with enough mercantile skill).  If this whole ordeal happened fairly infrequently, it would not be such a problem, but it seems I have to comb my inventory every half hour - what a drag!  Unfortunately, this is a problem I run into in a lot of computer role playing games.

However, the inclusion of trade skills makes things considerably worse, and not just because all those crafting components add to the inventory bloat.  The main problem is, being a game-savvy gamer, I soon realized that the key to power is getting the best equipment, so I invested heavily in the "smithing" and "sagecraft" abilities.  So now, at level 20, I basically have better equipment than anything I will find in the game for the next 10-20 levels.  I understand the level cap is 40 in this game.

Sagecrafting is alright, since players are restricted in terms to what gems can be slotted on gear, but the main problem is that they screwed up the balance on smithed equipment.  It's supposed to be "common drops" are weaker than "common crafted" are weaker than "common quested," repeat for tiers of rarity, ultimately with "epic quested" on the top of the heap.  Crafted gear is not supposed to be better than other kinds of gear...

...that is, unless the developers wanted to empower an online player-driven crafting economy, which requires making player crafted equipment the best... but in that case Amalur is barking up the wrong tree by being a completely offline game.  Come to think of it, Skyrim made the same mistake, but there are plugins for that.

It's sort of sad because I keep finding this cool gear that I no longer have any use for because I made far better, custom gear for myself.  Although, I suppose I can look forward to being able to break down future equipment drops for components to make even better smithed equipment, even if the non-broken-down drops themselves have been vastly outperformed for pretty much the rest of the game, and I can't wear any cool-looking custom quest stuff without being at a disadvantage.  It makes a fellow wish smithing was never in the game, and I am tempted to pretend this is the case.

Yet, despite these problems, I suppose I'm not completely sick of Kingdoms of Amalur.  It's just become a lot more tedious than it really needed to be due to the above mentioned altaholicism, tiredness of item bloat, and my completely neutering the loot system via crafting.

Looking forward, like an MMORPG, Kingdom Of Amalur is organized into geographical cells of activity, commonly called "quest hubs" in World of Warcraft derivatives.  In each cell, I undergo a basic routine of finding quests to perform, looting everything, dumping a bunch of garbage on the merchants when I run out of inventory, and repeat until out of content for this cell, and then proceed to the next cell.  If I do that for each cell in the game, I'll have finished the game.  Eyeballing it, I would estimate I'm at about cell 15 out of 75 now.  Ho hum, I suppose there will be some interesting artwork and lore to see along the way.

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