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War, What Is It Good For? Framing And Defying, Apparently.

I would be hard pressed to say that the computer will ever be as good of company for a person as another person would.  Indeed, should the day ever come where the majority of people prefer the company of a programmers' imitation of people, I think that would be a sad bit of delusion run rampant.  Unless perhaps the artificial intelligence were sufficiently advanced that differentiating it from the trials and tribulations of a human individual would be shortsighted and unfair... but that is not the present-day reality, and only science fiction can speculate how that will be like.

However, there is one situation in which I find a computer better company than a person, and that is in being foils.  No, I am not talking about aluminum foil, the definition of foil I am using is, "a person or thing that makes another seem better by contrast."  In terms of computer games, the computer's company is marvelous when you are looking for is someone to defeat, because the computer's feelings are never hurt by this matter.
In Disney's Aladdin, Jafar's job is to lose, as a prime example of a foil.  If he was a computer, he would be just fine with that.  (As it is, he's a fictional character... that works, too!)
Consequently, you can gun down droves of computer opponents for every one of your virtual avatar's death, and feel as though you are actually doing well.  Conversely, in a PvP game, your "kill to death" ratio should be about 1 (give or take 0.5) given sufficient matches that pit you against players of all skill levels, assuming the game is balanced and you are not resorting to tactics which some people would call "good" but I would call "focused overmuch on padding their KTD."  (Maybe this is just sour grapes because my KTD in Planetside 2 is currently 0.62.)

Enter how I spent a significant amount of this weekend: Defiance and Warframe.  They are both massively multiplayer first person shooters, like Planetside 2.  (Okay, actually Warframe uses enough instancing that it's not particularly massively multiplayer.)  However, Defiance and Warframe differ from Planetside 2 in that your opponents are predominantly non-player characters being controlled by the computers, these perfect foils.

Defining Defiance
Once again, I turn to the implied generosity of Total Biscuit for purposes of introducing gameplay footage.  This time, for Trion Worlds' Defiance.

You know, I was really pulling for Trion Worlds, since their earlier game, Rift, made great strides in what I think massively multiplayer games need most: dynamic content mechanics.  Rift was a game where demons from other dimensions are perpetually threatening to invade the world and take it over, the environment changed radically depending on how successful they were along these lines.  It is much more exciting than what the competition has going on in their boring old mostly-static worlds, even if a game can be even more dynamic than that.  So it's really heartbreaking to see Trion Worlds has been undergoing massive layoffs as of late: this is why gamers can't have nice things!

Trion had arranged for Steam to allow players to play Defiance for free for a significant chunk of the weekend, and my experience with the game was that it was very well made.  Perhaps I have been playing too many badly-optimized indie games lately... no, mostly just the badly-optimized Planetside 2... but I was actually quite impressed with how well the engine of Defiance pumped out both high frame rates and flawless (if stylized) graphics.  Trion Worlds has undoubtedly hired some of the most skilled people in the business in making their games... pity they can't seem to afford keeping them.

That said, I'm sorry to say, I find what they are charging for Defiance to be more than I am willing to pay.  Nevermind that I already have plenty of other games to play, including Marvel Heroes and Neverwinter (which I bought have spent $60 for their "Founder's Packs" so you can consider me committed - or perhaps in need of being committed for believing I actually had time to play them both).   No, the problem with Defiance is a matter of believing I will get a reasonable expectation of entertainment out of it.   I expect to get about an hour of entertainment for every 50 cents to a dollar I spend on a game, and I expect Defiance will clock in at about 30 hours before I'm utterly bored of it.  The first bad sign is when I have to do this kind of arthritic in the first place: a good game should be enthralling enough that the price (so long as it's not unusual) won't even factor into it!

The problem comes down to mental depth of what the players are given to do while playing and to master, and I find Defiance's selection along these lines sorely lacking:
  • Aim and shoot.  Defiance has a good selection of things to aim and shoot, but you can only wield two at a time (as far as I can tell), and it's not terribly challenging to aim and shoot at maximum efficiency in this game.
  • Use an ability.  Apparently, you are given a total of one ability you can have equipped at any time, on a pretty long timer (about 30-60 seconds) and there's only four such usable abilities in the game.  All the rest of the abilities are "passive," always-on, abilities that you can slot.  Come to think of it, these passive abilities may be active abilities in disguise, since most of them activate via performing certain actions in the game... but what they do still is not very deep, for example "slightly recharge shields on melee kill".
  • Throw a grenade.   This is on a pretty long timer, I think you can only do it once every 30-60 seconds.  It's actually reasonably challenging to get good at throwing grenades, they tend to bounce about unpredictably.
  • Dodge and use cover.  Mostly, stick to dodging - enemies have little difficulty shooting over cover in this game, but they're not too good at dealing with moving targets.
That's the whole game.  I suppose there's more depth to be found in the actual activities in the game: arkfalls, for example, are basically Rift's rift system, except dumbed down, much like the core gameplay mechanic of Defiance: everybody just runs around firing their weapons, there's not a whole lot of challenge or mental involvement in it: aim, shoot, dodge, use an ability, throw a grenade.

I guess "dumbed down" is my main complaint about Defiance, and it's the old vendetta of the hardcore gamers versus casual cash-in game.  Defiance could be more casual than it is, but it's still a console game developed to be accessible by casual gamers who who might have watched the Syfi Channel original based on Defiance (and some gamer flow to the TV series is likely expected as well).  

The trouble with casual-appeal is the design methodology tend to target depth as problematic, and streamline it out: 
  • Only one active ability instead of a whole hotkey tray full of them like in Rift.  (Yes, this is partly justified because they had to facilitate a console interface.)
  • A simpler dynamic event system than Trion already did in Rift.
  • Most enemies are eliminated with a simple point-and-shoot interface (literally, via the guns in the game) instead of with dozens of hotkey abilities to memorize like in Rift.
And so on - the result is hardly palatable to experienced gamers like myself, but is (theoretically) more accessible to casual players.  I have to wonder how long even casuals can endure the resulting simplicity?  I think the answer is "not vary," which is why casual-centric focus to game design is (finally) receding from popular game design.

Fortunately, Defiance still has a nice open-world mechanic and no monthly subscription fee.  Relatively speaking, I think Defiance is a good game.  But Defiance is not $42 good; it's barely $30 good, if that.

Warframe, on the other hand, is unexpectedly glorious.

Framing Warframe

TotalBiscuit again, on Warframe.  Jan 7th video, it really has not changed much since then.
At first blush, I expect an action-based F2P action game like this to be some South Korean cyber baang game in the vein of Dungeon Fighter or Vindictus, but no, this is actually made by Canadian Digital Extremes: hurray, the West is catching up!  

In any case, Warframe is a top notch Sci-Fi third person shooter action game that is limited to 4 players at once, and the overall combat mechanic is a lot more visceral and interesting than Global Agenda (a game that probably deserved more popularity than it got).  Warframe is a bit like Diablo played like a third person action game, or Phantasy Star Online (which is exactly that), except much cooler because of the finer details of the concept.

In Warframe, you're a member of a clan of intergalactic cyber-ninja who infiltrate installations (mostly ships) belonging to an evil space empire that has largely conquered the inner sphere of human influence.  You run/sneak/acrobatically parkour from room to breathtaking room with up to three other players who can drop in at any time, butchering platoons of evil people or monsters with specialized weaponry and your ever-present melee weapon which can often cut enemies clean in half.  If nothing from this paragraph sounds at least mildly awesome to you, then you have no soul.

The titular warframes, of which there are several to unlock, each have four active abilities which (unlike Defiance) can all be equipped simultaneously if you want.   All of your currently equipped gear - your warframe, equipped weapons, ect - "level up" as you use them, and this grants more space for you to slot in "mods" that you find which boost the effectiveness of that gear in various ways.  It's a pretty interesting and well-designed approach to RPG progression that merges the character with the gear.

Other than sneaking around facilities before enemies have detected you, there's very little downtime in Warframe.  You are dropped into mission after mission extremely rapidly, and are in for a good time so long as you're not bored of the central game mechanic.  I think that central game mechanic is actually reasonably deep because it's reasonably difficult to get headshots, you have more abilities to activate than Defiance, you can look forward to trying out other Warframes if you ever get tired of your current one, the weapons are better staggered.

Warframe is free to play, no need to buy a box, no need to pay a monthly subscription... but it's otherwise quite expensive.  Sure, you can unlock the other Warframes and weapons through play, but only after buying or collecting the blueprints, then playing dozens of missions to collect the needed resources - in the case of Warframes, you need to get additional blueprints off boss mobs to complete them.   It's much easier just to shell out real money for the Warframes or weapons, and a few are only available through real money purchase.   It's about as Free2Play as Planetside 2 is in that you'll either shell out real money for some gear or be subjected to a mind-numbing grind.

Interestingly, if your warframe avatar dies during a mission you can only bring yourself back from the dead and continue that mission 5 times a real life day.  If you have no spare lives, you have no choice but to forfeit the mission.  If you want to replenish your lives earlier, it costs real money to do so.  I sort of like that, it makes death carry a real sting: that of cold, hard cash!  Fortunately, other players can save you from needing to revive if they stabilize your dying warframe in time, so you'll probably be able to save a lot of your daily revives by playing with other players.


Compared to Defiance, Warframe plays a lot better, despite restricting the player to two weapons and few abilities in a fairly identical manner.  The devil is in the detail: your avatar in Warframe is a freakin' Ninja, and all that dashing around fighting enemies actually has that much more leeway as a result.  

On the other hand, at least Defiance has a truly open world and cool world events: Warframe does not; it's just a series of maps you can drop into and between maps you tweak your loadouts and such via a simple interface, without even a Phantasy Star Online-like socialization area (although I have read of customizable guild halls).  Having an open world differentiates Defiance enough that maybe these two games should not be compared at all, despite the resemblances of their core mechanic, and this is most applicable if wandering an open world is an important feature to you.

Another important consideration is Warframe challenges the players more, it seems harder to me (at least after the first ten or so missions are out of the way) and I appreciate that difficulty.  Maybe Defiance gets harder later, but I get the feeling it does not matter because Defiance's mechanic is more limited in how much player skill matters.

Warframe joins Marvel Heroes, Neverwinter, and Planetside 2 in being games that I'm interested in playing right now.  (That's too many games; I need to stop playing new games!)  As for Defiance... slash the box price, and maybe I'll give it another spin.


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