Tuesday, 5 August 2014

As Seen On TV! In Print! Or On Your PC!

Post soundtrack: The Beatles – Paperback Writer

So, now I’ve replaced my dead power supply (which cost me my first night ticket to Guardians of the Galaxy, as I had to get a refund then use the money for a shiny new not-dead PSU), I can tell you that I’ve been distracted by a free-to-play MMO-ish title which is tied to a currently-screening US TV series. Yes that’s right, I’m playing Defiance (which is now available again on Steam, after it was unavailable for a while due to stuff when it changed to f2p).

My Favourite Irathient

And it’s kind of alright. (Which is to say, it scratches my current itch for a third-person not-really-cover-based shooter based around Rift’s eponymous, um, Rifts) This in turn led me to watch (finally) some episodes of the series, and I was relieved to discover it’s actually pretty fun. Like the game, actually. Just with a bit more charm.

It’s been a curious experience, spending time both actively playing the game and passively watching the series. The differences between the two mediums really shine through: especially the depth and scale (and personality) of the series compared to the physically small-yet-interactive (within the limitations of being an MMO with such a focus on combat systems), scope of the game.

First, a little context. The world of Defiance (both the game and series) is set in the aftermath of an unsuccessful invasion of Earth. Partially terraformed into a nearly alien planet, an uneasy peace has been reached between the surviving humans and the assorted races that have now made Earth their home.

The series is set in what used to be the city of St. Louis, now the town of Defiance. A small regular cast gives you an intimate view into the lives of those endeavouring to make something for themselves in this new world. The game, however, is set in the San Francisco Bay area (some 2,800km or 1750mi away, which should make cross-overs problematic in a time where most travel seems to be by land, often over very broken terrain), and has the player taking the role of an Ark Hunter, a combat-savvy salvage expert who ends up involved in local affairs and saves the day (repeatedly) by shooting things.

About half the world of Defiance: The Game.

The cross-media interaction seems to come down to special episodic content in the game, which may feature characters from the series – I’ve completed the first episode, which featured Nolan and Irisa. And there are what are called EGO codes featured in the show (or at least, outside the game) each week, which will give you an in-game bonus when added to your account. (They expire pretty quickly, so there’s no point in delaying entering them)

The friendly side of the Uncanny Valley.

As I said, the game really satisfied a desire to shoot things – something sadly lacking in the MMOs I’ve played – I’ve never felt any interest in Call of Duty, Battlefield, or other military shooters, so I can’t comment on that genre. But, aside from occasional server irritations (lag, more lag, and sometimes everything-is-phased-most-of-the-time-and-also-laggy – which I came across briefly on the weekend) which usually comes right after server restarts, it’s been a fun and bullet-filled experience.

The levelling mechanic is called EGO, which refers to an implanted AI. As you do more – complete missions, pursuits (a form of achievement-hunting), challenges, local events or Arkfalls – your bond with your EGO grows stronger, and you unlock more powerful abilities. This takes the form of a board with four primary active (and upgradeable) powers (Blur, Cloak, Decoy and Overcharge) located around which are an array of passives which you also unlock and upgrade. You can only have one active ability at a time and a limited number of passives (up to 9 at EGO 1000), so it becomes a matter of choosing one and picking passives that support the ability’s style of gameplay (such as bonuses to cloak duration and cooldown, and extra damage while cloaked).

The Soul of my Sniper.

Another entertaining aspect of the game is the vehicle system. Especially the way it appears out of nowhere when you summon it. Sometimes you just whistle, and it appears. Anyway, there are three classes of vehicles: Runners (4x4 bikes, and my favourite so far), Rollers (cars or pickups, more durable than bikes but not as easy to control, especially off-road), and Cerebus (heavy vehicles, like driving an oil tanker when you’re fresh from a Runner). There are in-game challenges that award EGO for successfully completion, but I haven’t tried these yet. (There’s also a fast-travel system that takes you directly to a handful of locations around the map, which are handily also locations of equipment vendors)

Aside from your EGO rating, you gain specific experience with each class of weapon and vehicle, gaining perks with each as you use them more. There’s a level cap of 20 with each, so trying to cap yourself with everything is an additional challenge for those wanting a goal to chase.

Your skill bars go up, their health bars go down (in an ideal world).

There’s no crafting, but there’s a surprisingly subtle weapon-modding setup. Four components for each weapon (barrel, magazine, sight and stock) which affect the performance in various ways. (For example, I’m currently adding a fourth mod slot to my new sniper rifle to let me add a custom stock, which will cut down recoil by 10%) There are also sets, and using 2 or more of the same set can add additional bonuses. Also, sights come in three flavours. One which improves accuracy without affecting weapon zoom, and two which either increase or decrease default zoom level while adding the visual effect of using a scope while aiming.

A snappily-dressed Ark Hunter.

The weapons themselves have several rarity levels, and can currently be upgraded through the use on an in-game currency (but that’s apparently being effectively taken out with the big upcoming content patch). But! A weapon being higher rarity is no guarantee that it will be better than a lower rarity weapon of the same class - the variety and performance between weapons of the same class can make a remarkable difference, regardless of their EGO rating (indeed, you might be using your beginning weapon for quite some time).

One limitation you run into pretty quickly is your limited ammunition capacity. Each weapon type draws from the same pool – 15 for heavy weapons (grenade or rocket launchers, for example), 50 for sniper rifles (both bolt-action and semi-automatic), up to 500 for light machine guns (LMGs). This can be worked around by using different loadouts (new players have access to two and can purchase more in-game, or by manually switching to different weapon types), but you’ll often find yourself looking for a nearby weapon locker to reload.

Pew Pew Pew!

There are three other consumables: grenades (which are fairly self-explanatory), spikes (which create a small area buff), and stims (a personal buff).

What you wear is purely cosmetic, and has no effect on stats - headgear is separate to outfits, so you can mix-and-match (for better or worse). Some do look cooler than others though, but you won’t have access to many for a while (unless you pick up some in the store for real money). Also you can expect a good many reskins of the same costume models, but I guess that’s par for the course.

Along with the public events that you’ll run into while exploring (this is usually a fairly simple combat event, maybe repelling a couple of waves of bad guys (or bad aliens, or bad bugs, or sometimes bad cyborgs). The meat of the game (other than following missions) would have to be the Arkfalls, which are public events on a larger scale. (There are also player-summonable Arkfalls you can unlock with the Arkbreaker DLC, where you fight your way into fallen Arks and have interior areas to clean out – the standard ones are pretty much all exterior events)

These are pretty hard, requiring as many people of you can get – fortunately this isn’t that hard (provided there are people on), as the rewards for participation are pretty good. Just don’t expect to be very high on the scoreboard at the end, if you’re a low-EGO player. The open, tagging-free nature of the game is a definite plus in this situation. (Along with WildStar, I really wish WoW would take more steps in this direction – their group-centric philosophy really grates sometime, and not just when you’re fighting to tap mobs)

Larger Scale in action.

The game really has a theme-park feel to it, feeling like a super-violent Disney which is heavy on the Mad Max and Starship Troopers homages, especially in the early levels. But I found the curious thing is just how small the terrain feels – in some ways like a compressed version of something real, but much more static especially when you cross the (smaller) remains of the Golden Gate bridge. (Seriously, the vehicle physics are fun if not too realistic, but it’s still kind of jarring to watch your character drive into alien vegetation and instantly come to a halt as if it was made of concrete – and remain seated and not reacting to the deceleration, but that’s a different complaint)

On the whole, despite the lag and difficulty spikes (and wooden characters, and the fact that your avatar NEVER SPEAKS), I’m enjoying the game. Well, apart from a couple of boss fights in the main quest line that frustrated me by bumping up the difficulty substantially. The earlier one wasn’t too hard once I worked out the mechanics, but the one I’m on now (I think it’s very end of the main quest chain) is a very unforgiving 3-phase fight which has really left a bad taste in my mouth. I think I’ll end up abandoning the chain completely, and focusing instead on the episodic content and DLC (having picked up two of the five DLC packs so far). Plus there’s some new content due in a couple of days

As a pick-up-and-play game, it’s proven to be very entertaining. And it’s left me curious to see how Rift will run now – on my old system I had to turn off the advanced renderer in order to get a playable framerate; I’m hoping I’ll be able to get better results out of my new system (even though the video card is still the weakest link).

I’ve also started watching The Strain. The first episode was actually, well, just kind of mediocre (apart from the makeup effects, which were mostly pretty good – I think there’s just something about the actor playing Eph which grates on me). But I’d heard good things about the novels, so I gave them some time and intention. And after reading the trilogy came to the conclusion that they don’t suck, but they felt like a pretty sparse read (possibly due to the influence and origin of the first novel which started as a script and was then expanded into a nominally full novel). They do put an interesting twist on vampire mythos, and the origin story revealed in the third book takes them into an interesting new place.

Anyway, as a result of this I’ve been thinking about cross-media franchises (of which quite a few big games have become – not least of which has been WoW, due on the big screen in a couple of years).

It's Warcraft, Jim, but not as we know it.

It could be fun. I don’t recognise the logo, though. (Did they really need to change it?)

Off to see Guardians of the Galaxy later this week though. Which should make everything better. (Well, apart from the mobile game, which was just a Battleheart clone with irritating controls.)