Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Fighting the good fight.

You can find part 1 here, and part 2 here.

I regret that I wasn't able to meet my self-imposed deadline for part 3. I am afraid that a few days off turned into a personal vacation, which morphed into a sit-around-the-flat-watching-TV-a-thon whose iron clutches I barely managed to escape with my life.

But better late than never, I bring you the latest installment in the adventures of SciFi, handsome and charming Technomage-about-town.

Before I continue, please be aware that these are not intended to be comprehensive reviews. This is simply my first opinion of each of the three games, in the time I had availavble.

Quick! To the SciFiMobile!

First up is City of Heroes.

The City of Praetoria is found in a parallel world in the City of Heroes universe, where an evil dictator rules with an iron fist and keeps the city in martial lockdown. When you purchase the game, you are promised the choice of joining either the lawful Powers Division, a secret police of super-heroes; or The Resistance, a rebellious alliance of lovable freedom fighters.

I jumped in, eager to see what lay in store for SciFi. First up, I was given a mission to infiltrate The Resistance, but being of a neutral/good persuasion, I quickly took the option to join the resistance, and work for them instead. My first resistance mission? Infiltrate the Powers Division as a double (or was it now triple?) agent.

So it seems whatever option I took, I was required to run the same set of missions. The promised "choice" turned out to be between a black tie with white stripes, or a white tie with black stripes.

But it is not until it comes to combat that City of Heroes really seems broken.

Being bored while playing an mmo isn't a new or totally unusual experience. Sometimes, even the best online game can feel grindy and repetitive. You fall into a rut of fighting the same mobs using the same spells in the same rotation, then moving on to fresh packs. But what I wasn't expecting when I loaded up City of Heroes was to be bored during combat.

Perhaps it was the power set I had chosen, but each fight seemed to be "Mind control one guy, zap another until he dies, zap first guy until he dies." And it took an AGE to clear every pack. To give you an idea of how slow the combat is, let me just tell you that the "brawl" (ie. "punch the guy standing right in front of you") ability is on a 2-second cooldown.

I'd say that City of Heroes is the slowest MMO I've ever played, but I once tried EVE Online.

Luckily, with my secondary power set of force-fields, it was impossible for me to die. I could throw up a shield which seemed to make me invulnerable to (but unable to) attack. Just like a WoW paladin, but without that pesky 12-second duration.

Missions that required me to fight my way through to the other side of a base, I could complete by just throwing on a shield and sprinting my way through, ignoring the attacks of the base's defenders. The mobs would leash back to their spawn point after an incredibly short distance. I didn't even have to break line-of-sight.

Returning to City of Heroes to find it in this state was depressing. It was like visiting my childhood home to find it had been turned into a crackhouse. Again.

Black Talon is our Adversary!

Since I last played Champions Online, the game has gone free to play. Since this change involved a pretty major patch, I was expecting some pretty major changes. The official patch notes proclaimed that the early gaming experience had been given a complete overhaul. I was therefore quite disappointed to find myself Shutting Down All The Beacons once again. (They're broadcasting a high frequency signal that's driving the Qularr crazy! That's what caused them to attack!)

The starting zone experience, while fun the first time, has not changed since beta and launch, and I know from experience how tedious it can be to run multiple times. The only difference is that now, when you are done, you do not walk out to a fanfare of adulation from the citizens and heroes you helped. Rather you are shown a cutscene, set several weeks later, showing the city's cleanup operation in progress.

And nothing makes the Champions' alpha-dog, Defender, seem less heroic than the sight of him standing there with a clipboard, directing bulldozers. I mean it: A clipboard. He could be lifting giant slabs of rubble, but noooooo. Afterwards, you find him co-ordinating all of the heroes in the city, like some sort of super-powered middle-management type. Superman gets other people to do this sort of grunt work for him. He calls it Monitor Duty. Defender, look into this. It's costing you a serious amount of cool points.

After this cut-scene, you are then thrown back to the victory celebration. Except now it's set several weeks after the invasion, so why are all these people still here? Why did they wait until now to applaud? I assume these changes are because the next player levelling zone is now Millennium City, rather than the wildernesseseseses originally offered, and Cryptic wanted to explain what happened to all the rubble and burning buildings. But to be honest, the whole thing seems slapped together in a bit of a hurry.

One of the biggest problems I found with this game is the "star rating" on your character. As you fight, it builds gradually to increase your character's power. A string of victorious fights means a healthy boost to DPS. However, the inverse is also true: It decreases whenever you die. So any group I joined seemed to break up after the first wipe. After all, if we were unable to beat the boss while we had a 5-star rating, what hope did we have at 3.5 stars?

Another issue is the loading screens. I defeated a boss in a warehouse, levelled up, and went to pick a new power. In that time, I saw a loading screen leaving the warehouse, one entering the training area, and then another entering the test area to try out my new power. Then another loading screen heading back into the training area, and another re-entering the city.

Aside from that, the game is still a hell of a lot of fun, especially considering it has no monthly fee. Provided you don't mind microtransactions being shoved in front of your face every 0.04 seconds, it's totally worth it. The game and UI is colourful and user-friendly and the mission-tracker is a pleasure to use, with multi-stage quests flowing naturally to completion.

You don't have to compete with other players for a name, and everyone shares one giant server. With new tutorial tooltips that help a lot in the early stages, this makes Champions a lot smoother to get into and start enjoying for newcomers.

Speaking of Newcomers...

DC Universe Online. If you've read my blog until now, you may think I'm a bit of a DC fan. You'd be right. I have been waiting for this MMO since I first heard it was in development.

I have to say I wasn't disappointed. From the moment you log in (after possibly the best opening cinematic I've ever seen) you are laying the beat-down on brainiac battle bots with mouse-driven fighting combos that make City of Heroes seem even slower in comparison. And you can fly from the get-go. No waiting until level 6 before hovering slowly about the place like a crisp packet caught in an updraft. Log in, hold space, smash head into ceiling.

After a short but fun start zone, I was dropped into Gotham City and sent to take on Scarecrow and Bane. The game has you fighting these uber villains, but doesn't break realism (is that the word for this?) by having other, 2nd-string, NPC heroes help you out. Having someone like Batwoman with you when you take down Scarecrow is a nice way of balancing the power scales. You don't feel over-powered for you level, but neither do you get the impression you're only tagging along with the big boys.

Once you get in-game, the costume limitations that I spoke of at the character creation stage have an explanation. As you level and gain new items (given as mission rewards or for completing achievements) you unlock new costume options. While the other two games have "Tailors" who charge a hefty fee to change your character's look, you can alter your DCUO character's appearance on the fly (ahaha) for free with just a few menu clicks. There still isn't as many customisation options as the other two games, but as each costume element needs to be collected to unlock it, this may be a blessing in disguise for us completists.

The drawbacks with this game undoubtedly stem from its dual-platform nature. The UI is clearly designed to work on a console, and is unreservedly horrible - perhaps the worst I've seen in an MMO. The quest-tracker tracks one quest at a time, and if you take one, and then another, you have to manually re-activate the first quest's tracking once you are done. You finish a mission, return to the NPC who gave it to you, he says "well done", and then you have to open your mission log and complete it. "Clunky" isn't the word.

"Clunky" is also not the word for the chat interface. You know the expression "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all"? Well, not saying anything at all has never been easier, thanks to DCUO's chat system. It's so bad, I don't even want to make any jokes about it. It would be like making fun of a cancer patient, or a political prisoner.

But lordamercy, the combat is fun. I mean really fun. Think of how much fun it might be, and then add 40%. It's more fun than that. My character rips into packs of mobs like the Tasmanian Devil, laying about with staff and powers in a beautiful tandem of destruction. You build energy with your chosen weapon, and spend it on your chosen powers, and the whole thing works so well, you can easily lose hours in a single session.

At level 10, I noticed nearby wanted posters offering monetary rewards for defeating "New Villains". I found out that "New Vilains" in this case meant "Other Players". The game rewards, encourages, and rejoices in world PvP. Not here the restrictive Arena-style battles of the other games. Here you see a red diamond on your mini-map (indicating a nearby player-villain, ususally called something like "dkdeadpooldk") you let loose your best battle-cry and plunge, fists-first, into combat. Every time I brought back five bounties, the wanted poster asked me for five more. Hunting villains is so incredibly more-ish. It's like eating pringles, with the added advantage of knowing I'm making a Danish kid cry somewhere.

The PvE side of the game isn't lacking either, with every mission fully voice-acted (by proper talent) and although I haven't got there yet, the end-game seems fairly rounded-out.

Of all three games, if I could have DCUO's content, with Champions interface, I'd be happier than Defender with a large stack of paperwork to sort and file.

As it is, I think I shall be renewing my subscription to DCUO, and praying to Jor-El that a patch for the interface comes sooner, rather than later.

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