Bless Unleashed – Tips for dealing with the mid-level advancement wall

If there was an award for “Not the Worst MMO”, Bless Unleashed would certainly qualify. A nice mix of first generation MMO RPG shared world experience and current gen graphics, it has fun combat and a good challenge later in the game. As I mentioned in a previous post, it also has a mountain of bugs and tuning issues that cast shadows on the better parts of the game. Here are a few tips I would give to friends who were considering the game, or who had played previously and quit due to frustration.

Invest in a B Grade Weapon early

The gear that drops from activities falls way short of the advancement curve by the mid-teen levels, until leveling becomes prohibitively difficult due to gear score penalties. Eventually, a red penalty foe has a whopping 66% damage reduction buff that makes facing them almost certain folly. Even in a group you would be a liability to keep alive. B grade weapons and armor with “OK” stats are saturated on the player driven Market Place, and can be found pretty cheap at pretty much any hour of the day. The items may not be keeper gear for end game, but will make the teen and early level twenty content fly by.

When to use Common Enhancement vs Master Enhancement

This same B grade gear can carry you to the “end” of the first major story with some care and upgrades, but herein lies the most immovable part of the advancement wall. Budgeting Gold, Artifact Cores, Star Seeds and Repair tools will challenge even the most resourceful player. It helps to understand the built in risk and cost of each type of enhancement vendor. The Common Enhancement vendor takes Gold and Artifact Cores, the Master Enhancement vendor takes Star Seeds and Cores but does not have a risk of damaging or downgrading your equipment – which happens startlingly often. By that I mean, you will absolutely trash your gear and lose progress. The failure rate is much higher than 50%, so approach with caution.

For gear that is unenhanced for it’s rarity (blue, purple, etc), the first upgrade cannot damage the equipment so should always be done at the Common Enhancement vendor. If you have a repair tool, the second upgrade should also be done at the Common vendor as a failure can be recovered from without risk of further damage, at least to the first bar. The third bar is a gamble, as it will cost a lot less gold than seeds but cannot be recovered without risking a second failure. Remember what I said about failure rate being higher than 50%? Failing twice or more in a row at the common vendor is a regular occurrence. Anticipate disappointment.

Star Seeds are throttled to a daily maximum per character exchange rate from gold, and obtained from limited other activities or season pass rewards. When you first start you may find yourself a surplus of these before you needed them, but eventually you will be bound by the daily cap to get new ones aside from good luck selling loot and resources on the market place. This makes the Master Enhancement vendor very expensive, although safe from risk of damaging and downgrading gear. For any gear I care about, I use the Master vendor for the third through fifth bars and the upgrade to the next tier. Once you are through the surplus of seeds you started with and fixed to the daily allowance of seeds, you will be able to afford to try and upgrade maybe one or twice a day per character. You might have a few days without any success at all. Naturally, if you have a knack for making a profit on selling loot and resources on the market place, you will have a lot less problems budgeting seeds for upgrades.

Eventually your gear score will creep out of the penalty for content in the late twenty range, where you will start seeing better loot to swap out your leveling gear and fine tuning your build for harder content, which will in turn net the gear to keep progressing. You will need approximately 860-900 gear score to complete the last steps of the main story, with end game bosses starting around 1100 gear score and up. It’s a bear, but the dungeons and challenges later are worth the climb. PvP after level 28 introduces several new ways to upgrade gear and is fun, and is a great way to meet competent dungeon mates as well. PvP will also teach you a LOT about which character build you may care to focus on and your overall survivability.

Do Regional Quests

Long before side quest availability tapers off in the late twenty range, you will have always available regional quests that award both XP, trash gear for artifact cores, and a fixed percent of skill experience points. The latter, SXP, is vital to upgrading your blessings to make sure you are doing the most damage you can in dungeons and other challenging content. There is no time too soon to start banking skill points for blessings you have yet to unlock, the later ones need 25 or more points to complete and aren’t viable when acquired (Crescent Moon, etc) without 5-10 points for unlocks upfront. As the number of SXP is fixed per activity and the SXP advancement rate is flat, running all of the available Regional Quests is the fastest way to get skill points by far.

Do the Repeatable Quests

When you first find each region’s repeatable quest NPC, it isn’t clear right away that these activities will eventually be required for one of the stronger blessing unlocks and late game advancement. If you wait until level 25 to start working on the repeatable quests for reputation, you will be days or a week or more off the minimum rep for the prestige quests, which are a fixed block for quest advancement after a certain point in the story. It is a deliberately built in advancement wall to prolong the time it takes to reach the last dungeons and boss encounters. I don’t like this design decision but Elder Scrolls Online had a similar veteran rank advancement wall when it first shipped that was far worse in my opinion, and not even in the same category as the World of Warcraft barriers to end game raiding.

Yes, it’s a grind.

Like pretty much every live-content ongoing game online today, after a point in the story you repeat content to continue advancing. Honestly I don’t think Bless Unleashed is worse than Destiny 2 for “the grind”, nor any other hybrid RPG shooter with character advancement beyond the story. There is a reason this type of post launch content is ubiquitous on consoles today and that is a lot of people enjoy it. Bless Unleashed isn’t a terrible grind and with additional content presumably in the pipes may be worth the time investment.

If you found this article I hope these tips help, or are at least somewhat cathartic to see someone else dealing with the same issues in an otherwise salvageable game. Now to get back to the game and Queue Red Basin 🙂

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Bless Unleashed – Unrequited Love of a Damaged MMO

image credit majornelson.com article

It would be a MMO RPG that spurred me to write again, and Bandai Namco’s “Bless Unleashed” was just the mix of three generations of gaming to make it happen. Equal parts first gen EverQuest, early World of Warcraft and current gen free to play titles like Black Desert or Elder Scrolls Online, Bless Unleashed hits all of the high and low notes at once. The combat combo system is attractive and the map is sprawling with locales that can be familiar and new at the same time. It also boasts one of the better character customization systems in the genre, both in comical and heroic proportions. The main story is long and characters are interesting. In many ways it looks like a valiant effort to create an new world that was the best of classic MMO RPG with substantially less load times and modern graphics. In some ways it succeeds, but the survival of the game is at risk from a mountain of bugs and progression tuning problems that eventually break the game completely. It’s down and needs a revive.

I’ve never been overly critical of games that ship with bugs, so issues like inconsistent line of sight and how AI or combat targeting react to it that are common in other titles I can deal with. Spells can hit objects that don’t seem to be in the way or just detach from the active target completely for no effect. Occasionally, the character will not start a new attack without warning until you roll to evade, which can be fatal. You get used to it, but it happens often enough that even well planned fights against multiple opponents can turn due to a glitch that does not reflect the skill of the player. You adapt, but it is a tough learning curve for players and very frustrating in challenging content.

Unfortunately, one of the better features of the game – crafting and upgrading gear – has one of the worst problems in the game. By design, gear upgrades require one of several currencies and various resources that can be limited per day if you do not have a surplus, and mid-to-late game demands you push your equipment to the limit. The problem itself is in the built-in failure rate of upgrade attempts along with the penalty of the failure, can not only downgrade your gear but cost one or more days of work. The rate of failure is definitely higher than 50%, with comments in chat about “six failures in a row” being a normal occurrence. With no way to reduce or eliminate this risk the equipment enhancement and crafting system is a model of unsustainability. There is no way to improve the chance of failure, only ways to shift how much of which currency your next attempt will cost. At current, each of my sessions ends with “can’t try again until tomorrow, no reason to keep playing” in which I will cross my fingers that I can get my gear back to where it was days ago and not worse.

There is no justification, no programmatic resource economy drain or gear advancement curve that could not be better solved by making the upgrade cost the actual expected number of resources, or at least off set by a way to negate the chance of failure (which itself is still a sum of resources).

Third, the problem with gear enhancement is blown into catastrophic proportions by the odd mid-twenties story advancement difficulty scaling relative to available rewards. Players may expect that if they complete all available main story and side quests that they will have at least the minimum gear to continue playing the story as they reach new areas, but in Bless Unleashed this is wildly far from the case. By 22, with plenty of time revisiting older areas, repeating existing dungeons and bosses, and pouring resources into crafting until I have no more on hand than I gather the same day and my hero is killed nearly instantly by common monsters in the area the main story has progressed to. It is possible beta was too short for this to be explored by a wide audience, and is certainly fixable, but currently it will be a hard progression blocker for the majority of players who would try this game.

By that I mean you literally cannot finish the story in this game, at all. Not without unnatural piles of resources like “star seeds” that are bought with gold and available from limited sources in a normal play through. Only the highest level characters can afford to amass them and market imbalance makes the items they sell available only to other players with similar resources. This would be a much different situation if the gear advancement wall was at the last phase of end game content, but as it stands this is a wall fifteen levels too soon and every one of my usual play group, including the person who recruited me to the game, had already given up by level 20.

It would be incomplete to discuss how this being “free to play” contributes to the problem, and how it doesn’t. Aside from “resource gathering boosts”, which can be purchased with real money, there is no tie between the fun cosmetics and and quality of life services available with lumena and the crafting system or progression curve. Most of the mounts or costumes or season pass boosts available for purchase together still do not approach the usual shelf cost of a 60 dollar game. Heck, for that matter most of players I know of Bungie’s “Destiny” spent the shelf cost, full price for each DLC and probably that much again for cosmetics, so Bless Unleashed by comparison is hardly a cash-pit. Still, I’d rather have spent a little on a cool warg mount because I was feeling great about the game, rather than as a conciliatory purchase for hoping an extra alt and more grinding would fix my main character’s broken gear.

It is still a new game. World of Warcraft had issues of its own for the first half year, perhaps a bit later into the progression curve. It would take years before the end game content was available for more than a few percent of the active playerbase, so in that manner Bless Unleashed is in good company.

I just hope that Bandai Namco can come through with that clutch resurrect.

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The Outlaw – Anthem Speculative Fan Fiction Short

In my dreams, I can fly forever. The night sky became as endless stars shuddering under an omnipresent groan like stressed ice.

Against the towering cliffs that shrouded the ancient ruins, the Elementalist was but barely a speck of light shrouded in the dark, curtained by waterfalls and overgrowth. She watched from her trance-like state as a pack of Wolven prowled far below, much like the ones that had killed her squad just weeks before, but her blood ran cool. They had been destroyed. These, unaware she hovered far above them, were of insignificant existence.

She felt nothing. Her form long twisted by an echo of rage, her mind was wholly bent on something she could sense but not see. There is something in these ruins; the same draw that called the storm-touched chimera to wander its halls, and now, the Scar.

Cunning scavengers, the Scar were drawn like flies to a carcass wherever shaper tech remained. These were heavily armed, far from the pathetic scouts usually found in this sector. She would find their quarry first but could not risk an open fight.

Already one of their hardened sharpshooters was perched on an outcropping of the ruins surveying the cliff shadows she hid in suspiciously. She would have to be patient. Her shields shimmered around her as she hovered beneath a crumbling arched bridge, just out of view of the Scar lookout as she evaluated the safest approach to the darkened corner of the ruins the Scar seemed to be congregating at. She had nothing but mundane scraps on scans of this location previously but expected a group this well reinforced had better intel. Furthermore, by their manner they were still searching for whatever they came for. Her attention turned to the glassy pools below.

That sound.. a pulse nearly inaudible that grappled her like a phantom pain rippled from below the surface of the pool. She darted from her cover, locking gaze with the Scar sharpshooter for an instant before disappearing into the water, where she spotted a subterranean entrance to the ruins eroded by a hidden water channel. Above, the Scar searched for her.

She emerged on the other end of the channel in complete darkness, lit only by the optics on her blackened javelin. Crumbling sarcophagi lay at the center of the walled-in chamber, most appeared to have long since been looted but something faint had registered on scanners. Outside the stone walls, a sudden commotion erupted into gunfire. Over the din of Scar scrambling she could make out the distinct sound of Sentinel issue assault rifles. These ruins were out of range of standard patrol but the gathering of Scar must have attracted them.

She had been prepared to fight the Scar if she must but tangling with Sentinels without preparation was a risk too great. As she contemplated her retreat, she spotted a freshly crumbled section of wall leading into a smaller chamber where a stone chest rest undisturbed. She slowly lifted the top, a soft glow reached out towards her and a feeling of wonder filled her heart as the memory of accomplishment; and then bitter resentment as a will beyond her own flexed its control over her as she retrieved the precious contents of the stone box. A single scrap of dark stained cloth nearby shone a sunburst insignia. Somewhere in her, a flicker of recognition. Then came a deafening crash.

An explosion of rocks and dust shattered the largest of the chamber walls as Sentinel vs. Scar combat shredded through steel and stone alike, revealing the once hidden chamber to a burst of daylight. She immediately took to flight, speeding out of the disadvantageous cover while she had an element of surprise on her side to assist in her escape. Unlucky for her however, the Scar sharpshooter had been waiting to reacquire her and pierced her shields in a single shot, sending her plummeting to the ground. Shaken but unharmed, she took low cover, un-shouldering her long rifle as her shields began to replenish. Sentinel chatter indicated they may have been flanked by Scar reinforcements, including the detachment’s elite.

Bolting skyward with the throttle open wide, she outpaced the waiting laser sight of the sharpshooter scope, as it attempted to reacquire her. The crack of the Sharpshooters rifle pierced the air as it fired off a round, it zipped past her narrowly missing her left arm. She stopped to hover on an impulse. Swiftly spinning around she took aim and returned a single high caliber round to devastate its primitive shields before unleashing her javelin’s unstable potential energy. With its shield depleted the twisted snarl of lightning reached out and struck the Sharpshooter. As the smoke cleared it was clear that only cinders remained where the sharpshooter once stood. However, she had now drawn the attention of both the Sentinels and the Scar Elite.

A rapid series of pops and bursts of smoke was the only warning she would get as an incoming missile barrage from the Scar Heavy, concussed the air around her as she scrambled to dodge the incoming attack. She plunged towards the ground, dodging and weaving the incoming fire while her shields tried to compensate. Critical system warnings lit her expressionless face as she skimmed the pool surface, rapidly approaching the blind side of the slow but heavily armored and dangerous Scar. Memory of the hulk’s known armor flaws haunted her aim as she pierced its ammo reserves with explosive result. Opposing Sentinel fire cut the brute down where it stood. The surviving Scar began to scatter.

There was a still moment where neither she nor the Sentinels acted as tendrils of muzzle smoke dissipated into the chill evening air. In the distance a lone grabbit’s ear cocked to one side. One of the Sentinel had sustained substantial armor damage and clung to what was left of the rocky cover they had fought from. The other pair of Sentinel had fresh magazines loaded and studied intently the harried Elementalist for her next move. Ripples of charged potential roiled on her suit’s armaments.

Before either side could make a move, a thunderous boom shook the sky above as a Colossus class javelin entered the fray from the cliffs above, guns blazing. The air around the Elementalist vibrated ahead of the shelling as she blinked to narrowly escape incineration. Spent brass casings sang across the rocks from the heavy main cannon of the Tarsis-forged embodiment of might, quickly draining what remained of her shields as she fled deeper into the ruins. The Colossus stopped its pursuit once it had positioned itself between her and the injured Sentinel. She turned quickly mid-flight to look back at the Colossus as she rounded a corner to safety.

The Colossus had now loaded a fresh drum of ammunition, sights steady on the hallway she had disappeared into. On any other day this would have made for a sporting fight, but she carried with her a treasure she must deliver.

She turned, descending again into the hidden water passage and through to the other side. She glided to a stop just outside before taking a flight path that could expose her position, checking her shields and ammunition.   That is when she heard a familiar growl, followed by several more. Her respite was short lived, as the pack of Wolven she had previously tracked lay waiting to ambush her.

(Update: additional edits by Anthem Insider community member kyu2130 , thank you)

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Eight Things Fallout 76 Gets Right

Despite the emergence of a hate click economy, some people are still enjoying their video games. Fallout 76 is the latest to weather the manufactured rage of an increasingly toxic online community, and will be a new measure of a publishers resilience to criticism. While Bethesda games have earned a certain infamy for shipping with a lot of bugs, and Fallout 76 certainly did, I believe most of the criticism leveled against the game is undeserved. There are quite a few innovative ideas pushed in the latest title in the franchise, ideas I hope are not drowned out by malcontent noise. Here are just eight of the reasons I am enjoying Fallout 76 as much as, and in some ways more than Fallout 4.

Everything is a side story. For every player that has ever put off the “main story” in a Bethesda title for as long as possible, or rushed through it, Fallout 76 is a natural leap forward. There is absolutely no camera-stealing main quest or cut scene heavy narrative – only audio tape and written notes hinting at things you can optionally pursue. It errs on the side of next to no direction at all, making every snippit of lore hinting at something to find a bit more interesting. Some of it is just flavor, but most of the time it is very effective at creating a storytelling device in a world in which everyone is dead except for you and the other players. There are a lot of different opinions on how this was executed, but I felt it is a near-perfect survival horror RPG atmosphere; one that is frequently dark, occasionally funny and often sad.

Puzzles you have to read to solve. Some quests are more forgiving than others for auto suggesting the next step hints (or marking an exact location for you), but in a lot of the find-it-yourself exploration puzzles key clues require actually listening to the content of the audio tapes or reading computer files and paper notes.. It has been a while since any RPG game outside the indie circle tasked players with basic deduction or light reading to solve dungeons, which I am thrilled to see in a full release of Fallout. I hope the next Elder Scrolls carries the torch.

The “Dragonborn” trope no more. Not to pick on Skyrim specifically, which I still rate as one of my ten favorite games of all time, but the “savior” trope in so many single player RPG and Action Shooters is so common that the story devices to explain them in later sequels are even tropes themselves. From Halo to Mass Effect and earlier Elder Scrolls titles, the “avatar” essentially becomes legend – occasionally even a literal deity. Some series (looking at you, 343) have yet to resolve this and it begins to drag the character down. You save the world NN times and eventually you are a parody of yourself.. but I digress. Fallout 76 avoids this with grace with their tiptoe into multiplayer, making everyone a survivor of one of the earliest vaults to open after the bombs drop – and each left to their own motivations create a narrative highly resistant to predictability.

Character build feels meaningful. The fresh face of the series S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stat advancement lends itself to diverse builds and a proper sense of character ownership. Being able to collect and eventually switch out different sets of ability cards for different play styles takes this further, making the deep spec system of Fallout 4 seem primitive in comparison. In a December update, an additional feature will be added to allow players to respec these points (perhaps at a higher level, when it would make the most sense) to better fit their card collections.

Power Armor is useful again. This was actually one of my biggest complaints about Fallout 4, which was that Power Armor was relatively fragile even with upgrades and a properly outfitted hero with advanced light armor upgrades could match or outperform a suit of Power Armor wearing upgraded civilian attire. Too many times I would collect fusion core fuel for my suit to tackle a difficult area only to carry broken pieces of the armor out with the loot I did get. Worse yet, these sets weren’t all that easy to collect, which means that my top tier set with fancy paint job was more or less just a display piece unless I wanted to ruin it by wearing it once. Fallout 76 is almost the opposite case – I feel safe in my armor, and the wear is slow enough that with care I can collect everything I would need to fix it before it actually breaks. Fusion core fuel is still rare enough to make it feel valuable, but otherwise obtainable enough I can wear my Power Armor all the time.

Crafting. Like a good RPG, crafting evolves with level, and finding new plans and recipes makes for a natural reward system for doing otherwise optional side quests. There are also some plans you can only get by capturing workshops, which dips into potential player vs. player engagement. By blending gear, C.A.M.P., food and water upgrades into your crafting progression makes the time spent working on crafting worth while.

Multiplayer-light is strangely effective. I had more apprehension on how this would work than any other feature ahead of trying the game, and have been pleasantly surprised that it feels exactly like I expect Skyrim might have as a multiplayer title, not worse or better. Interactions are far from mandatory, outside of proximity chat being on by default. If someone attacks you, you can opt to ignore them and they will do next to no damage until you attack back – which you can manage somewhat by using V.A.T.S. to target to help avoid accidentally striking another player unless you mean to. Individual mileage may vary here, and it is open to some troll-ish behavior, but by comparison I would say trolling in Fallout 76 is very mild compared to troll playgrounds like Sea of Thieves (which to be fair, is part of their pitch, after all). Dying in PvP feels well balanced, and cooperative play seems intuitive enough. I’ve probably played 80% solo, but each time I do team up with a few friends we have had a lot of fun no matter what we were working on. Many of the quests or location specific events work best with multiple people, which is a welcome change to puzzles in Fallout.

Playing without saves changes how I play. Every Elder Scrolls and previous Fallout title to date shared in common the need to save frequently and sometimes in multiple save slots in the event of sudden death (or progression-breaking glitch), which intentionally or not lends to a certain sense of safety that you can quickly rewind time if something goes wrong. Moving to a persistent online world trades off this ability, making for a greater sense of caution and thinking ahead, and combined with the added requirement to manage your own food water and general health sets a completely different tone; one more fitting of a survival horror. This feature was actually key to how survival mode in Fallout 4 worked, but was probably only experienced by a small subset of players who saw it as a enticing challenge. Now in Fallout 76, when you get surprised by a pack of Super Mutants and the first sound you hear is “CATCH!” followed by a grenade-close warning, you get the full experience of the ambush rather than just reaching for the quick-load hotkey. Forget to check a sketchy area doorway floor once for a trap wire and you’ll visually check every room you walk into after that – guaranteed. (well, until you don’t and die anyway, but I digress again). This change alone evolves the title into something a lot more engaging in ways previous Fallout weren’t – at least out of the box.

To conclude, I do concede that there are a lot of bugs still to fix in Fallout 76 that should have been fixed before it shipped, but I do not subscribe to the toxicity that thrives in the online gaming community at the release of practically every other game these days. Fallout 76 is a great game and a worthy addition to the franchise, and I hope the same creative minds that made it possible are not discouraged from pushing the envelope in the future by a narrow subset of noisy gaming fans.

Now, back to West Virginia to see what other new friends Rose has for me to meet.

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My Five Favorite 4K HDR Games

One piece at a time, I upgraded the components of my console gaming setup to support true 4K and HDR, and found myself revisiting a lot of games to see how much better they looked, or didn’t. Some games that seemed like contenders for exceptional graphics at the high end lose a lot of their luster in actual gameplay due to UI or effect choices, and others seem to apply the ultra HD textures inconsistently at best. However, there are some games that really do shine in 4K next to their 1080p versions. Here are my five favorite.

Forza 7

It is no accident you might find this as the running demo at your electronics store for the most expensive televisions, as this flagship of eye candy by Turn Ten is laps ahead in terms of extreme graphics performance.  Forza 7 and its playful openworld peer Horizon 3 are as well tuned as the real world cars they depict, and are a must play for any racing enthusiast. The cars, environment and weather effects are pure bliss on the eyes, and play as well too.

Sea of Thieves

This unique and immersive open seas pirate adventure by Rare Ltd is one of the most dramatic examples of a game that looks completely different on 1080p next to a proper 4K HDR display running on the same hardware. Its cartoonish style is deceptively nuanced, and features some of the most jaw dropping lighting and dynamic weather. The animation is also exemplary, maintaining its looks even in combat while keeping an ear to ear grin. Hats off to the art direction team for making one of the best looking games of this generation.

Assassin’s Creed: Origins

Where this game does suffer a bit from losing polish in chaotic combat sequences, it more than makes up for it in its breathtaking presentation of historical settings and grand sense of scale. The included free camera photo mode makes these moments all the more enjoyable, giving the player opportunities to capture truly spectacular screen shots. From shots of Senu against a sky of kites over the Nile at sunset, Bayek atop monuments, wind sailing, free diving or sneaking through glittering hoards of treasure lit by torchlight, Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Origin is visually quite stunning.

Mass Effect: Andromeda

I include this game although it was never upgraded on consoles to proper 4K like PC, it does support HDR and is nothing short of a masterpiece of visceral, well animated graphics that seem to get better (instead of worse) the more serious the action gets. Everything from the environments, UI, vehicles, weapons and armor are showcase examples of top shelf, built for 4K graphics. The Bioware title had a mostly undeserved initial reception for odd issues that included character faces, some silly animations and such but I felt they had near zero impact on actual gameplay where it mattered. At the heart of the game was a genuine breakthrough in combat mechanics that still look and play a generation ahead of most other games. Take issue with the facial appearances of some characters if you will, or a departure from deeper RPG elements of Mass Effect 2 and 3, but this game still shines on its merits.

Destiny 2

Bungie’s grand space opera shooter is another prime example of a game that looks generations different on a 4K HDR display next to a 1080p one. The lighting and effects aren’t even close. I do believe some compromises are made in the fastest of the game modes like PvP (similar to the degradation one might notice in For Honor), but in nearly every other case it remains faithful under fire, made all the better by some of the best monster and environment designers in the business.

Notes on the future of 4K gaming

Looking ahead, it isn’t a guarantee that the coming generation of games will automatically look better. In fact, the burden is on them to match and maintain (let alone surpass) the standard given accelerated release schedules and a shift in what is considered to be innovative in games. Upcoming megahits like Anthem look pretty on the E3 big screen, but will it play as well as Destiny 2 or Mass Effect: Andromeda? Contender with good credentials Cyberpunk 2077 melted faces in a closed-door gameplay demo but is already getting side-eye for not sharing this footage due to it (presumably, maybe) changing before release. Battlefield V looks promising, but may also get sucked into the propeller of Battle Royale resource prioritization. Fallout 76 is too early to tell. Shadow of the Tomb Raider *should* be born to win, given how good Rise of the Tomb Raider already looks but the E3 trailer was kind of modest in comparison.

Are high end graphics the most important feature of a game? Arguably not, but this coming year or so should really show if we can have both.

 

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Three Sheets to the Wind – Thoughts on the Sea of Thieves Beta

It is easy to see why there are so many poems about the ocean. “My heart lies in the sea, at anchor”, and so forth. Not many games manage capture this feeling, an intangible, deep enjoyment of sailing. Not only does Rare Ltd pull it off but spectacularly so, crafting an experience so engrossing time slips away, day turns to night as you navigate under starry water-colored skies. But this is no ordinary seafaring simulator – these waters are a veritable nest of knives; a voyage punctuated by completely unhinged PvP hijinks and peril. Sea of Thieves is a masterpiece-in-progress.

Pirates, In Progress

The beta being a slice of early gameplay features just one of the quest-giving characters at the starting island, and most of the character or ship customization has been kept under wraps for now. Your pirate is randomly generated for the beta, and you start with all of the basic equipment you’ll need and a ship appropriate to the size of your crew. If you begin alone or with just one teammate, you have a single mast, two-cannon ship that is smaller, fast and relatively easy to manage. Team up with three friends and you get an impressive warship with three masts and a mouthful of cannons, but have more to manage in terms of keeping sail length and angle ideal for wind conditions. Other tasks aboard include repairing the hull should it be damaged by rocks or cannon fire, bailing water from any number of ways it can get aboard, reloading cannons and keeping a sharp eye out for other ships. Between destinations you can get fall-down drunk, dance and play music together with your crew. Players must communicate to navigate, as the ships map and wheel cannot easily be crewed by the same person – and definitely not when the pressure is on. It is important that everyone on the crew is able to do most of the tasks required to keep the ship off the rocks and in fighting shape, as once combat starts all hell breaks loose.

Salty Dogs

Dying in PvP is worth a brief stay on a ghostly Ferry of the Damned; a short time-out before returning near your last location. Shoot, stab and outwit the opposing crew, steal any treasure they may have had and protect your own. Escape, or for the truly committed: sink their ship. More than likely, a lot of the above with perhaps a pursuit mixed in. The penalties for dying are only relative to the risk of losing the treasure chests, for which the treasure maps may have cost some gold. This dynamic fuels a nothing to lose, winner takes all spirit. As of closed beta there is no strict PvP ranking, scoring, tracking or advancement other than the standard advancement for turning in a treasure chest. As-is, this works great and keeps superfluous concepts of kill-death ratio off the table, and negates some potential for griefing or other bad behavior. That isn’t to say you wouldn’t run the chance of encountering a crew with underhanded intentions or find yourself attacked while vulnerable, but rather that the reward for attacking a smaller crew isn’t measurably better than sailing to find your own treasure, nor is the setback for failure. As the game heads to retail release I hope any system added later to augment or celebrate PvP maintains some code of honor to preserve the current zany feel of ship to ship combat.

In spirit of full disclosure, my very first treasure chest was quickly swiped by a pirate who had trailed me to the island and watched me dig it up. He however had forgot to put anchor down on his own ship. I didn’t get the chest back, but he had a long swim back to that ship, if he ever got there. I think I saw sharks. Lessons, learnt.

Scanning the horizon

Tangle with a few well-coordinated crews and you’ll develop a good habit to mind the horizon. You will also do well to keep good friends. Sailing alone, as well described right in the opening menu of the game is quite dangerous. Crewing your ship solo is difficult enough without a cannon in sight, and truly frightening when you spot the topsail of a triple mast ship… with lanterns dimmed and bow in your direction.

Beta only provides a basic glimpse at how character advancement will work, which appears to follow an intuitive “get maps and find treasure” curve. More advance maps have multiple treasure chests and may also require solving riddles or locating and defeating enemies. As you rank up better gear and more advanced objectives unlock. Presumably this will include ship and character customization in final release.

I really enjoyed every minute of beta, and am excited to see the final work at release. I recorded a few clips of solo game play from one of my return voyages, mostly just sailing, but they show a glimpse of how pretty the game is.

I hope to see you on the high seas!

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Star Wars Battlefront II – Not A Trap, Actually

Crush the Rebellion. Commander Iden Versio leads Inferno Squad from the written novel page to a breakout cinematic gaming experience that has to be played to believe. Combining the solid variety of multiplayer and arcade game modes of the first next-gen Battlefront reboot, stunning top shelf graphics and the A+ story mode the series deserves, EA’s Star Wars Battlefront II is the game we were looking for. Or, so the developer had hoped.

With launch week marred by a few wildly out of control fans threatening individual developers over micro-transaction related features, the opening cry of horns and trumpets felt more like a disturbance in the force. I feel this was hugely undeserved and representative of an increasingly toxic culture within gaming that has soured the launch of many titles the last few years, and in this case, it was over mostly bogus information. Even today I see negative comments about the game tied back to an idea that you have to pay real money to unlock certain heroes, which is inaccurate in more than one way.

Edit 11/17 – Huge Update: EA removes micro-transactions, for now

Heroes unlock via in-game credit system, NOT from real-world purchased currency.

Star Wars Battlefront II has two forms of progression, one represented by experience points earned only through multiplayer matches, and another measured by “credits” earned through all activities, including a big handful for story mode and more via tutorials, challenges in all game modes, and based on merit in multiplayer. Game Revolution breaks down specifically how long they estimate it would take to unlock all of the heroes, but not counting the large chunk of credits you’ll have after finishing the story and some arcade (from which you can definitely get your favorite hero), it is reasonable to expect you could unlock a hero in a night or two of regular gaming. Furthermore, none of the “crystal” credits you can purchase with real money can be used to unlock heroes, and the crates you can buy with those crystals will not unlock a hero, so there is literally no way to unlock the hero with cash. This is a far cry better than the “time saver” bundles available to be purchased for other EA shooters, which actually do unlock functionally superior equipment and loadouts other non-pay-to-win players have to earn via advancement.

Edit: As mentioned in a release day statement (11/17/2017), EA has since turned off micro-transactions and disabled use of the “Crystals” credit option, which will be reintroduced at a later date following review of the feature.

As Game Revolution also points out, there are other potentially more valuable things to spend your in-game credits on, like upgrading the loadout for the base troopers and vehicles you are leveling up, which gives players more choices on how to advance and get an edge in fast-paced multiplayer.

My officer is almost level 15

Crates, earned for completing challenges, logging in daily or when purchased via in-game credits or crystals, do contain Star Card upgrades that directly improve your loadout in multiplayer, so there is validity to the idea that you can buy superior gear with cash, but you get these so frequently there is hardly merit to dropping your beer night monies into randomly drawn upgrade cards you already get multiples of in an average gaming night.

Bomber with an astromech repair upgrade Star Card

 

No, seriously, these are the droids we are looking for

I am actively recommending Star Wars Battlefront II to all of my gaming friends. The gameplay is a fantastic mix of the more serious, gritty Battlefield 1 it shares an engine with and the lighter-hearted arcade feel I associate with Star Wars titles. The various maps and game modes draw from at least all seven main movies, and includes additional locations and references to anthology and novel locations including Christie Golden’s “Inferno Squad”. Every aspect of the game from the breathtaking cinematics and rousing story to the frequently cheeky humor in multiplayer and kid-loose-in-a-toy-store flight combat shows the developers share a true passion for Star Wars and for great gaming. The actor capture and performances make it feel like you are in the movie, and I was left stunned at its conclusion.

I hope to see you online in a galaxy far, far away!

 

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