Battlefield Beta Breakdown

Evidently, DICE does not believe in resting on one’s laurels. The pioneers who brought us the undisputed king of epic-scale sixty-four player battles in Battlefield 4 already had their sights on something higher, and are finally able to reveal the game they had been wanting to make for years: Battlefield 1. The “reboot” in sequel numbering is symbolic of a return to the root of all-out warfare in what history would call World War I. DICE invited players to help beta test their latest build of the nearly finished title, which features just one battle in the Sinai Desert. At a glance it seems like a narrow slice of the game to preview, but the resulting mayhem feels anything but small, and is shaping out to be the best in the series to date.

Keeping the familiar

More than any other modern wartime themed shooter, the Battlefield family is distinguished by a specific feel , one that starts with a common foundation. Squad up with five friends and choose between one of four iconic supporting roles, control heavy armor and dominate objectives to win.  DICE did not meddle with its successful formula much at all here. The four classes to choose and develop over time include the close quarters anti-armor Assault class, a field Medic, passive defense and ammunition lugging Support and the sharpshooting Scout. Individual performance is secondary to successfully coordinating capture and defense of key locations and mitigating enemy heavy armor while keeping your own running. It’s no accident this will feel familiar right away to returning players.

Raising the stakes

Unlike the near-present day battles in the hypothetical clash between US, Russia and China in Battlefield 4, Battlefield 1 is a trip back to the earliest conflicts of WWI nearly a century prior. The changes are far from cosmetic. Gone are the signs of hyper technology in every aspect of game play, including effective visible range, how spotting enemies is communicated between allies, and nearly every other aspect of the UI. Other changes come from improved game engine, like dramatic weather effects and ultra-realistic detailed environments. Everything from weapons, vehicles and uniforms and even dynamic dialog is historically accurate. Marksman rifles excepted, nearly all of the fighting takes place at much closer range than ever before, including the most terrifying trench and tight quarter troop to armor fights I’ve ever played in a game. Even the sounds the soldiers make in reaction to a threat – like a live grenade or soldier charging with a bayonet – is downright frighteningly intense. Even more so is the inevitable gas attack. Every troop carries a gas mask – a startlingly authentic and claustrophobic recreation of what you might see and hear – your own labored breathing, mostly, as you struggle to make out friend or foe in the dense smoke through dirty lenses.

BF1_Gas_Mask

Among my favorite improvements and additions are the classic WWI dog fighters and bombers. Battlefield already had the best air combat outside a dedicated flight combat sim (and still better than most of those), but the historically accurate planes in Battlefield 1 are one of the most genuinely breathtaking additions to the game, and are a dream to pilot. To be quite honest, I feel that a lot of the jets in prior Battlefield titles were silly and Helicopters, well, that’s something else, but here I feel like a kid again imagining the dog fights of legend including those of the Red Baron himself.

Mixing things up

Borrowing a theme from an unlikely source – Star Wars Battlefront –  special weapon crates scattered around the map offer much more of an upgrade than map-specific weapons in prior Battlefield titles. So far in beta I’ve seen a plated armor heavy machine gunner, an anti-tank rifle and the shock trooper style flame thrower. Teaser trailers and other alpha footage suggest there are other of these “elite classes”, each which turn your soldier into a much tougher than usual threat that can turn the tide of a close fight. Also available is cavalry, which can either be chosen prior to spawn or by hopping on a loose horse in mid fight, offering valuable speed and vital saber reach in melee quarters. A well timed charge can close the gap with marksman, a squad mate in dire need, or to an enemy trench. A skilled rider is a serious threat, a welcome dynamic on either side of the barbed wire.

The game changer

In the second half of the game of conquest one team will take control of a vehicle of unprecedented size and power – in the battle in Sinai Desert it is a massive, densely armored train loaded to the brim with heavy guns. Other pre-release footage shows a colossal zeppelin-style gunship entering the fray on a different map. Even if it fails to turn the tide of a one-sided fight, its appearance is certain to make an impact and can make a huge difference in a tight match. This escalation late in the fight further underscores overall improvements to the flow of battle and sense of urgency when the score is too close to call.

Blowing everything up

Another hallmark of the Battlefield series is environment destructability. Battlefield 4 had an uneven mix of nearly static maps and ones where some or most buildings could be destroyed, as well as some amazingly catastrophic map-changing destruction – the collapse of Shanghai Tower among the most notable from the previous in the series. From the beta and other footage, Battlefield 1 is a step forward in overall general destruction, including realistic cratering from explosions and bombs that create dynamic cover. Nearly every structure and object I found was vulnerable to explosions, including some portions of the landscape like the giant stone archway so many marksmen traverse. The buildings in the village sustain heavy damage under fire from tanks or other artillery until they are reduced to rubble. Seeing great clouds of sand and individual sandbags rain down where a wall of cover once stood before a bombing run left measurably deep holes is an experience no video footage can really do justice to. I was blown away by how visceral it felt.

Parting observations

If I didn’t make it clear already, I have really enjoyed beta and think it will be a huge success at launch. I do however see there are bugs yet to fix, and some further thought needed to balance the four classes in their roles. Scouts as long range marksmen are super effective and very easy to play even for the inexperienced. I believe a sniper should have some challenge or aspect to limit domination seen in beta, and require some sort of real skill to play well. As it stands, you could win a reasonable number of fights with mostly scouts on your team, which for team balance just sounds… wrong. At the moment there is almost no reason to play Support as they have next to no anti-armor capability and an effective range similar to Assault; the latter of which has the only useful close range anti-tank ordinance. Furthermore, since ammo refills prior to the coveted ammo crate are also available from cavalry and some vehicles, it further limits the importance of having Support in your squad. I’ve read that at launch that Support players may get a mortar of some sort, which may help answer both of the prior observations as it could help make sniper nests a little less effective at asserting unanswerable deadly threat to a large area. Sure, tanks, cavalry and counter sniping (sigh, MORE snipers) are valid responses to a sniper flush enemy team, but as it stands playing on or against a team with three-quarters Scouts doesn’t feel like a strategy, it feels like… imbalance.

Melee combat needs finishing touches – it is really squishy at the moment in determining who in a face to face combat comes out on top, making a lot of melee feel random rather than calculated. Horse melee is supposed to be dominant against foot troops (don’t break this) but at the moment it has unexpectedly long reach from certain angles, leading to deaths from riders who didn’t seem to be close at all. A tweak here and there could go a long way, as well as routine fixes for graphical oddities like backpacks that appear to swing like lassos (super strange to witness… why are you swinging that like that??) and floating objects left untouched by explosions. Some of these are just funny, but most look plain unfinished. None were game breaking.

Above all, it’s clear DICE still has the magic touch. Much like Battlefield 4 before it, Battlefield 1 will emerge at the head of the pack in true next-generation gaming when it is released later in October and maintain the high bar at least as long as its predecessor did. There seems to be quite a bit of the game they have kept under wraps this time, I think I’ve only seen real footage from two or three maps and almost nothing from the single player story – but what they’ve shown is really second to none. I look forward to discovering what else they have in store soon.

Impressions from the Titanfall 2 Tech Test

“Follow mode engaged. I have your six, pilot” – Ion, skirmish at Forward Base Kodai

It’s tough – and potentially just inaccurate – to write a review on a pre-alpha test of a game when so many aspects of the finished product were kept under wraps, but what we were allowed to see does say quite for what we can expect. The bottom line is that almost everything has changed since Titanfall 1, except that pilots are still the real heart of an experience that has grown a bit more personal.

To demonstrate, compare the training and story mode from the first title to what we see in the technical test. The objectives covered in the training modes are quite similar, but despite being spoken to in a direct manner in the first, it is almost deliberately generic – you play an anonymous pilot playing through a training scenario designed for mass consumption, like a pawn in a galactic corporate bargain. Granted, the program and module was stolen – which leads into a genuinely interesting story – but in the second your training is one on one with a very specific character – and you seem to be playing an actual character in the story, one with a voice.

The contrast between wordless anonymity and personal experience seems to carry into the main gameplay. In Titanfall 1’s campaign, you get a mission briefing and a flow of feedback as you work towards (or fail to achieve) various objectives in your nameless pilot’s role in the story, but in the sense of chatter over radio. It has a good style and fits with the theme, but you’re really just on the sidelines of the story most of the time. I liked it in that it made itself pretty distinct from other games at the time. Although we get no glimpse of the story mode of Titanfall 2 in the technical test aside from a teaser video, the way your titan speaks to you already shows a subtle shift towards having an actual personality. The little details add up, and coupled with a fantastic orchestra musical score heard in select moments, we may be in for something really amazing.

Pilots, like in the first, are highly agile with a broad range of customization options. The movement, traversal and parkour feels better than ever, rewarding a skilled hand. Unfortunately the three maps available in the technical test were relatively flat, having just a few opportunities to really show off wall-run chaining or other exceptional feats. The new grappling hook is both really fun and also somewhat of a skill gap closer for players who may have a harder time using wall jumps to reach high places, as it can take a pilot from the ground to a high perch in a flash. Oh, and it is also effective as a ranged weapon – something I learned on the fly when an enemy pilot used me (in mid jump) as a hook anchor to get from one place to another. Ouch. Well played, sir.

As for Titans, we see the biggest changes here. I suspect the two Titan loadouts available in the tech test are just samples of the finished game – but gone were the weapons and most of the abilities from the first. Also gone is a lot of Titan survivability – at least, at first glance. Ironically, also gone is the direct Titan rodeo kill attempt. That’s not to say you cannot kill a Titan by jumping on it, but it does completely re-imagine the concept of the rodeo attack and the circumstances in which you would want to attempt it. The resulting mechanic does surrender a centerpiece of the classic Titanfall “feel”, but in return yields a whole new level of optional objective management. When your pilot successfully jumps on an enemy Titan, you steal a shield battery and do a small amount of damage. This takes place in a much shorter period of time than a legacy rodeo attack – with less in return. If the pilot survives escaping with the battery and delivers it to a friendly Titan or her own, that Titan gets a sorely needed shield and will survive a little longer on the field. With practice, you can time this attack along with a team mate to steal the battery right before the Titan would explode, which results in both a battery and a destroyed Titan. If a pilot dies carrying a battery they drop it, which either team can pick up. These “micro objectives” encourage a new level of teamwork that felt somewhat absent from the first, and give a little more life to your somewhat fragile Titans. Hopefully in the full game the loadout choices will include some to improve overall Titan durability.

Among the changes to Titans includes an increase in the personal performance bonus towards the build of your next titan. Players who are doing well, or at least participating with effective assists, can expect their titan much sooner than someone who is off objective or struggling.

The three maps available in the technical test were each a bit larger than most maps in Titanfall 1, although with smaller five man teams this can easily lead to feeling alone on the map if you aren’t working closely with your squad. Despite the previously mentioned mostly horizontal layout, the attention to detail and map design is actually quite nice and offers a lot of opportunities for flanking, clever ways to hold otherwise open objectives, plenty of sniper roosts (including one that is labelled by graffiti “Pew!”), and a lot of scenery. I can’t wait to learn more about these places and the new factions and references that are hinted at.

Another new feature is an awesome boost to in game clan support, “Networks” can be created and managed directly via the game client. Once set up, you can see who from your Network is online, the clan message of the day, and invite those online that arent in a match to join in a match with almost no effort. It’s a jump ahead in terms of match making speed and organization. I give a hearty applause for the team that engineered this.

Although it was just a short test, we can see all the pieces coming together and I have a good feeling about the finished product, due late October. Titanfall 2 dares to be different than its competition, and even different than the first in the series. They’ve set a high bar for themselves. Finally, sequel or not, I still get a small chill every time I hear the impending sonic boom and operator call out “Confirmed.. stand by for Titanfall”.

 

The Division Beta Impressions and Feedback

image credit: ubisoft
image credit: ubisoft

Agent, you’ve been activated. It is time to take back New York City. After breaking radio silence on their upcoming openworld shooter RPG “The Division”, Ubisoft invited fans who had pre-ordered the game to participate in closed beta this weekend. Beta for Xbox One began one day ahead of PC and Playstation, which will run through Sunday evening. My wife and I sat down to run through it today and had a really good time of it. What follows are some of our observations, feedback and most of all; praise.

Update: Although video capture sharing is disabled for the Xbox One version of the beta, I had an opportunity to try it on PC. Here is a link to some footage: The Division PC Beta – 1080p Ultra

A well built beta experience

The new player briefing and developer commentary was specially prepared for this beta audience. It explained, accurately, that there would be bugs and more specifically what kind of bugs to expect. It also provided guidelines as to what content was not included in beta, and finally a quick guide to surviving. The result was something that seemed fully built – most of the missing features were visible but labelled as not included.

“Always On” multiplayer

Although most of the city is “squad only” multiplayer in terms of encountering other players, your friends who are playing are also shown on the map with an option to join them even if they are not currently in your squad. Furthermore, the quest hub areas and competitive PVP/PVE “Dark Zone” are dynamically filled with other players without any interaction from the player, and except for the pause when you join a squad, there are no loading screens going between these two types of game areas at all. Included is a matchmaking service, conveniently also located at the quest hubs.

Distinct factions

The two enemy factions we encountered in the beta included looters and the flame-thrower wielding “cleaners”. Promotional footage suggests at least two more major factions that are not featured in the beta. Each of the factions bring their own twist to an encounter depending on which “class” or type of that enemy are present, and if any of them are elite or named opponents with special abilities or weapons. For example, most groups of looters will have at least one melee equipped “charger”, and frequently another that is equipped with tear gas or another type of grenade. Most of the enemies that have a weapon that should be fired from cover will use cover and line of sight to their advantage (but not always). Contrast this with a chance encounter with the cleaners, where threat of sudden fiery death from their flame thrower equipped heavies requires different tactics than a shootout with lightly armored looters. From go, I found this creates a believable and engaging atmosphere.

Huge, haunting play area.

Despite beta being fenced into just one portion of the total play area, I was immediately struck by the sheer size of the environment. This is one thing really not evident in the pre-beta footage until you see it for yourself – moving around down town New York conveys an intense sense of scale and catastrophe, better than probably any other shooter I have ever played. Exploration opportunities abound, whether you choose to jog directly to your active mission marker or sweep carefully street by street, there are countless details, alleys, underground entrances and rooftop access that make the map seem even larger.

Solid RPG Shooter foundation

The Division is first and foremost an RPG in a cover-based 3rd person shooter’s clothing. All of the players skills are designed to compliment small team tactics against a variety of challenging situations. Advancement, talents, gear customization and specialization further allow the player to tailor their agent to their preferred role in a team, or survival as a lone gun. There are no classes, so one agent can technically fill any role on the fly just by changing their active skill selections and gear.

All those bullets

One caveat and constructive feedback I find in The Divisions’ RPG roots is the dramatic health scaling of difficult AI opponents, although this is a common trait to most RPG Shooters like Borderlands or Fallout. Many elite or boss opponents are tough because of the sheer amount of armor and hit points assigned to them – you’ll empty magazine after magazine into headshots against them unless you are quite over-geared for the encounter. If this has ever bugged you in another game, it’s going to bug you here. I didn’t find it to take anything away from the game or sense of difficulty, and may even make the game more accessible to fans who enjoy that pace over headshot-galleries like Call of Duty and Battlefield. Your milage may vary.

Dark Zone

Saving the best for last – we loved the Dark Zone. Ubisoft has a smoking hot recipe for a rich multiplayer challenge on their hands with how well cooperative PvE challenge and PvP mayhem blend in the Dark Zone. Every aspect of the game leads to it, and the best loot and toughest AI (and living) opponents are found there. You’re welcome to journey in alone but most of the encounters encourage or require cooperation, and the inevitable shootout between player squads ups the fun factor substantially. I found most players were helpful, specially given how frequently they may need to be revived while exploring PvE challenges or just trying to escape. Some seemed to be trying their boundaries with attacking vulnerable players, but the “rogue agent” flagging system tends to get the inexperienced griefer quickly executed. On the other hand, organized teams of rogue agents are a force to be reckoned with. Once they reach “rogue status five” for repeat aggression all nearby players get a bounty mission to kill them; they get a corresponding mission to survive for a set amount of time. The death penalty corresponds to how much “dark zone loot” and currency you’d managed to collect in that trip – you lose a portion of it when you die – and I felt it was “just right” to not feel overly punished for getting killed while still feeling the sting when you get iced right before an extract with a full pack. It’s bold and highly satisfying.

I am very encouraged by what I’ve seen so far, and look forward to the full release in March. See you in New York!

The Division – Speculation and Hope for Ubisoft’s Openworld Shooter RPG

TCTD_E314_screenshot_division-agents_1024x768
image credit: ubisoft

In the aftermath of a present day bioweapon catastrophe, survivors must band together to take back New York and restore hope. On the surface, Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy inspired “The Division” has Game of the Year written all over it. However what we actually know about the game is limited to only a few short gameplay demonstrations from E3 two years running, and the coolest parts of the demos are the parts of the game that are only hinted at but not fully shown. Elsewhere a leaked trailer explores some of these aspects in better detail, adding credibility to this possibly being a huge success. What worries me more is trying to ascertain why Ubisoft would play their cards so close to their chests when they are usually quite liberal with game hype ahead of a release. With just two weeks or so before the closed beta, let’s take a closer look at why this game is exciting and what they might not be telling us.

Update: A flood of amazing footage hit YouTube this morning from a few lucky individuals who were invited to Sweden to try it hands on, and it looks absolutely incredible. Here is a link to one of the best yet at Arekkz Gaming.

A Good Start

The foundation of the gameplay we have seen is a tactical multiplayer rpg focused on exploration, survival and challenging combat encounters. Every detail in the trailer and demo begins and ends with cooperation – hope against the insurmountable began with an outstretched hand. This poetry in motion is the backdrop for the excellent gameplay demonstrations from E3 – probably the best material they have released to date. Three players teamed up to move through the ruins of downtown New York to an objective, using a variety of skills to balance three team roles familiar to other successful RPGs – healing, direct damage, damage and threat mitigation. In dangerous areas tackling a group a foes near or above your character levels required communication and teamwork, and the pace of battle was intense.

One of the most interesting aspects of the demo is the late game PvP twist. The team ventures into the Dark Zone, a PvP enabled challenge area where the loot and stakes are raised substantially. What begins as a multi-team cooperative challenge against a much more powerful AI opponent suddenly turns into a brutal team vs team PvP struggle for the sum of the loot. The hostile agent self policing PvP flagging system hinted at in the footage might be comparable to one of my all time favorite openworld rpgs ever: Ultima Online, or at least as it was originally launched.

Pie in the Sky

If you consider for a moment what other more recent games this resembles so far, it is difficult not to get ones hopes up. Consider first its pedigree (a Tom Clancy shooter), the difficulty tuning for three person teams (Destiny) and the broad shooter rpg setting itself (Borderlands 2, Fallout) it seems like a recipe for megahit. Consider further the aspects of the game they haven’t quite shown us outside of hints and details in the leaked trailer regarding how New York is rebuilt one stronghold and critical resource at a time, and I see a truly groundbreaking next generation gaming experience that could eclipse the competition.

Then why not shout it from the rooftops?

Compared to the deluge of footage we’d expect from any other Ubisoft flagship title like Assassin’s Creed, they have been pretty tight lipped about The Division. The site for the game is cool enough but the amount of actual game information and working footage is quite small. With just weeks ahead of the beta and a tentative March release not far behind it, there is valid concern in what we haven’t seen for the game yet. This would not be the first game shown at E3 that looked fantastic but did not resemble the final product – see the infamous case of Aliens: Colonial Marines, which was so bad it ended up in court. I doubt that is the case here, but it is worth citing.

Complete duds aside, we haven’t seen much at all about how progression works, side activities, any additional details about how habitually aggressive PvP is handled (this could still be cool), or any hint at what end game content will look like. The latter most could be a landmine issue for the success of the game and might be the most valid concern the game faces.

Another roadblock that is closer to home is the known stability problems that face the other recent Ubisoft online shooter – Rainbow Six: Siege. Granted, we’d hope they would have dedicated servers for an openworld rpg like The Division, but hopes and this actually being the case are two different things.

I don’t expect that the coming beta will be restricted by NDA, and hope to post a follow up once I have hands on experience to confirm or dispel these questions.

Update: The “leaked” trailer was released in the US a little while after I posted this. Keep it coming guys, it looks amazing.

 

Evolve Beta: The Good, the Bad and the Delicious

Image credit: Gamespot / 2k / Turtle Rock
Image credit: Gamespot / 2k / Turtle Rock

When does poor teamwork become a game flaw, and not just the burden of the player? In Evolve – an insanely fun 2K / Turtle Rock production that pits four hunters against one player controlled boss monster – the answer is far from clear.

The Good

Spoilers – I had a blast playing beta. Despite some rough edges, most of my matches were vigorous and rewarding no matter which side I played, win or lose. The graphics are fantastic and the combat is over the top, but what surprised me the most was that the characters, simple plot and dialog were actually very clever for a game that doesn’t really need much of a story. The short prologue fit in more character and plot than some games manage in their entire span, and the evacuation story mode shows much promise. Character advancement and unlock options within a given role (medic, trapper, support and assault) add a rich layer to team building possibilities, just as the multiple types of monsters and abilities each have very specific strengths.

The Bad

Evolve’s most unique feature can at times be the most frustrating one. Balancing the main abilities of each type of hunter against a single, far more powerful foe necessitates tight teamwork on the part of the hunters. I’ve only been in *one* winning match where not all of the hunters were on task, and it was a close match against a monster who’s heart might not have been in the fight, either.

I cannot overstate the discouragement felt when I enter a match as a medic and one or more of the party randomly breaks off from the party hunting dog’s lead or trail to go fight random wildlife, explore, or just go AFK. This match turns into either a very short or painfully long but easy win for the monster. As a hunter you are at the mercy of the match-making system unless you always game with a premade team of friends.

With all that said, is this an actual flaw in the game design? In some cases,  simple fixes like a “vote to kick / downrank player” party match making feature might help with chronically bad teams, but it might come with its own problems. Furthermore I’d be wary of any enhancements that also benefit a good team, since four competent hunters are exceedingly difficult to kill as a relatively new monster.

To be fair, this problem is shared to a lesser degree by any multiplayer RPG/Shooter with raids or dungeons. Also, Evolve does have a solo play mode although I am not certain if progression there carries over to multiplayer, which may or may not be a good thing if it did.

The Delicious

In the end, the sum of Evolve’s flaws and strengths turns out to be outrageously fun, most of the time. The thrill of a properly executed hunter team victory is matched only by the feeling of devouring a worthy team of opponents as the monster. I look forward to wrecking havoc when it is released February 10 – with friends. 🙂

Below is more havoc, from beta.

Evolve Beta fun with the Kraken:

https://t.co/gSc2fh2eFg

Goliath goes on a “see-food” diet:

https://account.xbox.com/en-us/gameclip/ee62d501-1eb1-4855-87ba-1bb2567a0dc8?gamerTag=BadDaddyDragon&scid=03a80100-9ff3-46ea-be76-e00e7fe465df

 

Destiny Beta Debrief: Vintage car muscle, new car smell

inboundflight
image credit: Bungie

Rally your fireteam, guardians. The creative geniuses behind the first several Halo titles poured their experience and passion for the genre into Destiny, a new IP that would both encompass everything they loved about the original Halo universe and bold new ideas that weren’t possible at the time. The result is far greater than the sum of its parts, and it plays like a dream.

Immersion

Being one of the oldest tricks in the book doesn’t make it any less important. Bungie understands what some developers seem to overlook – user experience is more than just the cool shooting parts, it includes finding a group, being social, choosing a game mode to play, and managing your character and advancement. Rather than defaulting to a polished menu system to find a game to play, Bungie encapsulates the “menu” experience and gameplay selection within the game world itself. The resulting level of immersion makes the competition’s nested menus look decidedly last century. What seems like it could have been a trivial detail turns out to be one of the finest bits of polish on an already outstanding game.

From the opening cinematic sequence, your guardian is on the move. No time is wasted establishing a sense of urgency and impending threat. Completing the new player experience concludes with the escape in a barely flight-worthy spacecraft and a beautiful cutscene arrival at “the tower”, the last safe city. At the tower, the player manages his character and gear and (later) finds missions. Leaving the tower to continue a story mission, embark in open world exploration, a cooperative PVE challenge or competitive PVP arenas is as simple as returning your spacecraft to orbit. The transition between land and orbit includes a stunning low orbit vista and cinematic quality scene of your ship and your friends ships should you form a fireteam. Select your destination from the map, and your ships fly there in spectacular fashion. At no point did the transition between game modes or forming a fireteam feels like leaving the game to a menu or a lobby.

“Goldielocks” Multiplayer

Player population in each region in the game and at the tower is managed by the server to always be at a median “just right” number of players to run into, preventing crowds or unnervingly vacant places. Venture into the wilderness alone and eventually you will encounter another player or group of players. Most of the time they will already be engaged with enemies, and on occasion may be in hot water. The way this dynamic matchmaking occurs is completely invisible to the user; it simply happens. I arrived at the wreckage to discover another player already dispatching foes, but enemy reinforcements are flanking the firefight. Time to jump in.

Public Event Challenges

Emphasis on challenge. Unlike other recent MMO titles to implement “public events”, Destiny’s do not occur only at easily recognizable, purpose-built outdoor locations. Here in the wild, these invasions and timed heavy encounters can occur anywhere. The type of event and method of finding out about it varies from simple communication, an unexpectedly darkened sky, to dramatic screen shaking scene entry. They are also scaled to be almost certain death in difficulty. The well prepared are rewarded with a chance to show off their prowess and earn superior rating and bonus upon completion of the event, which occurs whether the players win or not. As added incentive, players earn further bonus for the first “gold star” public event rating they earn each day in addition to the XP, currency and loot.

Speederbikes

Turning what could have been another trivial detail into something wildly awesome, once you are on the ground getting from one place to another in a hurry is far from boring. “Summon” your speederbike mount and open the throttle boost wide. They are wicked fun to ride. Fully upgradable at the shipwright in the tower, your speederbike will become a staple for getting into and out of trouble fast.

Your favorite shooter, your way

The four main game modes are each well rounded enough to stand alone as games themselves, but are also tightly bound to one another. Unlock new areas by advancing the plot in story mode. Prior story missions can be replayed on higher difficulty for better loot and XP. Once you’ve unlocked an area, you can also opt to return in open world explore mode. When exploring you encounter enemies at a steady rate, earning decent currency, loot and XP without fixed goals. Chests of loot and other secrets lay scattered about waiting to be found. Also available are endless simple “quests” that provide an easy, defined task to earn bonus rewards and faction for one of the five plus factions back at the tower. These tasks are random and self replenishing, and are usually in the form of “Go to Point A”, “Kill N bad guys” , “Collect Y rare things”, “recover item X”, and so forth. They are random enough to avoid tedium and blessedly short, making it a great choice for casual play. The faction reward is also random, and includes the various PVP factions so players have an alternative way to earn the superior gear from those PVP faction vendors.

Back at the tower, players can also select “bounties” that are like personal daily quests for any of the games modes, which also carries faction rewards. They include objectives like “Get 200 precision kills” , “Get 20 melee kills without dying”, and also PVP objectives like “Get first strike in a match 10 times” and “Kill the match MVP 3 times”, etc.

The third game mode is “strike”, which is essentially an instanced dungeon-like area with several boss encounters. From Orbit, once you have set your destination to the Strike zone, your fireteam will fill automatically to the ideal number of players for that encounter and chosen difficulty. The boss fights are much harder than story mode or public event encounters, and the loot rewards scale with the difficulty. If a player drops from your fireteam, another may join dynamically at some point later in the instance story progression. Strike is a great way for an organized fireteam to hone their teamwork and skills to overcome the toughest PVE encounters.

Finally, the various PVP modes tie all of the games areas and factions into a tangible substory that stands as its own game for the competitively minded guardian. It is here that the pillars of Bungie are found: rock solid arena death match. Some PVP events are available only at certain intervals, like the hotly contested “Iron Banner” event, where guardian level advantages are enabled and rewards are much more valuable.

The little details

Bungie knows is audience. These are the same guys who’s games inspired fan creations like Rooster Teeth’s “Red vs Blue”, a phenomenon of its own. Of course, that success was entirely on the talent at Rooster Teeth, but Bungie had created the platform. This comes in part from a passion for attention to detail, dedication to enjoyable multiplayer, and plenty of hidden challenges and easter eggs. Already in beta, at the tower we had discovered a fully usable soccer ball. Yeah, a classic soccer ball. We had fun kicking it around and even managed to kick it into a vendor tent that was shaped vaguely like a soccer goal. Nothing happened, but it begs the question; what is the soccer ball for? What easter egg might it unlock? Plus, impromptu street soccer in post apocalyptic city-scape is fun in its own right.  Secrets are littered everywhere in the open world as well, including some unexpected overworld bosses, tough to reach areas, and more.

On the frontier

In all, by the end of the few day long beta, I had already created memorable characters, made a friend or two, and recorded numerous amazing encounters worth sharing. The ease of the social features reminded me of the best early days of Xbox Live, where meeting new people was fluid and barriers to communication were few. I was hooked – there was no doubt that Bungie’s ambitious Destiny would be their biggest success yet.

My fireteam is ready for September 9. See you on the frontier.

 

 

One Night In Daggerfall

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Roar of the daedric plane of Coldharbour still ringing in my ears, I awoke from my trip to the afterlife. Vital instructions spoken to me just moments before all but vanished from my mind as I stepped outside into the cobbled streets of the coastal city of Daggerfall. With little memory of who I was or my life before that moment, I still somehow knew this was home.

Welcome to Tamriel. Bethesda & Zenimax Online spared no detail in recreating the well-established world of The Elder Scrolls, and the efforts paid off. Elder Scrolls Online was first announced at E3 in 2012, and fans were skeptical of an effort to bring the extremely single player Elder Scrolls universe into the online space. No other MMO fiction boasted the depth of lore and established fiction, nor the renown for freedom of character development, dynamic story and open world exploration. Given an atmosphere of growing malcontent with the popular titles at the time, comparisons were unavoidable. How would they solve these problems, and can they do it without shattering the fiction that made Elder Scrolls such a popular single player title? They succeeded, and they did it by making a game unlike any other MMO title.

Following impressions from the final beta weekend ahead of the April 4 Launch, here are ten reasons to love Elder Scrolls Online.

1 – Character customization.

From go, ESO aims to impress. Gone are the limited face, hair and accessory pallets of yesteryear when creating an MMO character. Modify each part of the body and face in unprecedented detail that even exceeds the customization options available in the single player ES titles. Adjust the skin tone or hair hue, select from various body paint, tattoos, piercings, scars, horns and hair styles. Choose, per body part down to the hands and feet, how slender, angular or muscular the body style is. Adjust the angle or height of the corners of your mouth, eyes, or even brow to create an expression or permanent scowl. Every portion of the face can be customized in the same manner. Or, press “randomize” at your leisure and select from countless unique combinations.  The level of detail available for making your character your own is staggering.

The result is a huge variety in the appearances and faces of both player characters and NPCs you meet. Some are humorous, others heroic but none are plain or worse – the same.

2 – Skill trees your way: Class, Weapon, Armor, Guild, more.

Although introduction of the four class system is new to the Elder Scrolls series, with one glance in the skill tree you’ll find the depth and freedom of character development the series is known for. This game was built to “play your own way”. You could arguably create a healing rogue, a warrior who also carries a fire staff, a wizard archer, or opt to adhere to an archetype at your whim. The base class skill tree does make a good framework for what you’d like to create but does not limit you to any sort of armor or weapon including those usually reserved for a specific role. My first was a Sorcerer proficient in both healing and destructive staves as well as storm magic. All weekend in beta I did not run into a single character like mine. Even amongst the other healers I encountered, they were as unique in style and execution. You’ll never, ever, spot a class by its pauldrons again.

3 – Crafting.

Want it? Need it improved? DIY or find someone who can. Between raw materials trading, and synergy between crafted material types, items and class roles, market square is alive with players bringing gathered materials back to be furnished into every kind of item available. The well though out crafting system encourages players to work together and trade resources and skill to craft items that are often better than those found in the wild. The level of detail available is sure to please even the most diehard crafters. As an example, the same item or weapon can also be crafted in many different styles based on region. Do you want your Maple Long Bow in the Bosmer style, Breton, or Nord? For which level, and with what extra traits?

4 – Enchanting depth, research, complexity.

Not to be confused with crafting, enchanting in Elder Scrolls has always been a full leap beyond merely creating your own items. In Elder Scrolls Online enchanting is deeper than ever, on an order of magnitude more complex than the prior ES titles. Unlike Skyrim, where hauling a ruck full of trash magic items back to an enchanting table was sufficient to quickly learn a dozen powerful enchantments for future use, in ESO prepare to research the enchantments individually at a base cost of six hours each. Like prior titles, this process destroys the source item and discourages easily farming items with desirable enchantments for quick skill gains. Furthermore, each base enchantment is actually the sum of three runes or power words. These runes can be found by exploring, but you likely wont know what a specific rune can be used for until you experiment with it. Runes can also be learned by breaking source enchantments. As before, charged soul crystals are also required to create or recharge magic items. The time and dedication required to advance enchanting will reward those with the patience to pursue it, making their skill very valuable to other players.

5 – A busy market square is a happy market square.

The value of social aspect created by crafting, enchanting and repairing gear cannot be understated. One of the greatest sights of many players working together was not just on the battlefield, but back in the city as well. Rather than clamoring around Auctioneers impersonally while armor shops stood empty, you’ll find them at the forge, at the wood working table, or associated guild houses. Of course, zone discussion follows what players have come to expect from a common meeting ground: quests, recruiting, looking for groups, buying and selling, and all of the banter zone wide chat can be famous for. You’ll also hear about dynamic in-game events as they occur here. Don’t care for all of the noise? It’s easy to turn off zone-wide chat.

6 – TES signature freedom to do what you want, not what you must.

One of my favorite things about The Elder Scrolls is the ability to get myself lost in side quests and distractions without a nagging main story rail to dictate where I should be or cannot go. In ESO, no sooner did I wake from Coldharbour than I ran off on my own agenda. Armed with only my selected starting skills and a meager choice of cast-off weapons and rags for clothes I immediately left Daggerfall out the nearest exit into the wilderness and still succeeded in making a viable character, finding adventure and never cared what quest was back in town or feeling I was skirting the advancement rails. In fact, not only did I find things to do, learned where to gather crafting materials and gained plenty of experience, I even helped rescue a village on fire. All without any glowing arrow, minimap icon, or supernatural beacon in the sky pointing the way I should be going. And I kept going. At one point in the weekend I stopped after finishing a lengthy series of quests and looked at the map, and wondered abstractly what might be “over yonder” in an unmarked region of the map between two places I had been – so I went there, and found another series of quests that had no “sign in the road” pointing to them. I even managed to get an achievement while I was there, along with a new tie to a character I had previously met. By the time I returned to town, finding an abundance of quests and story here too was just icing on the cake, rather than a forced new player advancement path.

7 – A huge, huge world

In a measure that used to be counted by hours it would take to walk from one side of the map to another, it’s tough today to compare property lines between franchises in terms of actual size. However, in terms of zone size I can attest to the extreme expanse contained in just the first starting zones. If you consider that each of the prior ES titles like Morrowind, Skyrim and Oblivion each covered a single, giant subsection of Tamriel, consider their combined size with the addition of lands only mentioned in prior titles. Some have not seen the bright side of a monitor in over a decade, or real 3d terrain. The first time I saw the re-imagined lava flows of Morrowind brought to vibrant new life in ESO, I got chills.

Add to the size of the world the task of actually seeing it all, as exploration is dangerous and requires a thorough, cautious, deliberate hand. Nevermind that unfriendly natives are hardly walked by (go ahead, try it) – my hat is off to the first to uncover the whole map as you are in enemy territory in more than three quarters of it! Remember, there are no “PvE” only servers in ESO. There is just one server, and realm vs realm PVP is always on.

8 – Megaserver

One new technology in this next-gen MMORPG is the Megaserver. By using dynamic load balanced cloud servers to host the game instead of dozens or hundreds of static, named servers, players are spared the process of selecting a server before creating a character or needing to change servers later to play with other friends. The game automatically places you in the same game instance as friends and guildmates, leading for a player population that is almost always “just right”, and not too crowded or vacant. Like any new technology, it will be interesting to see how they solve problems that could arise, but I’m certain even with problems it will still out-benefit the decades old concept of fixed servers.

9 – Combat: Goodbye auto attack.

Combat in ESO is a daring leap forward from prior generations of MMO. There is no auto-attack, nor automatic dodge or block. If you want to swing your sword, you control how you swing, at what, where you were standing, and how hard. Same goes for the shield, which must be actively held against an attack to deflect a blow. There is no global cooldown on moves, just the three resource pools ES players have come to know. Heavy attacks, roll-dodge, sprint and interrupts drain stamina, as does sneaking and other activity. Spells and other class abilities drain magicka, and health.. you try not to run out of. Your concept of target selection and positional fighting will be quickly re-learned. Even the most basic of opponents employ both position and a rich mix of attacks, power attacks and maneuvers that make combat a highly engaging, active process. The inclusion of interrupts and importance of well timed blocks creates opportunities for attacks to inflict additional damage, cause a stun or even a knock-down. Button mash at your own peril – unless you grossly overpower your opponents few fights are won by rushing in swinging. Learn your opponents, which moves to avoid, and how to interrupt or block them in a way to create attacks of opportunity.
 

10 – Lore lore everywhere , yet safely out of sight

Be it a song sung in a tavern in the frigid north celebrating the birth of the Ebonheart Pact, a cursed riddle spelled in runes on a statue, or an odd note found adjacent to an apple and arrow-pierced skull, there is lore everywhere. Yet none of it is forced on the player, instead is laying waiting to be found by the curious. On a scale from 1 to 10 for level of detail of fiction, Elder Scrolls Online gets an 11. Yet even past all readable tomes, scrolls, notes and songs lay other clever nuances and hidden surprises to paint a peerless picture that reaffirms this is indeed Tamriel that fans have come to love, online.

Double-jump for joy – Titanfall’s beta delivers on hype

Titanfall

Take cover last generation shooters, Titanfall is ready to make its entrance into the static team vs team shooter genre like only a giant low orbit deployed armored mech could; with a pavement cracking, expectation crushing boom.

EA & Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall explodes into life March 11, and is gunning for top spot in a genre dominated by long standing franchises like Battlefield, Gears of War, Halo and Call of Duty. Titanfall made a huge splash last year when debuted at E3, garnering an unprecedented number of awards. With all of that positive reception and press, it had set the bar very high even for itself. As it turns out, reaching heights isn’t much a problem when you’re riding a two-story tall armored mech, but the real show-stealers are the pilots themselves.

From the moment you set virtual boot to ground in the training simulator, you’ll find out how wallrunning, cloaking and double-jumping put the unarmored pilots on even ground with their giant armored mechs – and ahead of the competition. In an instant you’ll see maps in a whole new dimension and find yourself looking for ways to chain wall grabs, runs and jumps together with ease and discover the true heart of a Titan is far from soft.

The beta contains just a select few maps and competitive game modes, saving the best for release along with the highly anticipated multiplayer story mode. Still, what was shown was solid, highly playable release-quality gameplay that distances itself from the frequently buggy competition – a huge relief from the recent norm. At present, the modes available to test include Attrition, Hard Point and Last Titan Standing.

Attrition is described as a classic Titanfall game mode and is recommended as the best mode to start with. Featuring gameplay style made famous by the footage from E3, you start as a pilot and earn points by killing either AI or players on the opposing team. With each kill you decrease the amount of time until you can call in your Titan, which enters the battlefield with a spectacular sonic boom and annihilates anything that happens to be nearby. You can then choose to pilot it or set it to guard or follow mode to continue the fight. If you happen to die while outside of it and it survives, it will continue it’s last orders while you respawn. Once the points-based objective is met, the losing team must scramble to reach evacuation points to earn an epilogue XP bonus – although you get just one life to make the escape.

At a glance Hardpoint might seem similar to Attrition, except that points are earned by capturing and defending objectives. As these objectives are almost always in a location only a pilot can reach outside of her Titan, a different level of coordination is required by both pilots and Titans to effectively attack or defend an objective. Additionally, little or no reward is gained by fighting away from the objective – wander off on your own and you could cost your team the win even if you technically outskilled your opponents. Like attrition, it ends with a bonus epilogue chase to an evacuation point.

Last Titan Standing plays like it sounds – 6v6 Titans, multiple timed rounds, no respawn on pilot death and everyone starts in a Titan. It’s Titanfall TDM, with a brisk no-mistakes pace.

All three modes were a blast to play – featuring just the Atlas class of Titan out of the three available at release, as well as three sample pilot buildouts and numerous innovative weapons. It is easy to pick up but shows it will reward those with the skill to master both pilot and Titan abilities to their maximum. It will also challenge players to unlearn traditional “two dimensional” shooter gameplay habits – where even your Titan can outmaneuver yesteryear’s corner to cover positional warfare.

Stand by, your Titan will be ready for launch on March 11 on Xbox One and PC, March 25 on Xbox 360.

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