Learning to Love the Journey

There is one thing in particular I’m not good at when it comes to MMO gaming — that is being able to slow down and enjoy the process of levelling. That particular journey is one I rail against, one I view simply as a necessary evil, an obstacle to be overcome in a mad dash to ‘where the game begins’ — the end game.

Elder Scrolls Online: A character and their stats page, showing they are level 15.
“You want me to do how many more levels??”

In apparent contradiction, however, if you offered me an MMO that forwent the levelling experience, one that said, ‘Bing! You are max level from day dot — go forth and raid’ I probably wouldn’t be able to enjoy that either.

It’s possible this contradiction arises from one of the inner-shifts as a gamer I’ve gone through over the years, where the value judgement I make against the components of an MMO hasn’t kept up with what I might actually enjoy.

I think the reason I wouldn’t accept (at first?) an MMO where you could go do everything from the moment you logged in is that it would feel undeserved. Unearned. Cheapened by not having ‘suffered’ to get there. That means I believe at some level that access to raiding and the end-game gear experience is something that must be earned in the first place.

Wait, do I Believe That?

When I take it out into the light and say it plain like that, I’m not sure that IS something I believe. Or at least, it isn’t a standard I would enforce on anyone else. But does that then follow that I also believe I’m on some other level — higher or lower — than my fellow players?

Final Fantasy XIV: Treants menace the player, one close in the foreground with more behind.
“To reach the end game, you must pass through US! Oh, and then a hundred or so more quests.”

I don’t think so… Not now at least. Not consciously. I do wonder if there is an implicit bias1 at play. Something that may have roots back to when I was more firmly entrenched in the PvP player base.

While I never bought into the hate that existed between the PvP and PvE groups, it was pervasive. It was impossible not to feel immersed in it, the feelings ranging from pity for the poor lambs who didn’t understand, to disdain, to outright and open hostility.

I generally took the tack of trying to convince and sell people on the benefits (as I saw them) of the PvP way of life. I simply exited any conversation it was clear this simply was not going to happen (aka, most of them).

There were a number of motivations for the tack I took, many altruistic, but some as a matter of preservation. I think a large part of the hostility that existed between the two groups stemmed from a vocal outcry against implementation of any kind of meaningful PvP in new MMOs from the PvE sphere. It felt like being under near constant attack and having to defend the style of play we enjoyed best.

More than likely that was a belief shaping experience.

My Recent Experimentation

Enter The Elder Scrolls Online and more recently, Final Fantasy XIV.

A dungeon entrance with a rune above an archway in the game Elder Scrolls Online.
“Yiss! A dungeon!” (My compatriots sped ahead while I took this screenshot, but not to worry, I found them.)

A lot of what I just wrote for the prior section I thought through as I wrote it. But even before, without that level of introspection, I had a vague desire to try ‘learn’ how to better enjoy an MMO more completely. To enjoy the experience in the early- to mid-game as well as the end.

What ESO and FFXIV have in common which made them good candidates in my mind, was a stronger focus on story than most of their competitors. While I’m far and away from being in a position to judge their overall quality in this regard, I’m enjoying what I’ve seen of both so far.

FFXIV previously allowed itself to get too bogged down in requirements to do some fairly bog-standard MMO fetch and kill side-quests. Now the XP-tuning so far seems to allow you to bee-line the MSQ (Main Story Quest) which makes it much more likely I’ll manage to get through it.

Part of the mindset shift I’m attempting is to mentally treat these two titles as the co-op/multiplayer Elder Scrolls/Final Fantasy titles I always wanted and simply put aside the fact that they’re MMOs — and all the baggage those come with.

While it’s still fairly early on in the experiment, it seems to be working. I haven’t even been tempted to look into what the raid-metas might look like, the health of the end-game scene in general or anything else of that nature for either title.

No doubt I’ll engage in the endgame if and when I get there, but that will come after I’ve stopped to smell the roses along the way.

The Division 2 Private Beta – Endgame PvE

The Division 2 Private Beta - Endgame mission on hard, reviving a friend.

I think with this, it will conclude my impressions of The Division 2 beta. I could go back and do the structured PvP, I could also go in and play the other specialisations (I tested through with the Demolitionist myself, friends took the other two: Sharpshooter and Survivalist, so I saw them in action too).

But I won’t. In part because the weekend is over and the realities of work reassert themselves, sure. Even were this not true though I feel less of a need to explore the demo more. Because it is such a familiar experience I’m more content to wait and see and do it ‘for real’ in the live game.

In any case, we played through the end-game ‘Invaded’ mission included in the beta 3 times, once on normal and twice on hard, the highest difficulty open in the beta.

So… Was it a bullet sponge fest?

On normal, with the gear the premade specialist characters started with? No, actually.

Normal difficulty felt OK. Red health bar guys were just two pumps of a SPAS-12 (8-round shotgun).

This starter gear was primarily high-end gear with a few epics thrown in. We didn’t have anything in the way of modifications for our skills. (Yep, even skills can have mods now.)

Item Level would’ve been in the 330-340 region, with a maximum possible a bit over 350 from what we could tell. High-end armor pieces were ilvl 350, with the highest weapon drop I personally saw at 352.

With this sort of gear, Normal difficulty felt OK. Red health bar guys were just two pumps of a SPAS-12 (8-round shotgun). Purple and Yellow health barred mobs took more, but still felt pretty OK. Focus firing any given target including named bosses melted them quickly.

And on Hard?

Our first pass of this room on hard was a nightmare. It made our group very afraid of the explosive flying drones. They became priority target #1.

Well… Yeah, OK. No getting around this one.

The Black Tusk enemies on Hard are a significant jump up over their normal counterparts. The damage they can inflict feels OK (actually, it hurts a great deal — I’m not into that kind of thing, I swear!) but their life bars. Sheesh.

The red health bar guys can now take five to six solid SPAS-12 blasts, breaking through the heavy armor of the medieval looking guys with chainguns takes the sustained fire of multiple full mags from the group to actually start doing damage.

Our first time through on normal it was clear as day weather at this section. The rain storm at night made for very poor visibility, and added to the challenge quite a bit.

There are quite a few unknowns that may mitigate this though. As I noted, we were missing modifications for our skills. We didn’t have a full set of skills to choose from. We didn’t necessarily have an optimum setup of attribute rolls, gear talents or brand mixes, either.

How much headroom is there for DPS growth from these factors? Unknown. I hope it is substantial though, because this was just hard. We didn’t have an opportunity to try out Challenging or Legendary1 difficulty yet.

Time to Loot

The drops were not so common as to lose all meaning, but neither were they so rare as to demotivate playing just that little bit more for a chance at another.

Warning: There is absolutely no guarantee that the drop rates experienced in the private beta will match live.

But I hope they do – because it felt like the right balance between the original stinginess of loot that we experienced in the early days of The Division 1 and the loot pinata that you’ll find if you go play now.

Even on the normal run we each received a few high-end / exotic gear pieces each. On the hard runs we perhaps received four to five such pieces each.

Basically, the drops were not so common as to lose all meaning, but neither were they so rare as to demotivate playing just that little bit more for a chance at another.

Outside of the brand gear I talked about in my early game impressions, there was no sign of ‘proper’ set gear as yet. Whether they are keeping that back for the full retail launch, or whether it is being held back for a later release, or worst of all in my opinion, expected to no longer be needed due to brands — I don’t know.

The Specialist Roles

Ehhhh.

But will there be perks to differentiate one specialisation from another? Gear sets exclusive to the specs, perhaps? I hope so, as they certainly do not feel very distinct from one another from our experience in the demo and need something to give flavour.

This is probably the area I’d most like to withhold judgement on until the the full release of the game.

But it seemed like your selection of specialty had very little bearing on how you play the game.

90 to 95% of the time you’ll be using your ‘standard’ kit, because the exotic ammo drops are rare. Extremely so. One or two drops of the ammo per run it seems, although on the first run through I had none at all.

The Sharpshooter’s .50 cal rifle is a great fight starter if they’re given the chance. The Demolitionist’s grenade launcher was excellent as an ‘Oh shi-‘ button (although using it honestly just put me in the frame of mind as it being a poor-man’s version of the Colossus’ ultimate). The Survivalist has a crossbow with explosive rounds. It seemed like a fairly versatile weapon, with the bolt lodging into whatever enemy it hits. At that point there is no escape, even if they run behind cover — that explosion in their chest is now inevitable.

But will there be perks to differentiate one specialisation from another? Gear sets exclusive to the specs, perhaps? I hope so, as they certainly do not feel very distinct from one another from our experience in the demo and need something to give flavour.

Conclusion

If you haven’t already, you may also wish to view my thoughts on the early game PvE, and the Dark Zone PvP.

With this experience I wrap-up my time with The Division 2 demo. In large part because the weekend is over and I’m back to work tomorrow, but even if that was not the case, I don’t feel any particular drive to go in and play more.

Don’t get me wrong, my experience with The Division 2 — some frustrating bugs and crashes notwithstanding2 — has been by and large a positive one.

But it’s also been a very familiar one. The changes are for the most part very welcome, but the core of the game is just The Division 1 done in summer.

I’ve said it before — but it really is true; if you enjoyed and want more Division 1, this will be absolutely your jam. If you didn’t get on with Division 1 then it’s equally likely you’ll find nothing here to change your mind.

I enjoyed the taste of the endgame the beta allowed, I feel that some tuning on enemy life / armor values might be in order if the player damage doesn’t scale much from the additional mod slots we were missing, especially in consideration of the fact this was only on ‘Hard’ difficulty.

It’s not a pre-order, must have, day 1 title for me. When I pick it up is going to largely depend on the rate of content releases for Anthem. With the first story update scheduled for March, Anthem may well hold me over for some time.

Potentially that is quite an optimistic view though, and I know within my circle of gaming friends some of them are hyper-keen and were extremely impressed by the continuation of The Division. This makes it much more likely that I’ll pick it up on or soon after release — but I’ll get it when I need to and assess when that is as we go.

As always though with demo impressions, this is by no means a review. There are just too many unknowns (for me, at least) to even begin to make such a claim. Certainly the demo experience has solidified my position on to buy or not personally — but if you’re still on the fence and didn’t get a chance to try the beta out this weekend yourself…

Just wait for the actual reviews and launched game streams, etc. You’ll be able to get a much firmer idea then how well (or not) Massive and Ubisoft have managed to deal with the bugs, the balance and the like.

Anthem Impressions – Two Demo Weekends In

Anthem - Ancient Ash Titan looms directly ahead, with a wave of its minions - the ash elementals swarm around its feet.

This post is more difficult than I imagined. And it’s due to more than just experience with the demo itself. There has also been a fair number of information drops since the VIP Demo.

Not all of that news has been good. I’ve experienced something of a mental tonal shift in regards to Anthem too. Don’t get me wrong — I’m still all in and wish this game absolute success.

But there is a significant difference between constructive criticism vs. an irrational degree of cynicism. Or perhaps less charitably — driving clicks through sensationalist moral outrage or jumping on the current hate-bandwagon.

Despite what the internet by and large would have us believe these days – it’s actually OK to like something. That doesn’t however excuse blind faith or rationalising away legitimate concerns. Unwarranted positivity can be just as damaging as unwarranted negativity.

So here’s an attempt at rendering more of a balanced view. Based on both the information released since my last write-up, and another weekend of play.

The Open Demo itself

By and large, everything I discussed in my last impressions of the VIP Demo still holds true. We were after all essentially playing the same build of the game, warts and all this weekend.

With a couple pretty key exceptions: They fixed the infinite loading / 95% stuck bug. And the servers launched in a much more stable condition.

Otherwise though — the bugs remained. Enemies still vanished, sound still cut out, key parts required to complete events could depart with a disconnecting player, rendering events (and even the Stronghold) unable to be completed. Luckily, this is confirmed fixed in live game build.

There are a few things that I either didn’t cover or feel needs more attention now though. For example, Pete reminded me in his impressions post of the annoying insistence to second guess the players choice to go into Private play mode. If you want to play a mission in private, even though you literally just dug several menu’s to change it… When you go to launch the mission it will ask, ‘Are you sure?’ with a patronising message about the game being better with other players.

For your first time through a mission, other than with friends? Vehemently disagree. Having a random blaze off ahead, forcing you into a teleport after them without the time to take things in or find things yourself is the worst. Stop it Anthem, stop it!

Mouse and Keyboard Controls

I mentioned before I quite liked the controls – to the point of hoping the fixes talked about for the live build didn’t change things too dramatically.

Dealing with Mouse Acceleration is 100% normal to me. I’ve turned it off now and increased the DPI used on my mouse. It has taken a wee bit of adjustment, but has helped highlight for me the problems people have discussed with the flight model.

This is still true. But I’ve done a little more research on the topic of mouse control and at least understand the problem others are experiencing a little better now.

This article gave me a much better understanding of issues around mouse acceleration and the like. Turns out I’ve been amongst the scrubbiest of scrubs, with Windows mouse acceleration turned on (the ‘Enhance Pointer Precision’ option).

And I mean, that sucker has been on for years. Probably since the option turned up in Windows XP.

So dealing with Mouse Acceleration is 100% normal to me. I’ve turned it off now and increased the DPI used on my mouse. It has taken a wee bit of adjustment, but has helped highlight for me the problems people have discussed with the flight model. So I hope the planned fix assists us all in that respect.

There is still an element of ‘git gud’ to picking up Anthem’s flight as well though. The practice effect is strong, but it kicks in after a relatively short amount of sustained play.

Menu and UI

I think… Painful might be the right word to use here.

It largely gets out of your way when it matters, but makes what should be simple tasks such as inviting squad mates and launching a mission much less intuitive than it should be.

We are getting some good fixes coming through for launch, but it is clear that the interface was a console first design. That needn’t necessarily be a death knell for a UI even on PC.

But layer on that lacking (in the demo, at least) the simple ability to click through to elements clearly displayed on the screen just because they’re one level down, and this really odd laggy, delayed sensation to the menu interactions? And yeah.. Painful.

The console method of confirming actions by requiring a key to be held down has jumped to this PC interface as well. In some instances, I’m OK with it, e.g. when requesting to leave a mission early or leaving freeplay. But other times it is ridiculous, e.g. when it asks you to hold ‘Esc’ to simply leave a menu, as if it is a key that commonly gets mispressed!

Honestly speaking — unlike controls where issues can actively diminish the play experience — a painful UI is rarely a deal breaker, and it isn’t here either.

It largely gets out of your way when it matters, but makes what should be simple tasks such as inviting squad mates and launching a mission much less intuitive than it should be.

How was the end of Demo event?

Eh. It was OK.

It was overhyped for what it ended up being. To be fair — this was a community action rather than anything BioWare did. There was a small teaser to hang around for the final hours of the event, and from this videos were spawned speculating we were to see a Shaper Storm or a Cataclysm event.

But while BioWare themselves never promised any of this — managing player expectations is a key aspect of managing a fan community, and this was nowhere to be seen.

Admittedly, it did look good in motion. And even better at night.

So when it turned out to be an orange patch of storm in the sky, with a few particle effects representing fiery fallout from it and an abundance of Ash Titans around the place… And that was all… ‘Eh’ is about right.

In fact before I went back in and found the Ancient Ash Titan myself — I was getting to ready to leave this demo on a detached and very down note.

Fighting this guy first-hand saved my experience with the demo.

I almost didn’t bother going looking. I had heard already that people were suffering from the despawning-monster bug prevalent in the demo build of the game and losing their progress against it.1

I’m glad I did, because watching this fight and taking part in this fight are dramatically different things.

As the Ancient Ash Titan’s health gets lower, it starts using more abilities and in different sequences, increasing in tempo and variance the further in you get. All before berserking out, firing everything it possibly has at you for a while before self-destructing.

It was wild, exhilarating even. More of this, please.

Still — as an event, it was fairly lack-lustre over all. But from all indications, we should only consider this to be the ‘Phase 1’ of such an event roll-out. In live the expectation is that this would continue to build into bigger and better things.

OK, that’s fair — I can buy that. I don’t buy that it was necessarily a good idea to showcase a ‘Phase 1’ event with no follow-up, in a demo you’re putting out to help sell the product though.

Endgame

Moving on from the demo itself: Endgame news.

The embargo on endgame broke Feb 1st, and… Hoo boy. You might have heard, there are only three strongholds2 at launch.

Strongholds are not the only endgame content, but from what we can tell, for those serious about endgame play – they will be the main activity immediately following launch. They are more than a Strike in Destiny 2, but perhaps a little less than an MMO’s dungeon where multiple boss encounters are expected. They culminate in a boss battle at the end, and have events and mini bosses throughout.

One of the three will unlock during the main story path, but the remaining two will only unlock after reaching maximum level (30).

We’ll also have Legendary Contracts occupying a similar difficulty level as the Strongholds, but it seems only one a day. A legendary contract is a set mission but generated from a random selection of three events which escalate in difficulty from one to the next.

Outside of these we’ll also have the difficulty scaling into Grandmaster 1-3, similar to Diablo 3’s Torment levels. We will have full access to freeroam, other non-Legendary-contracts and the open world mini-dungeons (e.g., the demo had The Mandible and The Necropolis) to get through at these difficulties.

Even so, I get the concern. Only three strongholds for launch is an incredibly weak offering. I feel like even if they’d bumped it to five, while still weak, the outcry would not be so vehement. Hell, I’d be a lot more accepting of five.

I understand that it’s fairly common practice for the looter-shooter genre titles to launch without anything in the way of an endgame. But have they not learned from the outcry and player-base bleeding that goes along with it each time?

BioWare have been suggesting that they will be providing some clarity over the post-launch roadmap soon. I’m looking forward to seeing this and how quickly we can expect additions to what is currently sounding rather thin on the ground.

BioWare has also said that there have been multiple live-content teams at work on post-launch content for the past several weeks, so there is still potential for a quick turn around… But, in the absence of that information?

Here’s my current conclusion…

Conclusion

I’m still very much looking forward to Anthem’s full release. The core of the game is excellent, the skills (if not all the weapons) feel impactful and great to use.

At that point I could comfortably put Anthem on the shelf and give it time to develop more of an endgame — likely giving The Division 2 a try while it does so.

The loot while not yet showing signs of living up to the great examples set in Blizzard’s titles and other ARPGs, is certainly a hell of a lot more interesting than anything Destiny 2 offers in this area.

But! I am tempering my immediate long-term expectations for the game. That isn’t a contradiction, I swear! What I mean is — if at launch, I can get somewhere in the region of 50-80 hours of it, accounting for going through the story, finishing up with the reputations and challenges I care about, perhaps getting into a decent set of Masterwork gear (with some legendaries scattered in) to such a point I can get into and do the Grandmaster difficulties? Then I’ll be happy that it was money well spent.

At that point I could comfortably put Anthem on the shelf and give it time to develop more of an endgame — likely giving The Division 2 a try while it does so.

I’m no longer expecting to get hundreds of hours out of the title immediately. Eventually, yes. But not immediately.3