Age of Wonders: Planetfall Modernises TBS Multiplayer

I played a ridiculous amount of Age of Wonders: Planetfall yesterday. Like… Stupid crazy amounts given it was also a work day, and a work day today. Sleep took a bit of a backseat unfortunately. Which might explain why I’m not quite up to doing another full impressions post today ala the Fire Emblem: Three Houses impressions of a few days ago.

Discovering the multiplayer improvement in question was a bit of a process though. One full of consternation to start with, actually.

Planetfall made. Time to let the locals know everything the light touches will soon be mine.

“Alright, it’s definitely time for sleep now. And by now, I mean – it was a couple of hours ago.” I say, only half-heartedly meaning it.
“…Yeah, OK. Let’s save then.” Someone eventually replies, equally reluctant.
Silence passes again for a few moments. Then, “Where is the save button? Can anyone find it?” I ask, puzzled.
Another voice, “You’re the host, right? Should just be there on the menu…”

But it isn’t. There is no save button to be found anywhere. Given the <redacted> number of hours we’d just put into the game on the ‘Enormous’ map setting with a full 12-player spread (4 of us humans, rest AI) this was absolutely cause for consternation.

And one that in the moment, I thought was going to result in a very different sort of post today.

But as it turns out, there isn’t a need to save. The game persists in the cloud. You can drop in and drop out as players as you see fit. You can even leave it in ‘simultaneous’ turn mode so that anyone can drop in and finish up their turn in any order. Steam can provide you with a notification (if you allow it) to let you know when the turn has progressed and play is ready for you again.

Battle lines are drawn. But they needn’t have bothered. The opposing army over there is made up entirely of those two units. Yep. Just the two. (Spoiler: They didn’t win this one.)

If you’d like to go a little more traditional, you can switch the turn mode from simultaneous to sequential and again, you can be notified when its your turn to play.

This is very reminiscent of some of the best early era Turn Based Strategy games (including Age of Wonders 1, 2 and 3 incidentally) in allowing ‘PBEM’ or Play By EMail. Except in those days the save file would literally be sent from person to person in the chain.

Eyeing up the next potential conquest.

If you’re wondering the main advantage of this — it can be hard to get people together all at the same time for the type of time demanded of you from a multiplayer turn based strategy game. Really hard.

Asynchronous play with the game in the cloud allows everyone to drop in and out as their time allows to play their turn. But unlike the old solution to this problem of PBEM, if you do get the gang together for an hour or two (or more <cough>) you can seamlessly within the same game flip back to that mode for a while.

For all I know, this extension to the multiplayer capability was part of the Age of Wonders: Planetfall marketing and hype. But I’d kept fairly clear of it all and have come in fairly cold — already knowing I’d want it as a long-term fan of the series. So this was a surprise, and an awesome one at that. :D

Newb’s Impressions of Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Here’s a confession: I’ve never played a Fire Emblem game before now. I have been vaguely aware of their existence. I knew that people who had played them liked them, even. But not really being a Nintendo person they’ve never before crossed my path in any meaningful way. In fact, the Switch is the first Nintendo console I’ve ever owned.1

Even with now owning a Switch, buying Fire Emblem: Three Houses wasn’t really something I’d planned on. I’d not crossed paths with any of the advertising materials or E3 releases about it. It was only through frequent expressions of excitement from others, particularly on Twitter, that I even started to consider it.

And… Well, here we are.

Now 10 hours in, on a scrublord Normal / Casual playthrough.

I did consider bumping the difficulty to hard and allowing permadeath — I’m familiar playing this way in the XCOM series after all. XCOM 2 perhaps being my favourite TBS of all.

But I’m glad I didn’t.

There is… A lot going on here. And much of it different from what I was expecting.

What do you mean they get to ‘counterattack’? It’s my turn!

Yes, I know I should get Edelgard a Steel Axe. Might’ve cleanly one-shot that Rogue. But… The iron one isn’t broken yet!

The first time I saw and recognised a counterattack in action for what it was, it was with an enemy attacking me. My character wasn’t having a bar of that and gave them a mighty wallop in return. Naturally I was all, ‘F- Yeah! Woo! Beat his ass!

Then, with sinking heart I noted that enemies could counterattack too. That just isn’t cricket. Boo.

Combat in in Fire Emblem: Three Houses has put me in the mind of Chess and Magic the Gathering (or other CCG of choice) having offspring. You can see elements of the parents throughout. Positioning matters, attack order matters and there are skills and modifiers to consider too. There is even a layer of strategy to consider over the top of the moment-to-moment tactics, too.

Unmodified by class, skill (or possibly hero items later on) the aggressor gets the CCG equivalent of ‘First Strike’. If your opponent happens to be… You know… Dead, after your attack happens then there is no fear of reprisal. Although if you have a sufficient ‘Speed’ stat advantage to attack twice, the counterattack will come between your swings.

Otherwise you can endeavour to manipulate the limitations of their attack patterns.

Ah Ferdinand… You’ll never rival Edelgard at this rate. She’s level 10 or 11 already!

Melee by and large can only attack horizontally or vertically one square adjacent to their position. You can walk right up next to a hostile sword user — albeit in a diagonal position — and give them a really bad day with a light showering of acid2.

Or you can use an archer to attack that same sword-fellow with impunity from two squares away. Although if your archer is not in turn well protected and the enemy survives, on their turn they can come invade your personal space with a swift chop. Your archer cannot attack into immediately adjacent squares, and so no counter attack for you.

Then there are your attached battalion units. They can be used to attack (often with additional affects, depending on the unit type) without triggering a counterattack. Although your battalion’s can be exhausted and will flee the field if overused.

Then there is the longer term strategic elements that will carry on having an impact outside the current battle. Adjacent fighting units will build relationships and learn to support one another better. You also need to consider how best to provide opportunity for units falling behind in XP to catch-up without putting them at undue risk.

I mean, sure it’s great having a few super units.

But lose even one of these because your healers were one-shot and you’re going to be in a great deal of trouble. Especially if you’re playing the more traditional ‘intended’ experience with potential for permanent character loss.3

The teaching and social elements might just be my favourite parts though

Which is good, because outside an initial battle or two it’s what you’ll almost exclusively do for the first couple of hours.

Practicing the art of small talk over tea with Claude.

Fire Emblem will throw a lot at you over this time. And at first, in combination with learning the layout of the monastery and all the ins and outs of where people might be hiding around the main areas highlighted on the map, it can feel a tad overwhelming.

You’re asked to make a choice between the three houses very early on as well. Which terrified me. Thankfully this wasn’t your ‘final answer’ so to speak. When you’re again asked shortly after this — you are given opportunity to better learn about each group.

The overwhelmed feeling comes back in short order though. Namely when you start looking at the skills you want to teach your students with respect to lining them up to particular classes. Classes that span across a range of tiers, no less. As someone completely unfamiliar with the Fire Emblem classes and what I might even need in the future, hoo boy.

Teach, showing how it’s done.

Fortunately, your students will occasionally come to you with suggestions for their skill goals. You’re absolutely free to ignore them and shoehorn them down a path of your choosing ‘teacher knows best’ style — but if you’re floundering along like I was, this is very helpful.

But their needs extend beyond the purely academic. You need to ensure you’re caring for them as a whole person. Watching out for their motivation, ensuring they get along with not only you but their classmates too.

Fire Emblem offers any number of ways to approach this from Tea Parties (as above) to cooking, group meals, rest days and more. But each tends to have an opportunity cost. Often in expenditure of your rather limited ‘Professor Points’ which dictate how many facilities or major actions you can take.

Also? If you’re doing those things instead of bettering your own skills, how can you maintain top efficiency in teaching your own class?

I feel like with 10 hours in, I’m starting to get a firmer grasp on managing and balancing these aspects. I have no illusions as to being anywhere near close to complete mastery and being able to optimise the crap out of everything I’m doing. But I’m comfortable. There is no longer a need to second guess every action I’m taking as somehow potentially screwing up my game.

PSA: Avoid the official trailers if you don’t want to have a significant story spoiler.

I won’t spoil it again here if you’ve been so far free of it. I’m told it was even in a lot of the promotional material, but my spoiler for this came from the pre-edit version of the Kotaku review. Their defense (I guess somewhat understandably) was that clearly Nintendo didn’t intend it to be a major secret, having included it in their own promotional material.

Nonetheless, I would’ve preferred being shocked and amazed by it when it happened.

I feel that how I’m approaching the game has been at least minutely adjusted just by the knowledge of what is coming — even though I don’t know when or how far off it might yet be.

In any case, final thoughts?

Well, not final final. There is still a huge amount more to do and see in the game.

But I can tell you at the very least I intend to do and see those things. I am really enjoying my first Fire Emblem experience. I can’t wait to see what else the game has to throw at me. (*Chants* hero items, hero items, hero items). The overwhelmed feeling I spoke to was relatively fleeting and just something to push through initially.

It’s also a title that will certainly invite replay. Not only by way of choosing an entirely different choice in from the titular ‘three houses’. But even in how you approach training and class paths for your team. This is a bit of a mixed bag though. The core storyline is expected to run 35-50ish hours. At that sort of length I’m not sure I’d want to go through it all again from the beginning. At least not any time soon.

Dorothea bringing the thunder.

But that’s me — I’m very much a one and done style gamer with anything of this length. I’m the same way about books, too. Even the ones I really love tend to get only a single reading. And its for much the same reason as with games: There are too many more yet to explore!

Ultimately, If you love turn based battles with a side of Persona-esque time management, and already own a Switch? I think this title is certainly one to grab. Reviews elsewhere have been positive and my own experience so far would back this up.

But if you’re after a second opinion — especially if you’re already experienced with the series? Angie from Backlog Crusader has a fantastic full review up written from that perspective.

And whether you’re experienced or not, Robert from Adventure Rules has put up an amazing set of Fire Emblem: Three Houses beginner tips.

Sneak Peak at Lost Ark

Mailvaltar recently reminded me that Lost Ark was a thing. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s a Korean made MMOARPG. Wait- no, don’t run! This one actually looks pretty good. The scope of the game is mindblowing and it has a solid core set of gameplay mechanics backing it all up.

Turn on captions and auto-translate to English. (And then have a good giggle at Google’s best efforts at real time translation throughout.)

If you can imagine your Final Fantasy XIV, or WoW, flipped around to an isometric perspective. Then given something between an ARPG and a brawler’s combat system. Put in just a splash of Monster Hunter. And also a very anime-esque story over the top of the whole thing, you’ll be partway there.

If you’re anything like Mailvaltar and I, this will have you chomping at the bit to get in right now. For others almost every element of that will be a turn off. If you’re in the ‘right now’ camp and you don’t happen to live in Korea, I probably owe you a bit of an apology. You can’t. And the western release while confirmed now, doesn’t really have an attached timeline.

But Wait, Where’s the ‘Sneak Peek’ then?

OK, perhaps “can’t” was a bit strong. Because you certainly can. But it’s not exactly low effort. Or risk. To even embark on the journey of getting in you have to be aware you could lose access again at any time and be OK with that. This makes me somewhat wary of investing a lot of time at endgame right now, but to test it out and get an early look at how it’s shaping up?

Hell. Yes.

I’m happy to share how if anyone is interested!

My Warrior

My Warrior (later to be spec’d Berserker) starting out life as a slave.

Every base class (currently there are four, with two more on the way) has its own introductory story. The Warrior gets a pretty rough deal starting out as a fighting pit slave with no weapons or armor and everyone expecting him to be dead ere too long.

Thankfully, this is not a foe.

Fortunately, it isn’t too long before you stop needing to punch things and get to wield an excessively large sword. Already by this point I’m extremely impressed with the mix of weighty impact and fluidity the combat has. Your skills are hotkey based, and are targeted in the direction of your mouse cursor (for the most part).

Chaining from one skill to the next, juggling your opponents simply didn’t get old. And learning how best to weave in new skills as they were learned to best extend the stun effect out. Working out their wind-up times and when to dash through an enemy before attacking again… Just so very satisfying.

Although he is a foe.

And this was all before level 10 and selection of your actual class.

You see, every base class has three or four sub-classes which are what you will actually play as from the end of introductory sequence on.

What I really appreciated is that the game gives you the opportunity to test the three sub-classes out before you are asked to commit. You can spawn in normal or boss monsters and then have fairly free reign over testing a decent number of skills to get a feel for things.

Because once you commit, that is it. These aren’t specialisations that you jump between at will, this defines who your character is.

My Berserker

Journeyed a long way since my cell.

I kept wanting to test out other classes, but not being able to tear myself away. At 10 I thought. Then 15. Surely at 20. I’ve at last managed to convince myself to log out at around level 23. Level 50 is the cap but there is a ridiculous amount of stuff to do beyond that.

I was thankful in the extreme that the first mount is given fairly early on, I was level 14 when I got to pick my horse. Thankful because the world is huge. HUGE. And actually I should say the continent I’m on is huge. Eventually you will get a boat and access to entire new continents and island adventures.

These guys just wanted to see the whole world burn. In a feverish fit of plague.

I think (but don’t quote me yet) that you level to 50 entirely on the first continent and then unlock your boat.

Already I have seen quite an array of terrain though. Frosty wastelands (although that was in my Warrior’s backstory), verdant farmland, swampy marshes, dingy caves, ancient ruins, salt flats. And I’m barely into the second major region of the first continent.

None of this would matter though if the gameplay wasn’t fun, and as I think I’ve alluded to — it is. There is skill in execution of your combos for sure, but the build diversity also seems fairly strong.

Skills

My sword now has eyes. Is it alive? Unsure. I haven’t started hearing it’s voice in my head yet, at least.

When you level past 10 you are awarded skill points. Generally 5, but some levels seem to award more, and some quests can also award them.

You can rank your skills up and each rank does the basics of increasing damage, knockback, stun or other base effects sure. But at certain thresholds it unlocks a new tier of the ‘tripod’ system. So called because there are three tiers of three options for each skill, that can layer on top of one another to create fairly dramatic differences in how the skills execute.

Your selection within the tripod system can be changed on the fly, unlike your overall specialisation. So you do get the ability to adapt your build to the content you happen to be doing.

I haven’t been able to unlock the third tier of anything yet, but I have added extra duration to how long I can hold Whirlwind (vanilla tier 1 option) and then at Tier 2 added 40% additional range which also acts as a higher crit and damage zone. If I can keep enemies in that new outer reach of Whirlwind they take significantly more damage.

Dungeons

Pretty much every zone you run through winds up with a dungeon. You can go in on Normal or Hard mode, alone or as a party of up to four. You can solo Hard if you wish to, and in fact I would recommend it over Normal.

There was nothing… wrong with these dungeons. But they weren’t anything to write home about either. I had heard much fuss made about the cinematic dungeons of Lost Ark so was expecting a fair bit more.

Turns out those end of area dungeons are not the cinematic ones. The first of those comes around level 20-ish and they live up to the hype. Well. So far, with a sample of one they do.

I had almost given up on attempting to queue for dungeons too before this one. The end of area ones are being only infrequently run at the moment (should be a different story with a fresh Western release). But this one the queue pop was instant, and the run ever more enjoyable for having people along.

As is fairly standard fare for ARPGs, the dungeon difficulty scales for each person you include. There is no holy trinity to worry about (although Tanks (Warlords) and Healers (Bards) do exist if you’re that way inclined) so the queue times are never going to be waiting around for a specific type to decide to join.

Our run was in fact three Berserkers and a Warlord. xD

And this is pretty much where I left things off to come put this post together! When I jump back in I kind of want to try out a caster class (Summoner or Bard, most likely). But I may end up just jumping back on Berserker and rolling further into the game. :)

When First Impressions Don’t Last

It doesn’t happen incredibly frequently, but it’s happened often enough that I’m absolutely convinced that it’s a ‘thing’. Over the last few days I’ve had it happen with two games in quick succession which has got me thinking about it. ‘It’ being: When for whatever reason you bounce off a game fairly well convinced it isn’t for you — but then later return to it and find that, you know what? Actually… It very much is your thing.

Sometimes It’s Easy to Know Why…

My go to example here is Dark Souls II. I very excitedly picked up the PC release, having previously looked on enviously at the PS3 crowd with their Dark Souls and Demon Souls before that.

Day 1 I didn’t even get through the tutorial. I remember distinctly thinking the controls were shite while trying to learn controlling the direction of the character, in a run, to jump over a little tiny gap to get an item on the far side.

I put it down in disgust after trying the jump a few times. The next day I did return though, and made it through the tutorial… But then quickly became demotivated again. After having made it through the tutorial area, but before reaching Majula… I hung a left into the area that would ultimately lead to the Shaded Woods later in the game.

If ever there was a second time I considered quitting Dark Souls II though, it was here. These guys blocked me for a goodly while. *grumble* Stupid Ruin Sentinels.

You couldn’t get that far yet, but that hardly mattered. The little bastards that hide out in the stone enclosure there were enough for me. I again threw up my hands and put the game down for quite some time.

In my mind, I had no problem with the concept of challenging combat. It was a large part of what I was there for. But I wasn’t prepared to accept that the game was challenging because the controls were also fighting against you.

Of course, the problem wasn’t really the controls. It was just my familiarity with them. I’d been a pretty die-hard Mouse + Keyboard player for anything character driven to that point. My console controller gaming was limited almost exclusively to JRPGs or racing type things.

But I didn’t even think about picking up Dark Souls II again until about 6 months later when I happened across a Let’s Play. It was set near the beginning of the game, and I could see that more precise control of direction and the like was certainly possible. I had a near jaw drop moment when I saw that I should have carried on down to Majula proper and then around into the Forest of the Fallen Giants as the first area.

I’m incredibly thankful for having seen that and becoming motivated again, otherwise I would have continued to miss out on a fantastic game series and never learnt the necessary controller skills.

…And Sometimes it Isn’t

Moonlighter is one such. I bought the July humble monthly early to gain access primarily to Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, but have ended up not touching that one and playing Moonlighter instead.

Which in and of itself is not too unusual — I don’t generally understand even my own gaming whims. But in this case I’d played Moonlighter before and decided very much that this was not a PC game for me. It sat firmly in the category of games that I’d rather play on the Switch. I put it down on the PC after about 45-50 minutes of play.

But this time I’ve gone in deep. I’m about to defeat the Golem King at the end of the first dungeon-set, I’ve invested heavily in both the town and my shop. Constructed a full set of the base armor and non-trainer weapon and enchanted them up the wazoo.

Nothing significant about the game has changed since I last picked it up. I just didn’t really appreciate it last time around. And now I do.

It’s also happened with a markedly different game — DoTA Underlords. After playing through the tutorial round I gave it a hard pass. Next day — a weekend — I played it in basically all my available gaming time.

Woo!

I’ve become a pretty savvy early- and mid- game player, but my late game play is certainly lacking right now. If the game starts dragging out too long past the mid-20 round mark, I find myself falling off in power relative to the other strong players something fierce. That screenshot above as fourth place was after leading the pack for the entirety of that game… Until all of a sudden I wasn’t any more. ;)

One thing I should call out too, because I know the DoTA branding will alone strike fear into the hearts of many — don’t worry. If you’re keen in giving it a go, just do it. And jump straight into the multiplayer.

While yes, it’s a competitive game — you play entirely within your own playfield, with your opponents assembled team (and yours) being AI controlled. Even if you do really poorly in executing your strategies to start out, you’re a) not disadvantaging anyone else, there is no team mates to be worried about, b) not subject to the opinions or heckling of any other player.

Those points aren’t what flipped me exactly, but I feel they’re worth calling out anyway.

I don’t actually know what it is that flipped me. As noted with Moonlighter, certainly it wasn’t anything to do with the game itself. In this instance I literally came back the next day and simply had a different opinion of it.

The second day when I was playing and asked myself, ‘Am I having fun?’ the answer had switched to ‘Yes’.

So if it isn’t the GAME that’s changing…

I can only conclude that there is a strong mindset, or contextual element.

For Dark Souls it was being about being in a headspace where I was willing to learn a new basic, fundamental skill (e.g., using a controller instead of M+KB).

For Moonlighter I’m less certain. I had been playing a lot of Stardew Valley on my Switch the first time around, and had recently discovered that Hollow Knight was indeed a thing I loved on the Switch.

So it’s entirely possible my thinking more generally was coloured by that, and I was looking for other things ‘better on a Switch’. And for what it’s worth, I still think that Moonlighter would be a great experience on Switch. It’s available there now I think, but haven’t as yet tried it.

DoTA Underlords though? That one I’m not even sure I have any sort of solid theory on. The ‘Am I having fun with this?’ question simply had a different answer from one day to the next.

And these are just three examples from a fairly lengthy history of this happening for me. Way back in the day — EVE was another. I bounced off EVE three or four separate times before I really got into it. But that one I can answer. The successful attempt was with a group of friends — and co-op can make pretty much any experience better. ;)

Anthem Review: An Early Access Title in AAA Clothes

Make no mistake, Anthem is an Early Access title. The publisher approved term here is ‘Game as a Service’ (GaaS) and sure, it’s that too. But if you’re buying Anthem now, you’re likely buying into the promise of what it is to become. You’re likely buying it because you want to support the developers in their efforts to bring their vision to life, because that vision is something you want in your life.

This isn’t a new concept, but it’s a creeping trend in the AAA space. And in my view it is every bit the gamble that Early Access is with a relatively unknown Indie developer.

Sure, developing new titles is expensive — building the minimum acceptable product cuts those upfront costs down, brings in revenue early, and most importantly (and where our risk comes in) allows a more sensible commercial decision to be made on to what extent the studio will continue to support the title post-launch.

With this being the case, the review conclusion comes down to a statement you’ve likely seen in countless Steam reviews for other Early Access products.

“Only buy this if you’re happy with it the way it is right now or you’re wanting to support the Devs.”

— Countless Steam reviews for Early Access products.

There is an argument to be made that it isn’t entirely fair for AAA publishers to expect to be allowed to play on the same level as an independent developer in this way. It might even be an argument I would agree with.

But for the purposes of this review, here and now, it’s an argument I’m not going to get into. Also? We’re getting way ahead of ourselves.

So:

Is the Current State of Anthem Fun?

Before I answer that, a note:

I’m not an EA Game Changer and I have no personal ties into EA or BioWare. Not so much as a Twitter follower from these companies.1 Further, unlike many of the YouTubers cashing in on the entertainment value of negative reviews, I have no monetisation on the line for this in any form.

That out of the way?

Yes. Unreservedly, yes.

Anthem is fun, right now, in it’s current state. Going right back to my Anthem VIP Demo Impressions I made the following statement:

The foundational elements of Anthem are strong, and will support the load of long term play from its player base if allowed to. If BioWare can deliver a meaningful endgame with a good pacing on content releases the future for Anthem is bright.

– Naithin (2019), Anthem VIP Demo Impressions

Not counting however many hours I spent with the demos, over both that weekend and the following weekend, I now have 50 hours with the Feb 15th launched version of Anthem.

In that time, I’ve completed the Main Story Quest, the Agent Missions, dozens of contracts, started pushing into the Grand Master difficulties, taken on Legendary Contracts and battled through the Strongholds.

I can still 100% stand behind that statement. The Javelin gameplay is incredibly satisfying, with the freedom of flight and aerial combat simply not seen in its genre competitors2. The gun play is solid, with a wide variety of weapon types — further diversified by several sub-types existing in each ‘main’ category, each with their own twist on firing style.

Sure, guns are good — but the abilities are better. Your abilities are there to be used and generally have quite a short cooldown or recharge. Each Javelin (Ranger, Colossus, Storm and Interceptor) not only has a unique set of these abilities provided through Gear slots, but also very different handling characteristics.

Fifty hours in, and I’m still not feeling ‘done’ with the game’s launch content either.

So sure, Anthem is fun. Not only is it fun, there is a fair chunk of content even from just the base game’s inclusion, Early Access or not.

But (yep, we’re into the ‘buts’ now) this fun is to be had in despite a number of issues, some stemming from the very fact that we’re being passed an Early Access title by stealth.

Key Issues

For better or worse, it is typical for an Early Access title to launch to the world with issues. Some of the issues with Anthem fall into this type, I think. Things that can be solved with time and effort on BioWare’s part.

Others (like the loading) I’m more worried about the ability of the engine to handle any better than it currently does. On that…

Please wait… Loading

I feel like the Loading issues are well documented, but if you’re unaware… An SSD should be listed as a mandatory system requirement for the game. If you must install Anthem to a standard HDD, prepare for a bad time when it comes to loading missions.

In fact, for story missions (Main, and Agent) if you’re having to load from a standard drive and you can’t play with only friends who will wait — set the game to private and solo.

If you don’t, you may load into a mission 30-60 seconds after everyone who has put it on their SSD does. By then they will have flown off and started things.

Worse, Missions have a very tight distance tether. So, what happens when you’ve loaded in, to find your teammates most of the way to the first objective?

The game helpfully teleports you to them. Via a load screen. A load screen almost as long as the first one. If you’re really unlucky, this can become a chain.

The patch coming on February 22nd has some further optimisations for loading from a HDD, but the speed is only part of the issue. The sheer frequency of the load screen triggers is intense, even getting into managing your loadout or appearance, for example? Load screen.

Mechanics Worn on Sleeve

If you apply a reductive mindset, you can break down any of the Looter Shooter games to a small set of very simple mechanics. Get to a place, kill a thing, maybe move one thing to another thing, etc.

We don’t fault those games for these simple mechanics typically, because they wrap them in story. We’re not just standing around fighting waves in a room, no, we’re buying time for civilians to escape out behind us!

Anthem’s missions aren’t necessarily mechanically any worse than these other games — but there is no meaningful effort to dress them up or immerse you in story reasons for why you’re doing it.

This might sound like a small thing and I suppose in some ways it is. But when you ask someone who has played this, and say The Division which hides the mechanics much better behind the story, which game has the more satisfying mission mechanics? Even though The Division is not objectively any better in this regard, they will tell you that it is.

This impression matters and makes it much harder to invest in what you’re doing.

The Story

The story is not up to BioWare standard. It’s perfectly serviceable, if not actually good so far as looter-shooters go. I didn’t hate it by any stretch, and unlike many I found the character conversations to be interesting.

But as interesting as they are, there is not much in the way of consequence or change as a result of what you say or do. It is this element in particular I miss from the usual BioWare formula. You can affect some very tiny changes to your personal version of Tarsis, just… Not much.

The story also feels like (because it is) just an Act 1 to the overall story. Sure, we get an ending of sorts. But it’s poorly paced and the ending we get doesn’t feel at all deserved.

BioWare plans to extend this story out overtime through free content/story updates, which is something I applaud. Also I admit to being extremely keen to find out where the post-credit teaser revelation takes us in the coming months.

But the story issues also extend to the implementation. Outside of some cutscenes, all your story beats occur back in Ft Tarsis, completely segregated from the actual ‘game’ of Anthem. This is a Singleplayer only area to protect your experience with the story.

But if you’re attempting to play with friends, you’ll have up to 15-20 minutes at a time talking your way through Tarsis to contend with. If some of your group are interested in the story and some aren’t no-one is going to feel very happy about this.

The Tombs

I mentioned story pacing, right?

This right here was one of (but certainly not the only) culprit in this arena. With the 15th Feb launch, this mandatory-to-proceed ‘story’ quest required players to run through a set of ‘challenges’ such as open 15 chests, get 10 collectibles, get 50 melee kills, etc.

Adding insult to injury, the 15 chests required each individual to open their own set of 15. Being in a squad standing right by the chest being opened was not enough.

Two fixes for this are coming, but too late to benefit me. ;)

  1. (Already implemented) Tracking of the quest objectives start from Level 3 (down from level 10 previously), such that by the time you GET to this quest, it’ll be quite likely you have much of it done.
  2. Chest opening credit will apply to squads, so just 15 chests will be needed, rather than having to hunt down up to 60 for a full squad.

This whole quest though is nothing more than an attempt to pad out the game time. … Or at least I thought so until right this moment. It just occurred to me that possibly it’s rooted in the same issue as I outlined with Mechanics, where Anthem just has absolutely no creative spark when it comes to hiding or at least wrapping what it’s asking you to do in a better story context.

Others?

The Menu and UI setup remains high on my list of bugbears. Both for how it does work and for what it is missing.

The pain of using the Menu’s I outlined in the Anthem Open Demo Impressions still holds fairly true. We have had some improvements in being able to click through to the next layer down, but it still has a long way to go.

I also noted in the Anthem VIP Demo Impressions that there was no possible way to view your overall Javelin stats and bonuses. Or even basic information such as what your base shield/armor values are. That’s still true, and in my view needs addressing. It is a fairly core component of the ARPG and Looter Shooter genre.

Although also of note is that there is no way to tell what some of the really quite cryptic modifiers on gear even do. Even testing isn’t reliable right now since we know that some modifiers don’t work right now. (Due to be fixed in the Feb 22nd patch)

Then there is the matter of variety — in creatures, enemy factions and biomes in particular. That last has been quite a deal breaker for some already. The continuous sea of jungle with no respite is just too much. Personally? I prefer this over abrupt borders of desert to snow that some open world games provide, but even I must admit… I’m really hanging out for some new land masses to be added.

There is also no questioning that the end-game content is a little light at this point. e.g., there are only three strongholds (full-sized dungeons) and then the open-world content such as Freeplay, Contracts and Legendary Contracts on Grand Master difficulties.

These also all add up to the feel that Anthem is currently an Early Access title. Sure — it is one with promise, but certainly not one ready for a descriptor of ‘Fully Launched Title’.

Conclusion

Anthem is flawed. Beyond any shadow of a doubt. I’ve outlined what I see to be the worst features of the game in its current state, but also how despite them there is an exceedingly fun time to be had with Anthem.

The question then becomes, as alluded to right at the beginning: Do you think that you, personally, could enjoy the game in its current state despite the issues mentioned?

And if not, do you at least believe that Anthem will continue to deliver sufficient post-launch content and is this a vision you want to support and buy into? I do. The developers at BioWare have gone to great lengths to be transparent about the goings on, what is in, what is out, what is coming down the pipeline for later.

My only niggle of reservation is whether, if sales are not immediately ‘awesome’, will EA continue to support BioWare in getting Anthem to where it needs to be? This is the ‘gambling’ aspect of it, I think.

For what it’s worth, I can only imagine that releasing in this early state is an intentional and calculated move on their part. One they’ve done before with Battlefield V, and that title is still seeing content updates to flesh out what was missing at launch.

So for all this, I think there is no harm in considering Anthem again in a few months time after it’s had some time to settle some of the bigger issues. Especially if one of the other big releases this month is vying for your dollars.

Otherwise, don’t be afraid to give Anthem a go for yourself and just form your own opinion. Consider trying it out even through Origin Premier Access with just a month’s subscription perhaps. Within a month you will well and truly know whether Anthem is for you and how you feel about the cadence of updates.

Should you enjoy what you’re playing then you can buy the game with the benefit of 10% off if you do it before the subscription entirely expires, or you can part ways without having had to part with a larger chunk of your hard earned money.

For what it’s worth, I feel I’ve already extracted value for money out of what was present just in the Feb 15th launch content. I could comfortably put it aside and not regret my purchase.

But that’s not why I bought Anthem. I want more. The Story of Anthem was a bit of a let down when held up to typical BioWare fare, sure, but the world building? That was top-notch. There are so many places I want to go see in this world that has been created. So many things referenced in lore that I want to get to know about first hand.

There is more to Anthem’s world and story to be had; let’s just hope it doesn’t take too long to get it to us. ;D

For now, I’ll leave you with some of the tasty, tasty loot I’ve obtained over the past few days. :)

Postscript on Microtransactions

You might have noticed I didn’t list the MTX as an issue. I guess the short of it is, with current implementation — I’m not worried. At all.

Should legendary grade armor, emotes, etc, come out at some truly ridiculous price point (in either coin or shards!) then I’ll update accordingly.

But my belief is that the coin income has held up into the end-game very well. It is going to take a very long time for the one-time challenges to dry up when you consider that they exist for every weapon, for every gear piece of every Javelin, for exploration of every area and more challenges besides.

Then there are the constantly ongoing set of 3 dailies, weeklies and monthlies for additional income. There is more than what is shown via the table in the Freelancer Barracks, make sure to always be checking out your challenge entries in your Journal / Cortex as well.

Confronting Confirmation Bias and Echo Chambers

Anthem is the catalyst for this post, but the discussion could certainly be taken more broadly. Also, I want to make it very clear that I’m not excluding myself from this. No-one is free of bias, the best one can do is try to be aware of where your personal bias’ lie and take the necessary steps to mitigate them.

Whatever else you might think of Anthem; it can certainly look good.

My bias toward Anthem is something I first raised after exposure to the demo weekends, again while writing up my impressions of The Division 2 beta and most recently mentioned being in the ‘honey-moon period’ for my early impressions of the early-access launch.

This is all good and well, but I want to write a review that will be useful to people shortly. So at least for myself, I need to confront the assumptions and biases I’ve held to date, and break the echo chamber effect1 somewhat in order to do so.

What was my starting level of bias?

Well… I essentially came out of a 5+ year blogging hibernation for the express purpose of talking about Anthem.

That should put some context to it for you. At the time I made the decision to come back to blogging for it, there is very little I could have heard or seen that would have dissuaded me from the position I then held.

Nonetheless; over the course of this (admittedly so far short) stint at returning to blogging, I’d already started to self-moderate. I had seen signs I was being unreasonable in my expectations. I was shrugging off certain things that really do deserve constructive criticism.

Enjoying a thing is absolutely fine, good even. We are, for the most part, much too ready to jump down negatively on almost anything and everything. I know that my natural inclination is one of skepticism and disbelief. Before this, I would have told you that I’ve been around the pre-launch hype of too many games to be taken in again. Prove to me it’s worth the hype and then maybe, possibly, I’ll change my tune.

I couldn’t tell you what it was about Anthem that captured that remaining, ‘I want to believe’ spark left in my imagination, really. But capture it it had.

And Now?

I’m still enjoying the game. No-one (including myself) has been able to talk me out of having fun with Anthem.

This is not always a given, either. My Steam library is littered with titles of a more-easily-hyped-Naithin, and some of them to this day have not been loaded. Even once.

I have something like 35 hours into Anthem now and still hunger for more.

Be that as it may though, I think I have managed to gain a better perspective on where the troubles lie. The areas that are in need of improvement if not outright remedy. I can see that Anthem’s ‘Games as a Service’ model is more than anything else ‘Early Access’ for a AAA studio title. (This is a post for another day.)

To get there, to this more balanced position, has meant going out of my way to listen to dissenting opinions. Going willingly into the lion’s den of negative opinion about something I enjoy, and considering whether each individual complaint holds merit in as detached a manner as possible.

Review to Come Soon

So yes, the review will start rolling out soon. Depending on length I may section it off. In particular because I can write about story with some confidence in it not materially changing with the patch on the 22nd Feb.

But if you were hoping for a bit more guidance right now on where things sit with Anthem, I guess my conclusion is this:

Yes — Anthem has problems. The load screens being a big one (especially for those without the luxury of an SSD they can make space to fit the game on). There are other issues too in my opinion with how itemisation is handled and certain story decisions.

But equally, Yes — Anthem is fun despite these problems. Anyone telling you that you can’t have fun with the title in it’s current state is wrong. Now, whether you are willing (or able) to support a full-price game that is coming out with these issues is another matter, and a decision not to is certainly one I could respect.

I want to play Metro: Exodus so much, but I simply refuse to support Epic while their means of acquiring market-share is to introduce third-party exclusives to the PC market. I will wait a year for a Steam release rather than give them a cent of my money now. So I do get taking a stand.

Also, there are a lot of pretty good titles coming out right now besides.

If you’re on the fence, but interested, I think the best thing you can do for yourself (if you’re on PC) is to grab one month of the EA Premier access. This will give you a full month of unfettered access to try it out for yourself, and form your own opinions rather than take my word, or anyone else’s.

If at the end of the month you’re still invested, and/or the coming content drops sound interesting, you can then choose to invest (with 10% off the purchase price, if you do it before your month runs out).

Alternately, just wait for a few months for all the hype (both positive and negative) to die out, and see where things stand then. As I said, plenty of good titles to tide you over in the meantime. :)

Anthem Early Access is Live — Experience So Far

The land of Bastion is ours to explore at last.

Actually it has been live for about 14 hours now. Of which I’ve been able to spend a good number playing. It has been glorious. Don’t ask me for a review or anything terribly coherent right now, as I have no doubt that the honeymoon effect is in full force.

What I can say though, is that asides from the first 40 minutes or so of the game being live where everyone was trying to flood in at the same time, it has been incredibly stable — both server and client.

You might also recall that in my VIP demo impressions, I became quite adjusted to the mouse controls and was worried at the changes coming for live. Well, I shouldn’t have worried. Yes — it feels quite different, but undeniably for the better. The automatic centering of the flight reticle in particular was a change I thought I’d be turning off immediately, but it feels great.

So if you didn’t get on with the M+KB controls during the demos and had resigned yourself to (at least flying with) a controller; give them a go again and you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised.

Microtransactions

Origin will sell the shards in your local currency if it is a currency they normally support, but in US Dollars1 the pricing of Shards are as follows:

  • 500 Shards – $4.99
  • 1050 Shards – $9.99
  • 2200 Shards – $19.99
  • 4600 Shards – $39.99

Note that if you have an Origin subscription, you will get 10% off those listed prices.

If you saw the earlier MTX leak, you’ll recognise the items for sale, if not the pricing.

Depending on the size of the pack you buy, the price of the Epic Armor Sets (incl. helm, chest, arms and legs) will cost between $7.39 to $8.48 each.

The Rare materials and Uncommon graphics cost between $2.61 to $2.99 each, and an Epic emote will cost between $3.48 to $3.99 each.

What is the Coin income like, if I’d like to not spend real money?

Early impressions are positive. In my time today I’ve made almost 12k 24k coin2 just by playing, on top of the 40k coin you start with. However, that is with the benefit of completing the daily challenges and the weekly challenge in amongst that which would have bolstered my early rates.

On the other hand, I believe that in the end game when you get Masterworks or Legendary drops (not positive on Epic) you also get a coin drop alongside.

It’s quite something being here ‘in person’ after seeing this mission in so many pre-release videos.

So be sure — I’ll come back to this later with a better view of how things stack up with the challenges completed and a view of what a typical coin income might look like.

As noted above though – early impressions are very positive. It appears to me that even starting from a 0 coin base, you could grind out the coins you needed to buy even an expensive armor set you wanted before the featured items cycled around to something else without throwing money into the game.

I believe this to be true with the 10+ day cycle we’re seeing, which would allow for 10 sets of dailies, 2 sets of weeklies, 2 sets of alliance coin incomes all on top of your normal play income. Depending on where you were with your monthlies, possibly a set of those as well.

Back into the Fray!

And with that, I’m back into it! My intent is to have a complete review out on or before the time the full-launch comes about on the 22nd Feb, so keep an eye out for that. :)

Over that time I should be able to complete the main story and get a fair taste for the end game, see what the final impressions of coin income is like, how much interest the loot and gear holds (already feels quite promising though, relative to the demos) and that sort of thing.

If there are any burning questions in your mind though, feel free to drop a comment or message me on Twitter. :)

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.

%d bloggers like this: