Noob Excursions in Yet Another MOBA

It all started when I glanced through the marketing copy for Master X Master, NCsoft’s go at capitalizing on the Dota 2 and LOL fanbases by creating yet another MOBA clone.

(It doesn’t seem like so long ago that everyone was trying to jump on the WoW clone hype train; and yet, even cloning MOBAs feels like old hat now – the hero shooter & survival sandbox clone trains are pulling out of the station, and folks are busy chasing battle royales, and to a lesser extent, asymmetrical 1v4 horror FPSes.)

Being what you might politely term a “patient gamer,” I have, of course, not even kept up to date on any of the above, firsthand experience-wise.

So I was somewhat intrigued to read the advertised “unique” features of Master x Master, terrible naming / translation aside.

“team up to achieve victory in PvE dungeon runs” – oho, seriously? have we started to embrace the singleplayer MOBA? (or at least the co-op PvE MOBA?)

“total control over your Masters with full WASD movement and mouse controlled targeting… skillshots, dodge projectiles, jump… in full action combat!” – I don’t have to struggle with learning the spam-right-click-everywhere-yet-with-pixel-perfect-precision control scheme of traditional Dota 2? For realz?!

Now this sounded intriguing enough for someone with very little interest in solely repeating 20-45 minute long PvP lobby matches to at least give it a try, since it’s free to play anyway.

The best laid plans though were immediately stymied by the NCsoft Launcher, as I tried to download Master x Master.

It asked me to log in with an NCsoft account, so in the spirit of goodwill, I dug out my old account credentials for City of Heroes, Aion, Wildstar, the works and entered the email and password.

It sent me a verification code to said email, to verify my IP address and give permission to store it for security reasons.

So far so normal, Guild Wars 2 and other games do similar stuff. So I check my email account, copy the verification code and paste it into the launcher…

…whereupon it essentially tells me that my IP address is shady and up to no good,  and that the account has been locked. After successfully entering the password AND the verification code, mind you, one try, no typos.

WUT? NCSOFT, WTF?

Maybe it’s the launcher? Maybe it’s buggy? I go check out my account credentials at the NCsoft account website.

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Account locked for “suspicious activity?” This is the first time I’m logging in several years.

Ironically, it actually let me log in the first go around, long enough to send me a verification code and check my IP address, whereupon it decided that I’m a scurrilous Asian gold-farming bot that has doubtless stolen the account (and email!) of some poor bastard who stopped playing when City of Heroes shut down.

Well, my ISP uses proxy servers, so it’s not the first time a blanket ban fucks over an entire country of users just because a couple of people were engaging in illegal activity in whatever game.

It really hates my IP address, because creating a new NCsoft account with an entirely different email was not allowed either.

So I have put in my little support ticket by emailing “appeal@ncsoft.com” and we’ll see how that goes in a few days. After all, I’m not really losing sleep over potentially never being able to play Master x Master. Or any other NCsoft game. If you’re going to make it this difficult to play your shit, then so be it.

Instead, I transferred my attention over to a series of MOBA clones that I have been half eyeing, but never quite finding the time, energy, desire and disk space to take them for a spin.

Battleborn was released by Gearbox Software (they of Borderlands fame) in May 2016, twenty days before Overwatch launched.

Yeah.

As if going head to head with Blizzard’s polish and army of fans was not enough of a hardcore challenge, they priced Battleborn at $60. Overwatch undercut them at $40 on launch, leading to a desperate $20 price cut twenty days later, which probably did not win them any brownie points with those that bought it on launch day, nor (I would guess) pull away a significant number of people from Overwatch to their game.

I missed the Humble Bundle where they essentially sold it for $15 (plus other games) but since it went partially free-to-play sometime in June of this year, well, why not install it and see?

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There was a tutorial, which seemed relatively clear at first glance, but had some issues later.

Battleborn was first-person view, hero shooter-esque like Overwatch, it even seemed to have the stylized cartoony aesthetic and all that.

It had MOBA flavoring, in the form of introducing NPC creeps with which you would accompany to push the equivalent of towers and a giant robotic spider sentry in the place of a Dota 2 barracks.

The issues I ran into were mostly that of the UI.

As you leveled, there is the option to select skills/trait upgrades in the shape of a DNA helix, and a choice between two options at each level. A little bit complex to read, but eh, I play Path of Exile, I can deal.

I had, however, no idea what the hell the skills shown on the right hand side of my HUD did, beyond randomly experimenting with them… and later, realizing that there were elaborate descriptions of them in the same menu as the DNA helix. Very cluttered, somewhat hard to read and learn while in the middle of ongoing action, but ok, I can kinda deal.

One tutorial instruction asked me to return or teleport back to my base… without actually telling me how. I ran around looking for some kind of teleporter, scanned my UI feeling completely lost and got around it by getting blown to bits by the opposing bot while trying to figure it out. (It took playing another one of these MOBA clones to actually teach me how it was done in their game. No idea if Battleborn has a similar key press.)

What I was rather intrigued with, however, was the presence of a story-based campaign option. PvE! In a MOBA! With story! A more gradual way of learning how to play heroes and finding heroes you liked before progressing on to matches with real people, perhaps?

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What I got was the longest, cheesiest, 80s or 90s cartoon cutscene (no, not cutscene, cutscene implies a certain brevity, “intro movie”) with the worst excuse for rap that sounded too hard like it was trying to be hip.

I have to admit, though, that the style started to grow on me in a campy sort of way by the time I sat through it, played the story prologue and wound up watching the prologue ending of another cartoon cutscene.

The story was “nice” in a nonserious Borderlands humor sort of way, where you basically play a space elf with a mean gangsta punch and go rescue a defecting “ebil” right-hand lady from the evil space overlord and his faction of goons. There were some sneak peek looks at the other characters in the vein of a Saturday morning cartoon of that era.

I was feeling pretty good and game for more story episodes…

…when I returned to the main menu and discovered that nope, if you want the story campaign, you must pay the full price of the game to unlock it, at $42.90 SGD, or $31.06 USD.  (I guess it’s $29.99 in the US store.)

If you want the story episodes that take place after the campaign, each one is 700 platinum coins (or whatever currency they are using) aka $5 USD each.

Uhhhh. I half-liked your story, Battleborn, but not by THAT much.

The final straw that encouraged me to uninstall the game though, after giving the subsequent two MOBA clones a try, was this:

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I gave two melee users that appealed to me a try – I’m partial to monstery characters. This monstrosity was so monstrous, it had horns and two enormous fists that blocked out half my view of the action.

I felt like I was trying to fight Endermen wearing a pumpkin over my head. I couldn’t see half of what I was trying to punch. Surely this would be extremely disadvantageous fighting against real players, who might be using ranged attacks?

The weird evil red samurai with slicey blades was a slight improvement, but there were still a lot of red samurai blades and the occasional samurai pants when jumping blocking most of my view.

Couple that with it being aesthetically the worst of three options (it’s lower resolution and slightly more pixelated) and somehow taking up 44gb of disk space…

… Well, I removed it to make room.

(I also hear the player population isn’t that great, leading to colossally long waiting times for anything multiplayer, but eh, whatever.)

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Izlain, who has far more MOBA experience than I, has been recently mentioning Paladins in a positive light.

Paladins is developed by Hi-Rez Studios (wait, wut, didn’t they do Smite? why are they making -another- MOBA clone? isn’t that cannibalizing their own playerbase?) and is currently in Early Access.

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Well, actually, no, my intial reaction was somewhat wrong. It’s not another MOBA clone. It’s -blatantly- an Overwatch clone.

But you know, it’s a pretty polished Overwatch clone.

Even down to the tutorial that completely assumes you are entirely new to the genre. Besides teaching you WASD movement, it tells you explicitly about your health bar. A gaming convention that has only been in use since….oh, Wolfenstein 3D?

I’m being a mite facetious, but I actually LIKE that Paladins’ tutorial assumes nothing. That’s a proper tutorial. It let me walk through my skills one by one, explicitly telling me what they did and practice them on NPCs, rather than chucking them all at me and going, “oh, there’s only four of them, you can figure it out whenever.”

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The UI for damage was clear enough that I figured out, as a semi-experienced FPS player, that headshot damage actually has an effect in Paladins, as opposed to just shooting centre of mass.

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I was vaguely amused by the presence of mounts. Apparently, someone really likes or wants to recreate the feeling of the portion of WoW PvP where you can ride mounts in Battlegrounds to speed up your way to the action. (It’s a good excuse to sell cosmetics too.)

Game mode-wise, it deviates from the standard three lane MOBA and embraces more Overwatch or Team Fortress style objective play. There’s payload, and siege (which I tried and seemed to revolve around a capture point) and onslaught.

If there was one thing I wasn’t terribly keen on, it was that selecting Play nigh immediately dropped you into a game with real players (if versus bot AI).

If you were assuming someone to be a complete newbie to the genre, maybe introduce them to the game mode type and/or let them practice a bit PvE-style with a few heroes before drop kicking them into a match?

(I did eventually find the tutorial option that let me test out heroes, but I somehow wound up in a game first with very little clue of what hero to pick, and what my picked hero even did, let alone what we were supposed to do to win in Siege.

This led to a rather amusing standoff against bots in which I shot what seemed like hundreds of rockets Team-Fortress soldier-style and scoring a fairly obscene number of kills/assists into an endless stream of respawning targets, while trying desperately to figure out what my other skills did. Testing those skills led to some horrific deaths. I have no idea what my other teammates were doing. With luck, they were also just as clueless as I.

We eventually got our act together and coordinated attacking in repeat loops long enough to temporarily clear the other bot team out for 10-15 seconds and inch our way to capture point progress and eventually victory.)

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Overall, the UI for paladins is really clean and very navigable and attractive. I think Hi-Rez Studios learned a lot from Global Agenda and Smite.

If they want to go head to head against Overwatch, I do think Paladins has a fighting chance. Especially for the price of free.

For sure, I’ll be keeping it installed a while longer, while I haven’t been tempted by Blizzard’s buy-to-play option yet. It’s only 7gb, after all.

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The last MOBA clone I tried was the soundalike Paragon, by Epic Games of Unreal and Gears of War fame.

I have wanted to give this one a shot for a while now, primarily because I am a sucker for a realistic aesthetic, and if there’s one thing Epic Games and the Unreal Engine can do, it is make things look fucking good.

Every time I look at the Paragon website to scan through the heroes, I drool. Those are some really good, really sexy 3D models. (Please take your mind out of the gutter right now.)

Apparently, I chose a good time to do it because some time in December 2016, Paragon being still technically in free open beta decided to change up their map layout in the Monolith update, making it smaller and speeding up the feel of their game.

If there’s one thing that is very obvious, despite the game looking like a third person shooter, it is the one that most closely follows traditional MOBA mechanics.

There are the three lanes, there are creeps and towers and a jungle with creeps, there is last-hitting, and so on.

All attacks, be they ranged or melee, have a rhythmic pacing to them. There is no holding down the left mouse button and auto-firing an assault rifle in Paragon, as opposed to Paladins or Battleborn. The predictive skill to master the right timing to last hit is alive and well in Paragon, if a little easier for me personally due to the control scheme.

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It’s pretty slick in its own way. Look, a radial chat menu. One of the few games that don’t make an assumption that everyone is on voice chat and at least provides a fast alternative for communication.

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The lobby UI is relatively clean and polished.

It takes a page off Dota 2, by linking to explanatory videos when you scan through the heroes, something I greatly appreciated and made my life much easier when trying to decide which heroes to try out.

I liked that I could play Solo vs AI, and still earn a few things (as opposed to Dota 2, which won’t give you the time of day). It’s a peaceful way to grasp the ins and outs of a hero, their skills and the map long enough to not immediately suck if/when attempting Co-Op vs AI later, let alone a match vs players.

Being more faithfully a MOBA than most, I suspect I won’t actually have the time to play this to a point of competence.

(For instance, there was some kind of equipment buying that went on, but fortunately the game auto-bought stuff for newbies, and I let it do its thing without any real understanding whatsoever.)

But between it being free, so flipping gorgeous looking, and the ability to piss off nobody by noobing it up in a solo match by myself, I’m keeping this one installed too.

(Oh, and it is only 29gb. How the fuck Battleborn manages 44gb, I’ll never know.)

The SAD Project – Day 25 – Ziggurat

Here we go, back in the saddle again. Choo choo.

The rather surprising winner of the assorted sampling of games I’ve tried over the last few days – as in, I’m opting to rev it up and take it for a spin over the others – is Ziggurat.

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Ziggurat is a first-person roguelike shooter somewhat reminiscent of Hexen, between its fantasy setting where you shoot wands and spells and staves instead of guns and its fast-paced oldschool run and gun gameplay where sprinting and strafing in circles take precedence over ducking from cover-to-cover.

It has fancier graphics than those FPSes of yore, but isn’t above the amusing reference, as seen in this random effect tagged onto a room – “Nostalgia – Big ugly pixels.”

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Everything goes pixelated, and for a moment, you’re back in time. Not to mention, struggling a bit to focus to kill enemies with the unexpectedly incremental difficulty.

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Usually, it’s a little more pleasing on the eye to look at.

The roguelike component comes in with randomized rooms, somewhat randomized enemies (easier types of enemies appear near the start of the game, harder ones show up as you near the final boss), and a bunch of random weapons and skill perks and room complications.

Bad randomization can easily make for a nonsensical and/or unfair roguelike, but Ziggurat seems to have found an intriguing balance that makes the game far more addicting than I first would have imagined.

On normal (read: roguelike hard) difficulty, I don’t tend to last long beyond the first or second level, sacrificing scores of characters to the permadeath roguelike gods, but each failed run somehow tempts me to try again.

On my ninth run, I swapped it to easy difficulty (read: probably normal mode for more casual gamers) and managed to get all the way to the fifth floor and the final boss with not too much problems. It felt almost a little cheaty. That feeling kinda went away after I used the wrong strategy on the last boss and frittered away too much health to outlast it for a win.

It’s possible that the next easy run I do might result in victory, but I find the normal difficulty a little more addictive in terms of posing an almost-but-not-quite challenge.

Kill you it might, but Ziggurat feels fair, on the whole. The enemy types are plentiful and varied, and they follow set, if complex, patterns. They trip you up easily when they start to gather up en masse, but there’s always the feeling that you could get the hang of their patterns, or just stumble onto a good strategy of taking care of them without taking damage – if only you could just move in a certain way, with a certain timing, or figure out which specialized weapon to use for the job.

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Carrots (yes, there are demonic carrots in this game) tend to run straight at you and start gnawing painfully at your ankles. So it’s in your best interests to backpedal and shoot them from range, hopefully before they come within melee reach.

Except when they become larger glowing acidic carrots, that explode into acidic puddles as they die. And now you’ve got to think about having enough room behind you, or space to maneuver to avoid the puddles.

At the end of each short randomized dungeon, lies a boss that is also picked from a random table. Yikes. Yet another set of patterns to figure out. Yet another temptation to keep playing when one inevitably dies and has to start over, and see a new yet familiar sequence of gameplay.

Old Dog, New Tricks

Been nearly a week, and no screenshot. Yep, I’m aware.

I’ve just been mulling on the seed of a post and thinking, and thinking, and thinking more deep thoughts without the discipline to sit down and work my way through it in writing.

Obviously, that changes today.

See, it kinda starts like this: The Steam sales begin. Usually, this is a cause for celebration and a little unbridled overspending and fond dreams of being able to play all the things.

For some strange reason, this does not happen.

Instead, I end up feeling a sort of existential dread at the contemplation of picking up -more- games, which would be unfamiliar to me and require learning whole new control schemes, game strategies, lore and trivia, whatever else there is.

Total War: Warhammer’s various DLC calls to me, because all the new races look cool. I fully intend to pick up some spendthrifty version of Total War: Warhammer 2, because I am a lizardman fanatic.

And yet, and yet, it strikes me that I would have to re-learn the immensely obscure Total War unit control commands, before I can get close to any sense of enjoyment out of the game again.

Ditto Mordheim. It’s on 75% off. This is my usual Steam sweet spot price point for anything I want that is $10 or less. And yet, for a couple of days, I held back on the urge to pick it up because, “Eh, I’d have to spend a few hours learning the precise rules/strategy/mechanisms governing however the game’s apparently quite hostile RNG worked.”

I managed with Blood Bowl a ways back because once upon a time, long long ago, I read the actual Blood Bowl miniatures paper rulebook cover to cover a number of times, perused the Living rulebook in digital form now and then, and by the time it came down to playing the computer game, it was mostly dredging up from the old synapses vaguely familiar rule memories.

I entertained vague ambitions of playing Dota 2 at a presentable enough level to be able to better appreciate the spectacle sport of the International every year. Didn’t quite happen.

Having never quite developed gaming reflexes via the RTS route, my mouse click control scheme dexterity wasn’t quite cutting it, on a fairly basic level being able to move my character out of range as fast as I wanted or turn on a dime, or even just to keep moving. The prospect of practicing enough to get up to an acceptable level to enjoy the game was not an appealing one.

On a sort of general malaise level, this pall of despair afflicted me for the past couple of days.

It seemed easier to fall back on “games” of incrementing numbers.

Just log back on to GW2, bring out the WvW thief that has reached a “not 100% horrible” standard of passable (win a few, lose a few, stealth away from most). tap a few dolyaks, take a few supply camps, and then watch the pips keep rising every five minutes until the target number for the week is reached.

Pop on to Pokemon Go, catch a pokemon here and there (+ X pokemons), spin some stops (+ Y items), try to stay in a gym for intervals of 10 minutes (+ Z coins), do a free raid pokemon daily (+ X special pokemon, +Y special items), unsoweiter.

Spin up Dragonvale on the iPad, and go on a finger-touching frenzy collecting coins to increment more numbers.

Spin up Crusaders of the Lost Idols on Steam and just idle away to collect more and more gold, click here and there to increment DPS numbers and let it autorun to higher and higher levels that let you collect more and more gold… until you plateau and decide to press the big red reset button…in order to do it all again, just a little bit differently.

Yet at the same time, the black despair made itself known. “Seriously?! This is your definition of “game-playing” now?” it seemed to say. “Why is the prospect of learning something new so depressing, all of a sudden? Why does it appear so difficult to contemplate doing?”

For the past few days, I have felt in somewhat kindred spirit to a subset of players, some of whom I used to know when playing MUDs. They’d profess to be bored of the one MUD they were playing, but when it was suggested to them to try other MUDs, all they really wanted to do was find MUDs that were just like the old one, the same underlying systems they were familiar with, that they didn’t have to relearn, just with a different wrapper.

My problem, of course, is that I’m not exactly like them and I don’t want to play the same games with different wrappers. That’ll be too easy. That’s like just start playing all the WoW clones one by one, or something.

I want to be playing different games with different wrappers.

I just feel like I have no time to actually spare to learn to play all these different games.

Especially when I have already comfortably learned how to play a bunch of games, all of which are depth monsters in their own right when it comes to learning enough to “be good” or “be expert” at them. (e.g. *cough* GW2, modded Minecraft, Path of Exile *cough*) not to mention, pretty durned grindy (but in the desirably repetitious sense, just alas, time-consuming) if you get caught up in the core gameplay loops.

I didn’t actually reach any kind of satisfactory conclusion to this brooding.

All I did was let go of the reins of my wallet, picking up Mordheim, Stories: The Path of Destinies, Battlevoid: Harbinger (this one was a random on-a-whim experimental cheap purchase) and Shardlight.

Then I just installed them and a couple of others I’d been intending to get around to try, and “played” them for the space of a half hour here and there.

Some were easier to grasp than others, so it wasn’t all like the despair was suggesting, aka the “why bother to even start” kind of feeling.

Some were most definitely not easy-to-grasp. *cough Mordheim cough*

“Playing” that mostly comprised of diving head first into a campaign, clicking past screens of gobbledygook that was probably going to be important when actually serious about strategy, wandering aimlessly for about four turns, stumbling one or two guys into an enemy team that surrounded them and was patently going to beat them up (and by extension, the rest of my team because they would then be outnumbered, with a clueless boss of a player controlling their moves) and wussing out to “play through” the basic combat tutorial and realizing, “oh my god, there are more tutorials to go through that -would- be important to learn, but definitely, not tonight.”

I guess it’s a phase that I’m just going to have to give time and space to pass through.

In the meantime, I guess the Steam collection just incremented by a couple more numbers, so even if they never get played in the future beyond this, that’s -another- kind of a game too.