Blaugust Day 14: Hitman Agent 47 – Movie, Game and the Problem with Sequels

I’m really not current with these kinds of things, so it’s purely bizarre random chance that I followed a sequence of web links that led me to the realization that:

a) They’re making Hitman the video game series into a movie.

(Again. It’s a reboot, I must have missed the first, which appeared to have been roundly panned by most critics, save Roger Ebert, who might have decided to add a little more subtlety to his review after running afoul of the 4375+ comment responses to his statement that “video games aren’t art” the year before, but received a “ehhh, not too bad” from popular audiences.)

b) It’s coming out next week.

c) Hitman: Agent 47 was filmed on location in Berlin and in Singapore.

Whoooaaa. Come again? Singapore? Really? As in modern-day city-state Singapore, rather than fictitious not-at-all-anywhere-resembling-historical-fact-but-fantasy-cool Pirates of the Carribean Singapore?

Well, ok, they’re throwing in a hefty portion of superhero-like genetic super-soldiers and Hollywood-style explosions, so it’s not going to 100% reflect reality either, but still… “COOL.”

(P.S. Any Singaporean will tell you that there are not that many taxi cabs on our streets. Ever. Especially when you need to hail one down. They’re practically an endangered species.)

I think this is going to be essentially the first time that modern-day Singapore is going to be projected up on the big screen for a global (and specifically Western) audience in Hollywood fashion, not withstanding various TV documentaries (mostly about food, I’m sure), an odd Bollywood superhero movie or two, or a whole bunch of local/regional films.

Especially with the very recent additions to the Marina Bay skyline.

And I’m kind of strangely excited about the whole state of affairs.

Lazy pragmatic cynic I might be, but there’s still enough nationalistic pride left over from all that propaganda from our country’s 50th birthday and suspiciously-impending general elections to be thrilled that the world is going to see this crazy place we call home as a backdrop to a HOLLYWOOD action thriller movie, no doubt seeming as exotic as Hong Kong tends to be associated with, in that sort of action/spy movie genre.

Plus, I’m anticipating that the reaction in our local cinemas is going to be an absolutely hilarious mix of “oohs and ahhs” at the more explosively neat special effects and stunts, plus “ROFLs and LOLs” when we see some of our mundane landmarks dressed up in completely-nothing-resembling-reality fashion… like a plane hangar with black-clad rifle-bearing soldiers… that actually resides in one of our technical educational institutes for aerospace classes.

(It’s really going to crack me up if they use it as the set for the super-sekrit evil genetic lab base where superpowered Agents are made…)

Well, the trailers don’t look too bad… when judged from a brainless action movie flick perspective, mind you, I wouldn’t watch this for plot or storytelling. If it sort of manages to make coherent (if cliched) sense, it’ll already be great.

I think I’m just going to be thrilled to see home gussied up, Hollywood style.

Oh, and that they’re also cashing in on video game tie-ins these days, besides superhero and fantasy book-tie ins? Double bonus. So much mainstreaming (which leads to cultural acceptance) of my favorite hobby interests. Everybody wins.

… except I just downloaded Hitman: Codename 47 (the first game) off Steam – somehow I’ve collected the whole series in a sale and never quite got around to them – and am getting my butt kicked. Repeatedly.

I vaguely recall trying a Hitman game once upon a time, though I can’t remember which, and encountering a similar state of affairs.

Fans make a big deal out of the series giving you the freedom to complete levels via multiple solutions – some sneaky, some of the “gun them all down” variety – it’s done more often now, but back then, I think Deus Ex and Hitman were pretty much it.

What I keep personally encountering is a game series that is perfectly okay with you coming into the level completely blind, scouting it out a few times via unsuccessful attempts to get a ‘feel’ for the scripting of the NPCs and where the possible solutions are located, attempting the perfect execution of the puzzle solution several times more via death-and-repeat trial-and-error gameplay.

I think there’s a group of game players that really enjoy this sort of frustration in their gameplay. They clamor for ‘hard mode’ content like Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy where they have to bang their heads against a particular section repeatedly, dying and restarting, dying and restarting, until they either pass, or better, ace it with flying colors.

I’m a little less sure about how I feel about that kind of gameplay. It does usually tilt more to the frustration=no fun side for me, rather than the other way around.

Of course, it may just be non-polished issues with the first game. The default controls are anything but. They started out in a numpad layout. There was a “WASD” option, so I hit that, and the usual S key for backward?  It was walk forward… because W was taken up with run forward. And they shifted walk backward to X. ‘R’ didn’t even stand for Reload, a convention that I thought has been in place for years of first and third party shooters that offer guns. I had to rebind practically everything before starting to play.

There were no save mid-game functions… so every time you screwed up – and you can’t help but screw up when you’re coming into it blind and don’t even know what to expect – you began all over again, mission briefing clicking and unavoidable cutscenes included.

*twitch*

Then there’s the funny thing about me and game series, which I daresay is also a problem for other people too.

I feel distinctly odd if I attempt a game sequel (or game 4 or game 5), without having played through the early games in order.

It’s like… aren’t I going to miss a significant part of the story this way, or some of that ‘historical’ experience other gamers would have had, by playing this game series in sequence?

And yet… something about game 1 or game 2 ends up being off-putting, because they’re more primitive and more raw, without the benefit of experience and iteration smoothing out those rough corners, and I find I can’t actually complete or continue the game… yet am reluctant to move on to later sequels.

I have similar problems with Assassin’s Creed, Torchlight II, Orcs Must Die 2 and so on…

(Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 would have been a similar case, except that I did get through 75% of the first game – and finally gave up with the endless side map explorations and charged through to the story’s end via walkthrough – and decided that qualified me to graduate on to 2 when it came out, which was excellent because 2 was a much better game than 1 in so many ways.

And I can see someone getting stuck on the Batman: Arkham games in a similar fashion too, though I thankfully liked that series so much I played through really fast.. just some completionist stuff on Origins left, and waiting for Arkham Knight to not suck.)

Dunno.

Maybe I just need to get over it, especially since I have plenty of hard disk space now, and install the later games and just start and -try- them.

Maybe one will click, and I can use that as a jumping off ground to play the later sequels, and treat the earlier games then as “prequels” that may or may not be played later.

This post was brought to you by the letters B for Belghast and Blaugust, and the numbers 14 and 47.

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Blaugust Day 6: Mind the Gap (GW2 / MMOs in General)

Mind the gap... the really big one...

Last night (or midnight, rather) I was idly listening to the GW2 Gamescom livestream and the panel that was mostly a recap of what we already know about Heart of Thorns and a lot of advertising to new players about how NOW is the best time to join the game.

No sub fee, buy one expansion and get the base game for free and available to play right away, probably the nicest community you’ll ever meet in online gaming, totally respectful of your time – if you want to play PvP, you can just jump in direct and immediately play without having to grind for stats in PvE; if you want to take a break for several months, you don’t have to scramble to “catch up”; beyond leveling to 80, you’ll be pretty much equal to any veteran player…

… albeit, one of the developers hedged, without the three years of gameplay experience that a veteran has.

It’s that exact skill-based knowledge/practice/experience gap that will absolutely guarantee that a new player stepping into PvP will get his face wrecked for at least the first few matches.

It’s that gap that lingers in the back of my mind casting doubts, even as I try to assure and encourage new players that the design of Guild Wars 2 puts everyone on a stats even playing field, letting friends downscale down to accompany those newly entering Tyria and still face a challenge, rather than blowing everything away with a sneeze.

It’s the gap that I suspect separates the veteran dungeon “elitists” who just want to earn four dungeon rewards in the space of one hour and not have to explain every last nuance to an unending stream of evidently-no-clue-what’s-going-on newbies from the regardless-how-long-I’ve-played-the-game I’m-still-nervous-about-grouping-in-dungeons-because-I-lack-that-specific-amount-of-repeated-practice crowd.

It’s the gap that tends to yield a very common behavior – just like Wilhelm experienced from his daughter when first starting out in Minecraft – an almost condescending god-you’re-so-slow here’s-the-RIGHT-way-to-play-this let-me-just-play-the-game-for-you impatient attitude.

People often forget to be patient during the learning curve, and to give others that space to learn at their own pace.

It’s often made doubly tricky by the fact that different people learn at different paces and like different styles of learning – one may be happy being spoonfed answers and fast-tracked to success, another may find it overwhelming to be a) fed too many answers too fast and smothered with handholding or b) fed zero answers and left to scramble around lost and frustrated.

(I’ve no solutions to the above besides the suggestion that the learner should take control of their own pace of learning and speak up if they’re overwhelmed – “Slow down! Hang on! Let me figure this out on my own!” or “Halp! I’m lost! Tell me outright what to do now!”)

But despite the existence of the gap, I’m of the mind that the stats-even playing field is still the best bet.

After all, what is the alternative?

Vertically progressing stats tend to WIDEN the gap between the veteran and the newbie, assuming they play at equal rates, one starting later than the other.

Not only does the veteran have more knowledge/practice, aka “skill”, they have numerical superiority on their side in terms of levels and stats and combat performance.

Err, no. That doesn’t help things.

The newbie only has the hope of “catching up” with the veteran if the vet stops playing, and that can also happen skill-and-knowledge-wise too, stats or no stats.

A stat reset with an expansion, leveling the stats playing field temporarily?

Well, this might help, if you only care about the people -currently- playing your game.

Basically the field temporarily equalizes, beginning a new race among current participants until the disparity begins to widen out and the gap makes itself known once again.

As for those that took a break, well, tough, you’re left in the dust. Not very encouraging motivation to return, is it?

Ultimately, one is probably better off just making sure that playing field -stays- equalized at all times.

How about sloping the field so that the newbies tumble down to where the veterans are at?

That is, making it easier and easier for the newbies to “catch up” to the vets.

I suppose this is what WoW has been doing for several years now, speeding the process of leveling, making ‘on-par’ gear a lot easier to get ‘now’ as compared to ‘then,’ and so on.

One does run the risk of pissing veterans off, the ol’ “I ran uphill in the snow at midnight to attain the same level of success, and here it just falls into your lap, bow-tied and gift-wrapped” protest.

And I don’t think it actually addresses the core issue of learning the knowledge and getting the practice required for competency or mastery. It probably makes it worse, because of less learning time experienced before getting on-par stats-wise.

One intriguing possibility is the prospect of making things ‘harder’ for the veteran, skew the playing field into a slope for the veteran, as it were.

But there are issues there as well.

One is player acceptance, especially from a ‘fairness’ standpoint. For instance, I still really think the present downscaling in GW2 is more than a little borked, mostly because the vet also has access to characters of that level range and can probably game/twink to better performance results over a true newbie or a downscaled level 80 character.

Another is incentive and reward structure. MMO folks tend to only willingly do something ‘harder’ and away from the path of least resistance when there’s something in it for them, that they -want-.

I think a key aspect is autonomy, is the choice to experience something harder within the player’s control?

I didn’t have issues with GW1 hard mode at all, for example. I knew it existed, I sometimes played on it, and mostly I chose not to, because I preferred the easier feeling while traveling through the world. I’m sure others switched immediately to hard mode and never looked back.

The increase in fractal levels appears to be something along this front, allowing players to voluntarily pick their difficulty level.

It’s what I do in Trove too, I try to find that point of flow where it’s not super-easy and unrewarding, and not super-hard to the point where I’m spending ten minutes beating on one boss monster. (Might do it once to say I’ve done it, but not a productive use of time otherwise.)

The last flaw in the sloped playing field is that of separation and exclusion.

That happens naturally. You must be ‘this tall’ to ride or pass that obstacle. Not skilled enough? Guess you can’t do this or that ‘hard mode’ then. Folks that can will tend to segregate themselves away from those who can’t, posing an ever-increasing dilemma of how in the world can those-who-can’t ever learn or cross the gap then?

I suspect the gap will always be with us though.

It’s the nature of the beast, humans are learning creatures and someone who is an old hand at something will always have an advantage over someone coming in brand new for the first time.

Perhaps where we need to focus on is not so much the threat of the gap, but the threat of words like “have an advantage over” and the impulse to segregate into exclusive silos.

And that, I believe, is where the perfectly flat playing field does its best work, if accompanied by incentives to cooperate and form open, loose communities.

If you’re not competing head to head versus each other, or if success is not hinged on 100% top-of-the-line 24/7 optimal performance from all participants, the fact that one player is somewhat better than another becomes less divisive or disagreeable.

Player B may be contributing less than player A, but hey, they are still contributing, and depending on how the game tweaks matters, the combined rewards for player B’s mere presence might benefit all.

Being even stats-wise reduces the number of hoops player B has to jump through to reach equivalency with player A, they just need to focus on the actual knowledge accrual and practice that player A has, rather than spend hours grinding from Tier 1 to Tier X.

The one critique that I can think of regarding this goes like so: “What if Player B is incapable of gaining the knowledge and practice of Player A?”

Vertically progressing stats would give Player B the ‘hope’ of matching Player A’s performance, if he or she puts in the time required to obtain better stats than Player A.

(We are, of course, assuming that Player A doesn’t use that same time to improve stats-wise, staying on-par or even getting better in terms of stats, while still staying ahead in terms of knowledge and practice.)

I guess it boils down to what we value. Especially in our games.

Is it more respectable for someone to be better than another person, due to having more knowledge or practice at something? Does it feel ‘fair’ as in “beaten fair-and-square?”

Is it worth more respect for someone to be better than another person, by clocking in the hours and ‘showing up,’ regardless of actual productivity or performance?

Is it worth more respect, even, for someone to be better than another by the virtue of how much real life cash they decide to put into a game?

Are there other measures of a person, beyond skill, time and money, that we are, for now, not really quantifying or rewarding – such as the person’s actual character (as in character development) behind the avatar, or attitude, or sportsmanlike conduct, or sociability or leadership or ability to be a community nucleus and pull in others to work and play as a team?

Perhaps we should support more games which are cognizant of and in congruence with what we value, and less of those that do not.

Maybe we need to be less obsessed with measurement altogether, less concerned with a gap that’s always going to exist and ranking people on this side as ‘better’ than people on the other side, then trying to figure out how to help someone ‘cross the gap.’

Maybe that’s a pipe dream, since there are, after all, gaps that should be crossed, such as gaps of poverty (something that cripples performance, yields a poor standard of living) or education (knowledge/skill) in real life.

Or maybe it’s just about having a baseline. We would probably want to (ideally) bring everyone across a poverty gap, but when we start to obsess over slight differences and segregate ourselves based on earning a hundred dollars more or less, well, that might be taking things too far.

Speaking of which, that’s about as far as that metaphor will stretch, methinks, so I shall stop.

No real answers here, just some food for thought.

Oh, and on your way out… Do mind that gap.

This post was brought to you by the letter B for Belghast and Blaugust, and the number 6.

On Difficulty and Performance in Games

I have not played Team Fortress 2 in three months.

I have never played Team Fortress 2 on a regular basis, though I did, once upon a time, play an engineer in Team Fortress Classic daily for 4+ hours until I regularly topped PUG server leaderboards or at least came in second place.

Would you not laugh at me if I were to join a random TF2 server as an engineer and expect/demand the same performance result right off the bat?

I played Batman: Arkham Asylum ages ago.

I was a fearsome terror that flapped in the night, chaining the sickest combos that stretched to the 20s and 30s, to the point that I was playing the challenge arenas and hitting most of the achievements and trying to improve my score little by little.

Years later, I picked up Batman: Arkham City…

…and my Batman SUCKED.

I couldn’t even chain 5 attacks. I was getting beat up by ordinary thugs on the street.

Obviously, this is the designers’ fault because they set the difficulty level too hard.

Couldn’t be me. I was a Batman GOD before this.

I have not played Skyrim in more than a year.

If I were to buy one of their DLC expansions and log back into my old character, who finished the game some time ago, what are the odds that I will be able to dive headfirst into the content without dying several times while I try to remember which button does what again, and how is my character set up to fight?

I guess this means this is a poor content addition and I should just give up now because I keep dying. It is too hard.

huh

P.S. Full disclosure: It took me about halfway through Arkham City before I finally got the hang of the correct timing to press the appropriate buttons and remembered how to chain combos effectively and felt like Batman again.

I expect to do as badly for Arkham Knight this year.

Path of Exile: Finding the Perfect Spot on a Variable Difficulty Curve

I struggle to put into words why Path of Exile is so compelling to me.

From one perspective, it seems like everything I’d hate. A vertical progression system where your gear increases in numbers the higher in level you go, with an established and abrasive/dismissive hardcore community on the forums playing what appears to be a completely different endgame at a super rarefied level.

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for not being “forced” into playing that way or grouping up with others in order to have a good time or get your money’s worth for that month.

Path of Exile is perfectly playable at a more casual level, at one’s own pace, and there’s no feeling like a second class citizen if you don’t have to interact with those playing at different levels.

It rather reminds me of the original Guild Wars in that sense. I played GW1 happily solo, trundling along with my heroes taking the super scenic route, improving my skills at my own pace, not at all concerned that there was a group of players busy speedrunning extra-hardmode instances and earning high level currency way above my head, because I didn’t need to trade with, see or interact with them in order to continue my own progression.

I’m hooked and I can’t put it down.

Part of it is the depth of systems to learn, with the potential for a gazillion alts that are built and played differently, with so many skills to try  out and put through their paces.

Part of it is that it’s fun even when played at a low level, with the foreseeable future potential of high-level play to look forward to.

Part of it is that there’s a variety of different difficulties and game modes that even novices can dip a toe into and have partial success and rewards, while leaving the experts to mop up at the top.

Part of it is that it’s free or low cost for those who just want to dabble with it or play at a nonserious level, while asking for (but not forcing)  more monetary investment from those players who are more heavily invested into the game – which is one of the more philosophically ethical ways of making money, in my book.

Path of Exile has all the hallmarks of a good roguelike, keeping in line with its Diablo-graphical roguelike roots.

Every time I play it, I learn a little more about how the game works, and I get better at what I’m doing, even if the overall structure of the maps remain the same.

Each character is a learning experience that builds upon the previous one, and one can make a lot of them if one wishes. (I think it’s 25 before the game starts asking you to buy character slots.)

So how am I having fun, despite playing in ways that are anathema to an endgame PoE player?

First off, I’m playing solo and self-found by choice. (I just learned about the term “self-found” the other day. Apparently there’s a whole evolution in Diablo ARPG parlance I missed after not touching the genre since Diablo 2.)

I detest trading via chatting up players, and from reading reports, it hasn’t sounded like an auction house has helped Diablo 3 very much either, beyond making it super easy to twink out a character, effectively making in-game at-level loot drops worthless and unrewarding.

There’s an account stash though, and I’m not yet limiting myself to not-sharing-between-alts, since RNG is RNG, and I’ve already accepted it will take me much longer to impossible to get the best drops if I’m not crowdsourcing off the entire PoE playerbase to farm them for me.

I have no issues with time-consuming if the game isn’t charging me by the hour or month, and if it’s still perfectly fine to play and enjoy the game without said best drops.

The advantage of not immediately twinking is that the early game isn’t immediately invalidated into easy mode, and mid-level drops are still exciting for me. I see no need to rush myself towards boredom that quickly.

I’m also an altholic, which is a good defence against boredom and lack of variety. Any interesting drop becomes an “Oooh, that sounds like a good character to make so he/she c an wear that.”

I have, in fact, decided to play all six classes in relative sync with each other for now, so that each character can use good drops occurring within that level range.

You see, my first character was a Shadow and I played it as you’d expect, building what sounded good at the time and taking him as high up as I thought I could progress.

This turned into a dual dagger user focusing on dps, who started to feel significant mob attention pressure and then turned into a hybrid summoner to combat this with a minion blockade.

Which worked right up to the point where the damage from certain bosses and rare mobs started to decimate minions in a few seconds and one-shot gib me if I went too close.

Further reading revealed that I should maybe have not made the common newbie mistake on focusing on damage over any survability (though I did have minions, which is at least something).

Furthermore, my gear was distinctly underleveled by 20 levels, since I’d been hanging on to them for the nice mods off the low level rares I’d popped. Solution: Figure out how to get current level gear, which led to some interesting learning experiences experimenting with commonly used farming areas and crafting via vendor recipes.

My gem slotting also left something to be desired, since a) I had barely any currency to get good linked slots and b) no support gems to buff up my skills with, since I don’t trade, and a first character hasn’t had much time to build up a gem stash.

Hmmmm…

The difficulty curve of Path of Exile takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s an interesting design – even if by accident.

poedifficulty

It looks a bit like this.

The game starts out easy to normal in Acts 1 and 2, and may have even been criticized for being a bit of a slow start.

In Act 3, the level of challenge suddenly jumps up a rather surprisingly astronomical amount, when more mobs start using crazy elemental damage and spells you might not be prepared for, and doing a lot more funky things like kiting you or having a bunch of tricks and mechanics up their sleeve.

If you get past it, by whatever means necessary – eg. getting better at the game, getting a group to get you through it, checkpoint rezzing and brute forcing through it, the next difficulty level ramps down a little by sheer virtue of being back in Act 1… until you hit Act 3 again.

Each time, the overall difficulty ramps up ever so subtly, as in Cruel, 5% of your experience is removed on death, and one apparently gets -20% to all elemental/chaos resistances (something I just noticed in the past day or so) and in Merciless, 10% of your experience is removed on death, and one apparently will get -60% to all resistances then (OH GOD.)

Levels apparently follow this exponential curve, as it appears to be commonly accepted that level 100 is a grind of the highest insanity to attempt to achieve, and that 80 or 90 is a more practically achievable goal.

Which is an interesting bit of trickery reminiscent of the Guild Wars Hall of Monuments.

For those who are compelled to reach the very end, they will do so and spend a lot of gameplay time in the process, hopefully enjoying themselves along the way (or at least relishing their end goal when they get there.)

Whereas it is absolutely possible to stop at an optimal point under maximum level/difficulty and consider oneself effectively ‘done’ without losing too much in the process, and also fine (if not commonly advertised by the hardcore, whose mindset is predicated on everyone buying into the endless ladder climb) to stop at any level under that by choice, and suffice oneself with whatever has been obtained.

I honestly didn’t think I had reached the commonly described ‘wall’ at level 51 with my first character, as I still felt it was possible to get further with a bit more effort, but there was certainly a distinct bogged and slowed down feeling.

So by choice, I decided to shelf him for the moment and start trying out other characters.

It also so happened that I was poking around the Path of Exile website and found an interesting page on Events – Seasonal Races.

What is this? A game that actually has events scheduled at all hours of the day, catering for all timezones?!

Reading up on them revealed something even more interesting.

As a non-competitive individual fully cognizant of the fact that one will never compete at the same level as the experts willing to devote their lives to mastering one tiny aspect of one game, it was still worth it to participate in Path of Exile races because there were points awarded for goals that sounded reachable on a personal scale.

Go ahead and click on any of the 1 hour races. (I’ll add a random link here to an Endless Ledge event, but it’s probably time-sensitive.)

Yes, it’s a race. You get more points for being the top experience gainer of any class, up to the top 20 in decreasing points order.

But what is this? Every class is in its own league, so to speak, and a single player can only play one class at a time. So you could very well stand a better chance if you pick a less popular class and master it well. And balance between classes is a little less important if each is competing with only members of its kind.

Ok, what if you’re like me and doubt you’d even see top 500 for any class, let alone top 20?

You go for the participation points! Points are awarded if you can attain certain levels within the time limit.

Bingo! A goal that is only contingent on your own skills (or lack thereof.)

And of course, you set your sights on something really modest. Like the minimum level for a single point, and see how much further you can take it up from that as you get more experience with races.

It’s sometimes a bit easier said than done, as you’ll find out. Some races require you to be alive at the end of the race, which can be quite a personal challenge to balance with trying to go as fast as you can.

I’m personally failing to reach the minimum level for points 2 out of 3 times with the 12 minute solo burst races because those are so tight on time and micro and knowing what the hell you’re doing and how quickly you can make good judgements/guesses and not waste a second. But they’re quick enough to enjoy repeated iterated tries with.

How about rewards and prizes?

Well, there’s a random lucky draw for participation, with the more points you get adding up to more chances. So you get that luck and RNG factor to make some fortunate people happy.

And there’s also personal point total prizes, which are again reminiscent of the Guild Wars Hall of Monuments. You can get a few easy prizes almost right away, with minimum effort and participation so even the most casual has something to play with. There’s a more modest average goal to set one’s sights on, if you’re an average sort of player. With super crazy exponential hardcore prizes at the very top if you have no life but the ones being spent in Wraeclast.

Such a system also encourages participation and attendance for as many events as possible, so that you can build up to a higher total points score.

Which is probably a desirable thing in terms of both game longevity and always having players to compete with/against.

Learning to race at an ultra-beginner level also taught me a couple things:

  • about the value of AoE and ignoring individual or small groups of mobs in favor of gunning down the big packs
  • about how to manipulate xp gain by going to a level range that is appropriate or higher level than yours (as opposed to the common situation in the regular game of being overleveled for that area)
  • about how not to obsess over fully clearing an area or attacking every mob you see and move to another zone if that’s your goal (something I also have personal problems doing in traditional roguelikes – if I see it, I want to kill it, which can and often does lead to Yet Another Stupid Death)
  • about the basic strengths and weaknesses of the various classes I tried and their starting skills and weaponry, including what turned out surprisingly well when ad-libbed in the middle of a race just because a particular skill gem or item dropped

See a big nasty immobile totem, producing lots of lightning shocks?

Close in on it to melee and get gibbed, or in a world of hurt and have to run away?

Well, there’s this bow nearby. And hey, I have a second weapon swap set. What if I just used it and sniped from range?

GOSH DARN, IT DOESN’T MOVE, my hp is barely dropping, AND IT’S DEAD.

No shit, Sherlock. Can you now recognize that boss and use the optimal strategy for it, instead of insisting on meleeing -everything-?

Yessir.

Yesterday, I went back to my level 52 Shadow. (He snuck up a level by very persistently grinding his way through certain areas and getting to a safer area to farm in, getting set back every so often by 5-10% via a couple of deaths, and making up for the xp lost by grinding yet again.)

I got by the next two or three areas with a minimum of fighting by hugging the walls of the map and going slowly, engaging only in fights when I aggroed something, and getting to the next exit as quickly as possible.

Why I never thought of this earlier, I don’t know.

I discovered by sheer random chance that running around in a big circle to kite some exploding mobs while getting in the occasional poison stab on the exploding mob generating mob (which also shoots projectiles in a frontal cone) is a far more effective strategy than trying to use a movement skill to get behind the mob and melee it (which leaves one open to getting gibbed by the frontal cone projectiles and exploding mobs racing towards you), than trying to range it from afar (because my range skills are sucky at this point in my build), than trying to overwhelm it with minions (sorta kinda works but is hell on my mana, which I’m built to replenish via killing things), than charging in gung-ho (because I’m not built as a tank, duh.)

Why I never thought of this earlier, I don’t know either. But a map that I never looked forward to traversing suddenly just became more palatable.

I devised another strategy of fighting mobs I didn’t dare to stand and fight by spamming minions around a corner and a doorway, which again made some encounters doable where I might have once rushed in and instantly exploded in a shower of blood.

I figured out it was ok to swallow my pride and avoid certain rare mobs with really horrific modifiers (life regen, life leech AND extra damage and attack speed) after they’ve already destroyed you once, since they were standing around in a side room, rather than insisting that I eventually kill them after 4-5 more deaths (and experience penalty) if I had another goal, such as getting to another zone or keeping what xp I had for the next level.

That it was ok to play the game smart and strategically like a roguelike, rather than just rushing forwards and holding down left mouse button to get showers of loot.

That it was also possible to control one’s difficulty level and go to an area that you outlevel, AND rush forwards, holding down left mouse button to get some drops of loot (if at a lower level range, and only useful for alts or vendoring, but I always need currency anyway and there’s the possibility of finding a good linked white item for my 101 alts, while having mindless ez-killing fun.)

And you know, I’m happy.

I’m happy that I’m always learning a little bit more about the game, getting a teensy bit more clever each time, that I’m making slow and steady progress while having fun.

If I don’t have fun playing this way, I also have the choice of taking a shortcut through it all, by following an already made build, by trading with people for specific items to deck out the build further, by partying up with other players to grind at increased xp and loot rates, by rushing ahead to endgame as fast and effortlessly as one can possibly make it via good strategy and preparation and through any and all means available to me.

And I’m sure people who choose to play this way are happy too, in their own way. (At least, I hope they are. It would be sad if they are miserable at the end of it.)

It’s nice to play a game that supports a range of varied playstyles and preferred difficulty levels.

Happy New Year! On Reading Break…

Hope everyone had great holidays over the Xmas and New Year season.

Quick updates on my end:

Guild Wars 2 – My activity level has dropped off in accordance with the Living Story pause and Wintersday break. This is not a BAD thing. There are times for obsession, times to stop and smell the roses and times for taking a break. I’ve mostly been popping in for long enough to finish dailies.

My silk surplus has finally dried up, putting my daily bolt of damask sale on partial hold, but it’s funded a decent amount of miniatures in the meantime. My PvP grind lasted a faithful week before I started getting bored and have missed 2-3 days in a row now. Might continue, might not, depends how I feel and if I have time to spare. Somewhat like my relationship with Teq, I pop in one day and then miss two or three days and back again.

Dark Souls – With attention falling off one major MMO, I have time to focus on singleplayer games. I’m still not sure what to make of this game. It kind of strikes me as a shared puzzle game, in the sense that it seems to have been built on purpose to have a difficulty that is soulcrushing alone, but it also seems to expect that people will discuss tactics online, write wikis and share guides and walkthroughs. There is also the repetition of each ‘stage’ of getting from bonfire to the end boss with enemies that are always in the same place and tend to pwn you UNLESS you hit upon and repeat certain strategies that counter them, in which case things become fairly simple.

I’m also somewhat confused in how to deal with the variable difficulty levels of the game. In that there are certain known ‘cheats’/’exploits’/’strats’ that can make fights a cakewalk, or you could choose to tackle the fights the hard way via your reaction times and ability to dodge. But then, is it really a cheat or just smart use of known weaknesses and part of the game, given that Dark Souls is all about finding the optimum solutions to puzzle fights?

Take the Abyss Demon. If you fight it the first time, you get a dinky sword hilt that does like 2 damage. Apparently your best bet for “legit” defeating it is to strip down nekkid for best mobility and use your fists, that also do 2 damage and hit faster. Goal: get behind the demon and wail away on its backside and/or dodge its telegraphed attacks and just jump in and jump out. OR you could back down and fight it the second time, in which case you get better weaponry and the ability to do a plunge attack on it to take off more of its hp. OR you could start with a class that does ranged magic damage OR even take advantage of its fire damage weakness and choose to start with black firebombs. That last one feels patently unfair, to the the demon. One hit takes off a good quarter of its hp or so.

But then, its presence at the very beginning of the game was patently unfair to the player to begin with, right?

I got smacked around by the Taurus Demon too many times to count, but patiently repeated over and over the attempt of using plunging attacks to kill it until it finally worked. The Bell Gargoyles utterly worked me over, until I finally gave up, became human and summoned Knight Solaire, where upon the nice NPC tanked them for me and I just smacked them from behind.

The Capra Demon necessitated numerous restarts, while I alternately pondered if I should grind for more bleed resist, grind for something to augment my weapon, grind for more levels, put on or take off more armor, or just keep -trying- to dodge it and its dogs’ attacks while making it up the stairs, trying to kill the dogs while evade it and plunge it, and mostly getting smooshed from the front while staggered by flanking dogs. It was not lost on me that this was theoretically an optional fight too. Finally, I decided that if I was willing to grind to defeat it, then I may as well just do the simplest grind possible – enough souls for a bunch of firebombs, which were then faithfully lobbed in following a guide video from -outside- the boss room, turning it deep fried from utter safety.

It’s stuff like that that utterly confuses me about this game. The game REWARDS this sort of behavior. Or rather, accepts it as a valid solution. Often, you get the same reward regardless of whatever strategy you used (though sometimes there are bonus rewards for doing something the game decides is worth giving a bonus for.)

The current boss that I was at, the Moss Butterfly, smacked my melee character around repeatedly from range before it even got to the stage where it moved within melee reach. Then I learned via reading up that a) I was using the wrong shield to block its primarily magic attacks, b) I was keeping the wrong distance and thus couldn’t dodge its attacks with enough predictability and c) since I was going to alter my strategy regardless the next time, I may as well go whole hog, go human, and summon the NPC that did RANGED damage so that she could smack it around while I just concentrated on not dying. Man, she barely gave me a chance to get a hit in.

Then there’s the potential of co-op multiplayer. Obviously not as popular now, but in theory, in its heyday, you could summon help to defeat some of these bosses, and dealing with them would be naturally A LOT easier if one person is tanking while another is striking from behind, rather than trying to solo tank / survive / run around behind it with dodgy camera and controls / sneak a hit in / get out of the way of the bosses’ return hit, etc.

So is Dark Souls hard or not?! I dunno!

Player deaths-wise, yes, you’ll go through a lot of them. But I play roguelikes where dying is half the fun and you’re expected to die to learn your way through encounters. Except Dark Souls isn’t a roguelike in the sense that you have a lot of variation from playthrough to playthrough (unless you choose to change it up.) The closest thing I can think of is that it’s a brutal puzzle game that you can choose to cheapen by reading a lot of walkthroughs and guides, or you’ll just repeatedly die and die until you devise a working ‘correct’ solution – sort of similar to a Sierra adventure game on steroids where you have to guess the exact word phrase to use or notice that one special out of place pixel or die and reload.

DarklandsJoseph Skyrim’s coverage of the game spurred me to dabble around with the classic for a night. Half of it was spent struggling with the manual and cluebook trying to figure out how to create a character, create a -functional- character and actually select a female image for my female characters and colorize them distinctively rather than have everything default to an identical confusing male knight in battle.

The other half was spent in a repeated grind cycle of sneaking around at night, fighting thieves in alleyways while trying not to die, saving and reloading, getting poorer and poorer while becoming more famous (figures, huh), alternating between making an innkeeper very rich and running out of the city to squat free-of-charge on some lord’s land while waiting -weeks- for wounds to heal.

Getting bored of this, I got a local quest to take on the local robber knight, went through a dozen saves of getting beat up by his men because one was too inexperienced and ill-equipped to handle them, finally hit upon a sequence that let me surround him alone with four very new adventurers and got lucky.

Now suddenly rich beyond my wildest newbie dreams, I went on a shopping spree. A test skirmish in the docks at night shows that I may have overdone it, because everybody is now encumbered and fighting worse than before. *sigh* Inventory management ahead for the next gameplay session.

Other Games – Picked up quite a haul with the Steam sales and Humble Bundles. Not sure when I’ll have time to get around to them, but on the to-try list: Gone Home, Gnomoria, Droid Assault, Anomaly 2, Tower Wars, Dust: AET, Deadlight, Pixeljunk Eden, Brothers, and Sang-Froid. Among others.

I’m staring at XCOM very hungrily and Witcher 2 always going on sale keeps reminding me that I’ve never made it through Witcher 1. *sigh* They’ll keep. I’m sure they’ll go on sale again at SOME point this new year.

A good deal of my game playing time has evaporated too because I’ve lost a week to reading a very intense and well-plotted web fiction serial.

Worm is a story about a teenage girl who gained bug powers and wanted to be a superhero. Except things go wrong, and she has to decide if she’s willing to do wrong things for the right reasons. It’s a setting where every character, hero or villain, is protagonist of their own personal story. Everyone is justified, in their own eyes, and conflict happens when motivations clash. People who loved City of Heroes should give this a shot. It’s darker in tone, but very well-written.

(This series was introduced to me via Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality fanfiction page, another good if lengthy read. A far more interesting, scientific and logical Harry Potter, perplexing all of Hogwarts. Don’t blame me if you end up losing hours to these links.)

Each chapter I go through, I’m in utter awe at how solid the writing craft is. Scenes force change. There’s cause and effect. Characters are compelling and have individual wants. Conflict, tension and suspense bleed through every page. Have trouble with plotting? Not this author, they keep coming up with the most compelling litany of things that could keep going wrong for the protagonist.

It’s bloody inspiring, that’s what it is, and I end up trying to devote some time to my own personal writing and solo roleplaying too.

Gaming and blogging time curtailed as a result. Will see you guys as and when there’s more stuff to talk about.