And suddenly … combat!

I have noticed in MMOs these days, it is quite common in cut scenes or instances for devs to think it would be cool to have the character/s ambushed, or have an NPC you are talking to suddenly attack. For sure, it is cool and dramatic to be attacked out of nowhere, but depending on class you can be at a disadvantage if you can’t use your opening move. I noticed this a lot in SWTOR, for example.

In other words, there are two types of MMO character classes.

  1. Those who prefer to set up their combat in advance.
  2. Those who can just whale in.

For example, any class that relies on stealth or crowd control (where the stealth or crowd control has to be applied before you get into combat), or has a move like charge (nb. you can now charge in combat, they changed it because it was annoying) where you get some extra damage and resources if you use it to enter combat would be type 1. Any class who starts on full resources (like a full mana bar), can use CC in combat/or and doesn’t have a special move with which to enter combat would be type 2.

Open world solo PvE is typically much friendlier to type 1 classes, where you are  in control of when the combat begins so you can take your time to set things up.  (SWTOR does this a lot too, so I can’t really fault Bioware for not being even handed.) For sure, people complain about lack of immersion when mobs are standing around in small groups waiting to be pulled and killed, but it’s great if you are trying to sneak up on them and CC one before backstabbing one of the others.

I also remember liking the old solo crafting instances in LOTRO (they are in Moria) with my burglar because I had all the time in the world to sneak through, pay attention to patrols, and carefully set up every fight. It was fun and quite engaging, given that the instances themselves weren’t too exciting. You see this playing style also when people are soloing high level instances in WoW, where you need to plan out every pull.

Truth is, I kind of like the excitement of having mobs jump out at me. Even if I’m on a class that would prefer to control the start of the fight, it’s a fun challenge to figure things out on the fly and see how good your survival instincts really are. (Obv if I was a PvP player this would be more de rigeur).

What I don’t like so much are mobs like the challengers at the temple of the red crane (WoW) where you first talk to them, then there is a 5s wait, and then they suddenly enter combat and attack you. I wish they either went red instantly or else allowed enough time for you to back off and get out of range before they go aggro, so that you can then use your combat setups.

Dragon Age 2 Demo!

da2

Yesterday, Bioware released the Dragon Age 2 demo into the wild (link is for the PC version, PS3 and Xbox versions available through usual console mechanisms) with the promise that if one million people downloaded it across all platforms, there will be some extra goodies in game for everyone.

They’re already up to over 400k downloads. No wonder mine was so slow yesterday!

Highlights for me:

  • It’s good to be back in Ferelden, the use of music, voice acting, and film-like lead ins to the plot really does make the first section with the templar and the dwarf feel immersive.
  • Combat has changed, it feels faster and punchier and still very Dragon Age. Main thing is that you can still pause frequently to assign actions to the various characters. But I was finding it tricky to deal with streams of incoming mobs without a specific AE build. This may be a case where practice makes perfect.
  • Some of those fights are quite tricky on normal difficulty and since you can’t save in the demo, better hope you picked up lots of healing and mana potions.
  • I did enjoy playing Hawke as a 2H warrior, whirlwind is awesome. To be fair, the rogue and mage looked fun too! And it’s nice having a voice for the main character.
  • I love the storytelling conceit of the unreliable narrator, but it would have been better if the champion had punched the dragon in the face in the first narrative. (Sharp eyed players on rpg.net also suspect that Bethany’s boobs grow a bit in the first retelling and are more feasible in size in the second narrative.)
  • Varic is an awesome character.
  • Aveline is an awesome tank. She soloed the ogre on her own in my first playthrough after everyone else died.
  • I’m a softie and was moved when Aveline had to decide whether to kill her own husband so that he didn’t become darkspawn. (I guess this kind of storyline is more gripping if you’re in a relationship)
  • The city where you meet Isabella (was that Kirkwall, not quite sure?) definitely gave the feel of being large and city like where Denerim never quite worked for me.
  • Isabella is awesome too, but if you played DAO you know that already.
  • femHawke has good armour. I know I bang on about this :)
  • The blood spatters are still in.
  • There’s some great foretelling in the interactions with Flemeth which makes me very intrigued to see how this story is going to play out.
  • I can’t wait to play the full version!

What did you all think? For me, one of the nice things about a PC demo is that it’ll prove that my system runs a game (arguably something I could have thought about before pre-ordering the signature edition but still nice to know.)

Targeting and the single Guild Wars 2 player

Upcoming games fall into four categories for me:

  1. DO WANT. Already sold on the game, just waiting for it to be released. Will probably follow the hype, start thinking about the lore and what sort of character I might want to play, friend the game on facebook etc. (This would be where SWTOR and DA2 and Diablo 3 fit in.)
  2. NOT INTERESTED. Not if it was the last game in the world. Maybe just not my style (shooter), not my genre (military) or has managed to irritate me with screenshots or hype already (TERA).
  3. NEED TO KNOW MORE. Could be interesting. Good chance I will try it when available, if I have time. Probably planning to wait for reviews or beta impressions from other people. Not really bothering to read all the hype for a line by line interpretation though.
  4. UNDER THE RADAR. Don’t know much but could be a sleeper hit.

Guild Wars 2 is a solid #3 for me. Everything I have heard or seen of it sounds interesting, but GW never really grabbed me and I have a few reservations about the sequel. So I’m moderately interested but not enough to follow the hype.

Still, occasionally something comes up that catches my eye (and it won’t be the class descriptions.)

Removing allied targeting

In the latest GW2 dev blog, Jon Peters discussed combat in the game. There’s a lot to catch the eye, including emphasis on mobility and encouraging everyone to take a good mix of support skills.

But it was removing allied targeting that caught my eye. This means that any buffs or heals or resses will be done using ground targeting or some similar approach.

There are no skills that specifically target allies. Everything must be done using positioning, ground targeting or other unconventional methods.

What I like about this is that it forces players to be aware of their environment and what everyone else is doing. In particular, it takes healers away from staring at little green bars on raid frames. There is no doubt this is going to be tough on people who like to stand at the back and target their heals with laser precision. Although I have no idea how tricky it might be to balance. Presumably all friendly effects will be auras, AE effects or some kind of cone targeted concept. There will be no single target healing or buffing in this game.

This is going to make support classes rather different in scope to what people will be used to. I’m not sure if the overall effect will be dumbing down support  but there is a precision to making sure a specific person gets exactly the right heal/ buff at the right time that won’t be in this game.

I am also curious as to how they will display group health/ buffs on the UI. If you have all these interesting AE supportive abilities, how will you see where they are needed? It’ll be interesting to see how they go with this.

The other thing I wonder is why, having done that, they decided to leave in enemy targeting. My guess is that it’s connected with crowd control which is supposed to require careful targeting, especially in PvP.

Why Star Trek Online needs lots of combat

STO_Beta_Tutorial

Note: The image above is my beta character right at the beginning of the tutorial. I’m hoping to have some more time with the game over the weekend, with a view to writing up my own impressions next week.

Star Trek Online is well into open beta when I write this. Syp has compiled a long list of various blogger’s first impressions if you are curious as to how the game is being received, but one comment that I have heard from fans is that … Trek shouldn’t be a combat centric game. After all, in the episodes, the crew are much more likely to be brokering diplomatic treaties, discovering cures for space lurgy, or just messing around with Q.

In response to this, an anecdote from my pen and paper years. As an undergraduate engineer, we were all sent off to a one week course in a factory in Birmingham to teach us to use machining equipment (it was considered essential that all qualified engineers know how to use a lathe, grinder, arc welder, and other machine tools — even software engineers). So there we were, staying in a pretty rough area where the nightlife wasn’t, and it wasn’t safe to wander around late anyway. One of the group had brought his Star Trek RPG books with him so we got a game together to pass the time.

It was great. But every time anyone did anything cool, they got court martialled. My character got court-martialled once for setting her phaser to kill even though she didn’t shoot anyone with it. That is the Star Trek universe if you play it according to canon. The hijinks that the crew of the Enterprise get up to in the TV series will get YOUR character court-martialled. And they were mild compared to the antics that a group of player characters (PCs) will typically manage.

So if Cryptic choose to stir things up by declaring all out war all over their background, it should be considered a great boon for immersion. Why? Because in times of war, even Star Fleet will actually let you kill people and generally take part in the sorts of mad derring-do that people play games for in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong, a more canonic version of the Star Trek ethos would be fun, and would probably work great in a single player game where you can really play up the inter-character drama and interesting choices that players might need to make. (I’m thinking that a Star Trek themed game like Dragon Age would be terrific fun, but we do have Mass Effect 2 coming up for those who want to get their Bioware Sci-Fi game on). But when you have lots of players milling around in your world, especially when said world has largely negated the need for crafting or currency, you probably do need to let them shoot things.

Or else instead of Star Trek Online, you will end up with Star Fleet Court Martial Online.

Sharing information in fights: Everyone’s a critic

I think we can agree that yelling at people in frustration is not the best way to pass on information. (See yesterday’s post and comments.)

But when we’re playing in a group in a MMO, a lot of information needs to be communicated quickly. Are we trying to focus fire and if so, does everyone know what they are supposed to be hitting at any time? Do you need to ask another player to remove a debuff from you? Have you just used a cooldown that your tank or healer or dps needs to know about? Are you going to assume someone else’s role because they just died in combat?

A lot of our abilities are designed to interlock with each other. A buff from one player might significantly affect the abilities or optimal ability use of another. If you have debuffs, you need to know when to use them. When you think about it, that’s a crazy amount of information that needs to be assimilated quickly.

So how do we do it?

  • Pre Pre-planning. This is where you discuss the fight and tactics in detail on a bboard before you even step into the instance.
  • Pre-planning. If you know what will happen in a fight, you can pre-arrange the kill order, any crowd control, any other tactics, and roughly when significant buffs will be used.
  • UI. We rely heavily on the user interface for information about when players have buffs or debuffs active on them. This is automatic information provided by the game (and the UI addons, if you use them) and doesn’t require anyone to actually say ‘I’m poisoned!’
  • Flashy graphics. Some spells just come with very unmistakeable graphical effects that no one can miss if they’re paying attention.
  • Boss cues. Some bosses will cue before they make a special attack with either a graphic or some kind of yell. Games don’t tend to use pure audio cues; I’d like to think this was in respect of deaf gamers but it’s probably just because they know a lot of people play with the sound off.
  • Text and macros. Sometimes the easiest way to inform your group or raid when you’ve used a cooldown or buff is to macro in an automatic comment on group or raid chat when you activate it. eg. ** Just used Bloodlust ** The only problem is … not everyone reads text chat in the middle of a fight.
  • Shout on voice chat. Best saved for if something really unexpected happens and pre-arranged plans have to change on the fly. Also probably best left for the raid leader.
  • We don’t. No one says or types a word. We just assume we roughly know what they’ll be doing and go with it. (Really common in 5 man instances in WoW these days, or any content where it isn’t critical to micro-manage.)

Either way, it is a huge amount of information to process and I think regular raiders often forget how enormously overwhelming it may have felt when you first tried a raid, particularly as a healer or debuffer.

Broadcasting Taunts

Given the sheer amount of information flying around, I’ve always tended to the cautious side when I’m deciding which of my abilities and cooldowns to publicise. I was thinking about this lately because with the heroic beasts fight, we do a lot of tank switching in the first part. So I picked up an addon which would automatically tell people on the raid channel when I’d used various different abilities. What I really wanted was to let people know if a taunt had failed, but I figured I might as well add an inform about Shield Wall also (it’s a tanking cooldown).

You know the worst part? Not people complaining about spam because actually no-one complained. I got the impression it was felt to be generally useful. Nope, the most difficult part about automatically informing your group when you use an ability is that … they automatically also get informed when you press the button by mistake.

You don’t realise how naked this makes you feel until you try it. I mean, OF COURSE I press taunt at the wrong time sometimes. So does every tank who ever lived, unless they have it bound somewhere really inaccessible. If it’s not being broadcast, you just whisper to the other tank afterwards and apologise. They’ll shrug it off, we all do it. If using taunt by mistake means it wasn’t up when you really needed it then you can always fake that it missed or failed. But if you broadcast your abilities, then suddenly your entire raid becomes a backseat driver. Or at least it can feel that way.

So one positive side to broadcasting my taunts and cooldowns? You can bet I’m way more careful with them now. There’s no doubt that it’s made me a better player, in that sense at least.