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Death of an MMO - Part 3

Posted by Ozzallos Saturday April 5 2014 at 4:25AM
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The rise and fall of promising titles within the gaming community isn’t a unique phenomenon, unfortunately. Anybody can have an idea, but it takes talent, resources and money to execute one successfully. Simply put, some games have it, some games don’t. Firefall by Red 5 Studios appeared to be made of natural twenties and crits for days. It was founded on the seemingly awesome premise of a skill based shooter with elements of RPG-like progression thrown into a world of dynamic events and coordinated, intelligent enemies. I am not exaggerating when I say that this was probably the game Halo was originally slated to be before Microsoft’s buyout for the first Xbox—An epic, sand box FPS where anything could happen.  With founding talent from hallowed franchises like Tribes and World of Warcraft, the sky was the limit.

I can’t help but to sadly laugh at just how far this game has fallen from that promise.

The roots of its failure can be traced back through seven years of development; nearly five of it in relative secrecy before finally emerging into the public spotlight with promises of greatness. By the time the shroud of mystery had been pulled away from Firefall, many of its original Founders had left or been forced out, while the partnership between Red5 and developer Webzen Games had likewise come to a bitter conclusion. CEO and co-founder Mark Kern was the last man standing when the dust settled and made the command decision to sell the franchise to The9 Limited in order to secure 20 million in continued funding. Further funding was obtained through player founders packages and more promises of content.

The future seemed bright in spite of the warning signs*.

Production of Firefall continued to lag through 2012 as the first real signs of leadership failure began to emerge. It didn’t take insider information to discern that there was a critical fault somewhere within Red 5’s development process, and that fault pointed to a distinct lack of vision as Red5 began to compromise Firefall’s initial goals and features. Design and priorities shifted wildly from the world content that had stagnated since beta to an unwanted progression system that continued to mutate through 2013 into a product that punished players with excessively redundant grind in the form of battle frame progression, manufacturing, gear decay and research. Skill had effectively taken a back seat to big numbers, and the official forums became an increasingly poisonous environment as to the direction Firefall was heading.

The truth was more desperate. Red 5 was once again running low on funding. The initial war chest that CEO Mark Kern had secured was drying up due to his ineffectual leadership and player income was at an all-time low. Red 5 wasn’t producing a game players wanted to play and its player base wasn’t buying the severly limited content available. The in-game economy became his answer. Once again lacking the resources to get the job done, Kern cut began to lay off his workforce and cut Firefall back to life support. The decision was made to axe PvP and turn PvE progression into a self-sustaining, player based economy that required as little of Red 5’s development resources as possible. In theory, it sounded like a decent idea with shades of EVE thrown in for good measure.

In practice, it was a nightmarish kludge of grind and fail with multiple currencies and a number of overly-redundant advancement checks to compensate for the ongoing content drought. It highlighted in every way possible Red 5’s lack of financial wherewithal and ability to execute Firefall’s original vision. It was, in fact, the anti-thesis of what the franchise had initially set out to be- A skill based shooter with shades of RPG. Whatever Firefall had become, it had almost abandoned that mission statement outright and public opinion began to follow even as Red 5 ignored their pleas for a return to sanity. Further desperate measures were taken in order to "encourage" Founders to retire the currency they had been hording for lack of substance and hopefully jump start the economy. The first new cosmetic content since beta was finally release in mid-2013… Through slot machines and random chance, not the established cash shop vendors. It was an obvious, unsavory tactic to prompt players to gamble until they got something they wanted, not make single targeted purchases.

As mentioned in the Crush Depth - Firefall entry of this blog, something had to give. Finally, it did in a big way: Mark Kern was removed from his position as CEO, likely due to gross mismanagement and a continued, unescapable track record of failure since taking over sole responsibility for the company’s wellbeing. Coincidentally- or not so -The9 Limited was able to secure another 23 million in funding for Firefall through Shanghai Oriental Pearl Culture Development Co. Along with Mark Kern’s exit, another price was exacted, specifically a 20% minority stake in Red 5 Studios, with acting CEO James Macauley at the helm.

Now we turn to the future.

Specifically, does Firefall even have one? It’s tough to say, really. Red 5 Studios appears determined to remain tight lipped as to any specific direction they will take with the franchise. In fact, the only official word coming down the pipe has been the same one that their player base has received for the last three years—“Trust us, it’ll be great!” Needless to say, the official party propaganda is being met with a lukewarm- if not openly hostile –reception.

On the other hand, 23 million can make a heck of a dent in any budget, but how big of a dent very much depends on how much of it goes toward damage control. 23 million can likewise get slurped up in the blink of an eye just through operations alone, and while I’m confident there will be tighter budgetary controls on spending, the 2014 timeline to re-launch is suspiciously ambitious and in my opinion, overly optimistic considering the damage the brand has endured; as if the developers and shareholders realize that the axe head of time and competition looms closer with each passing day, as does the waning interest of their audience.

Much as I hate to do it, I’m going to pronounce summary judgment against Firefall and recommend you avoid it like Ebola herpes. At very least, keep an eye on it, but under no circumstances should you feed cash into what is looking more and more like a money pit of financial despair. The original start-up capital, plus Founders money, plus The9’s investment couldn’t build this game into a successful franchise. Maybe the new leadership an 23 million can, but Red 5 isn’t the sole issue here. The9 Limited isn’t what you would term a sound financial investment either, nor do they seem any better at avoiding legal action.

I might very well be wrong. I hope I am. But I’m all but certain that Firefall won’t be the game we were all hoping it would be when it re-launches.

[late edit] - I've come to the conclusion that the problem is not talent or money. It's the mindset of those in charge, even after Kern's exit. When a developer addresses specific player issues on the forums, it's invariably turned back upon the players in some way, shape or form. Excuses are likewise made for bad game design, as if they are rooted in concrete and cannot be changed or should not be questioned. It's development through apathy. The will to succeed seems completely absent, hiding behind a myriad of justification and excuses.

This, more than anything, is why Firefall will fail.

 

 

*Glassdoor. Specifically noting any review prior to 2014.

Aura Kingdom – MMOs for Lazy People

Posted by Ozzallos Sunday February 9 2014 at 4:58PM
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Aura Kingdom – MMOs for Lazy People

Genres like cutesy anime MMOs are bound to resurface over and over again. Once we get past the idea of kicking the dead and decomposing horse, all we can do is hope for the best from a development standpoint as players. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, and just because they’ve been made before doesn’t mean they can’t be made- or played –again.

Such is Aura Kingdom, Aeria’s newest entry onto their free to play roster. Going in, you already have a good idea of what to expect: Teenish anime avatars fighting equally cute fuzzies before weaning you off onto marginally less cute monsters. Sure, we’ve all been there, done that, but how does Aura Kingdom do it? Will you want to pay the money Aeria is hoping you’ll will?

Well, about that…

I’m of the opinion that we, as gamers, occasionally like stuff handed to us on a silver platter when playing MMOs. Challenge and depth can be the meat and potatoes of a title, but sometimes we just want to be entertained. Aura Kingdom’s takes this theory and makes it the centerpiece of its game in a way that almost completely devalues the game. This concept is threaded throughout the entire game, as if you the player shouldn’t be weighed down by trivial matters such as content, mana bars and role playing. If you just want leveling on rails that merely requires you to press the appropriate buttons at the right time, this is the game for you.

It’s not completely without redeeming value, however. In fact, Aura Kingdom seems to have an almost split personality when it comes to character management, allowing players to assign stat points to offensive and defensive categories, as well as a branching talent tree reminiscent of several console RPGs. Passive skills can be assigned to a number of mastery categories and you can even choose a second class at level 40 ala every other Asian MMO along these lines.

Forty levels before you can branch out may seem excessive, but here it’s really not. In fact, I would go so far to say that your first 40 levels is merely a tutorial. To point-- you literally have to stand AFK in the middle of a hostile field of mobs to die in normal play. Everything is provided to you up to this point, and you will never want for gear. Even elite mobs offer little challenge in open world questing, and Aura Kingdom has made it even easier by adopting the super obvious telegraphing attack system to help you avoid the big, flashy attacks used in other bigger budget titles, like Wildstar.

Now I’m going to go off on a minor rant here and ask a serious question—When did that ever become a good idea? Who was this genius that said to hell with challenge and skill? Instead, we’re going to lay down a giant red carpet that tells you exactly where the attack will occur so you can all but mindlessly avoid it. That’s fun, right? Honestly, this is one gaming mechanic that seriously needs to fuck off because it adds nothing to the game besides dumbing it down. And here’s the crazy thing—I’m fine with hints that a super attack is coming… Maybe a gust of wind that will kick up dust along the line of attack or something likewise subtle, but painting the environment with a giant red highlighter to indicate the no-no zones is complete fail sauce and should be on the short list of MMO fails, whether your name is Carbine or Aeria.

Back to Aura Kingdom, however, the above is yet another symptom of the AK’s biggest problem—The game goes out of its way to promote laziness. Questing progresses along a singular track regardless of how you shape your character and the gameplay encourages extensive use of auto-pathing. In many cases, player interactivity is abdicated as the game will not only autopilot you to your quest destination, but perform the action required of you when you get there as well. It’s actually too bad, because there’s wit in the NPC interaction if you bother to look for it. Unfortunately, all you need to do is show up and press the appropriate keys in order to slay the required number of furries. The linear quest progression will ensure that by the time you’re ready to try a new class combination, you’ll be skipping every last dialogue box just to get the prerequisite grind out of the way faster.

Speaking of which, nine classes (once katar unlocks) and the ability to take on a sub class at forty attempts to add some much needed depth to the game, as does the ability to take on combat pets. Both help, but not in any significant way; almost as if the game acknowledges that the RP portion of Aura Kingdom is little more than fluff for the faction based PvP.

On the bright side, your character generation options are fairly generous and not gender locked. Laziness rears its ugly head once more when it comes to equipping them, however. While the gear itself can be socketed with gems and crafted, your appearance will not change. Aura Kingdom uses a costume system exclusively, and there’s only about a dozen or so templates to choose from at the moment. I can see the benefits of such a system, but they are not beneficial to us as gamers. The decision reeks of a small development team with limited time and resources looking to maximize their profit potential, which brings us to everybody’s favorite part of the show: The Cash Shop.

Aura Kingdom is a game of little substance that hands you everything. There is no significant challenge in the first forty levels, which might as well be an over grown, bloated tutorial for as little as it offers. With linear, one dimensional questing options and very little in the way of in-game avatar customization, you would hope that Aeria would price accordingly. This is a cotton candy game; something you would maybe consider wasting time on while your primary MMO was patching.

Sorry for your luck.

As of the last check, the founder’s packages were laughably expensive and the normal pricing options would put most subscriptions to shame. I would go so far as to say that there is very little worthwhile content to actually spend hard money on besides a costume rental here and there. Now I like my hats too, but there is so little of actual substance to this particular title that pushing money in their direction would be a crime. Being in an import title (see: Fantasy Frontier Online) and already working through Open Beta, I don’t see a whole lot changing for the Western market.

So I guess the verdict here is pretty obvious and I’m not going to lead my readers around by the nose: Aura Kingdoms is in no way worth your time or effort if you intend to actually feed money into it. As a free game, it’s fine, I guess—It’s a cheap, budget title that will provide you with some modicum of entertainment without weighing players down with such things like mana management or deep proficiencies, and therein lies AK’s double edged sword. It’s far too simplistic for it’s own good, and while I’m a fan of hand walking gamers to their destination, Aura is ridiculous. Nor is it worth the Aeria brand name premium they’re attaching to its commerce model.

 

Crush Depth - Firefall

Posted by Ozzallos Sunday September 15 2013 at 12:59AM
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Something had to give and it finally did. Red 5 has officially put PvP and its E-Sports ambitions on hold to concentrate fully on bringing PvE up to par. On one hand, i applaud the decision... Not the choice, mind you, but the decision.
 
Make no mistake however; This is damage control. Desperate, hail Mary damage control. No company cuts out one of its core features like this, especially one that it has been carrying the banner for since day one unless shit has hit the rotary impeller. One thing that has become painfully evident is that Red 5 cannot walk and chew bubblegum at the same time. Whatever has been happening behind the scenes has been killing the game and the community, and I can only wonder if Red 5 can hold it together long enough to perform a successful relaunch.
 
I also wonder which will kill them first: Their hemorrhaging fan base or the sucking chest wound sustained by The9's stock.

Death of an MMO - Pt2

Posted by Ozzallos Sunday September 1 2013 at 8:24PM
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Some things you just don’t expect. Some things you just look at and wonder to yourself, “How could that possibly fail?”

Take Mechwarrior Online. The franchise is quite literally a license to print money. The fanbase will literally throw bricks of cash at you if you do it right, and therein lies the problem:  Doing it right. The initial roll out seemed to be made of complete and utter win. The game was solid and mostly faithful to the source material. Piranha assured their players that certain pay to win principles wouldn’t be violated and that more content was coming. More maps. Open world campaigns. If Piranha could even come close to fulfilling these promises, MWO would quite possibly be the most epic Mechwarrior game in history.

And then it went horribly wrong.

Communication between the developers and player base broke down.  Core principles were backtracked upon. Pay to win was introduced. Consumables were introduced. Coolant flushes. The rumors of founder funds being diverted to other projects surfaced. Time frames continued to slip. Deep progression mechanics fell by the wayside. Third person was offered in spite of overwhelming community resistance. From there, players were explicitly advised they would never have to play those who use third person due to perceived viewing advantages. Another promise broken.

MWO is turning into the poster child of what not to do with a killer app franchise. Not simply that, it is the preeminent example of what people perceive when they hear the term F2P—A title that will go back on its word compromise its principles in order to make a buck.

It also seems to be a rather contagious condition.

Firefall isn’t there yet, but it’s showing the signs of compromising its principles to the dollar as well. With the latest patch came a new frame and the first new cash shop content the game has seen in ages. The initial awesome, however, was quickly dulled by the fact that this new content isn’t assessable via any of the cash shop outlets… It’s only offered via vending machine lottery in what appears to be an obvious bid to kick start their stagnant cash economy. 

Even though this very tactic was initially eschewed by Red 5, here it is, apparently preying on the player’s desperation for new content in order to solve their financial problems. It's a monetary equation that blatantly favors Red 5 first and formost, enticing people to retire the currency they've horded due to lack of content in order for a luck based chance to win a few XP/resource boosts that they could care less about and the new stuff they desperately want. R5 could have used the established cash shop that has suffered a 2 year content drought in order to sell these items, but that will apparently remain barren.

And don't forget to buy more Beans.

With the back side of Firefall’s advancement still in ruins and hints of slipping business morality, it almost appears that another game is ready to walk down the path of profit versus players. In fact, I would say the only reason Firefall hasn’t fallen from the good graces of its fanbase yet is that unlike MWO, Red 5’s lines of communication remain generally open. It also helps that the front side of Firefall’s action based gameplay holds so much promise, yet the offical forums seem to be running that fine line between fandom and malcontent with every patch.

Even so, these are two promising titles-- Neither is quite irreparably damaged but both are showing the disturbing signs of profit mongering and internal corporate dissention. MWO appears to have all but lost that battle of conscious while Firefall is still putting up a fight. I’m hoping my initial suppositions concerning the non-viability of F2P aren’t true; that there are indeed free to play titles that aren’t willing to sacrifice their player at the altar of the dollar like so many others in the past.

I personally would like just one to prove me wrong, but it doesn’t appear my two first string champions will be that standard bearer short of a minor miracle.

The F2P Warfront - A New Hope

Posted by Ozzallos Tuesday May 28 2013 at 10:29PM
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My position concerning Free To Play gaming is fairly well known to those unfortunate enough to stumble across this caustic cesspool of opinion mistakenly titled a blog. It's generally filled with vitroil, disgust and malcontent toward developers routinely seeking to rip their gamers off by subjecting them to a real money ponsi scheme... Or their game failed with players as a subscription and now they're hoping- begging -for money as F2P. It's not horrible or immoral of them. It's just nobody liked their game enough to commit to a monthly payment.

My biggest problem with F2P is that these two categories have dominated the free to play landscape for the last decade. Games with content failure. Graphical failure. Games recycled from other markets well beyond their shelf life. Cash shop rip offs. It's not that F2P gaming can't work... It's just the lowest hanging fruit for devs looking to make a fast buck and they flooded the commerce model with crap. Thanks to these people there's a lot of folks out there who associate the words "free to play" with "rip-off".

Fortunately, that's changing.

I've been of the belief for some time now that F2P gaming can give players a quality product and make money at the same time... Without ripping them off. You can make a free to play game without crippling advancement for the non-payers. You can make a free to play games without gear rentals. You can make free to play games without limiting bag slots or any of the other inane mechanics usually used by lazy devs to encourage you to pay repeatedly into a system without calling it a subscription.

What a lot of devs don't realize when considering a free to play commerce model is you will get out of it what you put into it. Quite literally, if you will build it, they will come and the industry as a whole is finally beginning to embrace the design philosophy. Quality free to play games are starting to emerge as a force within the genre; games that actually put the goal of making a great player experience first and foremost while hoping you're discerning enough to know the difference between some generic chinese theme MMO with cash shop shenanigans versus a real gaming experience that you would actually pay something for. They realize gamers are motivated by hats, of all things. Costumes. Paint job. These brave devs are hoping you will spend money on convenience as opposed to being slaved to weapon rentals and pay to play dungeons and other like contrivance.

These are developers deserve our full and complete backing because right now they are the minority amongst the flotsam and crap permeating the industry. Sure they're looking to make a profit, but they're willing to give the player a quality product in return. I'm good with that, frankly. I'll pay for a hat. Or a unique mount. Or not, but i'll player your game just for respecting us enough by not screwing it over. Games like WildStar, Firefall, Mechwarrior Online, Guild Wars 2 and others. If enough of these games succeed, it sends a message.

2013 is looking to be a great year for F2P by all accounts. It's looking to be a year of imagination and quality and free to play. It's giving me hope. Sure, there will always be the bottom feeders because ultimately anybody can buy a pre-fab mmo engine, slap some cute anime skins on it, set up a cash shop and call it an MMORPG, but if we can reward fairness and hard work we can also reclaim Free to Play as it should have been define all along. Free to Play with minimal hindrance and maximum enjoyment, allowing you to opt-in as you choose, not as the developer strong-arms you into doing so.

 

Ragnarok Online 2 - Barely Worth You Time

Posted by Ozzallos Tuesday May 28 2013 at 5:19PM
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There's lots of nice things I want to say about this game. The original Ragnarok Online was a unique and inspired production. The sprite based artwork was imaginative and full of personality. Ragnarok 2, on the other hand isn't. For everything that the first Ragnarok was, the only thing the second can claim from its predecessor is the move from 2d to 3d and even that isn't handled especially well. Rather than tie up the next ten minutes of your time burninating Ragnarok 2 for its inadequacies, we'll try and sum this up:

It's stale.

In the time it's taken Ragnarok to move from sprites to polys, the rest of the industry has already been there, done than and in many cases executed with more competence than RO2 has shown to date. It's not so much that it's a horrible game, it's just that nothing about it attempts to rise above the competition. You could say that RO2 is potentially a victim of its own success-- It did such a good job that it was copied and built upon by every anime themed MMO to walk in its footsteps. Since Ragnarok Online first debuted in 2002 the industry has undergone a F2P arms race that has forced everybody involved to refine their gameplay and graphics. The crap fell to the wayside like a speared corpse. Even the good stuff still has to struggle for its place in the sun.

The minds behind RO2 apparently didn't get that message.

The graphics are at least a generation or more behind the front lines of this war and there simply is no unique artistic style to speak of to help roll a last minute save versus meh. When lined up against other popular titles that have debuted with the last two years, RO2 manages to illicit a yawn at best. The core gameplay likewise suffers. It's solid, but does nothing to get the adrenaline pumping and nothing that you can't get in a better looking package, sometimes evolving on the RO system like RO2 itself should have. It's as if the devs decided that 3D would be enough to sell the game and barely put effort into the rest. They might be right based on the fan base of the original, but they shouldn't be rewarded for what is, in effect, laziness.

If you've still got an RO account, I wouldn't be giving it up just yet. RO2 sure as hell isn't giving you much of a reason to do so.

 

What the Death of an MMO Sounds Like: Firefall

Posted by Ozzallos Thursday April 25 2013 at 11:48PM
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Raising a 1yr old consumes a lot of time. So does raising an MMO. Both have been consuming mine as of late, so i thought I would pop in with a status report.

Reagan is just fine.

Truthfully, I've been holding off on this post due to an intense desire to see Firefall succeed. It wasn't perfect but that's the stuff of betas and the ideas pushing it forward were revolutionary in the industry: An MMO FPS-RPG driven by a dynamic, expanding world that focused on PvE against a central AI dispatching forces to ensure your demise based on strategy and tactics. I could spend the next few paragraphs expounding on the virtues of Red 5's Firefall but we're not here for that. We're here for the tornado siren echoing on the edge of town screaming suck and fail as the twister approaches.

Those are hard words for a game in its beta, especially a game in its "pre-open" beta phase, but the writing is beginning to appear on the wall and I've got a good track record on this sort of thing. Open beta is coming up and advancement isn't finalized. Content is nowhere near ready. Enemy AI sucks ass. And while the forums are debating whether or not Firefall is even ready for that milestone, the CEO says this:

"We're not interested in what other companies call a beta. What we are calling a beta is *early* participation...2/3rd of our development time has been public, and its actually been invaluable. The old way of doing short betas after all core features are done is just idiotic in today's big budgets. The old way is greatly responsible for the "surprise" failures of many high profile MMOs that didn't realize their core systems needed work until it was far too late."

Good for you, Tex. Blaze your own trail. Do it your own way. And while you're at it, fall on the sword because while you're busy doing it your way, your gamers are expecting something else entirely. They're expecting a game that hasn't torched two radically different advancement systems and has barely settled into a third. They're expecting marginally balanced classes, not ones still being aligned with the new system for the third time. They're expecting real content to be enjoyed, not piece meal bullshit that barely works and half assed level design. They're expecting your resource and crafting system to be worked out by the time you say the word "open beta," not something still shifting like quicksand.

Most people are fine with giving you time to iron out the bugs and tweek the settings, but when you say open beta, they're expecting a intact product that- while rough around the edges -gives them a good idea of what to expect, not a CEO who wants to play word games with industry defined terminology. At less than two months until their self proclaimed open beta, Firefall is none of what players are expecting when they hit download for the first time. There's no vision, no meat, no identity. I've watched it lose its way across three advancement systems. It's no longer a game that puts fun first. Hell, it can barely lay claim to being an RPG of any sort these days. In short, Firefall has become some self absorbed FPS with multiple personality disorder and it's killing the franchise. I've never seen the offical forums as devisive as they are now.

All of that said, players are a forgiving lot. If Firefall can indeed turn their turd into something a sight more cohesive and reclaim its identity before their open-beta-that-really-isn't date in July, it stands a chance of making it to market and maybe a profit, because let's be honest-- You only offer founders packs to generate eyeballs and revenue. Going open beta in this condition, this early is easily a sign that the purse strings are undoubtably tighting with their parent company The9 regardless of how it's explained away as "...just idiotic in today's big budgets."

...Pushed to the wayside with "When it's ready," I guess.

I certainly hope Red5 and Firefall defy expectations, and not for the cash I've thrown in on Founders. That's an indication of faith in their vision, but I have to be honest, that vision is starting to faulter as they continue to set fire to key game elements while seemingly poised to point their finger back to the community for having welcomed their feedback a bit too much. While there seems to be no lack of vision and ingenuity, the hand on the steering wheel seems to be a bit too loose,and watching Firefall develop is like watching a drunker driver weave across five lanes of interstate traffic. Eventially something's going to get smeared across the pavement.

...Or I could have never participated in a real beta before. That seems to be the most popular counter-argument to date.

F2P-FPS Beta Deathmatch - Hawken, Firefall & Mechwarrior

Posted by Ozzallos Friday December 14 2012 at 4:37PM
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These last few months have been pretty interesting with the Betas of no less than three Free to Play FPSs: Hawken, Mechwarrior and Firefall. Truely the golden age of the Tactical FPS has arrived, so lets go sacrifice a few chickens at the alter of the gaming gods and live it up before the world ends in six days*.

These three titles share a lot of ground beyond their commerce model and genre. Most superficially they are all mech style games, or in Firefall's case, powered armor. Of course they are free to play with by-in elements, and to some degree, first person shooters. Their commonality begins to drop off substantially after that and what may float your boat for one will sink like Battleship at the boxoffice in another. For those of us with limited time and attention spans, seperating the cream frrom the crap is vital, especially for those who don't have the patience in waiting for a 4gb download and numerous patches.

For my brothers and sisters in ADHD arms, this overview is for you. It isn't a comprehensive review of each game, but it should give you an idea of what you might or might not like. Or utterly hate. Like Worms: Revolution. Yes, I'm still bitter about that.

Bitches.

Mechwarrior: Online

As an analog to the dystopian Battletech universe, Mechwarrior has had a number of successful- and not so successful -PC titles attributed to the franchise as far back as 1989. In its hayday you could actually stroll on over to a Battletech Center and jump into a full immersion cockpit and I'm pretty sure I still have my membership card somewhere from back when. Regardless, it was only a matter of time before it went online in the here and now with Pirahna Games offering.

So far there's not a lot here as a Beta offering-- Only a handful of maps and the mechs themselves, but it's enough to get a good idea of the commerce model and how the game plays. In a nutshell Mechwarrior feels like a Mechwarrior game. For those who have missed out, you're driving a giant, walking tank; that is to say big, lumbering and powerful. Of the three games highlighted here, it is the the most simulator driven, faithfully allowing the player to manage parts, weapons, armor and as always, heat. It looks good and feels authentic, but the current gaming modes clash with the mechwarrior style. The only game mode at the moment is Capture and Hold team death match and most of the maps are smaller and cluttered, putting the feel of the game at odds with the strategic nature of a walking tank.

It's still enough to get a good idea as to where the game is going and supposedly an open world campaign is slated to be introduced in the near future. The environments are nice and detailed, as are the special effects and explosions. Sadly, you won't see anybody go critical in this version of the franchise. The cash shop appears to be fairly balanced at the moment and while there is a pay to win aspect in buying specific mechs with better base attributes, I doubt it will be enough to turn the tide against a skilled player. Cosmetic purchase and garage slots will also be availible, so for the moment, the cash shop doesn't appear overly lopsided and you can even subscribe after a fashion.

Personal Opinion - MW: Online seems to be a reasonably faithful reproduction of the franchise that isn't quite there yet in terms of Beta. You'll get a taste of what this game is about even though the arcade sized maps are a tad misleading in nature. Its simulator roots may not be for everyone. Assuming Pirahna continues to develop MW:O and doesn't get overly greedy, this should be a title worth competeing for your gaming dollar.

Hawken

The first offering by Adehisive Games, Hawken could be thought of as Mechwarrior light. If you don't like the relatively slower pace of the Battletech universe, Hawken speeds it up with a healthy dose of WASD combat and smaller, more nimble mecha. The visual styling rings a number of nostalgic bells, many of them from Japanese culture like Ghost in the Shell, Armored Core, etc. Players will boost around the battlefield, swap parts in the garage and generally lumber around an exquisitely detailed battlefield leaving destruction in their wake.

As of this posting the game seems decidedly Player vs Player with a number of admittedly compeling matches that include (for the moment) siege, capture and hold, death match and team death match. It sounds pretty cut and dry, but the modes are creatively implimented, usually incorporating some unique wrinkle to liven the match. In game combat certainly replicates the feeling of a midsized mech; that being clunky and pounderous, but still more repsonsive than Mechwarrior. You can boost forward and side to side for increased manuverabiliy, deploy missiles, mines, turrets, etc for a more tactical experience. Mech customization is the keynote of Hawken beyond the various combat modes, which quickly brings us to the most important question: Cash shop?

From the Hawken FAQ: "Adhesive Games will be following the example of games that successfully use the free-to-play model without unbalancing the game. In Hawken, many things available for purchase will be visual customizations and aesthetics. In most cases, weapon and armor upgrades that can be bought can also be earned through playing the game. More details on that in the future." And... "Meteor Credits are used in-game to instantly unlock new mechs, mech parts, repair drones, camouflage, weapons, items, attachments, boosts, and more!"

Right. I'm pretty sure that is the definition of pay to win, or at least part of it. Yes, I'm sure you can grind content to get the same items, but wether paying for the same is overly offensive is ultimately up to you, the player. As always, the game is in Beta but it's a solid product even if the value of the cash shop is in question.

Personal Opinion: If you're looking for a faster pace of combat that is visually stunning with superior audio, look no further. While F2P-FPSs are hardly in short supply, Hawken definitely has sex appeal, especially if your tastes run toward gun and run mech action. For me, the pacing felt too clunky. I got WASD controls and still felt like I was lumbering around... Which was some of the point, I'd imagine. There was a lot of hype touting Hawken to be the next big thing and while it's certainly pretty, it isn't ground breaking.

And being real here, the cash shop as explained in the FAQs makes me wary-- At very least it unearths the worn argument of grinding for stuff versus paying for the advantage outright. The application of the the disclaimer "in most cases" raises an eyebrow as well.

Firefall

Didn't I just visit this one? If Mechwarrior represents the heavy mech genre and Hawken midrange, then Firefall takes the lightweight belt. Players don classed power armor to explore a transformed earth under siege by not only mutated wildlife, but alien invaders. Scifi plot is at the heart of the Firefall story with the gameplay revolving around it in a manner rarily seen. The world battlefield is truely dynamic and can transform while you're asleep as siege points are taken and reclaimed. Theoretically entire servers can be lost to the invasion.

Firefall's gameplay is also WASD and their power armor occupies many of the archtypes we're all familiar with: Sniper, DPS, Tank, Medic, and Engineer. Close analogs to Firefall's gameplay would be Starsiege Tribes and Halo classic. If you for some reason get tired of the dynamic world, there is alway s PvP multiplayer with the classic modes you know and love. While you can literally trip over FPS PvP everywhere and anywhere (see Hawken), its the ambitious dynamic world and the campaigns slated to go with it that will hold your attention long term.

The cash shop seems simple and fair. About the only thing you're paying for is character customization and garage slots. To save you time and space here, see my beta first look here.

Personal Opinion: Unless you simply don't like the FPS genre (hey, you can change to third person) along a more tactical line of gameplay, there's a lot of win. It's an ambitious project with a fair commerce model  that deserves a second look.

Firefall - Looking Sexy.

Posted by Ozzallos Thursday December 13 2012 at 3:27PM
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Normally I use this soapbox to whine and bitch about how free to play is a bane to gamers everywhere. Normally they screw up in some way and can no longer ask for cash up front or are looking to rape your wallet on the backside. Normally I have low expectations from anything from the F2P cesspool, fully expecting this all to take place in some way, shape or form.

Normally.

Firefall by Red 5, however, has had my attention for a while and it's been looking damn good. The rise of the true FPSMMOs is underway, so I have to ask if Firefall is the herald to that mantle? Before we answer that question, lets make a few things painfully clear: An MMO isn't 32 to 64 people fighting it out within a closed loop map. We had that shit as far back as 1998. It's not new and it's not an MMO, so it can go STFU as far as this reviewer is concerned.

Firefall, on the other, is an MMOFPS with Role Playing underpinnings. The quick desriptive would be to imagine the expansive free range environment of World of Warcraft, sprinkle in some of the sandbox tactical classing from the Tribes series and stir vigerously with Halo. Now make it look sexy. What comes out of that mix is an actual world full of aliens and bugs waiting to be explored and recounquered by you and other players. Key to this conquest is the use of Battle Frames-- Powered armor constructs revolving around specific classes that can be customized to the pilot's preference. As of this moment in Beta, five Battle Frames exist: Recon (Sniper), Bio (Medic), Assault (offensive DPS), Engineer (Deployables) and Dreadnaut (Tank).

Normally this is where I would go into progression and leveling, but the game is still very much in Beta and this area is in flux. Still, the long and short of it is you can pretty much customize the weapons and armor of your chosen frame to match your needs, while progression determines your skill set. Mostly. Right now a tier system is in place where you aquire skills through XP that will eventially unlock you next Battle Frame, though that sounds like its slated to change. Honestly, the current iteration is not the most elegant system I've seen implimented and I'll be happy to see this version go.

Such is beta.

Still, Firefall is quite serviceable as a game and imminently enjoyable regardless of its build status. Unlike Mechwarrior Online, the centerpiece of Firefall is the world battlefield and Red 5 chose to impliment it at an early stage. It was a damn good move IMO, as it gives early adopters a good idea of just how ambitious the developers expectations are for this game. To sum it up, it has pwnage written all over it.

The open world of Firewall is truely that: Open. You can go anywhere and scale to any height with a minimum of artifical restrictions across gorgeous terrain. Red 5 has invested heavily here and is shows from the top down. Alien wildlife inhabits the countryside and while you're relatively safe by day (stupidity not withstanding), nightime travel becomes a tense adventure in and of itself with only your flashlight and a handfull of flares to light the way. Earth is likewise under siege, not just via the spacial disaster that befell it, but an alien force from the void known as the Chosen. While you're exploring, they're invading; whether it be minor scouting missions or full up assaults designed to take over nodes that represent tangiable world progression. It's kill or be killed and nodes can be won or lost. It's also entirely possible to lose an entire server to the Chosen invasion if all the nodes are taken, which is epic in and of itself.

And hey, there's PVP too, but it frankly pales in comparison to what Red 5 is trying to accomplish in the persistent world. In this reviewers opinion it's fine that PVP it exists, but you can go to any game for FPS PvP combat. It's the world that makes this game special with PVP there when youn eed a change of pace.

I wish I could detail a bit more on the classes themselves, but as I mentioned, they're still being tweaked. Most of the Battle Frames are still trying to find that sensible balance in gaming as is the progression tree they rest upon, but that's hardly something I can hold against a game still in the throes of a true Beta...Unlike that advertising beta crap you see regularly. In a rare lapse of sanity, I went in for one of the Founders packs just as a show of support and confidence. This game may be free to play, but Red 5 is apparently looking to go about it fairly. The game is creative and ambitious.

I like to reward that in a commerce model generally steeped in apathy and fail.

 

Reviewed: XCOM - Enemy Unknown

Posted by Ozzallos Wednesday October 24 2012 at 7:50PM
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Gaming, like cinema, has its share of cult classics. Back in the day when polygons and anti-aliasing were the next big thing there was this company called Microprose. Defunct today, they were undeniably one of the industries leaders in combat simulators. Classics like Gunship, Silent Service and others were hallmarks of this developer, but none were so enduring as a little game called X-Com: UFO Defense. While there were numerous spinoffs of this series,  they never reached the acclaim as the original and like many of the Highlander movie sequels, are best buried in napalmed earth and consecrated with salt so nothing may ever grow there again.

Long story short, the original X-Com was a turn based game featuring tactical squad based warfare and base management pitting you against an overwhelming tide of alien invaders. Even in moderate difficulty levels, the game was ruthless. Troops you had been weaning up from green recruits to power armor badasses could be erased from the map in the blink of an eye. Aliens could invade your base just as assuredly as you could theirs. Manpower was plentiful, but it was the material and knowledge you were scraping tooth and nail for while your soldiers paid for it all in blood. It wasn't without its flaws and the sprite graphics are now light years out of date, but it was a masterpiece in its own right.

Yes, I still have my original manual and 3.5in floppies.

Any fan of the original has a right to be pessimistic concerning anything claiming X-Com's lineage. It's all sucked for the most part and now there is a new attempt to usurp that sacred ground: Firaxis' XCOM: Enemy Unknown. New graphics. New gameplay. Cross platform marketing. Should you go out and buy it right now or does Firaxis deserve to die in a fire like Team 17 does for Worms?

Friends, there'll be no fires or pitchforks today.

  • Review

The first, most obvious update to this iteration of Xcom is the use of Unreal's graphics engine, creating full 3d environments for your base and combat environments. While the this improvement largely goes to waste in the base view, it absolutely shines in squad based warfare. The more or less isometric tile based movement is still present, but your troops operate in a fully 3d environment that layers cinematic camera angles when the action occurs. It's all eyecandy from top to bottom and exactly how you would want a modern rendition of this classic franchise to look. Even better, PCs with modest hardware should be able to run X-Com full out since we're not exactly talking 60fps first person shooter combat.

So the graphics are good to go but realistically, that should be a given in this day and age. How does the game play? Is it faithful to its namesake? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. For the most part.

Let's get this out of the way first: Time units are gone. While combat is still turn based, you now have two actions allocated per soldier per turn; nothing more, nothing less. You can move twice with your two actions or move and fire, but you only get two and firing automatically ends the soldier action period unless you have a special condition preventing it. Does it work? Yes. Am I overly fond of it? Honestly, no. Still, it's fun for what it is and we'll get into my nitpicking later.

Terrain and cover feature prominently, just as it did in the original games if not moreso. Cover is everywhere and if you don't use it, the aliens will happily hand you your ass since they're intelligent enough to use their turn to flank you and take shots from directions you aren't covered. Your cover is also quite transient in nature, meaning that any prolonged stay in one position during a fire fight is likely to reduce said cover to burning cinders or worse. Most of your favorite aliens will be present minus snakemen. I suspect creating a slithery 3d model was simply too much trouble so you'll be seeing humanoid opponents for the most part. Just to assuage your concerns, yes, Chrysalis are still an unholy pain in the ass.

Combat is only half the game, of course. Research and development are completely intact, requiring time, material and manpower to move up the tech tree and produce vital weapons, armor and systems in order to repel the alien menace. As added icing on the cake, you get cut scenes of weapons testing and- get this -messy alien autopsies with quality voice overs. Graphics and presentation are two things the new XCOM in spades. Your soldiers can also be customized in both appearance and armor configurations, further adding to your attachment to that poor team when things go horribly, horribly wrong.

Further diverging from the original, all soldiers now have a specific class upon hitting the Squaddie rank. I found it adds quite a bit of flavor; more so than simply stat building until everything maxes out ala UFO Defense. Like any RPG you've played, these classes have specific roles, can use specific weapons and items that can have a drastic influence in your combat tactics in the field. Bad news: You can only have six soldiers on any given mission. They also level after a fashion, gaining unique skills as they progress... Assuming they stay alive long enough to do so.

Overall, it's an amazing amount of win for a franchise plagued with fail, but it's not all perfect. Most of my gripes can be categorized under a single overarching topic:

Consolization.

These days, developers are increasingly programming to the lowest common denominator and when you're talking about selling across multiple gaming platforms, that means optimizing for the generally more limited hardware of the console. It's a trend worming its way into an increasing number of games and XCOM unfortunately suffers in the same manner.

First, the game rushes you a long at an unnatural pace, as if to force the action in an manner reminiscent of catering to players with a short attention span. Yes, you can build your base, you can research your finds, but the game will invariably force you to move along with Alien Abduction episodes, pushing you to make the best bad choice of three abduction sites. The other two not chosen invariably increase that regions panic, ultimately leading to a scenario of too many fires to fight if you don't move along to the game's forgone conclusion. Base construction has been somewhat dumbed down, which doesn't really matter because aliens won't be invading yours anyway. On that note, you only have one centralized base with little more than prepositioned fighter interceptor nodes in the various regions you control.

Combat suffers as well. Maps are noticeably smaller and by the time you work your way up to a medium UFO, you'll find the UFO interior is the map with your Skyranger setting down at the craft's doorstep. You are also now limited to six soldiers unstead of the 10+ of the original. The previously mentioned two action turn mechanics for you soldier reduce the game to that of the level of checkers in my opinion. It's still fun in its own way, mind you, but somewhat thoughtless.

Protip: Use one action to move to cover and the other to Overwatch. This will win 80% of your battles.

Speaking of cover, it's virtually impossible not to trip over it in mass quantities. Where durable cover was a rare luxury in UFO Defense, it's everywhere you look in Enemy Unknown, lessening the amount of battle field uncertainty. Sure, you'll find times where dashing across an empty parcel of real estate is required, but it's not nearly as nail-biting as the original game.

While not wholey tied to 'consolization', UFO interception events are actually worse than the source material if you can believe it. Instead of a radar display to indicate the action, ugly 3d wireframes bobbing back and forth from a single viewpoint fill this particular role and about the only fighter customization you can equip are one-shot powerups just waiting for a button press. On second thought, it absolutely reeks of consolization now that I think about it. UFO interception is probably the lowest point of the game, really. At least the original had an excuse-- Namely a 66mhz processor with 4 megabytes of RAM and a litebrite for a graphics card.

Other aspects of the game merely annoyances. Rarely will you ever catch an alien squad with its pants down during your action turn. You will see them and they will instantly react with a free action move to disperse and cover. Aside from the rocket launcher, you can't simply shoot away at barriers via free aiming. All shots must be taken at visible targets, otherwise you simply cannot deploy your weapon. Finally, most soldiers get to carry one primary rifle, a secondary pistol an have a single inventory slot.  That's it. On one hand I think it balances out the walking armory syndrome from the original X-Com, though on the other, I'm relatively sure our regular army can carry more than one grenade.

But hey, at least you have unlimited ammo :\

With the bitching out of the way, it's still a fun game. Most of what you have come to expect from UFO Defense and Terror of the Deep has been translated faithfully in Firaxis rendition of XCOM. There are still the moments of desperation and terror. Moments where you absolutely shit your pants as you walk into combined party of Mutons, Chrysslis and Cyberdisks. Moments where you will cuss out your soldier for missing a 95% shot. You will be forced to make command decisions with dire consequences. Resources are even more strained than the previous X-Com. Do you build another lab to speed up research for more weapons or use that money to build armor? While the pacing of the game may be more console-like, its also easy to absolutely shoot yourself in the foot through poor resource management.

So yeah, I think I can safely say you should buy this one. Sure, I've got my gripes and i don't think it has the depth of the original, but even that is balanced out by the various mission types. Where the original had either terror or search and destroy, Enemy Unknown fills the content gap with Bomb Disposal, VIP Escort, Terror Missions and of course the classic Search and Destroy. And hey, there's even multiplayer. It's not the XCOM I would have made, but it's still a pretty good effort. Maybe wait a few weeks for the bleeding edge price to drop off and it will be well worth the money.