Category Archives: FPS

Overwatch Early Access Impressions

Having jumped into Overwatch early access last Tuesday night, I’ve got myself up to level 14 since, trying out different heroes and learning the basics of the game. As Blizzard explained on their forums, all early access and open beta progress (including skin unlocks etc.) will be wiped before May 24th, and I shall try not question the logic behind an early access starting before open beta weekends.

Overwatch Early Access Impressions

On the Fly Overwatch Impressions

First things first: Overwatch looks gorgeous and you know it! Blizzard never cease to amaze in the polish department and absolutely everything from the clean interface and level design to actual gameplay and animations look and behave smoothly as a baby seal. In true Blizzard fashion, players also get the guided newcomer experience with tutorials, practice ranges and optional games vs. AI included (on easy, medium and hard mode). So, even if you’re new to team FPS and slightly weary to jump in, these features will ease you in perfectly.

Having tried most of the characters now, each of them plays very differently with obvious strengths and weaknesses which is a lot of fun to explore and come to grips with. Controls are simple enough, with familiar FPS key mapping and usually up to three special abilities keyed to Lshift/E/Q.  Once I changed some of the keybinds to fit my mouse better, things started rolling and I got deeper into the nitty-gritty with Mei (must kill all the Tracers!), Farah, Bastion and Mercy which I prefer so far. Overwatch encourages playing different roles and characters which can mean the difference between victory and defeat, depending on the map you’re playing and whether your team is attacking or defending.

Overwatch Early Access Impressions

There are currently only three game modes in Overwatch (capture, attack/defend and escort), although more are to come. Blizzard recently announced the removal of competitive (ranked) play mode for this open beta because there’s more to figure out and balance after receiving player feedback. General balancing is going to be an issue for a while to come yet, as is to be expected from a title like this; besides some heroes currently possessing clear advantages and some ultimate abilities feeling ten times stronger than others (hello Genji and Reaper), there are still matchmaking and team composition issues to address.

What should be good news to FPS players out there, is that Blizzard are running with dedicated servers for Overwatch’s matchmaking, rather than player-hosted lobbies. This means (mostly) stable servers and reliable ping for random matches as well as playing custom games with your friends.

Why I like it

I had loads of fun in Overwatch with my partner so far and would recommend it to anyone who’s just a wee bit interested in team-based PvP and FPS which offer more variety than traditional offensive/defensive roles. If you dig disrupting or healing only for example, there’s still a place for you in this game. Matchmaking queues have generally been short for me (1-2mins max), so you don’t need to commit to long gameplay sessions to get some Overwatch under your belt.

Overwatch makes it easy to get into (mastery is a different story) and if you’re willing to take the time and try different heroes, you’re guaranteed to find at least one or two who will fit your playstyle. Once you got the basics down, the game opens up to all the tactical group play, making use of team synergies and environmental factors – all of which should keep players busy for a while to come.

Overwatch Early Access Impressions

I got some healing practice on Mercy…she’s Swiss!

Naturally, Overwatch is also packed with shinies and no matter how great your FPS skills, there’s motivating progress and random unlocks for skins, tag lines and so forth. Blizzard have also taken care of honoring and rewarding “best plays” of every match, letting great players shine without naming and shaming anyone on the bottom (for non-ranked play anyway).

So much for my quick Overwatch Early Access impressions! If you’re at all curious, don’t miss the ongoing open beta until May 9th! The cheapest pre-order for the game is 39.99 Euros currently; Blizzard’s pre-order page lands you on the medium package by default, so make sure to switch if you’re looking for best bang for the buck. Have fun – and kill more Tracers!

Freedom of choice and player-hosted MMOs

Skyrim is making quite the noise at the moment; not just among classic RPG lovers but a large circle of MMO players too, realizing just how much they have missed that sense of wonder and adventure in the online world. No doubt it is a certain kind of MMO player who feels this loss most acutely – I know why I do and like me, many MMO players have actually started their journey decades ago, as console gamers, as tabletop and pen & paper players, as lovers of the fantasy genre as a whole. These past days I have felt as if re-discovering a long lost friend and exploring the world of Tamriel has been an almost poetic experience. I kid you not. Within the first few hours, I’ve been inside my favorite Robert Frost poem and been the hero on my cherished old D&D covers. What more could I possibly want from a game?

“He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.”

I don’t know how to call this essence that we can feel when a fantasy game, book or movie is being true to its core. This strange magic that happens when somebody does it right and takes us there with him. The difference between a work of passion (and geekdom) maybe and a generic work of fail that we can all tell apart. Some games have soul, some don’t – you can feel it and see it but not nail it down on single criteria like graphics or combat.

Me and a friend of mine like to call it “high adventure” and we borrow from the opening of Conan the Barbarian there. Or we call it “epic bombast shit” (EBS©) in a  not-so-srs attempt to qualify the seriously atmospheric and epic fantasy from its ugly mass-market siblings.

Either way, Skyrim has it; this sense of magic and awe, of being there in this vast world with dragons in the sky and darkness lurking around the next corner. It has its minor flaws, as others have already pointed out, but at this stage it’s entirely beside the point for me. Again: what else could I possibly want?

The “Skyrim MMO” deal

Right after entering Skyrim, I said “man, if only this was co-op. I would need holidays”. Indeed, the world of Tamriel screams for companionship; sharing the travels and adventures with a few more people who don’t happen to die on the way or get stuck under the stairway like their NPC equivalents. I would love nothing more than a co-op mode for maybe 2-4 players.

The MMO idea now, I am not so sure. I commented about this before, and my initial negativity stems from the justified scepticism of what a developer might do to Skyrim in popular WoW-fashion. That idea is frankly a nightmare and I care little whether WoW’s gamification trend came from the players or the developers, I would never want to share Tamriel with WoW’s current MMO achiever crowd. Ever.

I’m far from opposed to online modes though or sharing games by principle. Why did I become an MMORPG-player in the first place, if not because I prefer to have more than NPCs around me? But for this to work in Skyrim, we would have to take a close look at all the aspects that make the game so dear to us right now – and at how to protect those. How can you retain Skyrim’s scale, open world and playstyle freedoms in an MMO while maintaining a sense of meaning? This is something Bethesda has managed to balance: open world vs. meaning. They show us too, that not all satisfaction in an RPG is delivered by means of a classic definition of “challenge” and immediate “hard rewards”. There is great joy in adventure and exploration.

The answer to the question might already lie in the online world: FPS games. Times before we’ve noticed features of online shooters and communities with the potential to improve things for MMORPGs too. It was my better half though who tipped me off when pointing out what he liked about Skyrim and as an FPS-player, always disliked about WoW –

“…This is what the players want: freedom. Let me play the game however I want and with whom, don’t tell me what to do or how to play. Let me choose my difficulty, whether to use console commands or not. Don’t tell me when to grind or what items I need or where I should go. I’m not an idiot. This is what the …[insert random Blizzard insult here]…still don’t get.”

A popular dilemma of MMOs is the accomodation of player X; to appeal to a variety of players within the same game, to offer dynamic content and different levels of difficulty. All of that can simply be summed up as a basic issue of player freedom. If you realize that you cannot deliver for everybody, why do you even try to define the game in the first place?

Several weeks before Skyrim’s launch, I tipped my toe into Red Orchestra 2 – for lack of alternatives and the wish for quick, cooperative play more than anything. I joined the friendly banter of my partner’s clan on teamspeak and tried to hide my cringe-worthy attempts at mimicking the FPS player. Yet, I never fail to be impressed over how readily the FPS industry has delegated their server administration to the clans who represent their loyal player base. If you log into RO2, you’re met with a long list of player-hosted server types, each offering their own rule sets, map and itemization choices, number of players allowed. Whether you choose to play in a smaller group, use aim-bots or loathe any kind of mod, there’s a place for you.

This is what I would want for a “Skyrim online”. A chance to choose how I play it and to share it with a limited amount of like-minded players. A developer can never look after so many individual choices, but I can. And I would join such a game in a heartbeat.

Skyrim shows us that the RPG and MMO player alike love the scale and freedoms of an open world. FPS games have shown for years that the best way to cater to a mixed audience, is to let the community configure and moderate their own servers. Why should we not adapt this for online RPGs in the future?

Tired of the Holy Trinity – Guild Wars 2

I admit that I’ve never been much into Guild Wars. When the game launched in spring 2005, I browsed some previews and while it looked visually impressive, things like play style, non-persistent world and the initially very low level cap put me off. Also, there was another very promising MMO title just about to launch: World of Warcraft by Blizzard Entertainment. The rest is history.

6 years later, I’m looking back on my time in Azeroth with a very fed-up feeling of “been there done that” which is a natural thing, I would think, after playing the same game for such a long period. I had a great time with WoW for as long as it lasted, it’s been a formidable ride – and an eye opener, in more ways than one.

But I’m a gamer; I’ve played games before WoW and will be playing them after WoW, I’m not looking to stick to a company. I want good games. Several times during my ride, I’ve ventured into other realms, sometimes for a week or two, sometimes for months. On the way I’ve fallen in love with aspects of other online games, like the vast and beautiful maps in Age of Conan or the wicked race that are the Arisen in Allods. But MMOs need to be more than a great race or nice world – they need to be a polished package.

So now that WoW is the past, what do I want from the next AAA-MMO? The other day, Tesh asked what themes outside the classic fantasy genre might attract the crowd. I’d certainly be intrigued to see promising Steampunk concepts realised someday, but I’m not all that fussed about a change of setting: I love fantasy RPGs and MMOs. I would play Eve Online in a heartbeat if it wasn’t set in space; I want magic and swords and dragons. I want fairy woods and dark caves.

I’m not even sure I want all that many big changes in this genre; I think I want small changes and innovations. I probably know a lot better what I do not want from my next MMO than what I do want. When I draw my conclusions on World of Warcraft, the most pressing matter that comes to mind is that I want future fantasy MMOs to outgrow some of the genre’s most stale mechanics: I want them to outgrow the holy trinity.

Tired of the Holy Trinity

The Holy Trinity – tanks, healers, damage dealers. The bane of guild recruitment, the disturber of peace in raidguilds, the headache of group setup, the killer of spontaneous cooperative fun. But “players want class identity”, they say…….and playstyle versatility, and group flexibility, and be able to solo, and do well in PVP.
WoW solves the obvious dilemma with hybrids and dualspec, by abandoning key abilities or handing out an even share of everything to everybody – their famed “bring the player, not the class” credo. Yet with that, class identity is down the drain, 10 classes or not.

The saddest part is, that for all their good intentions, the “bring the player not the class” concept couldn’t be further from reality in WoW: raid guilds are still struggling to recruit particular classes for a balanced roster, a DPS still sits in the LFG queue for 20 minutes easily on an average weekday and if your mates want to run a 5man heroic and happen to be a rogue, mage and 3 warriors, they’re out of luck and better have alts. Bring the player? I don’t think so.

The existence of hybrids or dualspecs does not automatically make for versatile gameplay or flexibility. Never has an MMO been more about cookie cutters and min-maxing than World of Warcraft. Never have classes been more about just one thing: healers staring at healthbars, DPS tied to fixed rotations to squeeze out every last bit of damage, tanks playing aggro whack-a-mole. Never have raid guilds been more pressed to make the constant, unhappy choice between good raider vs. friend.

A breath of fresh air

During my 6-months visit to Hyboria, the thing that I enjoyed most about playing a priest, was that healing in Age of Conan is so limited: you have three direct healing spells only: 1 direct heal, 1 AoE, 1 HoT. Some heals come with a CD, most of them are local rather than having you target a specific health bar. None of the heals is strong enough to make healing an essential part of an encounter. That’s why priests in AoC are also main CCers, fulfilling a lot more functions in order to prevent and absorb potential damage. And they add needed extra auto-healing via damage dealing.

Quite a lot of jobs for one class only – quite a refreshing versatility for a healer. Now, you could say that a hybrid in WoW can perform 3-4 roles as well, but that’s the question really: when do they? How many times does a hybrid actually get to play like a hybrid during a 5man run or raid, inside the same encounter (let’s forget for a minute, that you can’t switch specs in combat anyway)? I’ve healed WoW raid bosses for almost 6 years; I know healers get to stare at healthbars, with the odd cleansing on the side and very rare, insignificant CC job. A good old resto druid could be in a raid for 4 hours and never switch out of treeform once.

If you want players to make use of their versatility, you need to design gameplay to require it in a meaningful way. WoW does not require players to play that way: healers are healers, DPS optimize output, tanks tank. And they better all excel at the one thing and be efficient. If you respec from healer to tank, you do this outside an encounter, like relogging to an alt.

Summing up

“Bring the player, not the class” is an illusion in WoW. Despite featuring 10 classes, it doesn’t provide you with class identity so much as with role identity. This role identity is so strong that it’s limiting players more than ever, despite Blizzard trying to balance the game to bring players, rather than classes. Potential flexibility and versatility both suffer in the process and players and guilds are constantly forced to make decisions between whom they can play with and whom they’d like to play with. How is this what MMO players want?

Not that other MMOs haven’t failed at either or both before; WoW has done a lot more than most here. But what it’s really shown us is that identity is not synonymous with different classes available and having talents and specs is not synonymous with versatile or flexible gameplay. The only thing we know is that players want many things. Maybe the future lies in a different approach.

Why can’t we have fun like the FPS players?

Somewhere down the line it was established that MMORPGS need to be about archetypes in order to allow for class identity and character development. So far, so good. Classes aren’t the same as roles though – where does it say that you need the holy trinity in order to guarantee for identity? And how is it fun to wait on a healer or tank for 30 minutes when you could be playing with friends?

Half of the challenge to raid in World of Warcraft or beat the average encounter, is not actually about mastering the fight itself but about setting up for it. It starts with recruitment and roster headaches and goes right down to raid night preparations and balance checks. Did you bring the right setup? Are there enough tanks/DPS/healers for this or should somebody respec? Are the right classes doing the right thing at the right position? Can’t that hunter squeeze out a little more damage?

What about the boss? Do you remember his name and how he looks like?

Which finally brings me back to Guild Wars, or more precisely to Guild Wars 2 and a fascinating and insightful article on what they intend to do about healing (and death) in their upcoming MMO sequel. Some of it has struck such a chord with me that I want to highlight a few quotes in more detail in the next paragraph.

Spinks recently asked why MMO players cannot have the same cooperative fun like FPS clans do. I’ll ask the same: why can’t we? Fantasy MMOs and online shooters might be different in player character approach, but there’s no reason why MMO gamers cannot develop and be fond of their avatars and have what other gamers enjoy.

Guild Wars 2: The answer to the dilemma?

NC Soft announced the launch of Guild Wars 2 for 2012, planning to dedicate all of this year to intense testing and modifications. Like its first installment, the game art is visually stunning and things like animations and spell effects already look out of this world. The overall concept and races are not everyone’s cup of coffee though – neither is the active combat system which frightens many a classic RPG gamer. Still, if you have any interest in the MMO market and game development as a whole, you will want to risk a second glance and see what the devs there are up to. Here’s what they have to say about the holy trinity and why there won’t be a dedicated healer in Guild Wars 2:

[…]Simple systems like this, along with cross-profession combos, and the dedicated healing skill slot, help free players from the MMORPG shackles, and let us break the mold even more. We’re making players more self sufficient, but are also providing appealing ways for them to effortlessly work together to create a more inspired moment-to-moment experience. That is why Guild Wars 2 does not have a dedicated healing class.
Everyone take a deep breath. It’s going to be OK.

(If you’re already worried, I suggest you follow that advice now. Breathe.)

Support players want to be able to say, “Remember that one time when I saved you from certain death?” They want to stand in the line of fire and block attacks. They want to surround their allies with a swirling dome of air that keeps enemy projectiles from passing through it. It’s not about clicking on a health bar and watching it go up, it’s about being there for your friends when they need you. 

Finally somebody said it: Healing is only one aspect of support – the last and most reactive part of it. What about all that time that passes beforehand? Why are healers just standing there, waiting for the inevitable to happen? Why is there an ‘”inevitable”? What about debuffs, interrupts, CC, absorbtion – why are these things not the main focus of support, making a job much more diverse and fun in the process? Why would a supporter only stare at his ally?

Heal: Don’t belittle the SUPPORT role by calling it heal. Healing is the least dynamic kind of support there is. It is reactive instead of proactive. Healing is for when you are already losing. In Guild Wars 2 we prefer that you support your allies before they take a beating. Sure, there are some healing spells in Guild Wars 2, but they make up a small portion of the support lines that are spread throughout the professions. Other kinds of support include buffs, active defense, and cross-profession combinations. […]

We keep hearing other MMO developers espousing the “holy trinity” of DPS/ heal/tank with such reverence, as if this is the most entertaining combat they have ever played. Frankly, we don’t like sitting around spamming “looking for healer” to global chat. That feels an awful lot like preparing to have fun instead of having fun. 

A thing that never seizes to baffle me personally, is the strict separation of abilities between roles, in WoW and most other MMOs: You have this powerful caster standing next to you in a 5man party, that magic spellweaver – and all he really does for the group is deal damage, besides few more mob-centric abilities. While his allies fall left and right, while his healer is about to die horribly, he stands there hurling firebolts at the enemy, unable to do anything about much more pressing matters.

As a child of fairytales, sword & sorcery books, tabletops and classic RPGs, I need to ask: in which fantasy setting is this “realistic”? If I hear “mage”, I see Raistlin from the Dragonlance series; I see a magic wielder capable to do many things for his group, from grilling or sleeping foes, to casting shields on his allies and calling them back from the dead. I’m also pretty sure Gandalf didn’t wiggle his finger at the fellowship, saying “sorry guys, arcane spec only”.

Fantasy classes can be defined and still be a lot more dynamic in their roles than what I’ve seen these past few years. MMOs should be about players vs. the encounter, not players battling the boundaries of their individual class or role.

Ultimately, DPS/heal/tank just didn’t cut it in our book…er, game. Our players demand more from Guild Wars 2 and we intend to deliver on that demand instead of delivering more of the same. Not only is the trinity very formulaic, but it leaves out a lot of gameplay elements that make many other games so much fun. 

Fun. It seems to me that NC Soft got this one right: games should be about fun. And more than anything, MMOs are about cooperative fun – fantastic settings, classes and personal investment yes, but these things should not restrict one another. You should never have to choose between setup and playing with whom you’d like to play. You should not have to sit around waiting for the game to actually start. You should have to fight bosses, not yourself or each other (PVP aside).

Remember how much fun it was to play a coop game in good old Mario Bros? Or to clear stages together in Metal Slug or Contra? Why should this kind of pick-up play be exclusive to genre or platform?

You can be a mage, a warrior, a hunter, a bard, with clear distinctive mechanisms and abilities and still be flexible enough to party with any combination of other players. You can be self-sufficient and have a variety of skills available that do not only enable you to fulfill a role but react in a smart way to whatever the encounter demands, rather than blindly following one rotation or script. You can be a complete player, rather than a fifth of a whole – and this will force developers to create interesting encounter dynamics that actually challenge the players, not their group setup. It will force them to think about proper cooperative challenges.

You can have all these things if game design does not only allow but require you to. You can have all these things without a holier-than-thou trinity.

The future is change

It’s way too early to judge where Guild Wars 2 will be a year from now; but I am excited and dare say this is good news – possibly the best news I’ve heard in a long time. If you take some time to go through the entire article on their official site, you will see that the developers do not only have plans to change how healing works, but make adjustments to the tanking role too and the significance of death in the game. I’m suprised to hear myself say it, but I’m open to that concept too.

I hope we get to see more developers thinking out of the box, especially in the fantasy MMO genre – looking to keep core values while adopting and improving what makes online and cooperative gaming so much fun for millions of players worldwide. Learning from others is just as important as learning from the past. I welcome the changes ahead and salute those who dare to move forward.