Firefall Beta Review: First 48 Hours

MMO gaming has been stagnant for quite some years, thanks to Blizzard’s seemingly domination from MMORPG to ARPG. Every time a new MMO game is announced, there is this hope that someone somewhere just may innovate and do something different. I have joined beta launches from Guild Wars 2 to Marvel Heroes, Neverwinter to now Firefall. The free-to-play (F2P) model looks to mature into a viable one. I am a reasonable player. If the game is fun and I spend considerable amount of time with it (like 40+ hours), I am happy to contribute to the development cost. Firefall is an interesting find. It has the potential even at this early stage of beta. I am finding it insanely addictive. Can the ex-team leader of World of Warcraft now the founder of Red5 Studio recreate the magic once again?

After trying out a few of the battleframes, I have decided to go with Dreadnaught, which is more or less a tanking class.
After trying out a few of the battleframes, I have decided to go with Dreadnaught, which is more or less a tanking class.

What Is Firefall?

It is a F2P shooter MMO set in a sci-fi backdrop. The music and some of the elements remind me of Mass Effect. You can toggle between first person shoot and third person shoot. Shortly after you have started the game, the first thing you notice is that the entire map is like a war zone. Hubs (or bases) are constantly being invaded by the Chosen. Tornados appear from nowhere ripping everything apart. I seem to be fighting the Chosen all the time but for what? I have no idea. Random events appear all around me. I feel obliged to help driving away the enemies and to donate my resonators for the hub upgrade. I travel afar to link up SIN Towers (really begin to sounds like Ingress). The land area I can venture into is constantly shifting depends on the outcome of the conflict. Something sinister is at work, if only I know what true evil is.

Players collaborate on the fly to tackle group missions. There is no mob tagging in Firefall. You hit with a single bullet, you get the XP and the loots.
Players collaborate on the fly to tackle group missions. There is no mob tagging in Firefall. You hit with a single bullet, you get the XP and the loots.

Wait, What Is Happening?

Even as a MMO veteran, when you first join Firefall, it is likely that you have no clue on what you are doing, where you are heading to. It doesn’t frustrate though because once you pay attention to the right information, learn the rope through exploration, making mistakes, or simply ask around, you shall get the hang of it in no time. Dropping into water could be fatal. Letting a thumper – a tool to gather resources in the open area – destroyed by the mobs and you would have to build a brand new one again. You see drop ships flying around and guess that there must be a better way to go from one Hub to another. Die too many times and your gears may be beyond repair. Your team fail to halt the incursion and all of a suddenly, everyone perishes as the melding floods over the hub. It is this level of exploration and learning by observation that I found refreshing in Firefall.

Drop ships are wonderful way to travel in New Eden. It is like a bus service. Each drop ship has a list of destinations. You hop in and then you hop out. Simple as that.
Drop ships are wonderful way to travel in New Eden. It is like a bus service. Each drop ship has a list of destinations. You hop in and then you hop out. Simple as that.

Oh Man, That’s Hard!

You know how it is like when you play recent MMO games whereby your characters just don’t die often, if at all. Everything seems too easy. While I am not an expert in shooter games, I have much experienced in Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer. I play Saint Rows 3 too. Firefall is much harder than most F2P MMO games. You may be able to solo some of the missions. However, it is much better when you are grouped or simply follow the crowd. Even so, on any given day, however much I have invested into gear upgrade or learned the maps by heart, my character would die due to all sort of bizarre circumstances such as someone kills a mob that explodes onto my face, someone has made a mistake in diffusing the energy bomb and killed everyone in proximity, or someone has detonate an objective literally behind my back. Or most of the time, I was overwhelmed by the enemies.

As you upgrade your gears, you would find that some gears are not repairable. Others have a constraint on how many times they can be repaired. Because crafting can be expensive, there is a price to pay every time you are defeated.

These are my real life buddies Mark and Melvin. We often group with one another to take down missions. They are shooter veterans. Even they think Firefall is hard.
These are my real life buddies Mark and Melvin. We often group with one another to take down missions. They are shooter veterans. Even they think Firefall is hard.

Has Someone Called A Thumper?

In most MMO games, resource gathering and crafting is one of the core experiences. Firefall is no difference. I usually dislike these mini-games. However, there is something special about how these activities are implemented in Firefall. There are three groups of resources in this game: material, gas, and organic. Within each type of resource, say material, there are a multitude of resource types such as copper, iron, and etc. These resources are dynamically spawned underground all over the map. You may use a scanner to measure the composition, the quality (with a score of 0 to 1000) and quantity (from 0% to 100%). Once you have found the right spot, you can begin the extraction by calling down a thumper. During the 5 minutes long extraction, you have to defend your thumper from attack. You may send the thumper back at any time. However, upon completion, there is a double bonus. Depending on how many times the local area is thumped, the resource may become exhausted. New one may spawn.

Thumping for resources is rather enjoyable. You can set the difficulty level too by choosing the thumper type and level.
Thumping for resources is rather enjoyable. You can set the difficulty level too by choosing the thumper type and level.

Once you collect the resources – which are also available as mission reward, loots, or crates – you may refine them. Crafting items require at minimum refined resources. Because the resources may have different quality as well as attributes (for example copper is high in conductivity while aluminum is high in malleability) and because crafted items have different attribute requirements, crafting in Firefall is an art. You have total control on the overall item quality (again, with a score of 0 to 1000) and the attributes that deem important to you. You may ask, why not craft the most powerful gear you can? Due to the fact that powerful gears have a high loading requirement, there may be tradeoffs to be made.

Before you can craft an item, you have to spend time and resource to research for it in-game. Because there is a constraint on how much you can do at the workbench, you have to balance your time between research and development.

Crafting in Firefall has much depth in it. And it is pretty satisfying when a product is finally ready for manufacture.
Crafting in Firefall has much depth in it. And it is pretty satisfying when a product is finally ready for manufacture.

How Does Leveling Work In Firefall?

As you complete missions and kill mobs, you gain experience point (XP). Unlike traditional MMO games, there is no such thing as character leveling. You have access to five battleframes (or more commonly known as classes). You are free to try out which suits you the best. Ultimately, you may wish to invest your time on one battleframe.

For a start, XP that you have earned for each battleframe can be spent to unlock that battleframe’s ability and gear slots. Once all the slots are unlocked, you may then use the XP as well as other resources to increase the battleframe’s attributes: mass, power, and CPU as per your gear requirement and personal preference. Each battleframe attribute has a total of 10 levels. As you level up the attributes, you gain another in-game currency called Pilot Points. These points can be used to unlock any of the 10 advanced battleframes (each battleframe has two advanced variations).

You can upgrade your gears through loot drop or crafting. There are in total 4 item levels. Each level costs more to research and build than the previous tiers. Gears do break eventually (yet another constraint). You may need to balance between play style aggressiveness versus how fast you can acquire resources in order to replenish the gears.

It is all about leveling your chosen battleframe.
It is all about leveling your chosen battleframe.

Let’s Talk About What to Do In New Eden

While the lore seems enticing, in this stage 1 of beta, there are no main story related missions. The map of New Eden is filled with dynamic events. Some missions can be soloed. Others need a group. If you have played other shooter games, you may be familiar with some of the objectives. Besides these open world solo and group missions, there are raid missions such as Chosen incursion and tornado attack. As long as you manage to kill one target or are within proximity, you earn the reward. During my adventure in New Eden, I often start out solo and very soon, squads are formed with random players. Because this game is hard, everyone seems to yearn for grouping.

Some missions can be soloed. But best to play with friends or group up with others.
Some missions can be soloed. But best to play with friends or group up with others.

When I prefer a more relaxing moment, I would do thumping and gather resources. Thumping can be soloed. However, as the group size increases, there are options to increase the difficulty level in order to reap better rewards.

Besides these dynamic events, resource gathering and exploration activities, R&D work at the Hub, there are three random daily missions a day. You don’t have to do them if dailies are not your cup of tea. Having said that, most of the time, I find that as I play the missions, I get to complete some of these dailies without consciously doing them.

And of course, there are PvP actions for those who are into competitive sport. I have not tried them yet.

I spend much time chilling out at the hubs too.
I spend much time chilling out at the hubs too.

Sounds Good But What’s The Catch?

Red5 Studio promises that Firefall is not a pay-to-win game. So far, from what I have seen, I tend to agree. Their in-game store sells cosmetic and convenience items. I like their game so I bought a bike and a rechargeable glider. I do get to places faster at times. But due to the fact that the terrain can be pretty hilly, especially where the missions are, having a bike is totally optional because traveling on foot with the jumpjet can be more efficient.

I love Firefall and Red5 Studio enough to purchase this bike for US$25 (with some change). You don't have to buy it. You can craft it. Or take a walk. A bike is totally optional.
I love Firefall and Red5 Studio enough to purchase this bike for US$25 (with some change). You don’t have to buy it. You can craft it. Or take a walk. A bike is totally optional.

Progressing through the battleframe takes time. Real money can speed up the manufacturing process. But the cost is high. I doubt many would do that. Majority of time I still need to be out there gathering resources and earning Accord Merit Points (another form of in-game currency) in order to upgrade my battleframe. It is something money cannot buy.

What money can buy though is the unlocking of advance battleframes. You can earn them in-game by upgrading the basic ones to near-max level (that may take hundreds of hours). Or if you have lost faith in your current battleframe or patience, you may opt to unlock new ones with money. Unlike other F2P games I have played, the basic battleframes are pretty good and sufficient. The advance ones may enhance the experience. But they are often harder to play. In short, I am happy investing my time with the basic battleframes.

This is the in-game store that sells all sort of cosmetic and convenience items.
This is the in-game store that sells all sort of cosmetic and convenience items.

What About Shortcomings?

Perhaps it is too early to criticize Firefall as it is still a game on stage 1 of beta. Having said that, I would love to see improvements on certain areas.

  • An overarching main story. Firefall reminds me of vanilla World of Warcraft. There are conflicts around the world we are in. Everything is evolving. However, for World of Warcraft back then, there was an ultimate villain, living and breathing inside Molten Core. While there is plenty of lore written in Firefall website, what we do in New Eden seems to only scratching the surface as far as the story goes.
  • Late comers for missions. As a squad leader, this is what I do. I check the map for the closest mission. Set the squad waypoint and direct my squad to the location. I do the same thing when I solo too. At times, once we reach the rendezvous point, the mission has been completed by the previous group. We head out to the next one and it is completed too. Imagine our disappointment. By and large, Firefall seems to be smart enough to spawn new missions nearby. Or large scale raid mission to suck up all the players in the region. Maybe the game needs to fine tune in some ways to split the players up with various new activities in the region.
  • Ability cool-down and health regeneration is too long. Like Mass Effect, besides shooting with your weapons, you can augment the experience with battleframe specific abilities. This makes Mass Effect insanely fun, mixing things up a bit. Firefall allows us to use four abilities but the cool-down is long (like half a minute for the battleframe I am playing). Health regeneration is long too when outside battle. Just too much unnecessary downtime.
  • There is no synergy between abilities and players from different battleframes. In other MMO games, very often, different abilities from different classes synergize with one another in order to create spectacular results. There is no such thing in Firefall. The strategy then becomes rather one-dimensional. That is, shoot anything that moves with the same set of abilities while trying to stay alive.
  • The entire action interface needs an overhaul. I think this game is designed with console gaming in mind. I haven’t tried it yet but I reckon you can play it with a gamepad. In order to say use a health pack during life and death moment, I have to hit the C key for call down support. Then scroll down to the packs category and click select. After which, scroll down a long list (according to what I have in my inventory) to find the health pack and click select. This health pack is then bound to the key 5. I then have to press 5, locate a clear spot on the ground and click so as to call down a health pack. Next, wait for the animation to complete and walk into it in order to replenish my health slightly. I end up not using it. This is just one example. Calling a bike to ride, inviting squad members, leaving squad, opening daily reward crates and etc., I have to go through the same routine.
  • Squad looting needs to be looked into. Firefall is the only MMO game I know of that group looting is free-for-all and free-for-all only. There should be some fair way of loot distribution, especially when we cannot trade items between us.
  • Gear durability may need to be looked into. Currently, I am slowly upgrading my gears to level 2. However, my existing level 2 items are also going to break soon. My challenge is that as a Dreadnaught, at least three abilities and gear items require the same specific DNA that is hard to come by. In short, I may lose my level 2 items faster than I can build them and hence, forced to revert to level 1 items. Regression is a hard pill to swallow.
  • More mission variety would be good. So far, we seem to do the same set of mission day in day out. I can’t wait to see more content.
In Firefall, the tide of war is constantly shifting. You have to be aware of the situation as it affects the things that you can do.
In Firefall, the tide of war is constantly shifting. You have to be aware of the situation as it affects the things that you can do.

In Summary

Despites some of the shortfalls at this early stage of beta, Firefall is a refreshing game much needed in the current MMO scene. It is a free-to-play shooter with a sci-fi background created by the ex-team lead of World of Warcraft. Firefall has an innovative crafting system with much depth in it. Time investment is expected to be heavy. To fully level a single battleframe (out of 15 available ones) – extrapolate from my current data and play pattern – may take 240 hours. That does not take into consideration of the item upgrade.

From what I have seen, Firefall is not a pay-to-win game. The basic battleframes suffice and do the job well. The advanced battleframes can be unlocked by in-game currency earned while upgrading the basic battleframes (or can be unlocked using real money). So far, the in-game store only sells cosmetic or convenience items.

Do not expect a linear storyline to handhold you through the game telling you to go from A to B. The entire map is a war zone with dynamic events of various scales spawning every moment. The most common thing that new players say in general chat is: I have no idea what to do. My advice is, take your gun, open your map, and start shooting!

Taking down a tornado - especially a high category one - can be challenging. And that requires a lot of players to join force.
Taking down a tornado – especially a high category one – can be challenging. And that requires a lot of players to join force.

Marvel Heroes Online Beta: Final Review

For two months I have participated in Marvel Heroes Online’s closed beta. Most weekends when the server was up, I would try to log on. Recently, the beta server is switched on 24 x 7 so I get to be more active. This game will be officially launched in a week’s time. If you wish to know more about this upcoming free-to-play massively multiplayer online game, you have come to the right place!

The cut scenes of Marvel Heroes Online look something like this.

What is Marvel Heroes Online?

It is a casual action role playing game. You don’t need to spend a cent to start playing and it is pretty easy to get the hang of it. Like the Diablo franchise, you hack-and-slash your way through waves and waves of enemies. The number of buttons you get to interact with is minimal. Left and right mouse buttons are for your main attack and then another five keyboard buttons to spice things up. One key is bound to med kit for self-healing. That is all you need to master. You are free to assign available powers into these seven keys and buttons. But we will get to the power tree later.

The entire story at launch has eight chapters. For the first four chapters your base would be in Avenger’s Tower. For the last four chapters, it would be Xavier’s School (disclaimer: I have only played up to chapter 7 so two bases is my best guess). The bases are where you perform your routine chores like managing your S.T.A.S.H., selling or donating items, crafting, stocking up on med kit, and etc. Unlike Diablo 3, there is no auction house but instead, Marvel Heroes Online has a store for you to buy heroes, costumes, and miscellaneous items using real world money. Also unlike Diablo 3, the open-world portion is a true MMO whereby you would get to see other players going around with their business. There are tough outdoor bosses and nearby players can join force to bring these bosses down. There are two types of instanced ‘dungeons’ for up to 5 players to go in as a group. One that is for treasure hunt and another is for the story development. Auto-grouping happens for story mode and not for treasure hunt. If you are someone who prefers to solo, you can turn off auto-grouping too.

There is plenty of action when it comes to Marvel Heroes Online. It is a feast of hack and slash!
There is plenty of action when it comes to Marvel Heroes Online. It is a feast of hack and slash!

Items and experience globes dropped in open-world as well as inside an instanced ‘dungeon’ appear to be for you and you alone. Health and spirit globes that boost up your vital resource are shared among the players in the area. Interestingly, these globes shrink in size over time. This forces you to go out of the way in order to grab these globes before they diminish in value. To me, this mechanic keeps the fight fun as you may need to abandon what you are currently doing, even to take risk in order to gain more experience or to refill your health and spirit bars.

‘Dungeon’ difficulty doesn’t seem to scale up as the group size grows. While ‘dungeons’ – even most of the bosses – can be soloed, that makes auto-grouping a great feature to have. Anyone who enters the same ‘dungeon’ within a similar timing would be automatically grouped up. This works perfectly when the server is vibrant with many active players. When I log in during US late hours, most of the time I am on my own.

All the boss fights require you to observe patterns and try your best to avoid huge damage. Be ready to burn those stacks of med kits in order to stay alive because most of the fights, there is no way to replenish your health in mid fight. Should you fail, you can always teleport back to your base, grab more med kits if need to, and try again. Boss’s health does not go back up immediately once you are defeated so you could keep trying till you win. There were times though when my character was not strong enough to face certain bosses, or it cost too many med kits. I either replay some of the previous content to gain more power and better gears and / or group with a stronger team. In one particular boss fight, it was really hard. A few days later, it was nerfed by the developers. So in short, this is a casual game and you should be OK to sail through the chapters.

Marvel Heroes Online does not seem to offer different difficulty levels like Diablo 3. I have found an area possible for end game dailies. With that many heros to choose from, I suppose there is always something to do.

The Story – The Good and the Ugly

Provided that you can get the narration in the right order, the overarching story is pretty good. Cut scenes are more or less presented in a comic strip style. Your hero choice does not have a bearing on the cut scene rendering. You may be playing Ms. Marvel but you may not see her being featured (in fact, I have not seen her in any cut scenes). You just have to imagine that she is there, together with the heroes in the cut scenes.

Or maybe, you are not the hero. You are just a replica like many others online players fighting with the real heroes.

On the right is the chapter layout. It opens up as you progress into the story. On the right is the hero's main stats that will increase over time as you level. As you can see, there are only 5 armor slots, 1 medal slot (on top middle), and 2 artifact slots (top). Not at all hard to fill them up with epic gears if you are into crafting.
On the right is the chapter layout. It opens up as you progress into the story. On the left is the hero’s main stats that will increase over time as you level. As you can see, there are only 5 armor slots, 1 medal slot (on top middle), and 2 artifact slots (top). Not at all hard to fill them up with epic gears if you are into crafting. Click to see a larger image.

The story is divided into 8 chapters and I am now on chapter 7. It does not seem to take long to complete (perhaps like going through Diablo 3’s normal mode). Each chapter has several missions that may have multiple objectives. Main missions are mixed with side missions and are arranged in a linear fashion. Because the appearance of the quest givers does not follow your story progression or simply because in an open world, you are free into venture into any area that may cause you to unknowingly skip the story, it is possible for you to miss the last few missions of the current chapter and dive into the next chapter. Even more mind-boggling is the fact that you may not enter the next chapter on the first mission. If the first mission happens to be a side mission, you may enter into the second mission instead. One time, I got the last mission opened for a chapter I have yet to enter. I wish to say that because the game is still in beta so the story mechanic appears as wonky. But early access program is due to start in less than a week. So I guess that must be how the story is implemented or the game is still buggy.

In short, going through Marvel Heroes Online story is like watching a movie on cable. You get to watch a fragment of the movie as and when you switch your TV on and off. Over time, through watching the same movie a couple of times, you may get the whole story.

It is possible to reset the entire story (perhaps you wish to play with your friend who is new to the game?). Simply wipe off your progress by talking to one of the non-player characters. Another point to note is that switching heroes erase your current story progress. I have no idea why that has to be so.

Crafting – Administrative but an Absolute Must

There is something really good and really bad about crafting. As you collect loots during your game play, there are three things you can do besides throwing them on the floor for others to pick up. First, you can sell them for credits, which I do not recommend unless you are short in credits. Second, you can donate them to a particular vendor and increase your rank with that vendor. If say that vendor is a glove seller, the higher the ranking you are with him, the better glove level you can buy from him. That is also not recommended. Because each vendor only sells one type of armor, you would have a quite a few vendors to level the rank with. On top of that, I have yet to see any blue (rare) or purple (epic) items sold by these vendors during my beta testing. So why bother unless you really hate crafting?

Crafting is really reward. Donate all the unwanted loots to the crafting vendor and level up the rank fast. You won't regret it.
Crafting is really rewarding. Donate all the unwanted loots to the forge vendor and level up the rank fast. You won’t regret it. On the left is your stash. As you can see, (1) crafting materials eat up space and (2) you can buy more stash slots using real money. Click to see a larger picture.

The more sensible thing to do is to level your rank with the forge vendor through item donation. Here is a list of benefits that should make you go wow.

  1. You can craft your med kit for 10 credits each versus 75 credits when bought from a vendor.
  2. You can craft your set of potions to temporarily increase your stats for 20 minutes, which is just about the time to return to your base after a hack-and-slash session in order to clear your inventory.
  3. You can upgrade any rare items into epic quality!
  4. You can transform any epic items that are not meant for your hero into one that is!
  5. You can unbound any items and pass it to other characters. This comes in handy for artifact and medal items that are not hero specific.
  6. You can add offense and defense affixes even decorative attribute to your costume (but the cost can be high).

Because the crafting materials drop so often, you can afford to waste them on med kits and potions. That is great.

Now, the down side – besides the occasional bugs – is that crafting materials do not stack. They can be combined into a higher tier but they do not stack. They eat up inventory and stash space like no tomorrow. The user interface for crafting is poorly designed making the whole exercise feels really tedious and administrative. Perhaps that is the intention, to get you spending more time with the game.

Select Your Power!

As you level your hero, you collect power points. You can spend your points across three talent trees like good old RPG. This is a casual MMO. I dare say nothing you can do would grim your hero. You can either spread your points across to all available skills in order to have a more varied play style or you can – like me – focus all your power points into the 7 abilities you are comfortable with. I enjoy efficiency and I like to min-max everything I can. You may prefer a different approach. I like it fast. And I like it furious.

As you can see, the power tree design is pretty simplistic. Ms. Marvel has an ability called Binary Overdrive at high level. With only 7 abilities to be active at any time, it doesn't really make sense to spread them across everything.
As you can see, the power tree design is pretty simplistic. Ms. Marvel has an ability called Binary Overdrive at high level. With only 7 abilities to be active at any time, it doesn’t really make sense to spread them across everything. Click to see a larger picture.

In general, when it comes to selecting your power, here are some points for consideration.

  • For most of the 14 heroes I have experienced with, one tree is usually for utility like escape abilities and etc. For hybrid build – which is my preference (read more here) – I level up both melee and range DPS trees simultaneously.
  • Your gears may add points to your trees. This makes min-max optimization a little bit tricky.
  • Some abilities synergize others. This was implemented very recently. I have yet to see how it works. My best guess is that you may be encouraged to build some combos into your rotation. Bottom line is that the power trees are still very fluid and may change in near future.
  • Some abilities may only be unlocked after you have invested at least one point in the previous tiers. To me, it is like an ability upgrade. Thankfully, your investment on the previous tier ability does all not go into waste. Because previous tier points contributes a damage bonus to your current tier.
  • I prefer to invest on passive powers.
  • To reset your power selection, you need to consume a specific item. I have seen that dropped very occasionally. Or you can buy from the store using real money.

Like I have mentioned in my previous post (Marvel Heroes Online: Picking Your Heroes), the power trees are designed such a way that you would want to reset your power as you level. I suppose that is a small price to pay for a free-to-play online game.

On a side note, as you gain levels, some of your hero’s base attributes such as durability will be increased making you feel more powerful.

In Summary

Marvel Heroes Online being a free-to-play online game is worth checking out. It is certainly built with casual players in mind. Do not expect much from the story presentation and graphic perspective. That aside, you can still expect to have fun slashing and hacking your way through hordes and hordes of enemies solo or group with others. Crafting is rewarding despite being administratively tedious. As of today, the game still feels very much in beta. There are rough edges to be polished and I shall expect more improvements to be made in the initial months.

This game offers one free hero (from a choice of five) for you to get started. However, to fully enjoy the game from day one, you are better off buying a premium hero of your choice from the store. Tier 3 and 4 heroes cost US$15 and US$20 respectively (with some gold left over). Tier 2 and 1 hero cost US$10. I would strongly recommend you to pick at least a tier 3 hero (more on that in my previous post) while buying a tier 4 hero does not always mean that it is better.

Marvel Heroes Online will be launched on Jun 4. You may register today.

Let's do it!

Marvel Heroes Online: Picking Your First Hero (Or Rather Second)

In about two weeks from now – June 4 to be exact – Marvel Heroes Online will go live.  From what I have observed, the mere mentioning of Marvel Heroes has already got the fans excited.  How not to be?  You’ll get to play out your favorite heroes joining others to battle the iconic villains.  Besides, to start playing this massively multiplayer online game, you don’t need to spend a single cent.  The game is free-to-play.  But is it really so?  How would your gaming experience be affected by going free all the way?

What an adorable ... thing!

Well, you have come to the right place.  I have been playing the closed beta for months.  Thanks to an account reset, I have tried out 14 heroes out of 21 using in-game currency provided during beta and have progressed pass the midway point.  Here are a few thoughts to share with regards to free-versus-paid gaming experience.  As a disclaimer, the game is still in beta and Gazillion may still change it as we speak.

  • To start playing Marvel Heroes, you get to pick one of the characters offered free-of-charge: Daredevil, Storm, Thing, Scarlet Witch, and Hawkeye.  I have tried all but Hawkeye.  My conclusion is that this basic tier feels underpowered compares to the premium heroes.  They are noticeable weaker and they lack some of the practical as well as fancy powers other premium heroes have.
  • While I did not have fun with these basic heroes, I really enjoy playing the game with some of the premium heroes.  You can keep on playing the game and hope to obtain one of these heroes for free – which could take some time (in fact, I haven’t seen one dropped yet).  Or you could spend real money and buy a hero that you would love to play.  I would highly recommend so since time is more valuable then money.  The rest of this article helps you to make that decision.
  • You are likely to stick to one hero until you have completed all the eight chapters because switching heroes reset game progress.  Also, since all heroes share the same inventory and stash, you would run out of space much faster by leveling multiply heroes at the same time.
  • The free edition provides you with an inventory space of 40 and a stash space of 48 shared by all your heroes.  This may seem a lot but it’s barely enough to get by.  Medical kits only stacks up to 10 per slot.  Crafting materials – the space eater – do not stack.  Also, if you plan to pass items to your other heroes, that 88 slots are going to fill up very quickly.  You can however spend real money to buy space.  Two more general stash of 48 slots each, three more for potions, and one stash for each of the 21 heroes.  I have no idea how much that would cost you.  From early levels, I have already been struggling with space.  It seems to me that I would need to buy one or two extra stash once this game is live.
  • Want to look different from the rest of the heroes?  Costumes are available for purchase with real money too.  Each costume may cost as much as the hero himself.  At minimum  each hero has three different costumes for sales.  Iron Man has eleven costumes at beta!
  • While some consumables like XP and rare item boost purchasable using real money seem optional, the ability to reset chosen skills to me is mandatory.  Why?  The skill trees are designed so much so that you have to go for a reset once new skills open up as you level pass a certain point.  Because only 7 skills can be active at any time, I would highly recommend to put all the points to these 7 skills (as well as the passive ones) instead of spreading them across to all skill options.  Rarely you need to swap skills for different fights.  Fortunately, I have seen this power reset potion (or device) dropped freely from time to time.  If you are desperate for a skill reset, the online store is your best friend.
  • There are some companions for purchase too.  In the past I used to buy them for other MMO games.  Again, totally optional like costumes but they are there if you feel lonely in a villain infested world.

In summary, my suggestion is to start the game with one of the freely offered heroes and go through Chapter 1.  Once you get to the point whereby you feel you may like the game, purchase a premium hero and be prepared to buy other stuffs like extra stash.  If you need some advice on picking your second hero, read on!  I have some insights to share.  What if you want to stick with the freely offered heroes?  Thing starts off good due to high durability and strength.  But due to a lack of mobility and speed, some of the boss fights would be pretty hard.  Storm is kind of weak and looking at the stats of Hawkeye, I am not impressed either.  Scarlet Witch is OK as a caster type of hero if kiting play style is your cup of tea.  Daredevil is a melee hero with range attack making it also a viable choice among the five heroes.

I have tried 14 out of 21 heroes on beta.
I have tried 14 out of 21 heroes on beta. That includes Black Panther, Black Widow, Cable, Captain America, Daredevil, Hulk, Iron Man, Jean Grey, Ms. Marvel, Scarlet Witch, Spider-Man, Storm, Thing, and Thor.

When it comes to picking or rather buying your heroes, I have some insights for sharing.  Now, I understand that this can be a personal choice because you may have a liking towards certain Marvel Heroes.  So, my insights are purely from a game play perspective.  My aim is to equip you with the right information so that you can make an informed decision.

  • Price Tag: Each hero comes with a price tag: 600, 900, 1200, and 2000 in-game currency.  Heroes with the lowest price tag are usually basic.  Their general stats are usually low or they are crippled with some aspects such as mobility.  At 900 and 1200, heroes often come with extra resources to manage.  Like Jean Grey being able to turn into a phoenix, Ms. Marvel fights better as she takes on punishment, or Thor gets more powerful as he is overwhelmed by enemies.  At 2000 price tag, some heroes can be real fun to play.  Like Spider-man’s ability to swing across enemies with his web and look striking too.  While a high price tag does not necessarily mean that the hero is for you, it is a good indication on where you should start looking.  I would start from 1200 up.
  • Hero Stats: Each hero comes with 6 stats.  They are durability, strength, fighting, speed, energy, and intelligence.  A detail explanation can be found at the bottom of this entry.  In a nutshell, the higher overall stats your hero has, the better the game play.  Higher durability and fighting increases survivability and damage output.  Speed affects both move and attack speed.  There should be a balance between strength (physical damage) and energy + intelligence (energy damage and mental a.k.a. DoT damage).  My preference is physical damage output because there is a certain edge to be at the front of the battle, collecting health and spirit globes before others do.  Or simply, progress ahead of the group.
  • Hybrid Build: Normally, in other online games, you may choose to pick a tank class or range damage class or melee damage class and be merry with whatever game play that suits you.  However, in Marvel Heroes, I enjoy hybrid builds much better.  Because tank classes such as Thing or Hulk aren’t that tough.  There isn’t a dedicated healer class therefore making a tank class less attractive.  Range damage classes such as Jean Grey may be powerful from a distance, she would need to do a fair bit of kiting against melee enemies.  Some melee classes like Black Panther is pretty fun to play being able to leap onto the back of the enemies and deliver melee damage.  But against bosses that require space may be a challenge.  Hence, from my experience, those heroes who are excel in both melee and range and with a decent amount of durability are the most enjoyable ones to play.  Such as Ms. Marvel, Thor, and Captain America.  All of them are able to deliver respectable damage up close and decent damage at range.  They are pretty high in durability too.
  • Escape Skills: While stats and builds may give a good indicator on how enticing a hero is, you have got to spend some time reading up on the shortlisted heroes utility abilities as well.  Take Ms. Marvel as an example, she is able to lunge forward knocking off enemies along the way and get behind them (Spider-Man has similar ability too).  She also gets to fly over enemies and obstacles (like Jean Grey in phoenix form).  That versus Storm’s leaping backward and still facing the enemies, I would much prefer lunging forward instead.  You would need sufficient escape skills to get you out of sticky situations, especially so during boss fights.
  • The Fun Factor: Sometimes, we play a character because it is fun.  Being able to fly around, turn into a phoenix, or swing around like Spider-Man does can be fun.  Having a high intelligence level hero like Iron Man and hence speeds up the leveling experience can also be fun.

Now that you know how to pick your hero, where shall you start?  First, visit the official Marvel Heroes website and check out the heroes’ stats as well as some story write-up.  Then, visit the official wiki website and look through the skills available for your shortlisted heroes.  Pay attention to hybrid build and the escape skills and pick one that suits you.

What about me?  My favorite hero has got to be Ms. Marvel.  She has a set of well rounded stats.  As a hybrid build, Ms. Marvel is able to neutralize enemies up close, from afar, and in a group at ease.  She also has the right sort of escape skills to get out of sticky situations.  Thor and Captain America both rank high on my list too due to their well rounded hybrid builds.  Looking at the fun factor, Spider-Man and Jean Grey score high.  Iron Man is another viable option though the game play seems a bit less exciting compares to say Ms. Marvel and Spider-Man.  But being able to gain experience points faster, that alone is quite a plus point.  Oh yes, did I mention that fun looking Mark I or Mark II costume for Iron Man?

Ms. Marvel is really fun to play!

Here is a little bit extra for those who want to know what the attributes mean.


  • Reduces incoming damage
  • Improves health regeneration
  • Reduces stun duraction on you


  • Increases your physical damage
  • Allows you to throw objects of increasing size
  • May add stun to your melee powers


  • Increases damage with fighting powers
  • Reduces incoming damage from fighting powers
  • Reduces spirit cost for fighting powers
  • Increases attack speed with fighting powers


  • Increases move speed
  • Increases fly speed
  • Increases attack speed
  • Reduces slow durations on you


  • Increases energy damage
  • Increases mental damage (a.k.a. DoT)
  • Improves spirit regeneration
  • Reduces spirit cost for energy powers and mental powers


  • Increases experience point gain
  • Increases mental defense
  • Increases attack speed with mental powers

The Enlightenment: A Journey Of Ingress

I have been wanting to write an article on Ingress – an augmented reality game by NianticLabs@Google or better known as the Niantic Project – for months.  But every so often, the more I dive into this ‘game’, a new dimension of game play and awareness has opened up.  That prompted me to observe more reminded me the inadequacy of my understanding.  Now that I am at the end game, while the journey from now on may still be long, it is a high time to share my initial thoughts of Ingress.

How Ingress Has Changed My Life Thus Far

Perhaps a better way to introduce this augmented reality game is by listing out how in the last three months, Ingress has changed me.

  1. I walk a lot more these days, progressively over time.  My daily walking exercise can go up to 10 km a day, including pockets of sprinting activity.  For someone who seldom exercise and often stays behind a computer at work and at home, this is amazing.
  2. My wife comments that my heartbeat is now slower and more steady (yes, we hug each other to sleep each night).  I feel healthier too.
  3. I have met more new friends face-to-face than I ever would have in years.  And we keep in touch regularly.
  4. I have discovered new and interesting places, monuments, and artworks that I would have easily missed.
  5. I have rekindled with my photograph passion and am actively taking pictures of what would be interesting locations for future players.

A Brief Introduction to the Lore

Level 8, finally!

The folks from the Niantic Project insist that Ingress is not a game.  That it is real.  The following extract from the book The Alignment Ingress sheds light to Portals, Exotic Matter, and Shapers – the key ingredients of this ‘game’.

Portals are transdimensional anomalies through which order data was transmitted via exotic matter (XM). Nobody knew what was contained in this data, only that it is sequenced and thus engineered by some intelligent.

All of which beg the question of who or what is on the other side of these portals? Again, nobody knew. For the timing being, whatever they are have been coined with the term “Shapers”, because it appears that this ordered data in exotic matter had for centuries been shaping human thought and influencing human civilization. The existence of the world’s ancient shrines, monuments and cities around XM portals made the link indisputable.

Because of that, agents (or players) all around the world are examining ancient and modern architecture, monuments and street arts, sending photographs to NianticLabs for XM verification.  In fact, this aspect forms an important part of the game, in allowing the players to expand on the Ingress universe.

Core to Ingress is two factions divided.  The Enlightened and the Resistance.  The Enlightened (green) believes that we shall open our eyes and look upon the exotic matter and Shapers as an inspiration towards our next evolution.  The Resistance (blue) believes that the key to survival is to be free from Shapers’ influence.  Hence, the eye and key as the respective logos for the two.

Shapers are entities with an agenda. Whether it is for good or evil remains to be seen. But if the Shapers have wanted to destroy humanity, they could easily induce humans to destroy themselves. So far, however, we have not noticed any violent intentions for the Shapers.

The only thing anybody knows is that the Shapers want something from people, and that nobody knows what it is.

The conflict between the two factions is very real.  In a way, it can be rather sad to see how Ingress has divided my friends into two camps.  Whatever the future holds, the very notion of Enlightened and Resistance seems to have the power to attract two distinct set of personalities into either camp, generally speaking.

To sign up for Ingress, visit

What About the Game?

Ingress can be thought as a game of capture-the-flag using real world landmarks as the objects of contest.  Both factions compete to capture the portals.  Once the portals are captured, depending on the availability of resources called keys, teams can then form triangular fields.  The larger the field is, the more Mind Unit (i.e. estimated human presence within the area) it controls.  That figure rolls up to the global level and ultimately influence how the battle between the two factions turns out.

It is worthwhile to showcase field creation in Ingress.  Because that is where the fun lies.

  • Portal A can be linked to Portal B so long as the player is physically close to Portal A and has a key to Portal B.
  • A key of a particular portal can be obtained by hacking of that portal.  Key dropping is random in nature.
  • Once a link is established, the key is consumed.
  • A field is formed when three portals are connected to each other.
  • A link cannot cross an existing link, cannot be established to an enemy portal.
  • A link can be created from a Portal lying at the boundary of a field into any Portal inside the field.  But not vice versa.  Layered fields – i.e. fields within a field – created this way rewards more Action Points (for leveling) and Mind Units.
  • A larger field can envelope another smaller field in totality creating another type of layered field.  Doing so rewards more Mind Units.
  • Each link a Portal has adds to the strength of that Portal making it harder to be destroyed.
  • Creating links and fields rewards more Action Points than destroying links and fields.
  • How far apart the Portals can be linked depends on the level of the Portals.  Higher level Portals can be linked from a further distance than lower level Portals.

Because no two portals are deployed the same way even at the same location – due to human positioning, GPS accuracy (or rather inaccuracy), the portal’s level, and how connected the portals are – the approach to the capture of a portal or a set of portals can be different in any given day.  Besides, new portals are frequently added into the game.  Ingress game mechanic evolves over time too.

Forming fields in CBD is hard!

In my work area, I often can take my time capturing portals and creating fields.  Not so for the portals in the Central Business District.  To create the fields above, I had to defend and recapture the portals a few times over.  To shock-and-awe the enemy with the fields, I had to do a final capture, dash across the few portals at the bottom, and create the link within a short time!

My Milestones

Due to the fact that I am obsessed about taking screenshots, I am able to put together the milestones of my journey with Ingress.

  • Jan 29 – Training day.
  • Jan 30 – Discovered 2 portals in my work area in the afternoon.  In the evening, headed downtown and attempted to strike a level 6 portal as a level 1 and had my first taste of you’ve been hit!
  • Feb 1 – Submitted my first portal via email.  It was approved approximately 2 months later.
  • Feb 5 – Hit level 2 by hacking and recharging portals.
  • Feb 22 – Captured my first portal at Greenwich.  It was a new one, unclaimed.  I was meeting with my buddy Mark for lunch in a mall up north.  I was level 3 by then.
  • Mar 4 – Took down a level 6 portal at Changi City Point as a level 3 and the one next to it as well.  By then, there were 6 portals in my work area.
  • Mar 14 – Took down Singapore Flyer portal for my wife to deploy.  My first experience as someone who helps others to level instead of getting the maximum Action Points for myself.
  • Mar 15 – Finally met one of the high level agents in the Expo area.  Together, we built fields and I leveled up to 4 in no time.
  • Mar 22 – The number of portals in my work area has steadily been increased to 8.
  • Mar 23 – Charlie a.k.a me finally got to team with with my ‘angels’ – Hana, Moana, and my wife – and we struck Central Business District in late evening hours.  Hana and I smashed portals and Moana and my wife deployed and upgraded them.  It was a fun evening until Hana dropped off the radar and lost contact (out of battery).
  • Mar 26 – Leveled up to 5 by building more fields in my work area.
  • Mar 29 – Started to team up with my wife during weekends.  The two of us maintain a portal cluster near our home.
  • Apr 5 – Resistance has a fast leveling agent in our work area that flipped the portals in record time.  That pushed me to level 6 in record time as well.
  • Apr 16 – The Resistance agent continued to up his tempo.  With more portals going live, that gave both sides more opportunity to progress.  On that day, I leveled up to 7.
  • Apr 28 – Even as the Resistance agent in our area has reached the level cap of 8, he continued his obsession in destroying our fields and denying his faction members of gaining any easy Action Point.  Due to the sheer number of portals and links, even when I did not do much, I gained quite a bit of Action Points every day.  As for the final push to level 8, I systematically captured the portals from Changi Business Park to Expo and later on, two locations in Bedok.  The operation ended at 04:55 once I reached the level cap of 8.

This comes from my work area!

On the night before I hit level 8, I revisited my work area on a weekend after midnight.  By now, there are 15 portals in the area.  Compare to only 2 when I first started playing Ingress 3 months ago.  See that missing link?  Regretfully, the game did not allow me to link even though I have the correct key.  What a pity.

Leveling Progress: Balanced or Not?

I used to have this discussion with Leo – my friend from Google+ – on how balanced or imbalanced leveling is in Ingress.  Here are two graphs for sharing.

Level versus Dates

This chart shows the pace of leveling across level 1 to 8.

Action Points acquired versus Dates

This chart shows the pace of Action Points acquisition across level 1 to 8

As a disclaimer, this analysis is academic in nature because there are so many variables that affects the pace we level up in Ingress.  There has been feedback that leveling is a lot slower in the beginning, which in my case, it is somewhat true.  The rate of leveling from 2 to 4 is slower than from level 4 onward.  This could be due to a few reasons.  Most portals in Singapore are pretty high level.  It is quite impossible – and inefficient – for any agent lower than level 4 to capture a portal.  In addition, what can be linked has already been linked.

In my case though, it is because I have met the local agents face-to-face when I was level 4.  They have helped me a great deal.  What is interesting is that in order to maintain the linear progress from level 4 to 8, I actually had to double my pace of Action Points acquisition each time I level.  Given the fact that I have also devoted more time to help others to level during that period of time (and hence indirectly slowed down my pace), one explanation is that I have become even more active.  And the increased number of portals and the new places that I have visited helped.  Our local Resistance agent going nuclear on us in the past month helped too.

In Search of Inner Happiness with Ingress at End Game

I have learned a lot during this short period of time.  Not only from a game mechanic’s perspective, but also how I see things in life.  More amazingly so, I have learned from some who are so much younger than me.  In some ways, I feel I am enlightened.

  1. Keep It Fun and Fair – In a player-versus-player multiplayer online game like Ingress, it is easy to grow possessive and obsessive on what you think are rightfully yours.  That can be mentally tiresome.  Think of Ingress as a basketball game with no end.  A basketball game is interesting when you see two teams have a fair share of ball possession and interaction.  Think beyond yourself.  Think beyond your faction.  Ingress as a whole is fun because we from either faction enjoy playing it.  A healthy dose of frustration is OK because when done right, usually that makes a game fun.  But there is no point in having too much fun on your own in the expense of others.  Give others a chance to play.
  2. Role Playing in Moderation – I love the role playing aspect of almost any game I have played.  That enables you to submerge deeper into the fantasy world.  Yes, there are two factions in this game and unfortunately, not every one is friendly to each other.  This does not have to affect real life relationship though.  Try to be sensitive on the things you say or you may find yourself losing a real life friend over a game, which is rather unnecessary.
  3. Be a Mentor – It is never too early to take on a mentor role and help out the new players.  Show them the tips and tricks.  Think before action.  Do I really need to take down those fields when I don’t need the Action Points any more or shall I leave the job to someone who needs it?  Shall I fully deploy a portal when there is a much lower level player around?  Once you are approaching the level cap, you are leveling others as well.  Be it as they will help you or not in the future.
  4. Help to Build and Sustain a Community – I am fortunately enough to be invited into a local community and meet many helpful people who would go totally out of their way simply to assist.  It is not easy to build and sustain a community.  Some are paying it forward.  How about you?
  5. Explore -While Ingress revolves largely around portal capture and field building, a vital part of the game is to explore new places.  I enjoy visiting new clusters that I have not been to.  All I have to do is to follow the portals and most of the time, I am rewarded with the discovery of new places of interest.  And when you discover new places that are not yet in the game?  Submit them as portal suggestion for the future players to explore.
  6. Meet New Friends – I know many are shy meeting strangers and prefer to play alone.  It is normal to feel that way.  I can tell you that Ingress rewards handsomely when you group with others and you would tell me that you are not hang up with progress (which in your heart, you might).  Let me share this with you.  You are likely to find common interests among Ingress players than any random strangers you meet on the street or friends of your friends.  Because the game encourages frequent collaboration, you may end up meeting your new friends in Ingress more than your existing real life friends.
  7. Be Creative – Doing the same thing again and again can be boring.  The key is to be creative and find something fun and different to do.  Recently, my enemy agent and I like to tear each other’s fields apart and build something totally different, incorporating layered fields design.  Your community may be doing a large scale operation too.  Participate and do something new.  That way, you may keep the passion alive and not fall into the same old grinding routine.

My first attempt to build a relatively large field.

One day, I was unable to build any fields in the usual Changi City Point cluster (where the high concentration of green dots was) because a friendly agent has out of nowhere created a long link into the mall cutting off any possibility of creating decent fields.  Further investigation showed that we only needed one more link from the beach into the mall to complete the triangle.  Knowing that our enemy agent would unfailingly tear down all the green portals before 7 pm, I was racing against time to reach the lone green by the beach (bottom left green dot).  I was not familiar with the area and got lost.  In the end, I have jogged 1.2 km along the beach in order to reach the portal before time ran out.  That day, before my jogging, I have already walked in excess of 12 km.  But I made it, scoring more than 30,000 Mind Units.  The game does not reward effort like this.  However, I felt fulfilled that day knowing that I have done something different for a change.

Google Nexus 4 – A Hands-On Experience

I have retired from the scene of wireless phone review.  But I could not resist from writing a little entry about my new Nexus 4.  I was not able to procure one last November when the phone was first launched.  Within 30 minutes of release, the phone was sold out.  It appears that this iteration of Nexus is a lot more popular than the previous versions.  Hence, either or both LG and Google have underestimated its demand.  Whichever the story is, Google has started taking orders since end of January.  That was when I bought mine.

I have not been so excited about a phone for a long time!

What is Nexus 4?

It is essentially a Google reference phone, built by LG.  It is a Android phone sold directly via Google Play.  As of today, there are two versions.  The 8GB version is priced at US$299 while the 16GB version US$349.

Let’s Talk About Its Price

It is hard not to start with its price.  Starting from US$299 without contract, it sounds almost like a steal.  Nexus 4 may be affordable, but it is not a cheap phone.  I suppose when you take away heavy marketing budget, the middleman, and the need for inventory (just-in-time manufacturing), a phone does not have to be that expensive.  Nexus’s affordable price is no doubt one of its selling points.

Form Factor

You have to hold a Nexus 4 to truly appreciate its beauty.  A 4.7″ touchscreen built using Corning Gorilla Glass 2 curves nicely towards the edge of the phone.  There is a silver rim wrapped around the phone followed by a non-slip surface that forms the edge of Nexus 4.  At the back is another piece of glass.  Some find the back glass too slippery.  I have applied a non-slip protective film on it (Xtremeguard).  So it feels just right.  Strongly recommend you to do the same!  The phone is slim, relatively light.  It fits well on my palm.  Nexus 4’s touchscreen has a ~318 ppi pixel density.  That is a pretty good resolution.

On the flip side, Nexus 4 does feel fragile.  It wouldn’t survive a drop test.  So, handle with care.  Also, the color of the screen seems a bit off.  For a start, the white doesn’t look that white.    But like all things in life.  After you get used to the color, it should not bother you that much.

Pure Android Platform

One challenge of the Android platform is that most Android phones do have not the latest operating system installed.  It’s a pity.  Getting a Nexus 4 means that you will have the latest OS whenever Google makes an update.  To me, that is one huge advantage.  One of the reasons why I bought the phone.

Stock OS is great, if you accept it the way it is.  It does not come with all the bloatwares that your telco would have installed for you (yay to no Facebook app!).  But it also does not have all the bells and whistles like the apps that Samsung has developed for their phones.  I am still unable to set the ringtone using one of the songs in my phone.  Nor I am able to change the alarm tone to a song.  Besides these, I have no complain.

It is Fast

Nexus 4 comes with a Quad-core 1.5 GHz CPU.  The phone feels responsive.  Only time will tell if it remains so as technology always pushes the boundary.

Card Slot?

Nexus 4 does not have a card slot to extend the storage.  If you manage to buy Nexus 4 directly from Google Play, I would assume that you can upload up to 20,000 songs to Google’s cloud.  I don’t store my music library in my phone.  I stream it online.  Hence, 16GB is sufficient to me.  For now.

What About The Battery?

Nexus 4’s battery life is likely the most discussed topic.  Before we talk about its battery performance, perhaps what we should do is to take a step back and take stock of the things we do with our phones these days.  To date, I stream music over the air.  I play Ingress, which is very demanding on battery life.  With such a pretty screen, I tend to surf the Internet more often.  And there are YouTube, Google+, and Google Now.  The demand on battery is only getting higher and higher.

Just how good or terrible is Nexus 4’s battery performance?

On heavy usage, I managed to squeeze 7 hours out of the phone.  I wouldn’t say that is great.  Nor bad.  It is average, just as expected.

In Summary

Nexus 4 is a decent phone with a decent price.  I am happy with my purchase.