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.

Diablo III Madness – 140 Hours And Counting

This Diablo III madness has no end.  140 hours have passed and I don’t even feel it.  It is like that one scene in Twilight whereby Bella sits by the window observing the change of seasons in one minute.  There are four levels of difficulty in this video game.  It takes me 140 hours to clear the second difficulty level – Nightmare – for all my five classes.  My next milestone is to complete the third difficulty level – Hell – and call it a day.  Inferno difficulty could well be too brutal for me.

Or maybe not.  We shall see.

Heavens burn as we cast the Prime Evil into oblivion.

I will not repeat what has already been said in my last post “Diablo III – First 80 Hours“.  What I said back then is still valid today.  Instead, I will share my experience with the game as I progress through different difficulty levels.  And a short recap on news surrounding the Diablo community from launch till now.

At launch, Diablo III smashed records, sold more than 6 millions copies excluding the 1 million World of Warcraft annual pass subscribers who got the game free.  Due to this unexpected sales record, a game that requires constant connection to the servers became unplayable as the servers were brought down time and time again by the surge in demand.  Onto then second week, when the US servers finally gained stability, reports started to come in as players’ accounts were compromised, in-game progress was lost.  The solution is to use a physical or mobile authenticator that provides an extra layer of protection like how Internet Banking tackles security.  On top of that, Blizzard gives us an option to enable SMS alert whenever account information is modified.  I do not know of any video gaming company that goes into this level of security to protect our accounts.  That could be due to the Real Money Auction House (RMAH) that I will talk about in just a bit.  Back to the first month after launch, the ride was bumpy.

Meanwhile, while the US region cried about the rumored hacks, Blizzard‘s office in Korea responsible in hosting the Asia servers was raided by the local government that sought evidence against Blizzard in their denial of refund requests.  Asia region has its own controversy.  Koreans were given more quotas in accessing the Asian game servers while other locations such as China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong needed to queue for hours just to get into the game.  In-game exploitation also ran wild in the Asian servers causing long extended maintenance that denied people from playing the game.  Players in Asia were as unhappy as the US counterparts.  I have no idea how the European players were coping.  I suspect they would have faced similar issues.

RMAH was launched in June.  Those who had high end in-game items made profits due to the initial craze.  One item could be sold for US$250 up.  While minority made money out of playing a game, the community overall appeared to view RMAH as the unnecessary evil.  Couple that with the fact that the game had been exploited by some and the economy imbalance that persists till today, RMAH has become a messy business.  However, if we are to take a step back, with or without RMAH, people trade items – items that they do not create – using real money.  While RMAH provides a safer environment for trading, it also encourages those who would not have traded trade.

To add onto this drama, Blizzard has decided that one of the gear attribute – attack speed – was too high.  Balancing the game means that all in-game items – past and future – have to be adjusted.  To compensate, Blizzard also makes Diablo III‘s inferno difficulty more manageable.  The net result was that those who have spend hundreds of dollars buying gears from RMAH suddenly woke up to the new reality that their gears were less powerful than before.  This seems to have put a brake to RMAH sales.  Are you willing to buy in-game items using real money only to find that one day, the items may be no longer what you wanted them to be?

Tricky situation.

If you read the online professional reviews, Diablo III has done pretty well.  If you crosscheck the scores with user reviews, the two do not tally.  User reviews from Metacritic to Amazon slam down the score to the lowest possible.  Some players from US demanded a full refund after beating the game and strangely, Blizzard has granted their requests.  Official forums continue to be on fire citing Diablo III as the worst game Blizzard has ever produced.  Participation in public games seems to dwindle.  The community seems to thin out.  Perhaps the end game is not quite there yet as we are still waiting for a future patch to address this issue.  Or perhaps action hack-and-slash genre is not something some would enjoy doing for hours.

What about me?

This is the secret level, “pony land”. Rainbow and all. Colorful but deadly.

I love it.  My friends seem to love it too.  Day in day out, I play with my friends online, overcoming challenges.  The contents may be the same.  It is Act One through Act Four.  The story is linear.  But different classes play differently.  Different difficulty levels play differently.  After we have cleared Nightmare difficulty (the second level), Hell plays like a whole new different game.  The challenge requires me to pay attention to mechanics I may have overlooked in the previous difficulty levels.  To me, Diablo III is like Tetris.  The framework and the pieces do not change over different levels.  But the fun stacks up as the pace increases.

How long will I stay with this game?  I am not too sure.  Maybe till the new World of Warcraft expansion Mists of Pandaria is out?

Diablo III – First 80 Hours

What a blast!  20 days into Diablo III and I have clocked in 80 played hours.  On top of that, Ihave finally defeated the ultimate evil for one of my five characters.  One down.  Four more characters to go.  And then onto the next difficulty level.

Note: Did you know the Diablo III runs in both PC and Mac platform?  Once you purchase a game key, you can download and install the game to either platform as many times as you wish.  Do check minimal system requirement though.  To purchase the game, click here to create an account and head to Blizzard Store.  If you are a Android or iPhone user, don’t forget to download the free  Battle.net Mobile Authenticator app (or you can purchase a physical one online at Blizzard Store).  Also, you may wish to turn on the SMS verification feature in your account management for extra security.

“You dare to judge me?!”

Games are certainly more fun played with friends.  In general, that is true – physical and virtual world alike.  So I have played with Cynthia mostly, when she is online.  Sanctuary seems less lonely that way, and less scary for sure.  She can go head-to-head with the mobs at the frontline while I, well, I heroically shoot the enemies from a safe distance.  Now you know who wear the pants at our home.  We have played with our real life friends too.  It is mindless zerging, destroying all things that move, all things that don’t.  It is an insane fun, in a therapeutic kind of way.  Though at times I wonder if we are holding our friends up by too obsessively exploring every corner of the map and smashing every jar we see (there is an achievement for 1,000 jars destroyed for the OCD ones, like me).  At times, we join the public games just to repeat some of the memorable boss fights.  Getting a random group is super fast compares to, say, World of Warcraft.  In that online game, we could end up waiting for up to half an hour or more for a group to be assembled.  In Diablo III, it is instant.  As our party size increases (up to four), so is the strength of our foes.  When one is leaving, no problem.  Our foes will scale down accordingly.  I like this dynamic aspect.  It keeps the encounters challenging and from the social interaction point of view, the more the merrier.  Almost always.

The game in Normal setting does not require 30 hours to beat, which we eventually did.  Typically, it can be done in 20 hours, or even less.  Cynthia and I are the thorough ones.  We enjoy opening up unexplored areas to hunt for treasure and face the seemingly formidable foes.  I take one step further that drives Cynthia nuts.  I listen to all the dialog, again and again.  My only complain with the public games is that most random players would choose to skip the cut scenes and dialog.  That is totally understandable.  But as for me, I am in for the full experience.  Discovering the little stories my in-game companions have to tell, pieces of lore, trivial dialog that keeps the game alive, and more.  To that end, I solo the contents as well.

Scoundrel (my rogue companion in-game when I have no one to group with): Sometimes I wish that when we’d met, you’d taken one look at me and fallen desperately in love.  But then I think of all the gold I’ve gotten with you.

Kasumi (my demon huntress): You know that that it won’t end that way, right?

Scoundrel: Right.

Upon completion of Normal difficulty setting, characters are typically around level 30.  After which, the entire game play can be repeated in a higher difficulty setting called Nightmare.  That boosts character level from 30 to 50.  To reach the level cap of 60, Hell difficulty awaits.  Beyond that is Inferno setting that is tailored for those who demand the ultimate challenge.  If you are seeking for a deeper thrill and a sense of purpose, Diablo III offers a Hardcore mode whereby all deaths are permanent.  That is pretty hardcore.  It is like play Tetris with one life and you want to see how far you can go before getting beaten.  My goal is to reach the level cap for all my 5 characters covering all 5 different classes.  Inferno is likely not my cup of tea.  If and when I reach there, I would love to take a holiday for a well deserved break.  Hawaii would be nice.  How many times must we save Heavens and Sanctuary?  As many times as we defend Azeroth from Deathwing I suppose.

“Cartoon-ish? Perhaps. But the level of detail is astonishing.”

Some asked me if this game is any good.  It is an incredibly easy game to pick up.  In the initial stage of the game, you can simply hack and slash your way using the two mouse buttons.  As you progress, you can use the four extended skills that are mapped to the numeric keys 1 to 4.  6 buttons are all you need to master this game.  You get to choose 6 active skills from a total of 22 at any time of your game play.  Each skill can be augmented with one of the 5 different runes (6 if you count the no rune option).  That in turn changes how the skill works.  On top of that, you get to pick 3 passive skills from an array of 15.  You can do the mathematics and work out the potential number of combinations.  It is rare to see two players picking up the same configuration.  Individual build shapes one’s play style.  Coupled that with the individual’s gear stats preference, there is much depth in Diablo III.  Now, while I cannot vouch for what happens in the Inferno setting, I am pretty sure that it is Blizzard’s interest to avoid cookie-cutting builds that make everyone alike.

If you are into or open to hack-and-slash role playing games, Diablo III is the benchmark.  The game play is fluid.  The artwork and soundtrack is beautiful.  Each time you level, you feel more powerful as more skill options are available at your disposal.  Within the virtual world of Diablo III, you are always gold hungry, loot hungry.  All items’ stats are randomly generated making it unlikely that two gears are identical.  Blizzard, unlike other developers, continues to improve the game based on community feedback.  Other developers more often than not de-prioritize the fixing of their games after they have taken your money.  Instead, their first priority is to build new DLC (downloadable contents) and new expansions.  Not Blizzard.

In this new era, no man is an island.  Collaboration and trading for mutual benefits trump working on your own.  You may hate the concept of the in-game Auction House that facilitates the trading of game items using either in-game currency or real currency.  But it is a good way to help each other in order to fasten the pace and overcome challenges.  Items that you no longer need can be offloaded into the Auction House so that someone else may find a use of it.  Or you may pick up an item from the Auction House that others do not need.  If you are not the type who spends real currency to acquire virtual items, you can stick with the in-game currency.  If you do, Blizzard provides a safe environment for real money trading to occur.  Is Blizzard charging too much as a middle man?  I do not have a benchmark for comparison.  Besides, I hope Blizzard can continue to make money somewhere so that the servers can be funded – free of charge for us folks – for many months or even years to come.

Any downside?  Sure.  It is called weekly scheduled maintenance that happens during our prime evening hours.  Something some of us have been bearing since the launch of World of Warcraft.  It is worse than Error 37 if you were to ask me.

To continue reading my adventure of 140 hours with the game, click here.

“You still haunt my sleep.”

Evil Is Back: Nine Things To Get You Ready For Diablo III

Update: You can start to install the digital download on May 14 11.01pm GMT+8 and the server live date is May 15 3.01pm GMT+8.

For some, this has been a wait more than a decade long.  It gets more excruciating as we approach May 15.  Diablo III is featured on our local paper today.  One couple has postponed their honeymoon to next year in anticipation of the game’s release.  That is some kind of commitment!  I am unsure if I would love Diablo III that much.  Not even sure if Cynthia who gets the game free thanks to WoW annual pass would enjoy playing this game with me.  I have faith in Blizzard.  They make good games.  And to my readers, here are nine things you should consider doing in getting yourself ready for this upcoming epic gaming journey.

1. Watch the Cinematic Trailer

Here is a little crash course for you.  Mortals have been using Soulstones to trap the three Prime Evils from Hell.  The bad guy you see in the video below is Azmodan, the Lord of Sin, who is also one of the four Lesser Evils.  According to Book of Cain (which I will cover later), the Lord of Sin is a clever manipulator who trades in vice and coruption.  He is passionate and plotting – both to very dangerous degrees.  He is by far the most charismatic and seductive of all the Evils.

Little has been revealed about Azmodan, yet it is hinted that he is looking for a promotion to be a Prime.  I suppose Diablo III may tell a deeper story on this Lesser Evil, who is by no means less evil.

2. Read Book of Cain

When I played Diablo II eons ago, I did not really get into the story.  In fact, I did not complete the game.  I have participated in the closed beta.  It was a pleasant experience, with voice acting and etc.  Still, I could not quite get the story.  What I missed was the lore.

To fully enjoy Diablo III, you have to read the lore.  There is one such book that fits the bill.  It is Diablo III: Book of Cain.  148 pages only, with tons of artistic illustrations.  The book tells the story of the beginning of time, before Heaven and Hell were created.  It is a book of mythology that defines the universe of Diablo.  In this realm, mortals as products of angels and demons are not powerless.  That’s why we get to trap the Evils inside the Soulstones in previous episodes.

Evil is back in this third episode.  Get acquainted with the lore today!

3. Pre-order the Game

Unlike Starcraft II, there will be no price difference between getting a local physical copy or downloading the game online via Battle.net.  Either way, after online registration, you will be able to download the game client to any machine – PC or Mac – in the future.  Getting a physical copy saves you the hassle of spending 6 to 12 hours downloading the game.  Getting a virtual copy saves the environment (sort of), with one less packaging, and you get to download the game client in this very moment.  The choice is yours.

Local copy of the game is marketed and distributed by Asiasoft here in Singapore.  For pre-order information and more, visit this link.

4. Attend the Launch Party

Like all Blizzard games, there will be a launch party at Funan DigitaLife Mall and it is held on May 15, 2012 from 9am to 9pm.  For those who have pre-ordered the game, you may collect it from 3pm onwards.  Marc Messenger, the lead developer of this game will be there.  There will be cosplays, hourly giveaways, and lucky draw.

I wonder if the local cosplays standard will be as close as Tasha and Miyuko who are featured in the official Diablo site (see picture below).  What do you think?

5. Create a Battle Tag

You will need a Battle Tag in order to play Diablo III.  It is a name that represent you in Battle.net.  So, choose wisely.  Since it may take time for you to dream of a handle, start dreaming now.

From my experience, a short Battle Tag is much desired.  You may wish to call yourself Iamawesome1337.  Unfortunately there is a space constraint in the game interface.  To others (and even to you), your portrait may show Iamawe… instead.  This may frustrate you.  Think of something short.  It doesn’t have to be unique.  Because Blizzard will tag a 4-digit random code behind your tag.

Diablo III is meant to be played with your friends online.  It is built that way.  Enemies scale up as more join the party.  So, start socializing with your friends and sharing your Battle Tag.  Mine is Lace#1115.  See you in the game!

To create a Battle Tag, you will need to first create a Battle.net account.  Head to http://battle.net for more information.

6. Pick a Class

At launch, there are five classes to choose from: barbarian, wizard, demon hunter, witch doctor, and monk.  You will need to pick one to start your journey.  The question is: Which one will you pick?

I have participated in the closed beta.  I enjoy all five classes.  With ten character slots and a shared stash for you to pass the items around, you are free to experiment what works for you.

Barbarian and monk are melee classes.  You get to face the enemies up close.  Barbarian is the traditional warrior class.  You jump into the battle faster than any other classes.  And you hack and slash your foes away, right to their faces.

Monk on the other hand is a nimble melee class.  You get to jump in and out of the scene and to think how to deal damage without taking too much of it.

Witch doctor, demon hunter, and wizard destroy enemies from a distance.  Witch doctor summon pets to assist you.  Damage over time is the key strategy.  Contrast to wizard, wizard deals direct damage.  Initially I thought wizard would be boring to play, but it is not.  As for demon hunter, first, know that this class does not come with a pet (somehow WoW players associate the word ‘hunter’ with pets).  Second, this class gets to carry two bows that do some really funky stuffs.  It is probably the most interesting class in this genre.

In short, pick your first based on your play style or even artistic preference.  However, I suspect you will get to play all eventually, in different difficulty settings.

Still need more inspiration on which class is for you?  Head to PC Gamer site and read how game developers may pick as their first.

Oh, when you first start the game, make sure you pick the correct geographical region.  You are allowed to switch between the three regions.  The game is not region locked like Starcraft II.  However, characters created in different regions are not connected.

7. Know Your Resources

This may sound obvious.  Official forum is the best place to get up-to-date information, contributed by the community as well as the developers.  There will be discussion and sharing on how to play your classes better.

Character profiles will be available for the tracking of your and your friends’ progress.  There is a skill calculator for those who enjoy fine tuning their characters’ abilities based on play style.  Have you ever wondered what Diablo III is?  The video below will have the answers for you.

8. Watch the Wrath Animation

For those who enjoy watching animation, this close to 7 minutes video clip depicting the conflict of High Heavens and Burning Hells is not to be missed.  It is created by Blizzard Entertainment teamed up with renowned director Peter Chung and acclaimed animation studio Titmouse.  This video does make more sense if you have read Book of Cain as recommended earlier.

9. What’s Your Excuse?

Come this May 15, you may find your colleagues disappear, your loved one disappear.  Try to think of the annual Great Singapore Sale, or the upcoming Euro Cup.  People do disappear for various reasons.  Be sympathetic.  Chances are, your friends are busy fighting demons in the Burning Hells.

If you are finding it hard to come up an excuse for your colleagues, or your loved ones, here is a fan-made website http://www.sorryformay15.com that may just do the job for you!

Banshee, And A Look Into Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer Versus World Of Warcraft Dungeon Crawling

The resounding wailing of a banshee is enough to send a chill down my spine.  First, the bone chilling scream.  Then, the sighting of a banshee from afar.  Shortly after, she performs a series of biotic jumps that closes the distance in a frightening, lightning speed.  Blast!  There is a big bolt of biotic energy radiates outwards that hurts.  If she is close enough, she would carry you up in the air by your waist and with another hand, she caresses your head.  Time seems to stop.  Before you know it, your spine is snapped, you body is discarded.  It is an instant death that not even your teammates could revive.  The banshee screams, looks around, and onto the next target she goes.  This weekend is Operation Silencer.  Mass Effect 3 players at a global level are tasked to take down 3 million banshees in multiplayer mode.  I have played my part, with blood and fear.

“Into thy embrace I surrender my body, once again.”

Like the picture above?  I have more in my Google+ album.

I wrote about my first impression of the highly anticipated video game Mass Effect 3 in March.  I went on dissecting the controversial ending in April.  To wrap things up, before I dive into Diablo III next Tuesday like millions will do, it is fitting for me to write a short entry on Mass Effect 3 multiplayer mode.

Initially, I found it odd to read critics’ comments.  They said, the multiplayer mode works much better than they thought.  Now that I have sunk in a fair bit of hours into the multiplayer mode, clocked in enough rating to attain a ranking of #39 at a national level (as of this morning), I can understand the critics’ sentiment.  It is good.  So good that it overshadows the single player story mode, which is a shame.  Because traditionally, the Mass Effect franchise is about an individual compelling story, with players’ decision inputs that steer the events in game.  What makes Mass Effect 3 multiplayer mode such a success?  Is there something the aging online game World of Warcraft can learn from it in the design of PvE contents (player-versus-environment)?  I think so.

  1. Fast Pace, Fast Assembly, Fast Reward – Getting a team of four online in Mass Effect 3 is fast.  Almost instant.  Once a team is assembled, you get to pick another class to compliment the team.  Each game takes 15 to 25 minutes to complete.  At the end of the game, credits are rewarded depending on performance and difficulties.  Credits can be used to purchase items.  In World of Warcraft, it may take up to half an hour for a group to be formed.  You are stuck with the character you queue for.  Each game takes up to an hour to complete.  You may end up with no loot after the game.  And some tokens that take a long time to accumulate.  Up to weeks.
  2. Skill Matters, More than Gears – To do well in Mass Effect 3 multiplayer, skill matters.  Because the score is published at the end of each game, you feel motivated to do well.  I do not know why till today, World of Warcraft still does not have an official scoring system for PvE contents.
  3. The Same Gear Dropped?  No Problem! – To keep the long term attention of the gamers, developers introduce random rewards.  In World of Warcraft, you grind the same dungeon many times in the hope of a gear drop.  When it drops and is won, you care less about that encounter anymore though you still may have to do it for different reasons.  What if every time you win the same gear (which would have been a waste now), you get a slight upgrade to your existing one?  In Mass Effect 3 multiplayer mode, a gear can be upgraded 10 times.  When it reaches the highest level, that gear will no longer drop.  This makes so much sense.
  4. Gear Tiers Decoupled from Challenge Level – In Mass Effect 3, casual online players (or players with a low level character) can join a bronze challenge – an accessible content for most with 33% to 50% of success rate.  Or they can up the challenge for silver or gold.  Higher level of challenge rewards more credits.  Credits can be used to randomly unlock items of different tiers.  High tier items, of course, cost a lot more credit.  If you have a bunch of reliable friends to do gold challenge, that is great.  You get to unlock highest tier items at the fastest rate.  What if you don’t?  Not a problem.  You gain credits in a slower rate through bronze and silver challenges.  But you still have access to the highest tier items.  I wish Blizzard could incorporate this to their massively popular online game.
  5. My Loot Is Mine – I know Blizzard is changing how loot works in the upcoming expansion, for some of the encounters.  However, it is still worthwhile to mention that without having to roll against each other like in Mass Effect 3, it wipes away any negative feeling on who should get what.  Suddenly, there is fun, and peace.
Back to the banshees, I am going to meet a few more before the weekend expires.  Don’t forget to check out more pictures here.  I am out.  Wish me luck.

“Oh banshee, I do love to see you go up in flame.”

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria Beta Test – First Impression

Hooray!  Blizzard has sent me a beta invite for the testing of their upcoming expansion Mists of Pandaria.  Not that it was a huge surprise, really.  Because I have signed up for their annual pass deal and I know, eventually I will get an invite.  Still, it is good to get a rather early invite as I have been a loyal subscriber since its 2004 launch (OK, my payment lapsed for a couple of months because my credit card has expired but they really should have follow-up).  One of the first 200,000 lucky ones, I am.

“Oh my, guess what I saw when I first logged into the beta test server.  So many pandas!  I think I am getting panda phobia!  Note: Each panda you see in this picture represents one online player.”

I enjoy beta testing.  The last one I did was for the upcoming Diablo III.  I get to see an evolving product, based on testers’ feedback.  That gives me more insight on Blizzard’s design strategy (like how they value UI friendliness in Diablo III looking at the tweaks they do).  If you do get a WoW beta invite, here are some friendly reminders to make your journey more rewarding:

  • Beta means that it is an unfinished product, although Blizzard does reveal beta at its finest quality.  You get to see its beauty at its rawer form.  But you also get to see some rough edges.
  • The server is going to lag like crazy, regardless of your network performance.  It could be frustrating.  Hey, look at the bright side.  How often do you get to see hundreds of online players crowded in one place?  Nightmare no doubt.  But you would cherish this insane moment looking back.

“So I created a female pandaren.  Character customization seems to give me 14 face options.  Unlike the male pandaren, there is no customization option for the female face shape.  Just different color patches. Is it because we are at the beta stage?”

Female Pandaren

I don’t think I would try out the 85-90 high level zones in this beta testing.  Because I want to save the experience for my 10 characters.  Moreover, I don’t want to be sick of it by the time Mists is released.  What I do not mind is to try out the new pandaren starting area a couple of times since at most, I would only experience it once when this expansion is live.

The new pandaren race – silly as some may say – is down right adorable, especially the female pandaren.  I must say though, the female race looks a bit plastic to me, almost like a robot in her god forbid cuteness.  Maybe just a matter of getting used to.  Also, I observe that not all customization features are opened as of now.  The male version’s face customization varies the shape of the face.  The female version seems to vary the color pattern only.  I am not sure if it will be the case for the live version.

You can have a black and white pandaren that looks more like a panda.  Or you can have an orange version that in Cynthia’s words, looks more like a fox.  Female orange pandaren comes with a big orange tail too.  Alternatively, if you wish, you could have a hybrid look.  Black and white face with an orange body and in the case of a female pandaren, a fat orange tail instead of a tiny stub.

Female pandaren, in my opinion, is a bit short and plump.  I think I may roll a male pandaren when the time comes to save me some money to do a sex change later.

“Stop humping that scroll you silly pandas!  How are we supposed to click it when there are so many pandas crowded at it?!  Note: The trick is to pan the camera as show and keep spamming right click on the top right corner of the scroll.  You will get it eventually.  Also, if too many pandas are standing on top of the quest giver, press SHIFT-V and interact with the NPC’s green name plate instead.”

New Monk Class

It has been a while since Blizzard releases a new class for World of Warcraft.  So I rolled a monk class.  This new class is quite possibly what I look forward to most when Mists is live.

Some online reviewers describe the new monk class plays like an arcade game, combo-like button meshing and all.  I was a bit weary when I first heard about.  After experienced 11 levels of playing a monk, it is not as dramatic.

True, there is no more auto attack.  It plays like a rogue and shares the same energy pool concept, except that the combo points are not with the enemy but upon the monk herself.  This new resource called Chi can be accumulated up to 4 points.  Chi does not dissipate over time, unless you log out.  Some abilities generate Chi while others consume it.  For example, at level 1, you can consume 40 energy, perform a Clobber, and whack your target with your weapon (in my case, a staff).  Clobber generates one Chi.  You can also consume a Chi and whack your target with your hand – Tiger Palm – while you regenerate energy.  Tiger Palm deals more damage when the target is above 50% health.  So common sense would tell you to whack your enemy with your palm at the beginning of the encounter.  Perhaps even unload your Tiger Palm at that early stage when you have excess Chi.

Once your enemy drops below 35%, you can perform a Blackout Kick that has a 3 second cool down.  Blackout Kick consumes 2 Chi and it refunds 1 Chi if the target is dead by your kick.  So in effect, it would consume 1 Chi if you kick properly.  The so-called combo move is really how you wish to optimize your abilities based on the target’s health.  You cannot spam Clobber because that consumes energy.  You cannot spam Tiger Palm because that consumes Chi.  And you cannot spam Blackout Kick because not only does it consume Chi, it has a cool down.  With a potential to specialize into tank, melee damage, and heal, the new monk class sounds interesting.

All you need to do is pray that you don’t lag.  Because there is no auto-attack to save you.

“The artwork of the new pandaren starting area is colorful and beautiful.”

The Pandaria Artwork and Quests

While I am not overly excited by the oriental theme (strange eh given my background?), the artwork is colorful and beautiful.  A lot of work must have poured into the new starting area.  The oriental music background sounds good too. Unlike the Cataclysm new races’ starting areas, in this upcoming expansion, Blizzard has minimized phasing technology so much so that it does not matter at which stage of the quest line you are at, you can always see your friends.

Truth be told, I am not against phasing technology.  The downside is that the world around you seems a lot emptier than it really is.  Players at a different stage of the quest don’t necessarily see each other’s presence.  Till today, I still think that the goblin’s starting area is the best, out of all.  Tight storytelling, full of colors and insane humor.  Questing in the new pandaren starting area appeared to be a bit bland, initially.

“OK, I need three carrots and three turnips.  Where shall I begin?”

The quests in pandaren staring area can generally be broken down into a few types.

  1. Help someone to kill some unpleasant enemies.
  2. Help someone to collect some useful items.
  3. Take someone to somewhere.
  4. Go somewhere with someone.
  5. Defeat a mini boss.

#1 and #2 often go hand-in-hand.  So in Mists, you can almost predict what your next quests are going to be.  To be honest, I yawned (staying up till wee hours trying to defeat server lag didn’t help).  But I got through them nonetheless.

“What is this creature following my panda?!”

Maybe I am getting too old for this expansion.  Mists seems to have a playful undertone to the entire setup, unlike the previous expansions.  You wake some creatures up.  Play with some creatures.  As a pandaren, you start off as a neutral race.  You get to interact with two pandaren NPCs that are supposed to help you decide if you wish to join the Horde or the Alliance at the end of your journey as an initiate.  Later in your starting area, you get to interact with traditional Horde and Alliance races as well.  I wish Blizzard could work more quests into this part of the journey, to give players a better sense of which fraction their way of life is to be.  As of now, it feels a bit too shallow.

In retrospect, I really enjoyed the blood elf and draenei starting areas.  The quests take you to around level 20 and reward you with some good blue quality items.  For pandaren starting area, provided that everything stays the same as beta, you will get to level 11, and wear a set of white inferior items.

I am quite a sad panda.

“When you roll a panda, you start on top of a giant turtle who has a Chinese name.”

Closing Thoughts

I must admit that I am not overwhelmed with the new race’s starting area.  Maybe because I was not playing with my friends and the server lag was understandingly horrible (no complain on the latter).  The new female pandaren artwork is a bit too cute and plump to my taste.  The overall artwork though, is beautiful.  The quests are still linear, not much innovation I have seen except the one you have to stand on top of a log to dual with other NPC monks.  The entire journey, coupled with the server lag, took me 5 hours to complete.  That includes reading the quest text.  By then I have chosen which side I am on.  When this is live, I would not expect anyone to spend more than 3 to 4 hours on this starting area, which is kind of short.

The new monk class though, sounds promising.  Now, I wish we have tri-spec instead of dual-spec.

“My life is for Horde!  Hellscream took me in with open arms, not without a very scary and lengthy speech (or wall of text).  When will Blizzard give us more voice acting?”

Mass Effect 3: First 40 Hours, What A Blast

Books and movies tell us stories of heroes whom we may or may not be able to relate.  Video gamers are at the frontier of active entertainment.  When you play an epic game like Mass Effect, you write your story.  You make your decisions and live with the consequences.  No longer are you sitting back at your sofa or bed reading or watching a story unfolds.  You are the story.  It is your world that is in jeopardy and it is your galaxy that you are going to save.  You lay waste to the enemies at the battlefield.  You engage in a romantic relationship in the mist of this galactic warfare, making friends and enemies along the way, and making difficult decisions whereby morality is not as black and white as you would hope.  You are Commander Shepard.  You can be male or female, straight or not.  You can make your Shepard looks completely different from the Shepard your neighbor is playing.  It is a franchise not to be missed.  So, game on!

Single Player Mode

“Make no mistake.  This is girl power!” – A screenshot taken from within the game.

If my memory serves me right, the first installment was released five years ago.  Then we have the second installment released in year 2010.  For many fans, this space-role-playing-game-slash-first-person-shooter franchise has been a long affair.  Decisions made in Mass Effect are carried forward to Mass Effect 2.  And now, Mass Effect 3.

Are you new to this franchise?  Here is what you are going to do.  Start with Mass Effect 3.  Preferable get the Digital Collector’s Edition (From Ashes DLC is a must).  You get to experience the climatic ending of a trilogy.  Since you have not played the previous games, the background story has been defaulted for you.  There is enough in-game codex for you to catch up on the lore and technology.  Once you are done with the first play through, go back to the original Mass Effect.  Finish it and import the saved game into Mass Effect 2.  Make sure you buy the Arrival DLC (downloadable content).  I regret missing that important story link.  Then play Mass Effect 3.  The experience will be more holistic.  But that will certainly take a longer time.

Besides the benefit of carrying through your stories across the installments, when you import your first game into the second, you get a little boost to your character’s level and resources.  And when you import your second into the third, you get a massive level jump of 30.  That is pretty neat and rewarding.

“OK, I see a Reaper.  I ain’t gonna down that thing, am I?”

The original Mass Effect has its charm.  I in particularly like how immerse the game is.  In order to explore a foreign planet, you land onto one with a vehicle.  Some terrains are so irregular that navigating would be a pain if you fail to observe the best possible path.  You get out of a vehicle to interact with the environment.  You could talk to your teammates during any mission.  Back then, the technology was so advanced that no ammunition was required.  You could shoot as long as your weapon did not overheat.  There was inventory management.  You got to modify your weapons, assign weapons to your teammates.  It was a role playing game in space, with a bit of shooting.  The ending moves me to tears, every time I experience it.

“Check out the field of depth in Mass Effect 3.  This game is an art.”

Mass Effect 2 has turned into a first person shooter first, role playing second.  I like the original Mass Effect a lot, and felt somewhat betrayed.  Ammunition (or rather thermal clips) – the hallmark of a shooter game – was and still is a must.  God knows why enemies left behind ammunition all over the floor for you to pick up and shoot them with.  At the end of each mission, there is a scoreboard to tell you how well you performed.  Loading screens replaced elevator rides that were used to be an opportunity for news announcement.  You could not talk to your teammates during missions.  Planet exploration has turned into scanning through the terrain thousands feet above ground.  All these shooter friendly mechanics killed the immersion, just a little bit.  The ending did not move me.  I played once, and stopped.  Mass Effect 2 is still good.  The story in between is compelling.  The computer graph is beautiful.

“Space traveling is like previous installments.  Scanning planets though has an overhaul.”

Mass Effect 3 so far seems to be a happy medium of the two previous installments.  From the role playing view point, there are enough side missions to keep me happy.  The dialog is lively.  I cannot help but chuckle at some private jokes (like Conrad on thermal clips).  Each dialog has at least two types of responses: paragon or renegade.  You can be a ruthless Shepard.  Or a nicer Shepard.  There are big decisions to be made.  What I like about this installment is that prior to that decision, you get to see things in different perspectives.  At times, that turns the decision making process even harder than it already is.  Characters who survive the last two episodes according to your actions and decisions make a return to Mass Effect 3.  Romance can be rekindled.  All those people you have saved in the past?  They are going to lend a helping hand either directly or indirectly.  One noteworthy improvement on this third installment is that characters move around quite a fair bit in and out of the ship.  Most of them are no longer stationary at the same location waiting for you to have a conversation.  Some may even have a conversation between themselves.

“Centered to the galactic survival is the War Assets.  Commander Shepard must travel all over the Milky Way to rally support.”

In Mass Effect 3, everything you do – be it as main or side missions – contribute to the chance of success ‘when the time comes’.  The story begins with Earth being under attack by the Reaper – a mechanical race that purges organic life forms in cycles.  In fact, the entire galaxy is under siege.  As Commander Shepard, you must leave Earth and rally the support from all alien races, friends and foes, to save Earth.  Given the political complexity of the different races, it can be a tedious and dedicate matter.  Those numbers add up.  Every trooper you add into the War Assets matters.  Even the most insignificant mission seems significant when looking at the overall picture.

“Overlay on top of the War Assets is Galactic Readiness.  If co-op mission is not your cup of tea, 50% of readiness is all you get.  But fear not, according to BioWare, you can still have a good ending if you complete enough missions in the single player game.”

By default, on the single player mode, galactic readiness is set at 50%.  You may be able to gather 10,000 strength.  But effectively, you get half of it.  To boost it, you have to play co-op missions.  Fortunately, even as someone who hates co-op first person shooter mode, I love Mass Effect 3 multiplayer mode.  Before I get there, let’s talk about the combat.

I am not a fan of first person shooter.  So I struggled a great deal with Mass Effect 2.  In Mass Effect 3, it is even harder.  I have to take cover, jump over obstacles, dodge, and sprint.  On top of that, I have to aim and shoot and use my bionic power.  Some may disagree.  But I find the control a bit clunky.  My character somehow does not do what I want all the time.  I get stuck in cover, wanting to run through door only to find myself going in cover, and etc.  But I live.  I learn to cope with the mechanic and enjoy the game.

“Weapons now come with a level.  And you can modify them as well.”

Another reason why I feel that this installment is a good middle ground between the previous two is that weapons now come with a level, and means to modify them as well.  I sense a better incremental progression without the headache of inventory management.  Because the total number of weapons you carry adds onto your weight.  That inversely affects the recharge time of the bionic power.  Hence, there is a trade off on what to bring to the battlefield.  This varies between different classes of course.

Multiplayer Mode

Not in a million years would I imagine myself liking the multiplayer aspect of the game.  I am not a competitive first person shooter.  And I don’t like shooting other people.  In Mass Effect 3, multiplayer is a co-op mission.  Four players go against the enemies in 11 waves that last around 20 minutes.  It is fast pace, action filled, and quite honestly, doable.  Even for a novice like I am.  I have so much fun that lately, I spend more time playing co-op mission than the single player mission.

“In co-op mode, you don’t get to play as Shepard (thank God, imagine the otherwise).  You are one of the foot soldiers who answer to Shepard’s call and stand against the enemies.”

Co-op missions are rewarding.  There are three ratings – gold, silver, and bronze – according to difficulty level.  If your team succeed, you receive a heap of experience points and credits.  Credits can be used to purchase rewards that may include one time use items, better weapons, and unlocked characters.  Receiving the same weapon increases the weapon’s level.  Receiving the same race, sex, and class combo gives you experience bonus.  You can take control of multiple characters of different classes.  Once one of the characters reach the level cap of 20, you may promote him or her to the single player story and add that into War Assets.  This action increases your leader board rating as well.  More importantly, each co-op mission you complete ups the galactic readiness.  From my experience, it does not take long to get that index from 50% to 100%.

“There are four types of packs that cost a certain amount of credits, or even real money.  You may gamble for an expensive pack for a better chance of getting some good rewards.  Or you could go for the cheap Recruit Pack to quickly level your weapons and mods.”

In Summary

Initially, I wanted to continue my First Eight Hours series with Mass Effect 3.  That is proven to be impossible.  I spent the first eight hours admiring the in-game artwork, talking to other in-game characters, and refreshing my knowledge of the lore with in-game codex.  Completing missions now require you to pay good attention to the dialog.  Combat mechanic has also become more complex.  Even the planet scanning mini-game requires me to run like hell when my ship is spotted by the Reapers.  All in all, Mass Effect 3 is, to me, the hardest of the three installments.  But once I get over the initial learning curve, I am cruising and enjoying the journey.  I like both the single and co-op aspects.  I do not know when I will finish this game.  When I do, I will certainly discuss the ending here.  No spoiler on the comment section please!

“The female version of my Commander Shepard looks like this.  What about yours? How does he or she look like?”

 

Kingdoms Of Amalur: Reckoning – The First Eight Hours

“My name is Cara.  I was dead and am resurrected at the Well of Souls.  I am reborn with no destiny, thanks to the gnomes.  I am the fateless one.  And I choose my destiny.  I cannot remember my past, nor do I know what my future will bring.  Where is the Well of Souls?  Destroyed, perhaps.  I could be the last mortal in Amalur who has cheated death.  You may say all things happen for a reason.  Why does this happen to me?  I honestly do not know.”

Finally, Kingdoms of Amalar (KoA) is out.  I have started playing the minute the game is live and have clocked in eight hours of play time so far.  I reckon the first eight hours into a game gives us a good feel as in whether or not we shall continue investing our time into playing it.  Hence, I am starting a new First Eight Hours series in my website.  If time permits, I shall write a first forty hours follow-up and post it here.

I doubt KoA would satisfy all the role playing gamers out there.  Even Skyrim – recently awarded Game of the Year by AIAS – may have drawn a fair share of criticism that may or may not work for some.  Below are my observations.  Does KoA work for you?  Only you can decide.

Engaging Combat System

My take after playing the demo is still valid.  I have not seen a combat system quite like KoA in any role playing game.  Using a gamepad for the PC platform is highly recommended.  Because of the flexible character development, you can possibly find a balance that suits your play style.  Special moves can be unlocked.  With the dodging and blocking, charging and slashing, very soon, you may find that you are playing an arcade game.  Yes, all combats happen in real time.  There is no pausing and re-positioning.  You roll, you hack, you slash, and you loot.

Open World, Vast but not that Vast

Some say KoA is an open world.  Some say it is merely zones connected by narrow tunnels.  However you see it, KoA does require a fair bit of walking and exploration.  If you feel that walking is too inefficient, you could sprint.  If you feel that sprinting is not good enough, you could open up the world map and perform a fast travel.

The zones are not that vast.  You do not need to comb through a huge area to look for that something.  It is less likely that you will get lost.  It does not feel too empty like some other open world role playing games I have played.  There are always packs of enemies lurking somewhere, guarding some treasure chests.  Some enemies may spawn from nowhere and charge onto you.  There are herbs to collect, and other mini-games to play such as lock picking and dispel.  Enemies seem to respawn at a regular interval.   So there is no shortage of loots and gold, experience points and action.

“Ah, the great outdoor!”

Artwork has a Cartonish Feel

Some despise gaming environment that is too cartoonish, say it is too dated.  Some dig it.  I happen to love how the fantasy world is painted in KoA, as I am a big fan of World of Warcraft.  Since I have only played the game for eight hours, there are two towns I have seen.  One is colorful and shiny like the picture above.  The other is gloomy and dark, full of spider webs.  I can understand why some may prefer artwork to have more realism.  While I am on the topic of graphics, the retail version has a much higher quality than the demo version.

A Game for the Casuals?

Should games be hard?  As hard as, say, Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls?  Some enjoy dying a million times before seeing the ending.  A true test of skill and concentration.  Some prefer playing a game to relax.  The normal mode of KoA is accessible.  My character has yet to die once.  There were some hair rising moments, including a curse that indefinitely zapped my mana and rendered my character incapable of casting any spell until she visited a healer.  But with a bit of dodging and a bit of potion drinking, my character seems to do fine.  Some gamers find the normal mode too easy.  And they find the hard mode too easy too.  If you are one of those, there are always ways to make such a game very challenging.  Inspiration can be drawn from here.

Questing and Questing, Wait, Where is the Main Story?

Coming from the background of a massively multiplayer online game, I find the questing structure of KoA perfectly acceptable.  Each town is a questing hub.  You get to talk to the town folks, learn the town history from different perspectives.  Some may need help from you.  You may ignore and continue pursuing your main quest.  Or you should spend time doing some side quests.  Of the eight hours I have poured in, ignoring the beginning bit that is more like a tutorial, the time I get to experience the main story is very minimal.  There seems to be so much to do.  It take a quality assurance game tester 200 hours to test out all the quests on easy mode, skipping all the dialogues.  It would probably take more than 300 hours to complete everything, if I so choose to.

I have not completed many quests so far, just a handful because it does take time even to tackle one.  Some do have memorable stories provided that you have the patience to listen through the scripts.  I do.  Because I want to know what I am doing, why I am doing things.  For those who prefer to skip through the audio dialogue, these quests would likely be reduced to the common tpes of kill and collect, collect and kill, FedEx, and escort.

Also, because this game encourages open questing, the main story may not seem as tight as those that are scripted linearly.  Pros and cons, for either approach.  I enjoy both extreme.

“OK then, let’s talk.”

PC Version or Console?

I don’t really have a choice.  Because KoA and FF13-2 are released in the same time period, I play FF13-2 on PS3 when Cynthia is not watching TV and I play KoA on PC when she is.  PC provides a higher resolution but requires you to be seated quite near to the monitor, unlike playing console games on a large flat panel TV.  I play KoA through Origin and my progress is saved onto the cloud online.  You can also take screenshot on a PC.  For trophy lovers, you can more easily brag about your achievements on a console platform, or if you play via Steam.  On PC, the switch between keyboard + mouse and gamepad is seamless.  I don’t think playing KoA using only keyboard + mouse is a wise decision.

I am inclined to say that for some, the console version may be slightly better.  Field of View and Level of Detail – both are hot topics on the forum, a concern for the PC gamers.  KoA may be more tuned to console gaming, from the graphics point of view.  Playing KoA on a PC may cause motion sickness.  I would strongly advised you to play as far from the screen as you can.  And yes, a gamepad would help.  KoA is not a first-person-shooter.  You don’t need to spin your view that fast.

Fancy a Re-spec?

I have not tried the re-spec function yet.  But I read that it is possible to reset all your point allocation and potentially play the game in a completely different way.  If stealth is not your cup of tea, no problem, try out a magic caster, or a strong melee.  If you don’t like your skill specialization, reset it!  If you don’t like a hybrid class and want to try out a pure class, pay some gold and get it done!

For my first play through, I have picked a three-way hybrid class.  She is certainly not the most powerful being in Amalur.  What to wear has always been a struggle (armors are itemized to the pure classes).  But I enjoy a bit of flexibility.  Because I cannot decide.

Did I Mention Player’s Housing?

Without giving away too much spoiler, yes, you can have a house of your own.  You can even pay someone to upgrade your home by stages.  There is a stash that store your hard earned loots.  A mirror that allows you to change your appearance.  Your home is going to be very functional too.  You will see.

“Welcome to my home in Amalur!  There is a bedroom upstairs and a basement below too.”

Kingdoms Of Amalur: Reckoning – A Demo Play

Update Feb 7, 2012: I have pre-ordered the game and have started playing since last evening at eleven.  The graphics display is so much better than the demo version.  I use a game pad (Xbox Controller) on a PC version.  All the clumsiness of the keyboard and mouse control has gone!  Yes, use a game pad to play this game.  And if you are put off buy the demo quality, I am happy to say that the full game version is so much better.

I have not heard of Reckoning until recently, when the media starts to pick up on this upcoming western role playing game.  Some label this as one of the most anticipated games in 2012.  Wow, really?  So I gave the demo a try.  Now, before I get into that, here is a little background for you.  Lead designer of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion Ken Rolston is the executive designer of Reckoning.  Fantasy author R.A. Salvatore writes the lore and Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn, creates the artwork.  In 2009, THQ sold Big Huge Game – the then developer of this game – to 38 Studios, which is owned by former baseball pitcher Curt Schilling.  And EA Game is the publisher for Reckoning.  I think so far so good except the last bit.  I am not a fan of EA Game (recently broke the $1 billion mark in 2011 by the way).  While I am pretty sure EA Game will destroy any sequel Kingdoms of Amalur may have – as how they destroy the Dragon Age franchise and more – let’s enjoy Reckoning while it lasts.

Reckoning is a vast open world western role playing game with an engaging combat system.  It plays almost like a hybrid of Oblivion and God of War.  Because the executive designer comes from The Elder Scrolls, Reckoning has a distinct Oblivion feel.  I have not played Skyrim.  Reckoning appears to have fixed a lot of annoyance I found in Oblivion.  I don’t need to keep jumping or walking in stealth in order to gain level.  Lock picking seems less frustrating.  Spell casting and melee fight appears to be more seamless.  It is so much easier to target, execute the moves in arcade style, dodge out of the danger, and continue to hack and slash, mixing magic with brutal melee attacks.  And the dialogues?  They have brought in the experts from Dragon Age team to help.  Hence the strong resemblance.  Although I must say, try not to expect the same level of cause-and-effect as it is in the Mass Effect universe.

There are four playable races.  Two look like human race while the other two look like elves.  You don’t get to pick a class, but rather you may specialize into might, finesse, and sorcery abilities.  That roughly maps to a warrior class, a rogue class, and a wizard class.  You can also have a hybrid of two, or even three.  According to the interviews I have read so far, hybrid classes are totally viable.  And you get to reset your choices in-game, if you so wish to.  In another word, you don’t have to get stuck with a character development that you may have regretted.

Specializing into finesse can be very satisfying.  As a rogue like class, you can eliminate your enemy with one-shot (that comes with decent animation).  I  have also tried a wizard like class.  For these sort of games, I often find it hard to survive as a magic player.  Reckoning‘s combat system makes it somewhat easier.  But I still prefer a strong melee warrior type of character.  I am just not too good at button mashing.

This game will be available on Feb 7 for the three gaming platforms.  I feel that the game play may flavor the use of a controller, rather than keyboard and mouse.  I have tried the PC demo.  It does require my fingers to be quite acrobatically agile.  To sprint, I need to toggle the left control key while performing the traditional WAD mashing.  To execute the reckoning nuke move, I need to press and hold the X key while moving around and mashing both the keyboard and the mouse.  There is no jumping in Reckoning (boo?).  Pressing space bar enables your character to dodge at a direction you desire (yes, more button mashing).  Some dislike the menu system.  It does require quite a few clicks to get to where I want and quite a few ESC buttons to get back to the game.  Because of the traditional inventory management system like any good old role player game has, I tend to visit the menu quite often to equip items during game play.  I wish they could streamline how items can be equipped rather than the need to click through different categories in order to equip them.

I have played the demo twice.  The game is certainly growing on me.  The lore seems interesting and the encounters are refreshing.  According to the developers, if you are to play Reckoning on easy mode skipping all the dialogues, it will take you 200 hours to complete all the quests.  This is one very lengthy game, be warned!

  • Click here to view in-game images (with captions).

If you find the demo unplayable, you are not the only one.  EA Game has sent the 3 months old code (prior to reaching gold standard) to a third party to package into a demo version.  The result is a disaster.  This is so typical of EA Game of course.  On one end of the spectrum, we have games like Diablo III whereby the demo or beta is almost flawless.  The game takes forever to be released.  On the other end of the spectrum, we have Reckoning whereby the demo is so broken that it leaves many on the fence.  Shall I pre-order or shall I not?  Ken Rolston is right about one thing though.  EA Game does generate the buzz as promise.  I hope it is a good buzz.  If you have time, you may wish to read Curt Schilling’s sincere apology.  That post moves me.  According to one official game reviewer, the game in its released form plays smoothly, with no issue.  So it could well be the demo’s poor quality and not the full game.  Back to the PC demo, if you have a black screen problem (like I did), go to video setting and disable the post-processing option.  If you are unable to connect to EA server and claim your bonus items should you buy a full game, open the personal.ini file located in your document directory, wipe away the “blaze_email” entry, and restart the demo.  This should solve your problem.

PS. Reckoning is the title of the last episode of Legend of the Seeker season one.  In that episode, the Seeker’s eyes send out beams of light, just like in this game.  And in this game, the destiny card for a character that generalizes into three abilities is coincidentally called the “Seeker”.

Diablo III Beta – Part 1: First Impression

I am grateful, to say the least, when I received a beta key from Asiasoft, the new distributor of Blizzard Entertainment games in Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore.  Thank you Asiasoft!  I tried to ask when the Collector’s Edition of Diablo III will arrive in Singapore and they said Soon™.  It’s OK.  I am a patience man.  I have been anticipating this game since 2008 when Blizzard first put up a site for Diablo III.  Apparently, I was too optimistic back then to think that the wait was over.  The wait is still going on.

For this beta testing (patch 5), we are free to choose any of the five available classes and play through one satisfying mission.  I picked a female monk because she is likely to be the hottest character in Diablo.  Besides, in the upcoming World of Warcraft expansion, a new monk class will be introduced.  I am all hyped up for the year of the monks.

“Picture speaks a 1,000 words”

I have played Diablo II.  That was back in 2000.  If you love Diablo II, it is without a doubt that you would love this sequel.  The familiarity is overwhelming.  But yet, there are enough improvements to impress.  It  is like Starcraft II.  The game still plays like the original version, despite the fact that so much have changed in a positive way.

Diablo III is a third person role play game.  Interaction with in-game characters (or non-player classes) are fully voice animated.  There is no need to read the quest texts.  You can engage a two-way conversation with humans you see (in the Universe of Diablo, non-humans are bad).  Or as you get closer to people, you may overhear a conversation.  Now that we are on the topic of music and sound, the soundtrack matches with the mood of the game too.  You can always make out if there is danger ahead, or an upcoming plot to be revealed as the music transits to a new theme.  If you pay attention, you can always hear something luring in the background you even them.  Fortunately, at a low level, these monsters are quite a push over.  These ‘warning’ messages build up my anticipation rather than fear.

“It is often peace in town”

For the first 10 levels, I can practically play it through using only two mouse buttons.  I enjoy the simplicity.  Left click anywhere on the ground moves the character.  At a low level, I can map two abilities to the two mouse buttons.  At the highest level, the number of abilities I can bring to the battlefield is six out of a total of twenty.  Hence, all we really need is two mouse buttons and a keypad of one to four.

You may say: This really seems too easy!  Quite rightly so.  It appears to me that deep within the core of Diablo is still pretty much a hack-and-slash type of game.  However, because the different combinations of abilities we have, the play style can be different.  For example, I can pick a main ability (as a monk), to hit the enemies from afar.  More like a combo style as in each subsequent hit increases the distance required of the next attack.  And as for the ability that consumes my monk’s resource – spirit – I could pick an area of effect by knocking back the enemies, keeping them close but not that close.  Or even a decoy that has an area of effect explosion after a few good seconds of taunting the enemies onto it.  For the third ability, I could pick a buff or mantras that increases the chance of dodge for my party and I.  And if balanced type of combat is not your cup of tea, you could mix the combinations and go for a more offensive approach.

Since Diablo III is a co-op type of game capable of putting four players into a single party, it will come a time whereby you would want to pick abilities or classes that compliment each other.  That is when the complexity kicks in, I suppose.

“Choose wisely!”

I will not be able to cover all aspects of Diablo III Beta in one post.  I intend to share with you more as I dive deeper into the beta testing.  One last topic I would like to cover is crafting.  Looting and crafting is a main feature of the Diablo franchise.  I can’t exactly recall the inventory management system of Diablo II.  But I suspect it is somewhat like you loot and loot and eventually your inventory is full.  You then have to open a portal, return to your home town, clear some space in your inventory, and then return to where you were via a portal.  Diablo III has that facility too.  But it also allows you to savage your unwanted loots on the fly into components that stack.  And then you can use these components to craft items.  Simply put, if the god of RNG (random number generator) hates you, you still have a good chance to get what you want.

I have put up a small photo album in Google+.  You can view the screenshot here.  Patch 6 is out this morning.  Stay tuned for more sharing!

 “So I crafted a pair of fist items for my monk (who is now vanished as the new patch arrives)”