Archives for category: Betas

OW hero banner
Like millions of other people, I fell hard for Overwatch. I must admit to not having followed it at all until the console closed beta back in April; I was vaguely aware of its existence, but didn’t know much about it at all. So it was out of sheer curiosity that I decided to try the beta on Xbox One. I jumped into a game against AI opponents to learn the ropes, and discovered that I had no idea what was happening or what I was supposed to do. Matches were over so fast that it was difficult to actually learn anything at all.

So I entered a game against fellow humans, woefully unprepared, and began to learn the hard way. Now, I’m not really one for online competitive shooters to be perfectly honest – Halo is really the only series whose multiplayer I’ve bothered to get to grips with, give or take a few dozen hours in Titanfall, because mechs and wall-running – so I only played a handful of games over the beta period. Enough to get a rough idea of what it is you do in Overwatch.

Yet after the beta ended, I found that I couldn’t get the game out of my head. There was something about it that kept firing my imagination, and I took to posting about it on forums, discussing it with friends, and then watching strategy videos on YouTube, which is when the game really started to come into focus and excite me with the possibilities: “I didn’t even try that character!” I’d think to myself. My mind ran away with all the cool things I could do with this character on that map, or even with a certain hero in a specific circumstance. I was hooked. I pre-ordered the limited edition. Blizzard had me.

So this is a thing that seems to be happening.

So this is a thing that seems to be happening.

And when the game came out, I immediately fell in love with it. I played it daily, sharing plays of the game online and with friends, uploading my own clips to YouTube, discussing my own strategies, and just plain having a ton of fun with the game.

Then came competitive, and I loved that too. I found it so much more fun than quick play, much more focused and less ‘messy’, thanks to the lack of hero stacking and players taking better account of team composition. When the season ended and I was forced back into quick play, I was a little disappointed.

So when competitive began anew with its second season, I couldn’t wait to jump in. And I was off to a flying start, winning my first four placement games on the trot. I joked to friends that I was obviously due a losing streak. I was. I lost all of the remaining placements bar one, which ended in a new-for-season 2 tie. I’d heard people complaining about ‘the slide’, and wondered if this was mine. It was, and it lasted weeks.

It was all going so well...

It was all going so well…

Yep. I didn’t win a game for almost an entire month. Of course, it’s not quite as catastrophic as that sounds; I was already playing the game less and less thanks to the streak of demoralising, one-sided losses I found myself in, managing maybe four or five games a week. But I didn’t win a single one of them, and eventually I found myself avoiding the game entirely. I’d still read and talk about Overwatch online, but my comments had a bitter edge to them. I’d still watch gameplay and strategy videos online, I’d still keep up to date with changes and new hero speculation. But when I thought about actually playing it, I’d have to force myself. I’d play for half an hour, spend the whole time getting utterly crushed, and then abandon it for another week. It went from something I loved being a part of, to something I only enjoyed at arm’s length: I still loved the game, I just didn’t want to actually play it.

All of which brings me up to today, with the game currently back in the headlines thanks to the surely-imminent Hallowe’en event and players hoping to greet a new hero in Sombra, I devised a plan. I’m going back to boot camp.

The first step to getting back in the game is avoiding competitive. Getting steamrolled in ranked matches is just too damn demoralising, so I’m going to just give it a wide berth for a bit. Secondly, I’m going to focus on heroes that I’ve neglected. At launch, my idea was to build up a base of three or four heroes that I felt really good with, and then branch out from there, and I was (and still am) very comfortable and confident with Pharah, Lucio and D.Va. I was also starting to get good with Junkrat, Mei and Soldier back when I was still playing regularly, but when the slide began and I started to drift away from the game a bit, I’d find myself falling back on my mainstays. This means I now suck with at least two of those heroes (I think I’m still kind of OK with Soldier).

It's going to be difficult not to autolock D.Va, because she's so damn awesome.

It’s going to be difficult not to autolock D.Va, because she’s so damn awesome.

So that’s why I’m going back to boot camp. I’m taking myself into an environment where I’m not so afraid to lose and I’m going to branch out, try new heroes and work at getting better. I started last night, taking my first step to getting back into the game by jumping into quick play for a few games with my established heroes, just to get my feet wet again. But over the coming days and weeks I’m going to force myself to vary my picks and get better with a wider array of heroes. To do this, I’m going back to the way I got to grips with a handful of characters right at the start, before rushing into the game and subsequently neglecting much of the cast. So I’ve given myself these three steps:

1: Jump into the training arena to get to grips with a hero I haven’t played before. Obviously I have a working understanding of every character, having played against them all at some point in my 50-odd hours with the game, but that’s not the same as actually using them. I need to learn what to do with them myself.

2. Play a few VS AI games with that new hero to see how they play in an actual match environment. I’ll go for medium AI so that the match isn’t over in seconds and thus teaches me nothing of note.

3. Take that hero into quick play and see how I get on.

I’m not sure how much more frequently I’m going to be playing Overwatch with this plan in mind, given we’re now entering video game silly season – indeed, Gears of War 4 is out today and I want to give that the time it deserves, too – but I do know I miss the game a lot and want to get back to having fun with it. So I think what I might do is set myself a loose goal of learning a new hero a week and then reporting back on a weekly basis. That also has the positive side effect of getting me to write more, which is another thing I’ve been neglecting of late.

So we’ll see how it goes. With any luck, I’ll see you back here next week with a new hero under my belt and, hopefully, some fun Overwatch stories to tell. Who knows, I might even give my Elgato a work out and get some video evidence on the go. At the very least, even if I don’t get back into competitive and find myself enjoying it again, at least I’ll have seen more of what the game has to offer.

Overwatch Heroes
The release of Overwatch is mere hours away, and to celebrate – and of course keep the hype flowing – Blizzard yesterday released Hero, the fourth in a series of animated shorts that have been running in the lead-up to launch. Following on from the recent Dragons, which served to illuminate the family feud between Hanzo and Genji, aka the Super Shimada Bros., Recall, which focused on Reaper’s attempt to steal intel from Winston, and Alive, in which Tracer faced off against the assassin Widowmaker, Hero gives us an insight into the character of Soldier 76, as he attempts to reconcile his current vigilante status with the paragon he used to be.

Yeah, there’s actually a story to Overwatch. You may well have entirely missed it if you dipped into the recent open beta just to shoot other people online, but there’s actually quite a depth of lore setting the scene for those battles. The story begins over thirty years ago, with the Omnic Crisis, as humanity’s robots rose up against them. To combat this global threat, the countries of the world banded together to create a specialised strikeforce, and Overwatch was born. All good things must come to an end however, and the organisation was acrimoniously disbanded some time later, with its members parting ways, some becoming mercenaries for hire, while others tried to continue fighting the good fight.

There’s this whole weight of history weaved in and around Overwatch, yet you could be forgiven for thinking there’s nothing at all of substance there. Look closely, and you’ll notice the odd easter egg hidden in the maps, or you might hear a line of dialogue that alludes to the relationships between the heroes, but it’s all too easy to miss in the heat of the moment during a game of Escort.

Of course, it’s difficult to tell a story in a multiplayer-only shooter game – Titanfall had a crack at it, and nobody talks about that game’s ‘campaign’ anymore – and what makes it a bit more difficult in Overwatch‘s case is the fact that your team can include anyone, which has the potential to confuse an overt storyline given the rivalries and enmity between some of those characters. Instead, Blizzard is focussing on fleshing out the Overwatch universe through those beautiful, action-packed CG shorts, digital comics, and in-depth character bios on the game’s official website. One wonders if the desire to be able to tell a story around a genre that affords little opportunity to do so is a holdover from the aborted Project Titan, the long-in-development MMO that was cancelled before much of the team began work on Overwatch. Many Blizzard developers regard Titan as the company’s biggest failure, so perhaps they’re trying in some way to feed a little of the grandiosity you’d expect from an MMO into Overwatch‘s multiplayer shooter framework?

With 21 heroes, there’s a lot of scope for separate stories in the Overwatch universe, and already fans are calling for spin-offs – a Metal Gear Rising-style game starring cyborg ninja Genji seems to be a popular idea at the moment, but what I really want is a mecha game with D.Va as our lead character. And the idea of spin-offs seems to be a genuine possibility; Blizzard built Overwatch‘s universe as their analogue to the big comic book multiverses, full of characters that can both come together and stand apart. Speaking to PC Gamer, creative director Chris Metzen alluded to the potential for more stories in the Overwatch world. “[T]his first game is really just the first shot in what we hope is a long, rich world journey that could be encompassed by many different products. Obviously many different fictional expressions. In many ways, we’re just getting started. So when we think about Overwatch as a big universe, as a big living idea, it’s not necessarily – as we look down the line of years – encapsulated only by this game expression.”

Widowmaker

In the same interview, senior game designer Michael Chu explained some of the thinking behind the team’s character design process, giving some insight into why there’s so much, well, character to these heroes. “I would say when we’re developing characters, we like to think about if each one of these characters could kind of stand on their own. I like to imagine, “What if each one of these characters has their own game?” And I think what Chris was talking about was that kind of shared universe comic stories. It’s like we have all these individual characters, we have these great stories, challenges, powers and stuff, and they all have their own little ecology. But then when you mix them all together, they start to have relationships. They start to tackle larger worldview problems. And I think that’s kind of where that inspiration leads.”

Where that inspiration leads, we can only wait and see – for the foreseeable future, Blizzard’s focus will of course be on supporting the Overwatch that launches in just a few short days with new heroes and maps. But where the story goes and how the universe grows over the next few years? Well, it’ll be exciting to watch and see.

Seriously though Blizzard, please can I have that D.Va mecha game I mentioned?

Faith
I love Mirror’s Edge. It’s one of my favourite games of the last console generation. Thanks to some fantastic controls, its immersive viewpoint and that now-famous sense of movement and flow, it allowed me some vicarious sense of free-running across a beautiful-yet-sterile cityscape, all without having to worry about smashing my precious knees.

So when a sequel/prequel/reimagining/whatever was announced back at E3 in 2013, it was immediately a day one buy for me. Since that unveiling, we’ve learnt about the game’s open world setting, which has been a source of consternation for some; was the game set in an open environment simply to tick a box? What kinds of things would we be doing in this world? Would it subsequently suffer from the open world bloat that blights so many videogame worlds? With last week’s short, three-day closed beta now over, we can answer some of those questions.

The beta afforded us a decent-sized chunk of the City of Glass to run around in, and featured a small handful of story missions – including the climb through the Elysium building we saw at Gamescom last year – to get us oriented in this reimagined world. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a reboot of sorts, though the broad strokes seem to be the same; Faith is of course still a ‘runner’ in this near-future dystopia, essentially a punkishly rebellious courier, and once again her parents were outspoken critics of the borderline-totalitarian establishment. Some unspecified trauma in Faith’s past has led her to become a runner, and as we begin the beta she’s just out of juvie after a two-year stint. What we have here is a younger, more cocksure rendition of Faith, taking risks and defying authority almost as soon as she’s let out of her perspex prison. I wonder if in the full game we’ll get a playable prologue explaining quite how she got there.

It’s an effective start, and the beta is pretty quick to give us control and let us run. The first thing to note is how familiar it all feels: essentially, we’ve got one button for up (jump), and one button for down (crouch), just as in the original game, and wall-runs, springboards and everything else all feel the same as they did back in 2008. This is a very good thing indeed; Dice nailed Faith’s movement on the first try, and traversal isn’t where they needed to innovate. That’s where the move to an open world comes in, and while the City of Glass does feel rather empty at the moment, how much of that is down to this being merely a small slice of the full product remains to be seen.

Restless

Of course, there is a decent amount of ‘stuff’ to be done in the beta, but how compelling it is will come down to the individual. There are time trials – called Dashes here – and rooftop delivery runs, and a number of data bundles and security chips littered across the rooftops waiting for an agile runner to pilfer, but I can’t quite escape the feeling that it’s all stuff I’ve done a thousand times before in a hundred other worlds. However, that the core traversal feels so damn good elevates these tasks somewhat; it’s just fun getting to and from each mission, and I think they’re a more than acceptable trade-off if it means we get this gameplay loop in an open setting.

Getting around the city can be made even better by simply turning off Runner Vision. In the first game, Runner Vision picked out a path for you by highlighting navigable terrain in bright red – unnecessary as that was in such a linear game. Here, you can either have ‘classic’ Runner Vision, which does much the same thing, ‘full’, which basically gives you a ghost to follow, or ‘off’. The latter is the best way to play the game, especially here in an open setting where there’s more than one path – there’s a whole lot of fun to be had simply picking a point on your map, setting a waypoint, and then just finding your own way there, turning something as simple as getting to a mission into a challenging climbing and navigation puzzle as you find your own way over, under and across the City of Glass.

There’s another staple of gaming in the 21st century that has found its way into Mirror’s Edge, and this one I’m not entirely sold on. In the menus, you’ll find three skill trees for movement, combat and gear, each with a broad array of abilities to unlock. As a big RPG fan, I’m certainly not against the inclusion of skill trees, but one thing about the system implemented here that irks me somewhat is that skills that were a core part of your repertoire in the original game are now locked behind an XP system – things like that quick 180-turn, tucking your legs while jumping to clear higher obstacles, or even the skill roll that allows you to maintain your momentum after a long drop. All abilities that you’d use frequently in the original Mirror’s Edge, and all abilities that would be very useful to have in the early stages of this beta, when you have to do without them. With the move to an open world, I can understand that there is some need for gating; allowing the player to get anywhere in the game world right from the off would probably give the mission designers massive headaches, but in a game built entirely around movement, I’d prefer to have everything available from the start and have areas gated by gear, instead. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst seems to have both, and obviously the game is going to be designed around having to unlock stuff, so in practice it shouldn’t be an issue. It still chafes somewhat though, knowing that the full repertoire of Faith’s traversal skills aren’t available from the off, as they were in the original.

Skill tree

Where I can see the skill trees working well is with combat, which has seen something of an overhaul for Catalyst. While gunplay was a very minor part of the original game, it’s now been excised completely in favour of bolstering hand-to-hand combat. Weaker strikes with Faith’s hands are mapped to the X button and can be used while running to knock foes out of the way without slowing down, while kicks are on Y and can cause enemies to stagger. Kicking an enemy with a left or right directional input will knock the enemy sideways, often into an ally, causing both to stumble and giving Faith an opening, while the right trigger in combination with the movement stick grants a directional dodge. This can even be used to circle strafe enemies, and it’s endlessly entertaining to swing ’round the back of an enemy and kick him in the butt, sending him stumbling off the edge of a building to certain doom. It’s enjoyable to play around with and far more than the necessary evil that combat often was in the original game. Additional, unlockable skills should help to keep it fresh and fun.

But for all that’s new, the crucial thing to take away is that this looks, sounds and feels like Mirror’s Edge. How all those additional systems of progression and questing will shake out, we can only wait for the full game to discover, but Dice have absolutely nailed that same sense of immersive flow that made the first game so great, and allowed me to keep my knees in one piece.

Halo 5 victory bros
The Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer beta begins in earnest next Monday, but this past weekend members of the Xbox One dashboard preview were allowed a short peek past the curtain. We got to take a look at the content that will make up the first week of the three-week test: 4v4 arena multiplayer on two maps, Empire and Truth. Empire is a small, asymmetric map set either on Earth or a human-controlled colony, while Truth, a remake of Halo 2 classic Midship, offers a little more room to manoeuver.

What everyone really wants to know about however is how the game plays. Well, it plays like Halo. To anyone not particularly interested in Microsoft’s premier FPS series, that might seem like an obvious descriptor, but Halo fans will be sceptical after 343’s first turn at bat, 2012’s Halo 4, experimented with a few things – like loadouts and killstreak perks – from other shooters, in the process tarnishing that Halo feel that fans expect. Here, there’s no need to worry. Everyone starts with the same guns – the classic MA5 assault rifle and another take on the series’ iconic magnum – and other weapons are back on the maps as pickups, where they belong. Ordnance drops? They’re gone too. It’s pure arena slayer – fair starts for all, and map knowledge and control is paramount.

There are also no armour abilities – selectable, rechargeable power-ups introduced by Bungie in Reach and inherited by 343 in Halo 4 – which means you’ll no longer be facing off against an entire team of Armour Lock spammers. What replaces them in Halo 5: Guardians are Spartan Abilties, base skills that every player has access to right from the start. These are mainly abilities that enable you to get around the environment more fluidly, and I’ll talk about each in turn, starting with my favourite, the thruster pack.

Halo 5 thruster evade

This should be immediately recognisable to anyone who played Halo 4, as it’s essentially that game’s thruster pack armour ability, except made actually useful. It’s no longer a canned animation that takes you out into third person, and you can use it in mid-air without losing momentum. For the uninitiated, it does exactly what it says on the tin and gives you a short, sharp boost in whichever direction you’re moving. You can use it to back up or close distance quickly, or speed-strafe out of the way of an incoming sniper round perhaps. That may sound overpowered, but it’s balanced quite nicely.

First, remember that everyone can do it, which means they can match you move for move if so inclined, and if you’re trying to use it to get out of danger, you’d best have somewhere to go – boosting in a direction in the middle of an open room is likely just going to prolong the inevitable. Secondly, it requires a short cooldown, so don’t think you’ll be boosting all over the maps; if you’re going to use your thrusters to burst into an area, you need to have a plan, because you can’t just immediately fly back out if things get hairy.

I mentioned that you can use the thruster pack in mid-air, and this will ideally be combined with a bit of sprint momentum to move across the maps more quickly. Add to this another new skill, the ability to mantle up to higher ledges by holding the jump button – so long as you can physically reach them – and the result is a pleasing degree of extra mobility in what has always been a relatively mobile series. These two things in particular – thruster and clamber – feel like a very natural fit for the Halo formula; we’ve long been used to clambering all over the furniture in this series via skill jumps and the like, and these added extras slot in perfectly, allowing players to maximise the verticality that has always been a part of Halo multiplayer.

There are also a few other things your increased mobility allows you to do, such as a thruster-enabled shoulder charge melee attack that can quickly close distance and catch you unaware, and you can now slide by crouching during a sprint. Holding crouch when in the air also stabilises you, slowing your descent and maybe allowing you to fire off a killing blow if you’re chasing a weakened opponent. There’s also the Ground Pound ability, which allows you to get the drop on an unsuspecting enemy at the expense of hanging in the air for several seconds to charge it up. In a small arena game, it seems borderline suicidal, but I imagine it’ll come into its own on larger maps – it seems custom made for BTB, where you’ll have much more space to move around and catch opponents unaware.

Sprint has also seen some balancing. A lot of players hated the unlimited sprint in Halo 4, feeling that it served to stretch maps out and give people an easy way out of fights they probably shouldn’t have engaged in in the first place, and 343 have made a decent attempt to answer that criticism, too. You can sprint indefinitely if you wish, but your shields won’t recharge while you do, meaning that using it to get out of trouble carries a risk as you greatly lengthen the amount of time you remain vulnerable. Stop sprinting, and your shields will begin to refill. It’s a small yet smart way to allow faster movement while keeping it in check.

Focusing on Halo 2: Anniversary‘s more arena-based maps seems to have sharpened 343’s vision for Halo 5: Guardian‘s multiplayer, and it’s obvious that the team are aiming for the competitive circuit, at least where arena is concerned. Team mates automatically call out enemy positions, thrown grenades and power weapon respawns, which means it’s not absolutely necessary to be communicating with your team – a useful addition for a player like me that tends to play Halo multiplayer alone. Prior to playing, I imagined I’d find this off-putting, but in practice it gives me a greater awareness of the battlefield and allows me to be a more productive member of the team, even while playing solo.

Power weapon placements are also marked on your HUD, so everyone always knows where they are and when they’ll be back. This may seem somewhat antithetical to the accepted way of playing Halo – that is, to learn the maps through play – but it helps to keep everyone on an even keel, meaning your skill with weapons, grenades, melee and movement is what counts most.

Halo 5 Battle Rifle Scope

I do have a couple of complaints, however, and the main one is that automatic weapons seem quite overpowered in this build. It feels like they’ve had a substantial boost to both accuracy and range and my immediate gut feeling is that they need a bit of nerfing. If 343 wanted to make automatics viable (which seems to be the case, given that every game in the early access period was AR starts), they’ve certainly done that. But when an SMG beats out a battle rifle at mid-range – which happened to me on Truth – then they might have gone a touch too far. I wouldn’t like to see them completely neutered however, as it it’s quite nice to actually be effective with the trusty old MA5. A bit more fall-off in effective range will surely help.

My other complaint concerns something that had me very worried when the first glimpses of Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer appeared online, yet as it turns out, it’s a very small objection. It’s to do with the game’s new scope animation, which looks for all the world to be Call of Duty-style ‘aim down sights’. ‘ADS’ is something I am resolutely against seeing in Halo, and it’s probably the one thing the player-base can agree on. Thankfully, it’s pretty much just a cosmetic change, and serves the same mechanical purpose as scope zoom did in the previous games; movement remains unrestricted, meaning we can still strafe and jump unhindered as before, and de-scoping also makes a return, dropping you out of zoom should you take a hit. Just as important as freedom of movement is the fact that there’s no penalty to hip fire to force you into scope in order to be effective – precision weapons are as accurate as they always were, and scoping just gives you a bit of zoom. Many, including myself, had worried that the new mechanic would make the game feel too much like other shooters on the market, but in practice that just isn’t the case. It’s really just a new animation for a signature Halo mechanic, and the combat loop is still unmistakably Halo.

The only real difference with scoped weapons is the addition of extra screen furniture in the form of a physical scope, rather than the full-screen zoom we had before, and it’s this I take issue with. It’s not too bad with the Battle Rifle, as there isn’t much to get in the way, but when you zoom the DMR, the scope takes up quite a chunk of your field of vision, obscuring a decent amount of the scenery around what you’re scoping on. It clouds your peripheral vision more than ever before, even if it doesn’t particularly affect the way the game plays.

In the grand scheme of things though, and taking into account that this is a beta of a game a year out from release, these are both relatively minor issues considering how much the game feels like Halo to me. It feels like what Halo 4‘s multiplayer should have been, and I get the feeling that working on the more arena-focused Halo 2 for the recent Anniversary remaster has allowed 343 to remember Halo‘s core strengths – that is movement, teamwork and map control, along with the holy trinity of guns, grenades and melee. It’s maybe a touch faster, a bit more mobile, but, so far at least, Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer is Halo through and through. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the beta brings when it goes live on December 29th. Until then, you can enjoy 18 minutes of gameplay captured on my Xbox One.

Dragon Age Keep has finally emerged from closed beta, and is now open for all to get to grips with.

The Keep is a web-based tool that allows you to tailor your experience for next month’s Dragon Age: Inquisition. As save files from previous games can not be imported into Inquisition (mainly due to an engine shift from Eclipse to Frostbite 3), the Keep gives players the opportunity to go through the main story beats of Dragon Age: Origins, 2, and associated DLC and set the decisions they made throughout the course of those games. The resultant ‘world state’ can then be imported into the upcoming sequel when it launches next month.

Best of all, because it’s web-based, it’s cross-platform; maybe you’ve played the series on PS3 until now, but fancy playing Inquisition on PC? You can do that with Dragon Age Keep. You will, of course, need an Origin account and that account will have to be attached to your Xbox Live or PSN ID if you want to import your world state to either console version.

After logging into the Keep, you can first sync your progress from previous games. This won’t carry over your saves, but will bring in your heroes and collect various accomplishments from across the games and their DLC. It’s worth remembering that the Keep is still in beta, and the first sync did not find my custom Warden from Origins. My version of Dragon Age 2‘s Hawke popped up right away, and a second sync a few hours later managed to fetch my Dalish Elf from the ether.

Dragon Age Keep Varric Narration

After syncing, you can watch an animated retelling of the saga leading up to Inquisition narrated by Dragon Age 2/Inquisition party member Varric, and at any point you can stop it to edit your choices, changing the course of the story as you go. A better idea, however, is to exit out of the narration and go directly to the Tapestry, a colourful timeline that allows you to detail your story more directly. After doing this, you can come back and watch as Varric conveys your personalised tale.

The choices you can make are pleasingly granular, offering the full range of states for the major decisions, such as what happens to Loghain near the climax of the first game, but oddly, some choices that seemed almost meaningless at the time have made their way into the Keep; did you save Elora’s halla in the Dalish camp? What happened to Bella, the tavern girl from Redcliffe? The Keep wants to know, and I’m not entirely sure why. BioWare has said that not every choice you make here will carry across to Inquisition and that they plan for the Keep to be used for future Dragon Age titles as well. Beyond that, perhaps it’s just nice to have a more complete record of the mark your characters left upon the land of Thedas.

Dragon Age Keep Tapestry

The Keep is an excellent way of ensuring your Dragon Age history can follow you across generations, and of course you don’t even have to stick to the choices you made when in the previous games. But if I have one complaint, it’s that there is little context for the decisions you’re asked to make; if it’s been a while since your last playthrough, good luck remembering some of the more minor choices from the scant text provided, and heaven help any newcomers looking to tailor their world for Inquisition. Even having recently replayed Origins, I had to flick over to the wiki a few times to jog my memory. Newbies would be better served heading straight to the Varric narration and editing from there.

But as a means to bring your game history with you without the benefit of save game importing, the Keep is excellent, and with Varric narrating your past, more than just a compromise.

destmoonpic_edited
As a long-time Halo fanboy, Destiny has been on my radar ever since the first details leaked out. Bungie’s previous universe has kept me enthralled for over a decade now, and I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve ploughed through those campaigns, fighting mysterious alien forces across ancient-yet-advanced landscapes in an effort to uncover the history of these awe-inspiring constructs and the stories hidden within. Now, with Destiny, I’m ready to do it all over again.

The recent beta wasn’t my first tilt at Destiny’s world however, as I managed to get a download code for the PS4-exclusive alpha back in June, so the bulk of my initial impressions will be from that. The beta itself was essentially an expanded version of that first playable slice, so those impressions still stand having played through all the extra content, which I will touch on a little further down the page.

Before jumping into the game proper, you’ll be prompted to create a character from three base classes: Warlock, Titan and Hunter. The latter of these is a nimble scout, able to double-jump in and out of danger quickly, and possessed of a super attack called ‘Golden Gun’ that grants you three incredibly powerful shots from a glowing hand cannon. The Titan is more tank-y, and gets a powerful ground-pound super that will likely have you shouting “HULK SMASH!” every time you use it, and finally the Warlock is basically a space mage, blessed with an awesome area-of-effect, damage-over-time Nova Bomb that can clear an entire room if used effectively. In both the alpha and the beta, I went with the Warlock class, because if you offer me the use of magic, I’m going to use magic.

warlock

Diving into the game itself, the first thing that struck me was how much the game felt, sounded and even looked like Halo: Reach (certainly in that game’s more muted, earthy colour palette) – unsurprising, given that that was Bungie’s last release before work began on Destiny. It was gratifying to find that, while Destiny is a new start for the Washington-based developer, they haven’t discarded what makes them who they are – that tight handling, the holy trinity of guns, grenades and melee, those glorious skyboxes, and of course, that leisurely, floaty jump.

There’s more Halo DNA present than just looks, movement and control, too. Enemy weapons can be traced back to guns in Halo’s arsenal; certain Fallen wield weapons that shoot glowing rounds that track you like Needler bolts, while others are armed with mid-range rifles that act almost exactly like a Covenant Carbine. Hive Knights, meanwhile, fire large, arcing bolts of energy at you that can knock you back just like Halo; Reach‘s concussion rifle. The difference here is that you can’t liberate these firearms from your vanquished enemies – at least, not in the beta anyway.

But this isn’t Halo, this is Bungie’s bet for the next ten years of their existence and they’re looking to mix things up a bit. So what’s different? Well, the most immediately obvious change is in the RPG mechanics that govern how your character evolves. Bungie want you to play Destiny for a long time, and besides breadth of content, the method to keep you tied in is character personalisation. Your avatar is the in-game representation of your self, more so here than in the average shooter, and as such you can customise your appearance (picking either gender across three ‘races’), and every class has its own skill tree to work through as you complete quests and earn XP towards that next upgrade. As you work your way along the tree, you’ll boost your base stats, add modifiers to your super to keep it evolving, unlock new grenade types and more.

And then there’s equipment, many pieces of which also come with their own upgrade trees. Guns can be levelled up to do more damage, apply different types of elemental effects or add new scopes, while armour can add passive boosts to your strength or discipline stats, which lower your cooldown on your class-specific melee ability and supers respectively. Speaking of the classes, as of the beta, which had a level 8 cap in place to stop us from progressing too far, the three don’t feel too dissimilar – the Titan needs to get in closer than the other two to use their super, but other than that they’re all very capable of taking down enemies. There’s no hard separation between the likes of DPS, mage or tank to really pick out, and while I don’t think Bungie will be going too far down that route, I would expect to see the classes diverge a bit more noticeably towards the endgame.

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The next thing you’ll probably notice is the game’s sense of scale. The area we’re given to roam around in, while not on the scale of your average open-world game, is vast for an FPS. Granted, Halo has always had large levels, but Destiny‘s play spaces push the boundaries out even further, giving you plenty of real estate to explore and populating it with hordes of enemies to shoot. It’s not just the sheer size that marks a change though; these aren’t wide-but-linear levels to work through from one end to the other, Old Russia – the chunk of world entrusted to us in both the alpha and beta – is a wide-open space that allows you the freedom to reach almost any point you can see, whenever you feel like it, and fills it with mission objectives that take you all over the map.

Halo has always had co-op, and it’s always been a blast to burn through the massed ranks of the Covenant with a friend or three, but Destiny‘s doing something a bit different with co-operative multiplayer too, something that also plays into that sense of scale. Since the early reveals, Bungie have been very cagey about the term MMO, though it’s a little hard to understand their reticence. While Destiny isn’t a full-blown PC-style MMORPG, it sits somewhere between those experiences and the smaller-scale co-operative play of something like Borderlands. On your travels, you’ll often come across other players that you are free to completely ignore if you wish, but, besides paying a visit to the player hub Tower (to buy new gear or maybe just dance on top of huge industrial fans) there are a number of co-operative things you can do.

Firstly, you can join with other players manually to create a three-person fireteam to take on missions and strikes (the latter of which is basically your MMO dungeon run analogue, with mobs to defeat on your way to sub- and end-bosses), while public events are random occurrences in the game’s ‘explore’ spaces that task whoever is around with defending an area or defeating increasingly-difficult waves of enemies. If you’ve ever played Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, these are very much like that game’s FATEs, though their spawn rate feels much, much lower, making them a fairly rare occurrence in the beta.

Lastly, Bungie has promised end-game raids for teams of six, though it has recently been confirmed that these will be friends-only – perhaps a necessity, given how much preparation and focussed teamwork will be needed for these lengthy, high-level affairs, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see matchmaking added for raid content post-launch.

While there was a decent amount of content to enjoy in the alpha, the scope that Bungie are aiming for really became apparent in the beta, which added a handful of extra story missions that pad out our understanding of what’s happening in the early hours of the game, as well as hint at where the narrative might lead in the full release. Story is one of my favourite elements of the Halo series (yes, I’ve read all the books and everything), so it was great to get some indication of the threads that will be pulling us through Bungie’s new ‘mythic science-fiction’ universe.

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After being revived in the wastes of Old Russia by Ghost, our Peter Dinklage-voiced AI companion (who cryptically informs us that we’ve been dead for a very long time), we fight through the Fallen infested perimeter wall in an effort to find a jumpship to escape back to the safety of the Last City, the only place on Earth still protected by the enormous Traveller that hovers overhead. After spending some time kitting out our Guardian and acquiring a personal transport, Ghost informs us that the Fallen seem to be searching for something in the ruins of the area’s decrepit machines.

Battling through Fallen and Hive forces, we discover what they were searching for: the Warmind Rasputin, a vast machine intelligence that once marshalled humankind’s Golden Age military against the forces of Darkness. Our final story mission in Old Russia – an attempt to activate an ancient array station that could connect us to humanity’s long lost colonies – leaves us on something of a cliffhanger: we find that Rasputin not only survived the collapse, but is still active. Though we can’t reach him, he teases us with images of places that will be important in the battles to come, one of which is Earth’s moon.

And if you were lucky enough to log in during a two-hour period last Saturday, you’d have had the opportunity to explore our dusty satellite, as well as taking in a short mission. Views on the moon are utterly gorgeous, with a twinkling starfield stretching into infinity and the blue marble of the Earth hanging high in your view. Abandoned human bases dot the landscape, while chunks of rock and enormous pits hide sinister Hive installations that hint at some of the more exotic architecture we’ll see in the full release, like the Temple of Crota at the mission’s end – who knew that there was a gothic biomechanical church built by HR Giger on our moon?

So far, so positive – though I do have some concerns. So far, enemy AI doesn’t seem as challenging as a Halo encounter: I’ve lost count of the amount of times that, for instance, an Elite has managed to flank me while I’m reloading or waiting for my shield to recharge in Halo: Reach, somehow managing to get into my blind spot and creep around behind me to spin-kick me to death. As adept as Destiny‘s opponents are at ducking in and out of cover and retreating when I advance, nothing like the above situation happened during the beta. Of course, enemy difficulty will likely be toned down when you’re out in the open, given their propensity to respawn endlessly (a necessity for a game like this to work); in more closely-packed encounters in bases and other interiors the AI does pose more of a threat, though this is mostly because you have less room to manoeuvre. These more claustrophobic encounters do however force you to pick your targets and identify the major threats more effectively, something that was always a major part of the Halo experience on higher difficulties.

Additionally, one of the worries I had during the alpha persists into the beta, and that’s the depth of the side quests. Dotted around the play space are glowing green beacons that confer short missions upon you – missions that invariably take the form of that old mmo staple ‘kill/collect x of y’. These missions aren’t particularly well-communicated in terms of what you’re supposed to be doing and why, and they often lead to spells of running around waiting for mobs to respawn and then killing them for their precious docking caps or whatever. Of course, the core combat and environmental traversal, not to mention the carrot of an ever-increasing XP bar, mean that the missions remain fairly engaging so long as you don’t spend too long focussing exclusively on them. I hope to see more depth to these mini quests in the full game, however.

Lastly, there’s the Crucible, Destiny‘s competitive multiplayer suite. I must admit that I hardly touched this aspect of the game; during alpha, I watched a few streams and didn’t really like what I was seeing, but towards the end of the beta period I decided to jump in and see what it was all about. I played a match of 6v6 Control – essentially a King of the Hill game-type – using my maxed out Warlock equipped with all my best gear, and I found it to be quite unbalanced. I was plugging half a magazine into opponents before they dropped, but frequently got taken down in two or three shots, which was frustrating to say the least.

I’m not much of a competitive multiplayer gamer but I do enjoy Halo MP, and the main reason for that is how well-balanced it tends to be – you can guarantee that everyone has the same base stats and access to the same weapons on the map. Granted, Destiny is charting a different path with its emphasis on RPG-style progression and gear, so it’d be a bit strange if its PvP didn’t leverage that in some way, but I think it’s just not for me.

That’s fine though. PvP isn’t what’s drawing me to the game (and I’ll soon have the Halo: Master Chief Collection to take care of my competitive FPS needs). No, what’s drawing me to Destiny is the promise of a hybrid of two of my favourite things – Bungie’s unique brand of science fiction shooting and RPGs – mixed in with the ability to co-operatively quest through the game’s vast worlds with friends. The developer recently announced that almost five million players logged into the beta, so hopefully many more people will be drawn into the full game. After all, if we are to gather forth our Guardians to face down the Darkness on September 9th, we’re going to need all the friends we can get.

Cross-posted on 16bitkings

I mentioned in my last post that I was currently playing the Titanfall beta for Xbox One, and that I had yet to play the third and final mode on offer, Last Titan Standing. I’d put it off for the first couple of days, as I thought I wouldn’t like it all that much; I expected it would just be Titans shooting the crap out of each other for a few minutes and not much else. This negative impression wasn’t helped by the knowledge that dying once means you’re out for the rest of the round.

But I was more than willing to give it a chance to change my mind, and after a couple of hours with the mode last night, change my mind it did. To better illustrate how the mode plays, I’ve collected some of my GameDVR clips together into a Last Titan Standing gameplay montage (once again, apologies for the video quality; Titanfall and XBO GameDVR don’t seem to like one another very much).

There’s a fair bit more to Last Titan Standing than just jumping in your mech and slugging it out with the other team. Of course, you can do that, but you’re going to want to stick with at least one other friendly Titan or risk being overwhelmed by multiple enemies. But you can also jump out of your Titan, setting it to guard mode to keep it out of the fight until you’ve weakened the other team. Or you can set it to follow you around, providing extra firepower and a diversion for your pilot.

Either way, playing as a pilot really has its benefits in this mode; the attention is always on the Titans, so as a nimble footsoldier you can scramble up and into buildings and fire your anti-Titan weapon into the backs of your enemies as they’re pre-occupied with someone else. After a while, I had taken to setting my Titan to guard a remote part of the map (so as to keep it out of the fight for as long as possible), heading out as a pilot to soften up the other team, before bringing my factory-fresh mech steaming into the fray.

I was surprised to find, after a few matches, that Last Titan Standing is probably my favourite mode of the three in the beta. I had thought it would be an almost tactics-free slugfest, yet I found it to be the most considered mode on offer once you got into the swing of things and devised a plan for taking down enemy Titans. I can also say I have a distinct preference for the Fracture map when it comes to Last Titan Standing; the relative openness of the map certainly helps when there are twelve mechs pounding through the environment, and it even feels better for pilots, as the warren of tunnels around the ground level afford those on foot a better chance at escape when they manage to pull a Titan’s attention.

Angel City, on the other hand, can get very congested, with battles often ending up confined to a certain corner of the map and friendlies trying to manoeuver around one another to get in and out of battle. You can see what I mean in my gameplay montage above.

The Titanfall beta is scheduled to end tomorrow, and I think I’m going to miss it when it’s gone. Thankfully, the full game will be out in a month, with a wealth of new maps, weapons, Titan classes and game modes. I’m looking forward to it. Are you?

The Titanfall beta is currently underway, a few weeks ahead of the game’s March 11th release on PC, 360 and Xbox One, and I managed to get hold of a code for the XBO version yesterday afternoon. I had to rely on a friendly forumite on one of the gaming sites I frequent (despite having registered minutes after the site went live…), and have managed to get a few games in so far. Now, the beta is fully open to all XBO owners, with a full, open beta on the way for PC.

So, some impressions are in order. The beta contains three game modes (Attrition, Hardpoint Domination and Last Titan Standing) across two maps (Angel City and Fracture), and so far I’ve had a few matches on each map of both Attrition (TDM) and Hardpoint (which is essentially a three-hill King of the Hill gametype).

First thing’s first: I suck at Attrition. I’m really bad at it. The only FPS I’ve ever played in competitive multiplayer are the Halo games, so this is quite a change of pace for me; encounters are far shorter, and I keep burst firing the AR as if it’s Halo‘s MA5 – old habits die hard, I guess. I’m far better at Hardpoint; I always did prefer objective gametypes in Halo, and this mode compliments my sneaky, defensive playstyle better than the all-out war of Attrition.

It also allows you to use your Titan in more tactical ways: hardpoints tend to be inside buildings, so you can double-jump through a window, capture your objective, and then set up shop inside, guarding all interior approaches with your shotgun and active camouflage, while your Titan, set to guard mode, defends the outer approaches. It’s a great deal of fun. Here’s five minutes of my last game (also showing the xp/level up screen and some in-game challenges), captured with the XBO’s GameDVR function. Unfortunately, it seems to compress the hell out of Titanfall clips for some reason, so the quality isn’t great, but enjoy.

I haven’t yet played Last Titan Standing, whose name speaks for itself – everyone begins the round with a Titan, and when one team has lost all of their mechs, it’s the end of the round. Of course, you can get out of your Titan and have it follow you or stand its ground (either way, it will engage nearby enemies), but once your Titan and your Pilot are defeated, there are no respawns. I’m planning on giving it a try later on tonight, so expect another video.

A couple of aspects of Titanfall have been drawing some criticism – the graphics and the AI grunts. Graphically, I think it’s a good-looking game. It’s not going to wow anyone on a technical level, but art design is generally pretty strong and animations are smooth. By no means does it look bad, and looking up to the sky to see a Titan drop in is unlikely to ever get old – it’s a pretty thrilling sight, especially if you manage to drop it on a bunch of enemies for added carnage.

Secondly, the AI grunts in the game aren’t really bots. They’re fodder to help you get your Titan faster (each AI kill knocks a few seconds off of your Titan clock, which is always counting down anyway), and they also add a bit of flavour to the world; stumble upon a group of friendly AI and they’ll be happy to see you and sometimes even call out targets. And despite their weak nature (they react slower and go down far quicker than a player-controller enemy), they can still surprise you, as I found out during a game of Hardpoint. They don’t seem to show up on the minimap, and so can get the jump on you if you aren’t paying attention or are fixated on another target. You can see me fall foul of this at the 1:30 mark in my above video. Yes, I got killed by an AI grunt. The shame.

Some have speculated that the grunts are in the game to make up the numbers, considering that Titanfall is ‘only’ a 6v6 game, but it never feels like there are only twelve players in play – even disregarding the grunts, at any one time each player could have a Titan in the map, following them around or guarding a specific point. It feels like a hectic futuristic warzone, especially in Attrition, which I found a little overwhelming at first – the pace, combined with the amount of carnage going on, was a lot to process when you’re first thrust into the game. Hardpoint Domination definitely feels a bit more considered, and there’s a definite ebb and flow to the game, but it still retains some of that frantic pace that defines Attrition.

So far, I’m quite liking Titanfall. It definitely has that ‘one more go’ factor that is so important in games of this type. I’ll need a good few more games before I really get into the swing of things, but I’m certainly looking forward to the full release next month and, as someone who prefers single player over multi, I’m interested to see how Respawn’s ‘campaign multiplayer’ works out. I’d have much preferred a standard single player mode, but I understand the reasons behind the developer’s choice here. Given how fun the beta is, I’m willing to give Vince Zampella and his team the benefit of the doubt.

arrLast week, I posted about a beta code I received for the PlayStation 3 test of upcoming MMO Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. At the time, I didn’t realise it was a 48-hour test period, and thanks to a busy weekend, all I got to do was create a character and wander into my starting city, Gridania. Another 48-hour test began yesterday morning, and this time I was ready for it.

I’ve so far put in about six or seven hours (having to tear myself away to either eat or sleep), and I’ve really been enjoying what I’ve played. I’ve mentioned before that FFXIV would be my first MMO; despite having had an interest in the genre since seeing Phantasy Star Online before the Dreamcast’s release, I’ve never actually given one a go. So what is all-new to me may be tiresome and repetitive for any MMO veterans out there.

I started off by creating an Elezen Wildwood archer called Khroma Midgard, and on arriving at Gridania, I was put through my paces to make sure I could become a half-decent adventurer. These early tests generally revolved around fetch quests or monster culling to prove my worth to various NPCs before being allowed to join the archers guild. You’re given a fair amount of freedom to explore reasonably early on, and Gridania itself is huge, which leads me to one of only a small handful of issues I have with the game: pathfinding is very difficult, at least for me. If you’re in the same area as your objective, you’ll get an icon on your map/minimap showing you the general direction. If you’re not in the right area, you won’t get anything. It would be very useful to have the game at least point you to the relevant exit. Instead, you end up wandering around aimlessly until you either stumble upon your objective or just decide to explore and find new things, which is the upside of the problem.

When you first see the game’s UI, you would certainly be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed. There’s stuff everywhere, and it takes up a fair chunk of screen real-estate. The game does a good job of walking you through everything without feeling too much like a tutorial, though – it rarely feels like it’s tightly holding your hand, and as I said earlier, you have a good degree of freedom to wander around almost from the start. I was surprised at how quickly I adapted to the UI and much of what I needed to do became second nature after a few hours. It will take time to remember where everything is however, and I still can’t quite figure out how to access a potion more quickly than simply dipping into my inventory, which just wouldn’t cut it in the midst of battle.

Speaking of battle, I was glad to see that enemies on the field generally won’t attack you on sight (there seem to be a couple of exceptions, but in the main this seems to be the case). I don’t know if this is just true of the opening stages of the game, so as not to overwhelm newcomers, but it makes exploring a lot easier than it would be if you were constantly getting mobbed. When you see something you want to attack, you simply face it, press X to target it, and then X again to begin auto-attacking. You can bring up your learned skills by holding L2 or R2 and pressing the required button (a d-pad direction or face button), and your skills are of course on a cooldown timer, so you can’t spam them. If you want to target another enemy, you can switch between targets with the d-pad.

It was during one of the aforementioned early monster culling missions that I had my first “This is AWESOME!” moment: While wandering through the forest outside of Gridania looking for ladybugs, I spied a small hill in a clearing atop which stood an enemy I hadn’t seen before – an Ixali beastman, one of the antagonists of Final Fantasy XIV. Curious, I started up the hill and saw that a couple of players had also been drawn there. We all began to do battle with the interlopers, our numbers swelling until there were about twenty adventurers and a small horde of beastmen, funguars, ladybugs and other monsters all engaging in a massive, un-staged battle. Everything just came together in that moment, and we all fought and healed side by side, felling waves of Ixali for what must have approached half an hour. I gained a level and half, and just had an absolute blast enjoying the game with a group of random strangers. That experience is what I always expected MMOs to be about, and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn delivered that for me in the first three hours.

One thing I haven’t touched on yet is the FATE system, semi-random multiplayer instances that occasionally appear on your map. If you wander near one of these FATEs (Full Active Time Events) on your travels, you’ll get a notification that you’re near one and a blue circle will appear on your minimap. If you want to join in, you simply wander into the circle and start taking part. They generally take the form of multiplayer battles against a number of one enemy type, or perhaps a stronger, boss-like creature and the aim is to kill them all or drive them back. FATEs have recommended levels, and if you’re under that threshold your contribution won’t be weighed as heavily when it comes time to share out the spoils. If your level is high enough and you acquit yourself well, you can reap a pretty healthy amount of XP and gil, so they’re worth seeking out, and luckily are a lot of fun as well.

I did have an issue in a couple of FATEs I joined in, where I found it incredibly difficult to target an enemy. Pressing X would put my reticule over a friendly player rather than an enemy, meaning I’d have to cycle through to find a target. By the time I’d managed to cycle through, I’d taken a few hits and everyone else had killed that monster. At first I put it down to the fact that this is a beta of a game still in development, but thinking back, I’m pretty sure this only happened during FATEs that I was too low-level for, so I wonder if the game was purposely gimping me?

It’s safe to say I’ve really enjoyed my time with Final Fantasy XIV so far. I’ll certainly be playing it some more today when I get the chance, though it’s a little sad to think that when the beta ends my character will be deleted. Still, if it means I’ll start the full game on a level playing field with my friends who are planning to jump in at launch, so be it. I’ve certainly seen enough to justify my pre-order, I just worry about quite how much time this will suck up when I’m paying a sub for it!

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn launches on PC and PlayStation 3 on August 27th.

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Well look what’s just arrived in my inbox! I applied to be in the PS3 beta test for Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn a few months back, not expecting to get in, but it looks like I made the cut!

I don’t know if the beta is actually live right now – I have to register on the Square-Enix site and then download the client on my PS3 – and I’m not sure if I want it to be; I really want to be playing The Last of Us right now, but I also really want to start exploring Eorzea! Serious first-world problems here!

I’m going to do the registration and see what’s what. Did anyone else get a code?