Daily Archives: February 5, 2019

Everyone has got the fear

Anthem seemed like the least-braniest of no-brainers. Do you like ARPGs[1]? *nods* Do you like Bioware games? *nods* A Bioware ARPG? To the pre-order-tron for the super deluxe diamond-with-strontium-edging edition featuring a sticker, some gear you’ll use for about seven minutes before replacing it, and digital download concept art just in case you run out of things to look at on the internet!

I’d tried out beta tests of The Division and Destiny 2, in part to check their performance, and ended up buying and playing both of them heavily. The recent Anthem demo/beta/stress test weekend was surely mere formality before deciding whether to just buy it or opt for some sort of EA/Origin subscription-thingumy, but after a couple of hours with the demo I think I’ll be holding off on the strontium edging.

I’m a PC gamer, have been for 30 years, man and boy, hardest game in the world son. Getting used to different control schemes can take a while; digital joysticks on arcade games were intuitive, but with a ZX Spectrum at home there was just the keyboard. Moving a bat left and right in Thro’ The Wall wasn’t too tricky, for ludicrously advanced games involving moving in more than two directions I seem to recall a fairly standard scheme used the left hand on “Q” and “A” for up and down and the right hand on “O” and “P” for left and right with a thumb or two on space for jump/fire/invade Belgium. When moving to the PC I remapped game controls to the same layout where possible, but many games insisted on the dedicated number/cursor pad. For a while I used both hands on that in an awkward interlocked-fingers pose; *one* hand for all *four* directions??/? Madness! I adapted after a while, though, for Wolfenstein 3D and Doom cursor keys were the way to go. The mouse was fine for something like Civilisation, clicking on maps and what-not, but you’d never use it for a fast-paced action game. Then games had this mad idea that you could look up and down, and that necessitated a whole bunch more keys; either that, or you could use the mouse to look around. I think it was Quake II where I first encountered mouselook, I’m not sure if that still used the cursor keys for moving or if that was also when I started using the now traditional WASD, it took a bit of time to become proficient but I’ve never looked back since (except with a mouse). There were strong reasons for most of the changes, the ability to hit more buttons as games needed more input, or more precise control.

I’ve never owned a console[2], which I only point out to justify my lack of gamepad skills rather than some misplaced sense of quasi-religious fervour. I’ve occasionally fiddled with a friend’s (fnarr, missus, etc.) and been fairly hopeless when it comes to pointing shotguns at evil hell creatures; I’m sure it would come to me with time, but mouse and keyboard have seen me through until now.

All that digression is partly just ‘cos I’m terribly old and forget what I’m talking about and start randomly reminiscing (who remembers Spangles, eh?), but mostly because many of the Anthem previews I’d seen had emphasised that movement in the game was what really made it stand out, the ability to fire up a jetpack and swoop through the skies at any moment. So I fired up my jetpack and… PANGK! (That’s a Javelin hitting a cliff, not to be confused with Mr Stevens, Head of Catering, breaking up a fight between Darth Vader and God.)

Opinion on flying in the Anthem demo is divided between those able to fly through the air with the greatest of ease (predominantly using gamepads) and those who PANGK! (mostly with keyboard and mouse). The mouse acts as a virtual joystick, moving it outside a circle in the centre of the screen causes deflection, you have to manually return the mouse to the circle to stop moving. It’s a system used in a number of other PC games (though Anthem layers on some further difficulties like negative acceleration) and I’ve never fully got to grips with it, I tend to go full Krypton Factor Contestant Attempting To Land A 747 Simulator After Ten Minutes Of Training; flying in a straight line not too bad, minor course corrections OK, but any sharp manoeuvres rapidly result in violent overcompensation – notice he does not fly so much as plummet. At least hitting the ground in Anthem results in a Superhero Landing rather then an explosion of certain death. I seem to recall a similar flying mechanism for the fighters in Planetside 2 where I could just about fly from A to B while others were able (whether with mouse or alternative controller) to dogfight with irritating agility. I’ve tried dusting off my old analogue joystick in the past but it’s not easy to switch back and forth between it and other controls, and my stick-skills have rather atrophied since X-Wing versus Tie Fighter, especially since I found War Thunder.

War Thunder (except in Simulation mode) cheats – you don’t really fly an aircraft, you point your mouse where you want to go, and an ‘instructor’ takes care of the minor business of actually making the aircraft point the same way. It’s one thing to have a particular control system for a sense of realism, or to try and balance a PvP playing field between users of different devices, but call me lazy, if there’s a choice between a system that needs several frustrating hours to get the hang of and a system that’s immediately easy to grasp allowing you to focus on positioning, tactics and such rather than just Not Crashing, I’ll stick with option 2.

At least you can see where you’re going while flying, there was a short swimming segment in the Anthem demo that seemed to use the flying controls but with zero visibility half the time; I guess, on the plus side, after going through that I’d think “at least it’s not annoying as swimming” while PANGK!ing into a mountain. The developers have acknowledged issues with flying and swimming using mouse and keyboard (plus some more minor irritations of the gamepad-centric interface), and apparently the full game will have improved controls but that’s not much help unless there’s another trial. It’s a bit of a worry that the game got as far as its big demo with them in that state, I’ve no idea on the relative number of PC players versus consoles these days so it probably makes more sense to focus on the latter first; it’s hardly the first game that might need frantic patching in the first week or seven up to and after release.

Flying isn’t the whole game, you can run, jump and shoot with a mouse perfectly happily without PANGK!ing, but the rest of the game didn’t particularly grab me. Combat was reminiscent of the duller fights of The Division, mobs soaking up large volumes of fire, whether that was down to lacklustre default weapons or everything being intended for a group of players I’m not sure. I’m not averse to chunks of group content, especially with an effective matchmaker to bring random players together, but sometimes I just want to take things in my own time, at my own pace, in my own clothes, and Anthem seemed to be very focused on groups of four; four there shall be, and not three (lest it be on the way to four); five is Right Out. I tried a four-player stronghold/strike/trial/dungeon/thingumy that ticked along well enough, shot some bugs, got some loot, but it didn’t fire me up to try it again on a daily basis plus weekend matinee. There wasn’t much to latch onto story-wise, Bioware’s traditional strength albeit not so much the focus of Anthem, the demo dropping you in at level 10 to get straight into the action. It seemed like a fairly generic sci-fi world, some elements between missions held promise, but again not enough to make me desperate to pick up the full game.

All in all I think I’ll hold off for a while on Anthem. It’s not terrible, but it looks like it could do with a bit more work and I’ve got plenty of other stuff to be getting on with in other games, like picking up shiny loot in Destiny 2 and getting my flying (and boating) fix in War Thunder. In this games-as-a-service world releases are more akin to a TV series than a one-off movie and not everything hits the ground running from the start, it can take a few episodes (or even series) for things to bed in, but not everything gets a chance; I really hope it works out for Bioware and Anthem finds its place.

[1] Trying to nail things, whether music, games, food or ornamental hatstands, down to specific genres can be rather unhelpful, leading to bickering over genre definitions rather than other, far more important, bickering (custard creams or bourbons?) Shorthands are handy though, and I’m not sure there’s a universally agreed genre for the current crop of Games Where You Run Around And Shoot Things And Get Cool Guns And Level Up And Stuff like The Division, Destiny and Anthem (or predecessors like Defiance and the late lamented (at least in some quarters) Hellgate: London). MMO/MMOG was always a bit vague, more so now that Multiplayer and Online are common if not ubiquitous for big releases; Wikipedia seems to go for Action Role Playing Game so I guess I’ll use that over Rootin’ Tootin’ Lootin’ Shootin’ ‘Em Up.

[2] Not strictly true, I have a Wii (not a PROPER console, though, right???/?), but that hardly helped with gamepad skills as I only ever used it for the Guitar Hero series and Wii Sports. My imaginary-tennis-racquet-flailing skills have come on leaps and bounds, though.