Thursday 19 January 2012

We make choices but are constantly foiled by happenstance

Like Melmoth I’ve been spinning the plates of MMOG hotbar combat in Star Wars: The Old Republic, though I’m not quite so tired of the whole business just yet. Doubtless burnout will kick in at some point, but for the moment I’m happy enough getting that crockery rotating. If character abilities are the “plates” in this analogy, though, my Welsh dresser is getting a bit crowded…

Maybe time to back away from the plate analogy. When I hit level 32 with my Imperial Agent and got a new skill, I didn’t have a space for it in any of the three hotbars on screen (plus a fourth with companion abilities). A bit of shunting and ditching a hotbarred consumable squeezed it in, but it’s getting to the point where I don’t really want too much more to think about during a fight.

I’m fine with the basics, the bread and butter stuff, or in a Sniper’s case the rifle and grenade stuff; bread and butter might be perfect specialisation options for a class centred around making sandwiches, but they’re not going to cut it against a horde of rakghouls. Unless you smear the floor with butter to make them fall over, then bludgeon them to death with an especially crusty baguette, that might work. Anyway, the basics are fine, get into cover, shoot enemy with gun, pew and indeed pew. It’s the assortment of situational skills that are more the issue. To return to the kitchenware, some abilities are a bit like a melon baller, fish kettle or set of specialist cheese knives; useful in quite specific circumstances but the rest of the time they clutter the place up, and when you really need them you either forget you have them entirely or spend half an hour rooting through cupboards shouting “Darling! Have you seen the Tête de Moine scraper? The Tête de Moine scraper! You know, the… No, no, it’s not in that draw, I’ve emptied it all over the floor already (by the way you might want to watch you don’t tread on a lobster pick when you come through)… Over the microwave? No, I’ve looked in… no, no, you’re thinking of the Parmesan frisker… yes, the thing behind the spinach shredder, definitely Parmesan… well I suppose I could just use a lemon zester, but… Oh, cock, I’ve been shot by a Smuggler.”

SWTOR is of course not alone in its plethora of skills, it’s something I posted about when playing WAR as a Bright Wizard for example. It avoids some issues of situational skills by blurring the boundaries between solo and group play through companions (as Tobold and others have noted), so you don’t have important group skills such as taunts or a “heal other” ability that are completely useless when solo. Spinks also has a fine post about the way the game ramps up the difficulty to introduce certain abilities and concepts; at the end of Chapter One I was having terrible trouble with a boss who marmalised me before I could even get him near half health. A quick glance at the forums revealed I wasn’t the only one, and that the key to the fight was interrupting incoming attacks using a skill that had been gathering dust next to the grapefruit spoons. It wasn’t the first encounter involving an opponent with a charge-up ability, there’d been previous fights where mobs had annoying wind-up attacks, but as it wasn’t essential to interrupt them I’d just been bulling through with the usual attack spam and recovering afterwards. As it turned out there was a Plan B for the boss, on returning to the game after checking strategy tips I noticed a colleague log on, who was kind enough to tag along for a hot Darth-on-Darth force-choke-off, but having been reminded of the interrupt skills I’ve actually been using them more in general play (when I remember).

Solo, or in a small friendly group, re-adjusting is usually quite straightforward; a group of us were in a Flashpoint and had wiped once or twice using the patent pending “use random attacks on random mobs!11!” technique so we paused, started marking targets and using crowd control (partially via the “Slice Droid” skill I’d been generally neglecting in favour of a potato ricer), and sailed through the rest of it. It’s PvP that’s most problematic, as warzones offer few opportunities for quiet contemplation of optimal skill use. I’ve been rather enjoying PvP for the most part, and doing well enough I think, but there’s often a nagging sensation (typically after respawning) that I overlooked something, like the 3 second Evasion boost “panic button” skill that I’m always panicking too much to find when I really need it.

As with so many things it’s an impossible balance for developers. Players want sufficient options to make combat challenging and interesting but for each player that’s a slightly different point on the continuum with the two-button phase at one end, and at the other 17 hotbars packed with skills like “Rotating Thrust-o-matic: does 363 damage over X seconds, where X is the inverse square of the range from the player to target, to a non-human target with more than 17% but less than 64% health whose name includes an equal number of vowels and consonants”. There’s also the development and reward aspect of gaining new abilities, always a cornerstone of RPGs; even with hotbars are stuffed to bursting it’s a bit disappointing to turn up to a trainer after levelling and only getting a new rank of an existing ability. A new skill rank is the level-up equivalent of socks for Christmas; you bound downstairs to the tree, grab a present, what could it be? A new bike? A football? An attack that does massive AoE damage and incapacitates all targets for ten minutes that’s also a self-heal? That AT-AT toy with motorised walking action you’d been dropping subtle hints about (“THAT ONE! I WANT THAT ONE! I’VE DRAWN A BIG CIRCLE AROUND IT IN THE ARGOS CATALOGUE WITH A FELT-TIP!”)? In hindsight the fact that the parcel was sock-sized and squishy should’ve ruled out the more ambitious guesses, but nevertheless it’s hard to muster fake enthusiasm when tearing off the paper reveals a grey nylon pair of “Shoot Enemy With Gun: Rank 3”.

If you’ve had your character planned down to the last detail since pre-launch, I guess that’s the equivalent of knowing what you’ll be getting for the next 50 Christmases, quite appropriate for a Sith (insert obligatory “felt your presents” gag…)

At the end of the day I suppose you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and then beating the eggs with a guive-guive-guisarme-eggwhisk. I’m sure I had one around here somewhere…

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