Wednesday 26 February 2014

Wot I'm Playing - Roundup

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been enjoying the Winter Olympics both on television and in War Thunder, where the Russian developers celebrated the Sochi games by adding a couple of special events. First there was a Biathlon, each team having to race through a series of checkpoints, periodically engaging a number of targets (either tanks or barrage balloons), before finally having to land on an airfield to finish the match. If you’ve ever wondered what the biathlon might be like if the competitors decided not to shoot at the targets but take pot-shots at each other on their way around the course, the War Thunder event gave you some idea. In some matches teams would focus on the objectives, in others they just ignored the whole checkpoint business and instantly headed straight for the opposition forming a mass dogfight around the start line, finishing only when one team was wiped. The second event, Curling, was a little more tenuous, with each side having a number of AI tanks representing stones moving towards a central control point, teams having to “sweep” the way clear by eliminating artillery and pillboxes in their path. All good fun, and keeps things a bit fresher than playing the same old maps all the time; they also had a contest for players to submit Olympic-themed content, I was most impressed by the organisation of the team who created the Olympic rings using five Hurricanes and acrobatic smoke. The ground forces beta is also rumbling on, looking pretty good at the moment, so another heavy year of War Thunder seems quite feasible.

Planetside 2 is ticking along as well; server issues with our usual European home caused us to decamp to a new US server for an odd sort of holiday in identical surroundings (same three continents, same bases and everything) that nevertheless felt slightly different, starting out again with new characters. Also like a holiday it’s nice to get back to home comforts, such as heavily upgraded weapons and vehicles, but a change is a good as a rest and all that.

Star Wars: The Old Republic holds down another weekly spot for regular grouping, though it can be a little awkward with a fixed party size of four for Flashpoints and a requirement for a balance of classes (slightly alleviated by some reasonable hybrid options) at similar levels. The most recent patch sorted out some of those issues by introducing a “Tactical Flashpoint”, a randomised set of encounters where the group are automatically bolstered to the same level and clickable healing devices go some way to removing the need for a dedicated healer (though boss fights still go better with a balanced group). Even with the randomised elements it’s not something I’d fancy doing every night (and twice at weekends), but it’s a welcome way to allow a more diverse group to play together. Having been a full subscriber to get early access to the starfighter content I was playing quite a bit, alternating between two characters to stay in the same level range as everyone else, but the initial excitement has worn off slightly; this is where the free-to-play aspect is really helpful, no more agonising over whether to keep a full subscription going just for a night a week, I can cancel the sub and drop down to “Preferred” status. There’s a few days of subscription left, then it’ll be interesting to see if there’s any subscriber-only features I really miss, or whether it won’t make too much of a difference.

One of the reasons I haven’t been in SWTOR so much is that I’ve started dabbling elsewhere… An e-mail from Perfect World announced a new Arc client for accessing their games, including Star Trek Online and Champions Online. I’m not really bothered about Yet Another Steam Knock-off, but the e-mail also contained the magic words: Free Hats! I haven’t played Champions for ages, but could hardly spurn an offer of a “Hats and Heads” costume set, so grabbed the Arc client and associated bonus code. While there, a Khan costume set for STO? Well, it’d be rude not to… I fired up the game and it looks like it’s had a bit of an interface overhaul, all seemed quite swish, had a little jog around the starbase, checked out the new costume at the tailor, haven’t logged back in again since. It’s another Perfect World/Cryptic title that’s grabbed me, Neverwinter. Melmoth had mentioned a few times that he was rather enjoying both the main game and the web-based elements, as did Van Hemlock on the HTMT podcast, so I thought I’d take a proper look – I’d actually downloaded it back around open beta/launch (I seem to recall it was rather a fluid release) but was in such an MMO-funk at the time I didn’t make it out of the tutorial.

Neverwinter seems nicely done, if not exactly deep; it has “action combat”, a bit like Dungeons and Dragons Online, more focused on movement and positioning and a small number of abilities rather than three full hotbars of stuff to click. Plenty to do, between adventuring, skirmishes, PvP and the like. It’s really the Gateway that sets it apart so far, a web portal that allows you to review your character and their inventory, manage crafting, and take your companions off on Sword Coast Adventures that work a lot like many Facebook/web games, quite simple dice rolling encounters, but an engaging little mechanic. The Gateway works well via Android browser, so after working through both seasons of Doctor Who Legacy (with a fair bit of repeated level running to pick up additional companions), Sword Coast Adventures have taken over as my “five spare minutes” mobile game of the moment.

Away from the online stuff, I did manage a few levels of Tomb Raider after picking it up in Steam’s Christmas sale, all quite enjoyable but I haven’t felt compelled to finish it off (or Dishonored, or any number of other games kicking around my “must get back to sometime” list). I can’t really remember the last single player games I got properly engrossed in, probably Bioshock Infinite and Saints Row IV (half the reason I keep blogging is so I can go back and check on stuff like that…) I also grabbed the Sid Meier Humble Bundle, partially for the Civ V DLC on the (very) off chance I manage to get back for another playthough, but mostly for the two Ace Patrol games. They’d been on my radar (as much as canvas biplanes can show up on radar) since featuring in Tim Stone’s always-splendid Flare Path, and are indeed a quite delightful bit of drop-in tactical dogfighting fun, the turn-based nature and AI opposition allowing for a slightly more relaxed approach when the frantic furballs of War Thunder get a bit much.

Monday 17 February 2014

War Thunder - Ground Forces Beta

Towards the end of last year I completed a bunch of challenges in War Thunder that gave a chance of participating in the ground forces closed beta, and the other week the Hand of Fate had a good old rummage in the Metaphorical Top Hat of Beta Entry Raffle Tickets and drew out beige 172, that’s number 172 on a sort-of-beige, sort-of-light-brown ticket, corresponding to my account, so I get to play with tanks, hurrah!

I haven’t had much of a chance so far, the beta server isn’t up all the time, but I did get to bimble around a bit this weekend. The Ground Forces NDA has been partially lifted, participants can talk about the beta and post content as long as they don’t focus on bugs and negative aspects. Some people seized on “don’t publish negative remarks” as a totalitarian attempt to whitewash opinion, “All War Thunder doubleplusgood. Ground forces beta ungood? Crimethink! Send to joycamp.” To me, though, it seems a reasonable enough approach, acknowledging the voracious appetite for information from some quarters that would be fed by leaks anyway, while trying to balance the actual testing aspects of a genuine beta with consequent rough edges.

So the first thing that strikes you is that it’s terribly pretty. There’ve been plenty of screenshots and videos showcasing how good the tanks look, and they don’t disappoint when you open up your garage. Here’s a King Tiger, complete with Zimmerit coating:

Tiger II in the garage

Tiger II (“Henschel” turret) in the garage

If the tanks seem a little plain, you have access to the same decal system that aircraft have, allowing for further decorations such as kill markings, unit insignia, or a spot of anthropomorphising. This is Gerald the ISU122, he’s a little bit grumpy:

Here's looking at you, kid

Here’s looking at you, kid

General gameplay is broadly similar tank combat in other games: drive around with WASD, point turret at things with mouse, click button to fire gun. Initial matches were mostly spent getting to grips with controls and such, it’s far too early for a definitive opinion, but it all seems fun enough so far. I saw a couple of maps during my beta sessions, both Domination-style with three control points. With both sides having a plentiful supply of respawning reinforcements in Arcade mode, the few battles I was in all ended via points being captured rather than one side being wiped out.

Capturing a point in an IS2

Capturing a point in an IS2

As with aircraft, damage is based on hit location and equipment modules rather than hitpoints. I managed to get a flanking shot on a Tiger II, the red text on the right shows the damage caused:

Tiger, Tiger, shortly to be burning bright

Tiger, Tiger, shortly to be burning bright

One of the things I’m particularly interested in is the interaction between aircraft and tanks when the two can play together. One of the maps I saw was tank-only, but the other also featured airfields for combined arms gameplay, so I took a few planes out for a spin:

Strafing a Jagdpanther

Strafing a Jagdpanther

The only aircraft available were the reserve biplanes with an armament consisting of a couple of light machine guns and (if sufficiently upgraded) two very small bombs, not a threat to the high-tier tanks being tested, more of a novelty than a serious attack option. It did give an idea of how combined forces might play, though. One challenge is finding a target; the tanks on your own team helpfully have name labels to avoid friendly fire incidents, but there’s no highlighting of enemy tanks, you need to get right down at low altitude to spot them yourself. It’s rather fun swooping around, looking for movement, knowing the tanks down below are other players rather than AI targets, but in doing that you open yourself up to a number of hazards. Enemy aircraft are always a danger, if you get too focused on ground targets then you’re easy prey for opposition fighters. There are also AI anti-aircraft units dotted around the map, though friendly tanks can sort those out:

Ack ack ack ack ack

Ack ack ack ack ack

Tanks aren’t defenceless against aircraft, in Arcade mode you get a lead indicator to help with targeting enemy air units:

Achtung, Spitfire!

Achtung, Spitfire! Oh, wait, I-15, don’t worry…

By all accounts air kills are possible with large calibre guns if the shooter is lucky/skilled enough, I lofted a couple of 88mm shells in the general direction of enemy planes, but the Elefant tank destroyer isn’t really designed for anti-air work. There weren’t any dedicated AA vehicles available during this particular test, I figured the 20mm autocannon of the Panzer II might be quite effective against aircraft:

Pom pom pom pom pom

Pom pom pom pom pom

Needless to say, though, every time I took it out for a drive the skies suddenly cleared, so I didn’t bring any aircraft down with it.

A wider range of aircraft will mix things up a bit more, obviously heavier bombs, rockets and cannons will pose far more of a threat to ground vehicles, but I don’t think planes will have things all their own way. It’s going to be rather interesting to see how it all develops.

Thursday 6 February 2014

Alphabeta Spagheta

There are many opportunities at the moment for MMOG players to get involved in game development prior to official release, from the very earliest stage of a Kickstarter like Brad McQuaid’s Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen through providing game-shaping feedback in the EverQuest Next Landmark alpha to slightly more traditional beta testing of The Elder Scrolls Online. In fact the very idea of an official release seems to be becoming increasingly unfashionable, or at least difficult to pin down, as early access, soft launches, headstarts and seemingly perpetual betas blur the lines, particularly for online games that evolve throughout their lifespan.

Aerial combat in War Thunder, for example, is technically in “Open Beta”, but with a fully functioning cash shop and no prospect of a progress wipe. A widely held position, mentioned on the most recent episode of How To Murder Time during a splendid rummage through the difficulties of MMO funding, is that once a game is taking money it can’t rightfully be called a beta any more, which I certainly don’t think is unreasonable, but with “beta” covering such a multitude of sins we really need some better terminology or debates just get bogged down in semantics: “LOL this game is rubbish, the flight model of this plane is inaccurate!”; “LOLOL it’s a beta it’ll get fixed”; “LOLOLOL it’s not a beta they’re taking money”; “LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL it is a beta because it says ‘beta’ right there on the screen and when they use a word it means just what they choose it to mean — neither more nor less”. This is A Bad Thing, because debates should of course be getting bogged down in wild tangents and personal insults instead.

Rather unimaginatively, nobody seems to have pushed on with the greek alphabet theme by following beta testing with gamma, delta and epsilon testing, possibly because that would encourage teams to skip through as fast as possible to get to Omicron Testing just because it sounds cool (imagine Matt Berry announcing “Engage Omicron Testing!”), or possibly because of potential difficulties with Scientology upon reaching Theta Testing. We have the solution, though: when clear, unambiguous terminology is needed, that’s clearly a job for SI units, so we present the SI scale of development centred around the base unit of The Beta (yes, yes, SI units don’t work like this, ssshhhh):

SI Beta UnitPrevious TerminologyNotes
PicobetaA Vague Idea“Hey, chief, we should make a game or something…”
NanobetaA Vague Idea written down on the back of a fag packet“… and it would have adventures in it and stuff…”
MicrobetaTech Demo“… you’ll just have to imagine the sky. And grass. And other players. You control your movement with these two knobs on the side, and… oh, hang on, just need to reboot the system…”
MillibetaCrowdfundingAn idea sufficiently fleshed out to be a viable prospect on Kickstarter or similar; may feature a Microbeta
CentibetaAlphaA partially complete version of some elements of the game
BetaClosed BetaA feature complete version of the game released to a limited number of people for the purpose of testing
KilobetaOpen BetaA feature complete version of the game released to everyone and their dog for gathering metrics and enfrothening the hype-vortex
MegabetaStress TestA feature complete version of the game released to everyone and their dog, but only for a limited period of time depending on the temperature you want the login servers to reach (two hours should be sufficient to fry a few rashers of bacon and a couple of eggs, two days for a nice slow-cooked casserole)
GigabetaOpen “Beta”A game for sale, or with a cash shop, with no character/item wipe in prospect if it’s multiplayer, but still under development. Or “a game”, according to current terminology.
TerabetaFinished ProductPull up a chair, kids, and I’ll tell you about a time, long, long ago, when you went into a place they called a “shop”, and you bought a “game” on a bunch of “disks”, and then you “installed” and “played” it, and if it needed updating the game company would have to send you the patch in what we called “the post”…
PetabetaDo dooo do do doA beta run by a bunch of muppets
ExabetaFinished Product (Italian)This-a beta, ees a no more-a, bereft of life it rests in Pisa. (Deprecated; slightly racist)