Monday, November 17, 2014

Dota 2 Next Level Meta: Support Bloodseeker 6.82 update

Since Bloodseeker was changed massively in 6.82, I need to revise my earlier post about support Bloodseeker. In fact, he is now so much better as a jungling support. Here's a quick summary of the changes:

His first skill, Blood Rage, is now a combination of the old one and Bloodbath. It's now a buff that can be cast on both enemies and allies, heroes and units. The target deals percentage based bonus damage with everything (i.e. not just right clicks) but also takes bonus damage. When a unit under Blood Rage kills an enemy, they regain 25% of the enemy's HP pool as healing - likewise, if they are killed, the killer gets 25% of their HP pool as healing. Because of this change, Bloodseeker is now a much stronger jungler, as the healing is much higher now on level 1, and it also grants bonus damage, allowing him to clear camps quicker. As long as you make sure to have the buff enabled whenever you deal the killing blow, jungling is a piece of cake. Chokepoint jungling is still recommended. If facing multiple enemies, it's best to cast this on your target instead of yourself, as the other creeps would otherwise also deal bonus damage to you.

His second skill, Blood Rite, is mostly new. The silence from old Blood Rage is now inflicted by this skill, but it's shorter. However, it also has a huge area of effect and deals pure damage, but with a significant cast delay. This skill needs some setup, obviously, but it's a strong nuke and it can be used to zone out enemies efficiently even should they be able to avoid it. Naturally you can set it up using Rupture but it's even better if your team can provide some setup. His third skill, Thirst, is the same in principle, but now provides a gradual bonus instead of using a threshold, which means every bit of missing health now counts. The vision threshold has been reduced to 30%. Rupture now lasts practically forever (ok, 12 seconds), but it has no initial damage. It's still more or less the same skill. Town Portal scrolls are still the bane of his existence.

So, how does all this change things?

First of all, you only need one skill point for jungling, since level 1 Blood Rage will suffice easily. I would leave it at one point until the other skills are maxed, as it scales pretty badly, and percentage based bonuses are not too hot in the early game. Since you can cast it on a target, you can allow all of your team to make use of the bonus damage - just remember that the target will also be dealing bonus damage to all of you. You can also use it on your carry like the old version. Instead of silencing them, you'll put them in higher danger however - so don't just throw it out when your Sniper is getting whacked by the enemy's Phantom Assassin. As for what to max first, I'm divided between Blood Rite and Thirst. As a support it's generally better to max your nukes, but Blood Rite has pretty bad scaling. If you need the longer silence and have some setup to land it, go for it. However, even a level 1 Blood Rite has a lot of potential as a zoning tool, and Thirst has very good scaling.

As for items, Mekansm is no longer viable on Bloodseeker because of the increased mana cost. This is somewhat unfortunate, as you could have built a pretty fast mek with the changes to Blood Rage. The only way to sustain a mek and your other skills would  be to build Arcane Boots, but it doesn't really sound all that hot. Instead, you might want to pick up a Force Staff - for all the reasons mentioned earlier - or as a new suggestion: Eul's. You can use it to cancel those pesky TPs, run even faster and setup your Blood Rite on a target (heroes with blinks, leaps and similar abilities can still get out). Diffusal Blade or Rod of Atos can be useful too - Diffusal is still probably better, but Atos does make you tankier. Blade Mail is still strong. Another note about Blade Mail: if you make a habit of casting Rupture on Blade Mailed targets, getting a Black King Bar might be smart. Or, you can also Eul's yourself when they start to run.

As for the game plan, it's mostly intact. Go to the jungle, but don't just afk there. Once you have a level in each of your abilities, you can easily gank lanes (remember to carry those TPs!), or even save a teammate with a zoning Blood Rite. You might even want to leave it at 1 and max Thirst, and then just play mind games with it as enemies are still very likely to try and avoid it. All in all, I think support Bloodseeker is now fully legit if you just jungle and roam, and build some utility items.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Dota 2 Next Level Meta: Support Bristleback

Here's another hero that doesn't look all that hot as a support. After writing this I might have to revisit my Bloodseeker post because the hero got a rework in 6.82... Based on the changelog he might actually be more potent as a support than before. Anyway, this post is about Bristleback.

Hero analysis

This time we have two actives to work with: one deals accumulating physical area damage and the other accumulates slow and minus armor on a single target. Both of these skills interact with his ultimate which gives him free movement speed and damage whenever he casts one of his low cooldown spells. Since it's actually not all that common to build early mana pool items on Bristleback, we can safely assume he will have enough mana to fight even when played as a support. The bigger issue will be that his entire hero concept is built around surviving long enough in a fight to actually accumulate all that minus armor, area damage and bonus damage. His passive certainly helps, but only to some extent. Another problem is that as a support, you really need to get at least one level of Viscous Nasal Goo early because it's your only disable. And with only one level in it, the max slow is 32% and it takes 6 seconds to apply fully. You get the same slow with only two casts on level two. Most importantly, the minus armor doubles at level three.

All in all, it's not all that amazing as a level one disable. While being able to keep it up indefinitely is good for long chases, early game ganks happen so close to towers that being able to cast it more than once or twice is highly unlikely. With one cast the slow is 23% on level one. The cast range is 600, which is decent enough. However compared to any level 1 slow in the game it's quite obviously abysmal. The primary benefit is its theoretically infinite uptime. It's also easy enough to switch targets with its 1.5 second cooldown, although you need to start building the stack up from zero again. Quill Spray also accumulates its damage rather slowly. The problem I see here is that Bristle doesn't offer what you'd generally want from a support in the current meta: he cannot just come out of smoke and make a gank happen because he doesn't have a good instant disable or burst damage. Sure, there are supports who are not primarily gankers (e.g. Abaddon), but Bristle's ability as a defensive support is also vastly inferior to theirs.

Quill Spray does have some farming potential however, and it might be possible to run Bristle as a jungler. This is something I have to test, although I am kinda skeptical as his starting mana pool is not all that hot (his int growth is decent enough tho). Might as well do some math. On level one, five casts of Quill Spray costs 175 mana (of his 182) and does 20+50+80+110+140 - or 400 - physical damage. Most jungle creeps have 1 armor, which reduces this damage by 5.7% to roughly 377. This damage is enough to kill most small camps, and bring the medium satyr camp low enough for you to finish without too much trouble. The wolf camp is also brought very low. Problem is you need to kite and tank the camp for 15 seconds to cast all these (the small satyrs should die after 4 casts though). The satyr camp is ideal, and killing it gets you to level 2, adding Bristleback to your available abilities. However, there would be no mana left. In other words, jungling doesn't look very good on paper.

To summarize, in theory support Bristleback can do just as much damage as a core with his abilities. However, the hero needs to actually survive long enough to get anything out of his abilities - and that's the problem.

Items

Before 6.82 you probably could have gone for Mek. With the increased mana cost it starts to be a bit too costly. However, the shiny new Crimson Guard is generally a great item for Bristleback as he is one of the few heroes who build Vanguard regularly, and the active ability makes him and his allies even tankier. As usual though, the problem is actually getting there. Rod of Atos is another good option, giving you a slow that's more quickly accessible, on top of a good HP and intelligence boost. Basically it allows you to catch up and drown your enemy in goo afterwards, keeping them slowed indefinitely. Unfortunately all of these items come with a rather hefty price for a support to afford in any decent time. Bristle does have decent farming abilities once he gains a few levels (and intelligence), so if there's space for him to farm, then some of these items might become online in sensible time.

Blade Mail is another interesting item as it kind of turns your lack of tankiness against your enemies. They can still burst you down, but take non-trivial amount of damage doing so. Should they choose not to, you get to stack some goo and quills on them before the spikes run out. It's overall a fairly good value item for Bristle too as it gives decent armor and intelligence, plus some damage. If you want, you can tank up with a couple of Bracers before going Blade Mail - in a way following the trendy three Null Talismans + Blade Mail Nature's Prophet build. If you expect to do something early, it might actually be best to go full-on Bracer gaming mode. It's probably the build I will try first. As a support Bristle is definitely greedy and has to be played as the four position, so forget about getting wards. You should still obviously carry TP scrolls.

Urn of Shadows and Medallion of Courage both have their merits. Bristle does have pretty high base mana regen after a few levels, so that 50% bonus can be very helpful. Both of these items also tank him up a bit with either HP from the urn or armor from the medallion. It still does seem better to have someone else build these items. It's also worth noting that medallion's primary purpose in the current meta is taking Roshan early and although building it would give you even more minus armor, you can already get -8 from nasal goo.

Game plan

Since jungling doesn't look like an option, your life as a support Bristle should start by laning - and pulling. Unlike core Bristle, getting goo very early should be a good idea. Maybe even get the first point at level 1, as you won't be needing those quills anytime soon (possibly you could clear the pullthrough camp using it - so just spare the point and see what's needed). Either way, by level 2 having one point in each active seems like the obvious way to go. Whether you should then go for more goo or quills is another question entirely. One interesting prospect of level three goo is the ability to take Roshan. The doubled minus armor in general is quite strong if your team has other heroes with high early game physical damage. Taking the single value point of your passive should still be a good idea. The two possible builds by level 5 would then be 3-1-1 or 1-3-1. Having both active abilities leveled up by six also allows you to stack Warpath faster.

I don't really know if there's much of a plan for playing support Bristle. Carry TP scrolls and go wherever there's a fight I guess. If a farming spot is free, go ahead and make good use of it. It's probably best to play in a lineup where none of your cores are using the ancients to accelerate their farm as you can make use of them in your downtime. It's probably best to build according to your GPM. A couple of Bracers might go a long way in helping you get some of that precious kill bounty by staying alive in fights. Still, I guess the biggest issue with support Bristleback is that you can't really play the hero properly. Conceptually, he is in fights to be in the enemy's face and soak up damage, which is something you really cannot do as a support with no real items. As a support you will still do good damage in prolonged fights, but someone else needs to take the damage. Well, at least you are one tanky support if you're good at turning your back.

Experiences

I only played this once, but it does feel a lot like I expected. Thanks to his high int growth, Bristle doesn't need any mana items to fight. He does need HP though, which can be helped a lot by grabbing a couple of bracers and treads. So it's not an entirely impossible idea to play Bristle without that much farm - after all, he is often played in the offlane anyway. He just doesn't offer much as a support, so he's very much the equal of very greedy supports like Elder Titan. He does have one interesting prospect in lane though. I suspected his defensive capabilities, but nasal goo is in fact quite strong in discouraging the enemy from attempting any plays against your carry. First, it's cheap to cast, and if one instance is enough to drive the enemy away, you can do it all day. Second, they really should turn because allowing Bristle to stack even level 1 goo two or three times makes them very susceptible to being turned around on.

It's important to remember that once you get goo'd twice or thrice, you can be goo'd almost indefinitely - and the minus armor really hurts! So, at least support Bristle is a somewhat efficient dive deterrent. You still can't really harass in lane, nor can you gank with any sort of efficiency. You also cannot do your job as the frontline in battle, because in order to be a threat you need to stay alive - which makes Bristle the very opposite of support Wraith King. Although, yes, you could soak up some damage, having less levels in Bristleback and even less HP from items, it just doesn't buy that much time. Especially since I think it's really important to go 3-1-1 as support Bristleback to help out your team the most. If you are ahead and winning fights, the chasing potential with this build is ridiculous. In general, support Bristle is fine when your team's ahead, but his comeback potential is abysmal - which in a way is an inherent property of the hero in general.

I stand by my earlier judgement of "poor".

Friday, November 7, 2014

Dragon Age: Origins (and a little bit of Mass Effect) - Part 1

Time to do another package deal. I have never written about Mass Effect in this blog even though I have played the first two. I'm pretty sure it happened before starting this blog so I'm not exactly obligated to according to my own rules. Dragon Age on the other hand is a game I have played quite recently, and it has a lot in common with Mass Effect. Might as well throw them all together. I have touched the topic of BioWare games earlier but now it's time to dig a bit deeper into one specific title. As usual I took forever and a half to start this game. I think I first wanted to play it as soon as it was released. I ended up playing it in 2014. Back then I didn't own a very modern PC, and I feared the PS3 version would not give me the same experience. I also had quite recently played a modded version of Baldur's Gate, and figured I might want to mod Dragon Age a bit too. "A bit" turned out to be about 30 individual mods, although most of them were simply graphical or environmental improvements.

1. Can you hear the dice?

For people who didn't like Mass Effect's rather close relatedness to first person shooters, Dragon Age was refreshing news. It promised to return back to the good old times of Baldur's Gate, giving the player control of the entire party from a bird's eye view. Although BG was a bit tedious to play at times, I was still looking forward to this. Although the game draws its inspiration from BG, a lot of things have naturally been modernized. The combat system is also BioWare's own instead of ye good old Dungeons & Dragons (well, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons back in the day). It's not that far removed from, say, the fourth edition of D&D really. Generally it's fair to say that things have been streamlined all over the place. Inspiration has been drawn from my all time favorite source (sarcasm detector says beep!): MMORPGs. Abilities are now cooldown-based with stamina/mana cost added on top.

Back in the day, most abilities, including spells, had limited uses per in-game day. This led to hilarious amounts of resting at times, but as a system it wasn't all that bad. Cooldowns on the other hand are often more spammable, and unfortunately this shows in their design: they are really lackluster. It's nice and all to have a bunch of skills, but you know what's nicer? Skills that have an actual noticeable effect. Sure, most of the higher level skills have noticeable effects, but that still leaves a ton of relatively irrelevant skills to fill the player's action bar. I do like to think there's a reason for this - at least in the source. Having an action bar (or two) full of active abilities gives the player something to do while their character is auto-attacking endless mobs in MMORPGs. Whether pressing buttons in a sequence is interesting or not is another question in itself.

Looking back to Baldur's Gate there actually are not nearly as many active abilities - and most of them have use limits much stricter than cooldowns in modern games. Indeed, most of the combat is about looking at characters auto-attacking mobs. The difference between a modern MMORPG and BG? Well, there's at most six characters for the player to control in BG. The tactical dimension of moving them around more than makes up for the fact that they are mostly just doing basic attacks. So, what happens when we add few handfuls of active abilities with small effects to all characters? Well, mostly it just becomes more tedious to play. When the impact of a single ability is close to zero, activating it feels a lot like an extra hoop to jump through. It's also important to note that impact is not a static property of an ability. Instead, it also depends on the game's enemy and encounter design. More about that a bit later.

As stated, there definitely are abilities in Dragon Age that have a clear impact. Higher level mages can clear mobs with powerful area of effect spells, given suitable conditions. Likewise, higher level rogues have skills that actually increase damage output significantly enough that it can be called burst damage. Yet most abilities are only weak buffs, debuffs or disables etc. They certainly have a statistical effect but its presence is hard to notice in a real-time battle system with 4 party members. The only sensible way to use all these small abilities is to set conditional statements for the AI to use them - at least for the other three party members, but it certainly doesn't hurt to do this for everyone. After these meaningless little skills have been automatized the player can then focus on activating the bigger abilities at opportune moments. However, at this point it's rather questionable to include such meaningless abilities in the game at all.

Basically it comes down to decision-making. If the difference between using a skill off cooldown (i.e. as soon as it comes available) and using it at opportune moments is not significant, then the choice of when to use the skill is not meaningful. There are many ways to deal with this problem: you can turn these skills from active to passive, or proc-based; you could increase their impact and the cost of using them; or you can just remove them. The "how" is ultimately a matter of game balance. The important part is having a suitable amount of meaningful decisions in the game and minimal amount of meaningless decisions. The latter are just noise, and they make the game irritating to play. That's the noise of the dice being rolled way too many times during a simple combat encounter. I guess there is a general phenomenon here at work, somewhere: making it appear like more is happening by dividing all actions into smaller units. Doesn't work. At all.

2. Iconoclastic Hammer of Infernal Devastation (+1 damage)

The rant continues and I'm afraid it won't be done by midnight. I have went on about this topic at least once before but I have the perfect excuse to revisit it. Let's compare equipment in BG and DA! The comparison is slightly unfair as BG enjoys a certain amount of familiarity bias from an old school AD&D nerd like myself. Equipment in DA is very - you guessed it - MMORPG-esque. Well, to be fair, they are a bit more interesting than that. Closer to Diablo 2 I'd say, of all the games I have played and actually remember. There's a lot of numbers. I didn't count exactly, but I wouldn't put 15 different numbers on one item beyond the realm of possibility. Generally speaking, more numbers equals more dimensions along which to compare pieces of equipment. One-dimensional equipment systems are incredibly boring: two pieces are either exactly equal, or one is simply better than the other.

As dimensions increase, player choice increases with them. I might want to wear weaker armor, because it grants other bonuses that I rate higher. However, if multiple dimensions are parallel to each other, meaning diminishes and overt complexity is introduced in its stead. For example, critical hit rate, critical hit chance and percentage-based bonus damage are often different ways to increase average damage per attack. Percentage bonuses are more stable, but over time the net result is the same: a double damage crit with a 15% chance equals 15% bonus damage with enough repetitions (in a simple system at least). Although it might be somewhat up to taste whether you want a higher crit or just more damage, to make an informed decision you'd need to whip out a calculator when two weapons are near enough each other in average damage. Or, you know, just don't give a damn and use the one that looks cooler I guess.

Situational bonuses (e.g. elemental damage, bonus vs enemy type, damage type resistance) are another beast entirely. Strictly speaking, they can be an attractive way to make more items legitimate choices. I mean, if a weapon is better against dragons than any other weapon in the game, it remains situationally useful, does it not? Well... it depends. A lot, actually. In a sense, actually using the item in its situational context is usually not a real choice (after all, it is the best option). However, there may be strategic decisions to make if there is a cost to equip the item - for instance, in Dragon Age the player may have two weapons equipped and swapping them is effortless. In this case the "cost" of equipping any given secondary weapon is that it takes your only secondary slot. So there is a decision: what to equip. Meanwhile, switching between primary and secondary weapons is free from the game mechanics perspective.

The overall cost of messing around with equipment also includes an external cost: effort cost, i.e. how much additional effort the player needs to expend in order to make the switch. For a very simple example, let's say switching to my anti-dragon sword kills a dragon approximately 15 seconds faster. If it takes 20 seconds to actually bring out the damn thing, it's not worth it. Even if it's close, or even slightly faster, it may feel too much of a hassle to be actually bothered with. On the other hand, if the effort cost is zero (e.g. alternative weapons are bound behind different, equally reachable action buttons), it's also a non-decision. Generally speaking, all sorts of effort costs are detrimental to choice, and should not be used as balancing factors in this context. There are other contexts where effort costs are valid balancing factors, especially if they have a skill component.

To summarize: situational equipment only makes sense if  the player has to make meaningful decisions about which to use. Probably the most common approach is to have a limited number of quick access slots coupled with a real cost for reconfiguration (e.g. inventory cannot be opened during combat). In conclusion, situational bonuses are certainly a dimension, but only a secondary factor in deciding a character's main equipment kit. Despite the flood of numbers, most equipment in Dragon Age falls on a neatly tiered scale so ultimately not a whole lot of choice is involved. Although, some armors are so goddamn ugly that I occasionally just had to use a slightly weaker one. Then again, for female characters, that's almost every piece of armor in the game. Which brings us to another important factor that influences equipment choices: player experience.

Let's face it. Despite occasionally having cool names, a collection of numbers doesn't really cut it when it comes to items being cool. So for all their numbers, pieces of equipment in Dragon Age just aren't all that interesting. This is where the AD&D background of BG comes into play - especially in BG2. We can even argue that comparing a sword +1 to a sword +2 is not all that different from comparing two items in DA - the difference is just made more obvious. At the same time, the scale is more visceral. However, the really interesting stuff comes in the form of unique magic items. Named items that clearly differ from anything else in the game. A lot of these items give the player new abilities and truly unique mechanics that are not available anywhere else in the game. The amount of oomph is simply superior to a collection of numbers. While in DA a sword is always used in the same way, in BG a sword might have abilities that create entirely new strategies.

Furthermore, as most of the items come from the well-known AD&D and Forgotten Realms lore, they are already iconic - and their names have meaning. Some of them are also batshit insane, like the Deck of Many Things - an item that's almost a sidequest in itself - or the talking sword (name forgotten). Whether there is more meaningful choice considering equipment in BG is debatable though, as they still mostly fall on a rather tiered scale. However, they are definitely several magnitudes more exciting. They are also much harder and time-consuming to program. It is easy to see why developers these days prefer collections of numbers. Once you have the system down, generating equipment is just a matter of drawing up some numbers - which is something computers are very good at. It's also easy to balance, and effortless to re-balance. Just tweak the numbers.

Sadly, the oomph is gone - equipment has become just another piece in the mathematical character optimization machine. While making choices based on numbers is still meaningful, individual items are not memorable at all, and the excitement of finding new equipment is massively diminished. That's the sad reality as RPGs become games of numbers. In closing, a couple of examples. Borderlands 2 walks the border of numbers and uniqueness quite successfully. While most of its items are indeed just numbers, truly legendary weapons have unique properties that make them behave like no other weapon in the game. Another one is Dark Souls. If you only look at numbers, the equipment system seems really one-dimensional. However, each weapon is truly defined by its attack animations - its player experience - so that choice is first and foremost based on play style preference.


3. There and back again - travel time: eternity and a half


This pretty much continues where I left off with the Tales rant about ridiculous detours in games. Detours are not as much of a prominent problem in Dragon Age. Granted, every faction the player needs to visit to get them pledge their allegiance demands a series of quests before agreeing - so it's basically business as usual. In the very least these are actual subplots with player choices, and in many ways feel much less like hoops to jump through. So what's there to rant about? Well, very briefly: dungeon length. I have touched the topic in the past, but if any game has truly tried my patience with long dungeons, it's Dragon Age. It doesn't even necessarily mean the problem is at its worst here, it just means it feels most aggravating. This is due to several reasons, one of which is the combat system deficiencies outlined before. On its own, even that would be fine though.

The real problem then? The sheer amount of encounters per dungeon. There's a fight in literally every fucking room and corridor in the game. Which, again, in and of itself is not aggravating - just incredibly annoying. I've had my share of these in games before (like Xenogears, omfg). What really makes it toxic is that there are like three different enemies in the game. The variety of encounters is mindbogglingly low, and going through the motions again and again is really tedious - primarily because the game has a fuckton of meaningless abilities and the NPCs tend to have a really hard time staying where you want them to be (or if they do, they don't do anything at all). Although you can make combat more interesting by increasing difficulty, it becomes so time-consuming that it's just not worth it. Most encounters have the same structure anyway: sneak up on soft, deadly targets (mages, archers), then mop up the rest. Rinse and repeat in every room and corridor. Later on in the game you can fortunately use broken AoE combinations to kill enemies before they even reach you.

Mass Effects 1 and 2 suffer largely from the same problem. The amount of fighting really drove me insane - or, well, bored, actually. The problem is the same: there just aren't that many enemy types in the game. I think ME2 did best of the three games in this category. In all games the dungeons are just too long, and too repetitive. In Dragon Age the only real difference you seem to get between most dungeons is new textures in the environment, and new flavor for the same old enemies. I get it, we are supposed to be fighting darkspawn throughout the game because they are everywhere. Just, could there maybe be more than three types of them? No? Ok, I am exaggerating a bit, but three is not *that* far off, unfortunately. It's kind of the same in ME: there's this one race of enemies that forms the major threat in the game, and they have like literally three different types of units. That, and dungeons are effectively just long FPS corridors.

So, here comes the unfair Baldur's Gate comparison again. Admittedly the first Baldur's Gate suffers from many of the same problems (except it's composed of massive amount of outdoor areas and somewhat less dungeons) - largely because the level range 1-7 is in fact quite boring in AD&D in general. BG2 on the other hand is miles ahead. Taking advantage of iconic AD&D monsters, the game offers a far wider variety of challenges in combats. Many of its dungeons are also more interesting with devious traps and puzzles, or optional challenges that yield worthy rewards. Which is another point: if items are not exciting to find, why bother spending any longer in dungeons than is mandatory? Overall, the ratio of meaningful encounters to meaningless ones seems simply much better (or maybe it's the nostalgia talking). The number of enemy types is probably a magnitude or two higher too.

Variety of challenge is the key. In BG2, enemies have abilities that are absolutely bonkers and - as a consequence - very threatening. High level mages have ridiculous protections; vampires drain levels; beholders cast all sorts of crazy shit at you, including instant kills. It's even possible for characters to be entirely erased from the game, permanently. Think about that, and compare it to the watered-down enemies we get in games these days. Since player abilities - especially those of mages - are equally nuts, strategy choices have much higher impact. The games feel so different in comparison. To me, in DA it feels like most of my decisions increase my party's overall effectiveness by like 10%, whereas in BG2 the chance of winning can go from zero to 100% with good strategy. In a way, I could say that in DA everything progresses at a steady pace, whereas BG2 is incredibly explosive in nature - often literally.

All that, and I'm pretty sure BG2 also has shorter dungeons.

Conclusion

So, to summarize this wandering rant, these modern BioWare games - Dragon Age in particular - seems to suffer from everything being watered down. Certainly this makes it a more balanced game than Baldur's Gate 2, but at what cost? Going through the game feels like treading through some gray substance at a steady pace - a really slow pace at that. The game just throws these seemingly endless encounters at the player, each containing a mixture of the same enemies you just killed in the last room. Reaching new levels doesn't feel much like anything as most abilities lack substantial impact. Finding items is reduced to a sense of "wow, better numbers". Quantity over quality, it seems, and it just doesn't work. It never does, not for me. As a game of high fantasy dungeon crawling, DA is just garbage. If there's a mod that removes two thirds of all encounters in the game, I recommend using it - that just might make it work.

In the next part, I'll go through some reasons why I still managed to play through it.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Radiant Historia

This game took me a long time to finish. There's two reasons. First, it's on my least favorite console: Nintendo DS - it's the least favorite because its buttons are small and it's not all that comfortable to hold compared to, say, the Sony PSP. Second, this game takes a while to truly get off. Admittedly this is a rather common problem with JRPGs in general, but these two factors combined resulted in me playing this game very rarely, and ultimately it took me almost a full year to get through 30 something in-game hours. The odd bit is that the game's actually really good. Like a bunch of other good JRPG titles on DS, this one was never available in Europe. Fortunately the platform is region independent. Regardless, while the game was received well, I think it wasn't all that popular.

1. Time travel 

Time travel is a fascinating concept to explore in fiction as it allows all kinds of perplexing plots. Doctor Who is probably the most prominent popular culture go-to these days - and for a reason. The fundamental rules of time travel are incredibly relaxed in the universe of Doctor Who. This lends itself to rather crazy plots. Yet there is a sufficient amount of consistency within those relaxed rules, so that they do seem natural rather than specifically constructed. When it comes to games - at least those of the JRPG variety - the one game above all is Chrono Trigger. I would honestly have to replay the game to remember exactly how it deals with time travel and how much time travel influences its story. What I do recall is you can kill the final boss in multiple stages of the game. More recent examples would include Final Fantasy XIII-2 and of course Radiant Historia. Each of these games follow different rules for time travel, and use it in different ways. Radiant Historia focuses on a scenario with exactly two alternate timelines.

Time travel is a tricky prospect for game designers. So far, time travel stories have been tied to linear narrative - at least to my knowledge. Indeed, as if open-ended narrative games wouldn't be hard enough as they are, introducing the possibility of time travel complicates things even further - again depending on the rules of course. In the simplest scenario time travel can simply be used as a form of postcognition, allowing players to look into the past without messing up the timeline itself. However, if players are allowed to change things around, the web of causality can easily expand beyond what modern AI can handle. Relying on scripted and/or heavily limited scenarios is therefore the sane man's way to success - for now. Another interesting topic from a game design perspective is time travel's role; whether it is merely a narrative concept, or has also been built into gameplay somehow.

Time manipulation on the other hand is employed as a game mechanic every now and then, with the indie platformer Braid being a strong example. Another closely linked concept is that of alternate realities, lately seen in e.g. Bioshock Infinite. Admittedly not much gameplay was built around alternate realities, and the narrative was straight as an arrow. In a way it can be said that Radiant Historia features both time travel and alternate realities (two of them to be exact). As a curious twist, only the protagonist, Stocke, is able to time travel and the available companions are therefore always limited by the point in time you go to. It's also noteworthy that Stocke traverses his own two alternate timelines, always experiencing past events from a first person perspective. In other words he doesn't get to be an outside observer in his own past. Oh and in case you are wondering, he is not allowed to inform his companions about his ability to time travel - which is kind of convenient in keeping the narrative sane.

The rules of time travel in the game are a bit incoherent. The timelines are not exactly independent, but they aren't exactly connected either. This means that certain changes in one timeline can resonate into the other. However, most of the time roadblocks in the narrative are cleared by the player obtaining an item or ability in the other timeline. Which is not all that different from obtaining these things from some faraway dungeon instead - except the developers can recycle the same environments in both timelines. I have to admit this felt a bit cheap and dipping into one timeline to obtain MacGuffin #1745 got a bit tedious at times. It's not necessarily due to the concept itself, but rather its technical implementation. Since there are only limited nodes to travel to, certain dialogue and other sequences need to be played over and over again because often the MacGuffin itself is a bit beyond the travel node.

Time travel in itself is not the core subject matter in RH really. It's mostly used as a way to tell the game's story - the player pieces it together from two different perspectives. It's also the solution to all kinds of troubles encountered by the protagonist. Although the story's premise is for Stocke to discover the true history by repairing the original timeline, most of the game's subject matter deals with political events, Stocke's identity and his nemesis. Which, honestly, is absolutely fine. Politics often results in more interesting plots than the usual world-saving scenarios (something I hope George R. R. Martin also remembers before ruining his series with too much epic bullshit *ahem*). While there is a world-threatening catastrophe looming over everything in RH, it is first and foremost about the people. You could actually remove the time travel and still have a fairly decent - if not as unique - plot.

In comparison, both Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy XIII-2 have time travel as a more significant plot subject. In particular, the timeline itself is being threatened - and especially FFXIII-2 is mostly about fixing it somehow. Furthermore, the reason why the timeline is altered in the first place is an important piece of the full plot of the entire FFXIII trilogy. In RH the origin of Stocke's time travel ability doesn't really matter all that much. It's nice to learn, but bears less significance because it's not a central plot theme in the game. I guess this is as far as I want to delve into time travel and related things for now. Let's talk about something else story-related.

2. The take-off time

I sited slow take-off time as one of the two reasons I took so effing long to complete this game. It's a bit of a pattern really for handheld games and me: start slow, playing an hour here or there until the game really starts going, and then just be glued to the screen for the last half or such. Kind of a similar thing happens with TV series and me. It's really quite obvious, but something that I really thought about only quite recently. In the end I feel like it comes down to how relatable the characters are, or how long it takes for me to start relating to them. This is obviously highly affected by character writing and overall storytelling. For example, the main characters of Gilmore Girls are super-relatable, pretty much from the get-go. Most game characters, well, they are not - the level of writing just ain't there yet. It's also hard to really bring out much about personalities and such if most in-game dialogue is strictly plot-related. Persona 4 gets quite close though.

I basically approach immersion through the game's characters, which is why I only get really engrossed once I feel like I know them - and this may take even up to 20 hours of game time. It's really less about development of the plot for me - unless the plot itself is *really* good (Xenogears, off the top of my head). This also explains why sequels with the same main cast seem to get off much more quickly - even instantly - and also why the first hours of a game feel better when playing it for a second time. Games with a player-created protagonist mix things up a bit, because the immersion goes through one character who is essentially my own avatar. Other people might have different way of immersing themselves into fiction. Still, I think this short piece is relevant if you read my blog - it will help you understand why I have certain opinions about certain games. For instance, does my dislike of Xenoblade's first half really originate from it's slow pace, or the fact that I didn't find the characters all too relatable until much later into the game?

Back to Radiant Historia: this game's cast of characters is not very deep. The main character and one or two companions get interesting later on, but this takes quite a while. Most of the in-game talk is also quite strictly to the point. For some this might be a blessing more than anything, for me it kinda leaves the characters a bit shallow - or actually a lot shallow. There is also a game mechanical dimension to this, particularly in RPGs: early on, characters have very limited number of abilities, which makes them thin from a mechanical perspective on top of being thin from a personality perspective. Generally both improve over time, at least if you're like me and don't really mind cliched characters. I guess you'd have to be to enjoy this genre.

3. Combat of push-arounds

If time travel / alternate realities as plot elements don't sound convincing enough for you, then how about a rather unique turn-based combat system? On the surface the system doesn't look all that revolutionary. It's a very basic turn-based system where enemies are placed on a 3x3 grid. However, the grid is rather important because almost all enemies in the game can be pushed and pulled around using different abilities. They can also be stacked temporarily, which is the primary way of increasing the party's damage output. For instance, you can push an enemy into another (doing damage), and then hit the two stacked enemies, this time damaging both, and then push them into yet another enemy. If you'd then attack the stack once more, the collateral damage has effectively doubled the damage done to one target.

At first the system is a bit simplistic. Just stack enemies, hit the stack, rinse and repeat. You can also create chains longer than three hits by swapping turns around. Characters can always swap their turn with any other combatant, including enemies. By allowing enemies to take their turns first, you can easily have at least two turns for each of your characters without interruptions. However, there is a downside to this (besides allowing enemies to hit you first!): characters who have swapped their turns take bonus damage until they actually take a turn. This is relevant, because some enemies really dish out the hurt. The system gets more complex later on, as abilities that hit multiple tiles become available. One character can also cast traps, which are more powerful than normal spells, but can only be cast on empty tiles.

As usual, it's important that enemies pose enough of a threat. Some of them cause serious grief, but even weaker ones can be a bane. This is caused by the limited availability of recovery items (they are expensive - especially mana recovery items) and the fact that anything beyond basic attacks costs mana - and basic attacks are weak. Running out of resources is a threat when undertaking longer ventures. I thought I had enough supplies for the final dungeon... boy was I wrong. It got rather tense towards the end. Navigational mistakes can also become rather costly as enemies respawn whenever you leave a map. Once again the success of RH's combat system cannot be awarded to just one system, but rather a combination of factors. The combination of manipulating space (enemy positions) and time (turn order) becomes interesting because the player is required to make full use of it.

If I had to complain about something, it would be this: character development in the game is entirely linear, in one dimension. That's a fancy way of saying you gain preset abilities by leveling up. The only way to customize the characters themselves is to change their equipment - which also consists entirely of numeric bonuses. However the game does force the player to frequently change their party configuration. When traveling in time, the point in time dictates who are actually accompanying Stocke at the moment (remember, the party members can't travel in time). Mysteriously enough all companions retain levels and equipment they gained in some future point in time. I think this is a rather necessary amendment and not all that atypical to JRPGs; game mechanics are not involved with the plot in any way (like summoning a space dragon to blast enemies from the orbit doesn't destroy the surrounding city, even though it should).

Conclusion

Despite its slow start, Radiant Historia is a very solid JRPG. Time travel is always a fascinating, even though it really isn't in the main focus this time. Instead, the game's plot is mostly about politics and personal relationships - both of which I generally find more interesting than cosmic plots involving world-eating gods. Most importantly it features a combat system that has enough space for strategical thinking and enemies that require it. Character development is bland though and there could have been a more interesting way of keeping all characters unique.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Dota 2 Next Level Meta: Support Brewmaster

Moving on to one of those heroes that I'm not very good with it, but like to play nevertheless. Brewmaster has some of the best quotes in the game - so, at least you can listen to them while failing as a support.

Hero analysis

My prediction for support Brewmaster was not that strong, primarily because he needs to be in melee range to be useful, and he has some serious mana pool issues. In theory his ultimate is just as strong without farm as it is with farm. However, he generally farms items that allow him to get his ultimate off more effectively - items like Blink Dagger or in some cases Black King Bar. Another reason why Brew is played as a core has also a lot to do with his ultimate. If he gets to level 6 early, he can dominate early game fights in a very convincing fashion. Supports' levels are often delayed compared to those of cores, unless you are fanatically leeching experience from a safe lane carry. Jungling supports can also get quite fast levels, but unfortunately Brew doesn't have a suitable skillset for that. In other words, you will be playing a melee lane support who has no stuns.

So what does he have? Well, his first skill Thunderclap is an aoe nuke and a slow and an attack slow - but it only hits around Brew, requiring him to be in melee range. His second skill has higher utility since at least it's ranged. The miss chance can be useful in the same way as Bane's Enfeeblement, to deny last hits from an enemy carry. However you need a substantial amount of mana regen to spam it. The slow is useful for chasing, allowing you to catch up and use Thunderclap. His passive is not all that effective for a support. It's kind of useful if you are facing a melee hero, as it allows you to trade hits more favorably. Most of Brew's effectiveness will still come out of his ultimate Primal Split, which gives a staggering amount of teamfight control and damage, especially in the early mid game. As a support you'll have to rely on walk-in ults at the time the skill itself is at its strongest. Obviously this is not very effective.

I think maxing Thunderclap first is still the way to go. Grabbing that one value point of Drunken Brawler should also be helpful, but beyond that you might want to max Drunken Haze second even though its scaling isn't that hot. That 75% miss chance at level 4 is still going to be very annoying for enemy carries to deal with, especially if they don't otherwise want to build either of the bars. The ranged slow is also going to be helpful whenever your ultimate isn't up - as a support you should expect to be fighting quite a bit more without it.

Items

I don't think there's much reason to deviate from the standard Brew build. Just go for that blink, even though its timing won't be very good unless you're somehow racking up kills. Getting an Orb of Venom after boots could be a good idea to improve your chasing potential. Buying wards is fine to some extent, and thanks to your ultimate carrying a gem is a lot safer than it would be on many other supports. Of course as a melee hero you need to bring a Quelling Blade to actually deward cliffs. If at all possible, just try and save for that blink. Grabbing arcanes at some point should be beneficial. If it's hard to get a blink, going arcanes first at least allows you to get more out of your other spells and still have mana for Primal Split. Beyond blink, just get whatever seems the most useful and attainable. Vlad is a good option with lots of utility as is Force Staff (even more mobility!) You could also build for a Hex, but actually getting there might be difficult. Other useful options include aghs and refresher, to get more out of your ultimate.

Game plan

Well, this here is the hard part. Brew is a rather useless lane support, and his ability to set up kills is nonexistent. If there is another support on your lane, or your carry can initiate, then Thunderclap is a decent followup nuke and slow. The same goes for ganking other lanes. You always need someone else to initiate - the best you can do is help them a bit with Drunken Haze. With 800 range you have a good chance of getting it off before the enemy realizes they're getting ganked, at least if you're smoked or it's night time. It might be possible to roam with, say, level 2 or 3 Brew this way, especially if you get that Orb of Venom. He's pretty bad at protecting a carry, and equally bad at harassing enemies or getting kills on a lane. So roaming is probably what you should do after leeching that second level either from the lane or from pulling. Beyond that it's all about getting those kills.

After finally getting to level 6, you'll be playing mostly like you would as a core who had his farm shut down hard. Because you have to rely on walking in to deliver your ultimate, you're very susceptible to silences and stuns. Two of the brewling are quite fast however, so you could just cast split a bit further away and then initiate with the water panda from invis. This does waste precious seconds, but it's better than dying without getting a split off. Using your ult to counter-initiate is another good way to get a lot of utility out of it. Just use it as soon as the enemy jumps in to screw up their plans. You should obviously avoid being the one in the receiving end of their initiation however.

Experiences

Based on one bot match, I feel like I was mostly right. Although his ultimate in itself is the same whether he is support or core, it is indeed slightly harder to deliver. There is however another factor involved in making him a less desirable support: it's generally ok for cores to rely on a long cooldown ultimate to be effective as they can farm while it's down; in the case of supports, they generally are required to be active even while their ultimate is on cooldown. It is these in-between periods where Brewmaster is very weak compared to other melee supports like Earthshaker or Treant Protector. While his two spells have a certain degree of utility, they are inferior to true support abilities. In particular, the only thing he can do from any sort of range is Drunken Haze, and while the slow is nice and the miss chance is significant, they don't do all that much to turn a fight around.

Having to walk in to use your only nuke really hurts, and it's only a slow. This puts Brew into rather significant danger and you typically can't ever use Thunderclap if you also want to use your ultimate. Another huge problem is his abysmal mana pool. A lot of time is wasted going back to base. In situations where the slow from Drunken Haze is enough of a gap closer, he can gank pretty effectively. If you manage to land a Thunderclap followed by a couple of poison attacks, most enemies should not be able to get away. However, Drunken Haze is not the best gap closer and generally requires a smoke in daytime to get close enough from a suitable angle. His burst damage is also quite weak with just one 300 damage nuke and a guaranteed double damage crit.

Support Brew is therefore a bit too greedy. While he can theoretically be very effective in teamfights, the in-between will be tough. His levels are also very likely to be late compared to a core Brew, and even more so his blink. I stand by my initial judgement, placing him in the poor category.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Tales of Xillia/Graces f

Getting lazy again and doing two games at once! Well, there's that, and the fact these are quite similar in many ways. It's a normal series thing, kind of like Final Fantasy before FFX and later games started messing around with things more. So yes, both of these games have the same fundamental game mechanics and core systems. The biggest differences can be found in character development, combat system details and various subsystems. Tales seems to be one of those series that are kind of reliable, but nothing truly amazing ever seems to come out of it. That's just my impression, and I might be terribly wrong. It does, however, definitely hold true for these two games I have played. One distinctive feature of the series is that you can play battles with up to four players. This makes it ideal for social RPG marathons because there is no need for taking turns holding the controller. Which is why I picked Xillia up initially in fact.

I don't feel like doing a complete analysis. I'll just go off on random tangents instead. Wherever that may lead.

1. Detour gaming

Rant time! This applies especially to Tales of Xillia, as the game is my source of inspiration for writing about this phenomenon. The point is still valid for many games, and even other works of fiction. Xillia is just particularly obnoxious. There's some minor spoilers about the game's structure, but nothing specific really. The game starts with Milla trying to destroy a device. She fails and has to retreat. Then we get to follow how she attempts to get back to the lab, to destroy the device once more. However, there's a but. One does not simply walk into... well, might as well call it Mordor. The next twenty or something hours of the game are basically spent running into yet another obstacle that ruins yet another way of reaching Mordor. When we're finally down to the very last option, the game still manages to throw several hours' worth of hoops for us to jump through.

In other words, the story does not actually proceed anywhere in the first twenty or more hours of the game. There is literally no progress in the plot. There's just an endless ball of side plot threads, all of which are incredibly pointless. They just have to get the player to visit every corner of the world, no matter how lame the excuses to do so are. The first half of Tales of Graces f feels a bit like the same in the sense that it too has the player run across the world map before the plot truly starts moving ahead, but at least it moves. Xillia just kind of spins in place. Ironically, once it actually gets somewhere, Xillia's plot is fairly good. Naturally once it gets to the good bits, it starts to move too quickly. It's kind of the same for Graces f, but at least it is somewhat more balanced with its pacing.

I stopped watching The X-Files because the series just throws bucketloads of fillers at the viewer. Same thing happens in anime a lot. Typically, not only does the main plot stand still for the duration of an entire episode, often interpersonal relations of the main cast do not develop either. Even if the individual filler episodes are great from time to time, it is still really annoying when the fiction does not grow. I love growth. These days I very rarely watch movies at all because they're hardly comparable to the massive arc of growth offered by extended works of fiction. I also expect this growth from such fiction, and get upset when it fails to deliver, choosing to unload filler after filler instead. That said, I haven't really found anyone who actually likes the kind of structure Tales of Xillia offers. So perhaps this is not just a personal quirk of mine at work in this rant.

The incredibly subtle parallel here is that I consider the hoops (subplots) in Xillia as something very similar to filler episodes. I think it's a fair comparison. In both cases, the main characters get diverted from their primary task into doing something less important (although technically it supports their main goal because it's an obstacle). The subplot often carries no weight beyond its own time frame either, which makes it a completely irrelevant event once it is over. It also often involves grinding down a horde of enemies that otherwise would have been left untouched. Yes, I do realize that by playing JRPGs I literally signed up for killing endless legions of enemies, but I'd rather encounter them while getting towards a worthy goal - otherwise it feels like I'm eradicating them just so that marketers can claim another +10 hours of gameplay in the box.

Games don't even need to necessarily have any stupid detours. Taking forever to get anywhere is just as frustrating, but it's a subject for another entry. Overall, I do admit my reaction to detour gaming these days is a lot stronger than it used to be in the past. The key factor here is time, or rather the ever-ironic relationship of time and money. Way back when I had all the time in the world, my ability to actually buy new games was rather limited. Back then a game had to offer a significant amount of gameplay hours to justify paying a full price. This made me a lot more tolerant. These days as I have a stable source of income and money to spend, the very fact of my employment kind of cuts into my gaming time. This has lead me to value my time all the more, and I have started to expect the same respect for my time from games. So, I feel a bit offended when they do not.

Perhaps it's a sign that I should finally ditch my long-lasting love for JRPGs. Or at least stop playing the titles that seem okayish, not great.

2. Real-time battle, almost there

The Tales franchise sports real-time battles, and they have been doing so for quite some time. At some point they switched to 3D battle fields, but to my knowledge the basics have stayed roughly the same throughout the series. As we have discussed in previous entries, real-time battle systems generally need to somehow control the flow of battle so that players cannot just mash buttons and hold enemies in stagger infinitely. In this regard Tales is a bit chaotic. Basic attacks generally don't offer much stagger and the stagger resistance of enemies didn't seem constant, or was dependent on their own state (e.g. they cannot be staggered mid-animation). I am not sure how exactly stagger worked in these two games - the system wasn't really all that transparent.

Of these two games, Graces f felt a bit more fast-paced, with more emphasis on tempo control. Although the games feel very similar on the surface, a number of differences contribute the difference in feel. For instance, Xillia controls ability spam through the equivalent of mana. Graces f does no such thing; instead it has a different point mechanic that controls the length of combos. It's quite similar to the system in Star Ocean 3. The end result is that while it's possible to hold an enemy staggered for the duration of an entire combo, at some point you'll simply run out of steam and have to wait a few seconds to regenerate combo capacity. This is the battle flow control mechanism that puts forces the player to play defense for a bit instead of brainlessly mashing combos in. In Xillia mana kind of acts as a similar mechanism: although repeatedly casting spells can hold enemies in place, you'll eventually run out of mana.

I did play most of Xillia as a caster so I cannot attest how it works for other character types. Overall I felt that the amount of control players can have over enemies is in similar levels; perhaps slightly stronger in Graces f. On the other hand, the amount of control players have over their allies is slightly higher in Xillia. In Graces f all other party members are almost completely autonomous; in Xillia, the player can choose to link their character with another character to have them work as a pair. Since we were playing with two players, we both had a link partner, whereas I'd imagine there would be more switching involved when playing solo because links between different characters provide different benefits and combination attacks. Both games have the option to bind a few abilities of non-controlled characters to buttons, allowing the player to invoke them when needed.

Overall I feel there's a bit of a redundancy problem in both games. They have a lot of depth, but fall short in utilizing it. With 3 AI controlled characters in the battle field, a lot of stuff is simply out of the player's hands. For instance, in Graces f you get quite significant bonus damage if you hit all of an enemy's weaknesses in one combo. There are so many different weaknesses that a single character can rarely do so, which means you have to hope that your allies have the sense to fill in the one's you cannot hit. It also requires a lot of memorization because attacks can have up to four different attributes, and the player has a combo tree of 16 attacks and another 4 attacks on top of that. You can always check the attributes in a pause menu, but it gets tedious. Xillia reduces the amount of available attacks drastically, and it also simplifies the weakness system to a more familiar element based one.

Another difference that may seem small but vastly influences the battle flow is free run. An interesting feature in Tales is that normally characters move in a 2D line in respect to their target (i.e. just near or far). Free run can be activated with a button, and it allows a character to move freely. In Graces f, free running depletes combo capacity, limiting it use heavily while in Xillia it's free. It follows rather naturally that you'll be using it a lot more, because it's the best way to avoid enemy attacks. In fact, since Graces f has a quick step dodge (also costs cc), there is very little use for free running. The end result is that Xillia involves a lot more running around and crossing distances is fairly quick. In Graces f evasions are done in a tighter space, and covering larger distances actually takes quite a bit of time. Xillia also has jumping which Graces f does not, and it seems very useless and mostly annoying. Jumps are slow, which makes accidental jumps quite dangerous.

I slightly preferred Graces f's gameplay, primarily because its controls are more stable. Accidental jumps aside, Xillia also has an annoying habit of characters not facing the right way after free running, which results in a lot of spells cast off-target. Neither of the games get to the same level of enjoyment as my long time favorite Star Ocean 3. Tales combat feels quite entertaining, and most of the time it's fast - a massively important factor in a game with hundreds of battles. Unfortunately enemies do not vary all that much, which makes stuff a bit repetitive. There are some alleviating factors however, and we're about to move on to them.


3. Character design musings

In both games, all characters have their own unique mechanics. I find this commendable, as opposed to games where all characters can be made into carbon copies of each other. These mechanics felt more emphasized in Xillia though, and were not that big of a factor in Graces f. There clearly had to be a reason why I chose to play just one character though, so let's look into this a bit. First of all, one problem I have with both games is that all character upgrades come in very small pieces from a system that has hundreds of nodes to activate (the systems are a bit different, but the rewards are not). A +3% conditional bonus here, a +2 stat bonus there etc. This means it's really hard to actually make any sense of a character's play style and advantages in just a glance, and it takes quite a lot of fights to grasp it in practice too. Arguably this could also been seen as a strength.

There is however something to be said about the actual impacts of different playstyles on characters. If you look at Dota 2, there's 108 different heroes and all of them have a distinct impact on how the game plays out. Meanwhile, in tales, it felt like I could have any party of four characters and the combat experience was no different - unless I would have purposefully avoided taking a healer with me, but that's just stupid. So, while each character may feel a bit different to play, the overall combat flow remains largely unchanged. I acknowledge that I did not particularly explore my options, because I largely had a "whatever works" attitude. The reason for this is the lack of variety in enemy design - the game very rarely forces its player to adapt. In Graces f I also didn't feel like memorizing a new combo tree too often so I stuck with the main character.

I don't often change characters just for variety. I only change when the game throws a curve ball my standard roster cannot handle, or if I feel combats are going too slowly. Sticking with the main character usually works well enough, because they're generally designed to be quite straightforward to play and still effective, and also the most well-rounded. I don't like playing healers or supports that cast buffs in real-time combat systems, because usually the AI is actually better at these roles (healing a low HP character or refreshing an expired buff are both very simple rules) - and it's usually more boring. In a cast of six characters there's typically one healer, one buffer and four others who usually do either physical or magical damage (or very rarely both but they're usually worse than focused characters). This leaves four feasible options to choose from.  

Because I don't trust AI in these games, I generally aim to play the character that is the most crucial for my strategy to work. Admittedly it's a bit unfair to make comparisons to Star Ocean 3 because I sank some three hundred hours into that game and experimented with everything. However, even on my first playthrough I felt more pressured to change my controlled character throughout the game. It would seem that for all their unique mechanics, characters in either of these two Tales games don't really have that different impact - some are just more tedious to play than others. It kinda comes down to the fact that there are just multiple ways of doing the exact same thing. If you compare to something I have hyped less, like Xenoblade, even that game had more pressing selection criteria for characters because they actually did different things.

Might be this is just my impression, and the system actually offers more than I got out of it. I also do commend the effort. It just really feels like - as long as you've got the basic requirements covered - there really isn't much of a difference between party configurations. It's also worthwhile to remember that it's not necessarily a problem with character design; it could just as well be a problem with enemy design. Ultimately it's always the game's challenge that drives players to adapt and make good use of their options. Certainly there are players out there who appreciate options just for the sake of having variety, but for me it feels like waste of interesting character design. In one regard Tales does fine: non-active party members still receive a lion's share of experience, so they at least do not fall behind.

Conclusion

Although there are a lot of individual minisystems in both games that are kind of curious, I will cut this post short here. Overall both games are decent JRPGs, but not really special in any regard. This really hurts them a lot, because mediocre JRPGs seem to be all we're getting these days - especially on home consoles. They're hurt by sloppy storytelling. All of their good ideas also kind of blend into a grey mix where nothing seems to really matter a whole lot. The end result is an experience that is kind of bland until you have put enough hours behind to develop some affection for the characters and their antics. This is actually another commendable thing about the series: it has a lot of (optional) banter between characters. Although it's quite cliched, it's highly entertaining and brings life to the otherwise mediocre characters. Some scenes - particularly in Xillia - are just downright absurd.

Overall, I might have loved this series a lot more had I played it like ten years ago. It was entertaining enough for these two games, but I'm not really dying to get more. Maybe for a full 4 player cooperative experience? Xillia 2 is out there, but it seems like yet another mediocre game, with just one benefit: recurring characters - but that's a topic for another day.

As a final note, maybe I should re-visit Star Ocean 3 and see if it's actually as good as I remember it to be.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Dota 2 Next Level Meta: Support Bloodseeker

This one's a jungler! I estimated Bloodseeker to fall into the "poor" category - something I would not try in an actual pub game. Let's take a look:

Hero analysis

First of all, Bloodseeker is melee - and that's bad news for supports. He is actually kind of unique, primarily due to his third ability Thirst. It gives vision of enemies below half health, and true sight of enemies below a quarter. On top of that, it also gives Bloodseeker bonus movement speed and damage for each enemy below the threshold - and he is allowed to exceed the hard movement speed limit while under effects of Thirst. With Thirst active he is ridiculously good at chasing. Because the vision it grants is global, it always helps your team which makes it an amazing utility ability. It also allows him to hit pretty hard when enemies get low, even if he has no carry items. His first skill is a good silence on early levels or a hefty damage buff at later levels. It's also a decent early game damage over time nuke. Since it's no longer removable, it's a very powerful silence against certain heroes - you just have to be mindful of the damage buff you're giving them with the silence. Early game it really works a lot like Skywrath Mage's Ancient Seal. It's also his carry ability in a sense, but just like Vengeful Spirit's aura, it can just as well buff another carry instead.

So these two skills are not actually that bad for supports. What about the remaining two? Bloodbath has great synergy with Thirst as Bloodseeker regains a substantial chunk of health whenever he finishes off an enemy hero - this means you can dive even under towers and live to tell the tale. If you're a support, then you can feel free to take even more risks. Bloodbath also allows Bloodseeker to jungle, although he is horribly slow at it because he doesn't have any skills to accelerate farming - he can merely survive it (and even that is a bit tricky). However since he is absolutely useless in lane, he should probably be played as a fourth role jungler when played as a support. I seriously do not recommend playing a core Bloodseeker in the jungle, the farm is just way too slow. Finally there's his ultimate Rupture, which is good for making enemies stay where they are. This is obviously a good ganking ultimate, allowing him to show up in a lane and get a kill with his allies. Its cast range of 1000 units makes it really easy to use - and also safe.

As a core Bloodseeker, prioritizing Thirst is the obvious thing to do. If, for some god awful reason, you're lane supporting, I guess you should also go for it. However, in jungle you need to prioritize Bloodbath in the early game in order to sustain your farm. I would not straight out max it, but one level is clearly not sufficient. Even as a support I still think maxing Thirst first is worth it. In the early game it's also usually better to leave Blood Rage at one point to get that sweet 6 second silence without buffing the enemy too much. That is one hell of a value point. Since Thirst level 2 is significantly stronger than level 1, it would be ideal to have 1-2-2-1 by level 6. However at this point I'm not sure if you can jungle with only two levels of Bloodbath. Whether you grab the first point in Thirst level 2 or level 4 depends on the laning situation. If you think you can get a kill with your safe lane on level 2 with Blood Rage, I'd go for that instead of Thirst - but if not, picking Thirst might help your team or help you farm a bit faster while enemies are low.

Items

Here's what you will build: Mekansm. This is going to raise some eyebrows in the pub scene, so let me explain. Mek is often built by the team's jungling support because they can get it with decent timing - this most people know. On the other hand if you look at cores who commonly build a Mek - heroes like Viper, Doom, Razor or even Troll Warlord - there's a clear pattern. All these heroes get their early and mid game damage primarily from their abilities and by staying alive in teamfights. They also aren't particularly mana-starved. Guess what? Bloodseeker fits this pattern perfectly. I realized this when I was watching a replay of my friend's team (shoutout to VSP!) where they pretty much lost because they didn't have a Mek early enough. I think they tried to build it on their offlane Centaur but he also really needs a blink. Since other heroes were not suitable Mek carriers, Bloodseeker would have been the best choice. The more I  thought about, the more it made sense too.

Sure, Blade Mail is amazing on him, but if your team needs a Mek and none of the cores are getting it, your jungling support Bloodseeker definitely should. As for other items, well. People usually scoff at Force Staff on Bloodseeker because it's such a quirky build (it makes your ultimate a stronger nuke in a sense but the damage is honestly not that hot). However, as a support, Force Staff provides amazing utility - and since that's what you're here for, its synergy with your ultimate is just a bonus. The 10 intelligence it gives is also enough to solve any remaining mana problems. I don't see any reason to rush a boots upgrade when playing Bloodseeker as a support. That makes my suggested build: brown boots, Mek, Force Staff. After that the build becomes more situational. When you eventually upgrade your boots, I would go for either Power Treads or Phase Boots. Treads are good if you still experience some mana problems, whereas Arcane Boots would be overkill.

I guess you can pretty much build anything in the late game. Diffusal Blade should be good, or you could even go something like straight Hex if you're getting a lot of gold from kills. Maybe even a Rod of Atos so you can prevent two targets from running away - although since he's an agility hero Diffusal is probably better. Blade Mail is also still a very good item (think support Wraith King) because you will become stronger when enemies take damage by hitting you, and can also regain your health when they die. Honestly though, just like a core Bloodseeker, after getting your basic items you can build pretty much anything. Finally a word about starting items. Quelling Blade is a necessity because it's the only way to accelerate your farming speed, and it also makes jungling more sustainable (remember that Bloodseeker only gains health when he kills something). You should not buy wards because you're going to need every bit of gold to stay alive - either grab a Stout Shield or just a bucketload of Tangos.

Game plan

Get your starting items, grab a level of Bloodbath and head into the jungle. If you're not familiar with chokepoint jungling, you really need to get that shit down to have any chance. You also really need to start by stacking the pull camp once, pulling the creep wave into it and farm the double stack while making sure to deny the entire creep wave. If you are on the Radiant side, you can also try the pull-through into the medium camp instead of stacking the small camp, but it's a lot riskier and you might not be able to clear the camp anyway. I would play it safe because Bloodseeker's jungling is just really weak. Once you hit level 2, take a look at your safe lane or mid. If there's a possibility to get a kill with either Blood Rage or Thirst, try and go for that. Otherwise just keep farming towards your Mek. I would grab boots first though, because they allow you to get kills when there's an opportunity. Getting an early TP scroll is also recommended.

With a level of Thirst, boots and a TP scroll you can easily show up to early fights and secure a kill or two for your team. Don't ever be hesitant to do so, even if you might get killed in the process. If there is no opportunity though, then feel free to use the Thirst bonus damage to accelerate your farm a bit. Once you have your Mek and level 6, you should start putting them to good use by ganking whenever Rupture is up. Since it's not such a long cooldown, and using it along with Mek and Blood Rage blows all your mana, I'd expect you will mostly be ganking and returning to base to regen. Farm the occasional creep where able to work toward your Force Staff but remember that most of the money should come from kills and assists from now on. Since you're the Mek carrier, you should always be with your team when they go for pushes or Rosh.

Don't be greedy with your Force Staff - use it! Always saving it for a Ruptured target is honestly not worth it. Often pushing a Ruptured target also does get them away from your teammates, possibly allowing them to escape. Remember that it's a utility item: you can save your allies or push yourself to initiate from even further with Rupture. Even better, you can pull an enemy into your team when they're facing the right way and then Rupture them to prevent escape. If you really want a nuke, it's probably better to just build a Dagon. A late game Bloodseeker actually has a lot of utility with these items, so you should aim to stay alive in fights. You provide healing, positioning, vision, silence and bonus damage to your carries - just make sure they don't need to use their skills for a while when you buff them! The buff from Blood Rage has particularly strong synergy with stat-based carries - and of course Tiny. Your ultimate also does its damage through BKB, which makes it a strong late game skill.

Experiences

I actually tried this build twice. First against bots and they got absolutely smashed - they're not very good at playing against Bloodseeker in general I think. Encouraged by this, I actually picked Bloodseeker in a single draft game and went to the jungle. My team had no objections to me building a Mek, so I decided to try this build. The early game, especially between levels 2 and 3, is horrible. I got particularly unlucky both times, as my chokepoint camp spawned centaurs - by far the worst medium camp you can get as a Bloodseeker. I was literally down to dying from one hit multiple times. In the bot game I actually had to even go back to base once to regen. In the pub game I just kinda had to hang out a bit while healing with tangoes. I tried two starting item builds: stout and a pack of tangoes, and just three packs of tangoes - I figured that since I'm mostly chokepoint jungling, the damage block from stout has diminished utility and having more healing might be better - but I'd really need to do the math.

One thing I noticed is that even a level 4 Bloodseeker is surprisingly strong when he shows up to help clean up an early fight. The 120 damage from a 6 second silence is nothing to scoff at, and it often helped in putting targets below the Thirst threshold - and then I just dived them. Yes, with a level 4 support Bloodseeker sporting nothing but brown boots. However if you never get those opportunities, the early game is going to suck - especially if the enemy team has the mind to look for you in your jungle. After getting my Mek at around the 12 minute mark things got a lot easier, and at this point Bloodseeker honestly becomes a perfectly legitimate utility hero. In the pub game I had some good synergy with my teammates as I found it particularly effective to give Sniper some of that sweet bonus damage - we also had a Tiny who ended up hitting buildings for almost 700 damage.

Bloodseeker's biggest weakness as a support hero is his horrible early game. He is often played as a solo mid because he really benefits from having a level advantage. When farming the jungle, his experience gain is diminished severely, unless you get some kills. A 12 minute Mek is also not the fastest, and you might not even get it if you get no kills or get ganked once or twice. However if you make it past the early game, I think he's actually quite strong as an unconventional support. Sure, you cannot solo kill anyone, but if you bring even one ally who has a stun, it's really easy to kill heroes: force them into your ganking squad, use Rupture and possibly silence (or buff your partner) - that's a kill. If you can initiate a teamfight with this combo, you're also off to an amazing start.

My initial ranking for Bloodseeker is clearly off. I think he is at least playable as a support, and perfectly legit if you can get off to a decent start. So if you're ever stuck with four core heroes as a Bloodseeker and head to the jungle, try to play him like a support. Get that Mek, and get those early TP scrolls to show up in lanes and cause trouble! It will be way more fun and useful than afk jungling.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Dota 2 Next Level Meta: Support Anti-Mage

Going in alphabetical order, I think it is fitting to start with one of the most iconic carry heroes in Dota 2: Anti-Mage, aka. Anti-Fun. Well, this time he's bound to be fun - I predicted him to be in the trash tier of supporting potential.

Hero analysis

Let's look at what we have to work with. Anti-Mage is very mobile, with quite a bit above average movement speed and a blink ability. Supports love mobility, so that should be a good thing. The problem is, supports generally love mobility and build mobility items because they have spells that they need to land. AM is kind of limited in the spells to land department, what with him hating magic and all that jazz. His ultimate is a decent nuke for kill securing and it can cancel channeling abilities and it's usually available in team fights with its 70 second cooldown.

Beyond that, well... his two passives are not great for supporting. In theory Mana Break is okay, but he is melee and rather squishy. Not a whole lot of mileage to get out of this one when supporting. It sounds decent for lane harassment against melee heroes at least. Spell Shield is probably even more useless because who wants to throw spells at a support Anti-Mage anyway? It can keep him alive in teamfights against AoE spells a little longer I guess. Not that it really matters.

I would probably start with Mana Break and grab Blink at level two, then max both of them before touching Spell Shield. Grabbing Mana Void at six is a no-brainer because it allows him to actually do something beyond right-clicking. He should start out in the lane and either pull or harass with Mana Break. I guess you can do that against ranged heroes when you get Blink.

Items

Well he is not going to need a Blink Dagger or any other positional items. Unfortunately nukes and disables are rather expensive to build from items. Especially since Mana Break overrides Orb of Venom which would have been fantastic otherwise. I would probably go with either Eul's or Atos. He can blink initiate with Eul's provided that allies have some follow-up, or he can chase really well with Atos. Dagon is also an option if you need damage, and within the same price range. He could also build a Mekanism because he certainly has no mana problems. The problem with Mek is that then he really doesn't do anything with the blink ability (except instant delivery healing, whooo). Orchid and Hex are both a bit too greedy.

I guess Sange could be decent, but Atos is probably the better choice. A final option could be Necronomicon, since it kind of synergizes with Mana Break and Mana Void. Nevertheless, all of these items are rather expensive to build, and won't be available to a support AM in the early stages of the game. Another option is to just go full ward bitch, and maybe upgrade boots to Power Treads at some point. He can place wards in good locations with his blink at least. General support items like Urn of Shadows and Medallion of Courage could also be decent pickups. Mek and Urn are kind of good because support AM should be rather survivable because he has a blink, and he's not really a primary target.

Game plan

Uh... well... I guess you can try harassing at lane as much as possible. You could roam, but since you have zero disables, the lane you roam to needs to provided that. Once you hit level 6 you can maybe look for potential ganks with your ultimate. Honestly since you are going to be very useless, a lot of the game plan depends on what other heroes can do. If there are some mana-intensive heroes, stick to them in teamfights to draw some focus. If for some obscure reason you can snowball from kills, Atos is probably the best choice to keep getting those kills.

Experiences

I tried this a couple of times with very poor yet not unexpected results. You are basically just a blinking melee creep most of the game. It's also really hard to get levels unless you just stay in a lane and leech experience from a core. I tried to roam a bit but since AM's gank contribution is next to nothing, not much came out of that. In the first game I just bought wards and stuff, having literally nothing the entire game. In the second one I tried to be greedier, but failed to obtain an item once again. It is not a surprising in result in the least, considering how much early game Anti-Mage in general contributes.

In a typical teamfight you can get in a couple of attacks and hopefully you live long enough to get off a decent Mana Void. With his ult and a blink skill, AM is decent at stopping channeling ultimates like Fiend's Grip and Black Hole. So basically you get the contribution of a hard carry early game, and nothing in return. Which means your team will be playing 4 vs 5 all game. I predicted AM to be absolute trash as a support, and after attempting that a couple of times, it's safe to say that I was right. What a shock, huh?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Dota 2 Next Level Meta: Introduction

From time to time it's fun to write something else entirely. This new Dota 2 blog post series is mostly for entertainment. In all honesty, it would probably work better as a YouTube series, but I don't really have the resources to do that just now. In short, I will be writing about how to play various core heroes as supports, regardless of how poorly they fit the role.

Background

When playing solo queue pubs in Dota, every now and then you're bound to encounter a game where everyone picks a core hero and no one wants to support. Some of us, myself in particular, usually take the supporting role in these scenarios. This usually results in some rather weird plays but also leads you think about some heroes in new ways. It's also a fun thought experiment to just think about supporting potential of each hero. Of course this business usually ends badly, but at least sometimes it's surprisingly fun. I can also take some pride in discovering three cores' supporting potential before it was picked up by the professional teams.

I was playing support Mirana, Wraith King and Naga Siren over a year ago. Mirana and WK are now both commonly picked in the support role, and Naga support was a huge factor in Alliance's The International 3 championship. Admittedly my ideas of how to play these were slightly different from how they ended up being used but hey, called it! I have in general played various unconventional supports throughout my pub career.

About this series

I will only include heroes that to my knowledge have not been considered supports in the pro scene. Wraith King for instance is not included because he is already recognized as a totally legit support. The same goes for heroes like Axe and Doom, and even more recent discoveries like Juggernaut. The format is as follows: in each post, I will first write an analysis, trying my best to think about how the hero might play as a support; then I will try it out in a bot game and finally write about my experiences.

The reason I'm doing bot games is quite simple: some of the heroes I'm going to support with will be absolutely horrible in the role, and I don't really feel like ruining a teammate's game by trying it out in an actual pub game. Besides, bots play more consistently. I would need to probably also mute all teammates if I suggested playing support Faceless Void. For this series the hero needs to be played with no lane farm; jungle farm is ok as long as the hero is still active like a real support should, in the first ten minutes of the game. I will not necessarily buy support items like wards on all of these heroes (even some actual support heroes are also greedy like that).

The heroes and predictions

This section incudes the heroes I'm going to go through. I have also made some initial predictions about how I think they will turn out. For this purpose they've been divided into four ranks: trash, poor, playable and legit. Anything that's playable or legit I would play in a pub; anything below that just really, really should not go without farm.

trash: Anti-Mage, Broodmother, Clinkz, Huskar, Lifestealer, Lone Druid, Lycan, Medusa, Outworld Devourer, Phantom Assassin, Shadow Fiend, Spectre, Terrorblade
poor: Bloodseeker, Brewmaster, Bristleback, Death Prophet, Drow Ranger, Ember Spirit, Faceless Void, , Legion Commander, Luna, Morphling, Phantom Lancer, Razor, Riki, Slark, Sniper, Templar Assassin, Timbersaw, Tinker, Troll Warlord, Ursa, Viper, Weaver
playable: Centaur Warrunner, Chaos Knight, Dragon Knight, Night Stalker, Storm Spirit, Tiny
legit: Magnus, Puck, Queen of Pain, Slardar, Spirit Breaker

As you can see I'm not terribly optimistic about this - but at least it should be fun! I will explain my predictions in the post for each hero.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Dark Souls 2

It should be no surprise that I really waited for this game. Following the weeks it got out, I played it for quite a respectable amount of hours. In fact I'm still not done with it, but I'm taking a break from it for now. It's summer in Finland and it's bright throughout most of the day, even inside my living room. Shockingly, this game is quite dark (who would've thought) so I can't actually play it because of screen reflections. Even if it is significantly less dark than its predecessor. It's just not really a game where you'd want to miss seeing something. I mean that something might just get you very, very dead. Even though it's probably one of the best - if not the best - games this year, there's not much to say. It's mostly more of the same with slight tweaks. That's enough though right, because it's more of the same best gameplay out there.

1. The tweaks

Because sequels are effectively massive iterations of the original concept, they tend to tweak things in a better direction. The basics have been largely left untouched as there really isn't much of a reason to change them. Some things have clearly been changed as an attempt to improve them; others have been changed more for flavor. Take dual-wielding for instance. It used to be pretty useless, so they've given it a buff. Wielding two weapons of the same type and having high enough stats grants access to power stance. This stance offers new moves featuring both weapons at the same time, which increases damage output quite nicely. The tradeoff, not being able to use a shield, is still significant - although I have to say less so than I'd expected. Don't know whether it's just a matter of enemy design or me having enough confidence in my own abilities, but I have mostly been playing without a shield. I do like that lighter weapons are now more useful in PVE.

One of my biggest gripes with Dark Souls has received some much-needed attention. I'm naturally talking about poise - the stagger resistance mechanic - that used to be just bonkers. This in the sense that with high enough poise there were next to no attacks in the game that could stagger your character. That's particularly stupid in PVP - which is another subject I've touched in quite some detail previously. Well, that's in the past because poise has been heavily nerfed. I think it's fairly balanced now actually. If you choose to go that route, you can still shrug of staggers from most mobs and some attacks from bosses, but not nearly everything. It is pretty useless in PVP. As a bit of a step backwards though, there now seems to exist a rather definite sweet spot for equipment encumbrance. In the past, there was a notable difference for having less than 25% load, and another huge step at 50%. Now it scales more linearly, but load only affects roll distance (almost useless) and stamina recovery speed (somewhat meaningful). The only hard limit is at 70% where normal roll turns into the fat roll.

This means that most builds can wear almost any armor without getting punished because there's very little point in carrying around anything below 69.9%. Sure, the roll distance was useful for my bow only run but that's not really an optimal way to play in any regard. On the other hand, if you're really good at not getting hit, might as well go naked for maximum stamina recovery speed I guess. Still, I feel there's less factors involved in picking armor in this game. There is however some choice involved in rolling, because rolling speed and invulnerability window length are now determined by a derivative stat. This actually caught me be surprise at first a lot because rolling away after making an attack has a longer delay than it used to (even with high stats, but especially at the beginning). I died a lot because of this. Admittedly I still die a lot because of greedy attacking, but at least now it's no longer a surprise when it happens - just the usual facepalm. Then again that's probably the biggest reason I die in a lot of games of this genre in general.

Speaking of stats, there's now more of them. Endurance has been split into two stats: one for stamina and another for equipment load. Then there's adaptability which is a new stat that affects the derivative agility stat I just mentioned, and resistances. Stat-based damage bonuses are now derivative stats, and as a bigger change, there's not just the original four but also three new ones: fire, lightning and dark damage. Well, really just two new ones, because lightning replaces faith-based damage. Yes, elemental weapons do scale now, based on different stats. Dark damage is the most demanding type, because it's defined by whichever of magic or faith is lower. Another curious scaling type is the new mundane scaling, which scales based on how high is the character's lowest stat. Interestingly enough, almost all weapons in the game can be imbued with any scaling even if they already have that damage type built in (in which case that damage type gets more emphasized). Even more importantly, elemental weapons can now be enchanted with spells.

All this means that different scaling types actually make a lot more sense now. Previously even casters often wanted to use a physical damage weapon because it would get a much bigger damage buff from a spell. Now you can cast the buff on any weapon. I think there's simply more viable builds this time. Scaling can also be imbued into shields now to change their damage blocks. Status effects, most notably poison, can also be imbued into melee weapons for some interesting options - especially since most bosses aren't actually immune to poison. Other tweaks include changes to backstab and parrying, both of which are now less dominant (bugs aside). Backstab has less invulnerability; parrying now knocks the attacker on their butt, and to get a riposte you actually have to wait a bit (and can be interrupted by other enemies in the meantime). There's also a new magic category, hexes, based on dark scaling which makes it the most demanding magic type stats wise. Pyromancy is less broken and the flame now requires materials to upgrade so you can't rush it.

Limited respecs are also now available. Matchmaking has changed too. Previously it was based on soul level, which caused an anomaly where players would focus all their souls into upgrading gear, then invade low level games with godlike equipment. It's now based on soul memory, which is a measure of all souls obtained instead, making this method of griefing impossible. The matchmaking has other issues, and pure invasions are actually very rare because the player now needs to belong to a specific covenant in order to do so. Even then it's not really worth it, and as a side effect another covenant is useless. I guess they wanted to protect players a bit more because now the only way to fully avoid invasions is to play offline. There are however certain PVP focus areas in the game where invasions happen a lot so if you really want to fight, it's easily possible. Most importantly, network code is much better now, and I've experienced a lot less lag issues - and no lagstabbing at all.

The biggest issue with this system as far as I've heard is the fact that soul memory caps at 15 million, after which you can face anyone above the threshold. This means you can end up fighting fully maxed out characters once you hit that 15M souls. I don't remember where are my characters' soul memories at so I cannot say how high is the threshold exactly. All in all I feel the tweaks are welcome, and as soon as they fix a few bugs that are getting abused, the game should be more balanced than Dark Souls.

2. Extinction

There's one tweak that's worth its own section. Partly because this is something I forgot to include in my Lightning Returns post. The biggest and perhaps most vocalized change in reviews is the limitation on enemy spawns. Whereas before there would occasionally be enemies that were there only once, in Dark Souls 2 all enemies can be killed only a set amount of times after which they will no longer respawn. This change affects the game in two ways. In one way it makes the game easier because areas can be cleared so that around the fifteenth attempt against the boss the player just runs through empty corridors to get there. In another way it makes the game harder  because everything now comes with limited availability. By everything I mean items and souls dropped by enemies. This only really applies if the player relies on farm. This was also the most discussed and criticized change.

At first it felt a bit like cheating because by now I'm used to repeating sections in Souls games. In the end though by the fifteenth attempt the section is mostly routine anyway, so going through it is neither challenging or interesting. Sometimes you might not even make it to fifteen kills on all enemies if you figure out a way to bypass them. Which is what we used to do in previous games when killing the same enemies for the umphteenth time got a bit too tedious. Now there's a choice to purposefully clear an area before a difficult boss instead of bypassing the enemies and sometimes I did opt for that. Most of the time it's still more convenient to just run past mobs, especially if you don't particularly need their drops. For new players this change can make things tricky if they are not careful with their souls. Let's say you make it to the boss fourteen times and always succeed in reclaiming your souls - except on the fifteenth run you lose them. Now you're facing empty corridors with no souls in sight, and the boss hasn't gotten any easier.

It is true that in offline play you can get screwed by this, theoretically at least. However, infinite souls are still available in the game. There's no limitation to how much you can go out as a white phantom to help out other players, and get your share of their soul rewards. If I remember this right, the reward is half of the normal amount of souls you would get. At the same time, it's a good way to scout out bosses and to avoid nasty surprises. The game also has one other tool to help players with this limited availability of souls. There's a ring that prevents losses at death. It does break when triggered, but can be repaired for about 2,000 souls. Since you always spawn at a bonfire and warping is always available, you can go back to repair it infinitely. Sure it's a bit of work, but it's a great safety net when you have massed a lot of souls. Similar rings existed in Dark Souls, but they could not be repaired.

I guess it's still possible to get screwed, but I don't really see how the mechanic in itself could be that bad. Its biggest impact is on drops if anything. It is now impossible to farm equipment upgrade materials indefinitely. it does put some weight on upgrade decisions early on in the game. Eventually, most materials will still have pretty high availability. It is also worth remembering that highest tier materials and things like demon titanite were also very limited in Dark Souls, so this is not exactly new either. In fact, the limited availability of drops is probably more consequential in Lightning Returns because of the way the ability upgrades work (i.e. you need to fuse together many copies of the same ability). In Dark Souls 2 you can still easily fully upgrade several weapons and a set of armor on one playthrough, which to me is hardly limited availability. All in all I don't know if it was a necessary change, but I am not really feeling the claimed negative impacts. I guess you could say it's against the Souls principle in a way because you are being denied learning possibilities after fifteen attempts. Color me indifferent.

In Dark Souls 2 the extinction of enemies is clearly just a game mechanic with no thematic implications. In Lightning Returns it's thematically more appropriate - at the end of days, even monsters feel it. This is further signified by last ones - special bosses encountered when every other member of a monster species is defeated. In a way it makes killing monsters feel less pointless as you can go on a crusade to truly defeat every last one of them. Of course, being able to slay an entire monster species would also have rather interesting moral implications in a different context. Even in LR you can ask yourself are all of these monsters truly malicious. In the end though, you will still go ahead and kill them for your precious loot and achievements. As a concept extinction has a lot to explore - not just as a meta-commentary, but also as a farm-limiting game mechanic.

Conclusion

In a nutshell, Dark Souls 2 is almost the same game as Dark Souls, just in a different environment. For me this is more than enough. Even if the design does seem a bit weaker at times, it's still more awesome than any of its competitors. Changes have been mostly rather cautious and for good reason. I guess I'm just not hardcore enough to see how DkS2 is so obviously inferior to DkS. Even if it was slightly weaker (and I'm not even sure about that), it's still an entirely new game with new challenges and environments. I mean, we used to play sequels made with exactly the same engine in the past (and I guess we still are). Sometimes I feel people are a bit too eager to declare "more of the same" in a negative tone. At times, "more of the same" is exactly what's called for. For me, Dark Souls 2 was a reason to get back to the gameplay system I have learned to love.