Snap Judgment – Quake Champions (Open Beta)

I don’t know how many people know this, but I used to play a lot of Quake CTF with Crayola Clan in the 1990s. Back then, “eSports” were community-run tournaments with no stakes and no prizes and barely any organization. We played mostly NetQuake, QuakeWorld, and Quake 2. We played a little bit of Quake 3 Arena but I personally never liked it and by then gaming started to get commercial with sponsors and cash prizes and it was more work than fun and it was all too stressful to deal with.

Fast forward to this past weekend, when I got my first look at Quake Champions, the newest iteration of multiplayer Quake from Bethesda. I’ve played a total of about an hour, which, when you’re playing a fast-paced shooter, feels like an eternity. I think I have a pretty good handle on what this game is and what it’s trying to do.

It’s clearly based heavily on Quake 3 Arena. Most of the sound effects and weapons are the same. You move incredibly fast and the default FOV is about 800 degrees so it feels like you’re playing in that trippy ending in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In deathmatch, your base strategy for every match is to grab the lightning gun, then grab the quad damage, then insta-gib anything you touch, just like in Q3A.

In addition to recreating that classic Q3A experience, they’ve bolted on all the useless bells and whistles of modern shooters: Match-making, levels, unlockables, lockboxes, stores, and most importantly, manly voiceovers telling you how much you suck at the game when you die.

With the match-making, you no longer browse a list of servers to play on, you simply click the giant Play button and wait for it to deposit you in a game with other people. One might assume that it would put you in a game with people of similar skill levels, but I think we all know by now that those other guys who appear to be level 1 and 2 are probably not noobs like you who just installed the game, but kids who have played in the closed beta for months, perfected their games, then made new accounts just to whup up on the noobs like you.

At least that’s how it feels. The point is, you’re going to die a lot. And everyone is probably cheating. And also get off my lawn.

Overall I found it to be a good shooter experience. It’s fast and responsive. So fast that I can’t really play for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time.

The biggest negative I saw (besides dying constantly) is that it takes a really long time to load after you click the icon. It sits there on a loading screen for a minute or more before you can even think about getting into a match. And then there is the time to find the matches, which for me took up to another minute. That’s a long time to wait after impulsively deciding to jump into a 15-minute deathmatch.

How does it compare to Overwatch, the obvious competitor? I don’t know. I don’t have Overwatch. I can only say that I felt more at home playing Quake Champions than I did playing for that hour I played the Overwatch open beta. There is no reloading in Quake Champions, which is awesome. You start out with only one “champion” available to you and you pick up weapons from the map, which suggests that everyone has the same weapons, which is awesome. The standard free-for-all deathmatch game mode is really nice because you don’t have to worry about everyone else on your team being terrible, which is awesome. The chat is hidden by default, which is awesome. If there was any voice chat, I didn’t hear it, which is awesome.

But, it’s not as colorful as Overwatch, and it doesn’t have Blizzard behind it, and it’s late to the party, so it’s probably dead before it even gets out the door.

Apparently Quake Champions will be free-to-play. At that price, I could see myself leaving it installed and playing a match now and then. But I doubt I would sink any real money into this game.

Quake CTF Nostalgia – CC vs. DPS

This is off topic for this blog, but my old Crayola Clan mate ]CC[-Orange converted some of our Quake CTF match demos into videos. It’s not an exact copy of what we would have seen on our monitors back then (we probably ran at 800×600, and the fov looks higher than I remember) but it’s close.

Quake 2 CTF

Most of the time I was average, but this one Quake 2 match I was “on” so this is how I will choose to remember my performance from the good old days. :)

This is what “e-sports” looked like before it got all commercial and weird. It’s a 30-minute match so it goes on forever (matches were usually 20 minutes). In summary, the match was close at the beginning but then we pulled things together and ended up with a solid win.

I think I said in an earlier post that I hated the Railgun, but in this one match I sure used it a lot. (There was even an impossibly lucky spinning mid-air shot which undoubtedly caused the other team to think I was running a hack.) If memory serves, there was always more Railgun ammo around than Rocket Launcher ammo on that map so sometimes you had no choice. Also if you got on a “hot streak” with the Railgun it was sometimes better to stick with it.

I had a tendency to play very defensively in Quake, which you can see in this match. I figured it was more strategically important to stay alive and “geared up” for the long-term even if it meant a short-term loss of a flag. Every time you died, you had to spend a certain amount of time gearing back up during which you were pretty useless to the team, so I tried not to die, ever. Results varied.

Posted on Blaugust Day 19. Read all of my Blaugust posts here.

Planetside 2 – First, Second, and Third Impressions

This is unrelated to MMOs (sort of ), but I’ve been on a Quake CTF nostalgia trip for a while, so I went looking for a modern AAA shooter that would provide the same sort of team-based competitive spirit.

I don’t know if such a game still exists, but my first candidate for testing was Planetside 2, a game which I haven’t played before. (Well, that’s not entirely true–I installed it sometime around when it first came out, played it for about 30 seconds–enough to see myself airdropped into a chaotic mess–and then decided it wasn’t for me. I don’t remember it launching with the tutorial it has now and I had no clue how to play it.) I suppose technically PS2 is an MMO, but I think of it as a shooter because there is no PvE element.

It's a nice-looking shooter at least.
It’s a nice-looking shooter at least.

First Impressions

My first impression of Planetside 2 now after playing for a handful of hours is: It’s not what I was looking for, but it’s a fun and dare-I-say addictive game. (If you can set aside all the standard problems that modern shooters have.*)

In a nutshell, Planetside 2 drops you (sometimes literally) into a battlefield with hundreds or thousands or millions of other people. I’m not sure exactly, but it’s a lot of people. The gameplay is very similar to Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, if anyone remembers that, but with a whole lot more people.

There are the standard overall team objectives, like capturing enemy bases and defending capture points and so forth, but when you start out they are unimportant to your immediate survival so you don’t really think about them. At least I didn’t. Mostly I just thought about staying alive and trying not to shoot the teammates that kept jumping in front of me. (I imagine that is similar to what real warfare is like, not that I would have any clue about that.)

In more practical terms, when you start out your best bet is to find a group of other people running somewhere and help them shoot whatever enemies they’re shooting at. Most likely those enemies are very far away so you can’t really see what it is you’re shooting at. Even when you use your iron sights or whatever you still can’t see individual people very well. I end up spamming the “spot enemy” key while waving my gun around until I see a red triangle. Not that it matters because the enemy probably has sniper rifles and they’ll kill you the second you stick your head up to look around. Because all scrubs use sniper rifles in these games. (They don’t know they’re scrubs though, which is the worst part. That’s probably going to get some hateful comments but god I hate snipers.)

Side rant: God I hate snipers. I don’t know about anyone else, but I still curse the day that sniper-like rifles were ever added to the shooter genre. The first one I can remember was the Railgun in Quake 2, and snipers have destroyed the fun of anyone who prefers “fair” combat ever since. (At least the Railgun didn’t usually kill you in one shot like most modern sniper rifles.)

Anyway, back to Planetside 2. It’s yet another one of those progression shooters where you “level up” by gaining experience so you can unlock new stuff and whatnot, which makes it sort of like an MMORPG. You’re never really sure exactly what it is that you’re doing to gain these points, but sometimes you get a lot of points and sometimes you get a few points, and eventually your “battle rank” goes up. (I assume that’s meaningful but I can’t really tell any difference except that I can create more loadout sets–which is useless to me since I only have basically one gun.) That’s the essence of what makes these progression shooters so addicting. You’re always thinking to yourself, “Well, if I just play a little bit more, I’ll be able to unlock X, Y, or Z and that will really help kill those bleepity bleeping bleeped snipers.”

One thing I really like is the nifty report that appears each time you die that shows how well you did during each “lifetime.” It also shows who killed you so you can see just how much that other guy out-ranked you and how hopeless your chances are to run back and avenge yourself upon him.

I don't know what any of those numbers mean but it looks pretty impressive. EXTREME MENACE KILL. Yeah!
Don’t know what any of it means but it looks impressive. EXTREME MENACE KILL. Yeah!

One thing I don’t like is the placement of the minimap. SOE must have been sitting around thinking, “Let’s see, every other game puts the minimap in the upper-right and a few put it in the lower-right, so everyone is familiar with looking to the right to see where they are. I know, let’s put ours in the lower-left!”

Ahem. Anyway. I set out to find something like Quake, but this isn’t it. The scale of the battles in Planetside 2 is way too big to feel like you’re playing anything like a team-based “sport.” In these massive battles I don’t feel like my playing matters much when I’m only doing roughly 0.1% of the damage, or whatever. You’re mostly playing against yourself at that point; just trying to see how long you can stay alive while hopefully contributing a few bullets in the right directions.

To be fair, there are occasional times when the action feels a little more Quake-like, for example when you’re trying to hold one of the capture points. Those times are quite fun. But they are pretty rare.

While on I’m the subject of massive-battle shooters, let’s talk about sound effects. Something that bugs me about Planetside 2 and other shooters of this kind is the unrelenting assault of sound effects that wash over you the entire time you play. Don’t get me wrong: It’s perfect for the kind of game it is, and it’s brilliantly immersive, but I just can’t handle it anymore at my advanced age. It jangles my nerves and makes my muscles hurt from the tension. (I am the same way about continuous loud noises in real life, too.) If I lose track of time and play for too long (which unfortunately is easy since there aren’t any breaks in the action), I feel like I’ve been in a boxing match. I really wish there was a way to adjust the sound in such a way that you only hear the things that really matter to your particular gameplay. Or maybe have some way to adjust the volume of your effects versus the effects of other players versus incidental world effects. (Final Fantasy XIV has some nice controls like that.)

Overall it’s a fun game* that’s worth a look (since it’s free), but I can only play it for short periods of time. (I usually set a timer so I only play for about 20 minutes per session.) So far I don’t see any compelling reason to pay any real money for it. I’m perfectly happy with the free experience so far. (Unless there is a way to pay them a one-time fee or something to unlock everything–like a super-sniper-seeking-death-bomb–but I have a feeling they are more interested in nickel-and-diming you to death. A quick glance at the store confirms that it’s a subscription model–that SOE All Access Pass thingy–with the obligatory cash shop.)

Second Impressions

After playing a little bit each night for about a week, I’ve started to notice some trends.

The deck is seriously stacked against people who like a more defensive playing style, like, say, me. All weapons do incredible amounts of damage. Snipers almost always one-shot kill you (typical in modern shooters). Standard duels between two automatic weapons at relatively close range last for about two seconds if you’re lucky. Even the defensive turret positions at bases don’t last very long against flying vehicle weapons. So if you don’t like dying repeatedly, you may want to steer clear.

The game makes it possible to use plenty of super-cheesy scrub tactics. Things like suicide-ramming a position with vehicles over and over again. And of course the sniper thing. You can never, ever stand still if there is a hillside anywhere in the vicinity.

I’m not quite prepared to call it a pay-to-win game, but you can definitely buy better “stuff” with these things called Nanites (like Maxes and Tanks and Flying Gizmos), which are given out periodically while you play, and I think you get more Nanites if you’re a paying customer. (You also get more XP I think.) Basically, I believe it’s designed so that paying customers control the overall battlefield. The rest of us freeps are beholden to their whims. (Cannon fodder, in other words.)

But for some weird reason, I still think it’s fun*. Maybe because it’s the only game like this that I can play for free hehe.

Third Impressions

As you can tell from my statistics page, I’ve played about 18 hours of Planetside 2 and reached battle rank 14. My kill/death ratio stands at 0.27, a rating which I would have found shameful back in my Quake days, and today I find only slightly less embarrassing. People who are good at modern shooters would probably put me in the “loser scrub” category based on those numbers. (But I saw plenty of people worse than me, so there.)

Anyway, the freshness of the game has now worn off. I might pop in every now and then (because it’s free) but it doesn’t really feed the reward center of my brain very well now that the “ooh shiny” phase is over.

(By the way, the statistics page in Planetside 2 is very, very cool. The obsessive attention to detail in tracking statistics is one thing I love about modern shooters.)

Modern Problems

  • All modern shooters have these problems, no matter how fun they are:

1) Usually, you are the only person on your team who knows what to do and how to do it, because you’ve played team-based shooters for ages and everyone else is just there to shoot stuff and look at the pretty lights. 95% of the rest of your team either doesn’t help or actively hinders you somehow, which makes for a frustrating experience. Since Planetside 2 is a Friendly-Fire game, you can expect your teammates to be particularly adept at either shooting you in the back, or jumping in front of you when you’re about to make a crucial kill.

2) Everyone else has unlocked all kinds of uber weaponry and armor so you have basically no chance of killing anyone who has played the game longer than you, which makes for a frustrating experience. I really miss the old days when everyone was on a level playing field equipment-wise. (After carefully reviewing the weapons of the people that kill me, I can say that it’s not quite as bad as I first thought.)

3) In most modern shooters, old people like me can’t see what they’re shooting at. The enemies usually blend in completely with the background terrain somehow via. some sort of camouflage, or the enemy models are so small that they are just specks of pixels.

4) Ever since 1999-ish, somebody somewhere will always make a bot or a hack or something for online games so even if you do manage to get yourself the right equipment, you’re still never going to be able to beat the cheaters. Maybe I’m paranoid but I still clearly remember when cheating ruined Quake 3 tournaments. (And people were cheating, it wasn’t just our imaginations–back in the old days it was easy to tell the difference between a very good player and someone using an aim bot–so once the genie came out of the bottle, in my mind, there is no reason to think that cheaters aren’t continuing their efforts to create more and better cheats as the years pass.) (By the way, I don’t think everyone that kills me is cheating, like some people do, but some small percentage of people out there are definitely cheating in online games. The only thing you can do is keep repeating the mantra, “It’s just a game. It doesn’t matter.” And try to enjoy the scenery while you’re running back to the battle.)

On Hardcore Raiding

After I listened to Massively’s latest podcast featuring an interview with WildStar developers, I realized that I hadn’t said anything about Carbine’s hardcore raiding philosophy, which is a topic of some mild controversy.

One of them raid thingys, blatantly stolen from the WildStar site.
One of them raid thingys, blatantly stolen from the WildStar site.

If you aren’t aware, WildStar raids are supposed to be really hard like the old school raids of yore. They are taking the stance that their raids are meant for hardcore guilds and players only, and they won’t be dumbing them down over time like most other games do. Here is their video on them:

In more unflattering terms, so-called "casual" players will be intentionally excluded from raiding in WildStar.

This is a controversial position because historically we know that only a very small percentage of players are actually hardcore enough to complete difficult raids. (I don’t know if there are any studies to quote, but I always imagine it to be around 1% of the players.) It takes a massive amount of work and coordination to get 40 online gamers working together and playing at a high level of competence at the same time. In fact I have never seen that happen. I have only seen 20-man raids in Rift, where most everyone already knew what to do, and really only 10 of those people were doing most of the work, and even those relatively simple raids took hours upon hours to put together and complete. The vast majority of MMO players simply don’t have the time or energy to do that.

It’s why the so-called "zone events" and "world bosses" in games like Rift and GW2 have become so popular. (To me, at least.) Because you can experience something like a raid, with all the fun of working with other people to meet a difficult goal, without any of the time and drudgery of coordinating a guild. All you have to do is show up and fun happens.

In a way, I respect Carbine for taking this stance. I respect them for keeping hard content hard, because there is a certain thrill in defeating difficult challenges that weren’t nerfed to the point that anyone can do them.

But.

None of the raids I’ve seen are challenging because the encounters are difficult. It seems to me that raids are challenging because it’s almost impossible to get a group of competent players to get online and stay focused for long periods of time.* So completing a raid is not necessarily a gameplay challenge, it’s a social engineering challenge. It’s an organizational problem. This is why it drives me crazy when hardcore raiders strut around as if they are the best gamers in the world. All they’ve really done is show up and suffer through a torturously long experience. It’s like they’re gloating because they sat through a six-hour lecture on accounting.

Still, as a player, I could live with Carbine reserving some content for so-called "hardcore" players. I feel like I could get into a raiding guild if I wanted to turn my gaming fun time into an anxiety-laden chore. What baffles me is how Carbine can justify this logic from a business standpoint.

Creating raids has got to take a huge chunk of development time and money, but if we use my entirely made-up figure from before, only 1% of the players will even see it. (Not counting YouTube videos and streams.) And guess what? Those 1% of players will be done with it and bored a couple of weeks after release, writing angry posts on forums demanding the next 40-man raid. How can Carbine possibly sustain that? They would have to ignore 99% of their players in order to keep pumping out new content for the 1%, and that makes no sense whatsoever. (Which is surely why WoW dumbed everything down, and every other game does too.)

I think they might have been onto something when one of the Carbine guys talked about improved guild tools for raiding. I think it would help tremendously to have some sort of in-guild group-finding tool to put together raid teams. Something that would persist across logins. So for example the guild leader could tell the tool that a raid is scheduled for X date, and then guild members could volunteer for spots in the raid throughout the week with just a few mouse clicks. The tool could be configured so that players must meet minimum requirements, or perhaps the raid leaders could override it and stick people into spots manually. Something like that. The tool could even handle the loot distribution during the raid itself, and automatically invite in alternates if someone disconnects during the raid. (Maybe that is exactly what the LFR tool in WoW does.. I’ve never seen it.)

By the way, I was very glad to hear that WildStar will have smaller story instances (I assume like Rift’s Chronicles) so that us "regular folk" can still have a way to see the story that occurs in those huge impossible raids.

* This herding cats phenomenon goes all the way back to my first multiplayer gaming experiences in Quake. I remember when it was almost impossible to get six people together to play in a match, and five was pushing it. Getting forty people together for anything but a chaotic zergy Guild Wars 2 event is mind-boggling to me.