Last week I wrote about how Blizzard has been working to revamp itself over the past few years with new games that didn’t follow it’s traditional business model. Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm are both wild successes that followed the free to play model and many were wondering when their other titles would follow suit. Indeed it was assumed by everyone that the upcoming team shooter title, Overwatch, was likely going to follow the F2P trend. However at BlizzCon over the weekend Blizzard made the stunning announcement that for the US$40 asking price you’d get access to all the heroes and maps. Plans for future heroes and other content were less clear however and this sent the vocal Internet minority into a tail spin.
There were numerous interviews floating around where Blizzard employees were pressed about the future of the game and what content they could expect. On the subject of heroes they typically stated that there weren’t any current plans and there would definitely not be any additional heroes at launch. This led everyone to speculate that there were plans to release more heroes in the future and that it’d likely be something that players would have to shell out for. This was concerning due to Overwatch’s emphasis on reactive play, switching up your hero class to counter the enemy’s tactics, which would break if some heroes were locked away behind a paywall. Whilst I’ll admit that the last point is accurate it makes an assumption which I don’t believe to be true.
That Blizzard knows exactly where Overwatch is headed.
As I’ve mentioned before, and which has been mostly confirmed by numerous other sources, Overwatch is the bits and pieces that Blizzard was able to salvage from the failed Project Titan MMORPG. The cancellation of that project occurred in September last year and Overwatched was announced only a few months later in November at Blizzcon 2014. Now here we are, 1 year later, and the game has a solid release date and a closed beta that just got started. Essentially Blizzard has gone from having almost nothing to a fully fledged title ready for release in a year so the project is still very much in the nascent stages, especially by Blizzard standards. To think that they’ve got the whole future of the game mapped out is a huge assumption as Blizzard has likely spent the last year getting the functional, let alone thinking about where they want to take it.
When you also consider the fact that this will be Blizzard’s first FPS title you can see why they’d be a little cagey on what their future plans are. They have a wealth of experience in the MMORPG and RTS genres but little beyond that. Whilst they’ve been successful in some of their recent endeavours there’s a trail of failed ideas behind them which never met the light of day. It’s entirely possible that they’ve been so heavily focused on getting the initial game right that the future runway has been left undefined for the time being. One thing Blizzard has shown a talent for (and I’m ignoring some of the larger issues with Hearthstone for this comment, I know) is reacting to how its community plays its games. My money is on the fact that they’re going to wait until after launch to gauge where everything is at and then, at that point, they’ll see how they want to grow Overwatch further.
Even at that point however I sincerely doubt that Blizzard would break the game in the many severe ways that fans are describing now. The auction house debacle of Diablo III taught them a valuable lesson in how breaking core game mechanics ruins the experience for many and I doubt they’ll look to repeat that with a fresh IP. The good news is that Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s game director, has gone on record stating that Overwatch won’t be adopting a Heroes of the Storm type model. Whilst this has done little to quell the vocal swell it does reaffirm my position and should give everyone hope that Blizzard is committed to the Overwatch business model as it stands today.
World of Warcraft stands out as an exception in the MMORPG world. Where nearly all other titles have either faltered or drastically altered their business models in order to survive World of Warcraft has remained steadfast to its subscription based system. This has made it the most successful MMORPG ever, making it a multi-billion dollar business all of its own. However its heydays are long behind it, with subscriber numbers slowly dwindling over the years. The more regular release of expansions have helped to keep the number up somewhat but the downward trend was still easily noticeable. Blizzard, obviously aware of this, has decided to stop reporting subscriber numbers altogether after their last quarterly report yesterday.
The last subscriber count pegs World of Warcraft’s player count at about 5.5 million, the lowest it’s been in 10 years. Whilst that number might sound like the first rattles of World of Warcraft’s death knell it’s likely anything but as many long time MMORPGs have survived on much smaller subscription numbers. For Blizzard it does present a challenge as dwindling numbers can often have a runaway effect; reaching a critical point where the majority of the playerbase abandons the title for greener pastures. That point is probably still some time away and indeed if the last subscriber peak (from the last expansion) is repeatable then I see no reason for World of Warcraft to go away any time soon. However the change in what (Activision) Blizzard communicates, as well as their recent purchase of King, is indicative of some of the other issues the company is facing in their attempt to stay relevant.
It was around this time that Blizzard was planning to announce their next MMORPG based on an entirely new IP. This was known internally as Project Titan, a name which got more than a few people fired when it was made public. Unfortunately the game simply didn’t work in the way it was originally envisioned and it was scrapped late last year. Whilst Overwatch may have arisen out of its remnants it meant that many who were looking towards Blizzard’s next MMORPG were left wanting and thus began to look elsewhere. Had project Titan been released around this time the demise of World of Warcraft might have been fully sealed but it would have been a greater win for the company overall.
This has led many to call for World of Warcraft to change their subscription model to be more inline with current trend of switching to free-to-play. To be sure the transition can be made as The Old Republic and other titles have shown however there’s little incentive for Blizzard to do so when their monthly revenue rate is still in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Until they’re really hurting for numbers, and I mean really hurting, such a transition would likely devastate their revenues to the point where World of Warcraft wasn’t sustainable. However I think Activision Blizzard recognises this as a potential possibility and that’s where the acquisition of King comes into play.
King, for those who don’t know, are the developers behind the incredibly successful Candy Crush saga. Activision Blizzard is paying a cool $5.9 billion for the company which isn’t a bad deal if their current profit rate of $127 million per quarter is anything to go by. They are undoubtedly one of the leaders in the free-to-play model and there’s every chance they’re buying them with a view to revamp the business models for some of their products. This isn’t limited to Blizzard titles of course, but the timing of the two announcements certainly makes it feel like they might be related.
This definitely feels like a pivot point for Activision Blizzard as they muse through their options for future growth. There’s definitely a trend for their newer IPs to be done differently to those of the past and how Overwatch is positioned will be strongly telling of how they see game development in the future. Right now it points to a free-to-play future, one that could very well make its way into already established IPs. If any company can make the transition work, and work well, it’s Activision Blizzard but no change of this magnitude is without risk.
Logging into my World of Warcraft account is always a mix of feelings for me. On the one hand I have so many great memories, forging friendships with people and just enjoying the enormous amount of content that was on offer. It wasn’t all roses however and thinking back (and looking at some of the screenshots) it’s painfully obvious just how much growing up I needed to do. Today World of Warcraft is no longer a major part of my life, instead it’s something that I enjoy from time to time, reveling in the Warcraft world and trying my hand at the latest raids. Indeed the World of Warcraft of today feels like it’s catered towards people like me and the improvements in Warlords of Draenor continue that theme.
Garrosh Hellscream’s thirst for power has no bounds which culminated in him releasing the Sha of Pride upon the lands of Pandaria. This led to the Horde and Alliance joining forces to overthrow him in the Siege of Orgrimmar which eventually led to his capture. However before he could be sent to trial he was rescued by a bronze dragon, Kairozdormu, who shared in his ambition for power and control. The dragon then sent him back in time to before the orcs drank the blood of Mannoroth, preventing the blood curse. He then united the disparate clans under the banner of the Iron Horde and set out to conquer all of Draenor. It is up to you, dear champion, to stop this madness before it unwrites the history of the world and Garrosh’s madness spreads beyond the lands of Draenor.
Warlords of Draenor feels about the same from a graphical point of view, mostly due to the short difference in time between this expansion and it’s predecessor, however they did make some noticeable improvements to the base character models. It’s a welcome change as those models, whilst looking great in 2004, had started to show their age 10 years on. Apart from that though everything is at about the same level although it seems like the default draw distance has been ramped up significantly (with little impact to performance, I might add). Still it’s hard to get tired of Blizzard’s trademark style with the vibrant colours and wonderful stylization.
Much of the core gameplay remains the same as it did from previous expansions with the classes remaining largely the same with a few tweaks and balance changes. Warlords of Draenor continues on the quality of life improvements that came as part of Cataclysm, ensuring that everything from questing to running dungeons is simple and free of frustrations. The biggest change is the inclusion of the Garrison, your own private town in which you’ll have a multitude of buildings and resources that you can use to craft items or sell on the auction house. The Garrison also brings with it followers which are NPCs that you can send on various missions to level them up, acquire loot and provide resources for your garrison. Overall long time World of Warcraft players will feel instantly at home with Warlords of Draenor and be incredibly thankful for the improvements that Blizzard has made.
Unlike previous expansions, where upon logging in I was greeted with action bars missing numerous skills and dozens of alerts on what I should be doing, Warlords of Draenor kept the character classes largely the same. I’m speaking from the point of view of my paladin, of course, although my cursory look at other classes seems to show they underwent about the same amount of changes as use paladins did. This meant that I was able to get into the game much quicker than I have been able to previously, my muscle memory (and keybinds) still carrying over from my last stint in WoW early last year. It’s both a good and a bad thing as whilst I’d lament having to figure out how to play my character again it is kind of satisfying when I feel like I’ve mastered it again. Still, I’ll take quality of life over many other things these days.
The Garrison is by far my favourite improvement in Warlords of Draenor as it takes away so many of the things that made playing World of Warcraft feel like a chore rather than a game. You have your very own mine, herb garden and fishing pond which you can plunder on a daily basis for resources. You get to select a handful of buildings which do various things, some of which enable you to do things like craft items without having the profession. It also serves as an alternative route to gearing up your character as there are several different buildings which can provide raid quality gear. It also comes with its own currency, Garrison Resources, which whilst primarily aimed at buying buildings and sending followers on missions, can serve as an alternative means to acquiring resources and other things. For the semi-casual players like myself who can’t dedicate a good portion of their lives to the game anymore the Garrison serves as a way of levelling the playing field, although the hard core still have ways of getting ahead.
The flip side of this though means that, should you have the resources to power yourself ahead, you likely won’t be able to. Nearly all of the resources required to craft high end gear or grant you access to epic gear avenues are on strict timers that can’t be rushed. Thus the time your account is active is a far bigger player in how far you’ll progress your character than time you spend in the game, at least for us filthy casuals. For someone like me who sometimes finds himself with a decent chunk of time on his hands to thrash things out like this it’s a little frustrating, but at least it means that I don’t feel compelled to spend that amount of time every day trying to advance my character.
I deliberately avoided playing the game at launch as I was sure that, even 10 years down the line, Blizzard would still be unable to deal with the onslaught that is an expansion release. For the most part my experience has been extremely pleasant with nary a queue to speak of unless I try to login between 8pm and 9pm. Even then the queue, which I’ve seen reach 1000, is usually done and dusted within 15 minutes so no issue there. There are still some quests which bug out or have incorrect minimap icons, which can be highly frustrating at the time, however out of the hundreds I completed I could probably count the number of broken ones on both hands. By this point though it’s somewhat cliche to praise Blizzard for their ability to deliver a polished product as that’s their MO for every single title they’ve released in the last 2 decades.
The story of Warlords of Draenor is an interesting one, although as someone who skipped the later parts of Mists of Pandaria I did have to do a little reading to catch up on just what the hell was going on. Like most Blizzard games the world has an exceptional amount of detail however it peters out quite quickly once you’re not talking to any of the main characters. The main story is quite interesting however although there just wasn’t quite enough to draw me into it. Then again this isn’t exactly a story-first kind of game so I wasn’t exactly looking for it either. Overall I’d say the story was serviceable, just lacking in an emotional hook to draw me in.
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor demonstrates how well Blizzard knows their subscribers, vastly improving your quality of life when playing through their signature MMORPG. Players returning from a long time break will find the game familiar enough to get a running start but different enough that they don’t feel like they’re playing the same game from a couple years ago. The Garrison is the stand out improvement of this expansion, introducing dozens of new game elements whilst removing much of the grind that is common to MMORPGs. I have yet to set foot in a heroic or the recently opened up LFR for Highmaul however, something which I’m sure will keep me going over the next few months. In closing I feel that Warlords of Draenor is a solid improvement on the World of Warcraft title, one that even decade long players like myself can readily enjoy.
World of Warcarft: Warlords of Draenor is available on PC right now for $54.95. Total game time was approximately 33 hours reaching level 100 and iLvl 617.
My introduction into the world of trading card games began almost 2 decades ago when a friend of mine gave me my very first deck of Magic: The Gathering cards. I didn’t wholly understand the mechanics at the time but I can remember it being a great way to pass the time whilst waiting for the bus to pick me up from school which was an hour away from anywhere. The interest faded in high school, that solitary deck sitting on my shelves for a number of years before it was opened up again. Today I’m more of a filthy MTG casual, attending a draft every so often and playing when my friends and I get together. In that regard then Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft would seem to be right up my alley as it’s almost entirely centered around casual play.
Hearthstone is a free to play card game that uses the vast wealth of lore within Warcraft as inspiration for the cards, abilities and character classes that make up the core game. Long time Blizzard fans will notice familiar names popping up, from the big names of Warcraft lore to the lowly mobs that you might only encounter once when levelling a character in World of Warcraft. The mechanics are simple to understand, especially considering that they’re rigorously enforced by the game rather than you having to remember every rule yourself. Of course the initial simplicity belies the complexity inherent in the various mechanics and wider metagame, making it quite a challenge to master.
Blizzard’s signature low poly work makes its appearance yet again in Hearthstone as whilst it would appear to be a 2D game on the surface it’s actually more akin to the 2.5D adventure games of old. The table you play on is littered with little 3D elements like a zeppelin drifting listlessly around its tether point. Unlike many other digital trading card games though Hearthstone employs a variety of visual effects for creature abilities, spells and almost everything else making it quite an interesting experience visually. It’s not so heavy that you won’t be able to run it as I’ve heard the iPad version works well even on the generation 2 devices, albeit with a little stutter here and there.
Mechanically Hearthstone will familiar enough to most trading card game fans that it can be picked up very quickly although there are some notable differences that change the way a typical game plays out. For starters you don’t have mana/land cards in your hand, instead every turn you’re granted a number of mana crystals that you can use to cast your cards. This means that the pace of the game is rigorously controlled and that no game can really be decided until turn 4 or 5. Additionally you’ll play as one of many character classes, all of which have access to an unique ability as well as a set of cards that other classes do not. So whilst on the surface the Warlock’s ability of being able to pay 2, sacrifice 2 life to draw a card as many times as they want seems overpowered it’s in fact not as their library of cards is designed with that in mind.
The practice matches, ones done against the AI, are a good way to get familiar with the way that the classes play and how best to counter them. The AI, as in most games, can get a little predictable at times, favouring offing your creatures before they try and target you. This often leads them to make incredibly bad trades against some of the stronger cards putting you in a much better position than you otherwise would be if you were facing off against a human. Still even after a dozen or so games (mostly to unlock the characters) I did manage to find myself losing if I made a mistake or didn’t play my strengths against their weaknesses, a common thread that will continue on through competitive play.
Talking over Hearthstones matchmaking with some of my friends who’d just started playing it had shown that the experience was somewhat lacklustre, with many of the people they faced off with often having cards that they simply couldn’t get access to for a long time. Indeed when I first started playing I found much the same thing which was made even worse when I gave the arena a go. However I think this is predominately a function of the default decks being completely crap than anything else as once I found some basic decks online, ones that could be constructed without spending a single dollar, I found I was able to win matches much more consistently. Sure there were times I’d come up against legendary cards that I found incredibly hard to deal with but at least with a non-default deck I had tools to manage them.
The free to play nature though does mean that you’ll either spend an inordinate amount of time grinding out levels and gold to get the cards you want or you’ll have to pony up for some card packs. Now I don’t begrudge Blizzard for doing this, it’s their prerogative to make money off the games they create after all, however it meant that the time required to build up another class to the level I wanted to play it at was a little prohibitive. Some of the more advanced decks did look like a lot of fun but honestly I didn’t really like the idea of spending a good chunk of change just to give them a whirl. Of course I know this has gone the other way for many players as building your way up to that can be just as enjoyable as levelling a new character.
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is a fun trading card game, taking many elements of its various physical counterparts and wrapping it up with mechanics that are uniquely Blizzard. For those of us who’ve played trading card games before the mechanics will familiar yet different enough to provide some interest and the healthy competitive scene means there’s always bigger and better things to strive for. It’s free to play nature was what lost my interest after a while as I wasn’t particularly keen to invest my cash in getting better cards but considering the number of other players around I get the feeling I might be the odd one out here. For fans of trading card games and the Warcraft universe alike Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is definitely worth a look in.
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is available right now on PC and iPad. Total play time was approximately 8 hours.
I was never particularly good at RTS games, mostly because I never dug deep into the mechanics or got involved in higher level strategies that would have enabled me to progress my sills. However I found a lot of joy in the custom maps that many RTS games had and this was especially so for WarCraft 3. Inbetween my bouts of Elemental Tower Defense, Footman Frenzy and X Hero Siege I inevitably came across Defense of the Ancients and like many others became hooked on it. Whilst I still favoured the less directly competitive maps, much preferring the spam fest that other customs offered, the original laid the foundation for my current obsession with DOTA2 a game which has claimed almost 1400 hours of my life so far.
However DOTA2 wasn’t my first reintroduction into the MOBA scene, that honour goes to Heroes of Newerth which I was somewhat intrigued by whilst it was still in beta. I had a small cadre of friends who liked to play it as well but for some reason it just wasn’t enough to keep us interested and eventually fell by the wayside. The same crew and I had tried League of Legends as well but the experience was just too far away from the DOTA we knew and after a couple games our attention was turned elsewhere. If I’m honest though we were mostly excited to hear about Blizzard’s own version of the MOBA genre as that was one of the reasons that WarCraft 3 DOTA was so enjoyable: it had many of the characters we knew and loved.
It was looking like Blizzard DOTA and DOTA2 were going to launch around similar times and indeed once Valve officially announced DOTA2, with the original map maker IceFrog at the helm, news of the work on Blizzard DOTA went silent. Whilst this was partially due to the court battle that Blizzard and Valve became embroiled in afterwards there was little doubt among the community that Blizzard’s original vision for their MOBA title was going to clash heavily with that of Valve and the work we had seen up until that date was to be scrapped. What was less clear however was what they were working on instead as whilst no one doubts the calibre of Blizzard’s work they were going up against 3 already highly polished products, all of which had dedicated communities behind them.
Well it seems that Blizzard has done something completely out of left field, and it looks awesome.
Heroes of the Storm is the final name of Blizzard’s entrance into the MOBA genre (although they’re hesitating to use that term currently) and whilst it shares some base characteristics with other titles it’s really something out of left field. For starters the typical game is slated to last only 20 minutes, something which is a downright rarity in any other MOBA title. Additionally some of the signature mechanics, like individual hero levels and items, don’t exist in the Heroes of the Storm world. It also has different maps, various mechanics for helping a team achieve victory and a talent tree system for heroes that’s unlike any other MOBA I’ve played before. The differences are so vast that I’d recommend you take a look at this post on Wowhead as it goes into the real nitty gritty of what makes it so unique.
From what I’ve seen it looks like Blizzard is aiming Heroes of the Storm primarily at people who aren’t currently MOBA players as it seems like the barrier to entry on this is quite low. Traditionally this is what has turned people off playing such titles as the learning curve is quite steep and quite frankly the communities have never been too welcoming to newer players. Heroes of the Storm on the other hand could be played 3 times in the space of an hour allowing new players to get up to speed much more quickly. At the same time though I think it will appeal to current MOBA players seeking a different experience, whether they’re feeling burn out on their title of choice or just want something different every once in a while.
I’m quite keen to get my hands on it (I’ve signed up for the beta, here) as I think it’ll be quite a bit of fun, especially with my current group of friends who’ve all taken to DOTA2 with fervour. It’s great to hear that it’s going to be a stand alone title rather than a map within StarCraft 2 and I think that will give Blizzard a lot of freedom with developing the idea in the future. Whether or not it can have the same longevity through a competitive scene like all MOBA titles before it thought will remain to be seen but I get the feeling it’ll be something of a LAN favourite for a while to come.
Long time readers will know that Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty has long held the crown for the highest rated game here on The Refined Geek. It’s not an undeserved title either as they managed to capture in my attention in a way few games have been able to and indeed only one (DOTA 2) has been able to do so since. From the start I knew it was set to be a trilogy carving the game up into 3 separate installments each of which would focus on a single race. Heart of the Swarm, the second game in the Starcraft II trilogy, continues the story started in Wings of Liberty and as the name implies focuses primarily on the Zerg race.
Heart of the Swarm picks up not too long after the final events that take place in Wings of Liberty. Kerrigan has been locked away in a test facility run by prince Valerian who is eager to see how much control she retains over the Zerg. Shortly after the final test is complete (which had resulted in Kerrigan using the Zerg to destroy much of the test facility) Dominion forces attack, forcing them to evacuate. However in the confusion Raynor is unfortunately left behind and Kerrigan refuses to leave without him. After waiting for him to contact her she reads a news report that he was captured and summarily executed, causing Kerrigan to swear brutal vengeance against Mengsk yet again.
As always Blizzard has delivered an incredibly beautiful game, one that will run well on nearly any system built within the past 4 years. Whilst the in-game graphics haven’t changed significantly, apart from higher-resolution textures and better lighting (which you could say is significant, I guess), the whole game feels a heck of a lot more polished. The in-between mission cut scenes, dialog sequences and cinematics have all seen improvements which are very obvious when comparing them side by side.
From a core game perspective Heart of the Swarm doesn’t change much with the standard real time strategy mechanics applying throughout the game. However like Wings of Liberty not every mission is simply a build army, send at enemy, rise and repeat deal with most of the missions being rather unique in their implementation. Of course there are your standard base/army building type missions however most of them have an unique twist to them which can make them more complicated or provide opportunities to make them far easier, should you be willing to take the risk.
Whilst this might not be too different from Wings of Liberty (although individually the missions are all very different) the levels do seem to be better designed as I can remember struggling to get into the campaign in the original whilst it didn’t take me long to get hooked on Heart of the Swarm. Indeed since all the missions are so varied and unique I rarely found myself becoming bored with them. This ended up with me engaging in a rather ravenous binge on missions which only stopped when I realised I was playing on into the early hours of the morning. That hasn’t happened to me in a while and is a real testament to the quality of each mission in Heart of the Swarm.
Outside of the core missions you’ll be given the opportunity to upgrade your units, giving them unique abilities that will make them far more effective in game. There’s 2 types of upgrades that will be available for all of your units, the first being a choice of 3 different types of specializations which you can change at any time. The second is a permanent change to the unit itself giving it either additional abilities (like the Raptor Zergling pictured about which can now leap at targets and jump up cliffs) or giving it an evolutionary path (like the Hydralisk being able to evolve into a lurker). Thankfully you’re not making this decision blind as all of the permanent evolutions come alongside a mission that gives you a feel for how the new unit will behave and where it will be effective.
For long time Starcraft players the upgrade paths have a pretty obvious “best” path as certain combinations become almost completely unstoppable. Sure each of them is viable in their own sense and some choices are better than others in some situations however my initial combination of frenzied hydras with roaches that slowed was enough to melt most armies without too much hassle. Once I got respawning ultralisks it was pretty much game over for any large army as they couldn’t kill them quick enough and all their precious siege defences just melted away, leaving the rest of their army vulnerable.
Wings of Liberty included some hero units but apart from the basic in game upgrades (which were only available during base building missions) there wasn’t much you could do to customize them. Heart of the Swarm often gives you direct control over Kerrigan and her list of abilities is quite impressive. The good thing about this is you can craft her to fit your playstyle effectively as you can play her as a big spell nuker, tanky siege destoryer or 1 woman army that can take out bases without the assistance of any other units. On the flip side however this can make it feel like your army is just like an accessory for Kerrigan, something that’s nice but not necessarily required.
For me I went with a tanky building that favoured direct attacks over spells. Her attacks would chain and she would attack faster with each subsequent attack which would allow her to melt armies in no short order. Couple that with a spammable healing ability and she was for the most part invincible and should she get into trouble I could simply walk her out of there whilst healing her every 8 seconds. It did seem somewhat unfair at times as since the heal was AOE I could keep my army going far longer than it should have been able to normally which usually meant once I hit 200/200 I rarely found myself building any further units. I get that she’s supposed to be an immensely powerful being but she does take some of the challenge out of it. Maybe it’s different on brutal (I played on hard, for what its worth).
Although there were no bugs to report, even with the streaming which I thought would cause all manner of strife, there were a couple issues that marred my experience in Heaert of the Swarm. Whilst the out of mission upgrades were good they were often choices between upgrades that were available in multiplayer games. As someone who played Zerg back in Wings of Liberty (well, I randomed for a long time so I played all races) I often found myself missing some upgrades that overcome the inherit weaknesses of particular units. The removal of larva injects also didn’t sit particularly well for me as that was an in-grained habit and its removal relegated the queens to creep tumour/heal bots which, after a certain point in the game, relegated them to units I’d only build when I was running low on larva. These aren’t systemic issues with the game per se, but they definitely detracted from my experience.
Warning: plot spoilers below.
I also can’t praise the story as highly as I did back with Wings of Liberty as Kerrigan starts off strong but quickly degenerates into a character with confused emotions who makes decisions that don’t make a whole bunch of sense. This might be because the over-arching plot is somewhat predictable (the twist about Raynor for instance) and when her motivations don’t line up with the direction you think they’d be going in it just feels…weird. I did like the nods to previous unresolved plot threads from the original Starcraft series (if you can’t figure out who Narud is then your head is on backwards, hint hint) as Wings of Liberty only half alluded to them. The foreshadowing for the final instalment has got me excited for what’s to come however, even if the story might end up being not much more than your generic sci-fi action movie.
Plot spoilers over.
Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm is a solid follow up to Wings of Liberty providing a highly polished game experience that is par for the course for Blizzard games. All of the missions feel unique, banishing the usual RTS campaign drudgery and creating an experience that is both challenging and satisfying. Unfortunately I can’t rate it as highly as its predecessor as my many hours in multiplayer set up expectations which would probably never be met and the strange treatment of Kerrigan as a central character marred an otherwise great experience. Still these are comparatively minor nit picks in a game that drew me in and trapped me for hours and I would do it again willingly.
Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm is available on PC right now for $48. Game was played on hard with around 12 hours of total play time and 35% of the achievements unlocked.
The defacto platform of choice for any gamer used to be the Microsoft Windows based PC however the last decade has seen that change to be some form of console. Today, whilst we’re seeing something of a resurgence in the PC market thanks in part to some good releases this year and ageing console hardware, PCs are somewhere on the order take about 5% of the video game market. If we then extrapolate from there using the fact that only about 1~2% of the PC market is Linux (although this number could be higher if restricted to gamers) then you can see why many companies have ignored it for so long, it just doesn’t make financial sense to get into it. However there’s been a few recent announcements that shows there’s an increasing amount of attention being paid to this ultra-niche and that makes for some interesting speculation.
Gaming on Linux has always been an exercise in frustration, usually due to the Windows-centric nature of the gaming industry. Back in the day Linux suffered from a lack of good driver support for modern graphics cards and this made it nearly impossible to get games running on there at an acceptable level. Once that was sorted out (whether you count binary blobs as “sorted” is up to you) there was still the issue that most games were simply not coded for Linux leaving their users with very few options. Many chose to run their games through WINE or Cedega which actually works quite well, especially for popular titles, but many where still left wanting for titles that would run natively. The Humble Indie Bundle has gone a long way to getting developers working on Linux but it’s still something of a poor cousin to the Windows Platform.
Late last year saw Valve open up beta access to Steam on Linux bringing with it some 50 odd titles to the platform. It came as little surprise that they did this considering that they did the same thing with OSX just over 2 years ago which was undoubtedly a success for them. I haven’t really heard much on it since then, mostly because none of my gamer friends run Linux, but there’s evidence to suggest that it’s going pretty well as Valve is making further bets on Linux. As it turns out their upcoming Steam Box will be running some form of Linux under the hood:
Valve’s engineer talked about their labs and that they want to change the “frustrating lack of innovation in the area of computer hardware”. He also mentioned a console launch in 2013 and that it will specifically use Linux and not Windows. Furthermore he said that Valve’s labs will reveal yet another new hardware in 2013, most likely rumored controllers and VR equipment but we can expect some new exciting stuff.
I’ll be honest and say that I really didn’t expect this even with all the bellyaching people have been doing about Windows 8. You see whilst being able to brag about 55 titles being on the platform already that’s only 2% of their current catalogue. You could argue that emulation is good enough now that all the titles could be made available through the use of WINE which is a possibility but Valve doesn’t offer that option with OSX currently so it’s unlikely to happen. Realistically unless the current developers have intentions to do a Linux release now the release of the Steam Box/Steam on Linux isn’t going to be enough to tempt them to do it, especially if they’ve already recovered their costs from PC sales.
That being said all it might take is one industry heavyweight to put their weight behind Linux to start a cascade of others doing the same. As it turns out Blizzard is doing just that with one of their titles slated for a Linux release some time this year. Blizzard has a long history with cross platform releases as they were one of the few companies to do releases for Mac OS decades ago and they’ve stated many times that they have a Linux World of Warcraft client that they’ve shied away from releasing due to support concerns. Releasing an official client for one of their games on Linux will be their way of verifying whether its worth it for them to continue doing so and should it prove successful it could be the shot in the arm that Linux needs to become a viable platform for games developers to target.
Does this mean that I’ll be switching over? Probably not as I’m a Microsoft guy at heart and I know my current platform too well to just drop it for something else (even though I do have a lot of experience with Linux). I’m very interested to see how the Steam Box is going to be positioned as it being Linux changes the idea I had in my head for it and makes Valve’s previous comments about them all the more intriguing. Whilst 2013 might not be a blockbuster year for Linux gaming it is shaping up to be the turning point where it starts to become viable.
It’s scary just how much of my World of Warcraft life mirrored that of your run-of-the-mill addict. At the start everything was good: all my friends were playing and we were all having a blast, whiling away our youth in the fantastical land of Azeroth. Then people started to leave, the ones who couldn’t spare the time at first but as the month went on the nomenclature changed from “I just stopped to playing” to “I’m out” or “I’ve been clean for 2 weeks now!”. Indeed in the years that have followed since my hey days where I was spending 1 day (total play time) out of every 6 in World of Warcraft I’ve found myself relapsing and going back to it whenever an expansion comes out. Strangely enough though whilst the attraction to go back is strong it seems I’m becoming better at saying no.
I kind of missed everything in the Burning Crusade as that was when I found myself destitute, languishing without a guild and without a group of friends I wanted to play with. However Wrath of the Lich King saw me return with meteoric fury, flush with a new group of friends I made through work I lovingly plunged dozens of hours back into the game. It wasn’t the same as the height of my addiction days but then again I had much less time on my hands than I did before so on a relative scale it was probably pretty close. However the same cycle of people leaving and going clean happened again and eventually I found myself leaving the world once again.
I returned for the latest expansion, Cataclysm, for a while and even made my way into some of the high level raids thanks to having some contacts in the right places. However this time around I didn’t last that long before the magic wore off and I realised how long it would take for me to gear up a character to the level I wanted. I haven’t gone back since then as my dedication to reviewing one game per week (only 1 week missed so far!) has overridden any desire I might have had to while away my time in that familiar crack den.
This is a feeling that I believe is shared by many long time World of Warcraft players who have been with the franchise since day 1. It’s hard to believe it but release day was almost 8 years ago and those fresh faced teenagers who started out with this game are now adults with all the fun responsibilities that come along with it. Thus it is not surprising that for the first time in 4 years World of Warcraft’s subscriber base has declined to 9 million. Whilst this is very likely to see a major bump come Mists of Pandaria time they’ve been on the downward slope for a while and that makes you wonder what the future holds for this iconic game.
Ever since I first heard about the latest upcoming expansion I heard in tandem that it was slated to be the last expansion with World of Warcraft bowing out to the upcoming secret MMO dubbed Project Titan. It made sense as the writing appeared to be on the wall with subscriber counts but it seems that Blizzard intends to keep World of Warcraft going for much longer with the expansion pack to follow Mists of Pandaria already in production. Whilst that might seem crazy if you compare the numbers on other MMOs that are widely believed to be successful you can see that Blizzard could easily keep the franchise going with 10~20% of the numbers they have now. Depending on how well Mists of Pandaria does at stemming the attrition rate it may take the release of Project Titan to see the end to World of Warcraft. Even then it might take a year or two before the subscriber count hits danger territory for Blizzard.
I’ve long relegated myself to coming back and playing through each expansion that comes out mostly because the levelling experience, especially since Cataclysm, is one I very much enjoy. I’ll definitely be back for the expansion when it comes out late next month but as for me becoming a long time subscriber again? I can’t see that happening any time soon. In fact I’m not sure that any MMORPG will be able to captivate me in the same way as World of Warcraft did back in the day and from what I can tell I’m not alone in this feeling. Still the nostalgia feeling will be enough to swell their ranks for a time and that may be all Blizzard is looking for.
As game releases goes it doesn’t get much bigger than the Call of Duty series. The most recent instalment in the series, Modern Warfare 3, was released just last week and has already sold a whopping 6.5 million copies. That number doesn’t include sales outside of the USA or the UK and even that’s enough to make Modern Warfare 3 the biggest entertainment release of all time across any medium. Considering that Modern Warfare 3’s predecessors also set records of similar calibre in their time it should come as no surprise that they were able to do it once again. The question remains though are those sales figures indicative of something innate about Modern Warfare 3 (I.E. is it actually a good game) or merely a product of solid marketing? For the first time on The Refined Geek I was sent a copy of this game to review and I’ve spent the past week diligently doing so.
Modern Warfare 3 drops you hours after the events that unfolded in Modern Warfare 2 with Soap slowly dying whilst you, playing as one of Nikolai’s best soldiers Yuri, attempt to help save him. Meanwhile World War 3 is still continuing and you’ll then play as Frost one of the members of Delta Squad who’s been charged with driving the Russians out of New York by using one of their own attack subs against them. Throughout the single player campaign you’ll switch between Frost, Yuri and (towards the end) Price as you play out different parts of the larger story arc.
Now I’ll be honest here, when I reviewed Battlefield 3 a week ago I criticised its single player for being tedious but I couldn’t shake the feeling in the back of my head that I’d been overly harsh on it. For the most part I figure that was because I was expecting too much for the single player when at its heart Battlefield 3 is a multiplayer game just like Modern Warfare 3 is. However the differences between the two games single player campaigns could not be more stark as right from the get go Modern Warfare 3 sets the stage for action packed, run and gun fun. It only took me half an hour with Modern Warfare 3 to realise that Infinity Ward are extremely adept at crafting an epic cinematic experience, one far superior to that of Battlefield 3’s single player.
Indeed the set pieces you’ll play in are quite spectacular. The environments you’ll play in are quite varied, ranging from towering city scapes to the vast depths of a Russian diamond mine. Whilst many of the campaign scenes form the basis of the multiplayer maps they are thankfully not the same maps like in Battlefield 3. For the most part the single player sections of Modern Warfare 3 are quite intimate with most taking place in what can be most aptly described as a giant corridor. It’s not a particularly bad thing but compared to Battlefield 3’s expansive environments it can leave you feeling a little wanting for the giant environments of yore. Still they’re usually littered with alternative paths which open up all sorts of different tactics.
Combat in Modern Warfare 3 is polished to the point of perfection. Whilst the cover based regenerative health style of game play is far from inventive Infinity Ward has it down to a T so well that the only complaint you can have about it is the unoriginality. The NPCs that accompany you, whilst not being on the same level as a real human, are not the next to useless meat bags that plagued me in Battlefield 3. Combine these with weapons (and on occasion awesome gadgets like the UGV pictured above) and the combat is satisfying, gritty and above all just plain fun.
If there was one genuine complaint that I’d level at Modern Warfare 3’s combat is actually too easy. Now according to my time with Robert Bowling each of the platforms recieved the same amount of development time which kind of rules out my theory that the PC version is a well polished port that dumbs down the difficulty for those who have to aim with their thumbs. Now I didn’t play the game through on its hardest difficulty, opting for Hardened or whatever the second hardest was, but this is a complaint I’ve heard echoed by several other people who have played on the hardest setting. It could be argued that this lack of difficulty is one of the things that adds to the enjoyment of the game (and indeed it does mean that it’s a very well paced game) but it does make Modern Warfare 3 stand out as something aimed more at new comers to the series rather than seasoned FPS gamers like myself.
Thinking about it more there are quite a few signs that Modern Warfare 3 tends much more towards the playable movie side of the spectrum than your traditional FPS title. You’ll spend the entire game following someone and taking their orders rather than being let out on the loose by yourself to try and accomplish the mission. If you dare to deviate from the carefully constructed plot you’ll usually be greeted with a mission failed or flooded with waves of enemies you can’t hope to defeat. In that sense then if you think of Modern Warfare 3 as a playable movie more than a game then it accomplishes that quite well, even if that’s counter intuitive to what you’d expect from a game like this.
Overall the single player is a great way to blow 4~5 hours and whilst it might feel like you’re on rails and everything is a tad too easy ultimately I found myself having a blast playing the hero in Modern Warfare 3. One of my friends captured the essence of Modern Warfare games aptly by saying they’re like a Matthew Reilly book: an action packed read with a plot that’s nothing deep but enough to get you by; an afternoon of solid entertainment. Of course everyone knows that the single player is just a mere distraction on the road to the real reason why everyone buys the Modern Warfare games: the multiplayer.
Honestly at first I was thoroughly confused with the multiplayer in Modern Warfare 3. Sure I had played it back at the preview a couple months ago and nothing had really changed in the interim (as far as I could tell) but the differences between Treyarch’s and Infinity Ward’s style of multiplayer is quite stark. For starters nearly everything in the game has a level attached to it from weapons to perks to you the player. At the start this is somewhat overwhelming especially when you consider that the built in classes have access to weapons and perks that you can’t unlock until later levels. Indeed you can’t create your own class until level 4, leaving you to stumble through the first few without a class that you created. For someone who got kind of used to making his own choices this was a bit irritating, but it didn’t last for long.
Levelling in Modern Warfare 3 is incredibly fast paced with rewards, unlocks and achievements being thrown at you constantly for doing almost anything in the game. Unlike Black Ops where you’d spend in game cash to buy upgrades for your weapons they’re instead unlocked progressively as you use the weapon in multiplayer matches. This is good and bad as you don’t have to worry about not having the cash required to get the upgrade you want but it also means that the best upgrades are reserved for those who use the weapon the longest. You see I found it quite fun in Black Ops to be able to switch to a completely new weapon and deck it out fully before diving into another game with it. In Modern Warfare 3 this isn’t really possible as I’d instead have to grind out that weapon in order to fully unlock it. The result is you pretty much stick with one weapon until you unlock the next best one, which can take a little while. All that being said though it only took me about 4 hours of play to reach level 22 which isn’t bad considering the level cap is 80.
What did disappoint me however was the lack of dedicated servers for ranked play. You see with Black Ops you had the familiar server browser where you could find the servers you wanted to play on and go play there. Modern Warfare 3 brings back the dreaded peer to peer system for ranked play and leaves the dedicated servers for strictly unranked play. I can understand why this decision was made but the fact of the matter is that peer to peer multiplayer is a sub-par experience for PC gamers. Whilst initially I found it to be trouble free the last couple hours saw many host migrations with several of them ending with me being disconnected from the game completely. Black Ops (and Battlefield 3) had none of these issues and they also don’t seem to struggle with hackers on their servers either. It’s unfortunate that Infinity Ward choose this direction again but it looks like they’re set in their ways with this one.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 stands as a testament to Infinity Ward’s ability to produce AAA titles time and time again. Sure they’re unoriginal and formulaic but they’ve got that down so well that when you start playing them all those thoughts melt away a cacophony of explosions, explicatives and enemies. The multiplayer is, as always, thoroughly enjoyable and the persistent levelling system will see me playing it long after this review is written. It’s not all roses however and the things I’ve panned Modern Warfare 3 for could have easily been averted by Infinity Ward. Overall Modern Warfare 3 is a great game and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to long time Call of Duty fans and new comers alike.
Rating: 8.5 / 10
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is available right now on PC, Xbox360 and PS3 right now for $89.99, $79 and $79 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC on Harderned difficulty with 4 hours and 37% completion. 4 hours of multiplayer was also played with majority being spent in the team deathmatch mode. A copy of the game was provided to The Refined Geek for the purposes of reviewing.
I’m a really, really big fan of nearly every Blizzard game that’s come out over the past 2 decades. Their dedication to releasing games when they’re done, whilst irritating to the extreme sometimes, means that they consistently deliver highly polished titles. They’re also extremely dedicated to their fans being deeply involved in the communities that surround their games, taking their suggestions and criticisms and using them to improve their games. I’ve gladly parted with many of my hard earned dollars for the privilege of enjoying their games, and I’ve gladly planned to part with a whole lot more in the coming months.
The next title that’s gearing up to part me with a good chunk of change is Diablo III, the next instalment in the Diablo series that I’ve been playing ever since its original release. The game play videos have captivated me and the continuation of the story that’s been on hiatus for over 11 years was more than enough to sell me on it long ago. I’m also very interested in some of the latest developments like the real money auction house which will allow players to sell in game items for cold hard cash. Sure it might look like a game breaking money grab but I’ve got every confidence that Blizzard knows what they’re doing and the actual impact on the every day game play will be minimal.
What does give me the shits however, is the price that we all have to pay as part of it.
Diablo 1 and 2 were, as many Blizzard games were, long time favourites because of their awesome multi-player experience, in particular the LAN play. Of course back in those days where Internet connections were no where near as good as they are today LAN play was critical, but today it’s much less of an issue. However there are still occasions where you might be without an Internet connection and still want to play the games you purchased, say when you’re moving to a new house or travelling. StarCraft II skirted around this requirement by allowing you to login as a guest when offline, which is an ok solution but a far cry from what it used to be. As it turns out Diablo III won’t even be offering any kind of offline play at all, requiring players to be constantly connected to the Internet:
Executive vice president of game design Rob Pardo notes that the wealth of improvements and features Diablo 3 brings to Battle.net necessitate the always-online requirement. Specific additions that he refers to include:
While Pardo recognizes that people sometimes want or need to play offline (such as internet outages, or playing on a laptop during an airplane flight), he notes that the increased security, plus benefits like the above, outweigh those other concerns. “I want to play Diablo 3 on my laptop in a plane, but, well, there are other games to play for times like that.”
Now this isn’t the first time a game developer has implemented an always online DRM system. Ubisoft implemented such a system with Assassin’s Creed II and the results weren’t pretty, with the game instantly booting you out the second it couldn’t communicate with Ubisoft’s DRM servers. This meant that issues on either the customer’s or Ubisoft’s end could trigger a swift boot out, losing all your progress since the last auto-save point (which could be quite a bit of game time). Initially Ubisoft had planned to roll this out to all their games but has since taken a more lax approach with the only other title to receive such restrictive DRM being Driver: San Francisco.
Blizzard, for what it’s worth, has to put this kind of DRM into the game should they wish to implement features like the real money auction house. Honestly though I thought they had this problem all sorted with the Open/Closed Battle.net system¹ they had in Diablo 2 which worked quite well. The same system could have been integrated into Diablo 3 without too much hassle, making sure that the real money auction house wasn’t a hotbed for exploiters. Sadly this seems to be a trend for many larger game publishers and there are no signs of them changing their behaviour any time soon.
As someone who’s lived with patchy Internet for many years I can attest to how irritating it can be if a game drops you out the second you lose your connection. I understand why it happens in online game modes but for a game that will (hopefully) have a great single player as its predecessors did my Internet connection shouldn’t have to matter at all. I gladly made the trade off back in Diablo 2 to play on the Open Battle.net because my connection was tenuous at the best of times and I’d gladly do the same with Diablo III should I be given the option (and find myself without Internet). Blizzard seems committed to this always online idea however, so I’m not hopeful that it will change.
Now usually I’d just vote with my wallet in this case, either buying another version of the game that didn’t require an Internet connection (like a console version) or just abstaining from it altogether. Problem here is that I don’t want to miss this release from Blizzard yet I don’t want to encourage them to continue down this restrictive DRM path. In the end I’ll probably end up buying it anyway but I’m not going to be as happy with it as I would’ve been otherwise.
DRM only hurts your honest customers and whilst I’m sure that Blizzard won’t suffer because of the DRM in Diablo III it’s definitely not doing them any favours. It’s worse than Ubisoft’s case as Blizzard has managed to work around these problems before, as recently as their latest release. It won’t take the crackers long to get passed it either thereby negating a good chunk of the benefits that Blizzard is spruiking. Hopefully they’ll provide some sort of compromise like that did for StarCraft II, but with the release date coming up fast I wouldn’t be holding your breath for it.
¹For the uninitiated the “open” Battle.net let you use characters that had been created offline. It was very well known that these characters could be hacked, items duplicated and game mechanics exploited when not tethered to Blizzard’s servers. The closed Battle.net kept all characters on their servers, ensuring that hacked items and characters wouldn’t be persistent in the game.