There’s nothing like a World of Warcraft expansion to instil feelings of both excitement and dread. My long and sordid history with the venerable MMORPG has been well chronicled here over the years and, whilst I very much enjoy revisiting this world, it’s always something of a bittersweet reunion. Thankfully these days I know my time with World of Warcraft is limited and thus I endeavour to make the most of it before I move onto greener pastures. The developers over at Blizzard seem to be well aware of this fact and every expansion seems to cater more and more for players like myself; the ones who want the full experience but rarely have the time to commit to it like they used to. Legion, the latest expansion for World of Warcraft, is no exception to this and the few weeks I’ve spent with it post launch have been some of the most enjoyable I’ve ever had.
That’s saying something for a game that’s now over 12 years old.
Legion takes place 2 years after the events of Warlords of Draenor and sees you returning to Azeroth. Guldan, after the defeat of Archimonde at Hellfire Citadel, has returned to the Broken Isles to open up yet another dark portal to allow the Legion to invade, this time at a scale to rival the War of the Ancients which raged some 1000 years prior. Your quest, as the champion of your chosen faction, is to travel to the Broken Isles and master the numerous artefacts of power that lay within there in order to defeat the Legion once again.
The graphics have definitely had a bump up from the previous expansion with the environments being far more detailed, the weather systems more varied and the number of graphical options available for you to tweak bumped up significantly. The engine is starting to show its age however, not being able to make use of the full amount of grunt my PC has available even when the frame rates start to drop. In the past this wouldn’t have been too noticeable but with my 144Hz, G-Sync enabled monitor any drop below 60fps is readily noticeable. I’ve managed to get it running reasonably well after tweaking numerous settings however when there’s no frame rate difference between 2xMSAA and 4xMSAA I know there’s some optimisation issues at play. There’s also a rather weird bug that sometimes creeps up whereby I can’t run in 144Hz mode in fullscreen windowed, usually necessitating a restart of the client to fix it. Overall though it’s still a great visual experience, even if I spent more time in the config menus than I thought was appropriate.
Legion takes many of the core ideals from Warlords of Draenor and streamlines them significantly whilst also adding in a few more changes of its own. The garrison system has been revamped and stripped down into the far more manageable class Order Hall which functions both as your base of operations and a good source of character progression. To replace what was lost by the garrison system Legion introduces World Quests, essentially randomly spawning quests that occur all over the Broken Isles that reward all sorts of loot, faction reputation and resources for your Order Hall. Weapons will no longer drop from any mobs in Legion, instead you are gifted with an artefact weapon to suit your character’s talent specialisation (in my case, the GODDAMN ASHBRINGER!!!!) which will grow with you as you play. Professions have also been given a revamp, now requiring much more investment in time completing quests rather than grinding out materials and items that will be destroyed or vendored. At its core though Legion remains true to its World of Warcraft roots and the fundamentals will be familiar to long time veterans of this game.
Combat, by and large, feels the same as it always has. Before I really got started with my Paladin I spent a good chunk of time researching which talents to go for, what the rotations are and what gear I should be looking out for. Upon logging in I was greeted with the usual cacophony of out of date interface add-ons, skills which no longer existed still hanging around on my action bars and all my macros no longer working. It didn’t take long to work everything out and the result was, once again, a very slimmed down action bar. Whilst I always enjoy levelling as Retribution it quickly becomes clear that it’s not a top tier spec anymore and so halfway through I switched to Protection. Since then I’ve quite enjoyed being able to pull numerous mobs, easily soloing up to half a dozen or more without having to break out one of my longer duration cooldowns. Tanking in dungeons feels largely the same too although it seems like I’ve lost some of the more medium-length cooldowns that I used to have, ones that would get used for those rotational boss abilities that would otherwise require a lot of healing to live through. Indeed I’m no longer the self-healing god I used to be which I think is good given the fact that I could sometimes go entire boss fights without needing a healer. All in all it feels much the same, just a little more streamlined.
The World Quest system is probably my favourite addition in Legion as it provides a relatively steady, predictable source of gear upgrades if you’re willing to put in an hour or so per day. I have to admit that initially I cracked and bought a few items from the auction house to step up my ilvls a couple notches only to quickly replace them over the next few days. After running only a couple heroics and a single mythic dungeon I find myself at a healthy 839 ilvl, more than enough to tank the upcoming raid. Casting my mind back to Draenor this was most certainly not the case, with a solid month of grinding just barely enough to get me ready for the LFR version of the raids. The upgrades have, of course, started to slow down but that’s allowed me to focus on other areas of advancement. Thankfully the potential month between gear upgrades that I faced back when I was playing Draenor seems to be a thing of the past although I am now placing my faith in RNGJesus to give me the upgrade quests I desire.
The Order Hall system is really quite fantastic, giving you meaningful and tangible progression at every stage through the levelling process and beyond. Gone are the days where I’d have to spend an hour or two getting my garrison affairs in order before I could step out into the wider world. Instead it’s a quick trip to make sure everything is chugging along (even using the app if I don’t want to login that day) before I head out to complete my world quests for the day. Even better is the fact that there’s catchup mechanisms in place if you decide to leave World of Warcraft for a while, meaning players like me could still be competitive even after taking an extended break. It’s a possibility I really hadn’t considered in any other expansion before and Legion may be the first to bring me back before another expansion comes out.
The artefact weapons are great, giving plebs like me the feeling that I really have something truly powerful that doesn’t require months of grinding raids hoping for that one damn drop. Indeed after I came back I realised that I was still sporting a blue shield despite the numerous raids and dungeons I had completed in the previous expansion. Now I have a well levelled Truthguard filled to the brim with relics that bolster my character even further. My Ashbringer might be sitting in my bags, horribly disused now, but I can’t tell you how damn cool it was to finally have such a legendary weapon in my hands after lusting after it for so long. Indeed it was one of the few reasons I kept playing through the torturous hell that was original Naxramas, hoping beyond hope that I might get a Corrupted Ashbringer that one day might turn into the venerable weapon of World of Warcraft lore.
Legion predictably suffers from launch day issues (although thankfully most are resolved now) but the game client does still have some perplexing issues that don’t have a clear solution in sight. For instance Legion seems to load most assets incredibly slowly, even on my RAID10 array which is capable of some pretty high bandwidth. This has led to some interesting situations where all I can see is the ground plane and nothing else, sometimes up to 10 minutes at a time. Crashes are thankfully few and far between however, although I would recommend against changing settings whilst something is happening on screen (like say riding a griffon to the next flight point). I mentioned the optimisation issues previously and I think they bear mentioning again as, really, a game like this should not struggle on my i7-5820K lavished with 32GB RAM and a GTX970 powering it. Perhaps there’s a setting or two I’ve missed which is causing my grief but it’s not obvious as to what it is.
Legion’s story is your typical World of Warcraft affair, great if you know much of the lore that proceeds it and downright confusing if you don’t. The trash quests are barely worth reading as they’re all some simple premise that will require you to do X thing Y times for a reward. The larger story arcs are more interesting, like the Paladin order hall campaign which sees you travel to Exodar and the Priests’ order hall, being engaging enough to keep you going but little beyond that. If you’re already deep into the World of Warcraft lore then there’s going to be a lot to love but otherwise there might not be much for you. Not that many of us need much motivation to go and grind relentlessly for purples, however.
World of Warcraft: Legion is everything I’ve come to expect from Blizzard’s expansions. The core game remains mostly the same, keeping the winning formula that has seen World of Warcraft remain the king of MMORPGs for so many years. The new Order Hall and World Quest mechanics completely pander to players like myself, giving us easy progression paths that don’t necessarily require the giant time sink that they used to. The biggest let downs are in the sub-par optimisation of the now decade+ old engine and the so-so story but neither of these things really comes as a surprise to a veteran player like myself. Still I’ve very much enjoyed my time with Legion and will likely hang around to complete the newly released dungeon a couple times before I call it quits once again.
World of Warcraft: Legion is available on PC right now for $69.95. Total play time was approximately 36 hours at 110 achieving an ilvl of 839.
World of Warcraft might have been my first MMORPG but in the decade that followed I’ve played my fair share of titles in that genre. Few of them have managed to make me come back after the initial play through (indeed I think only EVE Online has) but I’m readily familiar with the idea that my character is a kind of temporal thing. All those hours I put into getting them to max level and then kitting them out with gear will likely all amount to naught when the next expansion comes out. If it didn’t I wouldn’t have much incentive to keep playing as completely maxing out a character would be a one time deal. However if you were to take the reaction to Destiny’s latest DLC it would appear that the majority of its playerbase thinks the opposite, which is strangely out of touch with reality.
I’ll admit that in the beginning Destiny’s loot system was inherently flawed. Things like Legendary engrams turning into green items meant that you had to pray to RNGesus twice in order to get the purples you desired, something which wasn’t fixed until months after launch. The raid was also just as bad as even if you ran it every week there was no guarantee you’d get the drops you needed to make it to level 30. Indeed I never did, despite my vault now being filled with 7 chatterwhite shaders (one for every week I ran it). However I still managed to progress my character in other ways, maxing out all my weapons and completing several of the exotic weapon bounties.
Then the DLC dropped and it seemed like I’d be starting from scratch again.
Except I wasn’t. Sure my exotics weren’t automatically upgraded and the new max level was 32 but I was able to complete all the new content (bar the raid) as my 29 self with my pre-DLC weapons. I even got randomly invited to the new raid with a bunch of guys just because I had everything maxed out and whilst we didn’t get past the second boss it was still awesome to give it a go without having to do anything. Once I got my head around all the new systems available to me it didn’t take long for me to figure out that I was a few strange coins, vanguard marks and commendations away from surpassing my previous level cap of 29. In fact I did just that over the weekend and I am now a proud member of the level 31 elite.
By comparison taking my level 90 paladin in World of Warcraft to level 100 took me the better part of 2 weeks and he wasn’t even ready to run the raid at that point. For the last week or so I’ve spent the majority of my time in that game gearing him up (increasing his iLvl which is directly equivalent to the Light level in Destiny) in order to be able to do the new raid. I was finally able to do it late yesterday afternoon after almost a day in game time of doing various dungeons, gathering up the crafting mats and getting lucky on a few drops. In Destiny to accomplish the same feat I didn’t have to do any of that. I simply completed a quest chain, did the weekly runs and spent a small portion of my strange coin haul on upgrading my chestpiece. It was honestly one of the most pleasant levelling up experiences I’ve ever had in a MMORPG.
I’ll forgive anyone who doesn’t recognise Destiny for the MMO that it is being angry that all their playtime has been for naught (well, mostly) but eventually they’ll have to recognise that, yes, you’re playing one and this is what happens. Bungie made the levelling up process pretty painless, so much so that a filthy casual like myself was able to bash his way to 31 in the space of a weekend. It’s not like all that gear I’ve got is automatically useless anyway either, I’m still rocking my Vision of Confluence and Atheon’s Epilogue most of the time since I haven’t found a good replacement and I think that’ll hold for some time to come. The worst part might’ve been spending 14,000 glimmer and 14 strange coins on upgrading my 2 exotics of choice but that’s nothing when glimmer is everywhere and I’ve had 50+ strange coins for weeks.
It’s probably just the loud minority having their voices heard the most in this respect as I’m sure the vast majority of all the players are actually enjoying the new content rather than bitching about it. Indeed I was content to keep my big mouth shut about it after getting some time to sit down with it over the weekend however it seems that the games churnalism sites have latched on to the faux outrage with reckless abandon. In all seriousness I hope that those who are bitching about the DLC put their money where their mouth is and walk away as it’s only a matter of time before the next DLC and I’d rather not have to listen to people whine about all their time being “wasted”.
Sometimes the things that happen after a review is penned are far more important than those that came before it. Diablo 3 is a prime example of this as whilst my initial impressions of the game were nothing short of amazement the tale of my experience after that is much more mixed. The challenge progression felt great, for a while, but once I hit Inferno the game shifted from being a conquerable challenge to an exercise in frustration. The auction house, initially a great source to give your character a quick boost, soon became the bane of my existance with all the items I needed far beyond my reach and the amount of griding required to get them far too high. It wasn’t long before I lost interest, alongside many of my long time Diablo fan friends. Blizzard was keenly aware of this however and the release of Diablo 3’s first expansion pack, Reaper of Souls, sets out to correct many of the missteps of its predecessor.
With the defeat of Diablo at the top of the crystal arch humanity was once again safe from his terror. However his essence was still captured in the black soulstone, unable to be destroyed even by the angels of heaven. Tyrael, now the mortal Aspect of Wisdom, has once again sought out the Horadrim to secret away the soulstone so that none may attempt to use it for their own purposes. However Malthael, the Archangel of Wisdom who had been lost ever since the destruction of the World Stone, had tracked the soulstone’s location. Whatever his plans are for it are not known but one thing is for sure, you, the Nephalem, are the only one who can stop him.
As you’d expect from an expansion pack Reaper of Souls adds a little more graphical flair to Blizzards’ flagship dungeon crawler although it’s nothing major like an overhaul of the graphics engine. The environments do feel like they have a lot more detail in them and the use of lighting and environmental effects is a lot more liberal, especially in the new areas. Still Diablo 3 is a game that’s meant to be fast paced so much of it is designed to run well without stutters or slow downs and with Blizzard’s reputation of being the low poly kings this ensures that the visuals are still on par with other current generation titles.
There have been some major changes to the core game play of Diablo 3 in Reaper of Souls, the vast majority of which have been aimed directly at addressing concerns that the community raised. The auction house is gone (both of it’s incarnations), the loot system revamped in a massive update called Loot 2.0 and the end game changed significantly adding in a new mode to replace the previous boss run meta that was the norm since Diablo 2. Additionally all the classes have had significant work done on their skills in order to make more of them viable for both end game loot farming as well as during your initial levelling experience. Suffice to say that whilst Reaper of Souls might only bring an additional act’s worth of content it adds an incredible amount of replayability, enough so that this feels like the game Blizzard should have released 2 years ago.
I actually jumped back onto Diablo 3 prior to the release of Reaper of Souls in order to try out the new Loot 2.0 system. Suffice to say I was very impressed as it only took me a couple hours to move from my less-than-stellar auction house purchased Inferno gear to a new set that was much more suited to my playstyle. It also didn’t take long for me to pick up a couple legendaries that completely changed the way my character was built, tempting me to try out builds that would have otherwise been completely unviable. Indeed even without those pieces of gear the various builds I experimented with all felt viable, a highly refreshing change to what I had to do previously.
Levels came thick and fast with my monk being able to reach 70 after a few nights worth of play. Indeed the levelling was so fast that I had pretty much reached level 70 before facing Malthael, only requiring a slight detour for the last push. The same can be said for Paragon levels that you’ll continue to amass after you reach max level, especially if you’re doing bounties or rifts often. The extra levels don’t add too much to the classes although the addition of another passive skill slot at max level does open up a lot of opportunities for builds that might not have been viable previously. The new monk skill, epiphany, is quite interesting although my current gear selection isn’t as effective with it as other builds. Whilst this might be disappointing to some (typically the new skills added in tend to be overpowered) I feel it’s a show of good design as the new skill adds variation whilst not being so powerful that its use is required.
The new way of running end game content is an obvious attempt to shift the current meta of boss runs for items to a more varied approach, incorporating a number of different types of runs that will result in a certain number of legendaries per hour. The first one is called Adventure Mode and is unlocked after completing the campaign through once. In this mode you’re given a series of bounties, usually things like “Clear out all enemies in the Den of Evil” or “Kill this act boss”, and for each of the ones you complete you’ll receive some XP and gold. Complete all of them within one act and you’ll receive a cache from Tyrael that contains a number of items, gems and health pots. This is in addition to any items that might drop along the way which will usually fill your inventory once for every 2 bounties completed. There’s also Nephalem Rifts which are randomly generated dungeons that require you kill a number of enemies before a boss will spawn and the Infernal Machines which pit you against super versions of act minibosses with a chance to drop legendary crafting materials.
The addition of the mystic, along with the minor tweaks to the crafting system, are welcome changes. The mystic allows you to reroll one stat on a piece of gear to another stat, making more pieces of gear viable. The costs of doing so are a little on the extreme side, especially for legendaries which all require a disenchanted legendary, but it can be worth it when you’re trying to min/max your way to victory. The limitation of only rerolling one stat is a little frustrating sometimes as you’ll often come across gear that’s got 2 junk stats on it but is otherwise fine but I can understand why this limitation is put in place. I’d probably complain less if crafting was actually worthwhile as currently the costs seem to heavily outweigh the chances of creating something that you’d use.
For the most part all of this adds up to a very enjoyable experience however I’d be lying if I said it didn’t start to feel a little grindy after a certain point. Sure my character is decked out in about half legendaries, some of them quite amazing, but the quest for items that improve my character has become somewhat arduous. I see as many legendaries drop as the next guy but even with my small collection I already have duplicates (quite irritating when you consider you can’t equip 2 of the same legendary weapon) and I’ve yet to see a solid upgrade in the last few days of play. It’s hard to fault Reaper of Souls specifically for this, it’s just the uncaring wrath of the random number generator, but grinding without the guaranteed reward of an upgrade at the end of it does sap a lot of the fun out of the experience. Now that I’ve said that I’ll probably do one run and get 3 upgrades in a row and all will be right in the world.
Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls is the game Blizzard should have released 2 years ago as it has managed to capture the enduring attention of so many of my Diablo fan friends where the original failed to do so. The revamps to the talent system, loot and addition of the mystic all add up to make the experience far more enjoyable and rewarding, removing some of the reliance on good rolls to give you the stats you require. Adventure mode is the end game that many were seeking originally, something that provides a bit more flavour to the traditional boss runs of yore. Of course this doesn’t absolve you from the grind completely and, if I’m honest, this will likely be the thing that drives me away from playing Reaper of Souls. Still it’s enough that I feel that Diablo 3 will resurface as one of the LAN games of choice as it’s a lot of fun to blast through a couple bounties or rifts with a close bunch of friends.
Diablo III: Reaper of Souls is available on PC right now for $49.95. Total play time was approximately 15 hours reaching Paragon level 56.
Taken at face value my review of Diablo III is overwhelmingly positive and for the most part I still agree with it. Whilst it hasn’t managed to become the cult classic that Diablo II was, one that managed to rear its head every so often both on and offline, Diablo III still felt like a solid title. My time with Diablo III didn’t stop after the review however as I continued to progress my character through it’s hardest difficulty setting: Inferno. As anyone who has played the game will tell you the difference between Hell and Inferno is akin to running head first into a brick wall repeatedly until you realize that you’re never going to get past it unless something drastic changes.
And then you hit up the auction house.
At this point I had a decent reserve of gold built up thanks to pawning off a few good items and being able to power through levels without too much trouble. I was able to afford a few decent upgrades that were enough to see me through Act 1 but any further than that and I was running up against yet another brick wall. So I figured I’d just need to grind out Act 1 for a while in order to scrounge up some gold for a couple more upgrades in order to get me through the next phase. I soon realized that the amount of time I’d need to invest per upgrade was pretty extensive and, most depressingly, the inflation rate of the auction house ensured that subsequent upgrades would get further and further apart.
This was made even worse by the fact that nearly every single drop I got wasn’t useful for my character class and was never likely to fetch a good price on the auction house due to the random assortment of stats that wasn’t good for anything in particular. Whilst my chosen character class (Monk) was one of the better ones for end game content I still found myself struggling, especially after the attack speed nerf came through. All of these things combined to create an experience that was solely focused on grinding in order to buy better gear on the auction house, something that I, and all of my friends, had no interest in pursuing after that.
The problem as I saw it was two fold. The introduction of the auction house was meant to be an avenue for players to trade items to overcome the rather inadequate solution that Diablo II had. I don’t have a problem with this idea per se, however Diablo III seemed to rely on it due to the way the loot system worked. Essentially since the loot you found was usually not particularly useful for you at your current level/end game progression you had to sell it and, since you needed more gold to buy the required upgrades, you needed to charge a premium for those items you did sell. The crux of it was that the loot system however since the randomization added on top of the legendary items usually resulted in them being useless to you.
Blizzard has since announced that in Reaper of Souls, the upcoming expansion for Diablo III, the auction house will be going away permanently. This comes hand in hand with a revised loot system that changes the amount and distribution of items a player will receive over the course of an Act. Honestly the latter is what will improve the game experience vastly as it brings back the kind of variation that made Diablo II so infinitely replayable whilst making the drops you do get more meaningful. Removing the auction house will hopefully reduce the game’s reliance on it allowing players to enjoy the experience and the thrill of getting those upgrades.
I was honestly skeptical that Blizzard could do anything to bring me back into the fold with the latest expansion. I mean sure I was probably going to buy it and play it through once but beyond that I figured it would just become yet another box to add to my collection. However with these changes it shows that Blizzard is listening to the community and fixing the major issues that stopped many from continuing playing. Of course I’ll reserve final judgement until I actually play it but suffice to say they’ve got my attention and they’ve reignited my hope that Diablo III will be able to emulate the cult classic success that its predecessor did.
There’s something to be said for a game that’s been around for 8 years and can still claim the title of most subscribed game in the world. There’s a good reason for that, World of Warcraft provides one of the most polished gaming experiences around and continues to provide fresh content on a very regular basis. It’s for that reason that many people like me find themselves coming back for every expansion, even if we don’t end up staying for long after we finish the main quest line. I’ve been a little late to the party on this one, mostly because I didn’t have much incentive to go back, but when my friends told me they had reactivated the accounts I figured it was a good time to give it a playthrough and I’m very glad I did.
Mists of Pandaria takes place after the events of Cataclysm and the defeat of Deathwing. The young prince Anduin Wrynn (I played on Alliance side for this one) was travelling between the continents when his ship came into contact with the horde. During the ensuing battle an as of yet unknown landmass was discovered and both the ships were wrecked there. One of the crew managed to get a message out prior to this happening and you, along with a crack team of alliance soldiers are sent to rescue him. However what you discover is the long hidden land of Pandaria, inhabited by a race of humanoid Pandas who have embraced a monkish life, favouring balance over all things. The Horde and Alliance presence there has had the unfortunate effect of awakening an old evil, one that must be defeated lest Pandaria fall.
As always Blizzard has done an amazing job with the graphical improvements in Mists of Pandaria. The draw distance has been increased dramatically, allowing you to take in massive vistas that seem to sprawl out forever in front of you. The modelling and texturing in the new areas also appears to be vastly improved over its predecessors which does unfortunately highlight how dated some other aspects are (like when you’re browsing faces in the character creator). Still it says a lot that my screenshot folder was filled with all sorts of wonderful landscapes as they really were quite impressive.
Whilst a lot has changed since I last played World of Warcraft (around a year or so) the core of it still remains largely the same. You start off in one location, head off to do some quests and once you’re finished in that area you’ll head off to the next one to repeat the process. How you go about that has changed rather dramatically with the ideas introduced in Cataclysm, quest hubs and the like, improved upon considerably. There’s also been vast changes to the skill and talent systems which meant that character classes I was once familiar with suddenly feel very different. All of this adds up to a game that has the same overall feel as previous expansions did but plays very differently.
Probably my favourite among the improvements in Mists of Pandaria is the much smarter rewards system that takes into account your current class and specialization, offering you gear that is quite likely to be useful to you. I can’t tell you how many of the rewards in previous expansions just went straight to the vendor but in Mists the vast majority of them were useful upgrades. Even better was the fact the rewards kept scaling upwards with each new area I’d go to, ensuring that I always had enough gear to complete quests there rather than me having to hunt through the Auction House in order to make the cut. Couple this with a few dungeons here and there and I never felt like struggling, unless the encounter was specifically design to test me.
I think that feeds into the larger overall feeling that the whole World of Warcraft experience has just been streamlined, almost to the point of perfection. After I had blasted through 80 to 85 (as I got a Scroll of Resurrection from a friend) I was surprised just how well the quest chains seemed to line up. It was pretty much spot on for me gaining a new level and then a quest would send me onto the next area, ensuring that I didn’t waste my time in an area that would slow down my levelling pace. Couple this with other things like the in built quest tracker, better designed quests and dungeons that don’t require Deadly Boss Mods and 10 minutes on Wowhead to understand means that you’ll rarely find yourself wanting for anything, bar possibly the occasional Google search.
I unfortunately failed to get to 90 before deadline so I didn’t get a look into some of the endgame content but my friends who have been playing for a while before me say its top notch. The addition of raids to the dungeon finder has apparently made the whole experience much more enjoyable. Gearing up for current raid tiers has also been made a lot easier by significantly upping the drop rates of items in previous raids, saving people a lot of time by not requiring them to run old content constantly (something that was a real drag in the past). There’s also a whole host of other things I didn’t bother trying like crafting or pet battles but I highly doubt I was missing out on anything amazing there.
What really impressed me though was the huge amount of work Blizzard has put into the quests and the storylines behind them. All of the storyline quests, of which there are many, are fully voice acted, something that was limited to in game cutscenes and cinematics previously. This would be cool on its own but every quest hub also has its own little story line behind it, giving you an insight into why they’re there and how it all fits into the larger picture. It says a lot when you actually start caring about the NPCs as they just felt like part of the environment before. Now they’re actual characters, integral to the overall story.
This goes hand in hand with the brilliant music direction care of Russell Brower who’s been behind the music of all the expansions since The Burning Crusade. Whilst many games can get music right in pre-rendered scenes and scripted in game events rarely does the music feel like its meant to be there during the regular parts of the game. In Mists of Pandaria it’s far more than background noise, adding that extra element that complements everything else. If you’re interested it’s available on iTunes, if you don’t want to play the game that is.
I’ve been a long time fan of the World of Warcraft series having followed it from closed beta all the way up to the game that it is today. The way I’ve played it has changed dramatically over the past 8 years and the changes they’ve made are the reason I’ve kept coming back time and time again. Whilst I don’t believe I will ever get back to the same insane, near addiction levels that I did all the way back when I first started playing I don’t believe that’s a bad thing. Instead World of Warcraft has become that co-operative RPG that I play with friends every year or so and I’ll be damned if I don’t have fun every time.
World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria is available on PC right now for $69.99. Total play time on a new level 80 character was 32 hours, reaching level 89 (and maybe 1/3rd of the way through that).
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.
In the interests of full disclosure (and those who are new to the blog) it needs to be known that I’m a pretty big fan of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. So much so it managed to take out my nomination for Game of the Year for 2011, a pretty amazing feat considering the competition it was up against. Still even though my fan boy-ness might be at levels to rival that of my other passions I still couldn’t bring myself to spend the $15 on the Missing Link DLC that was available shortly after. No it would take a heavy discount to $5 in a recent Steam sale to bring me over to the DLC bandwagon but suffice to say, I’m glad I did.
The Missing Link takes place during part of the game where the main character, Adam Jensen, goes off the grid for 3 days. During Human Revolution Pritchard’s enquiries into what happened in the intervening 3 days are brushed off by Jensen and it was very easy to miss this gap in the original game. Indeed the experience would seem to be something he’d want to forget after being taken captive, having all of his augmentations reset to nothing and then having to fight his way out again. It’s a good premise for DLC as the experience plays like a short episode in the bigger Deus Ex world without having to rely too heavily on the original game.
As to be expected all the core aspects of the game: the graphics, gameplay and so on are identical between Human Revolution and The Missing Link. This works well for The Missing Link as all of these things were done extremely well in the original leaving little much room for improvement. That being said that also means the few quirks of the game like the ones I mentioned in the original review are still there. None of them are game breaking but you still need to be aware of them either to avoid getting trapped by them or to use them to make your life easier.
The Missing Link starts you off as a fairly advanced character except that all your mod points are unspent (except for the default ones). What this means is that you can craft your character anew, avoiding some mistakes you might have made. I’m on the fence about this as whilst it makes sense in the story I remember my character being a lot further ahead than the one in The Missing Link was. The choices you then make heavily impact what your experience of The Missing Link will be like (I.E. if you want to hack everything you’re going to have to spend most of your initial points to do that). With the total number of additional praxis points being relatively low you’ve got to make your choices wisely as every single aug can be used within The Missing Link’s short play time.
However The Missing Link heavily encourages you to play a certain way: mostly stealth. Now for most Deus Ex players this will be second nature as it’s pretty much the default play style and indeed Human Revolution heavily favoured this way of playing as well so it really should come as no surprise. It’s slightly disappointing as I attempted to make a run and gun character but ended up having to stealth most sections anyway, rendering those points I spent useless. It’s not a terribly huge deal, but I feel like my time with it would have been a lot better had I opted to spend my points differently.
I need to point out here that The Missing Link’s level design seems to be somewhat lazy compared to that of Human Revolution. Whilst I can understand that the setting doesn’t lend itself well to a large sprawling environment the running back and forward between sections, with the seemingly way too long scanner sections depicted in the screenshot above, doesn’t make for great game play. Indeed you’ll spend much of your time clearing sections you had already cleared previously. It’s a dreadful form of asset reuse and not something I had come to expect from the guys who had made Human Revolution.
Thankfully though the story (and the developer’s humour, as you can see above) is what makes The Missing Link worth playing. Whilst I can’t go too deep into it without spoiling everything for you suffice to say that in the short time you’ll spend with The Missing Link you’ll still be gripped by the story, one that has all the trademark elements that we’ve come to expect from a Deus Ex plot. One criticism I’ll level at it though is the incorporation of what is seemingly an arbitrary decision at one point that only seems to affect some dialogue between Jensen and another character. Had The Missing Link been integrated into the main Human Revolution game this could have been alleviated somewhat, but I can see why this didn’t happen.
For someone who usually avoids DLC like the plague Human Revolution stands out as one that I’ll heartily recommend to anyone who’s played through Deus Ex: Human Revolution and wants to dive back into it. Whilst it may not stand up to the high standards that Human Revolution set for it The Missing Link is still a great story accompanied by intricate and nuanced game play, aspects that many games struggle to pull off individually. Thinking back on it now I still stand by decision to wait though as whilst $15 is fair value (going on a $/hour of game play perspective) I’d still probably hold off on this until there’s another sale just because The Missing Link isn’t exactly required playing unless you’re a completionist.
Deus Ex:Human Revolution The Missing Link DLC is available right now on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 right now for $15 (or equivalent points). Game was played entirely on the PC on hard difficult with around 5 hbours played and 30% of the achievements unlocked.
I remember a long time ago saving up all my pocket money and splurging on the very first expansion I can remember, Warcraft 2: Beyond the Dark Portal. At the time I didn’t understand that it wasn’t a stand alone game but since I had borrowed the original Warcraft 2 from a friend it didn’t matter. It would seem this was the start of a beautiful relationship with Blizzard as they developed a great reputation for developing a solid game and then releasing an expansion pack some time after breathing life into the game once again. Few others seemed to replicate their success with this as many game companies wouldn’t bother releasing such expansions instead focusing their efforts more on the sequel or new IP they were developing.
Valve began experimenting with the idea of episodic content with the release of Half Life 2: Episode 1. It was a novel idea at the time as it reduced the amount of time between major game releases which had the benefit of keeping more people engaged with your product for longer. Additionally development costs were far less than they would usually be for a full expansion or new game with the added benefit of being able to update things like engine code or additional graphics settings between releases, taking some of the edge off games which aren’t renowned for aging well. To be honest I resisted the whole episodic movement for a very long time until Valve released all the episodes along with Team Fortress 2, but saw the benefit to them after I played them. They wouldn’t stand alone as a full game but I definitely got almost the same level of satisfaction from them, despite their relatively short play time.
Upon the Internet reaching a critical mass of users and freely available bandwidth publishers began to look at digital distribution methods more seriously. Steam had proven to be a roaring success and the barrier to delivering additional content to users dropped significantly. Seeing the benefit of episodic content but unwilling to sacrifice a potential sequel (which is an unfortunate truth of all games these days) developers and publishers saw the opportunity to expand a game within itself. Couple this with the buzz that surrounded the business model of micro-transactions (something that can be bought for a very small amount of cash, akin to raiding your change jar) and we saw the birth of Downloadable Content¹ as we know it today.
And to be honest, I can’t say I’m all too pleased with the bastard child the games industry has spawned.
Back in the days of expansion packs you were guaranteed a couple things. The first was that the original game had enjoyed at least marginal success and the developers would be wiser for the experience. As such the expansions tended to be more polished than their originals and, should the developers been wise enough to listen to the gaming community, more tailored to those who would play them. A great example of this was Diablo’s expansion Hellfire, which had a spell to teleport you to the nearest exit. In a game where you can only power-walk everywhere this spell was a godsend and made the original much more playable.
Secondly it gave the developers an opportunity to continue the story in either the same direction as a sequel would or explore alternative story paths. In essence you were guaranteed at least some narrative continuancy and whilst this raised the barrier of entry to new players of the game expansions were never really aimed at them. Realistically anyone who heard of a game for the first time when an expansion was released for it probably wouldn’t of played the original in the first place. Still if they did take the plunge they would at least end up buying the original to (especially when most expansions required the original to play).
I was happy with the medium struck with the episodic content idea as for the most part you got all the goodness of an expansion without the wait. The MMORPG genre survives because of this development model as can be seen with the giant of this field, World of Warcraft. Content patches are released almost quarterly with expansions coming out roughly every 2 years or so. Blizzard’s ability to churn out new content like this relentlessly is arguably why they have had so much success with World of Warcraft and aptly demonstrates how the episodic model can be used to not only keep regular users coming back, but also attract new ones to the fray.
Downloadable content however has the aspirations of episodic content with the benefits of none. When I bought Dragon Age: Origins I was treated to some free DLC as part of buying the game whilst also being slapped in the face by a person at camp offering me a great adventure if I gave him my credit card. It was pretty easy for me to ignore that part of the game completely as I had more than enough to do in the 35 hours that Dragon Age sucked away from me. The recent release of the Return to Ostagar DLC gives a couple hours more playtime onto a game that boasts over 100 hours of game play already. For someone like me who’s already finished the game there’s little incentive to go back just to experience a measly couple hours of story that won’t fit in with where my character is in my head, so I simply won’t bother.
This to me is the problem with any DLC. For the most part they are simply an additional part of the core game that’s a fantastic way to add more playtime to a full playthrough but are otherwise meaningless additions to a challenge already conquered. I was over the moon when I heard that Mass Effect was releasing some DLC but after playing through the game twice logging almost 80 hours of game time going back to spend an hour or so exploring the new planet felt extremely hollow. Sure I can appreciate them setting the scene for Mass Effect 2 but really all the DLC amounted to was a quick grab for cash and a little press.
I wish I could site examples were DLC works but frankly there are none. These bite sized bits of gaming sound like a great idea (and they’re music to publisher’s ears) but unless you’re playing the game from start to finish realistically there’s little value in them. It takes quite a lot to pull me back into a game that I’ve completed and it has to be for a damned good reason. DLC so far hasn’t been it and never will be until I start seeing episodic quality releases.
In the end the birth of DLC is yet another one of those signs of a maturing game industry that would’ve been hard to avoid. Publishers are always looking for new revenue streams and if we want to see game developers producing games such things are here to stay. I’m sure one day there will be an exception that breaks the rule for me but right now, DLC is that annoying toddler in the corner screaming loudly for attention when there’s many interesting adults I’d rather be talking to.
Hopefully one day though, that toddler will grow up.
For hundreds of years we humans have been staring off into the vastness of space for varying reasons. Initially man looked at the stars for mythical and spiritual purposes, hoping to derive meaning from what they saw up in the sky that they could then apply to their lives. As time went on we began to discover that the sky could be used as an extraordinarily accurate navigation tool that was used for hundreds of years. Even today celestial navigation is still used by modern technology to guide craft that venture beyond Earth’s atmosphere, a tribute to how useful gazing towards the heavens is.
Perhaps the most interesting part about our constant star gazing is that the more we discover the more we find out we don’t know. The following pie chart shows just how what we can see from Earth makes up a small part of the universe:
In essence the visible universe accounts for a mere 4% of what exists with the remaining 96% being made up primarily of dark matter and dark energy. This idea that the visible universe is so small, even when you consider something like VY Canis Majoris, is something that still amazes me even today.
Consider dark matter, something that we’ve never directly observed. If you take a look around the universe you would begin to notice some strange behaviour that you couldn’t explain if the universe was exactly as we see it. Some of the best examples are effects like gravitational lensing where light coming to us appears to be bent around another object. In the case of a dark matter object we can’t actually see the object doing the bending. Whilst this would traditionally lead to a review of classical physics models (and indeed it has) observational evidence like the bullet cluster are giving strength to the dark matter model of the universe.
Even more curious is the concept of dark energy. As far as we can tell the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. For this to occur there has to be some form of energy fueling the process and so far it is best explained using dark energy. By its definition dark energy exerts an outward pressure on the universe which is arguably weak, but it is constant throughout the universe. Current models show that previously gravity was overcoming the outward pressure that dark energy was applying to the universe. However as the force that gravity can exert does not increase as the volume of space increases eventually the force of dark energy took over, and caused the acceleration of expansion.
And herein lies the fun of science. We’re constantly finding out how our view of the universe is incomplete and needs to be updated and changed. We’re only really just finding solid data for dark matter (the bullet cluster analysis is barely 3 years old) and dark energy was coined just over a decade ago. One of my most favourite sayings from all my science teachings was :
The most interesting discoveries aren’t usually eureka moments, they’re more along the lines of “That’s not supposed to happen…”
So after millena of gazing up at the stars the biggest mystery about them turns out to be something that we can’t see. Isn’t that just so awesome? It’s like the universe watching us and waiting until we think we have everything figured out and then throwing us a giant curveball.
Maybe I just like it when secrets play hard to get 😉