Monthly Archives: September 2018

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth: Jaina’s Homecoming.

I finally did it; that one thing that no long time World of Warcraft player should ever do: I added up all my playtime across all my characters.

The damage? 207 days. Two of my original characters, my rogue and alt-paladin, account for about 145 of those days most of which was accumulated during vanilla. Considering this was right in the middle of my university studies I’m still not quite sure how I managed to graduate, what with me spending an average of 4 hours a day in-game. My hunter and shaman that I rolled to play with a work mate of mine account for another 46 of those days, all due to us trying to clear the Ulduar raid back in the day. Finally the Paladin which has seen me through the last few expansions has a measly 12 days, still a lot by any standards but a mere blip in the time that I’ve spent with the game. That includes the time I just spent playing through the most recent expansion: Battle for Azeroth. Whilst this is probably the shortest time I’ve ever spent with an expansion to date it was by far one of the most memorable from a story perspective.

The titan Sargeras has been imprisoned but not before he drove his demonic sword deep into the heart of Azeroth. This then caused a highly potential magical substance called Azerite to begin leaking out into the world. Sylvanas saw this new resource as an opportunity to unify the horde together and began a brutal campaign to seize all of Kalimdor. In retaliation Anduin lays siege to the undead’s capital city of Lordaeron, driving the horde out. However as a last thumb of the nose at the Alliance Sylvanas drenches the city in blight, rendering it uninhabitable for anyone, including her own people. With Azeroth now primed for war both the Horde and the Alliance set out in search of new allies in the battle that lies ahead.

The graphics of Battle for Azeroth feel about on par from the previous expansion Legion, with no real notable improvements. There’s DirectX 12 support in there but that’s mostly to help with performance rather than taking advantage of new graphical APIs. Unfortunately the issues that plagued it last time remain with the World of Warcraft engine struggling to take full advantage of modern hardware. I spent the first couple hours of my time back in WoW searching for ways to improve the performance, hoping to get it to fully utilise the system I have. Unfortunately I couldn’t make that happen, my graphics card usage middling around 70% and my CPU 50% or below. I could get a somewhat stable framerate of 60fps in most areas but anything with more than a dozen or so players in it really started to tank my performance. For Blizzard it’s a tough problem to solve as they likely can’t improve the engine without also revamping most of their content as well. Perhaps they may do it in the future but I’m not holding my breath.

 

Battle for Azeroth once again takes the ideas of expansions past and refines them, often streamlining them to take away the pain whilst keeping the same rewards. Artefact weapons are now gone, replaced with a legendary necklace that levels up in much the same way whilst unlocking attributes in some armour pieces. The garrison mechanic is now just a mission table, providing you with an avenue to get additional rep and azerite power. The delineation between PvE and PvP servers has disappeared, now replaced with “War Mode”, allowing you to set whether or not you can be engaged in PvP activities and getting a small boost if you choose to do so. World quests are kept and are broadly the same, giving you a daily opportunity to upgrade your gear and grind out some more rep. New (to me, at least) is the inclusion of mythic dungeons, essentially a raid level difficulty encounter for a 5 man team that you can increase the difficulty of in search of more rewards. Other than that it’s the same tried and true World of Warcraft experience, for better and for worse.

Unlike previous expansions, which often completely revamped skills and talent trees, Battle for Azeroth didn’t change much. After doing the usual post-login cleanup I noticed that most of the abilities remained as I remembered them and even had a few removed. Instead of doing my usual retribution levelling and then transition to prot when it came time to do dungeons I stayed prot the whole time and, honestly, it wasn’t the most exciting experience. Prot has always been famous for tanking large groups of adds but being god awful at single target DPS and that made certain parts of the levelling experience pretty painful. To be sure running in a group made this a lot more enjoyable, and indeed I feel like a lot of activities in WoW aren’t well served if you’re playing solo, but I can distinctly remember having more abilities in the previous expansion that helped out a lot in situations like that. I’m not sure how it is for other character classes but from a pure combat perspective Battle for Azeroth definitely felt like a step back for me: too simplified and monotonous. This unfortunately extended to tanking dungeons as well which is why I don’t think I’ve actually played through all of them.

Overall progression still comes at a predictable pace, one that can be accelerated substantially if you have large gold reserves or are part of an active guild. Even then it doesn’t take long to get ready for the end game content, I managed to get to ilvl 320 in under two weeks without farming the auction house or dumping too much gold into professions. Of course my gear is far from optimal but that’s the level at which most people say you should be more than capable of doing mythics with a group of randoms. It is rather frustrating though that some of the avenues for progression, like crafting, are essentially useless as by the time you can craft the awesome gear sets you likely won’t need them since the materials to craft them come from the end game dungeons. This is somewhat offset by the fact that reputation grinds aren’t as unforgiving as they once were, bolstered by the daily world quest sets and numerous other ways of gaining reputation with a particular faction.

The azerite armour system is interesting in theory although reading up on how it compared to the artefact power system reveals that it’s essentially the same thing, just spread over multiple pieces of armour. Essentially you’ll get azerite power from various sources and that will level up your Heart of Azeroth necklace. Certain levels will unlock a kind of mini talent tree on some pieces of armour, augmenting some abilities or granting you whole new ones. Whilst its nice that you have a little more control over how to mix and match everything it feels like yet another grind to get pieces of armour that roll with just the right talents. I’m sure some of the higher tier sets have fixed talents though but I never saw any of those pieces myself (being the solo pleb that I am).

It wouldn’t be a WoW expansion without some post-launch issues and Battle for Azeroth was certainly not immune from them. Aside from the general graphics performance issues I mentioned earlier the world servers would often have their ping times rocket through the roof, causing simple things like looting a corpse to take 20+ seconds. This wasn’t just something that would come and go either, when it started happening you’d usually be in for a good hour of it before the servers would start to come right again. There’s also the usual mix of quest bugs with some quest chains not working properly, quests bugging out if completed in weird ways and some of the more inventive mechanics wigging out on you in weird and wonderful ways. These things are, for the most part, expected aspects of any WoW experience so for a long time player like me they’re not show stoppers. However for those who for, whatever reason, may be getting into WoW at this late juncture it pays to know that even 14 years of polish won’t remove all the rough edges.

What kept me playing however was the story and my desire to see how Jaina’s arc played out in this expansion. Whilst it’s probably not going to win any awards for originality it certainly drew me in as a long time fan of the lore of the Warcraft universe. It was also great to see characters which have, so far, played minor roles in the greater lore brought to the forefront, making the whole world more richer for it. The tale of rescuing Jaina was honestly one of the most heartwarming arcs I’ve played in this game and it was what kept me playing for quite a long time. Then, right as it felt like the story was about to climax, I hit a wall: I’d need to complete a mythic dungeon to see the end of it.

I almost quit the game right then and there as I didn’t want to be forced into having to gear up just to see the end of the story. However as I inched closer to that coveted 320 ilvl I figured it’d be worth the time invested and soldiered on. However once I got there I run right into the shit fight that is running mythics with pubs, even those who were trying to do the storyline missions like myself. Look, I get it, mythics aren’t meant to be readily puggable, but having a significant part of the storyline locked behind them was a real let down. 3 expansions ago it wouldn’t have been an issue, I’d simply hit up my guildies and we’d get it done, but those times are long behind me. I know I’m not alone in this feeling either as many posts on various forums will attest to. So there my paladin will likely sit, outside the Siege of Boralus dungeon entrance, never to complete the story.

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth had all the trappings of being a solid repeat of Legion’s performance however, for some reason, it just fell flat for me. The changes feeling like a shuffling of all the components that have been around for some time and the new parts not interesting or varied enough to keep me engaged. This was counterbalanced by the story which got me really engaged but then ran into a brick wall of progression that killed that intrigue dead. Maybe it’s me that’s changed too much this time around as before it felt like the developers at Blizzard were catering directly to folk like myself. Now though it feels a little left of center, retaining much of the things that should make it more appealing but somehow failing to do so. I really don’t know what’s driving this feeling of ambivalence but suffice to say, whilst I did get a good couple weeks out of this latest expansion, I’m pretty sure I won’t be renewing my subscription past a single month.

Rating: 7.5/10

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth is available right now for $69.95. Total play time was approximately 20 hours achieving an ilvl of 323.

Unavowed: The Demon Within.

Wadjet Eye Games have made a name for themselves in the adventure game space, not only for the numerous titles they’ve published but also the many they themselves have developed. With the closing of the Blackwell series, which had been their flagship series for the better part of a decade, many were wondering what would be next for them. Sure we could assume a few things, like it being a pixel art adventure game, but the rest was anyone’s guess. With Unavowed they’ve stuck to the supernatural theme, going as far as to use the previous protagonist’s abilities as a basis for one of the characters in this new title. The game prides itself on enabling the player to have a great deal of choice over most of the pivotal parts including your gender, origin story and the various ways in which you can solve the puzzles put before you. That freedom comes at a price however and it’s probably the biggest mark against an otherwise stellar release from Wadjet Eye Games.

The opening scenes of Unavowed will vary depending on which origin story you select but one thing is common throughout them all: you were possessed by a demon who set upon unleashing all sorts of mayhem around New York.Thankfully you were rescued by the Unavowed, a team of supernatural beings and those abilities beyond scientific understanding. Given that you’re now a wanted criminal they take you under their wing and enlist your help in figuring out where the demon had been and what its plans were. You’re also given a crash course into the world of the supernatural, one that the Unavowed tries hard to keep separate from the mundane. As you soon find out that doesn’t always work as planned and those two worlds are becoming increasingly intermixed.

Like all of their previous titles Unavowed comes to us via Adventure Game Studio and retains that nostalgic pixel art aesthetic of their previously published titles. It’s a true to the era implementation as there’s nary a modern visual effect or flair to be seen. This is even done to a fault in some parts with certain animations having incredibly low frame rates, like the walking or idle animations for the characters. Of course this doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a lot of attention paid to the game’s visuals as it’s clear there was a lot of time put into creating the various set pieces that you’ll explore throughout your time in Unavowed.

Unavowed is likely the most mechanically deep adventure game to date, incorporating many elements from other genres that must have been an absolute nightmare to program in. Whilst the different origin stories and genders would be easy enough to incorporate this is then multiplied 5 fold by your ability to choose your party each time you go out on a mission. This is offset somewhat by each of the missions being wholly self contained (I.E. you don’t need an item from one place to solve a puzzle in another) but it would still necessitate creating the requisite mechanics in each level to accommodate for that choice. If that wasn’t enough there’s also a bunch of banter dialogue between each of the party members which plays out during missions, something I’m sure the writers thoroughly enjoyed having to write out. Suffice to say that whilst the core game of puzzle solving might not be too different from your run of the mill adventure game the story mechanics surrounding it are second to none.

This narrative freedom does mean that your choice of party members is effectively pointless as each of the game’s levels can be completed with any of the two you’d care to pick. I honestly didn’t notice this at first but when I took the Fire Mage with me twice in a row it became pretty obvious that I didn’t just happen to make the right choice. This does eliminate a particular frustration that many people have with adventure games, making incorrect choices that get you stuck, but it does also remove a lot of the impact those choices would have. Indeed there doesn’t seem to be a penalty for choosing a sub-optimal group or a bonus for choosing the correct one, all of them will have the same number of puzzle elements you need to solve. To be sure the puzzle mechanics aren’t the game’s main attraction, that falls to the story, but it does highlight a big challenge in making a game like this. Choices are great, but only when they matter.

There’s also a few tiny areas that could use a bit of polish to improve the game’s overall useability. For instance dragging items from your inventory onto a character in the main screen won’t work the same as dragging it onto the icon in the inventory bar. This led to a few frustrating moments where I was pretty sure I had solved the puzzle but it wasn’t working the way I wanted it to. Reading a couple guides revealed the mistake I made but, honestly, it should just work as the interaction is the same from the player’s perspective. The game also doesn’t like being alt-tabbed, putting the sound on loop which makes for a rather annoying background when you’re trying to quickly do something else in the middle of your session. These aren’t game breaking but would make the overall experience of playing Unavowed just that much better.

Unavowed’s story takes a little while to get going, mostly because a lot of characters are introduced in rapid fire in the game’s opening hour. After that though it begins the process of building them all out, fleshing out their backstories well and building up a good pace of plot developments to keep you playing. Part of this is due to the overall story itself but the other half is most definitely due to the dynamics between each of the character pairs. I even ran one particular pair a few times in a row and still had new dialogue come up between them. Despite all this though the overall story didn’t leave too much of an impression on me. To be sure I think it’s well crafted and executed it just didn’t leave that emotional mark that adventure games of past have. I’ve said much the same about games with budgets far beyond Unavowed however so it’s not the worst sin a game can commit.

Unavowed is yet another treat from the team at Wadjet Eye Games and a great next step in their game developer journey. It’s a very ambitious title, incorporating multiple branching storylines and puzzle mechanics to give the player a lot of control over how it plays out. Whilst some of those choices are ultimately moot at a mechanical level it certainly does make for a much richer narrative experience. Indeed for the amount of choice given to the player the story of Unavowed is probably one of the most well rounded I’ve played in recent memory. Whilst it ultimately failed to resonate with me at an emotional level that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy my time with it. For those who’ve been left wanting this year’s offerings in the adventure game space you really can’t go past Unavowed.

Rating: 8.75/10

Unavowed is available on PC right now for $14.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 6 hours play time and 27% of the achievements unlocked. A copy of the game was provided to The Refined Geek by Wadjet Eye Games for the purposes of review.

Monster Hunter World: Being an A-Lister Ain’t Easy.

Eastern styled RPGs have a bit of a… reputation. The most notable part of this reputation is their penchant for horrendous grinds, forcing you to spend hours upon hours drudging your way towards that next level or shiny purple. They’re also renowned for being mechanically dense, often with multiple interwoven systems that all need to be understood and exploited fully if you want to live out your power fantasy. My first brush with these kinds of games came almost a decade ago with Aion: Tower of Eternity, a game so grindy and dense that I gave up when I reached level 30, which is saying something from someone who levelled 2 characters to 60 in vanilla World of Warcraft. This was why I originally passed on Monster Hunter World when it first came out as it looked chillingly like the eastern MMORPGs I’d played in the past. However with few good titles out at the time I figured I had nothing to lose and so I gave it the old college try. Unfortunately in this instance I didn’t find a whole lot to like about the Monster Hunter experience, the depth and complexity of the games numerous mechanics lost in the seemingly endless grind that I’d have to go through to exploit them.

You are a Hunter who is traveling to the New World as part of the Fifth Fleet. As part of the Research Expedition your job is to help out in determining why the Elder Dragons migrate to the New World every ten years as part of an event called the crossing. However on your way there your fleet is attacked by Zorah Magdaros, an elder dragon the size of a mountain that was making its journey to the New World. Thankfully you wash up on shore and are able to make it to Astera, the Research Expedition’s main base of operations in the new world. From here you begin your quest to understand the elder dragons, the reason behind the crossing and how to survive in this new land filled with monsters looking to make a meal out of you.

Monster Hunter World has that distinct, eastern RPG art style to it which (for whatever reason) tends to favour slightly worse graphics that are made up for with lavish amounts of detail. Honestly it feels like a game that would’ve came about at the end of the PlayStation 3’s development cycle, not a current gen title. Part of that is likely due to the multiplayer components with the potential for a lot to be going on at any one time. Still there are current generation MMORPGs with higher player caps that have managed far better visuals so I’m guessing that this was a stylistic choice more than anything. This all aside Monster Hunter World is a visually diverse and detailed game, overflowing with colour and visual spectacles. The areas might not be large in scale but they’re full of hidden paths and secret areas, making them feel a lot larger. If this kind of game appeals to you though the visuals aren’t really going to matter, it’s the grind you’re really here for.

Monster Hunter World embodies the eastern RPG archetype to a T, favouring deep mechanical systems that give the player seemingly endless choices in how you approach the game. There are no classes or talent trees to speak of, instead your progression is tied to your weapon of choice and armour set, both of which you’ll upgrade numerous times over the course of the game. The core of the game’s progression centers on the various crafting and upgrade systems, most of which require you to go out and hunt certain monster types to get the items required. Sprinkled over the top of all this is your usual RPG flair with town hubs, vendors and side quests galore that are certain to keep the completionists out there busy for hundreds of hours. Combat comes in the form of a kind of dark souls-esque type experience although it feels thoroughly less refined than its FromSoftware counterparts. In all honesty in the 16 hours I was playing it I still felt like I hadn’t scratched the surface of the game with many of the game’s mechanics still left untouched. Monster Hunter World certainly demands a lot from its players and unfortunately, for this old gamer, I just couldn’t find the strength to keep going back.

Now I’m not one to shy away from the kind of combat that Monster Hunter World puts forward but it honestly felt incredibly unrefined in its implementation. The Dark Souls inspired combat system brings with it a good set of mechanics but utilising them feels like a real hit and miss affair. For starters a monster’s hit box seems to be a finicky affair, sometimes registering as a hit on you whilst at other times simply moving you out of the way. Similarly the target lock mechanic flails wildly whenever there’s more than a few places you can target, often whipping you between different parts of the monster (or other monsters in the vicinity) as you try to position yourself around it. Getting on a monster’s back also doesn’t seem to work as it demonstrated most of the time, often failing to latch when I landed directly on the monster’s back but inexplicably working when I’d barely brush the top of their head. Even the resistance/weakness system felt really ineffective as I ground specifically for a set of weapons to fight one beast only to find that they didn’t make a lick of difference in the actual fight. Maybe I’m just not getting it, but if you can’t understand a game’s combat system after 16 hours then honestly I fault the game, not the player.

 

I’ll partly lay the blame of that at Monster Hunter World’s utterly glacial pace of progression. Even the most basic of upgrades requires gathering a substantial amount of materials and then, when you do craft it, the benefits are slim at best. In typical min/maxer fashion I tried dumping all my mats and time into crafting a decent set of starter gear (the bone set you see above) and honestly I couldn’t really tell you how much of a difference it made. I even tried grinding out some of the higher level sets of gear but with each monster kill taking 20 minutes or so to complete (if the fucker didn’t “leave the area” right at the end) getting a new set of gear would likely take hours. It got so bad that in the end I simply crafted a hodge podge set made up of the best crafting mats I had and even then that didn’t seem to reap any kind of benefit. Again I’m happy to admit that this is likely a failing on my part to understand the greater complexities that are hiding within Monster Hunter World’s various mechanical systems but if 16 hours of gameplay and intense Googling can’t get me there I’m really not sure what can.

Credit where credits due though, Monster Hunter World does have one of the deepest and most integrated crafting systems I’ve seen in quite some time. For most games there’s going to be a stock standard build that you can head straight for that will ensure your victory. For Monster Hunter World though there’s really no one-size fits all build that’s guaranteed to turn you into an overpowered god. Instead you’ll need to tailor your gear to your weapon choice, play style and prey that you’re chasing. This results in a near infinite number of builds, all of which appear to be viable (at least from what I can glean from various Reddit threads). I can definitely understand the appeal of such a system, heck I myself have invested many hours in games that had similar deep mechanical roots, it’s just unfortunate that I wasn’t able to find that hook to keep me playing.

There are some pretty notable issues with game on a technical level, some of which I think are inherent and others that are most certainly due to the porting process. The game’s graphical performance was horrendous when I started playing, something which I found out was a known issue. This was mostly fixed by using the Special K mod developed by Kaldaien which also allowed me to run the game in borderless windowed mode (although the game still seemed to have some teething issues with that). The netcode also seemed extremely fragile, something which is wholly attributable to Capcom. This is because there’s no native network framework for Monster Hunter World to make use of like it does on consoles (think PSN and Xbox Live) which mean they had to develop their own. When I first started playing it seemed to work fine but however after a week or so I found myself unable to get into any online games at all. Then, inexplicably, it started working again with no changes made on my end. I then foolishly decided to try a multiplayer quest only to have my teammates drop from my game session halfway through a monster fight. Honestly whilst its admirable that Capcom didn’t want to outsource the porting I can’t help but feel that maybe, just maybe someone else could have done a better job.

This isn’t also mentioning the various game design issues with the game’s core being focused on controller based play that doesn’t translate well to the PC platform. The default layout that’s chosen for you isn’t exactly congruent to keyboard and mouse play and even the MMORPG styled layout isn’t a whole lot better. The various menus are also incredibly obtuse with numerous different options hidden in random areas, necessitating a whole lot of flipping around in order to find the thing you’re looking for. I’m sure given enough time I could remap the keys or find mods that would make it better but honestly it’s not like UI design for games like this is an unsolved problem space. I managed to stumble my way through, to be sure, but honestly it feels like a game made for a different kind of gamer playing on a different kind of platform. If it’s any consolation I’m happy to admit I’m likely not Capcom’s target demographic for this particular title.

I figured that I’d at least play the campaign through to completion just to see how the game’s story pans out. I didn’t manage that as the overall plot is just too shallow and the use of a mute protagonist just served to highlight all of its flaws. I certainly liked the premise, travelling to a new world to understand a phenomenon that has eluded everyone so far, but there just wasn’t enough character or plot development to keep me that interested. Some of the things also don’t make a terrible amount of sense, like the fact that the various fleets don’t appear to talk to each other very much or why parts of the island are seemingly inaccessible despite you being able to fly everywhere. Again maybe the story depth is buried somewhere I didn’t look but if the game can’t at least tempt me in that direction then I’m more likely to conclude nothing is there.

Once again I find myself on the opposite side of popular opinion, gazing at a wildly successful title and wondering what everyone sees in it. I can certainly appreciate the depth of game play that Monster Hunter World presents, embodying (for better or worse) the stereotypical JRPG grindfest that so many people enjoy. However for me I just couldn’t find the appeal, even after ploughing in more hours than I typically would in an attempt to find that hook. I’m willing to admit that there might be something in there that I’d enjoy but I just couldn’t find it. Perhaps playing with friends could have changed my opinion as I’ve enjoyed many a trashy online experience so long as I had my mates by my side. Maybe the game is just for a different demographic than the one I fit into, I don’t know. It’s quite possible you’ll look at all the gripes listed here and chide me for my opinion, thinking that’s the whole reason you should be playing Monster Hunter World. If that’s the case then you’ll likely find the enjoyment I missed in Monster Hunter World.

Rating: 6.5/10

Monster Hunter World is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 16 hours play time and 22% of the achievements unlocked.