Posts Tagged‘expansion’

Destiny 2: Forsaken: The Dark Side of the Light.

Destiny 2 wasn’t in a great spot. The last 2 expansions were met with derision from the community and many were questioning whether or not Bungie was really listening to the community. Curse of Osiris might have been a well timed injection of content for PC players but for others it didn’t even touch the sides after months of waiting. Warmind did little to address this, failing to bring enough to the table to even keep casualcore players like myself interested. For many then Forsaken was a make or break moment, either bringing them wholly back into the fold or pushing them away for good. Thankfully it seems Bungie took some inspiration from The Taken King expansion and revamped many aspects of the game, providing a vastly improved experience for all players. Whilst the changes might not be for everyone, indeed more casual players might feel a little left out in the cold, there’s no denying that this expansion has breathed much needed life into the franchise.

The Prison of Elders has suffered another breakout and you travel there alongside Cayde-6 in order to put a stop to it. When you arrive there however you discover that Uldren, brother to Mara Sov Queen of the Awoken, has escaped from his prison and now commands a bunch of Fallen with disturbing new powers. It is there, in the depths of the prison, that Cayde falls to Uldren; his light snuffed out. Upon returning to the tower the Vanguard is split about what to do: Zavala stating that they’re not an army and they won’t step into a war with the Reef and Ikora grieving heavily for the loss of one of her closest friends. It is there where you, the Guardian, begin to walk the path of revenge seeking out Uldren by picking apart his army and discovering the darkness that now binds the Reef.

Destiny 2 is looking is as good as always, exemplified by the absolutely incredible level design that has become their signature style for this franchise. All the new areas are simply stunning, smothered in details both large and small that make exploring each environment an absolute joy. I wasn’t on board with it the initially, the cramped confines of the Tangled Shore feeling somewhat antithetical to the typical massive, open space environment. However that all changed once I was in the Dreaming City which was a visual marvel all of its own. I’ve yet to explore all of the strikes, dungeons and the raid yet but I’m sure the trademark visual style is present there too. Whilst games are rarely made or broken by their visuals it certainly doesn’t hurt when they’re as good as what Bungie is putting out here.

Forsaken shakes up Destiny 2 significantly by adding in a lot of mechanics (some new, some old), integrating various quality of life improvements and revamping the progression systems. Each of the subclasses get a new talent tree that comes along with a new super, giving players a whole bunch of new mechanics to tinker with. The max light level is now a whopping 600 although you’ll find yourself at 500 before the campaign ends. The various kiosks that were present in the original Destiny have now come back in the form of a collections tab, enabling you to track your various armour sets and access them instantly from anywhere. Bounties have returned and function much like they used to, although they now (thankfully) share their own inventory tab with other pursuits and quests. A new PvEvP mode called Gambit as been added in, something which both myself and the wider community enjoys immensely. The end game area of the Dreaming City is a seemingly ever changing landscape, one that is still yet to reveal all of its secrets to us. Suffice to say Forsaken is the shot in the arm that Destiny 2 needed, even managing to bring back many players I never thought I’d see playing Destiny again.

Progression up to 500 is a whirlwind of loot, much of which you’ll be casting aside as you push your way up through the levels. For someone like myself who wasn’t 400 at the start of the expansion there’s a little bit of grinding to do between missions to ensure you’re at the right light level but once you’re beyond 440 or so it doesn’t appear to be an issue anymore. Once you’re at the first soft cap things slow down a little bit, powerful engrams being your primary source of power ups moving forward. There’s a second soft cap at 520 where powerful rewards outside of the Dreaming City only bump you up one light level or so, making them far less useful for progression. For casuals like myself this means you’re not going to be hitting the max light cap anytime soon and unfortunately there’s no real way to catch up either. This is directly geared towards those who view Destiny as their hobby with 3 characters that they max every expansion. Whilst I admit it was somewhat disappointing to learn that I probably couldn’t raid for a month or two I’m hopeful that it’ll be worth it once I do finally get the chance to do it. Going by the light levels in the tower it seems like there’ll be a lot of people who will be right there with me.

The return of random rolled loot, along with the much more expensive infusion system, is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand it does make duplicate drops less of a let down as there’s always the option of getting a god roll on one of your favourite weapons. On the other because infusion costs so much you’re likely going to be wearing a mixed bag of items for quite some time as keeping your favourite items upgraded is going to be too expensive. This does mean you’re far more likely to experiment with your loadout than you previously were which is probably a good thing (especially given that I’d been using the same armour and weapon set for the last 2 expansions). One of the saving graces is that infusion the same items into each other is very cheap, just glimmer, giving you a relatively easy way of keeping your god rolled items around. The previous item type lockout has been reverted to the old Destiny 1 style as well, meaning if you do really want to keep an item in a particular slot at max light level you’re no longer restricted. That’s probably out of necessity however, given the radical changes to the weapon system.

Weapon variety has been dramatically increased thanks to nearly all weapon types being available for all slots. Power weapons are still restricted to their slot but fusion rifles, sniper rifles and shotguns can now roll for both your kinetic and energy slots. This means that, if you’re so inclined, you could roll a build that’s all shotguns but you’re likely not going to want to due to the ammo types. You see weapons now also carry with them an ammo type which is aligned to the old Destiny 1 style. That means the more powerful special ammo weapons, even if they roll in the kinetic slot, will still use that ammo type. They all have independent pools , so say if you’re using 2 primary ammo type weapons and run one dry the other one won’t run out as well, but you’ll still probably want one of each type for a balanced load out. If that sounds confusion it is a bit but once you’ve figured out what kind of load out you want to run balancing around it isn’t too much of a challenge. To be honest I’ve been running 2 primary and 1 power weapon for most of the game, only switching in a shotgun or fusion rifle when it makes sense.

My love/hate relationship with Destiny’s PVP scene continues with Forsaken although the reasons for each have shifted somewhat. The core PVP remains unchanged although the meta has shifted significantly from what I remember (pulse rifles being the bees knees? Weird…). Gambit is certainly one of the more enjoyable modes, even if it’s being ruined somewhat by the overuse of Sleeper Simulant, something which can’t be nerfed fast enough. Iron Banner was honestly a complete shit show for someone who was somewhat underleveled like myself, being routinely matched with guardians 20+ light levels above me. The new talent trees seem to be dominating over their older companions, much like they were back in the Taken King. Given that there’s one for each subclass though that’s less of an issue than what it was back then but it still feels a little sad that the old guard has been left out in the cold once again. Still I’ve managed to top out my share of games here and there, both in Gambit and regular PvP, so it hasn’t been all bad.

The story takes a while to find its feet due in no small part to the whole CAYDE IS GOING TO DIE IN FORSAKEN hype that Bungie unceremoniously engaged in leading up to Forsaken’s release. The initial part of hunting down the Barons and chasing after Uldren though is really just a long setup for this expansion’s on-going story which keeps on evolving as the game progresses. I mean Cayde’s death was treated well given the pivotal role he’s played in the franchise up to this point but really it’s a secondary point to the game’s main story: that of the Awoken and the dreaming city. Given that I was discovering new story elements even as recently as yesterday says something about the narrative depth of this expansion. I’m quite keen to see how it progresses and am excited to see how the story evolves as I get to experience more of the content.

Destiny 2: Forsaken is the expansion that many of us long time fans of the franchise were hoping for. The improvements to the game’s various core mechanics, quality of life improvements and the large injection of content are all things that the community had been desperately waiting for. Some of those things might not be for everyone, like those of us who don’t have nor want to dedicate the time to the new grind, but it’s undeniable that the game has been vastly improved. This does mean that some of us will have to wait until we can fully experience everything that this expansion has to offer but, strangely, I’m ok with that this time around. I may not hit max light again this time around but I certainly feel like I’ll be sticking around to get a few raid completions under my belt. That’s honestly all I’ve ever asked of Destiny in the past anyway so it’s great to have the franchise back in full form.

Rating: 9.25/10

Destiny 2: Forsaken is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.95. Total time spent in Destiny 2 is now at 130 hours with approximately 44 of those spent playing the Forsaken expansion.

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.

Destiny 2: Warmind: Awaken, Rasputin.

After my Curse of Osiris review last year I didn’t put many more hours into Destiny 2, opting instead for the much greener pastures of the holiday releases. Usually I’d stick around for much longer, at least running the new raid enough so that it became second nature. However, after hitting max light and running it maybe twice, I found little desire to go back. Coming into the Warmind DLC I wondered, nay hoped, that this would be the one that’d reignite my interest in the game. Unfortunately, whilst there’s to spend your time in the game now, none of it was as compelling as previous expansions to the original Destiny was. So here we are barely 4 weeks after the release and I think I’m probably done with this expansion.

I haven’t run the raid nor am I at max light, and that should say something.

Guardians aren’t supposed to dig into their pasts, at least that’s the unspoken rule among those who were brought back to life by the traveler’s light. Ana Bray has spent much of her new life trying to rediscover who she was and her quest has brought her back Clovis Bray, the place of Golden Age miracles. Her journey has unfortunately awoken some ancient hive evil that frozen alongside the pinnacle of Clovis Bray’s achievements: the warmind Rasputin. So it is up to you once again guardian to safeguard our solar system against the dangers that lurk on Mars. This time however the danger might be one that we created ourselves.

Right from the outset Warmind promises a great deal more grind than any other Destiny expansion I’ve played before. The level cap has been raised to 30 and the maximum light level is a staggering 385 which, for those who previously maxed it out, gives you no less than 50 light levels to push through. Of course should you do all available activities there’s about 21 chances to get powerful engrams but only the most dedicated players will be able to get that all done. Like the previous expansion there’s a new world to explore (Mars) along with a campaign, a new raid layer and a smattering of other smaller things to keep you interested. For a certain subset of players I’m sure this is exactly the kind of content they’re looking for but I think the majority of players were seeking something a little more substantial given the feedback that Curse of Osiris received.

Right now the game feels like it’s suffering from an identity disorder. On the one hand it’s great that a lot of the older content is still relevant, with the raids staying at their old light levels but still dropping powerful engrams. This means that players who missed out on it originally now have a chance to play it as there’s people still running it. On the other hand content which has been upgraded, like the strikes, hasn’t had its rewards changed to match making them a laborious task that no one really wants to run. That’s changed a little bit recently, but having to run 4 strikes to get 1 piece of 365 loot isn’t a great prospect. So this means we’re basically back to square 1 in terms of progression, especially for solo players, hoping that the meagre weekly milestones and maybe a raid or two will give them the light boosts they need. I’ve done all the milestones every week and 2 raids since the release and I’m at light level 360. Sure that’s enough to do everything but that means 385 is probably a month or two of grind away, not something I’m particularly looking forward to.

Comparatively the DLCs for Destiny 2 feel a lot less…meatier than their counterparts did in the original. I can distinctly remember each of the ones I played having a hook that kept me coming back. The Dark Below had a raid that could be partly cheesed if you knew what you were doing, The Taken King brought with it the idea that a gun only attainable in the raid made the raid a whole bunch easier, and Rise of Iron extended on that idea beautifully. Curse of Osiris then just managed to drop at the right time, extending my original enjoyment of Destiny 2 when it would have otherwise withered away. Now, having been away from the game for 6 months and coming back to it for this DLC, I can understand better the greater Destiny community’s gripes they had about the previous expansion. It’s just not enough.

The campaign experience is as good as it ever was though, and the fact that it furthered the lore behind Rasputin extensively is something I thoroughly enjoyed. The whole journey will last you maybe 2 hours, at the end of which you’ll be max level and likely around 340 light if you play your cards right. Typically this is where you’d transition into strikes to gear out until you hit the soft cap but, as mentioned before, that’s not something you’re really going to be able to do. It’s a shame really as I saw the beginnings of some of the mechanics that were present in Rise of Iron that led to Outbreak Prime and thought I’d be in for another great gun hunt. As it turns out that’s not so much the case which is a damned shame. I was really looking forward to some kind of Rasputin powered AI super gun.

So where does this all leave us? For me it’s likely the end of the road for this expansion as I don’t feel like there’s much more for me to get out of it. For Destiny there’s likely one last chance to right the ship before a good chunk of its players give up on it forever: the “comet” DLC coming in September this year. If the leaks are to believed it could be Destiny 2’s Taken King equivalent, revamping the game completely with a ton more content than any of the previous DLCs. If Bungie manages to pull that one off it might very well be the shot in the arm the IP needs to placate its playerbase. If it goes the same way as these past 2 expansions I’m not sure there’s much they could do to rebuild their goodwill with the community. Stranger things have happened though.

Destiny 2: Warmind is an unfortunate second stumble for a game that was already having trouble staying upright. Whilst the core of the game that makes Destiny great is still there, accompanied by another fantastic (albeit short) campaign, there’s just not enough there to keep a player like me coming back for months at a time. This is the first expansion where I haven’t bothered with the new raid nor do I have any desire to max out my light level before I leave it to rest. Given that it may only be 3 or so months until Comet hits I feel like my time is likely better spent in other games rather than burning myself out on the Destiny grind. It’s a shame as I really used to enjoy that grind and I can only hope that Comet reignites that fire that once burned so brightly.

Rating: 7.5/10

Destiny: Warmind is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Total time spent in Destiny 2 is now at 86 hours with approximately 12 of those spent playing the Warmind expansion.

Destiny 2: Curse of Osiris: Simulacra.

It was only last month that I reviewed Destiny 2 and so you’d be forgiven for thinking that Bungie was quick to pull the trigger on releasing the first expansion, Curse of Osiris. For us PC only players it is indeed quite a short time, I myself only reaching light level 305 the week prior. However for console players (who I assume make up the majority) there’s been a dearth of content for the past month and many have cried out in anguish over the lack of things to do. For a multi-title gamer like myself that’s a non-issue, there’s always something else to play, but for those who’d like to make Destiny their single game of choice it has become a constant source of angst. This expansion then would hopefully satiate the crowd long enough so that Bungie could implement more wide reaching changes to incentivise players to come back again and again.

Unfortunately for those dedicated players I don’t think Curse of Osiris accomplishes that but, for people like me, it’s a well timed injection of content that will likely keep me around for just that little bit longer.

Curse of Osiris takes you to Mercury, the forward base of the Vex and home to the Cult of Osiris, a group of people who’ve dedicated themselves to an incredibly powerful warlock that was exiled by the Vanguard. He hasn’t been heard from in some time however some of Ikora’s agents relay some information that indicate he may still be alive. This then takes you to Mercury, a world that was once transformed by the Traveller into a lush garden world which was then converted into a massive machine by the Vex. That machine is actually a massive simulation engine called the Infinite Forest, a place where the Vex attempt to gather data in order to formulate strategies to accomplish their goals. Rumour has it that Osiris is alive in there, thwarting all of the Vex’s attempts to simulate their way to victory.

Graphically there’s been no changes but the new patrol area of Mercury and the raid lairs retain Bungie’s signature level design, renowned for its high level of detail and quality. Personally I’ve always been a fan of the Vex artistic direction, the Cabal and Fallen feeling rather boring and routine by comparison. So it follows that this is probably my favourite expansion so far from a visual perspective. The new patrol area isn’t particularly big nor very diverse so it does wear on you quickly. However the other environments retain the typical visual diversity I’ve come to expect from the Destiny franchise so it’s not all bad thankfully.

In terms of new content Curse of Osiris brings with it a new campaign that will run for about 2 to 3 hours, a new “raid lair” which amounts to a couple jumping puzzles and a single boss fight, and a few more progression related mechanics to make a few activities relevant. In terms of how this compares to previous expansions its pretty much as expected, the only one that seemed to drastically deviate from that being The Taken King. For this writer it came at almost the perfect time as I had cleared the raid multiple times (to the point of being able to do it in an hour with the right group), hit 305 and was starting to question whether or not I’d continue playing. So for a casual-core player like myself Curse of Osiris fit in perfectly however, for others, it’s likely too little too late.

Destiny 2 brought with it a lot of streamlining of the original’s mechanics, quite often to the benefit of both players and Bungie. However some of the changes took away some of the reasons that kept old school players coming back. Indeed many of the recent changes that have been introduced were things that were already present in the original, making it feel like we’re simply restarting the development process that was already completed. So for those who made a home in Destiny as their game of choice I can definitely understand where their concerns come from as many of the things that kept them back before simply aren’t there anymore. However for someone like myself these changes have been fantastic, allowing me to do so much more in much less time.

This is, of course, the long running debate of any MMO game: hardcores vs casuals. The hardcore players want mechanics that reward the long slog, things that take time to achieve and put them on a pedestal above those who don’t spend as much time in the game as they do. Casuals on the other hand want to experience everything the game has to offer in a much reduced timeframe. This war is, typically, won by the casuals as they usually make up the majority of a game’s player base. As I’ve grown older and I find myself with less and less time to put into games like this my consumption of these titles has shifted and those that provide mechanics to cater to my more casual-like habits get rewarded with my hard earned dollars. That’s the only reason I still play World of Warcraft from time to time as I know that I can see all the game has to offer without signing my life away. Of course I’m not every player, but I think I’m closer to the average than most hardcore players would like to think.

I mention all of this because it seems that the Destiny community at the moment is at something of a crossroads. Previous expansions typically had a decent honeymoon period where everyone would sing its praises for about 2 weeks. Then slowly the issues would start to emerge and maybe a month or so later there’d be the usual bitching about there being no content or nothing for them to do. Right now we’re just over 3 months into Destiny 2’s live and with the first expansion under its belt we’re already seeing those complaints and Bungie has even cancelled livestreams in order to address them. Regardless of the outcome of the changes the decisions Bungie makes today will set the direction of what the game is to become over the next few years; whether it follows World of Warcraft or becomes a hardcore nice like EVE: Online.

Despite all this however Destiny 2: Curse of Osiris is a fantastic, if a little short, expansion to the Destiny 2 universe. For players like myself it dropped a just the right time, hooking me right back in when I was getting ready to jump out. Fleshing out the world’s backstory through a solid campaign has always been one of my favourite parts of Destiny and this expansion delivers that well. The new progression mechanics are interesting if a little grindy for my tastes. The new raid layer brings with it some of the more interesting and unique encounters we’ve seen to date and, hopefully, that trend continues with further expansions. Overall whilst it might not be worth $20 just on its own as part of the collector’s edition or as a season pass Curse of Osiris certainly provides some good content at a reasonable price point.

Rating: 9.5/10

Destiny 2: Curse of Osiris is available right now on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox one right now for $19.99. Total time spent in Destiny 2 now totals 59 hours, approximately 8 hours spent in Curse of Osiris. 

World of Warcraft: Legion: We Meet Again, Old Friend.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Reaction to Destiny’s DLC Shows How Few Have Played MMORPGs Before.

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.

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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”.

Diablo III: Reaper of Souls: Malthael’s Crazed Fall From Grace.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Rating: 9.25/10

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.

Diablo 3 Will Return to its Roots with Reaper of Souls.

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.

Diablo-3-Auction-House-bidsAt 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.

 

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria: You Kids Have It So Easy These Days.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

World of Warcraft Mists of Pandaria Screenshot Wallpaper All Hail Valkaris

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.

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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.

Rating: 9.0/10

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).

Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm: What Do You Know of Sacrifice?

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.

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

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.

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm Screenshot Wallpaper Typical Level

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.

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm Screenshot Wallpaper Raptor Evolved

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.

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm Screenshot Wallpaper Kerrigan Upgrade System

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).

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm Screenshot Wallpaper Mission Screen

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 Screenshot Wallpaper The End

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.

Rating: 9.5/10

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.