Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Love Reborn

I've been playing the Final Fantasy XIV Beta Phase 3, and I am quite impressed with the changes which were made.

First off, the UI has been completely redone. It was my biggest  pet peeve in the original iteration of the game. It took you too many interactions just to operate an elevator, and crafting was a nightmare of navigation through tons of tiers before you could make just one piece of an item. I had to use a controller to get any semblance of playability from the menu interactions, but then the combat hotbar was not conducive to using a controller. As a result, I was constantly switching between mouse + keyboard and my 360 controller.

Now all that has been done away with, and crafting has become very simple. You still have the same basic premise of using skills to affect quality/durability/progress, but the way you get there is so much easier. There are three columns where you choose the item level range, the item to craft, and then an optional third column where you can choose to use any high-quality materials you might have come across in your adventures. If you don't use the third column, then it's just two steps; pick the level, and pick the item, and you're all set.

The gathering system was thrown away and remade. No longer are you blindly hacking away at a tree or mineral deposit hoping to get a crafting component. Instead, a screen shows you what you are trying for and your percentage chance of getting a normal or high-quality item.

The hotbars have been re-done, especially for those using a controller. I started with keyboard and mouse, but soon switched to the 360 controller to see what had changed. The new cross bar interface is pretty slick, and allows for 16 buttons on the screen at once. You activate each half of the cross bar by holding down the left or right triggers, and then the d-pad or action buttons (A, B, X, Y) execute each skill. I even found it easy to quickly cycling between hotbar pages using the right bumper. I had tried setting up a PS3 controller to test that out and compare against my 360 controller, but there are not many good software interfaces for it. One option required a bluetooth dongle; and while I have one stowed away somewhere, it would be nice if a controller just worked through USB for once.

One last praise I'll give for the UI is the font which is used. It's much more sleek than before, evoking something of FFXIII's look. I did notice that the fills for the bars appeared to be messy as they animated. They are a few pixels taller than the regular fill, so it looks like the health, mana and tech bars spill over the outline a bit as they are filling up.

The environments have also received a facelift. I went back and started my 1.0 character in Limsa Lominsa, choosing marauder as my main class. Previously I had played a gladiator, but their starting city is now Ul'dah, and I had only spent a little time there so I wouldn't be able to tell what, if anything, had been changed. The town set up kept some of the same features, however some of the guilds which were there originally have been moved to other cities.

The areas outside town were completely revamped, much to my surprise. the repetitive copy+pasted geography is gone, replaced with areas which you can actually navigate and recognize by eye.


The writing in the game is decent; the Westernization of the text obviously handled by people who have some actual storytelling prowess. Too often I find games localized for English where the dialog is stilted and boring. There were a couple instances where some light Game of Thrones references were made ("as useful as nipples on a breastplate"), and a good lot of adult language; cursing, calling someone a "whoreson," and so forth. Maybe it was just the sailors I was around in Limsa - it could just be regional. The one spot where it got a bit cheesy was a Metal Gear reference where a character was talking on a Linkshell and on the other end was someone with the codename 'Master Snake.' while I ordinarily wouldn't mind it, the scene was supposed to be dramatic and it brought me out of the moment.

The story is handled in such a way that your character's past, as well as their goals are shrouded in mystery. Even as you progress in the main questline, the NPCs ask for your help, alluding to the fact that you may have other interests. This keeps the doors open to roleplaying your character with their own agendas, and it's something that I think has been lacking a lot in other MMOs released over the last few years.

I got a chance to use the new Duty Finder, which allows you to queue up for a dungeon or raid while solo, or in a partial or full group. The Duty Finder will fill your party with players across all servers; you even have the option to specify which languages you will accept. Currently the options do not persist when you log out and back in, but maybe they will implement saving the states at some point. I personally don't mind playing with people who speak other languages, especially when it results in such fun exchanges as this:

"mom. 5 minuten."
I think my favorite aspect of the game may be the character animations. The characters move with real weight; they feel heavy in very a logical sense. When they smile, their lower eyelids come up and it looks very natural and genuine. I found a video on youtube that shows some of the motion capture work, but it mentions that the facial animations were done by hand, which really impressed me.

Now for the downside. I noticed that using a controller, while it was very convenient for most actions, was a nuisance when attempting to target anything. When I wanted to select something in front of me, it selected things in the distance. When I had something in the distance selected, I wanted to switch over to the creature right next to it, and it locks on to something right in front of me. When enemies are all bunched up on top of each other, it's nigh impossible to tell how to go about selecting anything.

I also had issues switching targets. If I wanted to pull a creature off a healer, for example, I found myself navigating over to the monster and only hitting it once. After that, my target returned to the original monster. I found that if I hit the A button after naving over, it locked down my selection. So that's just something I'll have to get used to.

I couldn't find the option to bind a key to assist a target, nor could I find a way to change how the targeting behavior works for a controller. The T key should assist my target, but if I hit anything on the keyboard, I begin typing in chat. Which is usually fine. I may just need to do a bit more research and maybe bind an /assist macro to one of my hotbars. I played mostly solo, or was the main assist myself, so it was not too big an issue.

When I first started the beta several weeks ago, I had to begin anew because my 1.0 character was not available. In one weekend I made it to level 14 on a new character as a thaumaturge. I could have swore I had made it to level 17 or so on my original character, but once I had access to him a week later, I found that he was only 13. So I had leveled up a beta character in one weekend farther than my main in the old game. Well, to be honest, I had at least level 10 in almost all crafting professions, so I had been spreading around the experience quite a bit. And since the crafting was maddeningly horrible before, I guess I was really punishing myself.

When I had access to my 1.0 character, I took him all the way through the available story quests (up to around level 20) as a marauder, and then began again as a lancer. Trying to find new quests was difficult, but the hunting quests for each class helps you limp along to the next milestone, provided you supplement with rested experience gained at the inns and food which gives you a mild boost to your XP gain. Each class has certain creatures tagged in a log book which, when you kill the required amount, net you bonus XP. Even the Grand Companies you join later give you hunting quests, and those reward you with Grand Company Seals.

Soon Beta Phase 4 will start, and all progress made during that time will carry over into release. It will mark my third time through the story. I don't mind it so much; the producer Yoshi P said that a lot of the story currently in game is placeholder in order to not spoil anything. There was also mention of adding voice acting to the game for the main story quests, though I wonder if it will be relegated to NPCs. Currently the main character is silent, but the animations are so expressive it really doesn't hinder the experience at all. If voice acting is added, hopefully the main character will remain silent but I wonder about the parts where NPCs address my character by name - those may not be voiced. In text-only dialog you can use variables so that the character's actual name is used instead of cheating the writing around by mentioning gender or class; variables which are more easily planned for. I would like it if I could turn on the Japanese audio with English subtitles; that would make for a better experience, personally. I found this article where Yoshi P states that players can choose whichever language they like, and I think that's an awesome feature.

I used to point at my Collector's Edition box for FFXIV scornfully, saying it was a waste of money. It was, at one point, the most I'd ever paid for a game where I'd invested the least amount of time. I thought it beyond redemption. I read the apology email from Yoichi Wada, president and CEO of Square; I read that Yoshi P was taking over... all of these things I dismissed. "The game is beyond saving," I thought. This is not true. I've played three beta weekends this past phase and I have had a blast. I look forward to the new classes, especially the Summoner, and I'm interested in seeing what kinds of housing options are available in the final game.

I'm the only one wearing decent clothes.

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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

E3 Round-Up

I was going to write on E3 quite awhile ago, but I went on vacation one week, and then had to learn ActionScript3 the next week, so I got kinda busy. Anyway, here's a brief rundown of some of the things I saw.

Day 1 was spent primarily in the South Hall, as the West Hall was terribly crowded due to the fact that it had more playable game demos.

Every year, I take a picture in front of the Harvest Moon display at the Natsume booth. Unfortunately, this year there was no Harvest Moon display. Instead, Natsume was showing off a game called HomeTown Story instead.

This lovely lady had a basket full of plushies, but refused to give me one =( 

Apparently they were handing out stamp cards at certain times of the day, and you had to play the games at the booth and receive a stamp for each one before you could get a plushie.

It's odd how some booths make you jump through hoops, while others just outright give you things. It's tough I know because quite often they run out of supply, and all you're left with are XXL tshirts. The nVidia gal came past me in line with a pile and said "XL?" and I shook my head. "Nope," I thought, I'm either a large or medium; depending on how much I want to show. She never came back. I had to hunt her down when it dawned on me that they only had XL shirts left.

Kneel before Gaius van Baelsar.

The most ludicrous by far had to be the Square Enix booth for Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. On the first day they were handing out tickets for a confirmed time to battle the primal, Ifrit. Two teams of 8 players would fight separate battles simultaneously as the crowd watched. Two announcers were on hand to call the action as it went down. If you failed the battle, you did not get their polo shirt. Sadly, we did not arrive in time to get any tickets on Day 1. But for Day 2, we were certain to make it our #1 priority.

Some MMO noob was about to get stuck with a controller. But the UI works surprisingly well.

On Day 2, they were no longer giving out tickets. Apparently they had technical issues with the game and it caused some battle times to be pushed back, and that led to people not showing up, which caused all manner of confusion. So there was a line. And with our positioning, they told us the wait was approximately four hours. It ended up being only about three, as some people gave up and left. Also, we were able to jump ahead because they were looking for a group of three and Matt, Ashley and I fit the bill. All the alliances I had made in line with people around me who assured me they knew how to play went out the window, primarily because Ashley had to go work the Forsaken Planet booth in 30 minutes.

Dracula, from the new Castlevania game.

Standing in line for three hours to get nothing seemed a grim prospect to me. I really wanted that polo. There were three of us, lumped in with five strangers; I had no idea if any of the others knew what they were doing. Ash and I ended up playing as healers, and Matt was on the Pugilist; a melee DPS class. Over the course of the three hour wait in line, we'd seen countless other groups fail or win. Sometimes, they'd get a chance to play the fight a second time, as there was an allotment of 10 minutes to finish the encounter. So I had hoped that the strangers with us had been paying attention.

Naoki Yoshida, aka Yoshi P, wished everyone in line luck... he said we would need it.

Thankfully, they were, and we beat the boss Ifrit on the first attempt. I was trying not to look a fool, as there were people waiting in line just half a foot behind me, looking over my shoulder as I ran around, avoiding the plumes of fire and throwing heals on the group. The screen I had was 30", so I had to turn my head to see the party members' health. My hands were shaking by the time it was over, but I was glad to have that polo in my hands. If I had lost, I was of a mind to just throw a wad of cash at the shirt person and demand they give me three. Thankfully, it didn't come to that. Also, I would feel like I didn't really earn it.

Elder Scrolls Online characters painted on the side of a trailer.

Some of my thunder was taken away when days later I found out that it was a scaled-down encounter; but you can't imagine a really difficult boss fight being played by people completely new to MMOs to be very successful. By the end, the announcers were giving not-so-subtle hints about how to defeat the different phases of the encounter.

Part of the crew, part of the ship.

My luck was also with me at the Skylanders booth, as I was able to win a Bronze Hot Dog on my first attempt. You had to spin a wheel and it had on it images of the lower half of different Skylanders. If you landed on the octopus tentacles it would complete the character and you'd win.

This gal has a lot of outfits.

I played a demo level of Final Fantasy XIII, Lightning Returns. The combat was pretty engaging; similar to the paradigm shift system of FFXIII. Lightning would change outfits on the fly as you switched between three different attack modes, each with their own power meter which was filling up when you were not using that form's attacks. It was fun, but without some kind of variation, I could see it being a bit boring. There was a commercial released recently that shows her in a pre-order exclusive Cloud-style outfit, complete with a buster sword. That's pretty difficult to resist.

Getting paid to cosplay.

I played The Last of Us, primarily for the tshirt. I was getting the game that Friday, so I wasn't in a hurry to spoil the story. I can tell you, the level I was on was very difficult. It was Pittsburgh, and I started with 1 bullet in the revolver. I think that even though the demo was re-started, it maintained the ammo count from the player before me, or something. I was able to blunder my way through the controls (I didn't read the placard in front of me), and beat down something like six guys, all wielding guns and bats. One guy I fought near a busted convenience store freezer door. Somebody got their throat slammed into some glass. And it wasn't good'ole Joel.

Here is the XBox One. Hooray.

We lucked out again at the line for Battlefield 4. They were using a ticketing system, but kept a standby line to fill slots for people who didn't show. It was amazing. The fidelity of the Shanghai level blew my mind. The towering skyscrapers, gunfire echoing in the distance. 32 on 32 action. I had an amazing run in a tank. A stranger hopped on the gun emplacement. We rolled around, blowing up other armored vehicles and infantry. The choppers did give us trouble, so I would duck under overhangs and avoid them. I saw a bunch of enemy infantry clustered in a doorway so I let them have a sabot round. Some of them lived and rushed out as I was reloading a shell. I quickly backed up, but was not fast enough. The had slapped some c4 on the front of my dear tank. It was destroyed.

I was at first skeptical of the destructible environments, but once I played I was sold. Seeing that skyscraper in Shanghai come down was pretty epic. There's even a 'Commander Mode' with a bird's eye view of the battlefield, a la Natural Selection from the old Half Life mod days. This is a game I could see myself throwing tons of hours into, and I'm not too big into FPS's these days.

I saw a demo of Destiny, which looks very cool. I like their world they've created. It also showcases destructible environments, but I wondered as I saw some towers in the distance being toppled by an alien drop ship, "Do the towers respawn? Or are they just knocked over after the first time someone does this encounter?" I do think that Tom Clancy's The Division handles party dynamics a bit better. I especially like the waveforms above the character's heads when they talk.

This looks much prettier than the devkit systems we have at work.

An intriguing PS4 title I played was called Contrast. You play as a cabaret-style gal in a 3D platformer, but she can meld into a shadow and it becomes a 2D platformer as you run across the shadows of objects in the 3D environment. I really enjoyed the puzzle elements of this game. I unlocked a new ability, dashing through shadows, and I could see that the progression of the abilities and puzzles was well thought out and would likely continue throughout the game, always keeping it interesting.

Matt in Rome: Total War II

I always enjoy going to E3 with my friends and seeing new games. This year I took the train into downtown, and was rewarded every day with a new crazy person story. The metro is definitely a great way to get around, but probably not so great if say, you're on a date.