Sunday, March 24, 2013

Defiance Beta Weekend

So this weekend Trion took the wraps off of Defiance for real,  activating their last beta weekend before launch, and lifting the NDA.  I played Defiance during one previous beta weekend, and at that time the game really didn't grab me.  As we're so close to launch, I decided to update my client, and give the game one more shot.  I'm glad I did.  Hit the break for the details!

I'm Not Here for the PvP
So I played probably 10 or 15 hours over two days.  And in that time, I did not participate once in any of the PvP battles.  I most assuredly will, but honestly between games like Planetside and APB Reloaded, there are already really good choices for massive alliance vs alliance PvP shooters.  What I wanted was to see if there was a good PvE experience here, so I spent my entire weekend doing exactly what I would do in any other MMO - leveling my character.

More than Meets the Eye
Defiance is a deceptively big game.  I say deceptive, because it's easy to get into the game, and do some stuff.  They put a gun in your hands, then you shoot some stuff, and you get good things (currencies you won't recognize, salvage you won't know what to do with, and experience points in a system that won't make sense) for killing those things.  After you do that for awhile, you're tempted to dismiss the game as - is that all there is?  But once you start peeling back the layers, and digging in a bit, you come to see there's rich complex game under the covers there, full of character customizations, weapon customizations, vanity itesm, vehicles, and a surprisingly good story.  On the other hand, once you do start going through load out screens and the first time you see the EGO Matrix, you're quite likely to be so overwhelmed by the dizzying array of weapon mods, perks, and weapon choices that you might decide it's just too much, and to walk away without even feeling like you want to scratch the surface.  That was, to be honest, exactly the response I had after the first beta weekend.  Both responses I think are a mistake - if you're looking for a fun, comtemporary shooter MMO.

But with the exception of a few mentions in the tutorial, which, brief as it is, you'll want to do, like so many MMO's, there's a ton of information about this game you'll want before you get started, that's not really explained by the game.  Fortunately, now that the NDA has lifted, I suspect a ton of weapon mod guides, build guides, and levelling guides will start popping up, and you will definitely want to visit them.  I managed to find one short guide that was done before this weekend, and it gave me what was arguably a game-changing tip.  I'll pass it on at the end.   But yeah, this game is going to need guides.

The Good Stuff - Context
Early on, your character - an Ark Hunter - which is essentially an alien tech scanvenger - is brushed up against the main characters from the series.  This is cool, and I think once the series gets going, is going to be even cooler.  In fact, for me at least, the interesting thing about Defiance is the more I learned about the fiction of the setting and the world, the more I wanted to play, and the more I wanted to know.  And that's a good thing.  For a lot of people, context has no value.  That is, they couldn't care less about the reasons about why your character is there, what they're doing, or about the world in which they play.  But for many more people, myself included, context _does_ mean something.  We actually do care about the lore, the stories, and the people, and one thing Defiance has in spades, is a rich, fully realized fiction.  It may not be the most original story, but it's still a full world, and one of the things I enjoyed was unfolding the story, both in the primary missions, the side missions, and especially the episode missions.

The Gameplay is Good
It really is.  The minute to minute gameplay in Defiance is spot on fun.  The only times it becomes really not fun is when you're overwhelmed by enemies - more on that later, or just from technical server problems, like lag spikes and packet floods.  And unfortunately, there was still quite a bit of that, although at no time for myself at least, did the game become downright unplayable.  Though it did get close a few times. But enemies explode satisfyingly, weapons are cool and fun to use, there's a ton of different effects for different weapons, and there's even quite a bit of strategy involved in how you play.  There's plenty of room for smart players to distinguish themselves from not-so-smart players in taking down difficult bosses and enemies.

Vehicles are Awesome
Oh and the driving is a blast!  They were smart in allowing you to kill bad guys with the vehicle, but they've also smartly toned it down considerably since the early betas.  It's no longer the best, overpowered way to kill enemies, and you get neither credit nor loot from enemies you run over.  But just the driving around, getting your vehicle, and blasting away over the countryside is pure fun.  There's lots of back and forth in this game, but zooming over the hillside and flying off of ledge in your ATV makes even that process enjoyable.  You'll get a completely free vehicle early on, and eventually you'll find weapon vendors that sell the upgraded ones - in a variety of colors to match your taste!  I hope that as the game evolves, vehicles become an even larger part of the gameplay.  But what I experienced so far was quite good.

Dynamic Events, Ark Falls, and a Changing World
The guys at Trion took pretty much everything they learned about dynamic content and placed it into Defiance.  Tons of small, mini-missions pop up all over the place - Help the Scientists, Rescue the Relief Workers, Root out the Hellbugs, Raider Roadblocks, etc.  You're free to stop at any of these and participate, or bust your way through and ignore them.  Additionally, often areas of the map come under the effects of Ark Falls, which essentially are the 'Rifts' of this game.  They come in both minor and major versions, they are beaconed on the map in giant red markers, and serve as a rallying call for people across the zone.  You'll get the same feeling of vast, epic cooperation at these locations, or you may find (if the zone is empty), that the best you can do is delay them for awhile, because there aren't enough people to assist in taking them down.  They appear currently to be tightly balance, and in fact I would say may be a tad too hard.  On Saturday night we had a large group working on taking down several arkfalls, and in several cases, we made it with only seconds to spare, and in several other cases, we failed with only miniscule amounts of life left on the arkfall crystals.  In short, these things do need (and obviously will get) tuning.

They also, by the way, come with some of the baggage of Rift's Rift system as well.  You might find supply depots overrun with hellbugs, and not enough people around to take it back.  You might find arkfalls that are simply too powerful for you to complete.  And the nature of dynamic spawns means you might get double trouble as a dynamic event appears right in the middle of an existing spawn area, resulting in an overwhelming number of enemies all at once.  These things happen with fairly regular frequency, and sometimes you just have to be prepare to bail.

Fortunately, the death penalty in Defiance is negligible  and they do a surprisingly good job of extracting you to a location that's near enough that even if you die, you can usually continue on and finish the mission or event without losing progress.

The Not So Good - UI
Definance's UI is, well, in a word - a mess.  It's obtuse, poorly laid out, and difficult to parse.  Everything you do in it feels clunky and cumbersome, from managing perks, to upgrading your weapons, to equipping weapons, to finding the bits and pieces of your story and pursuits, hell to even figuring out how to log out of the game.  It's all there, but just be prepared to take a healhy helping of patience pie as you muddle through it to suss it all out.  Or better yet, wait until some people post video tutorials on sorting it all out so we can actually get good explanations of how it all works.  After two days of trying I'm still not exactly sure on which weapons I can modify, which ones I can't, and how and why when I have a mod that says it works on pistols, and I have a pistol that says I can mod it, why the system refuses to let me mod it.  Yes, you can see even my own frustration here, and I'm just trusting in the fact that it'l get better, and eventually - similar to crafting in GW2 - someone that actually understands how it all works will make videos to explain it.

A Failure to Communicate
Due in part to the clunkiness of the UI, it's surprisingly difficult to communicate in the game.  There is apparently voice chat in the game, and I actually heard, at one point, while grouped up, someone attempting to use it, but I certainly never saw the options for it, nor attempted to use it.  Perhaps if they get that working to some extent, it'll be better.  But there is no Map chat that I can see, and Area chat quickly disappears from your viewscreen.  There is group chat, but just activating it, bringing it up, and typing in it was clunky.

After playing awhile, I got the hang of the Quick Chat choices, and started sussing how to switch from area to group chat and back, and even joined some groups and actually communicated with other players.  And when I did, it was fun!  But none of the flow was very intuitive, and for a game that wants to succeed as an MMO, this should be dead solid.  It still needs work.

I did join some groups, both being invited to and forming some.  The interface for managing them - again back to the interface issues - is a bit clunky.  But it works.  Unfortunately, I didn't really witness what the benefit of grouping was, save seeing your groupmates on the minimap, and having your own chat channel.  I guess those may be reasons enough, and I'm sure are probably a ton of other things I just didn't know about.

One thing I hope they do have and I just didn't know how to use it, but if they don't they definitely need, is a way for the group leader to set a waypoint for the group to follow.  If you want your group to be able to run around together and knock out missions, there has to be a way for someone to set those goals.  But if there was one, no one in the groups I joined knew how to use it - including myself.

The Final Word - For Now
Overall, I found myself having a lot more fun this weekend than I did previously.  So much, that I think I'm going to pre-order and get some perks.  The minute-to-minute gameplay is a lot of fun, and once I started getting a little momentum behind my character - her perks, skills, and weapon choices - I found myself wanting to play more.  I know they have the notion of instances, and I want to try some of those.  The game makes heavy and extensive use of Rift's dynamic events, and it comes with all the benefits - and baggage - of that system.  You have to be okay with buying into that I think to really enjoy the game.

There are a ton of UI issues, they still have server problems, and grouping and coordination in general still needs lots of help.  I'm trusting player guides, developer crunch, and Trion's reputation of tweaking and responding to problems over time (which imho, I think is pretty good, considering the changes they've made in Rift) to handle these issues.  Additionally, I was already interested in watching the show, and now I'm even more interested.  I think these things can really serve to re-inforce each other. If the show is good, I'll be even more compelled to play the game, and as I play the game, I'l be more interested in learning about the characters and stories through the show.  And just seeing how in-game representions of things end up being in the show work out is interesting.  Will they have mutants?  What will the Hellbugs look like?  I'm now actually interested in finding out.

So in short - see you April 15th Ark Hunter!

Oh one last note - if you take nothing else from this article, but decide to play the game - use Map Waypoint.  Each time you get a destination, right-click on the map at that destination, and it will create a vehicle navigable route (mostly) to take you to that destination.  This can save you tons of backtracking as you come across unnavigable canyons, giant concrete walls, etc.  Use Map Waypoint!