Monthly Archives: June 2018

Opinion – Anthem Coop Works Best Without Friends?

With E3 come and gone, it’s now time to peel back the glossy advertising and review what we’ve seen with clearer eyes.  The game I am paying the most attention to (though not one that I’m excited about) is Bioware’s Anthem, a four player coop experience promising the deep, quality storytelling we used to expect from the studio.  With the failure of Mass Effect: Andromeda, it’s hard not to see Anthem as the fulcrum upon which Bioware’s gold developer status rests.  What concerns and intrigues me most about Anthem is a) we’ve seen very little of it given how close we are to launch and, most importantly, b) it seems to think it can combine storytelling and multiplayer.  It is the latter to which we now turn.

Storytelling and multiplayer often clash with one another due to the competing nature of their foci.  Storytelling is often a personal experience with the player focusing (or not focusing) on the elements they find most compelling.  Whether its cutscenes, logs, scenery, or dialog, players gravitate towards the parts of the story they enjoy the most.  To make stories more compelling, games give players choices, try to create personal bonds with the player, and otherwise make the whole experience about the player holding the controller.  The whole goal is to make one person lost in a magical world.

Multiplayer goes a different route.  Rather than focus the game on the player, it focuses the players on the game.  By giving players a common objective, multiplayer games create a sense of teamwork and comradery as players seek to achieve a common goal.  That goal also provides a metric for progress with players succeeding or failing at the same speed.  In this context, player chatter, coordination, and team exploration all further the player towards the ultimate objective.  These are the exact things that kill a good video game story.

Combining the two styles works at cross purposes.  A game can’t simultaneously make a player feel like the most important character in the story while making the game about the teamwork with three other players.  “You’re special!” doesn’t work as a message when there’s clearly a crowd.  Nor do the basic mechanics work either.  Players in multiplayer games need to communicate, trade stories, and otherwise talk about elements of the game that destroy a sense of immersion.  Even if a team somehow gets on the same wavelength in terms of immersion, there’s the problem of keeping everyone synced.  Players excited about a story will still approach it at different speeds and times.  The resulting clash just doesn’t work.

Imagine a team of players just completed a mission and headed back to town.  Player A completes the quest and settles in for a drama fueled cutscene between characters they love.  Just as the scene reaches its crescendo, Player B gets excited about a piece of loot they found.  Finally, quieting Player B, Player A starts getting back into the groove when Player C starts laughing at a hilarious cutscene they’re enjoying.  Once the laughter subsides, Player A starts crawling to the finish when Player D complains that they want to get back out and do quests.  Goodbye story.  Hello hating friends.

Bioware plans to address some of these issues by keeping story areas single player.  Players will interact in instances all their own.  While that sounds like a step in the right direction, it doesn’t solve the chatter issue or just general coordination with teammates.  The multiplayer part will interfere with the story mode and weaken it.

…unless you aren’t playing with friends.  The irony of this particular cooperative model is that it might well play best with strangers whom the player can dump once a mission concludes.  Without the need to coordinate beyond the current battle, there’s no need to worry about politely sharing a chat channel or keeping up with the team.  A player can putz around a story area for hours without angering a friend who just wants to get some exp.  It’s weird, but maybe that’s how Anthem works.  We’ll have to wait and see.

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The First Few Hours – Warhammer 40k: Inquisitor – Martyr

Warhammer 40k: Inquisitor – Martyr acts a bit like an action RPG fun house mirror.  The game is an obvious reflection of the standard Diablo formula, but does everything just a little bit differently.  The end result is a decent game in its own right, but one that will irritate an unsuspecting portion of the audience that it courts.

The game begins with the player controlled Inquisitor, a galactic enforcer of loyalty and religion, embarking a mission aboard the Martyr, a derelict Space Marine ship that went rogue and disappeared for centuries.  A quick investigation of the ship reveals that it formerly housed a long dead Space Marine leader of undetermined allegiance and is now the focus of a secret investigation by another Inquisitor who also has undetermined allegiance.  In the opening hours of the game, the player attempts to hunt down this other Inquisitor and figure out what the Martyr really is.

As far as stories go, this one is functional.  Its true virtue is to serve as a vehicle for the world of Warhammer 40k.  The player collects crew from across W40k’s Imperium of Man factions, fights its traditional Chaos foe, explores the dark realms of its cities and abandoned space stations, and generally revels in one of the better representations of this universe.  Fans of the W40k world will find much to like here and even newcomers will find Inquisitor – Martyr a relatively accessible entry point into the W40k world.  On the other hand, people who dislike the grim dark future of the 40th millennia will find nothing new or interesting.  Inquisitor – Martyr seeks to channel Warhammer 40k, not improve upon it.

The same cannot be said for the action RPG formula which the game seeks to model.  Thought clearly inspired by Diablo and its host of clones, Inquisitor – Martyr makes enough evolutionary tweaks to almost turn itself into a revolution.  The standard leveling, looting, and fighting mechanics are all there, but the emphasis is less on the former two….and arguably less on the third as well.  Leveling and looting are noticeably slower than the standard model with the player rarely experiencing substantial jumps in kill power.  Fighting is also notably slowed with the introduction of a cover mechanic which allows the player and enemies to hide in order to reap defensive bonuses.  The end result is that progress feels slow on and off the battlefield.

Perhaps the biggest gameplay innovation is the pacing.  Missions are discreet fights across small maps with specific, and occasionally varying, objectives.  Leveling, equipment swapping, and all other forms of maintenance are relegated to the pause between missions.  This creates a nice balance between character improvement and combat with each operating in its own spheres without the other spoiling its flow.  There is no standing in the middle of a blood drenched battlefield comparing shiny new swords or trying to tweak a character build.  On the flip side, the pauses between fights serve as an exhale from the game’s combat and gives the story an opportunity to breath.  While hardly used to its fullest in Inquisitor – Martyr, this model could give future ARPG’s a chance to focus on story.

Overall, the game has a solid collection of mechanics which made the first seven hours a lot of fun.  Dark clouds do loom on the horizon.  Without a compelling story and thanks to limited numbers of enemies and settings, the charms of the Warhammer 40k universe are fading against the repetitive grind of constant battles.  The slow progression ensures that the battle system won’t take up the slack.  It’s becoming harder and harder to see how Inquisitor – Martyr will earn its full price tag.  Even if you’re a big W40k fan, I’d wait for a sale.

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