Overwatch Beta Impressions

23 11 2015

Over the years, Blizzard has made unexpected but successful forays into various genres outside of their historic areas of expertise starting off with the MMO space with World of Warcraft, then the digital TCG space with Hearthstone. The success of both products speak for themselves cementing the assertion that Blizzard can do a lot more than isometric strategy/adventure games and even do it better than anyone else. Despite their previous successes into new genres their venture into the team FPS game space is still a fairly bold move considering the highly competitive market for such games, dominated by giants like Halo and Call of Duty.

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The immediate comparison one would draw upon seeing Overwatch is to other role-based shooters, primarily Team Fortress 2. 6-person teams go head to head in objective-based maps with each player picking a character that fulfills a role such as a sniper or support class to function and fight effectively as a unit. While there is no mistaking that Overwatch is inspired by such games, it has a lot of fresh approaches and concepts cherry-picked from other genres that make it a refreshingly unique but intuitive experience.

The biggest point of separation from conventional class-based team shooters is that you choose a character rather than a role. While the characters are categorized into different broad categories such as offense, defense, tank, and support, individually they fill niches that can’t be defined so cleanly and offer drastically different approaches and play styles towards being an effective combatant for their team. For example within the “offense” category of characters there is Pharah who is a straightforward character that uses flight in combination with her rocket launcher to pound the enemy in direct confrontations, and then there is Reaper who prefers to avoid head-on fights and uses teleportation and an invulnerable “wraith form” to infiltrate into the midst of enemy teams and ambush high-value targets. The characters have a handful of abilities which all complement each other nicely towards enacting their game plan and can also be used in creative unorthodox ways allowing them flexibility to apply themselves outside of what would appear to be their primary role. Even more intriguing is that the characters’ different abilities can synergize in interesting ways with their comrades that makes you consider the roster of your team and come up with powerful combinations. The slow and powerful Reinhardt becomes suddenly more threatening when paired with Lucio’s speed boost, and Bastion’s turret mode becomes a tremendous threat when paired with Mercy’s damage boosting abilities. As an additional aside, the cast of characters are instantly more interesting than their skill sets; they are a motley crew of actual characters with inspired designs, personalities, and histories, ranging from the intelligent gorilla scientist to the cybernetic ascetic monk. There’s not a single dud amongst the current cast of 21 playable characters with each feeling effective, special, and cool.

Each character also has an ultimate ability that slowly charges over the course of the match. These powerful abilities, such as resurrecting dead teammates or transforming into a literal battle tank, have the potential to shift the momentum of a match and are another point of divergence from traditional team-based shooters. Knowing when and where to utilize your ultimate ability in coordination with the actions of your team give Overwatch a lot of tactical depth, more akin to a MOBA style game such as Heroes Of The Storm.

A final point towards the roster of characters adding a huge element of strategy to the game is that you can switch your character between lives during a match. This introduces an important metagame aspect in which you are able to counter the enemy team’s composition and tactics (sometimes preemptively) by altering your own team’s lineup on the fly. Learning and anticipating the counters to a particular situation will undoubtedly become a huge facet of competitive play as knowledge of the game evolves and expands.

Differences aside, the game is grounded in solid FPS conventions that make it familiar and intuitive as well. The control scheme is simplified and streamlined compared to other modern FPS games which frees up a lot of your thinking to concentrate on your handful of abilities and how best to apply them to the given situation. The maps and arenas are expertly crafted around singular objectives, which funnels the action to particular points and leaves no question as to what you should be trying to do at a given moment while also encouraging team fights which is at the core of the design of the game. One of the subtle things about the game that I recognize and appreciate is its “readability” or transparency. There are a lot of details and clues that give you a greater understanding and awareness of what is happening amidst the chaos of a confrontation including the visual language of the game in terms of characters and their abilities and also the various audio cues such as the sharp gasp that your character emits when they are badly wounded or the distinctive battle cry that they call out when they unleash an ultimate ability. The end result is that everything seems to make sense when things go very right or very wrong rather than you sitting there confused as to what just happened and as a result a player is able to learn the game organically simply from playing matches and encountering new situations.

With a fresh and appealing new IP, Blizzard is poised for another knockout hit. Blizzard has never failed to prove that they can do anything that they want and make it work, and Overwatch is no exception. If you weren’t fortunate enough to make it into the beta period, definitely keep an eye out for this title’s official launch in 2016.





Street Fighter V Beta Impressions Pt. 1

27 07 2015

It’s been everything but smooth sailing for the turbulent opening days of the Street Fighter V Beta, but I was able to log enough time to make a few observations and make a few impressions as I familiarize myself with the game. Keep in mind that as this is an ongoing beta, anything I mention could change, even between beta events.

I’ll start with a few general/system notes and then move on to the characters I studied.

Higher damage/Lower health

One very noticeable difference is the much lower health compared to previous Street Fighter installments that makes the field of play much more lethal. It’s not unusual for meterless bread-and-butter combos to take off 25% health or more, and landing a combo with full super meter can easily lop off 50% or more of the victim’s life bar. Risky plays have a much higher payoff but are equally more punishing for a failed attempt. This obviously makes the rounds go by more quickly but also makes each moment-to-moment decision during play more meaningful; each gamble and opening becomes a much bigger investment for the combatants and I found myself more intensely focused as a result to find those opportunities. Another factor of this change means that there is greater comeback potential, and the matches are more tense and exciting as a result.

Safe, defensive play is more difficult

One of the resounding criticisms of Street Fighter IV was there were numerous ways to neutralize risk and get out of dangerous situations which became a cornerstone of high level play. In Street Fighter V many of these factors have been removed. For one, there is no mechanic that allows fighters to cancel their moves to remove the commitment to those attacks, for example using Focus Attack Dash-Cancel to cancel a shoryuken in SFIV, which means that each and every time you use such a move you commit to the potential consequence of the move missing its mark. Backdashing has no invulnerability (although you still count as being airborne and therefore cannot be thrown) so it is no longer a constant get-out-of-jail-free card that can be used to escape situations over and over. “Option select” defensive techniques such as crouch-throw-teching has similarly been removed purposely to further trim out go-to defensive techniques that cover a wide variety of things the opponent might try when they have you cornered. Finally, even simply blocking has the disadvantage of taking chip damage from normal attacks, although the damage taken in this way is recoverable over time as long as your opponent doesn’t land a successful hit.

Meter management is more important

The super meter is now only divided into 3 subdivisions down from 4 in the previous iteration. As a result you have less resources to throw out EX moves generously and you have to make important decisions quickly as to whether it’s worth burning some bar to use such a move, especially given the huge damage potential of landing a Critical Art and also being mindful of the opponent’s comeback potential if you don’t tack on that little bit of extra damage to close out a round.

Easier execution raises the bar instead of lowering it

One of the most notable differences is that in general the inputs for performing damaging combos and some special moves have been made more lenient in an effort to make the game more accessible. In SFIV there were important combos that required 1/60th of a second timing in order to perform, while in SFV these “link” combos have been made more lenient on their input timing. While at first glance this would appear to be a move to cater to beginners and make the game more approachable to the novice, it also sets a certain precedent that mastery of these techniques is a basic demand of the competent player. Dropping your combo or flubbing your special move is now a much more fatal mistake, since you have to assume that the opponent is less likely to make the same error when the opportunity arises.

Ryu

-MP one of his best buttons

Ryu players will find themselves using his MP button much more than in any other iteration. The reach of this move is noticably further, and it can link into itself for hit-confirms and is the starter for his target combo MP HP HK, as well as being cancelable making this one of his most useful poking and footsie tools. Similar to previous games if you land an air-to-air MP, you can follow up with an EX special move or even a Critical Art upon landing.

-Denjin mode incredibly threatening

Ryu’s V-trigger makes him tremendously dangerous by giving him access to the Raidou Hadouken. When in Denjin mode, fireballs can be charged up by holding down the button to give them guard-breaking properties at maximum charge, making his fireball gameplay a huge threat. While the opponent is unlikely to let you land a full-charged fireball from the neutral game, the EX fireball charges up significantly faster, try canceling into it when the opponent is scared for a possible setup. Upon a successful guard-break, use forward HP to lunge in and follow up with MP into his target combo or anything else for staggering damage.

-Fireball zoning less effective

Hadoukens are still an integral part of Ryu’s gameplan but you must be much more mindful about tossing them out. The characters have various tools spread amongst them such as Bison and Nash’s V-skills specifically to counter fireballs, and the higher damage of the game also makes a good read by the opponent hurt a lot more if they catch you throwing a hadouken when you shouldn’t have. Furthermore, even the time-old crouching MK, hadouken string is punishable on block at certain ranges by certain characters.

-Hit confirms important to see if opponent is crouching

Many of Ryu’s combos that use the target combo string will whiff on the final HK if the opponent was crouching when they were hit. If you know the opponent is crouching, try throwing in a crouching HP which will force them to stand, then cancel into a special move/critical art.

-Don’t try to abuse parry

Ryu’s V-skill Mind’s Eye closely emulates the Third Strike parry system, but don’t be tempted to overuse it. The main fatal flaw is that there is a whiff animation if the parry doesn’t catch anything, potentially causing you to eat a counter-hit. Also note that you can’t parry while airborne.

-MP shoryuken invincibility

A very key thing to know is that currently the MP version of Ryu’s shoryuken sports the most invulnerable frames. Outside of combos, the MP shoryuken should be your default when fishing for reversals or to stuff an obvious attack attempt.

Birdie

-Not really a grapple character, well rounded toolset

Birdie is currently the only character with a command grab, but landing his command grab is not the centerpiece of his gameplan like it is with more traditional grapplers like Zangief. Instead, Birdie has a well rounded selection of moves to make him threatening in a variety of situations. Most of his reliable damage comes from landing simple heavy-hitting attack strings rather than his special grab.

-MP HCF+MP is your go-to punish

Birdie’s standing MP is an incredible move. It has lengthy reach and is special cancelable. Cancel into the MP Bull Head for easy 20% damage when the opponent does something unsafe.

-Jumping MP crossup, MK air to ground, HP for jump-in

Birdie has several aerial moves that are useful in different situations. MP is the closest thing he has to a body splash type attack which is crossup-capable but the hitbox doesn’t last long. You must hit with the jumping MP close to the ground in order to go into a combo. Jumping MK has a steep angle and good range making it a great air-to-ground attack. If you know the opponent is open, jumping HP is your best bet for a combo starter due to its good damage and big hit-stun.

-Armored moves

Notable in Birdie’s arsenal are some moves that have hit-absorbing properties to discourage incessant attackers. Forward HP seems to have armor when holding down the button. His variations of Bull Head also gain armor when in V-trigger.

-HP and cr. MK for footsie bullying

Birdie has exceptional range on his normal moves and he can stay at a position where he can threaten with his long reach while being out of range of the opponent’s normals. Try using standing HP and both standing and crouching MK to tag the opponent just out of the reach of their normals.

-V-skill necessary to reliably get V-trigger

Birdie has a 3-stock V-gauge meaning it takes longer to fill than other characters. Look for opporunities to use his V-skill to build the gauge in order to unleash his overpowering V-trigger mode.





Battlefield 4 Beta Impressions

16 10 2013

Battlefield 4 is set to go live by the end of October but the beta has been running for about 2 weeks now, having just concluded last night. I got some extensive playtime in and have a few observations, comparisons, and comments on the new entry into the Battlefield series.

Overall match pacing and flow

Although they only were featuring the Shanghai map for the limited Beta, it was a very strong showing for the dynamics of map control and large scale battles to look forward to in BF4. The map seems to have been sized just right; big enough that there was a feel of scale and grandeur and multiple avenues of approach to every objective of the map but also small enough that players can relocate and engage even as infantry on foot. A major change is the increased emphasis on the vertical space on the map, namely high-rises and skyscrapers that provide excellent vision and movement advantages when controlled by a coordinated squad. A new game mode “Obliteration” was introduced which is very similar to one-flag-CTF, where there is a neutral bomb and multiple bomb sites on each team’s “side” of the map. The layout and design was such that players were always in on the action, but also had many different angles of attack to exploit.

The destructible environment was not as extensively integrated as I had expected; it is more or less on par with that of BF3 in that there are certain environmental objects that can be destroyed, and structures can collapse but they are treated as events that occur rather than emergent/procedural breakdown due to structural damage. The massive skyscraper crashing down into the middle of the level is an impressive spectacle, but it collapses in the same canned way every single time.

If there is one complaint that I have it is to the changes in the melee knife system: a single hit will still kill an opponent approached from behind with a satisfying grab-n-stab animation, but if you attempt to use this from an opponents front, they have an opportunity to perform a reversal which will kill you instantly instead. This reversal consists of a one-key prompt and seems exceedingly easy to do; not a single time that I tried to initiate a knife move to an opponent’s front resulted in me killing them, the tables were turned 100 percent of the time. This feature needs to be reconsidered and polished.

Class changes, rebalancing and unlock progression

The same 4 core classes that were in BF3 make their return in BF4, but with a few notable differences that change the dynamic of play. The assault class’s defibrillator has been toned down; it now has a finite amount of uses per spawn and it is an unlock, albeit an early unlock. The assault class’s weaponry seems to have been improved as a tradeoff with some of the best firepower available, especially the SCAR-H assault rifle. The engineer class remains highly useful and effective, featuring an improvement to the basic RPG that allows it to lock on and home on enemy vehicles when it is laser designated by another device. The support class had perhaps one of the most substantial improvements of all in the form of a new default gadget the XM25 Airburst-grenade launcher. This clip-fed semi-automatic launcher can set a distance to explode via its scope mechanism that lets the airbursts damage targets behind cover or out of sight behind ledges, and is a very effective tool for flushing opponents out of cover. Additionally, the XM25 can deal moderate damage to vehicles if an entire clip is expended to hit the vehicle with direct shots. The recon class had a few substantial changes, namely that they are now able to carry C4 as a gadget as in BF2, making them once again able to deal with vehicles effectively, and also featuring variable-zoom scopes as early unlocks on their sniper rifles. Additionally, sniper rifle scopes can now be “zeroed” to compensate for the dropoff when shooting across extreme distances.

Given that all classes now have an effective method to combat vehicles, infantry is much more relevant during BF4 matches which is a refreshing adjustment. There is no longer a feeling of complete helplessness when an enemy tank smashes through a nearby wall raining machine gun fire. This is not to say that vehicles are less effective or valuable, but simply that they must be used more carefully and rely on infantry support as well.

Each class also has a weapon category unlock which enables all other classes to use that class of weapons once it is obtained. For example, the engineer class unlocks carbines which can then be used with any class thereafter, opening up the interesting tactical possibilities in loadouts. A support class with a DMR? An assault class with a semi-auto shotgun? There will undoubtedly be many interesting combinations to explore when the full game launches.

Matchmaking system

One small but immensely helpful inclusion is a feature that automatically tries to put you together in a squad with your friend when it detects that you have joined a server with a registered Battlelog friend. In the past it was a huge headache to even attempt to get on the same team as another friend in the same server due to arbitrary autobalancing, but in the BF4 Beta there was not a single match where I was forced to wait to join into my friend’s squad; rather every single time we played the game automatically saw to it that we would be placed in the same squad upon connecting to the match! While this may give rise to the occasional team imbalance, it is an incredible convenience and a huge boost to the experience of the game considering that BF has always been best when playing with your friends in a squad.

Battlefield 4 is looking to be a real winner when it comes out in late October. I am very intrigued to see the variety of maps and weaponry that will be included in the full game and look forward to being able to connect, play, and dominate alongside my squadmates more easily than ever before.





Thoughts on the Starcraft 2 Beta

12 05 2010

I have been playing the long awaited Starcraft 2 beta for several weeks now and there are a lot of thoughts that I had about it. It seems like the amount of available units has been kept in line with the predecessor; it feels as though they have taken out just as much as they have put in. As a Zerg player, the omission of the Lurker units was thoroughly felt. Several of the returning units bring new aspects to the table or are used in a different fashion. Hydralisks, for instance, are no longer able to be massed in great numbers as an early force staple because they cost considerably more and are available later down the build order. The fact that Overlords are not able to detect cloaked units initially is also jarring. Many of the new units and mechanics bring interesting, fresh facets to the table, like Roaches that can move while burrowed and Infestors that are able to mind-control enemy units. The most welcomed change in my opinion is the overhaul to the basic functionality of the gameplay. Taking many ques from the RTS games that have come out between the original and now, rally points and unit selection are done in a much more user-friendly and intuitive manner.

All in all Blizzard seems to have done a fine job in keeping the game true to its roots. It still feels very much like “Starcraft,” but maybe that’s not worth as much as it seems. It feels comfortable and familiar but there’s nothing that truly pushes the boundaries and makes it into something innovative, clinging instead to the beaten path. It certainly wont stop the millions of fans, myself included, from jumping onto Battle.net come July 27th. Live for the Swarm!