Friday, June 13, 2014

Byte: The problem with Elite: Dangerous (at least for now)

At the beginning of the month I topped up my pre-order for Elite: Dangerous, to get myself onto the Premium Beta, utterly convinced by the great Scott Manley's videos that this was a game that I really wanted to play RIGHT NOW. And I was right. Considering that Elite: Dangerous is still a very rough beta, it's a massively impressive game, and I'll get onto why later. But Elite: Dangerous has a problem. Actually, at the moment, about 10,000 problems. And those are the other players. Let me explain.

Currently, there are only five playable star systems out of an ultimate potential in the finished game of 400 billion, yes, FOUR HUNDRED BILLION... That's a 4, followed by 11 (count 'em!) zeros. Five star systems isn't a lot of room for 10,000 players, even if they are divided up over a few separate test servers. The problem can be surmised thus: people are jerks. Especially the people who have the mindset "There's another player! I must kill them!". Player-killers, and really utterly jerky player-killers, like Commander Phoenix, who cost me over 6000 credits last night in lost cargo and equipment (FUCK YOU, Commander Phoenix, FUCK YOU VERY MUCH) after ambushing my Sidewinder in the no-fire zone of a Coriolis station with a much better armed and equipped Eagle fighter, completely ruin any kind of massively multiplayer experience, where there is little chance of the jerks having their asses handed to them by even bigger jerks. PvP between players of similar equipment levels and ships is fine by me, as it's fair. But unrestricted, open-world ganking by players is a really jerky thing to do, especially in a game like Elite: Dangerous, where the penalties for death are actually pretty high. That little 30 second encounter last night cost me a good three to four hours of play time's progress. I now have less money than a brand new player in a fresh ship. And that sucks. The only reason I'm not resetting my save is because I've got over 30 kills logged on my commander, and I don't want to lose them.

Now, I understand the counter-argument. I bet some people reading this are undoubtedly thinking "Think that's bad? Try EVE Online, n00b". Well, 'n00b', I have. And I didn't enjoy that much, either. Look, I get it. It's a galactic, capitalist, free-market economy; it's supposed to be brutal. In the real world, might makes right, and so on. Man up, and fucking deal with it... But, that's just not the experience I want playing Elite. I have very limited gaming time, thanks to my job. And when I game, I want to have fun, and make demonstrable progress. It's one of the reasons I love Diablo III and World of Warcraft so much. They're very easy to dip in and out of for short periods of time, yet still make quantifiable progress. They're a rewarding game experience. But playing in a persistent world, where just one sociopath (teenage or otherwise) who's massively better equipped than you are, simply through ploughing more hours than you have available into the game, utterly wrecking any sense of progression you've made and setting you back by a couple of night's gaming time is simply not fun. It's actually hugely demotivating and makes me want to play the game less. Which is not what I want, because I want to LOVE Elite: Dangerous.

While the gaming universe is so small-scale restricted, I have absolutely now have no motivation to fly in anything other than a stock Sidewinder I can replace (using the EVE-like ship insurance system) for free. Because if you do speculate to accumulate (as one of my old poker-playing punters at Napoleons liked to say, with annoying frequency), either by trading or frequenting the conflict zones, there's a decent chance some wanker in a better ship than you will PK you for no reason other than shits and giggles, when you've got no real chance of evading or fighting them. Which, in my book, is akin to bullying, and I can't fucking abide bullies. And I've got better uses for my gaming time than providing entertainment for budding sociopaths who get their kicks out of ruining other people's fun. (Which is the main reason why I avoid online shooters like the plague - seriously, guys, get a more productive hobby...) AI jerks (read: pirates) are more acceptable within the game, because, well, they're programmed that way. But human jerks, who are just jerky for the sake of being jerky; or even worse, who are jerky because they get a kick out of being a dick and actively disadvantaging other players who have spent good money to play the game - they can just fuck off. Seriously. To (mis?)quote the magnificently crude Malcolm Tucker; fuck the fuck off.

Perhaps as more star systems come online as the game develops, the Universal Jerk Density will decrease to the point where this will become less of an issue, but I imagine in the immediate days following the release of the full game, there will still be issues with PvP ganking, since it appears (at least so far) that the game isn't set up to prevent it, even in so-called protected zones. I can see myself grinding the Eranin Federation Distress Call conflict zone for the next few weeks in a stock, vanilla Sidewinder with a single crappy pulse laser for the next couple of weeks until I earn the credits to jump straight into a Cobra Mark III (and be able to afford the insurance to replace it, if some fucking jerk in an Anaconda ganks it). All of which doesn't sound like nearly the amount of fun I'd have with the game if I didn't have to worry about being PK'd.

You see, Elite, Frontier and First Encounters were single-player PvE experiences. And they were all the better for it. Sure, at times they were still fundamentally unfair, say if they gave you a random encounter against 3 Harris fighters when you were flying a 1MW pulse laser equipped Osprey, for example, but at least in a single player environment you aren't permanently disadvantaged for a single, fleeting random encounter. So at least I am reassured that you will have the option to fly solo in the universe in the final version of Elite: Dangerous. Virtual, AI jerks and pirates I can accept and deal with, but I'd rather not play to provide a source of entertainment for real, actual jerks. That's not the kind of behaviour that I like to reward and encourage...

Though please don't read this post and think "Oh man, Elite: Dangerous is horrible and crap - no way I'm buying that...", because even though I'm having a bit of a moan here, that's not the whole story.

When this game is finished, and I'm going to call this here and now, Elite: Dangerous will be Game Of The Year. No question. Yes, it's barely out of Alpha; yes, the netcode is a bit shonky and laggy; and yes, the game seemingly crashes at the drop of a hat (or a pitifully weak sneeze in its general direction), but even so, the potential is there for this game to easily repeat the success of its 8-bit progenitor, if not surpass it.

As you can see from the screenshots, graphically, the game is spot on ("Right on, Commander!"), and the ship flight model pleasingly combines the original's aeronautical-style dogfighting with a simplified version of Frontier's Newtonian mechanics very well indeed. The sound design of the game is also excellent. I could go all Physics-teacher-y on you and moan about how you shouldn't hear any external sounds in space, but game design isn't just about realism; it's also about giving quality feedback to the player to get them interacting with the game on a more meaningful level - and this is something that Elite: Dangerous does beautifully well.

Also pleasing is the level of complexity in the commodities trading system, ship upgrade options and the social and political depth of the game universe. This is going to be a galaxy riven by disparate factional conflicts, as the Federation, Empire and Independents try and carve out their own little fiefdoms in the wider galaxy. Hopefully, in its final form, Elite: Dangerous will replicate the features in Frontier and First Encounters, where you can take on military missions for each of the factions, essentially choosing sides in the wider galactic conflict. In short, Elite: Dangerous has the potential to be everything that I'd want from a current-gen update of the original Elite.

You've got nice graphics, a flight model that adds a tactical depth to the ship-to-ship combat, great sound design, a neat solution to the distance problem between the hyperspace jump points and the trading stations that works in a single-player and mulitplayer environment('frameshift' drive, which is a nice homage to the original Elite's jump drive), a decent amount of complexity in the trading and ship upgrade mechanics, and space combat that matches (and even surpasses) anything you'd get from the X-Wing or Freespace series. When all the extra features promised in the Kickstarter start to feed into the game (such as planetary landings, as so on) start to really build up the possibilities of what you can do within the game, Elite: Dangerous is going to be utterly phenomenal. And if the original Elite is anything to go by, I won't need to buy another videogame for another five years. Because that's how long it will take me to exhaust all the potential content of Elite: Dangerous and its expansions.

A lot of people initially criticised David Braben and Frontier for being vague about what Elite: Dangerous was going to deliver, when they posted the Kickstarter, all the way back in the winter of 2012. Now, as the game moves towards its standard beta phase, it appears that all hype is totally justified, even if the game itself, in its multiplayer form, isn't without problems. I'm confident that Frontier will be able to iron out the problems with the netcode that occasionally result in player ships glitching into the hulls of Coriolis stations in massive explosions. And I'm also confident that they will be able to find a good balance between singleplayer and multiplayer versions of their playable galaxy. There's still a long way to go before Elite: Dangerous is a finished, polished product, but (jerky PKers aside), it's already the best space sim I've played since Frontier - and that's just with a restricted galaxy of five solar systems to play with. The mind boggles as to what the game will be like once they open up the whole Milky Way for us to play with. It may have been nearly 20 years since the last release in the Elite franchise, but, oh my, the wait really has been worth it.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Bark/Byte: Holidaying against the dying light

Well, what a week that was. Not terribly productive, in any sense. I failed to finish rewriting my second draft of my space opera novel, didn't really do any work at all (either for work or for my burgeoning pottery enterprise), and this week, humanity really showed just how backwards-looking it can be in its politics and the way it treats women as second-class citizens in just about every respect imaginable.
Even this promo image for the latest in a tedious string of multiplayer survival horror games earned my ire this week:
Nice, huh? It's practically screaming "violence against women is okay, kids!", even if that's not the intention - it's normalising the image of a faceless, partially mutilated, dead woman. Not the kind of thing I want to see when I load up Steam, thanks very much. So, developers, you're not getting any of my money, well... ever.
So, with this being my final evening before returning to the chalkface tomorrow, I've been trying to stave off my own depression against the human race by looking to the future... by looking backwards. Okay, WTF brain? Why do you do this to me?
This week, I have, in the absence of anything approaching self-discipline, ploughed far too many hours into Diablo III: Reaper of Souls, completing it with my Demon Hunter, Barbarian and Wizard, before putting some serious levels onto my Crusader. It's fairly mindless, old school gaming, though nicely polished and fiendishly addictive (if you'll forgive the pun, given that the game's all about killing demons - and fallen angels). Lately, though, I've been wanting to play something just that little bit deeper, and since everyone else seems to be propelling themselves back to the values that were normal in the mid-1980's, earlier today, I decided to go the extra few quid to buy myself into the Premium Beta for Elite: Dangerous, since the original Elite on the ZX Spectrum was the one game that got me through my teenage years.
Now, I could have waited. I was already on the second-string beta access, because I'd backed the project last year when it got Kickstarted, but I was feeling down enough this afternoon to spend the extra few quid since a) I have absolutely zero interest in buying any other game due out this year, and b) the videos the redoubtable Scott Manley (my hero, incidentally!) has been posting really sealed the deal for me: it looks FUCKING EPIC. And I'm about to find out just how epic it is, since it's just finished installing... So I would blog a little bit more about my middle-class, liberal, intellectual angst, but... SCREW YOU GUYS, I HAVE A FAULCON DELACY SIDEWINDER TO FLY!