Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Guild Wars 2: The Bad

As mentioned at the end of last post, not all is well in Tyria. Here's some of the not so good stuff.

Poor Instruction
Guild Wars 2 (much like most MMOs) does a lousy job of teaching you how to play. This is not helped by the fact that things change rather frequently. It is not immediately obvious that you don't need to grind to level crafting or that you shouldn't be grinding at all in PvE. It is especially bad about running out of content in the newbie zone. Sure, you can hop over to your nearby racial capital, hit up another newbie zone and have at it (the game even downlevels you to make it more appropriate--not that they tell you that) but if you're new to the game you don't really know that, do you? Anecdotally, my co-workers (and it bears repeating that these are professional game developers) said they couldn't figure out what to do after level 8 or so.

A case in point is the combo system which is super important.  One triggers them by using a "finisher" ability in the presence of a "field" ability. Most classes (professions in GW2) have one or the other typically in great number to only very rarely will they have both. What usually happens is you fire off an ability that does something you want (like shoot at the baddie) and it does something far away like apply burning. At some point you might notice that there's a little combo popup but it's often lost in the effects soup that drowns most encounters. At launch this was especially bad because many of the skill tooltips were broken so you didn't even necessarily know which of your abilities did fields/finishers even if you did know how to make combos work. As a big part of the depth of the game, I would have expected this to be better explained--really, explained at all.

Char 4tw!
Which Rule Set Is This?
SPvP has its own stats, its own specs, and its own rules. This is already rough enough especially for those who only dabble in it which is most people who play if they dabble at all. "Wait, my heal used to go off for 6K, here it's only 4K, what gives?" Oh right, healing is nerfed only in SPvP. "Why can't I get my favorite gear in SPvP?" Oh right, SPvP doesn't have access to all the PvE gear, sorry. Even more confusingly, WvW, which is ostensibly a PvP game mode, uses PvE gear and PvE rules. It's actually not even that easy--it uses some of the PvE rules and abilities but not all of them.  Items usable from your inventory don't work in WvW, mostly because there were some extremely ridiculous items, but if you're not a WvWer this wouldn't be clear at all.

One aspect of being a mostly PvE mode is especially bad when in WvW:  when you die you have to pay a repair cost! There have been times that I couldn't afford to participate in WvW because I was too broke from repairing my gear. Why have they done that? If you wanted to promote large scale battles, wouldn't you want to reduce the already high friction of entering a PvP arena?  Wouldn't you also want your WvW to use the SPvP rules set which is better balanced for competitive play?

To make matters even worse for the game mode I spend the most time in, WvW is starting to get its own exclusive things not available in other game modes.  Some of this is good--people like progression of any kind, but let's remember that WvW is ostensibly a PvP type of game mode.  Progression in WvW is now extremely vertical and not only that it is extremely time dependent.  To get the highest levels of the things that matter requires a huge investment in time (note:  not skill) and most of that investment is sub-par until you get to the last level.  So we end up with the worst of WoW's original PvP ranking system:  those who play more, even if they aren't any good, get the best rewards.  It's actually even worse than that which we'll get into in the next inevitable installment.

Questionable Balance
This is unfortunately a complex subject to begin with and GW2 does its best to complicate it even further. We've already established that the rules are different between modes of play so already not good. I'm sure they have reasons, but when healing is nerfed 50% in SPvP but not in other modes of the game, one wonders what measuring stick they're using to determine which things are too powerful. These questions become even harder to answer when you consider a couple examples.

Case #1: thief burst. D/D thief revolves around getting large bursts of damage from stealth and goes a little something like this. You want to open with Steal which is a very long distance instantaneous teleport which can be specced to do a chunk of damage.  Cloak & Dagger is a melee-range skill that does a chunk of damage and puts the thief into stealth but has a less than a second windup before it hits. Clever thieves realized that once you were in range you could wind up Cloak & Dagger and immediately hit Steal and land both putting you into stealth and then immediately backstabbing the target.

Hardcore is thiefing in the cold in a bath towel.
Typical numbers for me on a non-tanky target were 3K for mug, 4K for C&D, and 6K for backstab.  Most non-tanky targets only have around 15K hitpoints.  So within the span of a second, the target is either down or really, really unhappy.  In the latter case, it's almost trivially easy to start spamming dagger 2, the hated Heartseeker which is a leap finisher, a gap closer, and an attack rolled into one which does up to 100% more damage if the target is low on health which it probably is because a thief's initial burst is so large.  Mine were good for 5K to 8K crits.  We don't even need Executioner which says it provides 20% more damage if the target is under 50% health which actually doubles or more.  Not what you expected from +20%?  Me neither.  For added deviousness you can use an elite skill that stuns the target for a couple seconds and you can use it to open most every fight.

While it didn't happen often, and I thiefed after orbs were taken out and thieves had already been nerfed to prevent this exact thing, I would regularly down level 80 targets with Mug+C&D+Backstab within half a second. Fun? The designers said this was OK because "there was some play in the combo". I have no idea what that means. While there have been some burst nerfs, a lot of the class was buffed while I was playing.  Now when I thief with my spiffy ascended dagger and a better tuned spec, I backstab for 8K even without executioner.  In the unlikely world where I can also get 100 more power from Guard Leech plus some glassier spec/gear tunes, I can only imagine how ridiculous things could be.

It does not matter how balanced this burst is against anything else you care to measure it against.  It doesn't feel fair and that's why the official boards are alight with "nerf thieves!" posts.  We'll talk about this more in the next installment.

Case #2: movement skills and we'll consider elementalists and warriors. D/D ele is mostly melee range.  Knowing this, the designers have provided three gap closers:  Ride the Lighting (air 4), Buring Speed (fire 3), and Magnetic Grasp (earth 3).  RtL moves very fast up to 1200 range and does a small amount of damage to the target.  CC, especially roots, sloping terrain, and marshmallows placed in an ele's path thwart this ability terribly.  When I started D/D if you went down a slope, it would trigger the falling damage and kill you.  This is exactly what you want in a gap closer, right?  Burning Speed is much the same thing except a) it works, b) it leaves a trail of fire (field, actually), does a lot more damage, and has a much shorter range (600).  Magnetic Grasp is interesting because it pulls the ele to the target (range 900 as a leap finisher--told you combos were important) now that they've fixed it to actually work.

Switching gears, one of a warrior's formidable arsenal is the greatsword as one might expect.  Whirlwind Attack (GS 3) spins this giant meat cleaver of a blade like an olympic hammer toss windup, does a pile of damage, and propels the warrior 450 units ahead.  Rush (GS 5) sends the warrior charging 1200 units ahead and does a pile of damage.  These sound a lot like Burning Speed and Ride the Lighting.  One of the other weapon combos sword/warhorn which a lot of warriors run irregardless of its actual usefulness (another discussion entirely).  Sword's Savage Leap (sword 3) has an 8s cooldown, does a pile of damage, cripples the target if it hits, is a leap finisher, and moves for 600 units.

Looking at these two on paper it seems to be reasonably well balanced.  Warriors can spec to get out of roots/snares on movement attacks so they aren't stuck with warhorn for mobility builds.  Elementalists can swap to water with the right spec to usually get out of the same predicament.  Forget for the moment that warriors automatically have 1.8x the hitpoints and around 10% more armor off the bat because here comes the fun stuff.

Once a lot of the launch bugs were fixed (and there were a lot of them), elementalists started having some success.  The result of that success is that just about every single balancing pass thereafter, elementalists were nerfed in some way, some of which were needed but many seemed to pander to the "nerf elementalists!" crowd.  RtL was nerfed four times:  first the range (1500 to 1200), then the cooldown (15s to 20s), then the cooldown again (20s to 30s) and then finally the cooldown again (back to 20s but up to 40s if you don't connect with anything).  This was done (apparently) because "too many" elementalists could reset a fight by RtL out of dodge, get out of combat, then come back to finish the job.  On the warrior side, there's no penalty if Rush doesn't hit a target, it's never killed a warrior by Rushing down a slope, and it's never gotten nerfed.  No one can catch a GS/sword warrior that's getting out of dodge.  They can reset the fight almost at will with a very high chance of success.  This is part of the reason you will almost never encounter a D/D elementalist in WvW but it is not uncommon to see entire groups composed of warriors.

Even if all other aspects of these two professions were in perfect balance (which they aren't) this would always have caused consternation amongst one camp and ridicule from the other.  The kicker?  This is one of about a dozen such examples that can trivially be given. I don't recall having ever seen a game that claims to support competitive play that fails the eyeball test so frequently or so badly in my many decades of gaming.

Questionable Encounter Design
I like well designed encounters; it's my souvenir from WoW. Guild Wars 2 for the most part does not have well designed encounters.  Once I realized this I started to avoid PvE because it was a point of extreme frustration so I have not seen the inside of most of the instances.  There are two parts that I think contributed to this.  Disclaimer:  if you are PvE aficionado, your mileage will almost certainly vary but as a serious PvPer it drove me nuts.

Most scripted encounters involve a boss, some adds, or a "don't stand in the fire" mechanic.  Occasionally you get a couple of each in different phases.  Not standing in the fire should hopefully go without saying but the damage between encounters for standing in the wrong place ranges from "this circle?  it's not even warm" to "Hellfire of Instant Death (TM)".  It is entirely that random, so unless you know the encounter and religiously read the cryptic patch notes you don't really know what to expect.  Standing in the fire isn't rocket science so minus some dodgy placement and timing issues this is just annoying until you're tagged by one of the "instant death" ones at which point it's maddening.

Adds mostly suffer from the same problems.  Most of the adds you'll get are mooks as you'd expect but occasionally you'll get an add that is vastly more powerful and dangerous.  So again we're in the situation that if you don't know the encounter you don't know to watch out for the Uber-hench and in the middle of the fight you're eating dirt and wondering if anyone got the number of the truck that just ran you over.  Not good.

The really rage-inducing stuff is with bosses.  Most of the boss mechanics are exactly the same:  learn the tell and time your dodge or get downed.  Granted, the downed state in GW2 isn't nearly as bad as being downed (killed) in most MMOs but with healing as comparatively limited as it is and with so many buffs being lost on down, it can be extremely detrimental.  The vast majority of boss tells prior to an attack I've seen are instant death situations even if you're a level 80 beeftank.  In my opinion this is a cardinal design sin:  teaching the player through death.  It's the 21st century--we live in the future for crying out loud--we can do better than this.  Hit 'A' or die is what design hacks do to make themselves feel big and a rookie mistake that doesn't belong in modern gaming.

You hit the first instance, the Ascalonian Catacombs, at level 30.  It's filled with ghosts and some interesting back story.  I have never heard of a level appropriate group completing the instance on story mode on their first try, let alone exploration (hard) mode at 35.  I went in there with people who have been MMOing for as long as there have been MMOs and we wiped repeatedly.  Everyone I've talked to has had the same experience--they walked into the instance expecting to be challenged and gave up hours later with broken gear and empty pockets.  This is not the experience you want to give to players trying your group content for the first time.

Every instance I tried went the same way.  Learn the tell or die.  Even the trash was like this!  It amazed me that every new encounter was my new least favorite encounter.  It was maddening.  You go from nigh unto godlike in the rest of the world to "fleas kill me" in the instances.  This is in a game with no real tanks and no real healers.  It's great when you get it right and endlessly frustrating when you don't.  This leads to some very interesting player behavior.  I'm not convinced that no one likes to play support (mostly because I do) but because most of the encounters are so unbelievably brutal so much of the time, the vast majority of the player base always plays glass cannon builds to the exclusion of everything else.  Why?  The encounters are shorter so there's a better chance that they win because they have fewer opportunities to miss key dodges and it's not like it matters if they're tanky anyway--they're still downed in one.  As we'll discuss in the next section, this is not entirely healthy for the game.

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