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9:13 AM on 07.19.2010

MAG and the Power of Double XP

A new Double XP promotion in MAG aims to fix some long queuing times. Will it work?

6 months into MAG, many people have pretty much settled into the game mode that they want to play. Valor player mostly stick to Sabotage and to a lesser extent Domination, Raven players stick to Acquisition and Domination, and SVER with Domination (good thing everyone plays 256 player Domination) and basically also stays away from Acquisition. This makes the wait times for Acquisition and the new DLC mode Interdiction much longer than those of the other modes.

Was it Call of Duty: Modern Warfare? I can't remember. I do know that Modern Warfare was the first major game to implement a perks / killstreaks / rewards system to keep people playing months after months on end after the game's initial release. Who'd have thought a carrot on a stick would be so powerful? You know what would make it even more powerful?

A carrot on a shorter stick.

Or in non-metaphorically terms, in this case, Double XP. A simple, yet again, very powerful way of getting players back in your game, and with the high player requirements for many of the modes in MAG, Zipper Interactive was smart enough to allow for the possibility of Double XP promotional periods in their massive action game. On such occasions, player counts jump, queue waiting times drop, players level up faster and everybody wins.

Especially SVER. They win a lot. Anyways...

Last week marked the beginning of a new kind of Double XP promotion for MAG. Instead of awarding more points to anyone in any game, this one rewards players for picking Directives at the game type selection menu, an option which essentially places a player into whatever game mode most urgently need more players to keep wait times to a minimum.* At this point, Zipper has said that the promo period will go on indefinitely.

To my knowledge, this is the first time Double XP incentives are being used to actually re-balance a game. In the case of MAG, more players of a given faction in any given game mode tends to mean more Shadow War victories for that faction. This promo looks to level that field a bit. It's a interesting idea.

If this is what I think it is, it's pretty clever. Double XP brings in more players, and only offering it to those players who allow themselves to be automatically placed in queues shortens wait times for every game mode. Also, it encourages players to try the different game mode or give them second chances, if perhaps, someone had a bad experience in a certain game type in the past. For me, it's even gotten me to thing more carefully about each of my five loadout slots and try different equipment and weapons to be better prepared for the various game types I might find myself in.

It's a bit early to tell whether or not Zipper's "experiment" will work. I've seen that many people are not yet aware that the promotion even exists. Other times, I have noticed that my scores in these randomly selected game types are lower than what I would be getting in my game type of choice, even with the Double XP, so the change in playing habits may not benefit all players.

Still, I am interested in seeing where this carrot might take us, and I am very interested in seeing what lures game developers come up with next.

Maybe shrimp wrapped in bacon on a stick. Mmmmm...

* I think.   read

11:46 AM on 06.12.2010

Tranformers: War for Cybertron Hands-On

Whoa. So that’s where all the hype for Transformers: War for Cybertron is coming from. The game is actually pretty fun, pretty cool.

A multiplayer demo for the upcoming game from High Moon Studios, Activision, and Hasbro was posted on XBOX Live today so I took it for a spin. The first thing I noticed was this incredibly detailed 3D render of the planet of Cybertron. Breathtaking. In fact, for those of us who are particular about game user interfaces, Transformers is quite a treat. Perhaps not on the level of menus in Dirt and the like, every aspect of the game’s menus, the typefaces, the shape of the buttons, the colors for each element, the animated transitions, all fit well with the Transformers property. It looks really nice, especially compared to the incredibly sparse menu’s of Modern Warfare 2.

Yes, MW2, you can not escape your crappy menus. So bland, so outdated. How many more games do you intend to use the exact same UI in?

Speaking of MW2, Activision seems to be confident that they’ve found the Holy Grail of addictive, online, multiplayer gaming. As with Blur, the “get kills, do challenges, unlock new weapons, loadouts, perks, killstreaks” formula made popular by COD: Modern Warfare is present on Cybertron. Whether you like this or not is a matter of tastes, but as the game features alien robots (Transformers are aliens, right?) instead of regular soldier people, the equip-able abilities and “perks” can be a lot crazier than things like more health or faster reloads. Personally, half the fun of this type of system is getting to try out new abilities every few levels, so the crazier and more varied they are the better.

There are four different classes available to choose from in Transformers multiplayer, two of which, soldier and scout, are in the demo. Each has two slots for abilities unique to each class, mapped to the bumper buttons, two weapon slots for primary and secondary weapons, and three slots for “perks, “ or Upgrades as they are called in this case, which are also unique to each class and in general do things to augment the role that class plays on the battlefield. So scouts get upgrades like increased cloaking times or damage and armor bonuses when coming out of cloak.

Yep, cloaking. And there’s a hammer-throw-like whirlwind melee attack ability too. It’s abilities like these that really make Transformers play differently than other games of this type. In all honesty, without the abilities, Transformers would basically be an Unreal Tournament III mod that was played in third-person. It has a similar gameplay style, similar weapons, and the same graphics (and engine). The abilities add that extra layer of options and strategy that a modern, addictive, game really needs to keep people interested in the long run and keep the game from becoming just another circle-strafing fest.

Of course, this wouldn’t be Transformers without robots turning into vehicles, and that is definitely here. A quick click of the left stick, at any time, and scouts can turn into small cars while soldiers can turn into tanks. Apparently, these vehicle chassis can be customized as well in the full game, so your scout could turn into a jet or something more to your liking. Handling in vehicle form is similar to Twisted Metal in that you can rotate your car-self without any forward momentum. ( I guess alien cars hover) So as far as the differences between this and robot form, it’s mostly a matter of forward moving speed and the abilities you can use. In car form, your left bumper ability is disabled while your right bumper ability is replaced with a quick jet boost that lets you dodge attacks quickly.

Other than that, vehicle form is essentially a third weapon in your arsenal. For example, the default loadout for the soldier is an automatic rifle, a rocket launcher, and a vehicle form tank gun which seems much more powerful than the rifle and is a bit faster to fire than the rocket launcher. Each weapon is good for different situations and gives you more options. Since games started to limit weapon capacity to two to make the characters wielding them seem more human, it’s nice to see that the developers at High Moon have bent that formula here as it is appropriate and fits the world’s fiction.

The demo released today has only one map and only two mode so I don’t have a lot to go on to determine if this game will be a must buy or not. Judging from the inaccessible, but visible menu options, in addition to the 3 player co-op campaign, there will be a 3 player co-op, waves of enemies survival mode called Escalation, a mode similar to Search & Destroy, one like Demolition, one like King of the Hill – basically, your typical suite of online competitive modes. Team Death Match and Conquest (which is basically Domination) have been pretty fun. I suspect the rest will be as well, given that the core running, gunning, transforming is fun, but I can’t be certain.

I can tell you that the fans of this franchise are really going to dig the presentation. The sounds in War for Cybertron are great. The voices of the Transfomers and the old school transforming sound are incredibly nostalgic and wonderful on their own, but they’ve also been transplanted into the rich soundscape of bullets, explosions, the clinking of metal feet on metal floors, running water, and other environmental effects that really made what was coming out of my speakers stand out.

You probably don’t need to be told, but the Transformers themselves also look great. Transformation animations are slick, quick, and cool to watch, even when you’re just switching weapons which transforms your arm. As I mentioned earlier, the environment feel like something ripped right out of UT3, but that could be because there’s just the one map and the game’s built on the same engine. As such, Transformers also has the same texture pop-in “issue” characteristic of all Unreal Engine 3 based products. Still, it is apparent that great care and love of the subject matter were put into crafting the visuals for this game. Little things like Energon cubes as health packs or the neat HUD animation when you bring up the sniper scope all add greatly to the experience.

It’s a shame that Activision has decided not to put a demo of Transformers (or Blur) on the PS3 as well, since actually playing this demo would surely make Transfomers fans and many of those MW2 gamers cast aside some doubts and make them anxious for more. High Moon Studios seems to have put a lot of thought into this one, and judging from the demo, Transformers: War for Cybertron is going to be a great game whether you’re a fan of the franchise or not.   read

2:57 PM on 01.29.2010

What is Camping? MAG Review / Buyer's Guide

What is camping? If you think about it, camping is actually a pretty strategically sound thing to do: sit in one spot that gives you a good view of the battlefield and ample time to prepare for counterattacks, but the fact is, camping is almost universally viewed negatively in gaming. It's like an unspoken rule (the rule is never spoken, the berating always is) of multiplayer shooters. "If I'm going to run around risking my life looking for you, then you have to repay the courtesy by doing the same."

So, the first think that should tip you off that MAG is a different kind of shooter is that camping is not looked down upon. In fact, by developer design, a player gets more XP for staying put and fighting near objectives. Added this to the fact that MAG matches can't be won simply by racking up kills, and it's quickly apparent that MAG may be the FPS for the more strategically minded shooter fan.

Forget about graphics and sound effects because ultimately those things won't matter. All you need to know is that those elements are all solid. The greatest strength of MAG's design is its team and command structures. If you were thinking that for the 256 player experience of MAG, you would need 127 friends to team up with, you should be happy and relieved to learn that all you really need is 7. The seven other players on your squad are the only other players you have any real contact with, and it is those seven players who will help you get the most out of this game. Have seven friends with headsets? You'll have a pretty good time; however, pure headset based strategizing (ever been to a meeting?) would still have been tough though, and that's where the clever command system comes in.

MAG's developers came up with a pretty nifty system in which a squad's leader can mark objectives on the fly, so everyone knows where to go to get bonus points for fighting near. Rewarding players with extra XP for following possibly a random match made player's commands? A pretty smart way to get strangers to work together, I say, and it works. Or I should say, it would work if it weren't for the game's design's biggest failing, not actually telling anyone how all of this command stuff is supposed to function.

Unless I completely missed it in there, MAG's training mode covers all of the basics, but none of the MAG specific stuff. Running to go faster, crouching to go under things, shooting to make people dead; we already know how to use all of that. From playing several games with squad leaders who did no leading, I can tell you that they didn't know how to set objectives. They didn't know that there were carpet bombs to be called in. Even if a poor squad leader is acceptable, poor squad followers are not. I've noticed that often times, most of my squad will completely ignore our leader and hang back getting points through kills, seemingly unaware that actually helping with an objective gives double the points for each kill. I guess that wasn't covered in basic training. Nope, it wasn't.

While I'm pretty confident that those who stick with the game will figure out MAG's systems eventually, it is a shame the developers didn't go for "bakery fresh," instead opting for "gets better with age." MAG is going to need a lot of player to keep going strong, and if initial impressions turn people off, it'll be than much harder to keep on rolling. When the other reviews finally get off the presses, they will vary greatly depending on initial impressions, which is probably why the reviewers are taking so long. They'll range from the "wait 20 seconds to spawn, run 30 seconds, get shot from places unknown, respawn and repeat," to the "and then we had two guys covering each of the entry ways as I sneaked in, knifed the two guys guarding the console and then set my rifle to total pwnage." I have experienced both and the winning one is cooler, but the losing is not totally inexplicable.

So, should fence sitters buy this game? If you've got a headset and the heart of a natural born leader, then yes. If you've got seven friends who love to play co-op, then yes. Also, if you're a team player, then yes. MAG is an excellent, modern day shooter with a lot of depth that should be experienced by all shooter fans. It's just a shame that the best parts of the game are hidden to all but the dedicated and patient.   read

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