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Review in Progress: StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void

Nov 10 // Chris Carter
StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void (PC)Developer: Blizzard EntertainmentPublisher: Blizzard EntertainmentMSRP: $39.99 (Standard), $59.99 (Digital Deluxe)Release Date: November 10, 2015 For those who aren't aware, Legacy of the Void is a standalone release -- it does not require the first or second modules to function. Since it has a nifty "story so far" video built-in, you don't even need to play the previous two games to have a sense of what's going on, though you'll obviously benefit from having done so. If you haven't been following along at all, Void picks up with all three armies (Terran, Zerg, and Protoss) facing Amon, an evil xel'naga (read: powerful being) hell bent on destroying all life in the galaxy. There's a prologue built in with three missions in tow that set up this struggle, and for the most part, you're going to be controlling various factions of the Protoss army on Artanis' quest to unite the clans, and actually pose a threat to Amon. Blizzard pretty much has the formula down pat at this point when it comes to mission types. Every level I've played so far strikes a good balance between action and strategy, and the orchestral score sufficiently pumps you up even if all you're doing at the moment is building troops. Micro-managing one's army is a cinch with hotkeys, double-clicking to select groups, and pressing F2 to instantly command every unit -- but that's just it, you'll need to micro somewhat, especially on higher difficulties to succeed (Brutal has been greatly altered for the best to provide a real challenge). [embed]319814:61047:0[/embed] There isn't really a whole lot of room for nuance here with this black and white conflict, which is mostly a good thing as the story never really takes any turns down pointless avenues, nor does it set up new plotlines so much as it aims to close them. Instead, Void seeks to provide action-packed setpieces one after another, teeming with personality and dread, and a campaign that moves rather quickly. With all that said, having played through a good deal of the story, I think I'm comfortable stating that I enjoyed Swarm more overall, as it was more of a personal tale. It dialed back the stakes a bit to really dig deep into some characters who needed some love, and as a result, it felt very different. Void tries to balance the fate of the galaxy with Artanis' role in the narrative, and it mostly succeeds, but some personal touches get lost in the fold. The cinematics, as always, are top-notch. Without spoiling anything there's a few particularly tense moments with damn good choreography and actual consequences that span the StarCraft lore. Blizzard once again proves that it's the master of its craft here, and fans will no doubt be sharing a few "holy crap!" moments across various channels for the weeks to come. While there is some form of closure the story of StarCraft isn't completely done just yet though, as more DLC is coming down the line. I'm only early on into my time with StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void, and I still need more time to finish the story, and test the game's co-op and multiplayer components before I provide a full review. Right now though, I'd probably recommend it if you're already invested and want to see how the story concludes. No, it probably won't surprise you, but it's worth playing.
StarCraft II review photo
My life for Aiur
Although I had played countless RTS games before it (Command & Conquer, rest in peace), StarCraft grabbed me like no other in 1998. Part of it was because a large group of my friends, even those who had no prior affinity ...

Review: Metal Gear Online

Oct 09 // Chris Carter
Metal Gear Online (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Kojima ProductionsPublisher: KonamiRelease: October 6, 2015 (Consoles), TBA 2016 (PC)MSRP: $59.99 (PC, PS4, Xbox One) $49.99 (PS3, Xbox 360) / Included with MGSV As previously mentioned, Metal Gear Online only has three modes currently. There's a decent amount of variety within those gametypes, but the issue is how everything is playing out right now in the game's meta. In essence, players often aren't using any form of stealth (outside of Cloak and Dagger, which forces one team to do it), or aren't going for the objectives in general. Instead, most games end up being slugfests and devolve into team deathmatch situations. That's not to say that these basic strategies aren't handily countered by players who have the know-how, it's just what's happening. While it's not wholly the fault of the designers, Metal Gear Online doesn't do a great job of facilitating objective play, as the whole thing is kind of a laissez faire situation. That both excites and concerns me. On one hand, I love that MGO is just as vague as Phantom Pain. Instead of spelling out every facet for players, you'll have to just figure out everything on your own, from advanced tactics to the best way to counter enemies. On the other, I'm not confident in Konami's ability to effectively police and update the game in the slightest. It's very possible that there could be a ton of content from Kojima's team waiting to be pushed out in waves over the course of the next year. But since this is all speculation, we only have what's currently in MGO to assess, and it's lacking in areas, chiefly how servers are handled -- or, I should actually note, a lack of servers. It seems as if the game is P2P based, which creates all sorts of issues for players. First off, hosts can remove people from the game, and if they disconnect, everyone gets booted with no XP or rewards. It's egregious to say the least, and not something you really see in a major shooter in 2015. [embed]314621:60673:0[/embed] Then you have issues like the party system not actually placing you on the same team as your party constantly, or the basic inability to join a friend's game in progress through a quick menu option. Thankfully the microtransaction element hasn't bled through for MGO (yet?), but cosmetic equipment is too expensive currently, as it would take hundreds of games to earn some of the higher-up rewards. I would be more okay with the expensive price of gear if the aforementioned booting issues were rectified with dedicated servers. Now, the gameplay is still superb. That's due in part to the fact that it's literally Phantom Pain, online, which is completely fine by me. Every movement is fluid, gunplay handles like a dream, and the sheer flexibility of the engine makes for some breathtaking moments. Aiming, running, and dolphin diving feels better than pretty much every shooter on the market right now. It's crazy how it feels like a natural extension of my adventures with Venom Snake, and how all of my training instantly pays off online. When you distill it down to individual matches, Metal Gear Online is just fun to play. You can boot up a session, and provided that you don't have any connection issues, generally enjoy yourself, even if a lot of people are ignoring objectives. It's a rush to use stealth effectively and have an enemy run by your prone body completely, then dash up to them, choke them out, and Fulton them. Getting to use the Snake and Ocelot special loadouts from time to time is a joy as well, as are all of the little Easter eggs and details locked within MGO. I've seen a lot of complaints that the Walkers are overpowered, but I've found them easy to deal with. Not only are they incredibly easy to spot (and show up on the radar), but they can be swiftly taken out with a quick sniper shot or a few well-placed bullets. Plus, both sides get them, so it's not like one team is at a disadvantage -- people just need to learn how to counter them. For the most part I don't think balance is an issue for MGO -- it's the technical side that drags things down. Even though we don't review what might be (could you imagine how cool it would be to see co-op Metal Gear missions? Now we may never see the day), I'm still torn with the current state of Metal Gear Online. I wouldn't necessarily recommend picking up the entire Metal Gear Solid V package just for online play, as it still has a lot to prove. I'm pulling for it to get better, but I don't trust Konami. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Metal Gear Online photo
It's not over yet, Snake
I've spent a considerable amount of time this week with Metal Gear Online, and despite my initial positive impressions, I'm having some big-picture issues. In short, I'm not sure how long this train is going to be chugging along, especially when you take Konami's recent history into account.

Review in Progress: Metal Gear Online

Oct 07 // Chris Carter
Metal Gear Online (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Kojima ProductionsPublisher: KonamiRelease: October 6, 2015 (Consoles), TBA 2016 (PC)MSRP: $59.99 (PC, PS4, Xbox One) $49.99 (PS3, Xbox 360) / Included with MGSV After downloading the free add-on (if you own the original game), players will be greeted with a whole new main menu. That's because it's a completely new title, and in no way feels tacked-on to the core Phantom Pain experience. In fact, there's very little in the way of interaction between the campaign and MGO. You'll start off within the character creation module, which takes the shape of your avatar from the core game, and a choice -- players can adopt the scout, enforcer, or infiltrator class (standard, heavy, and light, essentially). Your first character is locked in after your choice, but after a few hours of play you'll unlock two new loadout slots and plenty of cosmetic pieces of gear, including goofy hats. There's also a really cool freeplay mode that allows you to try out your loadout and equipment at will, which has plenty of ground to cover, featuring a diverse jungle location. I wish more games had this feature, as it's incredibly easy to tweak a loadout, go into freeplay, try it out, and tweak it some more. Online play itself provides you with a few options, including automatch (traditional matchmaking), "select" (filter any map or mode), and "create" (complete with a password feature for private games). It's a pretty open-ended system with plenty of choice, but it seems to be P2P-based, so expect online issues depending on the connection on top of any problems Konami has with the servers. For the most part, my time with the game in the past day or so has been rather smooth. You're only getting three gametypes currently, including a ticket-based mode (read: lives), a data theft variant, and capture the point. It's all stuff you've seen before, but the deciding difference is the Metal Gear charm that injects itself throughout MGO. For instance, killing enemies will reduce the opposing team's ticket count, but Fultoning them after using non-lethal force will net you more points. Making lots of noise will also show up on the radar, so it's up to players to use stealth as much as possible to maximize their kills. [embed]314102:60630:0[/embed] After a few hours, I really started to pick up on quite a few new tactics, which is very similar to how Phantom Pain plays out. MGO really is a skill-based game, with plenty of nuances to learn, and an emphasis on stealth prowess. Bounties for more points even show up on players who do well, and I've seen many matches where top people complete entire rounds with no deaths -- hell, without even being seen, really. There's also a lot of little touches, like the "Team Liquid" and "Team Solid" monikers, and the power to change the soundtrack to legacy Metal Gear music.  But there's one major shortcoming that I can see rather clearly right now -- a lack of diverse modes. It's very easy to feel isolated after going back into freeplay mode, and the three gametypes do tend to blend together at times. In short, you're really going to get as much out of MGO as you put in, and the skill of the enemy team definitely plays a factor in terms of how much fun you're going to have -- think of them almost as mini-Metal Gear boss fights. I need some more time, but my initial impressions of Metal Gear Online are positive. It really feels like a Metal Gear Without the complete mess of the Guns of the Patriots Konami login scheme, of course, and with its own issues to boot. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Metal Gear Online photo
It's not over yet, Snake
Kojima's departure from Konami has left me all sorts of worried for the future of Metal Gear Solid -- a series that I've enjoyed ever since I laid eyes on the first NES game over 20 years ago. For now though his legacy i...

Review: Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward

Jun 26 // Chris Carter
Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Square EnixPublisher: Square EnixMSRP: $39.99 ($12.99 per month)Released: June 19, 2015 (Early Access), June 23, 2015 The "40 hours" of questing claim by Square Enix for the main story (levels 50-60) is accurate, but there's a caveat. You'll have to do a combination of sidequests, daily hunt marks (which can be done solo), and dungeons to push through some gaps, particularly in the middle levels. A few portions can be off-putting sometimes in terms of pacing, especially since the sidequests aren't nearly as good as the main story questline. Having said that, there wasn't any point, even the aforementioned lows, where I stopped having fun. There's just so much to do at this juncture of Final Fantasy XIV. I would frequently stop to do world hunts, which respawn every few hours or so in each area. They're even more fun now once you've unlocked flight for that particular zone, and all of the old hunts still exist too, albeit with smaller rewards for kills. You could hunt all day if you wanted to. I'd visit my new apartment in my friend's beachfront property villa in the Mist, and see what was going on with their new workshop -- a feature that lets you build Free Company (guild) airships in Heavensward, which go on expeditions for more items, similar to Retainer quests. Although I don't tend to craft in any MMO I play, I hung out with a group of crafters and chatted for hours about the new crafter meta and theories for some testing, which are insanely deep. For those who aren't aware, each crafting and gathering class has its own miniature storyline, and crafters in particular now have a even more complicated method of creating new high quality items. Crafting was always like a puzzle, allowing players to learn the best rotations for creating the best items, but now, there's an "endgame" of sorts for the profession, featuring a separate system of crafting in guilds to help build airships, and more complicated patterns that will fetch big gains on the auction house. Flying makes gathering nodes more fun, which is a big improvement on the 2.0 system -- and more nuanced with new gathering abilities. I also took a break and started a Dark Knight, Astrologian, and Machinist, which are all new jobs in Heavensward. Although there's a debate going on regarding the latter's low damage output, I've grouped and played all of them, and each brings something unique to the table. The Dark Knight is really fun to tank with, as he can drop his "Grit" stance (having it on lets you take less damage) on occasion, which unlocks a whole host of damage-dealing abilities. [embed]294750:59242:0[/embed] As a general rule you always want to be doing your core job and tanking with Grit, but when you need that extra push, the Dark Knight is ready and willing, and feels far more engaging than the existing Warrior. The Astrologian sacrifices a bit of firepower (compared to the White Mage and Scholar) but makes up for it with a variety of different healing tricks, and the Machinist is one of the most complicated DPS classes in the game. They are all worthwhile additions, and each role (tank, healer, ranged DPS) fits perfectly in the current meta. By the time I was done with the story and hit level 60, I had played far more than 40 hours. While there are some predictable plot points and far too much Final Fantasy grandstanding, I have to say I enjoyed it as a whole. I really dig the dragon theme that permeates throughout the expansion (they commit to it), and I was satisfied with the conclusion, especially the final boss, which Final Fantasy fans will love. The epilogue also does its job of sufficiently teasing all of the upcoming free content updates, so I'm pumped to see where this goes. The dungeons are all par for the course, which again, is a theme with this expansion. Every dungeon, including the three level 60 ones at the end, have the same linear design that is crafted to prevent you from speedrunning them. Gone are the labyrinthine paths of some low-level dungeons, as well as the tricks of the trade of the vanilla endgame areas; the structure is basically the same every time. Thankfully, the boss fights are spectacular, and nearly every zone features an encounter that has something I've never seen before. Without spoiling it, my favorite dungeon has a fight where a bird flies up into the air, and causes the entire battlefield to fill with fog, forcing you to find his shadow before he comes back down. Another hilariously tasks players with picking up totems and placing them in certain areas to prevent a boss from casting a ritual that ties his health to them. Every fight is intuitive so you won't be scratching your head going "how does this work?" but you will have to actually try. It's a good balance, even if I wish some of the dungeons were a bit more open. The two Primals (Ravana and Bismarck) are worthy additions to the game, and both have EX (extreme) versions that will test your might at level 60. Ravana is an awesome fight that I refer to as "the ninja bug," and it basically feels like how Titan should have been, with a circular arena that you can fall off of. Bismarck on the other hand is like nothing else in Final Fantasy XIV, featuring the titular whale flying right next to a floating rock that the party is standing on. Players will have to hook him with harpoons (you can shout "call me Ishmael" while doing it) and whale on the whale's weak point temporarily. I feel like Ravana is faster-paced and more fun, but again, Bismarck is unique. Currently the endgame consists of gathering law tomes (obtained by high-level dungeons and hunts), buying item level i170 gear, and upgrading them to i180 by way of items from seals. Bismarck EX will net you i175 weapons, and Ravana earns you i190. You have two weeks to fully upgrade your left and right-side gear to face the first part of the Alexander raid, who will debut at that time (with the tougher "Savage" difficulty unlocking two weeks after that). Said raids will be even better thanks to the new loot systems, which can give a raid leader more control over who gets what (finally). With everything there is to do in the game though, it doesn't feel like a grind to get to that point. Did I mention Heavensward was beautiful? I'm pretty sure I have often, but I'll do it again just to drive the point home. It looks fantastic, from the snowy landscape of Ishgard to the Souls-esque Dravanian Hinterlands, complete with lush plains and hellish mountains filled with fiery depths. I would often stop just to admire the scenery, which is even easier thanks to flying mounts. Every time I visit an old content area I long for the chance to use a flying mount, but alas, it's only available in new zones. Specifically regarding the PS4 version, it's starting to feel the sting of the more open areas a bit, particularly when it comes to longer load times (which can be a pain while zoning in for hunts) and some slowdown. I should mention that said slowdown never becomes unplayable, even with 50 other players slashing away at the same world hunt target. It can just get a bit sluggish is all. My view is partially colored by the fact that the new Direct X 11 version on PC looks gorgeous and runs smoothly. Down the line you have new storylines to look forward to, as well as the aforementioned Alexander raid, more 24-player casual raids (which aren't currently in yet), a new PVP map, and a new multi-part relic weapon quest that will debut next month for all jobs. None of this was factored into this review, but it's something to be aware of -- based on its past track record, Square Enix will continue to evolve the game and make it better. Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward is more A Realm Reborn, which is a fine thing to strive for in my book. Whether you're the type of player who enjoys crafting, endgame content, or role-playing, there's so much to do here for people of all skill levels it's insane. While I fizzled out a bit after completing the main story in 2.5, Heavensward has rekindled my flame. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Heavensward review photo
Par for the heavens
When our story began last week, I was a level 53 Paladin, soldiering through the new content for Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward. I stand before you now as a level 60, having played everything that's currently available. My opinion on the expansion hasn't changed much, which is a good thing.

Review in Progress: Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward

Jun 19 // Chris Carter
Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Square EnixPublisher: Square EnixMSRP: $39.99 ($12.99 per month)Released: June 19, 2015 (Early Access), June 23, 2015 Picking up directly where the last campaign left off, the first quest of Heavensward is located in the Coerthas Central Highlands, directing you to Ishgard. Yep, you heard that right -- it continues the story of the core game, so you'll need to complete the main campaign (ending with "Before the Dawn") and reach level 50 first. Newer players will find at least double the experience from the original vanilla quests to help boost them up a bit. According to Square Enix, the new Heavensward story is roughly 50 hours, and based on my pace so far in at 10, that's fairly accurate. It's about the same length as the original game, which is quite a feat, and about the sweet spot for a campaign in my mind. There's so much other stuff to do to keep you busy at this point. The flow of the process is to get from levels 50 to 60 with mostly story quests, which has worked out for the most part with my first character -- so far, I'm level 53 and counting. I decided to take on the leveling process with my trusty Paladin, who would be able to jump into queues at a moment's notice. Most classes have a handful of new abilities, and in the Paladin's case, there are five in total. I've acquired one so far -- the power to use a pinch block ability to give him some extra durability. There are a few new combo abilities that mix up your rotation quite a bit, as well as a few tweaks (like an accuracy buff to Shield Oath). It's just enough to keep you on your toes and get you interested in leveling without making things too tricky. Ishgard is the new capital city and the expansion hosts nine new locations, all of which are much larger than the original zones in A Realm Reborn. This is mostly because they now support flying mounts, a brand new mechanic in Heavensward. You can't just fly right off the bat, though -- you'll have to attune to each zone through a combination of locating aether and completing key quests. The idea is that you'll have fully explored the area by the time you're done, opening up a more vertical approach later on. [embed]294029:59024:0[/embed] It sounds like it could be annoying, but you'll get a compass item that will help you find said aether currents with instructions that aren't too vague and aren't on-the-nose either. It's a fun mechanic that reminds me a lot of the same design philosophies found in Guild Wars 2. Some of the currents are even built around jumping puzzles. Flying isn't as glorious as in, say, Aion, but it's very fun to soar about when tracking down hunt targets. I can see Square Enix doing a lot of cool things with future updates like hidden areas and quests; there's some of that already now. Speaking of flying, your personal Chocobo will allow you to do just that at a certain point in the story, so everyone can easily get on track and enjoy the ride. Having said that, the PlayStation 4 version is starting to show its age already. Although this is launch so there's lots more people concentrated in specific areas, the frame rate crawls a bit more than it used to in vanilla Realm Reborn, especially since most of these zones are so much bigger. It's not game-breaking, but it is odd. The PS4 was previously a powerhouse and nearly on par with the PC. I haven't tested it for that long, but the newly minted DirectX 11 engine on PC (that also released today) is drastically better than ever before, alleviating nearly all of my concerns. I'll provide more information on this in the future. The quality of the story is improved overall, drawing from what the development team learned from all of the superior updates. It deals with a thousand-year conflict between Ishgard and Dravania. I'm interested in seeing where this goes, and I'll provide a spoiler-free update when I complete it. The actual quests haven't been any better or worse than A Realm Reborn, and so far, the theme of the expansion seems to be "more of a good thing, without re-inventing the wheel." There are two starting zones to alleviate the congestion, which have worked, on top of the fact that roughly half of the post-level-50 community is going back to the old content with the new jobs anyway. As for other content, there are a handful of new dungeons, one of which I've tried out already called Dusk Vigil. It's about on par with the recent additions in the newer updates. That is to say they're very flashy, filled with their own lore bits, and while they cut down on exploration quite a bit, they're all designed to be completed casually with the occasional peppering of a challenge. The pacing is spot on, and they don't drag like a few of the vanilla dungeons. The same goes for the first hard mode trial (read: group instanced boss) I've encountered, which features a really badass bug that I don't want to spoil here. Suffice to say, it's a little more interesting than the initial Primals you meet in A Realm Reborn. Several other classes have gotten a few major shakeups, like the Bard, who now has a DPS-based Limit Break, and the Black Mage, which must stay within Ley Lines, a magical circle, to gain extra damage by way of haste. Every class now has a unique level-three Limit Break animation, which is great. All of these changes help make your job feel more unique and make Final Fantasy XIV a more well-rounded MMO as a whole. Switching to my other jobs for a few moments felt different, especially the Bard. You can really notice even just a few extra skills in dungeon runs. As for the three new jobs, I had a chance to try out Dark Knight, but there's also the Astrologian and Machinist. Unlocking them is as easy as reaching Ishgard and talking to a specific quest starter in town, then doing a 10-minute quest for each -- that's it! They all start at level 30, and come equipped with a few pieces of gear and roughly 10 skills each at first. It's perfect, as there's just enough there to give you plenty to do right away, but not so much that you're overwhelmed. While I need more time to test them, I think they all bring something unique to the table, and I love the Dark Knight's risk-reward mechanic. It's the freshest take on tanking yet. Other extras that I still need to dig into include the all new Au Ra race, the DirectX11 visual upgrade on PC, new hunt targets, a more comprehensive loot system for raids, the power to queue for dungeons with less than five players, Free Company (guild) upgrades like Workshops and Airships, crafting upgrades, Bismarck and Ravana as new Primals, more Triple Triad cards, a future new Frontlines PVP map, an all-new Relic questline set to debut in 3.1, and a new Alexander raid, which will unlock at a later date. Stay tuned as I continue to play through Heavensward, work my way up to level 60, and try out the new classes. Only then will I provide my full review for the expansion.+ [This review is based on a retail build provided by the publisher.]
Final Fantasy XIV review photo
Par for the heavens
The story of how Square Enix turned Final Fantasy XIV around is still incredible to me. I always tell people about playing it at E3 in 2010 for the very first time, pre-Realm Reborn, and how it was one of the least fun MMOs I...

Review: Evolve

Feb 13 // Nic Rowen
Evolve (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)Developer: Turtle Rock StudiosPublisher: 2K GamesReleased: February 10, 2015MSRP: $59.99 Every multiplayer game is going to be somewhat dependent on who you play it with, we all understand that. But the gulf between an enjoyable match with a decent team and an unbearable slog when even one person doesn't hold up their end is so vast in Evolve that it's worth underlining in thick red ink. The hunt is for pack animals, not lone wolves, and Evolve won't truck with anybody thinking they can just go off and do their own thing for even a second. Separating from the party is an open invitation to be snapped up by a random man-eating plant or lurking swamp monster, with no help close enough to bail you out before you're digested. Due to the mutually essential roles each hunter plays, when any member of the team takes a dive, the situation rapidly becomes hopeless for the hunters. That may sound fun for the monster at least, but after playing several rounds where I was able to trounce hapless teams hamstrung by one particularly bad player, I have to say the thrill wears out fairly quickly. Every player in the match (including the monster) is responsible for creating a fun and memorable hunt. That means you need five diligent players working together to carve and shape an enjoyable time out of Evolve's rough granite, while you only need one chucklehead to mess it up for everyone. If you've played any online games before, you know how the odds work out on that. But that's when you're playing with randos -- what about playing with friends? I think it can be easy to overlook a flawed experience because “it's so much better with friends!” and it's tempting to apply that logic to Evolve. Because, in this case, it isn't so much a matter of being “better with friends” as it is “this is a completely different game with friends!” Getting on with a dependable group that's working together and taking turns with the monster reveals just how great a game Evolve can be. It's like taking all the best parts of your favorite multiplayer titles, dumping them all out on the floor, and collaborating with your buddies to build something new and wonderful out of them. A great match in Evolve can combine the nail-biting tension of the last round of a Gears of War horde match, the pleasing synergy of Team Fortress 2's overlapping class interactions, and the hangdog embarrassment of dropping a solo in Rock Band in front of everyone. Sadly, as amazing and exhilarating as those moments are, they've represented the minority of my time with Evolve. It's just unrealistic to think you will always have friends who are ready and willing to play when you are. I spent the last week buried in Evolve at hours all throughout the day and have a Steam friends list as long as my arm. Even so, I spent most of that time dropping into random matches, waiting through interminable lobbies and loading screens, hoping this time I'd luck into a good group. There are solo options for the antisocial among us that will pit you against computer-controlled hunters and monsters. But they're just a pale imitation of the multiplayer matches with functionally serviceable AI teammates. More of a way to test out various classes and monsters in an embarrassment-free environment than a real alternative to multiplayer. A co-op based take on the Evacuation game mode that squares four human hunters against an AI monster is the closest thing to a non-competitive, but still enjoyable, version of the game. Co-op Evacuation is a good way to easily grind out challenge requirements to unlock characters and have a more relaxed safari, but it wears out quickly upon repeated plays. If you're a loner by nature but are still kind of curious about giant monsters and cool-looking harpoon guns, this is your warning -- Evolve has nothing for you. The potential for a fun time is further hampered by a number of bugs and pressing balance issues that are still a problem in the retail release. I was hoping a day-one patch would solve some of these issues, but sadly they are still fairly common. Rubberbanding connection issues frequently wreak havoc on matches, resulting in frustrating occasions where a monster will slip out of a trapper's mobile arena when it looks like it should have caught him, or an imperiled hunter will miraculously glitch out of the way of a monster's would-be fatal charge. Terrain and bounding issues sometimes prevent hunters from being able to revive incapacitated teammates they are clearly standing right over, making you seem like the most incompetent jerkwad medic on the planet. Bizarrely, more than once I was dropped into a game already in progress as a generic soldier ripped from the Rescue game mode. He carried only two weapons out of the standard three (oddly enough taken from two different members of the assault class) and has no speaking lines. While it is an interesting curiosity the first time around, the novelty wears off when you realize you just deprived a team of the medic or trapper you replaced. “Thanks for the 'help.'” None of these bugs are game-breakers on their own, but they add up. When you pile these frustrations on the already long wait times between matches and frequent dud games that are lopsided one way or the other, it starts to feel like Evolve doesn't respect your time. Speaking of dud games, I would basically classify every match I had with a Wraith monster as one. Nobody wants to be the guy who publicly complains about balance issues; it's an open invitation to be told how bad you are at the game and how you only need to “git gud.” That said, I don't think I ever saw a single team win against a Wraith. By Turtle Rock's own reported telemetry, it had a 70% win rate in the beta. Even post-nerfs, its powerful combination of stealth, mobility, and devastating damage just seem completely out of whack compared to the other two monsters. Once a Wraith hits stage three, it's basically “GG.” I'm sure with a crack team of hunters, all playing the right character for their class, communicating and staying on point, the Wraith is beatable. But again, the average random posse is a far cry from dream-team status. Whenever one side has to play a near-perfect game to compete with another player's choice on the character select screen, it's hard to call that balanced or fun. To its credit, Evolve looks absolutely gorgeous. The environments are spectacular (the first time you drop into the biodome-esque Aviary is a real treat), and the character models for both hunters and monsters are great. Each class has its own color palette and unifying size/shape while still keeping a lot of individual style between each character in the class. It makes for a design that is easy to keep track of in the middle of a fight, and fun to admire during downtime. The characters are mostly stock types, but they play with the typical tropes in a few amusing ways to keep you guessing. The pre-mission pep talks between hunters can veer into standard tough-guy bravado, but they are often surprisingly charming as well. I particularly enjoyed a lot of the interactions with Lazarus, a medic who only applies medical care after his patients have died a violent death, and Bucket, an immortal AI contained in the body of an industrial worker-bot. Needless to say, he has somewhat unique perspective on the mission. The monsters look magnificently intimidating, radiating predatory menace with each careful movement. They feel every bit as tremendously powerful as they should, bounding vast tracks of land in a single leap, or snagging lesser beasts with powerful tentacle arms and claws. It can be remarkably satisfying to turn the tables on a group of hunters who have harried and harassed you all match once you hit stage-three evolution. There is a lot of detail paid to the other wildlife on Shear. If you take time out of your busy schedule of shooting or devouring everything you see, you can watch random animals snap at each other, or move out of the way of a more impressive predator. The pacified industrial areas where humans have set up shop are finely crafted and help put the fearsome monsters into scale. It's clear the developers devoted a ton of thought and care into the world they've built, and it's a damn shame the game doesn't come together as nicely as it should. If you can find four people who are willing to sign a blood pact to convene for a ritual night of Evolve once or twice a week, then by all means enjoy the hunt (and where do I sign?). If not, you have to ask yourself if you are really prepared to deal with the peaks and frequent valleys of the experience. Personally, I think there are better ways to spend your time than gambling on a decent match, hoping one or two of your friends can make it on sometime over the weekend. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Evolve review photo
A tamed beast
Trying to pin down my exact thoughts on Evolve has been trickier than pinning down any kind of prey the game has thrown at me. I was cautious with my initial impressions of the game earlier this week, noting an uneven play ex...

Review in Progress: Evolve

Feb 10 // Nic Rowen
Evolve (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)Developer: Turtle Rock StudiosPublisher: 2K GamesReleased: February 10, 2015MSRP: $59.99 In the far-flung future, man will have vermin problems. Probably because they insist on trying to colonize planets like Shear, which as far as I can tell is some kind of naturally occurring abattoir specifically designed to end human life. While the inhabitants of Shear are used to the garden-variety land-sharks, lizard-dogs, and carnivorous plants that make up the country side, a new terrifying breed of monster has recently popped up and is seriously imposing on their way of life. That's you. Enter the hunters, an assorted bunch of lovable stock characters and stereotypes contracted to eradicate the beasts and assist in a planet-wide evacuation. That's also you. Asymmetry lies at the heart of Evolve's basic premise. Four players control the hunters, each one representing a class that specializes in one particular aspect of monster slaying. Trappers are the most important for the actual hunt, bringing the skills necessary to track and contain the monster. Assault guys, predictably, provide the firepower needed to take the beast down. Medics keep the team going and provide some useful utility like sticking the monster with tranq darts. While support class members fill in the gaps and feature the most diverse range of skills, everything from shields to UAVs. Another player takes control of the monster, a solitary predator who has to not only fend off the hunters, but other hostile life on Shear. The monster isn't a pushover, but it isn't a powerhouse when the match begins either. To become a truly Godzilla-like force of nature, the monster needs to hunt and devour enough prey to evolve through three stages of power, gaining stronger abilities and growing in size at each stage.  The main game mode, Hunt, is a straight up fight between the two sides. Attrition is the name of the game as the hunters work to whittle down the monster's health bar and prevent it from evolving, while the monster does its best to covertly feed on wildlife and evade the hunters until it can muscle up to its final stage and overpower them. While the monster has no way of replenishing lost health outside of evolving (and even then it is a limited amount), eating wildlife will let it slather on armor the hunters will have to chew through before doing real damage. Similar to L4D, the human opposition can be incapacitated with enough damage, left to bleed out on the ground and die unless a teammate risks coming over to save them. Each time a hunter is knocked down, he returns with a smaller health bar. Three trips to the dirt and a hunter dies outright. Ideally, this should allow the monster to try to divide and conquer the hunters, isolate them one at a time, and either reduce their overall health for a final inevitable showdown, or stylishly dismantle the team with brutal animal cunning. Sadly, I've yet to see that happen. There is no reason for hunters to split up and the power dynamic between a monster at stage one and a monster at stage three is far too skewed to promote any other play style than rushing to stage three as soon as possible. The vast majority of matches end in one of two ways. In the first scenario, a stage one baby-monster gets caught in the trapper's mobile arena (a force field dome that traps the monster inside) and is unceremoniously slaughtered, or dealt such irrecoverable damage the end of the match is a given. In the second scenario, a monster will successfully string a team along for upwards of ten yawn-inducing minutes until it reaches stage three and utterly steamrolls right through them (unless the monster happens to be a Wraith, then it just does the same at stage two). Neither result is particularly satisfying. It's a shame so much emphasis is placed on the poorly balanced Hunt mode, because the game comes alive in its secondary game modes. Defend, Nest, Rescue, and the most elaborate of them, Evacuation, all provide interesting twists on the formula. Defend has the Hunters struggling to protect generators from a stage three monster and its minions, giving the action a tower-defense feel. Nest flips the relationship, tasking the monster with defending a clutch of eggs scattered over the map. The monster can hatch eggs early to give itself a mini-Goliath ally, but at the cost of doing some of the hunter's work for them. While Rescue litters the map with incapacitated survivors for the hunters and monster to squabble over, allowing both sides the chance to ambush each other. Evacuation is Evolve's campaign substitute, stringing together five random matches as a sort of mini-narrative. Victory in one match will have an effect on the next. For example, a hunter win might spawn mini-turrets to defend objectives on the next round, while a triumphant monster might cause a troublesome radiation leak at the ol' power plant. There are plenty of variations on the theme, and some of them feel more balanced than others, but they do a good job of establishing real stakes to the struggle. Giving the two sides something to worry about other than each other does wonders for the game. Even basic objectives give both sides the breathing room they need to explore strategies other than “RUN” and “CHASE,” resulting in more interesting matches. So far I've had more fun in any of the extra modes than I have in the premier brand.  It's difficult to say how I feel about Evolve at this point. I've had some real fun and I can see the potential for something great. But I've also had many moments of intense frustration. Just like L4D, you are so dependent on other people (both as teammates and as worthy opposition) that getting a good match can be a roll of the dice unless you're playing with friends. Combine that with long wait times between matches (north of three minutes) and you can easily waste an hour or more on fruitless and boring misfires. Another area of annoyance is the character unlocking system. Only four of the twelve hunters and one of the three monsters currently in the game (with more to come through somewhat nefarious DLC) are available from the start, the rest are locked behind challenge goals. Some of these goals can be fulfilled in the course of a couple of regular matches, others are grindy and seem like intentional time-sinks. Crappy progression systems are one thing, but it's another when all the best toys are being kept out of reach. Opinions may differ, but the unlocked characters seem like direct upgrades to the starter roster, and after getting access to a few of them I've never gone back to the defaults. As for the monsters, the flying Leviathan with its powerful ranged attacks certainly is more of a handful to deal with than the ground-bound Goliath, but manageable. The final monster, the Wraith, however, is downright broken. Combining speed, power, and the ability to spawn an AI controlled duplicate to double team the humans, it is leaps and bounds beyond the abilities of an average team of hunters. It's hard to say if these are legitimate balance issues that will persist and negatively impact the game in the long term, or just a matter of the community wising up and developing strategies to deal with them. Similarly, while I think the more objective based game modes are definitely more fun than the standard Hunt, I've had a distressingly difficult time finding matches for them. This could be the result of playing in a pre-release environment where there aren't enough players to go around, or it could signal a lack of popular interest in those modes, which would be a tragedy because that's where they hid the good bits. It's too early to render a final verdict on Evolve. I'm going to keep at it now that the game is out for the public, see how some of these issues play out and how the servers do under full retail strain. As of now though, my finely tuned animal instincts are telling me you might want to hold off on that $99 ultra-edition.
Evolve review in progress photo
Red in tooth and claw
If you didn't know Turtle Rock Studios was the brains behind 2008's Left 4 Dead, you could probably guess as much after a few hours with its latest game, Evolve. The zombies might be gone in favor of giant monsters and lethal...

Review: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (Patch 2.4)

Nov 10 // Chris Carter
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer:  Square EnixPublisher: Square EnixMSRP: $39.99 ($12.99 per month, with a free PS3-to-PS4 license transfer) Released: August 27, 2013 (PC, PS3) / April 14, 2014 (PS4) Things have changed since my last review update with patch 2.4. Now, I'm not only a level 50 Ninja, I'm also item level 108. Before I get to how Ninja works in the current endgame meta, I'll talk a bit about the journey from Rogue to level 50. Simply put, I was surprised at how well Rogues and Ninjas function in the overall world of A Realm Reborn. The game's director noted how a "Thief" class wouldn't apply, and I can easily see that now after playing through the new class story. I enjoyed the whole pirate feel of the Rogue arc, and the complete turn with Ninja. The narrative is built in such a way to make you believe ninjas have been around this whole time, quietly watching everyone in Eorzea. After reaching level 30, you're on your way into this completely new world and are able to see the realm in a completely new way. It was probably the most enjoyable class questline I've played, and I have roughly half of the game's jobs at max level. So how was the process? Well, it was mixed. Like I said before, the queues for dungeons are horrendous. It's odd that Square Enix decided to release a dps class so early, without one tank or healer class to offset it. [embed]283551:56271:0[/embed] Yes, a Dark Knight tank job and presumably a healer will arrive in the expansion next year, but saving the ninja for later and adding a much-needed class now would have made queues better. Having said that, I've never had as much fun FATE grinding as I had leveling my Ninja. Everyone was friendly, and it's a riot to see 24+ Ninjas rip apart a FATE boss, running around the world using Mudra magic. FATEs are still a viable method of leveling, so while dungeon queues were a bummer, the worldwide comradery of leveling out in the world made me like the community that much more. Endgame content with the Ninja is a blast. Not only does it have a few perks like a teleport and an inherently faster move speed, but it also has a ton of full party buffs that make it worth taking up a coveted raid slot. The class can help restore the TP for one party member, it can constantly debuff enemies, and it can either stun or silence as needed on a swappable ability. The Ninja is absolutely worth playing and a ton of fun in my tests, but it presents one extra problem that hasn't quite been addressed yet. From what I've seen in many static groups, the Ninja meshes well with the Monk, and completely replaces the need for a Dragoon. As a Dragoon player who has multiple jobs over item level 100 I'm safe, but career Dragoons will likely not enjoy the current meta -- in fact, I've already seen a ton of them jump ship, and my static will likely prefer my Ninja going forward. Hopefully Square Enix will address this, but it's good news for prospective Ninjas. In terms of the other new changes, the new Poetics tome feels grindier as a whole than the grind in patch 2.3. Expert dungeon runs are currently the best way to earn Poetics, and Square Enix has taken away many of the other viable methods like Hunts. Hunts are abysmally slow, as only S rank hunts give a measly 10 Poetic tomes. I wish the company had added more ways to gain the new tome even if it was at a slower rate, because dungeon grinding is something I was glad to be rid of in 2.3. Thankfully, all three new dungeons are still fun to run. I love all the boss encounters (especially the Mummy King and the Yeti), and the actual aesthetics and new musical accompaniments are among my favorites. The other piece of the puzzle that I haven't covered yet is the Extreme version of the Shiva fight. After a full week my static and I have it on farm status. It's much more fun than Ramuh overall, and people seem to like doing the encounter more. There are more learning groups out there than there were for Ramuh, and the gear itself is a lot more valuable. This is a tank-centric fight that keeps everyone on their toes without requiring as much as Ramuh did; Shiva is how EX Primal fights should be going forward. From what I've seen of Final Coil so far it looks like a natural ramp-up from the first and second wings, which is great for players who are all about conquering endgame. I'll need much more time to give a full verdict, but all of the groups I play with seem to enjoy the challenge. Other changes include more housing wards, and a higher Atma drop rate. These two things alone should please long-term fans who had issues with those concepts. It's nice to see Square Enix fix multiple facets of the game, and not just go and add new content on top of problems. This is the major reason why I continue to play A Realm Reborn. While I would have preferred a tank or healing class instead of a dps addition this year, as well as a few more meaningful tweaks to the new tome system, the fact remains that Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is still worth playing. Newcomers will have a ton of fun playing a new class alongside all of the new Ninjas, and hardcore fans have much to look forward to with a new Coil to conquer. Although 2.5 seems much more interesting in terms of variety, 2.4 is still enough to keep me interested.
FFXIV patch 2.4 review photo
Dreams of Ice
The prospect of playing as a Ninja again in Final Fantasy excited me. After working my way up to level 50 in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, the class ended up having so much style and substance that it changed t...

Review in Progress: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (Patch 2.4)

Oct 29 // Chris Carter
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Square EnixPublisher: Square EnixMSRP: $39.99 ($12.99 per month, with a free PS3-to-PS4 license transfer) Released: August 27, 2013 (PC, PS3) / April 14, 2014 (PS4) Let's start with the new class -- Rogue, which eventually works its way into Ninja at level 30. Currently I'm level 25, hustling through the leveling process mostly solo, which won't be all that fun for a lot of people. As most of the playerbase expected, low-level dungeon queues for DPS are awful. As in, at least an hour, sometimes multiple hours long if you want to enter a dungeon as a Rogue/Ninja. I've only been able to go on a few dungeon runs in general, and though they yielded decent experience, you're quickly thrown back to the real world where FATE farming is once again the most effective way to level. I'm enjoying the process and the community mostly, but it's odd that Square Enix didn't already see the DPS queue problem currently and put out the Dark Knight tank class or new healing class now to ensure smooth queues. The prospect of a Ninja might be fun, but it also might take you a while before the storm calms. As for the class itself, Rogue is fun, but I haven't unlocked the Mudra abilities that come with Ninja yet or anything substantial. Funnily enough with a few cross-class abilities from Monk and Lancer attached, the rotation of the Rogue is damn close to every physical DPS in the game up to level 30. Mudras will severely mix things up with combination magic attacks, but right now, the "Mug" (extra chance to loot from enemies) and "Goad" (extra TP for one party member) powers aren't all that interesting. Stay tuned as I unlock Ninja and deliver a final verdict. A new patch also means a new storyline, and this time the entire narrative is focused on Shiva. You'll trek across familiar territory like Coerthas as you attempt to solve the mystery of a traitor in your ranks, and also do battle with the empire in your quest to unlock the new dungeon (Snowcloak), and the Shiva Hard Mode and Extreme encounters. Once again the extra expansion story is par for the course -- a means to an end, but well crafted and a fun way to do some world building. Strictly in terms of the Hard Mode side of things, I think Shiva is easily the best Primal in the game. It's an engaging fight atop a beautiful icy arena, and of course, she snaps her fingers for Diamond Dust, changing the theme song dynamically during the fight. The new theme is not only fitting, but it's probably one of my favorite tracks in the game so far. Shiva has a lot of personality and was a perfect choice for Final Fantasy XIV. Most of the playerbase will be hacking away at the Extreme mode (EX) long term, and I found that to be highly intuitive as well. My static group had roughly an hour to get a learning party together, and the new mechanics therein are much more manageable than Ramuh before it. Where Square Enix made a mistake is making Ramuh require so much coordination that the encounter begged for voice chat, or players familiar with one another and a specific method to clear it. Shiva EX can be done just by learning the ins and outs of the fight, and taking care of business on your end. It's a welcome EX that I think will outlast Ramuh by a longshot (it grants i110 weapons and i120 accessories). Three new dungeons also enter the mix -- Snowcloak, Satasha Hard Mode, and The Sunken Temple of Qarn Hard Mode (the latter of which is cleverly introduced by a quest called "The Wrath of Qarn"). Square Enix is getting better at dungeon design over time, and these three feel like the most streamlined yet. For the most part, all of them are smash-and-grab-the-loot affairs, with interesting boss fights peppered in. The highlights include a mummy king boss (my personal favorite), which forces players to dodge rows of angry mummy enemies running toward you, lest you get turned into a member of their ranks for a limited time. The Yeti in Snowcloak is another standout, which lets you use his ice breath against him to turn his minions into snowballs and smack them back at his face. You'll have to get used to dungeons too, because they're the fastest way to earn Poetics -- the new Tomestone currency used to buy item level 120 gear (which is upgraded in the new raid, Final Coil of Bahamut). While the dungeons are fun, I'm starting to feel that 2.2 grind again for Tomestones before hunts and other fun activities came along. Hunts no longer grant the highest level token, and thus Poetics must be earned the old-school way -- roulettes and dungeons. It's not the end of the world but I've seen hunts die out at nearly all hours of the day -- people will likely only group up for S ranks now. The Hildibrand storyline is back, and features fan favorites Ultros and Typon (Chupon). It's yet another short hour-long affair, and culminates in a duo boss battle with the two baddies in an arena. As expected it's comical in nature, and the fight is balanced so that casual players can complete it. It's also added to the new Trials roulette. Personally I thought it was a pretty cool nod to fans, even if it wasn't as exciting as the Gilgamesh battle. There's also the business of Final Coil, which I probably won't conquer anytime soon as I'm not in a world-first guild at the moment. Once I have a chance to experience it I'll likely provide some thoughts, post-review. So far I don't think I've enjoyed 2.4 as much as 2.2 and 2.3, but the core game is still intact and remains fantastic. The amount of support Final Fantasy XIV has received is staggering, and players will have even more to do once 2.4's mini-patches arrive. Stay tuned as I work on Shiva EX and unlock the Ninja before I give a full verdict.
FFXIV patch 2.4 review photo
Dreams of Ice
I still can't believe Square Enix salvaged the original Final Fantasy XIV. I mean, it had the guts to make the game a core entry, so I'm glad the studio reworked it into A Realm Reborn -- this whole saga is just really i...

Review: WildStar

Sep 08 // Chris Carter
WildStar (PC)Developer: Carbine StudiosPublisher: NCSoftReleased: June 3, 2014MSRP: $59.99 ($14.99 flexible subscription fee, with 30 days included in base game) After reaching the mid-levels of the game, WildStar gets more grindy, but not more than the average MMO. The key is you have so much to do while you enjoy the process of getting to max level -- tend to your house, explore, PVP, do regular quests, or go in a ton of instances. The world itself is more interesting than most, offering up a hearty helping of humor alongside its purposefully cartoon veneer. The quests don't change for better or worse, and teeter along the line of "innovative for the genre" and "standard fare." It's fun to do vehicular quests and wacky tasks that ape popular culture, but at the same time it can feel methodical, which isn't a good thing for people who want to break free of the bonds of standard MMO play. WildStar still heavily leans on a method of vertical progression, which is great for people who love to see that "ding," along with the personal satisfaction that comes with it, but again, it's a very traditional system. With a lot of sandbox MMOs trying horizontal and more seamless methods, WildStar will scare off people looking for something new. The last time I stopped our Review in Progress was at level 30, at which point more starts to open up. Level 35 sees a new dungeon (Skullcano Island), which is just as lively as all of the other instanced content so far. Level 40 and 45 introduce The Crimelords of Whitevale and Malgrave Trail respectively, in the form of Adventures -- which as we know, are more open-ended dungeons designed for multiple runs. At this point I'm a little more on board with the Adventure scheme, but at the same time the sheer lack of dungeons isn't ideal. It's admirable that the WildStar team would put more effort into PVP than most MMOs, but for those of you who enjoy PVE, your options are limited. Again questing is fun, but it isn't all that different or exciting compared to the rest of the genre, so players are going to naturally funnel into instances and PVP. Either way the questing process continues -- Level 46 sees the Grimvault zone, which really preps you for all the "Elder Game" content (also known as "endgame"). Leveling up doesn't stop at 50, as you can earn "Elder Gems" to spend on gear. The grind continues! Just a little more horizontal this time. Of course, many players will want to move on to raiding -- the most hardcore goal of any MMO. The Genetic Archives (20-man) and Datascape (40-man) are herculean tasks, and you must attune to them before you even enter. This process is meant to weed out people who aren't serious about undertaking this massive commitment, and even though the attunement questline has since been nerfed, it's still a major time sink, though there are "no plans" to nerf raid difficulty. It might turn you off, but Carbine Studios is steadfast about its intended audience. Let me be clear -- to even attune to these raids you pretty much need the help of a static group of friends or a guild, and it will take you a long time to even do "upkeep" on your character so that you're "raid-ready." These fights take me back to the golden age of WoW, and are worth the squeeze if you have the time. The only problem is over the course of a few months, the amount of people willing to do these raids have dwindled. So if you're looking for a group, it may take more time to find players who will match up with your requirements. Not only that, but real endgame gear and character progress outside of these raids isn't nearly as engaging or viable -- so if you don't raid, you might run out of things to do if you aren't into PVP. WildStar is a very traditional MMO, and it doesn't attempt to hide that fact. As someone who enjoys both the new- and old-school means of thought, I found WildStar to be both a solid foundation of tried-and-true methods and an all-too familiar retread. If you've finally grown tired of WoW and want another hardcore MMO, this is it -- but everyone else may want to wait for a free trial period.
WildStar photo
A great alternative MMO
I undertook a Review in Progress of WildStar at release, and due to a number of distractions and surprise announcements, it's taken me a while to see almost everything there is. But here I am with my Dominion Mechar...

Review: Hearthstone: Curse of Naxxramas

Sep 02 // Chris Carter
Hearthstone: Curse of Naxxramas (Android, iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: Blizzard EntertainmentPublisher: Blizzard EntertainmentReleased: July 22, 2014 to August 19, 2014 (iOS, Mac, PC) / TBA (Android)MSRP: Free-to-play (with microtransactions) Initially I was enamored by the first wing that was given away for free, but in terms of its overall presentation, Naxxramas is fairly bare-bones -- I expected a bit more out of an expansion that costs $24.99 in real money (though if you save up your coins, you can afford it in-game). You're going to get a standard menu with a level-select function, and occasional taunts from big bad Kel'Thuzad, the Archlich. The dialog is cute as it often relies on puns or out-of-character/fourth-wall devices, but it doesn't do much in terms of telling a story or adding to the overall lore of Hearthstone. No, where Naxx truly shines is by providing more solid gameplay elements, and rewarding you with cards that will likely find their way into most decks. If you want more Hearthstone and are tired of playing online constantly -- this is the way to do it. Be warned though, if you're a veteran player with a great deck, it will likely take you an hour or so to clear everything on normal mode, which may come as a disappointment. As someone with a standard deck, I got at least five hours worth of play. After completing the standard battle and earning your cards, you'll have a chance to take on both class challenges and heroic battles. These aren't terribly exciting, but they're something else to do, and the former can earn you even more cards. Think of them like re-hashing previous encounters, with the occasional exception (the Hunter class challenge is a fun minion-based battle that causes you to rethink your strategy). Heroic fights on the other hand are often battles of the random-number-generator (RNG), which can get frustrating. [embed]280068:55532:0[/embed] Not every battle is the same test of brute force, thankfully. Patchwerk is one of my favorite encounters in Naxxramas. As an unconventional boss, he doesn't have any cards. Instead, he constantly attacks every turn for five damage and uses an ability that instantly destroys a minion. You can build a deck just for him, or adapt your strategy to quickly knock out his health before he can act. It sounds simple enough, but he was so vastly different from the rest of the game that I enjoyed it. Instructor Razuvious is another cool fight that involves mind control and taking back enemy minions to do your bidding. Kel'Thuzad himself is actually a "two-phase" fight. There are so many ways Blizzard can theoretically bend the rules to make encounters, although it must be said that Naxxramas doesn't have too many of these unique opponents, and some wings are a bit uneven -- it would be nice if future add-ons had fights that entirely consisted of different mechanics. Hearthstone: Curse of Naxxramas isn't too exciting for expert players, as they'll likely breeze past the content, but as a delivery system for cards, it's novel --  not to mention that all the same cards are given to every person. The bottom line is I'd love to see more add-ons like this in the future, and hope Blizzard supports Hearthstone for years to come. However you look at it, bare-bones or not, Naxx is a great start.
Hearthstone DLC review photo
A clever way to deliver new cards
This year, Blizzard embarked upon an interesting experiment. Instead of just charging people for card expansions, it bundled together an add-on called the Curse of Naxxramas, and released a different "wing" each week. To earn...

Review in Progress: Hearthstone: Curse of Naxxramas

Jul 25 // Chris Carter
Hearthstone: Curse of Naxxramas (Android, iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: Blizzard EntertainmentPublisher: Blizzard EntertainmentReleased: July 22, 2014 to August 19, 2014 (iOS, Mac, PC) / TBA (Android)MSRP: Free-to-play (with microtransactions) After you've unlocked all nine classes, you can enter the solo adventures portion of the main menu and start your quest into Naxxramas. There's five wings, and as previously noted, only the first is unlocked right now for free (for a month) -- the rest will unlock over the course of the next month or so. The pricing scheme is very simple: for each wing, it's 700 gold, or roughly $5 per wing, not accounting for discounts. When all is said and done, all of the content will be available on August 19 for $20 if you picked up the first one free. The good news is this slow trickle of content doesn't really sting, since you truly do have enough to play around with for an entire week. The idea is that it's a single-player affair, but it allows you to add cards to your deck, which will no doubt lead to tons of deck re-working and lots more general play. You'll do battle with three bosses per wing from Warcraft lore like Anub'Rekhan with small voiceovers and a tiny narrative that adds a different feel to the DLC. There's also a new playing board environment to click around in (or tap), which does a decent job of differentiating the adventure. Even if you're a hardcore player who has lots of cards, Curse is going to offer up quite a challenge (mostly on the enhanced difficulty level), which is good news if you're bored of beating down the arena and the AI. Each enemy has a unique hero power, some of which border on the broken (the first boss can summon a 3/1 minion for the same cost as a Paladin 1/1 hero power minion), and most of the cards will force you to rethink everything you know about the current meta. [embed]278600:55013:0[/embed] Inline with the death theme, lots of cards focus on deathrattle and self-damage, making them risky endeavors, but still extremely effective methods of dealing damage to your enemy. Like Warlock cards they tend to have some sort of downside, but have a low mana cost -- so expect to get pummeled right out of the gate. While you could generally beat CPU opponents in the past by throwing the book at them so to speak without any major changes in strategy, you'll have to rethink everything if you want to clear Naxx and earn your reward. There's also a challenge mode to engage in for each class, as well as normal and heroic difficulty settings -- the latter unlocks after your first clear of each wing, and is definitely worth playing over again. What you get out of it after all is said and done is 30 cards (across all five wings), a nifty card back, and a guaranteed legendary card with each unlock. It's not the most amazing set of rewards for a DLC, but for $5 a pop, you're really getting your money's worth if you partake in at least two or three full playthroughs for each wing. Plus, dedicated players will be earning the necessary gold to unlock them for free anyway. Hearthstone: Curse of Naxxramas is a cool add-on so far that gives hardcore players a lot more to do. Not only does it offer up challenging fights with characters from Warcraft's history, but it also kicks off with a free initial taste and some very interesting cards that will mix up the overall meta for weeks to come. I'm looking forward to seeing what the rest of the DLC can do once Blizzard starts charging money/gold for it.
Hearthstone DLC review photo
The Arachnid Quarter
When many Warcraft fans hear the name Naxxramas, it conjures up memories of late nights and pizza, while taking on the tough-as-nails raid in World of Warcraft (or as I know it, Naxx). It was one of the mo...

Review: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (Patch 2.3)

Jul 18 // Chris Carter
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer:  Square EnixPublisher: Square EnixMSRP: $39.99 ($12.99 per month, with a free PS3-to-PS4 license transfer) Released: August 27, 2013 (PC, PS3) / April 14, 2014 (PS4) Over the course of the past week, I've moved on to my Novus quest from the Animus questline, and found myself having a much easier time getting Myth Tomes -- and that's a great thing. For those who aren't aware, earning Myth Tomes (and end-game token currency) took quite a while in patch 2.2 -- I'm talking weeks, or even months if you weren't willing to speedrun dungeons. But in 2.3, hunts, as well as the increased Myth drops all around have made that grind considerably more fun -- to the point where it doesn't feel like a grind in the slightest. At the moment I'm steadily working on my Novus weapon (about a fifth is completed so far), and I'm really enjoying hunting for treasure maps with other players. 2.2 was a good patch in and of itself, but 2.3 has made the game much more accessible in terms of its endgame. Speaking of endgame, the three expert dungeons I discussed previously are still fun to run, and though they're not as conducive to speedrunning as past dungeons (because of deliberate gates), each one has a distinct atmosphere that makes them feel unique. I'm sure I'll get tired of them in a few months, but since hunting has opened up token acquisition, you don't have to run them more than you want to. [embed]278050:54927:0[/embed] Another bit of content I made it to since my last writeup is Ramuh Extreme (EX), which is a very interesting fight for one major reason -- it essentially requires voice chat, or your group is going to have a bad time. The reason for this is because Ramuh will periodically fear two party members, and if they aren't cured by striking them with lightning on purpose, they will slowly walk into him and die. It sounds easy enough to just stack lightning and cure them, but if you get too many stacks you will all explode and die because of overlapping lightning rings. Then you have a soft tank-swap mechanic where both tanks need to run around to collect orbs, lest they take roughly 14,000 damage and instantly die. It's because of this (and more) that lightning-fast (ha) communication is a necessity. Personally, I like that the developers put something into the game that can't be farmed with minimal effort, and they have been swift in terms of patching up potential exploits (like Summoners solo tanking the boss with a pet). It's a cool, unique battle that I definitely will be going in and out of for weeks to come, even if the rewards aren't all that great. I've had a lot more experience with Frontlines PVP (massive 72-person warzones), and I'm having a blast with it. Considering how dull arena fights were in A Realm Reborn, I didn't really have high hopes, but the communication in Frontlines is strong, mostly because the rewards are significant (Tomes and PVP marks) and worth the squeeze. Frontlines is your typical "capture the point" gametype with three different teams, but the action-oriented combat system of A Realm Reborn is conducive to fun team battles, and I've recorded quite a few highlight videos that made my day. Every skirmish is impactful, and can make or break a particular match, which gives a lot of meaning to every encounter and tactical decision. I'm really excited to see where Warzones go from here with more scenarios, but I can easily see playing the current iteration of Frontlines weekly. Then you have the Moogle Delivery and Hildbrand sidequests, the latter of which is one of the highlights of the patch. The Moogle questline will see you delivering letters all across the realm, checking in on story characters to see what they're doing now in the newest patch timeline. It's a goofy little ancillary bit of quests that are fun to do for a few hours, and give you a little minion at the end. The Hildebrand story is once again amazing, filled with tons of comedy, unexpected turns, and unique enemies to fight. By the time it's all finished you'll have done battle with the higher-ups of the Mandragora -- those adorable, but deadly plant people. There's also a nice little tease at the end that Final Fantasy fanatics will appreciate, and a mini-game that will unlock to play at the Inn. I also had a chance to try out Chocobo raising, but it seems more like a table-setting addition than a real worthwhile update. Not only do you need a Free Company (guild) to take advantage of a Chocobo Stable, but you'll have to periodically clean it with expensive materials to keep its XP rate high, and the amount of experience you'll earn is mediocre at best. Until Chocobo training, dying, and racing are implemented, it's kind of a non-issue. The main problem with patch 2.3 is that hunts are so good that they encourage players to min-max them rather than play other bits of the game. That's mostly by way of player choice and not something the developer's forced upon the player-base, but it's something to consider when attempting to do older dungeons -- it's the natural evolution of hardcore MMO players, who tend to move to the most enticing methods of gear acquisition. That's not to say that diversity isn't there though, because it is. In terms of the overall meta of Final Fantasy XIV, high-level gear is easier to obtain in general thanks to hunts, and the Brutal Second Coil difficulty has given the upper-tier players something else to do for a little while until 2.4 drops, which should be an even meatier patch. 2.3 is not a game-changing update, but it succeeds in giving players of all skill levels more to do, which is easily a good thing.
FFXIV patch 2.3 review photo
A welcome, diverse patch
The last time we left off in our assessment of Final Fantasy XIV's patch 2.3, I had experienced most of the tertiary level content, ready to face off against the big boss Ramuh himself in his true form, alongside of playing m...

Review in Progress: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (Patch 2.3)

Jul 11 // Chris Carter
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer:  Square EnixPublisher: Square EnixMSRP: $39.99 ($12.99 per month, with a free PS3-to-PS4 license transfer) Released: August 27, 2013 (PC, PS3) / April 14, 2014 (PS4) So what's new in patch 2.3? In total, you have the new story questline (featuring Ramuh in Hard Mode and Extreme), three new dungeons, a new casual 24-person raid (Sycrus Tower), multiple sidequestlines, Chocobo raising, a new mini-game to play at the Inn, a Savage Second Coil raid difficulty, a new massive PVP mode, and world hunts. So no, there's no Third Coil of Bahamut yet -- hardcore static raiders are going to have to continue working on the Second Coil raid until patch 2.4, or down the Brutal difficulty, which only grants you a title/achievement. Today, I'll be going over roughly half of the content, which I've tested out this week. To kick things off, the new story is titled "Defenders of Eorzea," as it takes you across the entire realm to investigate the Ramuh (pronounced Ra-Moo) disturbance, as well as a hint at a bigger plot that will eventually involve Shiva. Naturally, most of the action takes place in the East Shroud -- the Sylph and nature-heavy zone of the game, and can only be completed after finishing Leviathan's questline at level 50. Eventually, you'll travel all across the world recruiting people from every capital city, before finally ending up in the high-level hub of Mor Dhona to cap things off. Just like 2.2's Leviathan story, 2.3's campaign is roughly five hours or so with cutscenes, and is very much a table-setting narrative that leads into the content you're going to be playing for weeks on end. It's not an amazing addition to the game, but Final Fantasy XIV sincerely tries more than most MMOs in terms of the story, and it succeeds in justifying its dungeons and encounters within the confines of the world. But really here, the meat you're going to want to consume is the Ramuh fight, which you'll have to clear in Hard Mode form first (which also unlocks the new Trials roulette). Simply put, it's definitely one of the most memorable encounters, not only because of the awesome theme song, but the locale, mechanics, and Ramuh's actual character design are very well done. Mechanically it's a lot more involved than most boss fights, since everyone needs to pay attention due to Ramuh's stun ability and frequent lightning bolts. Every so often Ramuh will completely immobilize a party member (which could be a healer), so you need to actually strike your teammate with lightning on purpose to free them. The key is not having too many people stack at once, because then you'll double or triple-up the lightning damage you take. There's a few more concepts like grabbing orbs to break lightning tethers and killing adds, which also contributes to its fun factor. The key is that the fight is always happening -- there's zero downtime like Leviathan or some of the other Primals. Of course, Ramuh also comes with an Extreme (EX) variant, which I've only had the chance to bring down to roughly 60%, so I haven't seen all the mechanics yet. Nonetheless, it's a much harder version that requires a massive amount of communication through voice chat channels -- so I'm not sure of its viability at the moment in PUGs (pick-up-groups with people who don't know each other) until concrete strategies are developed. I'm loving it though. Another massive addition in 2.3 are the three new dungeons: Tam-Tara Hard Mode, Stone Vigil Hard Mode, and Hullbreaker Isle. Like past Hard Mode variants, the new ones are nothing like the old ones, and feature completely new bosses, areas, and enemies. The good news is that there's no real old maid this time around that people will hate getting -- all of the new areas are good in their own way, particularly Tam-Tara HM, which has one of the creepiest and engaging mini-storylines in the entire game. It helps that Square Enix is really learning in terms of boss fights, and managed to make every single encounter fun in their own way -- particularly when it comes to the final bosses of Stone Vigil HM and Hullbreaker, which are a few of the best encounters I've ever played in an MMO to date. You can also really see the Souls influence in Stone Vigil HM, which is nothing but a good thing. Myth and Soldiery tome (the end-game token currency) acquisition is buffed all-around, so you shouldn't see one type of speedrun any more in terms of running dungeons (thank goodness, I'm done with Brayflox forever). Of course there is another big dungeon for people to clear (a raid, rather), called Sycrus Tower -- another 24-man wing of Crystal Tower, complete with four bosses and little in the way of time-wasting trash pulls. It's easily one of the most beautiful-looking areas in the game, and the actual boss fights are created to be simple to understand, yet fun to fight. Although people are already getting them down, it's still totally worth it just to see the battles and enjoy the mechanics -- like the second boss that has you jumping around bounce pads on a giant clock. Just like when Crystal Tower was first introduced, you can only receive one piece of loot per week, which includes the all-new Unidentified Tomestone and Oils of Time items, which were previously only available in the highest raid in the game that typically required a static group (my static is currently working towards Turn 7). What Square Enix has basically done is allow newer players an easier way to gear up, to prepare them for future patches. Although many will view the "one per week" limit as withholding, it's definitely a fair way to ensure that everyone gets something they really want instead of rolling against everyone else, and there are plenty of other ways now to get better gear -- like the hunts. Hunts are by far the most impactful addition to Final Fantasy XIV, and many players are already debating whether or not it made too much of an impact. In short, there are now three ranks of enemies that can randomly spawn throughout the world: B rank, A rank, and S rank. B ranks can be killed by just a few people, A can be soloed by a small party, and S needs roughly 50-100 people depending on the boss to down it. Essentially, they've added an Odin or Behemoth-like encounter to every zone in the game, which makes things incredibly exciting when people start yelling and working together to band players to locate them. Of course, this has led to a gaming of the system of sorts, where top-level players are setting up hunting linkshells (in-game chatrooms), guilds (called Free Companies), and even off-site voice chats to coordinate hunting around the world. If you're a casual player, you likely will never make use of the hunt system, since every veteran hunter will clear them and alert 50 others to a monster's presence before you get a chance to get credit for the kill. To be clear, none of these hunt marks are instanced, so you have people trolling others and pulling them just to mess with people, or groups that secretly kill B and A ranks to ensure that they get full credit for the clears. The rewards are so massive that if you're an efficient hunter, you can get pretty much everything you need without running dungeons. Personally, I'm one of those players who chose to unite with others for a common goal, but Square Enix really needs to buff the health of every hunt enemy outside of S-ranks, or the Hunt system will fall by the wayside and into an abyss of hardcore-only players. Currently, it is not being used as intended, and many players have given up on it all together. This doesn't gel with the inclusive philosophy of Final Fantasy XIV, and needs to be changed as soon as possible -- personally, this was my only big problem with patch 2.3 so far. Based on my current tests 2.3 isn't a mind-blowing patch, but it nonetheless offers up more great content that should keep people playing for quite a while (how long they stick around until 2.4 though without another real raid, I'm not entirely sure yet). The real key is that everything is viable in terms of earning end-game tokens for top-level gear, so you can choose the way you want to play and not feel like you're going at a snail's pace. Stay tuned as I make my way through the sidequests, try out chocobo raising, play more Frontline, work on downing Ramuh Extreme, and test out some of the other features for an extended time.
FFXIV patch 2.3 review photo
Ramuh shakes things up
MMOs are constantly evolving beasts. Particularly in the subscription realm, developers are always searching for ways to keep players hooked, usually in the form of major updates -- big content patches that help ease the wait...

Review in Progress: WildStar (Mid-levels)

Jul 07 // Chris Carter
WildStar (PC)Developer: Carbine StudiosPublisher: NCSoftRelease: June 3, 2014MSRP: $59.99 ($14.99 flexible subscription fee, with 30 days included in base game) After slowly making my way through the very traditional quest system, I found myself at the first big milestone in WildStar at level 14 -- instanced player housing. Although it's not quite as exciting as Ultima Online's open-world placement, this is easily one of the best housing systems ever created in an MMO, and fans of housing in general will be more than pleased. First off, getting your instanced house in the sky is as easy as accepting the quest in your capital city, and entering the area by way of a teleporter -- which grants you a recall spell for your housing plot that you can use at any time after that. You'll start off with an empty plot, but WildStar gives you enough to set down a small house and furnish it with a few pieces. You'll earn more by purchasing them or by way of enemy drops. The house editor is simple to use, and follows a grid-like pattern for placing and removing objects. I spent a few hours just re-arranging furniture and trinkets and actually had a good time, as the bright and vibrant visuals make everything come to life in its own way. You can also create crafting tables in your home, as well as resource nodes and even daily quest hubs -- it's awesome. The floating motif is a perfect way to explain the instanced design, and it looks beautiful. [embed]277426:54779:0[/embed] Here's where it gets interesting beyond the aesthetic level -- if you rest at your home area, you'll get an increased amount of rested XP as a bonus to your leveling process. Also, extra furniture can contribute to an extra bonus depending on the parameters. It's by no means required at all to level-up at a decent pace, but it's a nice way to reward players for pimping out their house. Getting around is as easy as ever with taxi waypoints, teleportation points in major quest hubs, a capital city recall and your housing recall spell. The next milestone is mounts, which are obtained at level 15 for 10 gold -- roughly the amount you'll earn by selling vendor trash items from the start of the game. It's a completely fair price and one most players will earn even without trying that hard. Whereas a lot of other MMOs gate off mounts until later in the game or make them extremely difficult to purchase, WildStar does it right by letting relatively low levels enjoy themselves with a few big milestones. Having said that, there definitely is a gating process, as advanced mounts and better riding skills aren't unlocked until level 25, for a heftier sum. Although WildStar is quick to hand out some perks and bonuses early, it smartly withholds a lot of good rewards as well so you have to work to unlock them. This is particularly true of the attunement quests for endgame raids, which we'll get to later down the line. Ok, so all of that ancillary stuff sounds great, so let's talk about the meat of the game. In terms of questing, I have to say WildStar is fairly consistent. Although it never really transcends the genre in terms of "kill this" or "gather that," it manages to present said quests in fun ways due to the cartoony nature of the game, and some wacky out-of-the-box thinking. For instance, one quest will task you with gathering berries on a farm -- but with a jetpack as the catalyst, leaping 50 feet into the air to scrub the berries off trees. So beyond normal world map leveling, what else can you do as you work towards 50? Most notably at level 15, the instanced path begins to really open up, leading to Adventures, which are essentially WildStar's take on dynamic dungeons. Rather than have players grind out the same dungeon over and over to level-up, Carbine Studios has crafted a "choose your own adventure" of sorts, plopping players into a scripted, but unique mini-sandbox to complete. On the Dominion side one of them is a prison assault, tasking you with dodging snipers at the start -- but that's the only real static event. From there, you'll get to choose a series of events within roughly five waves, all of which can offer something different, and up to three unique bosses to fight. It really is just a wheeled dungeon with a lot of little spokes, but with objectives such as "defend the point" or "complete the puzzle," to break up just killing enemies over and over. Level 25 has another Adventure, as does level 30. All of these have ranks, the top of which can be achieved by not wiping once and completing the Adventure in a certain amount of time -- so there's something extra for high-level players to shoot for. I didn't have any desire to repeat these Adventures more than five or so times each, but the fact that Carbine was able to pull them off and cram multiple instances into one is impressive. At level 20, you'll unlock another dungeon (which differs depending on your alliance). These are the typical PVE MMO experience -- trash mob pulls, then bosses, rinse and repeat. The good news is WildStar's telegraph system really shines in big encounters, so even if they are fairly paint-by-numbers affairs, they're still fun to play with a group of friends. Carbine has done a good job of providing guides to said dungeons for new players, so they don't have to seek out information elsewhere. At level 15 you'll get a new PVP battleground called Halls of the Bloodsworn. It's a 10v10 map that involves control points, much like Domination in Call of Duty, but with set "attack and defend" teams at any given moment. I found this mode to be more engaging than the first PVP location (Walatiki Temple), which often had a decent amount of downtime when the talismans weren't in play or near your person. Now in Bloodsworn you're constantly fighting for points, and at any given moment each team has a concrete role and an idea of what to do. It leads to more intense group fights, and given the great combat system it's a ton of fun. Level 30 hosts an arena mode, which should placate a lot of competitive PVP fans. Just like World of Warcraft and many other MMOs, there are 2v2, 3v3, and 5v5 options -- but with a twist -- the arena uses the "Life Pool" system unique to WildStar. Instead of ending the fight immediately after everyone dies on a team, WildStar allows people to come back if they have a life pool available -- in other words, you can immediately respawn and kill enemies that were hanging on for dear life with little to no HP left. It's not mind-blowingly different, but it's an option for those of you who enjoy the always classic arena play. So let's take a hard look at levels 1-30 in terms of instanced content outside of the inherently diverse PVP that feels new every round -- you have two adventures and two dungeons. While an adventure does technically count as multiple dungeons, the fact remains that the actual location remains the same, and it's easy to get bored of entering the same place over and over. All in all if you don't enjoy PVP, you're stuck with four instances until you reach level 35, which unlocks your next location. It's not the most ideal situation for those of you who prefer leveling in dungeons outside of the confines of traditional world leveling, but the fact remains that WildStar offers more options to level up than pretty much every other game out there. Odds are you're going to find something you like and stick with it, and the best part is -- all of these avenues are viable. WildStar is very much a traditional MMO, but it does a lot of things right and I am enjoying myself overall. Whereas many MMOs launch these days with very little to do outside of questing, Carbine Studios has done right by its fans, ensuring that people won't quickly unsubscribe as they approach the level cap. It's a noble effort, and shows that the developer isn't willing to half-ass its game just to make a quick buck. Stay tuned as I make my way up to the level cap and see how the game fares beyond the first month of a subscription.
WildStar review photo
Levels 14-30
[We'll be reviewing WildStar over an extended period of time. For more details, check out our Reviews in Progress program.] As we all know, MMOs can drastically change not only over the course of months of...

Review in Progress: WildStar (Early-Access)

Jun 02 // Chris Carter
WildStar (PC)Developer: Carbine StudiosPublisher: NCSoftRelease: June 3, 2014MSRP: $59.99 ($14.99 flexible subscription fee, with 30 days included in base game)  As a frame of reference, my character is currently a level 13 Dominion Mechari Warrior. Exile is the faction, Mechari is the race, and Warrior is the class -- with the power to tank or deal out damage (DPS). Yep, you read that right, WildStar is an old-school MMO in that it adheres to the holy trinity of tanking, damage, and healing, for better or worse. It's not that strict though in terms of locking classes into singular jobs, as every class in the game can perform two of the trinity's roles with various specs (ability choices). So instead of being stuck at max level with just one role for months on end, you'll have the choice to switch between multiple jobs -- for Warrior, I can either tank or DPS, the latter of which I'm going to use to level to 50. Speaking of races and classes, there's a decent amount of customization within the game's character creator tool, and the races themselves have more variety than the average MMO. There's plenty of humanoid choices, as well as tiny rat people (Chua), poison elves (Mordesh), robots (Mechari), rock people (Granok), and a few others. Odds are you'll find something you'll want to play as with the class system as well, since melee, ranged, stealth, and support roles are all intact in addition to the trinity itself. [embed]275535:54137:0[/embed] Early game in WildStar is instanced (like every other MMO these days), which serves two purposes -- to acclimate you to the game in a controlled environment, and ease the load of everyone jumping into the game at the same time. You'll learn the general setup of the the game and the planet Nexus, why both factions are warring, and so on. It's a short hour or so intro before you head off to Nexus' surface, which will happen around level three. It's here that WildStar starts to show off its openness in terms of the leveling process. In addition to PVP, instanced dungeons, and open-world questing, you'll also be able to choose a "path" -- like exploration or combat -- that helps you earn new abilities and special path levels separately. If you just like combat, you can be a Soldier and do more quests that way, or if you're sick of fighting things constantly in every game, you can do other activities like running around and finding new locations. It's not a game-changer, but it's a refreshing change of pace from other MMOs that mostly feel like combat grinds. There are also fun world events in the form of challenges and group bosses to help mix things up. Having said that, regular questing feels very standard, and it almost all consists of kill and gather quests. Carbine has made some concessions to the formula by giving you more "credit" towards quests by killing stronger enemies -- so you don't have to keep killing the same thing over and over -- but at the end of the day it's the same result. There really isn't a whole lot of leeway here, and after level seven things really started to feel like a standard MMO grind. The good news is you can level in other ways, most notably in PVP. You'll get access to PVP early (sadly, world PVP doesn't come until level 30 or so), in the form of a single battleground called Walatiki Temple. It's basically Capture the Flag with neutral flags (in this case, masks), and direct duels and group combat is inevitable. It's always intense because you can steal masks from other bases, and you won't have to wander far for a skirmish, which is a great thing. Not only is this a viable method of leveling, but it's also a particularly fun PVP system for one major reason -- the telegraph system. Simply put, WildStar telegraphs (shows) all its attacks from both friends and foes. Friendly attacks are designated with a blue color on the ground (in the shape of the attack), and enemies are red. This gives you a chance to not only dodge attacks, but coordinate heals, stuns, and group attacks with teammates. It feels more action-oriented than most games, but still retains that tactical overhead MMO feel that other games have. It really comes together when you're having an intense fight with lots of dodging involved, only to find out that you have to further dodge other world hazards, which are also telegraphed. It's not as fast-paced as TERA's combat, but it's a great middle ground for those of you who feel like the old style of MMO combat is outdated. Jumping puzzles and even dodge puzzles are fully intact, which also breaks up the monotony. WildStar is a particularly pretty game, mostly because of the cartoony art style that isn't afraid to use more than dark colors. It's reminiscent of World of Warcraft for sure, but much worse from an optimization standpoint. In other words, if you have an older PC and are attempting to run WildStar, you likely won't push a frame rate over 10 FPS. It's strange, because the game doesn't look as incredible as say, Final Fantasy XIV, but it runs slower on the same machine. Hopefully more optimization will occur in future updates to alleviate the problem with older machines (I'm currently achieving 60 FPS consistently with a high-end laptop, but a lot of fellow players have been complaining about poor optimization as well). Carbine Studios has responded to early access server issues by opening up new ones, though queues for the old servers (where your friends likely are), are huge. I'm talking five hours or more, and it's clear that they will need to ensure that this doesn't happen with the game's launch tomorrow. Of course, after about a month when the game loses some subscribers (standard practice for MMOs), things will likely even out. It's not ideal but it's far from a complete disaster in terms of an early launch. We'll keep you posted. Nothing about WildStar's early game experience blew me away, but there's not a whole lot wrong with it either from a traditional MMO perspective. As we all know MMOs open up the more you play them, and with the dynamic "choose your own adventure" events coming up as well as the always crucial endgame test, be sure to stay tuned as I work my way through all of the content. For now, I'm having fun -- but we'll see if it's worth paying a subscription for.
WildStar review photo
The first three days
[We'll be reviewing WildStar over an extended period of time. For more details, check out our new Reviews in Progress program.] The time has finally come for WildStar to back up all that hype. For yea...

Review: The Elder Scrolls Online

May 09 // Chris Carter
The Elder Scrolls Online (Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 4, Xbox One)Developer: ZeniMax Online StudiosPublisher: Bethesda SoftworksRelease: April 4, 2014 (Mac, PC) / June 2014 (PlayStation 4, Xbox One)MSRP: $59.99 ($14.99 subscription fee, with 30 days included in base game)  My experience with ESO started off very promising. Its early game is one of the best in MMO history, because it establishes a clear-cut goal, enemy, world, and cast of characters to actually care about (if only marginally, although I'm a big fan of Michael Gambon's performance as The Prophet). Every five levels or so you'll acquire more story quests that draw you further into the game's core storyline, and all things considered the writing is about on par with the rest of the series. Combat is also well done, and the absence of an auto-attack is no doubt polarizing to some, especially in an MMO. But in first-person, it really feels like an Elder Scrolls combat system. Hits have an impact, and there's a lot of strategic choices involved, including dodging, blocking, counter-attacking, and choosing the right ability for the job. The leveling system is also more open-ended than most, and I really enjoyed experimenting with pretty much every type of build my heart desired. Instead of leveling the exact same way as someone else, I could instead choose to be completely and utterly different, and it was rare when I saw another player with the same skill choices as me, if ever. It's a weird mix of a traditional Elder Scrolls game and the MMO genre, but it worked, and most of the solo-instance dungeons are fine because hey -- it was acclimating you to the game and its world, which is totally understandable. [embed]273921:53826:0[/embed] Quests though, are very vanilla, to be frank. Although there is the occasional spooky ghost and interesting monarch that actually dole out said tasks, most of them are "kill this enemy," or "deliver this item." I'm talking hundreds of them, and they comprise the vast majority of the roughly 150-hour quest from level one to 50. You'll also have to compete occasionally with other players when hunting down objectives. As someone who grew up with the MMO genre and is used to immersion-breaking quests where multiple people are hacking away at a major enemy, it doesn't really bother me much. For those of you expecting a 100% Elder Scrolls experience though, it will feel jarring and foreign. When I said it was a "weird mix" of multiple genres, I mean it. Dungeons are also very well designed by a team that knows how to handle them. Right from the get-go dungeons aren't just boring fodder to run because you need to run them -- you'll actually have to pay attention and adapt to enemy and boss strategies. Dungeons also tend to have massive amounts of enemies pull at one time, preventing tanks from just picking up one or two in the lot. As I mentioned previously though, the dungeon finder tool needs a complete overhaul, as it's utterly useless at the moment and unreliable. There's also no incentive for anyone else to go back and do them, so you could be waiting hours to find a queue. That's not the chief problem I had with the leveling process, though. My biggest disappointment with ESO is how much of a slog mid-game became. For the first 20 levels or so, it's smooth sailing with a number of dungeons to work through, environments to explore, and plenty of quests to grab. But once you start completing more and more and work your way up to level 25, you'll find yourself running into a cap of sorts, where things not only start to feel like a grind, but it actually becomes one. One of the things that contributes to this feeling are the pitiful world events.  Mainly in the form of Dark Anchors, these events are similar to Rifts in the MMO Rift (and FATEs in Final Fantasy XIV), but a lot less fun and rewarding. Since the party/group tool is so bare-bones, you'll have to resort to shouting across world channels to assemble a posse, and once you actually win, you might get a marginally better item if you're lucky. Whereas other MMOs have options if you aren't into questing all of the time, The Elder Scrolls Online's XP choices are rather slim in terms of actual returns. It constantly funnels you into questing to a fault. Crafting is great in theory (both the rewards and the process are quite fun), but the game really needs an Auction House at some point in time. ZeniMax has gone on record telling fans to go to a third-party website to establish trades instead of an in-game solution, which is pretty absurd. There are Guild Stores and a few options in terms of hitting up chat, but the response from ZeniMax regarding trading has been disappointing so far. Once you reach the level cap, things pick up in some ways, but in others, they drag on just as much as mid-game. At level 50, you'll reach the "Veteran Rank," which allows you to further rank up past 50 -- basically a new maximum level cap within the cap. It's almost like a prestige mode in a first-person shooter, with all of the rewards and shortcomings that come along with it.  You'll be running on a new XP system, earning "Master Points" by way of Master Dungeons, PVP, adventure zones, and otherworld content. At the moment, Veteran content is fairly slim. You can venture into the other two factions that you didn't choose and start working your way to the new cap, but it feels very grindy, and since a lot of the quests mirror the ones in your own faction, there's not much incentive to keep going. Craglorn is the first major update coming, adding a new zone for Veteran Rank characters, as well as two 12-person dungeons -- but right now I don't see hardcore fans sticking around for much more than a month after they've mastered everything. It's admirable that ZeniMax does have a plan, and on paper the Veteran system is pretty incredible, but it needs content sooner than later. PVP is hit or miss depending on how well your team decides to work together, but the developers don't reward you enough to entice you into playing until you're at Veteran Rank. Often times when people aren't using teamwork on a particular server you can't get anything done, and the world PVP zone of Cyrodiil is too big if the fight is underpopulated. In other words, it just feels like roaming around a big, empty world. Another cool thing about endgame is that if you actually persist with Skyshards (items you can find hidden in the world that grant skill points), you can get practically any skill you could possibly want. Rather than re-roll or even re-level a character in some MMOs, one skill-heavy character is capable of more gameplay variety than most -- again, if you can put up with the leveling slog and justify the subscription fee. I think right now, the most prudent thing to do is to wait for ZeniMax to iron out all of The Elder Scrolls Online's kinks (including how it handles post level 50 content to make it less grindy), and play the console version of the game. Not only will it arrive with all of the updates from the PC version in tow, but it'll also have full native controller support -- which feels more natural than a mouse and keyboard in this instance. Personally as an MMO player, I think I'm mostly going to be putting my time in the near future into Final Fantasy XIV and WildStar until that happens.
ESO reviewed photo
In some ways, it's elder alright
It's been a long month in The Elder Scrolls Online, full of ups and downs. At first, ESO wowed me unlike essentially any other MMO before it. Similar to Lord of the Rings Online but with much more bravado, the openi...

Review: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (PS4)

May 02 // Chris Carter
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer:  Square EnixPublisher: Square EnixMSRP: $39.99 ($12.99 per month, with a free PS3-to-PS4 license transfer) Released: August 27, 2013 (PC, PS3) / April 14, 2014 (PS4) MMO fans often say the game starts at the level cap, and when you hit 50 in A Realm Reborn, that saying still rings true. There's a ton of content to explore and go through, especially when you take the massive 2.1 and 2.2 patches into account. One of the first questlines you might embark upon is the Relic weapon quest, which runs upward of 100 hours to complete in all -- and that's not even including the extensions to the quest that are planned in future updates. You'll start off simple enough. After reaching 50, you'll have the option to get your Relic, which is basically your starter weapon to really get you ready for endgame content. It's a lengthy but painless questline that takes you through a number of trials (boss fights), and it's truly your first real taste of what endgame has to offer -- since all of the dungeons before it aren't really a true representation of how the fights work after that point. The Relic quest is engaging, fun, and best of all, it's worked into the core and personal storylines of the game. I really enjoyed getting a free purple weapon for my troubles, and wish more MMOs had a similar mechanic. Of course, you don't stop at the Relic, and after completing a number of dungeons and earning 900 Mythology Tomes (more on those later), you can upgrade it to Zenith, which makes it glow, and by proxy makes you look more badass (it has better stats too, also glows). After that, you can do the Atma questline to upgrade it even further. Your job is to do a bunch of FATEs (world events) and earn one piece of Atma in nearly every region in the game, which has a very low drop rate per FATE (it's estimated at roughly five percent). This part could take you anywhere from 20-50 hours on its own, and it's extremely divisive in the community as to how fun it is. Personally, I grabbed a posse in each area either by way of the moving gravy train from FATE to FATE or by making good old-fashioned friends, and we shot the breeze the entire time -- so for me, it was enjoyable. After that you can go for your Animus, which involves collecting nine "books" (at 1,500 Myth Tomes apiece), and filling out said books by completing old dungeons, killing enemies around the world, and doing more FATEs. The key thing to realize is that this is a time sink designed for hardcore fans, and it's completely optional. Many classes have better weapons that drop from endgame fights just like any other MMO, and the weapon questline is basically just a way for people to spend time and reach something that's roughly the equivalent of hardcore static raiding. If that sounds absolutely terrible to you, patches 2.1 and 2.2 have added more story to the game, and it's a lot more manageable than a 100-hour weapon quest. You can choose to continue onward with the narrative after your heroic raid on The Praetorium, which eventually leads to a confrontation with Leviathan. It's a short but sweet collection of quests that feels justified and has a payoff -- I'm looking forward to seeing what Square Enix comes up with in the future (Ramuh is rumored for a future patch). You can also spring for another completely optional encounter with Gilgamesh, which will put you front and center with Hildebrand -- one of the most ridiculous characters Square Enix has come up with in ages. On this questline you'll oil up old gentlemen, take a dip in the hot springs, and come face to face with killer chickens as they attempt to gobble you up. All of that classic Final Fantasy humor is still there, including a brand new Battle on Big Bridge remix and an actual showdown with Gilgamesh. Both of these extra post-50 stories are roughly five hours each and a ton of fun. Once those are out of the way you can start working towards the main goal of any MMO: earning more gear so you can do harder, higher-tier raids and dungeons. The beauty of A Realm Reborn is in how detailed the "Duty Finder" is -- which gets even better at level 50. The Duty Finder is the same tool you've used while leveling to enter dungeons and trials, but now you can take advantage of a number of high-level roulettes (which choose random dungeons) to earn extra rewards. The beauty of the Duty Finder is that it funnels max-level players back into old dungeons (by syncing their level and stats while providing them with appropriate rewards), so that newer players aren't screwed by lengthy wait times for their dungeon queues. You can do any given roulette once per day for bonus rewards. Two of those rewards are Tomes of Mythology and Soldiery -- which help you earn better gear for turning them into a specific NPC (think Badges in World of Warcraft). Soldiery rewards are capped per week, but you can run as many dungeons as you want to earn Mythology tomes currently, which encourages you to keep playing day after day. Once you've exhausted all the fun you can have in four-man dungeons, you can opt for Extreme trials -- most notably the "Extreme Primals," which is where the game starts to get really tough. For some, this is the dividing line between a good and an okay player, as you'll have to constantly dodge and react accordingly -- sometimes down to a half a second reaction time. It's these battles where I really fell in love with A Realm Reborn, and they show off that the designers know how to craft intense, rewarding fights. Almost every encounter forces the group to adapt in a completely new way (Garuda tests tanks, and Ifrit tests healers, for instance), and I loved learning each and every facet of the fight. You can also opt to explore the Binding Coil of Bahamut (presented in five floors called "Turns"), a fight with a Moogle King, the 24-man Crystal Tower raid, and the Second Coil of Bahamut -- the latter of which is the newest dungeon that requires a static group. Many of these battles deserve a spot in the Final Fantasy hall of fame, and shouldn't be missed by series fans. So yeah, about that last bit. Around Titan Extreme you will hit a point where the Duty Finder that matches you up with random people isn't cutting it. Players either don't look up a crash course on how to proceed or refuse to learn, and without making connections with people you can trust, your fun factor may crash and burn like any game that relies on other players. To help ease this pain a bit you can use the "Party Finder" tool, which lets you set up certain gear requirements to weed out people who just want to be carried through the tough fights. The only issue is the Party Finder isn't all that elaborate, and you can't really set anything other than item level and class requirements. While there are plenty of "learning groups" to help teach people the fight first-hand, it would be a boon if you could require players to have at least completed the fight one time. But that's the nature of MMOs -- sometimes your fun is reliant on the people you hang out with. If all of this endgame stuff bores you, thankfully A Realm Reborn has a ton of other stuff to do. For instance, I'm currently working on a Paladin in addition to my 50 Dragoon, and I'm loving every minute of it. Even though I'm going through many of the same areas, I'm having a blast because of how beautiful and well designed they are. You can also opt to go for the Disciple of the Hand or the Disciple of the Land classes, which basically translate into crafting and gathering classes, respectively. Here you'll roam the world in a different way -- in search of nodes and resources as you solve the various puzzle-like crafting recipes on your way to the level cap. Crafting generally isn't my thing in any MMO, but rest assured the system itself is extremely detailed and well done. There's even master-level quests at level 50! If you hate the sound of that, there's even more to do. For instance, there's an NPC in one town that grants you special rewards (like a tiny chocobo with a pope hat) for completing certain achievements. You can fight world bosses like Bahamut or Odin in rare FATEs that spawn and garner over 100 participants hacking away at the same enemy. There are treasure hunts that you can embark upon with other players in search of loot. There's player housing, complete with land plots, hundreds of pieces of furniture, and full towns to roam around and explore. You can glamour your gear to make it look like anything you want (within your class), earn new mounts and pets, raise your rank in your core story faction, and complete daily Beast Tribe quests for more rewards. The only lacking areas in the above sections are PVP and Beast Tribe dailies. The daily system is very bare-bones at the moment, as you can only complete a small amount of tribe quests per day in total -- not just for one specific faction. The rewards also take weeks to earn, which doesn't really inspire anyone to do them. With an increased cap and better faction reputation rewards though I'd easily complete more. PVP is also very limited. While other MMOs like Guild Wars 2 blow it out of the water, A Realm Reborn limits things to arena fights. While they do work on a base level, I have no real desire to play PVP in the slightest outside of earning some cool-looking gear to glamour. Battlegrounds and other interesting fights need to be added at some point, because at the current moment the scales are heavily tipped in favor of PVE -- which isn't much of a problem for me, but will be for a lot of prospective players. It would also help if there were a few extra quests that were particularly lengthy outside of the Animus weapon storyline. At the moment, players are heavily grinding Mythology tomes and nothing else. There are also a few technical issues that feel odd when juxtaposed to the relatively complex nature of things like the Duty Finder. When engaging in an instance, the game segments players off-server -- so if you want to whisper to someone who's currently engaged, you can't even reach them. While some players probably don't like being disturbed during intense fights, a simple "do not disturb" command (/dnd) would solve that issue instantly. The chat program in general is pretty bare-bones as well, with very little in the way of instant commands. Whereas World of Warcraft can have you switching between party chat, guild chat, and whispers in seconds, A Realm Reborn is often limited by the fact that it doesn't offer any outside mods of any kind. While it's nice that the game is "clean," so to speak, I come across an issue every week that could be solved by a simple mod. Despite those issues, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is my favorite MMO since World of Warcraft. It has a lot of things going for it, tons of content to explore, and best of all -- lots and lots of support. I have no doubt that the popularity of A Realm Reborn will continue to rise with every major update and expansion, and I wish Square Enix nothing but the best. I didn't think it was possible, but they have absolutely atoned for the original mess that was Final Fantasy XIV -- and then some.
Final Fantasy review photo
Worthy of being called a core Final Fantasy
At this point, we've talked about the early-game mechanics of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, and the trip to level 50. Now it's time to really put out a final verdict based on everything patch 2.2 has to offer, up to and ...

Review in Progress: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (PS4)

Apr 18 // Chris Carter
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer:  Square EnixPublisher: Square EnixMSRP: $39.99 ($12.99 per month, with a free PS3-to-PS4 license transfer) Release Date: August 27, 2013 (PC, PS3) / April 14, 2014 (PS4) To be clear, this review will center on the game as a whole, but I'd be remiss to not mention how wonderful the leveling process is, even if it partially consists of typical MMO kill/fetch quests. The sheer beauty and variety of the worlds will keep you going, as will the beautiful soundtrack -- which I'd place right next to some of the other franchise greats. Despite the simplistic nature of the quests, there are tons of things for you to do while leveling, and only a small amount of story tasks require the help of a static group (I got to 50 by mostly soloing content). You can opt for the main storyline, sidequests, exploration and gathering/crafting (which has its own level system and rewards), FATEs (world events), dungeons, and more. Playing on the PS4 is also a major step up from the PS3, as the framerate issues of Sony's prior platform are now gone, and the game looks like it's jumped from low settings on PC to maximum. I've had no problems doing level 50 content as a melee class on a console (I'd reconsider as a healer), and if I needed to, I could just hook up a mouse and keyboard. It helps that the PS4's touchpad acts as a makeshift mouse, complete with clicking motions, and that Vita remote play is completely viable for questing. Once I made the long trek to 50 with my Dragoon, I was surprised at the sheer amount of content available -- and not just hardcore raiding or throwaway content. There's roughly 10 more hours of story that's been added since patch 2.2, culminating in an epic primal fight with Leviathan -- a summon more than a few Final Fantasy fans will recognize. [embed]273187:53379:0[/embed] There's yet another 10-hour side-storyline involving the comedy relief character Hildebrand, which concludes in a "Battle on Big Bridge" fight with Gilgamesh -- another fan-favorite character. You also get a Magitek armor mount just for completing the core story, which is a perfect reward for fans of FFVI. At first glance you'd think this is all just fanservice, but it's integrated into the game in a great way that doesn't detract from the experience one bit. You also get to totally run away from a chicken after Gilgamesh turns you into a frog -- and yes, he runs away at the end in comedic fashion. Beyond that, those who aren't comfortable with tough raiding content (typically eight- or 24-man instances) will have plenty to choose from with the insanely fun four-man dungeons, some of which have been reskinned in the form of a "hard mode" (similar to heroics from WoW). The beauty of this system is that it mimics World of Warcraft's "badges" mechanic, in that you always get something from doing high-level dungeons, even if you don't get any loot. Specifically, most max-level instances drop Tomes of Mythology and Soldiery, which can help you get some of the best gear in the game. Heck, one of the best weapons you can get early into max-level content (Relic) is conveniently worked into a story-like quest. If you're confident enough you can also jump right into hard mode primal fights, including Ifrit, Garuda, and Titan, as you work your way up through their extreme mode variants -- which will really test your skills as an individual player. And really, that's one of the best parts about Final Fantasy XIV's endgame -- once you work your way up to Titan hard mode, the game really comes to life and shows off how well the fights are designed. You'll really have to learn your class and work for a kill, and it becomes extremely rewarding once you've vanquished most of these foes. It's a feeling I haven't really experienced since the original World of Warcraft was in its prime, and the beauty is there are tons of tiers available for the most casual and hardcore of players. These fights are littered with fanservice (as you can plainly see), and even go as far down in the Final Fantasy rabbit hole as FFVIII's Diabolos. It's crazy how unpredictable the game's post-50 content is -- I was left guessing at every turn, and sometimes completely overwhelmed at how much patches 2.1 and 2.2 have added to the game as a whole. If you ever were curious about FFIXV, now is the time to jump in -- this game has more support in less than a year than most MMOs have in general. At present, I'm working my way through most of the extreme mode encounters, as well as some of the last bits of content like the first and second Coils of Bahamut. Once I've touched pretty much everything the game has to offer at present, I'll give you a final verdict on what I think of it overall (hint -- I love it so far). Also, count on more impressions and coverage of all major patches for A Realm Reborn for the foreseeable future.
Final Fantasy XIV review photo
My favorite MMO since World of Warcraft in its prime
Last year close to its launch, we reviewed Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn -- so what's with the retread, you ask? Well, that was before we implemented our Reviews in Progress program, which was designed to cover games...

Review in Progress: The Elder Scrolls Online (Early-Access and Launch)

Apr 04 // Chris Carter
The Elder Scrolls Online (Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 4, Xbox One)Developer: ZeniMax Online StudiosPublisher: Bethesda SoftworksRelease: April 4, 2014 (Mac, PC) / June 2014 (PlayStation 4, Xbox One)MSRP: $59.99 ($14.99 subscription fee, with 30 days included in base game)  Before you start to consider ESO, it's important that you understand how classes work. Currently you have the option to spring for four distinct choices: Dragonknight, Templar, Sorcerer, and Nightblade. Even though you could easily match these up as Warrior, Restoration Paladin, Mage, and Rogue respectively if we're using World of Warcraft comparisons, the way ZeniMax has structured the game is more like a mix of tradition MMOs and Elder Scrolls sensibilities. Like any entry in the franchise, even if you're a damage-centric class, you can still pick up a healing staff, equip it, and earn a whole new skillset of restoration abilities -- allowing you to use spells of the same type. You can also throw on some light, medium, or heavy armor at any time, and put skill points into either of the three trees to boost your effectiveness with each type. In theory, you could make a Dragonknight that's formidable with a two-handed weapon, heavy armor, a healing staff, and light armor. Racial skills, faction skills, and guild skills add yet another layer of depth on top of that, making this one of the most detailed MMOs I've ever seen in terms of the customization of abilities and powers. Sometimes I'd just sit and stare in awe at the skill-up menu, wondering what to put my points into. And speaking of points, they're extremely plentiful as finding three "skyshards" on the world map will net you one, and major quests as well as level-ups also net you one each. [embed]272686:53268:0[/embed] While ZeniMax admirably trumps the Tank, Healer, and DPS triumvirate (that's either blessed or plagued MMOs based on your perspective), the fact of the matter is it still exists. Even for low-level dungeons you'll have the option to queue up in the group finder as "tank, healer, and DPS," and all four player parties will still need to follow the trinity in some fashion. So while it does offer up new options similar to A Realm Reborn's class-switching system, it's not that revolutionary or deep. The true test of ZeniMax's vision will be with Veteran content, once people start working their way up to the maximum level cap of 50. Combat is a bit more pared down from most MMOs, which fits the general Elder Scrolls design that's been employed in more recent entries. Your skillbar can fit five abilities at a time, including a sixth slot for an "ultimate" -- a powerful skill that you'll have to slowly boost during fights for periodic use. While your general pool can surmount to over 50 skills in total, you can only employ six of them at a time -- effectively forcing you to create your own "builds" at any given time. The good news is that pretty much everything is balanced, so you don't really need to worry about "wasting points" or going for a cookie-cutter build. I'm sure as time goes on people will craft leveling guides and standard builds, but for now I feel like everything I pick up is worth it in some way, which is a good feeling. Once you hit level 15 you can also queue up two builds to switch off between at the touch of a button, which is convenient. A full first-person mode on top of all this adds another layer to combat, and I've stayed in first-person for roughly 90 percent of my time with the game. Quests (read: the vast majority of the game) are a double-edged sword though. One one hand, there's lots of lore built in here. Fans will love to see big namedrops, lots of backstories on their favorite races and factions, and I know more than a few of you will be excited to step foot in some of your favorite locations. ZeniMax has really stayed true to the core series, and they've filled the game's world to the brim with tiny tidbits that add to the world. You'll be able to find lorebooks in the world, fight alongside famous characters, and embark on a few epic quests that feel right out of a mainstead Elder Scrolls game. But on the other hand, the quests themselves are still standard MMO fare, which will no doubt turn off those who aren't already accustomed to the genre. The fact of the matter is the leveling process is slow, likely designed to keep you playing for long periods of time to accrue more subscription payments. The good news is there's tons of content there for you to engage in, as nearly every zone has around 100 quests to mess around with. For ZeniMax's first MMO, it's crazy how much they've packed into the world. But still, you really can't avoid the fact that around half of those are "go here, kill this enemy, or fetch this item" quests that have no real bearing on anything. There's nothing worse than grabbing five boring quests in an area, and fighting with other players to grab the limited amount of objectives. It's not only silly to see tons of people jumping around and warring over inconsequential things, but it's also frustrating, and can sometimes impede progress. Phasing (which basically puts players in different "instances" of the open world) helps, but sometimes an area can get so crowded that I've actually abandoned a quest. What's odd is that ZeniMax has designed a great deal of quests with phasing in mind (where players can all "grab" the same item or objective without it disappearing), but a heap of them utilize limited-use objects, forcing you to wait around until a quest piece respawns. There are a lot of great quests in the game overall though, and I really think ZeniMax has achieved the perfect balance of writing and voice acting. Whereas The Old Republic wasted millions on full voice acting, ESO only uses it when it needs too -- namely on story-related quests every five levels or so, or on major questlines. The game has a lot of voice acting in general, but for the most part these roles are relegated to industry veterans like Steve Blum and Jennifer Hale -- leaving only a few characters to the likes of Hollywood, most notably Harry Potter's Dumbledore himself, Michael Gambon (who does a fine job). Actors like Bill Nighy, Kate Beckinsale, and Alfred Molina are also peppered in for good measure, and only where it counts. As a side note, John Cleese has been heavily promoted for the game, but he's barely in it. Right now ESO also has the tried-and-true Fighter's and Mage's guild, which both have their own massive questline in addition to the main campaign. Sadly, there's no Thieves Guild or Dark Brotherhood at this time, but ZeniMax already has plans to add more guilds and major factions to the game. While I really enjoy the core quests, there really could be more meaningful factions to even out all of the fetch and kill quests, so these can't come soon enough. Speaking of menial quests, ESO has a rather odd experience curve that I started to notice around level 15. Simply put, dungeons barely give any experience outside of the first story chain-related clear, and earning XP through PVP is extremely difficult because of the requirement to assemble a group to really complete most of the quests. So basically that leaves you at the mercy of completing world quests, and I found myself running out of them with no real alternative. Most MMOs provide a substantial XP bonus for dungeons (thus ensuring you never hit a wall), and A Realm Reborn even goes so far as to offer repeatable quests (Levequests), bonus rested XP, a heap of grouping tools, and a fair amount of experience from standard mobs -- ESO has no such consolation. Make no mistake: it will take you a long time to level, even if you're powering through it. In terms of mechanics, there are lots of little things missing that I take for granted in other MMOs, and eventually, it adds up to some amount of frustration. For instance, there's no real minimap, and players are at the mercy of the "compass," situated on the top of the screen. Remember how in Elder Scrolls games you're generally flicking through a map to see where stuff is? Well imagine doing that in an MMO -- constantly. The user interface is also minimal, which is a refreshing change of pace from most genre staples, but in some cases, it's too minimal, as the XP bar doesn't display any details, and health, mana, and stamina bars disappear constantly without exact values. There's also no way to mark target orders in dungeons. These are all things that should come standard in an MMO in 2014. If the community is there, mod support will help ease the pain, but you can't guarantee that. For what it's worth, two of the biggest mods out right now alleviate the two aforementioned UI woes. One of the major shortcomings is the weak dungeon finder tool. In most modern MMOs, you can open up a menu and automatically queue up for any dungeon you'd like. That feature is in Elder Scrolls Online, but it's so bare-bones that it resembles something an MMO would have had nearly a decade ago. Whereas the standard is to use matchmaking to prepare a group, bring up a prompt, and drop you in a dungeon, ESO simply puts you in an available party where you're standing with no fanfare or bells and whistles. This creates a certain degree of entropy, as players often have no idea what instance they even queued for or what their role is, and drop out of the group constantly. I hope ZeniMax eventually updates this tool so it's actually useful in the future. Once you're finally in a dungeon though the fun starts. In addition to the two level 12-15 instances I played earlier this week I also had a chance to check out a few more, including several level 20 areas. It's very clear that ZeniMax is educated on the genre (Matt Firor of Dark Age of Camelot fame is legendary), and pretty much every pull is enjoyable in some way -- this goes double for the boss fights. Early fights are generally tank-and-spank fights with adds (a lack of multi-phase on-the-fly strategic change-ups, sometimes with additional creatures to handle and clear out), but they're fun, and often mix things up with interesting mechanics. For example, one boss channels an ability that makes one party member a bomb, forcing them to run away to mitigate damage before it detonates. Another creates tons of tiny crabs that fill the battlefield that need to be taken care of with AOE (area-of-effect) spells or abilities. While none of these encounters are rocket science for MMO fans, they're still engaging, and the dungeons themselves are well designed and beautiful to look at. I'm very excited in seeing what Veteran dungeons and raids look like if these early instances are indicative of what's to come. In terms of the overall server quality, ESO is one of the smoothest launches in MMO history. Not only did ZeniMax employ a "megaserver" solution to allow everyone to play on the same realm, but I also haven't had more than one disconnect -- which was the result of a service patch during the Early Access week period. While there are a few bugs still present during some quests, a lot of them have been squashed by a major update two days ago. It's nice to see ZeniMax staying on top of things. I see a lot of promise in Elder Scrolls Online. But right now, I wouldn't recommend the game for newcomers to the genre, or those of you who don't really care about the Elder Scrolls lore in general. But for the people that do meet that criteria -- I think you'll have a ton of fun experimenting with builds, roaming around the world looking for skystones and other secrets, and fighting through the game's challenging and well-designed dungeons. Stay tuned in the future as we stick with the game and see if it has staying power.
Elder Scrolls review photo
The first 20 levels
[We'll be reviewing The Elder Scrolls Online over an extended period of time. For more details, check out our new Reviews in Progress program.] I've been hard at work playing Elder Scrolls Online this week...

Review in Progress: The Elder Scrolls Online (Early-Access)

Mar 31 // Chris Carter
The Elder Scrolls Online (Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 4, Xbox One)Developer: ZeniMax Online StudiosPublisher: Bethesda SoftworksRelease: April 4, 2014 (Mac, PC) / June 2014 (PlayStation 4, Xbox One)MSRP: $59.99 ($14.99 subscription fee, with 30 days included in base game)  As of right now, I have a level 12 Imperial Dragonknight after roughly 14 hours of play. To break down my character, the Imperial race abilities supplement sword and shield setups, and the Dragonknight class operates as a melee attacker of sorts, with the ability to go DPS (damage) or Tank as you see fit. Before I begin though, it's important to realize one thing -- you can only select the Imperial race by purchasing the Collector's Edition, thus locking out a hefty piece of content for standard subscribers. I understand that ZeniMax wants to sell some sort of premium add-on, but MMOs typically go the route of cosmetic items and extra pets (which are already offered) -- not something that directly impacts gameplay. I sincerely hope they open up Imperial creation to everyone very soon. With that out of the way, the Dragonknight class is actually pretty fun, as it's a mix of both a warrior and mage class in standard RPGs. You'll have the power to get in close and wreck shop with a weapon of your choice, but you'll also have a number of magical abilities at your disposal like molten-hot chains that drag your enemy towards you (think Mortal Kombat's Scorpion), enchantment powers, and stun/root spells. [embed]272638:53198:0[/embed] Combat as a whole feels more active than most MMOs -- but at a price. While I was engaging in particularly tough questlines or dungeons (more on those later), everything just clicked. I wasn't just wailing my left mouse button to attack on a constant basis -- I had to choose my skills effectively, move around, and adapt. It was a refreshing change from most MMOs where you stand in one spot and auto-attack while you cycle through your rotation. But fighting easy enemies and questing throughout the world does feel repetitive by comparison, because all you really need to do is just hack and slash away with very little thought. Elder Scrolls fans will probably be fine with it, but those of you who get bored easily won't be pleased -- in other words, ESO does not transcend the genre by any means. You're able to use the first-person perspective throughout the entire game, which is a much needed and welcome addition since it makes the game feel very different when compared to most MMOs -- having said that, the rest of the game is standard fare, to the point where I wouldn't recommend it to those of you who haven't already played or enjoyed an MMO. I joined the The Ebonheart Pact, which basically means my early-game zones take place in Morrowind (I couldn't resist). The Aldmeri and Daggerfall factions start you off in the Summerset Isles and High Rock, respectively -- places any Elder Scrolls fan will recognize. But to a non-fan, it looks like a standard fantasy rendition, with very little discernible landmarks in tow. While I was entertained by the constant name-dropping of characters such as Vivec and the like, a lot of people simply won't care. The game basically has a mix of Guild Wars and old-school MMO sensibility for questing -- and while the systems in place aren't as complex as the former, the quest system is well designed for the most part. Grouping isn't necessary for completing most objectives, and I found myself grouping by proxy on many occasions -- which were often the most fun experiences I had. It really feels like the multiplayer Elder Scrolls game we've always wanted when you play in first-person despite the mundane nature of many of the quests. That feeling came to a head when I played my first two dungeons (available at level 11): the Fungal Grotto and Spindleclutch. These are filled with group encounters and boss fights are a far beyond anything the franchise has ever seen before, and are extremely satisfying to run through, especially with a group that's willing to work in tandem. If your passion is getting together with fellow players and figuring out brand new strategies and bosses, The Elder Scrolls Online has delivered so far -- I just hope it can keep things rolling with mid- and end-game content. I should also note that the community is very welcoming and helpful in general -- especially those who use the looking-for-group function to team up for dungeons. It's a stark contrast to some of the experiences I've encountered in other MMOs. I've only come across a few bugs so far -- a far cry from the typical Bethesda release, and impressive for an MMO in general. The major one I ran into temporarily impeded the progress of a major story quest, involving the demonic Balreth boss encounter. To solve the issue of a particular part of the quest not working, I logged out, then back in, didn't loot the boss, and everything was good to go. Another bug I ran into was the fact that my horse mount dismounted every so often after a jump -- almost like some bits and pieces of zones are marked as "non mount zones" -- but it's a minor inconvenience at worst. There are a few blemishes, however, that veteran MMO players will notice. Right now, there is no player housing, no auction house, no minimap (the series standard top-loaded compass is intact, but mostly inefficient), and no controller support. Thankfully there is mod support, which is the saving grace of ESO in a lot of ways when it comes to modern conveniences. Modders have already created a minimap and other features for the developers, which is good news for players. At this time, I can safely recommend The Elder Scrolls Online to people who are both fans of traditional MMOs and Elder Scrolls in general -- everyone else should probably pick it up on a sale or wait and see how the subscription fee system fares. Stay tuned as we cover The Elder Scrolls Online throughout the launch -- next on Friday evening after testing out roughly a week of the live environment and the launch-day festivities (or wait queues).
Elder Scrolls Online photo
Our first 24 hours in Tamriel
[We'll be reviewing The Elder Scrolls Online over an extended period of time. For more details, check out our new Reviews in Progress program.] In many ways ZeniMax is fighting an uphill battle with Elder Scrolls Online....

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For games that need more time than the average release
For years now readers have been asking us to cover more MMOs and open-ended games, and we didn't always have the resources to do so. But starting this week all of that is changing, as we're now rolling out the new "Reviews in...

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