tempest in a teacup

the pointless musings of a strange recluse

Holiday Steam sales will be the end of me

Here’s what I picked up, during both the Thanksgiving and Christmas sales on Steam:

  • Mirror’s Edge (already beaten – they weren’t kidding when they said this was a short game)
  • Prince of Persia: Warrior Within
  • Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones
  • Prince of Persia (the new one)
  • Crysis Maximum Edition
  • Torchlight
  • Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition

Backlog doubled, just like that :(

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Things about TF2 that need to change

Just some thoughts I’ve been meaning to pen down for a while. They’re rather long, so I’ve hidden them behind a jump.

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Oh hey I forgot I had a blog

Well, not really…I just haven’t had much to write about. But now I do! And guess what, it’s about TF2 again. Namely this.

In this update we can see the results of some of the playtesting that league players have been involved in. Well, sort of. Since I’m lazy I’ll just C&P some stuff I wrote about the update at the Orochinagi forums, and add a bit more for clarity.

Sandman nerf

Stuns are still annoying, but at least they can’t take out ubers now. Although I will lol the next time a Sandman scout tries to tag me and gets one-shotted by my rocket. Although chances are I’ll end up getting critstunned by some jackass who decided that it was a good idea to switch his loadout now that the Sandman doesn’t take away his double jump.

Critboost on intel cap

Pretty stupid idea if you ask me. If you want people to attack more on CTF maps, then make turtling harder/less rewarding than it is now – don’t give a team that happens to cap once the ability to shit out instant death for ten seconds.

Every time I play ctf_turbine I inevitably imagine how much more fun the game would be if there were no engineers on either team.

KOTH mode

Fun. I like it more than arena since it emphasises the best part of the game (capturing and holding territory). Maps like koth_nucleus don’t really have any unassailable sentry spots either so defense depends more on how good your other classes are. I think koth_viaduct is way too small for 24 players though – my box has trouble keeping 60fps on that map and the point turns into a spamfest very quickly.

ctf_sawmill

Haven’t actually played it in a real match yet, but I like how 1) your spawn is BEHIND the intel room, making it easier to attack and 2) the intel room is tiny, making it hard to maintain a sentry down there. Kind of sad that they cut off the paths that go by the waterfall though.

Autoreload

Handy for certain classes (Soldier, Demoman, Scout) not so much for others (Spy). Thankfully there’s a cvar to turn it on and off so you can make it class-specific.

I haven’t tried cp_yukon yet mainly because the players on the servers I tend to play on seem to have a vendetta against 5CP maps, even though I think Granary and Badlands are probably among the best maps the game has to offer. Every time RTV comes up everyone votes for Goldrush, Dustbowl or (on particularly bad days) Pipeline :(

Another somewhat depressing thing this update has taught me is how so incredibly few people actually know how to play Soldier effectively. Valve inadvertently broke rocket jumps for a full weekend when they tried to undo some self-damage changes they had made to the Demoman. The ability wasn’t taken away, but the damage received by the Soldier was reduced, thereby reducing the distance he could propel himself. Normally simple jumps like going straight up to Well’s third floor from the second point, or jumping onto Gravelpit C from the ground level, or flick jumping from the battlements on Badlands to the spire all became difficult or impossible to do.

And yet I saw SO MANY supposed ‘career Soldiers’ adamantly insisting that RJing wasn’t broken. I mean, I’m not awesome at Soldier, yet the fact that RJs were broken was blatantly obvious to me from the moment I booted up the game after the patch to fool around in the new maps.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s wrong to expect the same level of interest in advanced techniques from everyone I end up on a server with (in a game whose skill ceiling is rather low for a multiplayer FPS to begin with). But TF2 pubs are starting to push all the wrong buttons for me – I’m getting tired of having to deal with teams consisting of 4 W+M1 Pyros, 3 Huntsman Snipers and 4 sticky spamming Demomen. What’s worse is when those people are on my team. No, PyroFan23423562, you can’t W+M1 into that sentry and destroy it. Sorry.

I’d start playing PUGs or something but I don’t know anyone else who does it…

Oh, and for some perspective, I’ve been playing Soldier almost exclusively for quite some time now (I occasionally switch off to Medic, Demoman, Spy or Sniper as needed, or if I think I can get away with it). Mainly thanks to this awesome Soldier tutorial:

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Apparently someone at Valve heard all the Sandman bitching

Apparently there’s a big TF2 update coming up…and Valve is soliciting input from high-level players (i.e. league players) on how to balance it

This is probably the most exciting TF2 news I’ve read in ages.

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Gaming odds and ends

This post might be a little disjointed – I’ve been playing a bunch of games recently and thought I’d just pen down my thoughts in one single post since I don’t really want to write five separate posts in one night.

Team Fortress 2

Valve has patched the game twice since the Scout update, yet the Sandman remains unfixed (although they did manage to break rocket jumping while trying to fix an exploit that made it harder for Snipers to get headshots, and they did break Natascha’s slowdown effect yet again). I’ve played in a few big games since the update, and I’d say the stun is overpowered even if you discount the fact that it affects ubercharges. I have not yet seen a single Scout that doesn’t try to tag me with the ball the moment I see them, and in a few circumstances they’ve managed to stun me for extended periods at close range, allowing them a free kill. One particular incident that comes to mind occurred on the second point of the second stage of Dustbowl – I was playing Soldier and standing on the point when a Scout ran out from the central tunnel, ran up to the point and threw his ball at me. I was stunned for a good 3 seconds or so, and this was from being tagged at close range.

The response from the competitive community has been very clear. CEVO has banned the Sandman, and from what I’ve heard a bunch of the other leagues like ETF2L have followed suit. Keep in mind that this is the first unlockable weapon that they’ve actually banned. If I recall correctly they didn’t even ban the Pyro’s Backburner back when it granted a ridiculous 50-point health bonus.

The response from the rest of the TF2 community has been less distinct. While there are a few players who recognise that the weapon is clearly overpowered, the vast majority of the community’s response has been ‘LOL LERN2TEAMWORK.’ By this they’re implying that somehow Pyros need to have their entire team with them when they try to circle behind enemy lines to attempt an ambush, so that they can successfully fend off a class that they were previously on a reasonably even footing against. And of course, if your Medic successfully builds up an ubercharge by being a good healer and deploys it on a friendly Demoman in order to take out a Sentry farm, only to have his uber rendered useless by a flying baseball, that’s his fault for not being a team player.

Surely the absurdity is obvious.

I’m hoping that, like they did with the Backburner, Valve will realise what a terrible beast they’ve unleashed and make some sort of fix. A popular suggestion seems to be to change the stun effect to something akin to the effect of Team Fortress Classic’s concussion grenades, but honestly I think they need to go back to the drawing board with this unlock. Never mind that there are a few achievements that depend on it – go back to the design phase and get it right this time. And for God’s sake stop getting your unlock ideas from the Steam forums.

I’m starting to wonder if I should be playing Fortress Forever instead…

Lost Planet

This was recently on sale on Steam for the irresistable price of $5. I’d only ever played the demo previous to this, and I thought it was alright, so I decided to see what the full game was like (even though the superior Colonies Edition is out now). I’ve played the first few missions, and it’s not too bad. I can’t quite get 60fps out of it, but shooting up giant bugs in snowy wastelands is pretty fun. My main complaints so far are that the game is kind of easy (I haven’t died once yet) and that Wayne’s default movement speed is a little on the slow side, even when he’s piloting one of the giant VS mechs. I guess I’ll see if these continue to be problems as I progress through the game.

Still, this has me interested in the recently-announced sequel – I wonder what improvements Capcom will bring to the table.

King of Fighters ‘98 Ultimate Match

I started playing KOF (and indeed, fighting games) with King of Fighters ‘99, but I respect KOF’98’s place in the order of things. Given that disclaimer, I rather like ‘98UM. It doesn’t have most of my favourite characters, but the (remarkably solid) system changes they’ve made to the original game make this a must-buy for any KOF fan, I’d say. Most of the changes they’ve made revolve around making Extra mode more interesting, and it seems to have worked. Extra mode users now benefit from the ability to cancel normals into dodges, and to cancel certain special attacks directly into MAX mode. On top of that they can choose when they want to break stock unlike vanilla ‘98 where the bar started draining as soon as it filled up.

In addition, the new Ultimate mode, which allows you to mix-and-match subsystems from both modes, poses some interesting possibilities. Do you want the mobility afforded by the roll, or will you trade that for the ability to dodge and quickly counterattack (and extend your combos using the quick dodge)? Do you want the ability to do SDMs at any life level, or would you rather have the ability to max out in mid-combo for the possibility of turning your otherwise staid B&B combo into a more damaging variant?

As for the quality of the port itself, fortunately the US version of the game seems to have turned out pretty well – progressive scan support is intact, and as far as I can tell the game has been brought over more or less unmolested, which should be a relief for anyone who was horrified by Ignition’s handling of the PAL versions of King of Fighters XI and NeoGeo Battle Coliseum.

So yeah, if you don’t have the import version already, go out and get this one. It’s $20 – you really have no excuse if you claim to be a KOF fan.

Street Fighter IV

I’m still getting used to the physics and timings, but at the very least my win ratio seems to have improved a little (in that it is no longer zero). My MadCatz Tournament Edition FightStick arrived two weeks late, but I used the Amazon gift certificate I was given as compensation to buy a PS2->PS3 controller adapter so I could use my old Tekken 5 Hori stick with the game until it arrived (makes me wonder why I didn’t do it earlier, actually). So far I’ve mainly been sticking to Ryu and Abel, with some failed attempts at using Fei Long and Dhalsim (both of whom apparently have a pretty steep learning curve). I’ve played a few games online, mainly against Orochinagi members; I’ve played a few random strangers, although I haven’t run into any of the Ken players of legend. I suppose I should be thankful.

On a side note, the MadCatz stick doesn’t work for PS2 games. I don’t know why I didn’t see this coming, as this was also the case for the Sega Virtua Stick and the Hori PS3 sticks when they were released. The best I can hope for is for support to be added in the next PS3 firmware update, I guess.

BlazBlue

Now, I haven’t actually had a chance to play this game yet, but PS3 and 360 ports were announced recently. A lot of fighter fans are understandably excited about this, but a potential issue with the port has already been raised. The arcade version of BlazBlue runs at 1280×768/768p, while both current-generation consoles are locked to outputting at 1280×720/720p (and indeed, won’t let you play the game at its native resolution). The full extent of the problem is laid out pretty clearly over at the Insomnia forums.

In short, it looks like the great sprites and backgrounds are in danger of being butchered by scaling. If the blurry upscaled sprites in all of SNK Playmore’s Atomiswave releases bugged you, well, this is just as bad. Possibly worse, since it’s one of the first high-definition 2D fighters, and really deserves more respect.

At this point, given that ArcSys can’t go back in time and re-program the game to output 720p in the first place, the only real thing they can do is to crop 48 lines from the top and bottom of the display to avoid affecting the sprites. This is what they seem to have done, but the screenshots still lack the definition of the arcade version. A rep from Aksys (the company handling the US release) has gone on the record as saying that apparently the screenshots they released of the 360 and PS3 versions were smaller in size to make them ‘download friendly’. This just seems ridiculous to me, given that stuff like this is typically distributed through special press FTP servers where presumably bandwidth wouldn’t be a concern.

We’ll have to see how this shakes out, but I am rather worried that we’ll end up getting a butchered port of one of the first high-def 2D fighters.

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Griping about Valve

A lot of gaming news sites and blogs trumpet Valve as one of the finest developers in the industry, regularly producing excellent games and otherwise shitting gold. I’ve certainly suggested that I think of them highly, both here and elsewhere.

Recent events have shifted this view of mine somewhat – particularly the Team Fortress 2 Scout update.

I don’t think I would draw much ire if I were to state that TF2 isn’t a great competitive game (regardless of what my review says; it was written when I wasn’t really knowledgeable about the game, and I should probably delete it). The game, in the form that it’s played on public servers, tends to revolve around explosive/flamethrower spam, choke points and the use of ubercharges to get past these choke points. The presence of the ubercharge is pretty much the only reason why the game even holds together at this level, if you ask me – it’s the only tool available to get through chokepoints and break stalemates, outside of perhaps an unusually coordinated Spy rush. And let’s not forget about critical hits and random damage.

(The competitive format of the game has none of these problems. obviously – the 6 vs 6 format and class limits on Demomen and Medics mean that spam never becomes an issue. And of course, crits and random damage are turned off)

So given that the ubercharge is pretty much a tool designed to break stalemates (a design goal specifically called out by Valve in their developer commentary for TF2), I have no idea why they thought that giving the Scout a new weapon that would basically nullify ubers would be a good idea. The motivation behind this weapon (and at least one of the other unlocks) seems to have been ‘the Scout doesn’t survive too well in the spam-dominated public game environment, so let’s give him something to cope with them.’

As if that wasn’t enough, the same weapon basically makes the Heavy useless. He already has trouble dealing with Scouts when he doesn’t have his gun spun up, and now he’s basically a walking bullseye target when he does have his gun spun up.

If anything, that betrays a key flaw in the way Valve is approaching TF2 balance – competitive games should be balanced with high-level play in mind. More often than not games that are balanced for high level play (Starcraft, Quake III Arena, any number of great fighting games) end up being good games at lower levels too. Instead of trying to balance the game for pubbers they really should be balancing it according to the needs of competitive players – for instance, making the Heavy, Sniper, Pyro, Spy and Engineer more viable in high-level play than they are now. Granted, if they had done this, the game would probably not be anywhere near as popular as it is now, but shouldn’t good design trump marketing considerations?

On another Valve note – Left 4 Dead.

I’ve been playing Versus mode a lot recently, and I have to say that playing as the Infected is great fun. There’s nothing quite like when a good plan comes together. Unfortunately, the other half of the experience – the Survivors – is considerably less interesting. The best strategy is to camp in a corner or a chokepoint while spamming your melee attack. Melee attacks don’t do that much damage, but they do keep you from taking damage rather effectively, and you can basically spam it infinitely. In theory the Smoker is supposed to counter this tactic, but smoked Survivors can easily be freed by hitting them with a melee attack, and you only ever have at most one Smoker on the Infected team. I really think that the melee attack needs to be given a longer cooldown, or they need to have some sort of timer that prevents you from melee-ing non-stop.

On a side note, I’ve recently been playing Quake Live, and if anything it’s revealed to me how terrible I really am at multiplayer FPSes. Of course, I’ll be playing it a lot more because it’s basically Quake III, and Quake III is awesome.

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TF2, according to the experts

One of the things I do to pass the time when I’m bored is read the official Team Fortress 2 forums on Steam. A lot of different types of players post there, but the most interesting posts are the ones from the people who play the game competitively. Particularly since when you try to hold TF2 up to competitive standards, it starts to show some flaws.

There are a few issues that tend to come up again and again – I’ll try and go over the most important ones.

Damage Calculation

TF2 is different from a lot of other shooters in that weapons don’t do a fixed amount of damage. Instead, the damage a weapon does is a number within a range. The damage ranges are different depending on the distance between the shooter and the target. For instance, the Scout’s scattergun does 85-105 damage at close range, 10-40 at medium range and 3-10 at long range. In most cases this isn’t an issue, but it is rather an issue for certain characters. One example typically brought up is the Demoman – his sticky bombs have a very wide damage variation (actual numbers can be viewed here). This isn’t an issue for Demomen who use their stickies to trap choke points since they typically use multiple stickies in such a situation. However, at high levels of play Demomen tend to rely on tactics like midair sticky detonation, and this is where the unpredictability of the damage starts to bite. Arguably, medium range direct combat should be the Soldier’s forte rather than the Demoman’s, but I see a lot more Demomen being used in this capacity than Soldiers, probably because they can get similar results without being hobbled by the Soldier’s small clip size and long reload time.

Another argument that also comes up fairly often is that the use of damage ranges rather than fixed numbers also makes the outcomes of fights more unpredictable and lessens the impact of individual skill (a point which comes up fairly often).

Hit Detection

This mainly has to do with hitscan weapons (like pistols and shotguns). Apparently visual indications of damage (like blood) don’t always correspond to actual damage being done. So a Scout who’s hopping around like mad firing his scattergun can see the blood particles, but it doesn’t mean he actually hit him. This, needless to say, is pretty silly. I’ve only seen one thread on the topic (and it’s dropped off the front page of the TF2 forums) so it’s hard to say how common this issue is. I certainly haven’t seen it affect me all that much, with the exception of long-range shotgun blasts and maybe Engineer/Scout pistol spam.

Lag Compensation

This is somewhat related to the point on hit detection. Unlike its predecessors Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament, Valve’s Source engine netcode has extensive lag compensation. In games like UT, the player sees his action execute with a delay that represents the lag he’s experiencing. In other words, if a player clicks his fire button, the game actually fires the weapon only after the server has been notified and has acknowledged this action. Under high-ping situations this results in a noticeable delay for every one of the player’s actions.

The Source engine does away with this by keeping track of state on the server and then ‘rewinding’ the state when an action notification arrives. It then checks to see where the target was when the command was given and then updates its state accordingly. This has the effect of being more charitable to people with laggy connections, but it can result in some odd results for people not handicapped in such a manner. For instance, a laggy Sniper can headshot someone who appears out in the open to them, but by the time the server figures out the person has been headshot, that person has retreated behind a wall – yet dies anyway.

Competitive players seem to argue that it’s easier to deal with the lag by adjusting your timing than the unpredictability of lag compensation – this is arguable. In any case, it sounds like they just want an option to turn off lag compensation at the server level, which is a reasonable option that doesn’t affect the game for regular players.

Critical Hits

This is probably the biggest thing that the competitive community has complained about (and already addressed). Critical hits are high damage attacks that for the most part occur randomly (with a few exceptions – all Sniper headshots are criticals, all Spy backstabs are criticals, and any attack while being charged by a Kritzkrieg are criticals). It’s possible to increase your chance of getting a critical hit by racking up kills, subject to a cap of 25% (which gets reset after you die).

Needless to say, the competitive community balked at this randomness being introduced into the game, and as a result pretty much all competitive games are played with crits turned off. However, as far as I know most competitive leagues still allow the Medic’s Kritzkrieg as it is deterministic (100% crits no matter what), and can be a game-changer under certain situations.

Again, much like the use of damage calculation, crits have the effect of lessening the impact of individual skill – a good Scout can still be taken down by a mediocre Soldier if he gets a lucky crit. Having been the beneficiary (and target) of several lucky crit rockets, I’m pretty sure that removing crits was the only way to go for competitive play.

All that said, Valve has catered to the competitive crowd in their numerous updates – Arena mode in the Heavy update was targeted at them (the characteristics of this mode make it ideal for competitive play), and more recently they removed the setup time from Granary, one of the most favoured competitive maps, which was a change that the competitive community had been asking for for a long time. On top of that, in spite of all the flaws I’ve mentioned (and doubtless a few others that I’ve missed), TF2 is still pretty successful as a competitive game (although not nearly to the extent of the old faithfuls Counter-Strike and Quake III Arena).

I’ve only recently gotten back into first-person shooters after a long absence from the genre (before I got my current desktop the newest one I had played was probably the original Half-Life), so reading about what makes high-level FPS play tick is pretty damn interesting to me. I hope this little overview was at least slightly interesting to you as well.

On an unrelated note, in spite of my misgivings I’ve gone ahead and preordered Sonic Unleashed for the Wii. I intend to use it as a gauge of whether the PS3 version will be worth my cash come December, although of course the $10 discount coupon I got from Amazon for my next video game purchase didn’t hurt either.

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