tempest in a teacup

the pointless musings of a strange recluse

Achieving nothing

I was reading a thread about the upcoming Left 4 Dead Survival Pack on one of the Internet forums I frequent today, and I came across a rather strange quote from one of the forum regulars:

I think all DLC that doesn’t bring in new achievements with it should be free, and if it’s not, it should be pretty cheap. I’m talking 100MSP.

It wasn’t the fact that he was willing to pay for DLC that struck me as strange (that seems to be a fixture of our times) – it was that he viewed achievements as worth paying for.

I have quite a bit to say on the subject of achievements in video games, but I’ll start off by saying that anyone whose buy/not-to-buy decision is based on the availability of achievements for a particular game is a gibbering idiot.

Harsh? Maybe. But I can’t really put it any other way. Achievements are largely pointless in the grand scheme of things. They’re really just a way to artificially prolong replay value by adding silly tasks for players to do, some of which run contrary to the whole point of the game. They’re a bonus, nothing more, and they’re most definitely not worth anything.

For instance, take the infamous gnome achievement in Half-Life 2: Episode Two. This achievement gives you credit for successfully bringing a lawn gnome, found near the start of the game, to the final area and stowing it in a rocket before the end of the game. Keep in mind that while doing this the game has you drive a car (which the gnome has the habit of frequently falling out of) over a large distance while engaging in several large gun battles. Is the ability to do this rather ridiculous task really worth any money at all? Is the game worse off for their exclusion? Obviously not.

Alright, admittedly it’s not such a big problem in single-player games. Heck, I’ll admit to going back and replaying HL2: Ep Two while trying to get the achievement where you squish all the antlion grubs (which is pretty much where I drew the line). It’s when the spectre of achievement farmers begins to haunt multiplayer games that I start to take umbrage. As a prime example, here’s a revealing quote from madlep, one of the main contributors to ubercharged.net (a major Team Fortress 2 blog):

You know how I mentioned that I top scored as pyro at the beginning of the post? IT WAS BECAUSE THE ENTIRE SERVER WAS FULL OF MEDICS TRYING TO UBER DEMOMEN JUMPING OFF CLIFFS, MEDICS TRYING TO UBER SCOUTS, OR MEDICS TRYING TO UBER FIST HEAVIES (or the scouts or heavies or whatever from their clan helping them out)

Ridiculous stuff. What the hell did valve think would happen when they put such moronic criteria for the achievements in there?

You can read the rest of his post, which deals with the mentality of achievement farmers, here.

That post was written shortly after the first content update for Team Fortress 2, where Valve added three new weapons and 36 new achievements for the Medic class. The achievements would have been harmless by themselves, but Valve tied the new weapons to your progress in obtaining the achievements, resulting in the tomfoolery that madlep described above.

The problem with adding achievements to multiplayer games is pretty clear – the rules and mechanics of the game are already sending you a strong signal as to how you should be playing (this is true of single player games as well, but like I said above I don’t consider achievement farmers in single player games to be that big a deal). Good Team Fortress 2 players know that Scouts should almost never be ubered, that Medics who run off trying to kill enemies with their syringe gun aren’t doing their job, and that Heavies running around punching people while ubered are colossal morons. Yet the achievements tell players to do these things, and say that they will be rewarded for doing so! Absolutely asinine.

Valve, perhaps realising this would be a problem, has made the criteria for the subsequent achievement packs much more reasonable – the Pyro and Heavy Achievements stick more closely to what players are expected to do with those classes (although there are still some pretty weird ones in there). Still, the fact that players needed to unlock them in order to access the new content rendered the game almost unplayable for the week following the respective updates. You would see teams with six Pyros per side, with pretty much all the other players on fire at the same time. Classes like the Scout and the Medic became practically useless – It was a truly ridiculous state of affairs.

The game is already telling you how it should be played – why not listen to it for a change?

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So I just played the RE5 demo on my PS3

I’ve only played the Wii version of Resident Evil 4, so someone please tell me – were the aiming controls as sluggish in the PS2 and GameCube versions of RE4 as they are in RE5? I don’t mind that you can’t run and gun like you can in Uncharted, but seriously even on the ‘Fastest’ setting the cursor moves way too slowly.

The Wii version supports classic controllers, so I suppose I could go figure that out for myself…

On another, happier note, Valve has updated Team Fortress 2 today with what most people would regard as a surprisingly good update. Among the changes are a couple of things that the competitive crowd has been asking for for a long time:

  • The ability to turn off random damage at the server level (something which I alluded to in an earlier post)
  • The ability to turn off weapon models or adjust the weapon models’ FOV (to improve the viewing area)
  • The ability to turn off the ‘nemesis’ icon above characters’ heads (this was giving away enemy positions)

In addition, they’ve made changes to how critical hits and random damage work in the normal game – the ranges for random damage have been reduced from ±25% to ±10%, meaning that we should no longer see the Demoman occasionally one-shotting Scouts and Snipers with his grenades. On top of that critical hits have been changed, and for the better, I think. The base chance to crit that every player has has been reduced from 5% to 2%, and the maximum it can go is now 12% as opposed to 20% before. On the other hand, Valve has also reduced the amount of damage you need to deal in order to get a bonus to your crit chance. The idea (according to them) is to make crits less random and more based on recent performance, which is a good idea – in theory, at least.

There are a bunch of other fixes, most of which are assorted class buffs and bugfixes. They’re mostly being overshadowed by the stuff I mentioned above, though – the Steam forums are honestly going nuts right now. And this is before the Scout update has even been revealed…

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What I’ve been playing lately

Time for a good old-fashioned gaming post!

Company of Heroes

I finally decided to put some RTS gaming on my backlog. This game is developed by Relic, who are also responsible for Homeworld and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War (as well as the upcoming Dawn of War II) – so their catalogue is pretty strong. As one would expect, therefore, Company of Heroes is pretty good. It focuses less on base management and more on front-line battle tactics, unit placement and maintaining supply lines (by holding territory). I’ve played a few missions of the first single-player campaign and it’s pretty great so far. As far as balancing goes, it seems to take a similar tack to Starcraft in that your units all have distinct strengths and weaknesses, and you need to use them to compensate for one another.

Team Fortress 2

I’ve been trying to play more Soldier and Spy, but honestly, I’m terrible at both, so I almost always end up falling back on my ‘safe’ classes – Pyro, Medic, Heavy and Engineer. Soldier is tricky for me since I’m still trying to get used to aiming ahead of where my opponents are, which isn’t always easy to do when they’re running straight at you. On the other hand, once I do manage to juggle opponents, capitalising on it to finish them off is something that’s starting to come naturally to me. Spy, though…man, those Youtube videos make the class look so effortless, don’t they. I think the most backstabs I’ve gotten in one life is 3 or 4.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence

I’m actually pretty close to putting this to bed. I’m at the final boss fight (which is annoyingly difficult because of the terrain and the associated time limit, not to mention the fact that outside of first-person aiming mode MGS3 has the same old clunky gun controls from the first game. I will say that the game as whole is pretty good, although I honestly think that the interface for selecting stuff like camouflage is pretty clunky (they did away with it in MGS4 which is good) and the entire hunting/food system serves no purpose other than to annoy the hell out of you. CQC I thought was kind of cool, although I don’t think I necessarily used it to its full potential.

Fallout 3

I decided to press on with the game inspite of my initial misgivings. The game is actually quite hard if you try to play it like a run-and-gun FPS. Which you can’t, really, unless you want to run out of ammo ten miles from any safe house with only a baseball bat to bludgeon Raiders to death with…not that I’ve ever done that *cough*. Half the time I end up wandering into some new town and getting eaten for lunch by some new enemy that seems to be at least ten levels higher than I am (most recently, giant fire ants). The weird uncanny valley people and spotty voice acting still bother me, but the game is at least reasonably challenging so I can’t complain too much, I guess. My first runthrough (as with Mass Effect) will be with a goody-two-shoes type character (although I did enjoy planting a live grenade on an unsuspecting Raider while I was invisible).

On a side note, Games for Windows Live (which Fallout 3 makes you install if you want to download patches) is decent enough but it feels rather pointless. There are a few games that you can play online using it, two of which are widely regarded as terrible ports of console games (Gears of War and Grand Theft Auto IV) and the remaining two of which aren’t particularly remarkable (Universe at War and Lost Planet: Colonies Edition). Other than playing online, the only thing it’s really good for is tracking achievements, which is kind of cute but an ultimately pointless feature. Hopefully the PC version of Street Fighter IV lets you play online with 360 players or something, because they are in serious need of some killer apps.

Also, Coldplay’s Viva la Vida is stuck in my head ever since I bought the album of the same name and the associated EP Prospekts March off Amazon MP3 this past weekend. Not that I’m complaining…

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Left 4 Dead is bloody brilliant

I’ve been getting my ass kicked (with friends) in the first campaign, and I love it. It’s the first real FPS I’ve played that relies on co-op so much, and it does co-op really well.

We reached the finale of the first campaign a few times today, but never managed to hold out until the rescue chopper arrived. A truly ridiculous number of zombies assails you at that point, coupled with numerous boss zombie spawns (at one point we had a Tank, a Boomer and a Smoker all running around). At one point the Tank climbed up to the vantage point where I had been sniping from and basically punched me off the building.

Good times.

And now, it’s time for some screenshots from the full game!

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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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The undead hordes lie conquered around me

So yeah, Left 4 Dead is pretty damn fun.

There aren’t nearly enough dedicated servers to meet demand, though. I spent more time trying to connect to games yesterday than I did actually playing. And doing peer-to-peer hosting puts all the AI load on the host’s computer.

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CRY SOME MORE

A scoreboard shot after my most recent round as Heavy in Team Fortress 2. I think that’s the most dominations I’ve ever had in a game :D

Also, Natascha is now in my possession! I hear it’s not particularly useful, though…

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A dispatch from 2fort

Been a while since I last wrote anything…I’ve been spending a lot of time playing Team Fortress 2. For some reason, since the Heavy update hit I’ve been playing the game a lot more. I’ve also been reading the official TF2 forums from time to time to gauge what the state of the game is, and figured I would record my thoughts here.

Arena Mode

I must say, I rather like this mode – since every player only has a single life and health pickups are limited, having Medics on your team becomes a lot more important, and Spies become incredibly lethal when played correctly. It’s a mode that rewards skill. On the other hand, I could do without the random shuffling of teams – it makes it hard to plan strategy when all you have are 5 seconds at the start of the round to decide on class makeup.

Badwater Basin

This is probably my new favourite map. It’s a payload map much in the vein of Goldrush, but much more open – there are tons of alternate routes making it great for ambushing while both attacking and defending. There aren’t too many chokepoints, so BLU tends to have an easier time than it does on other maps like Dustbowl and Goldrush.

Class-specific stuff

The Pyro is still my most-played class (although how much of that is because of achievement farming, I’m not sure), but these days I’ve been trying to avoid picking it, if only because it’s starting to seem to me that Pyros have a fairly low skill ceiling. Adding the air blast to the regular Pyro has added some new capabilities (in particular the ability to blow attackers or defenders off a control point, and reflect projectiles), but his combat strategy is still entirely limited to ambushing – head-on encounters rarely seem to go well. So I’ve been trying some other classes.

I’m having a lot of success playing Heavy, which is a lot harder than trailers would have one believe – you need to be completely aware of your surroundings at all times, pick targets carefully and know when to pull back (before you take too much damage or before your ammo runs out). I’ve only earned one of the unlocks so far (the Sandvich) and it can be useful if the team’s Medic is busy somewhere else and I need to heal up after retreating from an attack. However, the shotgun is arguably the more useful weapon in most circumstances.

I’ve also been playing Soldier a lot more. This class gets a reputation as one based on spam and luck (lol critrawkets, etc) but if you ask me the distance between an expert Soldier and a novice Soldier is greater than that between an expert Pyro and a novice Pyro. Good Soldiers know to aim ahead of their opponents and take advantage of juggles, use the mobility afforded by their rocket jumping to attack from unexpected angles and retreat from battles, and most importantly to make their shots count (given that their reload time is so long compared to most other classes). I can’t say I’ve mastered any of these skills, but I have been trying.

On a final note, the Spy. Playing Spy is amazingly fun when you get it right (like in Arena matches like I mentioned earlier) but when you get it wrong it can be amazingly discouraging. I’m alright with getting discovered by a nosy Pyro who suddenly appeared around the corner, but when your primary weapon – the instant-kill backstab – fails to register half the time there’s clearly a problem. Sometimes it’s because the stab doesn’t register as a backstab, but most often it’s because of the laggy backstab animation you get if you’re too close to the enemy. I know the Spy is arguably the class with the highest skill ceiling, but this stuff even bites players who have far more Spy experience than I do.

The other thing I’ve been doing recently is keeping track of King of Fighters XII news – but that’s a topic for another post.

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Convention Tales

I spent most of the day at PAX today, since I’d never been to a gaming convention and there were a few games I wanted to check out. I actually didn’t get to play too many of them (the lines were way too long for me to be standing around) but I did get a reasonable idea of how some of the games I’m looking forward to are shaping up.

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A brilliant example…

…of why I play the airblast Pyro in Team Fortress 2.

The backburner can be great fun in pure ambush play, but the ability to just run up to a control point and BLOW PEOPLE OFF IT is just too awesome. Bonus points if said point is suspended over an instant death pit :D

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