Anthem & The Division 2 – Impressions

I’ve recently played both Anthem and The Division 2, and given that they are launching close together, there is obviously a lot of talk about both games right now.  In many ways, these games are competing against one another, and gamers in the market for one are likely at least considering both.  I’ve found that a lot of the recent coverage on these games has been fairly narrow or focused on generating clicks on a website, so I wrote this up in the hopes it might help players like me.

While I intentionally avoided paying attention to either game until very recently, I have now preordered both games and am looking forward to them both. I believe The Division 2 will probably fare better at launch, but I’m actually more excited about the long-term potential of Anthem. Of course, the ultimate success of both games will likely depend on post-launch support from their respective developers.

Why I Am Probably the Target Audience for Both Games

A quick background on my gaming history as it related to these games. I have been a long-time PC gamer, but I have been playing on consoles more frequently over the past couple of years. I was firmly in the PlayStation camp until just prior to the release of Destiny 2, at which point I started playing on Xbox due to more of my friends using that system. These days I play most action games on an Xbox One X, while sticking to PC for strategy and MMO games.

I tend to strongly prefer PvE over PvP, though I’m not opposed to delving into combat against my fellow gamers from time to time. I like to spend my time in-game actually playing (as opposed to trying to form a group), so while I really enjoy group activities I greatly appreciate games that support solo play. I often buy deluxe or collector’s editions of games, and I will spend money on cosmetics and such over the life of a game – though it is important to me that everything in-game should be earnable from playing.

As far as these loot-based games go – which describes both Anthem and The Division 2 – I’ve played those that are most commonly looked at as influences for both games. I spent a fair amount of time with both Diablo 3 and Path of Exile. I played in the alpha and beta for the first Destiny (on PS4), played it for quite a while, took a break, came back after the first couple of expansions, took a break, and came back for a while after Taken King. I switched to Xbox for the Destiny 2 beta, played for a long time, took a bit of a break and returned with Forsaken. Took a bit of a break after reaching 650 and returned for Black Armory. I’m NOT a hardcore player that’s completed every raid and has 3 max-level characters, but I do have most of the exotics and have experience in all modes of play.

I beta tested the first Division and played quite a bit when it launched (this one on PC). I got my money’s worth out of it, but I was one of the many players that left the game shortly after the first big update. There wasn’t much to do after reaching max level, almost all of the map was wasted at endgame, and it seemed like every endgame activity had huge exploits – to the point where everyone got the best gear right away and you could hardly find a group to run activities the intended way.

I tend to put a LOT of hours into games when I first get into them, but I often lose interest if I don’t have a specific goal (and reward) to work towards after a while. Then I end up switching to another game. There are quite a few games I’ve returned to after a break (including every game I’ve mentioned to this point), and I tend to be lured back by expansions, in-game events, etc. – at which point I have no problem spending more money on the game.

Enter Anthem and The Division 2

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Now, as far as these games go, I haven’t been closely following their development. I was aware of and interested in both games, but haven’t looked too closely until the last couple of weeks. I beta tested Anthem on PC, then played the open demo on Xbox. While playing the demo, I preordered the Legion of Dawn edition (for Xbox). I registered for the beta of The Division 2 on Xbox, but wasn’t selected. After some research into how the developers supported first game after I left and what they’ve applied to its sequel, I preordered the standard edition of the game on Xbox. I started re-playing the first Division on PC and played the Private Beta for The Division 2 on Xbox.

Before getting into my specific impressions, hopes, and concerns for each game, let me point out two things:

First, do NOT let yourself be dissuaded from getting either game because of reports of bugs or performance issues you may have heard. Everything anyone has played for these games up to this point is a beta or demo build, and these days EVERY online game launches with bugs and performance issues on all platforms. If you play during the first week or so after launch, you need to expect these kinds of issues. The number of bugs at launch is not a good measure of the game’s value or the developer’s support for the game. Instead, pay attention to how quickly devs acknowledge and address bugs and issues after the game launches – and then how they add content and respond to community feedback as the game matures. These are far better indicators for how much value you well get out of these types of games over the long haul.

Second, I think both of these games will probably be more enjoyable on console over PC, at least initially. Both interfaces are built with a controller in mind over a mouse and keyboard. Anthem’s gameplay includes flight and a lot of motion during combat, so it benefits greatly from a controller. The Division 2’s gameplay is more cover-based, but it’s interface still heavily favors a controller. In my experience, controllers on a PC are never quite as smoothly supported as on console, and every AAA title takes some time for drivers and patches to optimize the game for PC. So I plan to play both games on console (Xbox One X on a 50″ 4K set if you care). This also has a lot to do with the fact that most of my friends play on Xbox.

Developers that Study and Learn

I think it’s safe to say that the developers of both games have tried to learn from the successes and failures of past games (essentially all the games I have mentioned so far, plus Mass Effect: Andromeda). In case you are unaware, Anthem is developed by BioWare and published with EA. The Division 2 is developed by Massive and published with Ubisoft. Both EA and Ubisoft have mixed track records, though I’d say Ubisoft’s history with the Assassin’s Creed series gives it a leg up over the widespread hatred much of the gaming community feels towards EA’s tendency to squeeze pennies from every IP at the expense of an enjoyable experience.

BioWare’s work on Anthem is clearly inspired by both their experience with strong, story-given games like the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series, as well as the Destiny and Diablo franchises. Personally, I am a big supporter of BioWare’s decision to not include any form of PvP in Anthem at launch. After the Mass Effect: Andromeda debacle and the constant challenges Bungie faces with balance issues due to PvP in Destiny 2, including PvP in Anthem would make things much more difficult for BioWare. And let’s face it, the hardcore PvP community is always going to favor games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and the various battle royale games over something like Anthem or The Division. I wouldn’t mind seeing PvP get introduced into Anthem down the road, but the focus needs to remain elsewhere for a while. Given the setting and BioWare’s history, there’s a lot of potential when it comes to Anthem’s story and lore.

Massive, on the other hand, has taken most of their queues from the most obvious source – The Division. When I started paying attention to The Division 2, I quickly learned a few very important things. First, Massive continued to provide a great deal of support and improvement on the first game after I left. Second, they used the lessons learned from that game to build the framework for the sequel. The mechanics and features that exist in the first game will actually be in the sequel. I’d say Massive learned from the mistakes Bungie made when they stripped too much away from the end-state of Destiny when releasing Destiny 2. Third, Massive learned from their early mistakes with The Division and prioritized a strong endgame for The Division 2. Fourth, and most importantly, all of this is supposed to be fully featured AT LAUNCH.

In short, Massive is in a good position to build on their success from the first Division. And apart from some players that bizarrely complain that the The Division 2 is too much like its predecessor (assuredly the same players that would also complain if Massive changed too much), the devs’ efforts will likely be welcomed and appreciated. On the other hand, BioWare has a bit more hanging in the balance. Anthem is a fundamentally different style of game for them, they are coming off of a big let-down from Andromeda, and they are saddled with a lot of baggage by partnering with EA. Anthem could help return BioWare to its former glory and mark a turning point for EA – if both companies can follow through on the promise of this new IP.

Prospectus: The Good

This is already far longer than I expected (and showing no signs of stopping), so I’m going to get straight to what each of these games really have going for them at the moment.

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The Division 2 – Features/Systems, Community, Experience at Launch

I cannot overstate how much The Division 2 is going to benefit from the fact that so many features are going to be available at launch. An anticipated strong end-game, clans, deep systems, etc. are all there. The game world feels alive and dynamic with survivors patrolling around to gather supplies, projects to complete for settlements, control points to take, collectibles to find, useful matchmaking, clan support, and a faithful recreation of Washington, DC. There’s going to be a lot to do, and by all accounts that should be true well after you’ve reached the level cap. The fact that this is a sequel and supports clans means there is already a thriving community that can help new players learn the intricacies of its systems. There’s already going to be a fair amount of depth and content when the game launches, and I think this is going to yield a lot of success for The Division 2.

There is also a LOT of attention to detail in this game, from the portrayal of Washington to how the ammo count of your weapon varies depending on when you re-load.  The game rewards exploration, as there are collectibles and loot chests tucked away all over the place.  There are a lot more building interiors available compared to the first game, and while a lot of us may miss the desperate feeling of a snow-covered NY, experiencing the downpour of rain in DC is spectacular.  I’m going to predict that most reviews will favor The Division 2 over Anthem, and assuming that Massive supports the game like they did its predecessor, it should enjoy long-term success as well.

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Anthem – Core Gameplay, Setting, Potential

On the other hand, Anthem’s core gameplay is just FUN! While The Division 2 is rooted in typical, cover-based shooter gameplay, Anthem has you flying and running around in a much more frenetic way that’s just a blast to play. The different abilities are interesting and make you feel powerful, and the 4 different javelins drive genuinely different styles of play. Likely learning from Bungie’s past, the fact that you can switch between javelins on a single character instead of being forced to replay content on a second character feels like a breath of fresh air. BioWare’s approach seems to allow solo play without penalty while still encouraging groups – even joining groups in progress for slightly better chances at rewards is a smart way to help players without forcing them to play a specific way.  The Alliance system rewards you for having firends that also play the game, and you all get more rewards the more you play. (But this is not a guild system.) Some of the devs’ decisions might seem odd at first (such as not allowing changes to gear loadouts mid-mission or during freeplay), but so far they seem well though out and intended to support gameplay (the devs don’t want players to have to wait around while one person changes their loadout in the middle of the mission).

The game world is gorgeous and begs to be explored.  Huge open areas to fly around, with interesting ruins and locations that make you think “I want to go check that out,” just fire the imagination.  Compared to the Tom Clancy version of the real-world of The Division 2, BioWare has the freedom to really create something unique and interesting with Anthem’s setting. The more I’ve read about the game world and it’s history, the more I think this could easily match the depth and breadth of lore seen in Destiny. It is very likely that the campaign will be story-driven and interesting, and BioWare has certainly demonstrated the ability to craft a memorable story in the past. There were plenty of players sinking more than 20 hours into the demo, with some playing far more than that. The developers have been very reluctant to share a lot of details on some aspects of the game, but signs are pointing to Anthem benefiting from a lot of features and system being added post-launch, as there is already a long list of things the devs have stated they are looking into or already planning to add, but will not be available in the game “at launch”. If BioWare is able to add features and content at a decent pace, there is an amazing amount of potential in this game over the long haul.

Concerns: The Bad

Of course, there are some issues that need to be addressed fairly early with both games. I’ll mention the major performance issues or bugs encountered so far, but these are not really my concern around launch time. I’m more concerned with things that the devs need to re-think or devote some significant energy and resources to that go beyond simple bugs.

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The Division 2 – Weapon Mods, Signature Weapons, Skills, Silhouettes

As mentioned already, so far it looks like The Division 2 is in fairly good shape from a technical standpoint. There are a few open questions, such as exactly what is included for clans, but the worst technical issues in the private Private Beta were crashes after 2-3 hours of continuous play and audio that cuts out. I’m confident that Massive will get these taken care of prior to or shortly after launch. Two areas the devs need to take another pass at are the mod system for weapons and the signature weapons you gain access to after you gain a specialization at max level.

Right now every mod includes both a buff and a debuff for the weapon, such as an increase in accuracy and a decrease in optimal range. This appears intended to force players make meaningful choices when it comes to modding weapons, which I don’t think is a bad idea. However, right now the debuff is fairly high – to the point where I found myself not wanting to mod anything. That might change once you are in endgame and really familiar with how all the numbers work, but a lot of players don’t like the system as it stands. Even a simple change to keeping debuffs limited to half the percentage of the buff (e.g. a buff of 20% will be combined with a debuff of no more than 10%) would go a long way to addressing this issue.

Once you reach max level, you can pick a specialization and unlock a signature weapon like a .50 caliber sniper rifle, grenade launcher, or crossbow. The problem is that you only get ammo drops for these weapons in very specific circumstances – and those circumstances are particularly challenging against endgame enemies. In other words, you have an endgame advantage that you almost never get to use while playing endgame activities. Uhhh… not good.

Another potentially critical issue is with skills. In short, they feel weak, especially given their long cool down. There were only 3 skills (with a couple variants each) available in the Private Beta, but there were a lot of complaints about them. In my opinion, your skills as a Division agent should make you feel powerful and give you a significant advantage over typical trash mobs, and they should feel useful against more powerful enemies.  So far, the skills in The Division 2 feel useful against trash mobs and borderline worthless against powerful enemies. Playing the endgame mission, I found myself staring closely at the health bar of a robotic dog when my seeker mine hit it, just so I could verify that it actually dealt at least some damage.  I’m glad there is challenging content available at max level, but there are certainly ways to make endgame satisfying without making players feel weak.

Finally, Massive has included 3 different enemy factions in DC, plus a fourth that gets introduced for endgame.  The problem is that all enemies look alike – a black silhouette in the distance.  I’m not sure if the issue is with the zoom distance when aiming down sights, poor lighting, or what, but enemies are really hard to see unless they are right on top of you. As if being just a black blob wasn’t bad enough, often times you cannot even see that and are forced to aim where you think the enemy is and wait for your reticle to turn red.  Doesn’t do much good to have different factions if they all look identically vague.

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Anthem – Transitions, Endgame, Downed Players, Features at Launch, Player & Dev Communication

Overall, Anthem also appears to be in good technical shape. PC players had issues with the sensitivity of flight controls, and time underwater was very disorienting and dark. There were issues during the demo with occasional crashes out of activities. (While players still get awarded their loot, that is not immediately apparent when playing.) And finally, some enemy mobs would despawn in the middle of combat. All of these have reportedly been addressed by the devs already, but there are other areas that need some attention.

One simple area the devs can work on to immediately improve the polished feel of the game and avoid some questions/complaints is to work on how the game transitions between the social/story spaces and missions/strongholds/freeplay. There are cool cutscenes for each javelin that play when you launch into an activity, but they are often cut short just to go to a loading screen. Completing a stronghold unceremoniously dumps you to a victory screen, making you wonder if you actually got the loot from defeating the boss. And as I mentioned, if something happens and you disconnect from an activity in progress (which will inevitably happen at some point in ANY online game), it’s not apparent that you will get that loot as soon as you finish any other activity. Simply smoothing out these rough edges to better communicate what’s happening to the player (and maximize the time spent on anything but a loading screen) should pay dividends. The good news is that at least some of this has already been acknowledged as in the works by the devs.

The biggest issue with Anthem at the moment is the host of question marks that still surround it, given the decision by the devs to keep a lot under wraps. Seemingly realizing this problem for what it is, BioWare has recently revealed a little more about the endgame and their post-launch plans – just not quite as detailed a plan as everyone would like to see. The endgame at launch is evidently going to include 3 strongholds (like dungeons in MMOs or strikes in Destiny), a variety of contracts, and optional missions for different factions. There will also be grandmaster difficulties for different activities that offer improved rewards, which is very reminiscent of Diablo 3 (down to the icons used). There will also be daily, weekly, and monthly trials (sounds like Destiny 2), plenty of challenges to kill X of some enemy or use an ability Y times, and both cosmetics and crafting blueprints to chase. This sounds like a solid beginning for endgame content, but as Massive learned with The Division, the speed with which players can burn through content is absurd. BioWare either needs to get additional endgame content out a rapid pace or have plans to lure players back to the game once more is added (this will be a recurring theme for a bit).

One highlight of Strongholds and running missions with a group is the anxiety of swooping in to rescue a downed teammate in the middle of a firefight.  It creates some real utility for the more protection-based abilities, and contributed to the overall great feel and pacing of the gameplay. Unfortunately, there are a couple of issues with this system as it stands. First, while there is an icon on your HUD that points to the downed player, there needs to also be some sort of audio callout that lets everyone know somebody is down. There’s a lot going on on-screen, and an icon alone isn’t enough. Second, if a teammate doesn’t rescue you, you don’t get back up as long as the team is in combat – and there is no spectator camera. In other words, you just have to sit there and stare at your wrecked javelin hoping that someone realizes your down and can actually push the enemy back enough to save you. I can see a lot of players taking a quick break at this point, which is not a good thing. The devs are supposedly “looking into” a spectator camera, but I think they also need to consider a self-revive on a timer. Even a long timer of 3-5 minutes would be better than nothing. At a minimum, they need to make sure everyone knows when a javelin goes down.

There’s a lot to like about Anthem when it launches. On top of the core gameplay, there’s a very deep cosmetic customization system, and we should have a solid storyline and lots of lore to collect. However, there are also a lot of features commonly seen in online games that will not be available when the game launches. This includes basic things like guilds, custom map waypoints, boss-specific drops, guild or player housing, post-activity stats, earnable player titles, a photo mode, and raid-level content. Some of these are already planned and on the way, while others are being “looked into”. Cataclysms are big endgame time-limited activities that should be coming fairly quickly, and guilds are apparently something the devs want to get out as soon after launch as possible, but we don’t have a real timeline for either of these big features. In some cases, the devs have stated they wanted to get feedback from the community before making plans, which is fine if they have the staff and resources to go from concept to execution quickly, but they’ve got a big list of things to get added before Anthem is able to stand toe-to-toe with big online game franchises in terms of features.

Communication between players was a bit of a problem in the Anthem demo. Voice comms was turned off by default (reportedly fixed for launch), so coordinating your actions with your team wasn’t really a possibility. Given the pace of gameplay, the devs have decided not to include text chat, but we don’t really know how effective voice comms will be yet. In freeplay, this became an even bigger issue. You share a huge instance with up to 3 other players, and you can’t set waypoints or call out world events. On top of that, there is no map indicator of where world events are located, so unless you happen to find yourself near one you have no idea. This creates some serious challenges if you are trying to complete an event designed around 2 or more players. Most events could be competed solo, but some could take so long with a single javelin that it actively runs counter to the otherwise fast pace of the game.

Finally, the communication between the devs and the community needs to improve. To be honest, it already has improved significantly over the past couple of weeks. There’s been a lot more information coming out closer to release, and there’s a long list of info from the devs that came out as part of a Reddit AMA. (They’ve also done an excellent job of standing firm on some of their design decisions and explaining the reasons behind them. This will be important with vocal minorities often steering game developments in directions that may be… less than ideal.) This has helped calm the concerns about the post-launch future for Anthem, but it hasn’t eliminated them. Many gamers, especially on PC, have been burned in the past by devs that made grand promises for ongoing story and content additions to a game that would continue for years, only to see those same devs essentially abandon the game shortly after launch. (There have been more than a few mentions of FireFall within the Anthem community.) For many of us, the vague comments made by BioWare about their plans for Anthem were very unnerving (especially since the company insists they are still continuing both the Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises). For me personally, the recent release of a roadmap for the game’s post-launch content was a bit of a relief, but it’s still terribly vague. The roadmap shows 3 Acts, with the first Act beginning in March and including 3 updates. Presumably the first update will occur in March, but we don’t know about the others. We know these updates will include new events and rewards, quality of life improvements, some sort of expanded progression system, a new stronghold, guilds, new missions, and a cataclysm. That’s a nice sounding list, but it’s still vague and lacking a real timeline. Basically, I’d like to see the post-launch plans and details firm up.

There is also the open question of microtransaction pricing. The devs have stated they are still balancing the in-game economy to ensure players can realistically earn the cosmetic items they want, but they haven’t commented on what the monetary costs for these items will be either. Using the Legion of Dawn edition as a guide, a $20 premium gets you a full set of armor for each of the 4 javelins, which equates to roughly $1 per cosmetic piece of armor. That seems reasonable to me, but that’s a lot of conjecture. I get that the devs want to fine-tune the economy, but if they avoid even giving players an idea of what to expect then many of us may just avoid microtransactions for a while after launch while things settle down – which makes it difficult for them to adjust the economy. We’re going to find out when the game launches anyway, so just give us a little more info.

What They May Not Be Able to Do Anything About –
The Ugly

These are the issues that are largely the result of decisions made by the devs early in the design process that may just be inevitable. In other words, these are challenges the devs are going to face in the long-term. They may not be a problem, but they do create some limitations.

Revenue Model

I’ve avoided the topic to this point, but we cannot ignore the revenue models these games are using. Both devs appear committed to avoiding any form of pay-2-win. Both games will include cosmetic microtransactions. In my opinion, people need to stop freaking out about this. Cosmetics are still earnable in-game, and there needs to be some sort of revenue stream for the devs to continue adding content.

Massive has stated that all DLC for The Division 2 will be free for the first year, presumably leaving the door open for paid expansions down the line. Using the first Division as a guide, you will be able to buy cosmetic items via microtransactions. At least some cosmetics will only be available from loot boxes, though these boxes can also be earned in game. I’m not wild about loot boxes even for cosmetics, and we don’t know what will be included with the first year’s DLC, but that’s less of a concern given that The Division 2 seems fairly fully-featured at launch. The option for paid expansions later on should allow for the game to be expanded if the devs choose to do so.

BioWare has repeatedly stated that all DLC and content will be free to all Anthem players – period. They do not want to segment the playerbase’s access to content the way other games have (Destiny). Cosmetics will be purchasable via microtransaction (with no loot boxes) as well as earnable in-game. They have left a door open that new javelins might be released as a something players can purchase, but as long as those javelins don’t provide an advantage over the ones we have or are at least unlockable via play, that shouldn’t run counter to their commitment to avoid locking content behind paywalls. My biggest concern with this approach is that it means the sale of cosmetics has to shoulder the cost of continued development. The customization system is deep enough that if BioWare can pump out new cosmetic options at a steady pace (and appropriate price-point), this could work. But it still feels like a bit of a risk when you consider they have already ruled out paid expansions.

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The Division 2 – Limited Setting, Comfortable Repetition

Let’s face it, there are limits to what Massive can do with the setting of The Division 2. The game is inherently rooted in the modern world (albeit a Tom Clancy version of it), and the antagonists are going to be humans. The level of detail with which they have recreated Washington DC means that adding new areas to the game will require time and resources. I’m sure that the devs can find ways to add new content, but it will be challenging to do so in a way that really feels different from what’s already present. There’s a reason The Division 2 feels a lot like The Division – there’s only so much you can do to change things up while remaining loyal to the source material.

This also comes into play with another issue. Both Massive and Ubisoft tend to stick to a simple formula for increasing the difficulty of encounters: Take a normal encounter and spawn an unrealistic number of enemies, allow those enemies to soak up stupid amounts of damage and spam abilities in ways that players can’t, and allow those enemies to know the precise location of the players at all times and be absurdly accurate. Don’t get me wrong, this is a successful formula, but it can get repetitive after a while. I’d love to see Massive look at other ways of making encounters challenging – get out of their comfort zone a bit. Personally, I’d suggest they take a look at the way dungeons were designed in the MMO The Secret World. Every dungeon included different mechanics that forced players to adapt, but it also used each encounter in the dungeon to slowly introduce and reach those mechanics. Just an idea, and implementing it when you’re stuck with a narrow cast of enemy types could get tricky, but it could extend the life of the game.

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Anthem – Loading Screens, Players Outpacing Content

One issue that players complained about during the Anthem demo was the frequency and length of loading screens. The devs have already stated that loading times have been improved, but I can all but guarantee there will still be complaints. Now it’s important to understand that all games like this require loading time, but there are ways to hide them. Destiny does this by showing your ships in flight or by using long corridors to connect zones. However, the sheer size of the open areas in Anthem (which are awesome given the ability to fly), means that some of these tricks just don’t work. In other words, there will almost certainly be some unavoidable loading screens in Anthem. Players need to realize this and relax a bit, and the devs need to work to make those loading screens as interesting as possible.

The absolute greatest challenge BioWare faces with Anthem is getting substantive content and features out quickly enough to keep the playerbase engaged and playing the game. They also need to pump out cosmetics to keep generating revenue. As Destiny has shown us, most players need to feel like they constantly have a variety of things to do (that they haven’t already done 10 times with exactly the same results). “Grind for randomized loot” doesn’t cut it for long. Players want to be able to go after specific kinds of loot, loot that opens up new ways to play, achievements that they can show off, secrets they can hunt down and explore, etc. We want interesting goals with equally interesting rewards. The devs might get some mileage out of including some sandbox elements or some procedurally generated content to keep things from becoming stale between content drops, but that may be more challenging than it’s worth. In short, if BioWare and EA want people playing Anthem in a year or two, they have to keep feeding the community a steady supply of something interesting to do – and that’s going to require a commitment of staff and resources.

TL;DR – Quick Conclusion / Prediction

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The Division 2: I’m confident that the game will be fully featured and well-received at launch, and I will easily get my money’s worth out of it. However, Massive/Ubisoft will probably not get any additional money out of me after launch, and there’s a high probability I won’t be playing the game 6 months from now. While limited somewhat by the setting, the devs could extend its life by getting a little outside of their comfort zones.

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Anthem: I’m cautiously optimistic about this new IP. While I think it may get off to a rocky start, I will definitely get my money’s worth out of it. If they stick with it, BioWare/EA could make a mountain of a franchise that can easily get me to open my wallet periodically. (Okay, if they work at it in good faith, they could get me to fork over money routinely.) I could easily see myself playing this even longer than I’ve enjoyed the Destiny franchise – if the devs can flesh out the game and keep me coming back with new content and features.

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Twisting Fate: Zero to Hero

This is part of a series of posts looking at some questions about Fate Core – usually questions I’ve had and seen repeated by others – and some of the underlying topics that may lead to these questions in the first place.  Take a look at the first post – Twisting Fate – for a better explanation of why I’m writing this.  Also take note of the obligatory disclaimer that I am not trying to “fix” Fate – it’s not broken.  I’m just trying to expand my own understanding and apply it towards my game.

I also want to acknowledge Rob Hanz.  I’ve encountered him a number of times on Google+, and his explanations have been invaluable to helping me understand Fate better.  Somehow I only came across the Book of Hanz and began reading it.  Not only are Rob’s posts a great resource for those of us still learning more about Fate, but they have also made me feel much better about the questions I have about the system.  There are definitely a lot of elements of the system that “click” for me now that didn’t before I read Rob’s advice, and many of the underlying “issues” I’ve had with things have at least been validated by some of his posts – as well as others.  So at least I’m not completely crazy.  (Or if I am, at least I’m in good company.)

Zero to Hero

I came across a post recently in which a player wanted to create characters that were “lower level” than the typical starting Fate character.  He was planning to run a long-term game in which the characters went from no-name average characters to eventually becoming world-saving heroes.  He had an idea of how to accomplish this and was asking for feedback.

I’ve seen questions similar to this numerous times, and I myself am also looking at different ways the character creation process could be modified to produce characters that are closer to what might be “average”.  In typical awesome fashion, the broader Fate community usually provides some insight and feedback, throws around some different possibilities, and answers follow-up questions.

That being said, in discussions like this, I have often seen two particular responses that got me thinking.  The first is an immediate reference to D&D and its style of character advancement.  (I’ll save a discussion of that cognitive leap for my post focusing on progression.)  The other discourages using Fate for this type of game.

Competence

Give a forum thread talking about “low-level” Fate characters enough time, and you are extremely likely to find a player post a quote from Fate that the game is “about competent, dramatic, proactive characters”.   The implication being that if you are seeking to run a game about more average or weaker characters, Fate might not be the best system to use.

It may very well be the case that the player in question might be better served by another system, but as Fate is often said to be designed to simulate fiction, it seems odd to suggest that Fate cannot be used to tell a story about normal, everyday characters that become something more extraordinary (a not uncommon trope in a variety of media).  I’ve asked questions about this in the past, and based on the ensuing discussions I’ve come to believe that there are a few reasons that veteran players sometimes jump to this conclusion.

In short, I think players place too much emphasis on the competent part of “competent, dramatic, proactive”.  When you start comparing what types of characters do and do not work well in Fate, being proactive is by far the most important element in this concept.  Characters that stand around and wait for things to happen don’t work well.  Being dramatic is also important to varying degrees depending on the genre – think of dramatic as being interesting or non-boring, and you’re on the right track.  Now, being competent is important in that only a very particular style of game will work if the player characters are stumbling around in a perpetual state of incompetence.  However, as long as the characters are passably good at something (or at least are likely to succeed periodically) the game can still work.  There are two important reasons why a game with less-skilled characters can still function just fine (and be lots of fun), but both require effort on the part of the GM – which isn’t to say that they require any effort beyond what is usually expected of a GM.

Lower Level Conflict

First, we have to remember that there are plenty of ways to make the characters seem normal, especially at first, and many of them require little or no mechanical difference.  Want to play more “average” characters?  Then just focus the game on a more “average” playing field.  Instead of tackling political corruption in a capital city or averting empire-wide catastrophe, just deal with the problems in your neighborhood.  Keeping the characters grounded in a smaller scale, everyday environment can go a long way to making them feel “normal” – especially in contrast to when they do eventually start taking on bigger issues.  Scale the conflict (little c, not talking Conflict mechanics here) down to an everyday level, and gradually scale the stakes and scope of the conflicts the characters face as they grow in power and influence.

Fate Core does caution players on trying to simulate every little negotiation, and rightly so, but keeping the conflict at a small scale doesn’t mean you have to deviate from that guidance.  Just make sure that the stakes of the conflict are meaningful to the characters and that the results of rolling the dice are always interesting.  Which brings me to…

Failing Forward

The other issue with assuming a high level of competence is necessary for Fate to work is largely rooted in traditional tabletop games: an aversion to failure.  If the players keep failing rolls, and the characters aren’t successful at anything, no one is going to have any fun.  To some extent, the could certainly be true.  Of course, if you scale the conflict to fit the characters, that shouldn’t happen too often.  More importantly, it ignores one of the the elements of Fate (and many narrative games) that make the system so effective at telling great stories: failure can be just as interesting as success (often even more so).

Fate Core presents this idea largely in terms of Success at a Cost.  One possibility is that the character doesn’t get what he wants, but it’s also possible he gets the result he was hoping for – it’s just that something else happens too.  Traditional games can pose problems when the characters really need to succeed at something in order to move the story forward, but that is easily remedied by the concept of failing forward.  The story moves forward no matter what, it just becomes a little more complicated.  Not only does this mean that a game about everyday characters can still be interesting, it also gives the GM all sorts of ways to propel these average people into decidedly more unusual circumstances.

I’m not going to go into a long discussion about how awesome failing forward can be or how to use it (run a quick search and you’ll find plenty of advice), but the point is that if failure is not that significant a problem in Fate, then neither is competence.

Maybe Not Zero… But One…

There are certainly approaches to using low level characters in Fate that can cause serious issues.  You can’t have a system as elegant and interconnected as Fate and not expect some ripples when you start tinkering with mechanics.  That said, given the flexibility of Fate, there are almost certainly at least a handful of ways to handle this kind of game that should work just fine.  If this kind of game interests you, there are plenty of posts out there with ideas of how to do just that.  Just don’t get discouraged if someone suggests maybe Fate isn’t the system for you.  You may have to check some preconceptions at the door and step outside of your comfort zone, but there’s a better than fair chance you can find a way to use Fate for your game if that’s what you decide you want to do.

Twisting Fate

I’ve been working on a tabletop RPG on and off for years now.  A couple of years ago I started taking a serious look at Fate Core, and I quickly realized that using it for my game would provide a lot of advantages.  Since then I’ve been working through the system I had already developed in conjunction with Fate to determine what adjustments need to be made to align Fate with the game’s setting and the styles of gameplay I’m looking for.  Needless to say, I’ve ended up spending lot of time scouring the web for how Fate players handle different situations, and I’ve learned a lot.

Fate Core is a very flexible, powerful system – the core actions underlying the mechanics combined with aspects and the fate point economy create a certain elegance.  The way the system is geared to simulate fiction, as opposed to how some systems simulate reality, opens a lot of doors.

Of course, learning Fate Core can be challenging to lots of players, new and long-time gamers alike.  Even Fate veterans often have difficulty coming to grips with certain elements of the system.  Some of this may be due to idiosyncrasies in how the system is presented.  A seemingly simple concept can have a very profound impact in how you use the system, and sometimes the deeper implications of a rule can be easily overlooked.

As I’ve learned more about the system and how to get the most out of it, I’ve seen some questions or concerns come up repeatedly by players.  Usually these questions are answered by members of the Fate community with great explanations that help players grasp how to apply the system, but some of these topics seem to point to circumstances where most players are unsure of how best to leverage Fate.

There are also a few fairly common responses from veteran Fate players that appear to have been repeated so often they have become more or less standardized.  In some of these cases, I think some closer examination of the underlying assumptions could prove useful.  Just because the Rules As Written (RAW) do not explicitly point to (or allow) a particular approach, doesn’t mean that a minor tweak cannot allow for some potentially awesome results.  Fate Core is very flexible (and hackable, if necessary).  Given its focus on simulating fiction, there really should be very few fictional situations it cannot easily handle.

This will likely be the first in a series of posts examining some of these topics, with the goal of understanding Fate a little better.  Hopefully, this will allow me to figure out how best to apply the system to my setting and get the style of play I’m looking for.  With a little luck, maybe this will generate some discussion that will help other players as well.

DISCLAIMER: To be clear, Fate Core works just fine as it is.  I’m not implying it needs “fixing” – just looking at the best way to achieve the goals for my game, which may just be altering how specific rules are presented.  Fate Core is largely system-agnostic and is often described a set of dials that can be adjusted.  Trying to dial in the right settings for my setting.

Here are some of the topics I plan to look at, in no particular order:

  • “Competent” aka Zero to Hero
  • Social Conflict
  • Required to use certain mechanics e.g. Conflict
  • Progression – D&D vs. Star Wars
  • Long-Term Play
  • Stakes and Physical Conflict
  • Underlying Issues – Game Creation, Failure Aversion, Implicit Stakes, Death as the Only Stakes

A Fateful Exercise in Flexibility

I’ve started adapting my setting and existing Proteus material to Fate Core while I continue to learn more about the system and how it has been utilized by the community. One thing that is very apparent with Fate is that there are almost always multiple ways to accomplish the same objective within the rules. There is no one right way to handle a given situation. At the same time, there may be a best way to handle a situation to get what you want out of that particular scene in your game. For me, this comes down to understanding what the character’s intent is and where you want your narrative focus.

I’m still working to refine my understanding of when to use different actions, both for myself and so that I can provide clear guidance as I continue to convert things over to Fate. Attack and Defend are easy, and I’ve already decided to include Discover – in addition to being conceptually helpful, I think it can add something to certain situations and styles of play. Of course, as I continue to read posts and comments from around the community, I still encounter situations when I’m not sure which action would fit. Sometimes this is just due to lacking information on the intent and context of the action, but I think there is still room for significant improvement in my understanding of where the lines are drawn between Overcome, Create an Advantage, and Discover.

A related topic is that of zooming in and out within the story – essentially deciding how you want to handle a situation based on where you want the narrative focus. Frank Hanz discusses this concept here, and Malcolm Reynolds touches on it in his comments about creating advantages to impact different layers of play. Malcolm refers to the Fate fractal in his comment, and I agree that this idea is very much a fractal – but I don’t think it’s the Fate fractal.

Typically, the fractal refers to the application of the Bronze Rule – the idea that anything in the game can functionally be treated as a character (though there are limitations). But that’s not necessarily what this is; this is a second fractal. This one holds that any action in the game can be handled with varying levels of detail by adjusting its complexity and the number of rolls required to achieve the character’s intent. This is handled primarily by varying the number of tasks which must be required to accomplish a goal, the scale of those tasks, and the use of pacing mechanisms (challenges, contests, conflicts, etc.).

In other words, any event or action in the game world can be handled by a single roll, a series of rolls, a scene or two, an entire scenario, or even a whole campaign. It all depends on where you want to focus the story, and that focus can vary from one event to the next. Fate likes to name some of its rules, which I think helps players remember, apply, and refer to them. (Technically, this concept is not limited to Fate, but Fate’s scalable mechanics make it extremely well suited to applying this concept.) So I’ve taken to calling this the Glass Rule – as in you use a magnifying glass (or telescope) to zoom in and out of the action in order to change your focus and level of detail.

The rest of this is just a few examples of how to handle the same situation with different levels of focus and different actions. It’s something of a “thought exercise by way of hypothetical gameplay scenarios” just to help me work through this and codify it in my mind.


General scenario: The PCs are agents or operators of some kind and are currently attached to a military battalion. That battalion is preparing to assault and take control of an enemy research compound, and the characters decide they want to recon the compound to give the battalion an edge in the battle to come.


Example 1: The players and the GM are more interested in the battle to take the compound, so that’s where the scene will focus.

Scouting the compounds defenses is handled with a single roll to create an advantage. Success creates a Defenses Identified and Mapped aspect on the compound with a free invocation which can be used in the battle.


Example 2: The players and GM are focused on the battle itself, but the GM wants to illustrate how valuable having operators like the PCs can be to preparing for the battle.

The GM calls for an overcome roll to first infiltrate the compound, followed by a roll to create an advantage as the characters sabotage the security system. Success creates an Automated Security System has been Compromised aspect on the compound with a free invocation for the upcoming battle.


Example 3: Similar to the second example, but one of the characters is a hacker so the GM wants to show off how he can contribute to the battalion’s victory. The GM decides to handle this with a challenge with the team working together.

The team will have to enter the compound (overcome), hack the security system (overcome), hold off any guards during the hack (overcome), and then escape (overcome). One of the characters also wants to set some traps to help deal with the guards (create advantage). The PCs roll a success at minor cost to enter the compound (boost to the GM when holding off the guards), fail to set the traps (boost to the GM on the escape attempt), succeed to hold off the guards, success with style on the hack, and success with a serious cost to escape.

The GM narrates that the team manages to infiltrate the compound through a sewer access, but a guard stumbles upon their wet footprints and lets his team know to be on the lookout for anything strange. They discover the traps and sound the alarm. The team manages to hold them off while the hacker not only analyzes the compound’s security, but also finds a way to control it remotely. Unfortunately, the guards decide to focus on locking down the compound to prevent any escape. The team manages to make it out without any serious injury, but now the compound is aware of a possible attack. A Security System Remote Access aspect is attached to the compound with two free invocations, but a second aspect, On High Alert is also created on the compound.


Example 4: The players are far more interested in infiltrating the compound than they are in the actual battle, so the GM sets up the attempt to recon the facility as a full scene.

GM: Okay, you arrive outside the compound a couple hundred yards from the entrance. You identify a few guards on patrol, a number of cameras, and a couple of automated gun systems. Some areas of the perimeter are also protected by fence, and it looks electrified.

Player 1: I don’t like the look of those guns; let’s see if we can find another way in.

GM: Like what?

Player 1: Maybe a small service or delivery entrance with less security?

GM: Okay, that sounds like a discover action; roll Scout. Assuming you’re trying to avoid being spotted while looking for a way in, this will be against the guards’ Notice (+2).

Player 1: Okay, I got +2 – does that mean they saw us?

GM: No, just a minor cost. How about this? You find an emergency exit door that’s left open with no camera coverage, but the reason it’s open is that the guards like to use it while they’re on taking a break. There are three guards on break right now, milling around outside the door and talking.

Player 1: Well, that gives us a way in without being spotted, if we can just deal with these guards.

Player 2: Let’s setup some sort of diversion to draw them away while we slip inside.

GM: Okay you’ll need to Stealth to slip passed without being seen (overcome action), but you can create an advantage to lure them away first. How do you want to do that?

Player 3: Well, we don’t want to do anything that lets them know someone is here, just something to get them to move and look away for a couple minutes.

Player 4: What about a fire?

Player 3: Wouldn’t that tip them off that we’re here?

Player 4: Not necessarily, I can use my Engineering skill on the fence to make it look like the fence just shorted out and started a grass fire.

GM: Nice. Cool plan and with your Engineering it shouldn’t be a problem, so no need to roll. There’s a Grass Fire Near the Fenceline and the guards move off to investigate. They’re still being watchful, but they’re definitely distracted. You’ve got a free invoke.

Player 2: Okay, we’ll use it and make our way inside. I’ve got the highest Stealth, so I’ll lead everyone in. With the invoke I’ve got a +4.

GM: Okay, while the guards are dealing with the fire you manage to slip into the building without being seen. You’re at the end of a corridor on the ground level. Seems to be an office area. What now?

Player 3: We need to try and find information on how their security is setup, but we’re going to need to blend in if we want to look around. This is a research facility right, so there are probably scientists and lab techs all over the place?

GM: Yeah, most of them would be in labs and such, but you’d expect to see them throughout the facility.

Player 2: Let’s snag some lab coats from a supply closet!

Player 3: My thoughts exactly.

GM: Okay, the trick will be finding a supply closet before someone sees you. Lab supplies would probably be near the labs on the lower level.

Player 3: Yeah, but wouldn’t there also be recent shipments that need to be processed? That would be in an office area like the one we’re in now. Somebody’s got to fill out the paperwork when they get new supplies in right?

Player 4: Discover to establish there are supplies in the office area – with Bureaucracy?

GM: We could, but I don’t want to get bogged down in how you guys find some lab coats. Just use Bureaucracy to create an advantage so you can start looking around. Shouldn’t be hard, so roll against Average opposition.

Player 3: All right! I succeeded with style.

GM: Okay, so you find an office marked Logistics. It’s vacant, and the storeroom has all kinds of supplies, including the lab coats. You also find some newly encoded ID badges. They won’t hold up to serious scrutiny or get you into high security areas, but they’ll help you blend in. You all look like Just Another Lab Tech and you’ve got two free invokes. Moving around outside of any restricted shouldn’t be a problem if you don’t do anything to draw suspicion to yourself.

Player 4: Now we can get down to business.

Player 2: Well, we already know what security is like at the front of the building. What else do we need to get?

Player 3: We need something that will help the military take the facility.

Player 4: Like access codes or something?

Player 3: Maybe, but those would probably be hard to get without going into high security areas, which we want to avoid if we can. I was thinking along the lines of how many guards they have, when they’re on duty, and what other forces might be in the area. Stuff like that. Though even those kinds of details might not be easy to find.

Player 2: Maybe there’s something going on with their research projects that would make it better for the battalion to attack at a certain time – like a big test or something. Lots of people might know about that.

Player 3: I like it. Now where should we look?

Player 4: Well, we’re in the Logistics office. Maybe there’s a directory or lists of offices around here.

GM: Okay. You find a list with a bunch of offices listed. It includes room numbers, phone numbers, and the name and title of whoever is assigned to the office.

Player 4: We don’t want anyone too high up the food chain; they might have extra security. We want an office with just one mid-level person. Important enough to know what’s going on, but not too important…

GM: How about an Assistant Government Liaison for Research?
Player 4: Sounds promising.

GM: Dr. Agnew’s office is on the laboratory level, along with a few other offices, but it’s outside any restricted areas.

Player 3: Let’s go.

GM: All right. A quick elevator ride later you find yourselves on the lab sub-level heading down the corridor to Agnew’s office. It’s at the end of the hall, next to a stairwell and across from a breakroom being used by the scientists. [Reveals Scientists on Break.] The office is unoccupied, but the door is closed and locked.

Player 2: Doesn’t anybody work around here? Everyone’s on a break!

Player 3: Okay. We need to get into that office.

Player 2: I can pick it with Tradecraft, but not with all those scientists around.

Player 4: What if we distract them?

GM: How?

Player 4: We could start talking about work – but none of us have much in the way of Science skills. Maybe I could use Engineering?

GM: Without any idea of what they’re working on, that might be tough. If you’re just trying to hold their attention long enough for him to unlock a simple office door, it doesn’t have to be about work. You just need to avoid causing suspicion. How about Mimic?

Player 3: So Mimic to create an advantage for his Tradecraft roll?

GM: The lock isn’t hard to pick, it’s just about not being caught. Just roll a straight overcome action with Mimic against their Insight. I’ll also burn a fate point to invoke Scientists on Break. That puts the opposition at Good (+3).

Player 3: Okay, I’ll head into the breakroom and strike up a conversation family or something while he picks the lock. Maybe stand in the doorway and listen to me to block their view. I rolled a +2, but I’ll use one of our free invokes on Just Another Lab Tech to push it to +4.

GM: Good enough. You hold the scientists attention while he easily unlocks the door. They’re soon tired of listening to you prattle on about your kids and decide to get back to work. [Removes Scientists on Break from play.] As soon as the coast is clear, you duck into the office and lock the door. It’s a Messy Office, with a desk, a few filing cabinets, and a computer.

Player 4: Okay, so we’re looking for any information on upcoming events or tests that might create an opportunity for our guys to come in and take this place. I’ll check out the computer, hopefully it’s not too hard to get into, because I don’t think any of us are good with computers.

GM: Just a username and password. The username is already displayed, but you don’t have the password. You could hack the system with Tech.

Player 2: I don’t think that would go well unless we can create an advantage or something first. Not sure how we’d do that.

Player 3: Maybe we can figure out the password. Look through his desk to see if he wrote it down. Maybe a date or a name.

GM: Hmm. Okay roll Insight to discover what he might have use as the password. Opposition is Average.

Player 3: Can we use teamwork?

GM: Sure.

Player 3: Okay. Not the greatest roll, but +2 is enough.

GM: Okay, you notice that all of the pictures in the office are of a young boy, a few with a woman that you assume is Agnew’s wife, but the boy is in all of them. Looking through the photos, you find two names written on the back of one of them: Samantha and Tim.

Player 4: Let’s try Tim for the password.

GM: No joy.

Player 4: How about Timothy?

GM: You’re in.

Player 4: Score! Now let’s start looking for any information on upcoming tests or events.

GM: There’s a lot of information to look through, and you don’t want to stay in the office forever.

Player 3: It’s a government computer system right? Can I use Bureaucracy to find schedules or emails?

GM: Sure. Another discover action to locate the information you’re looking for, but I’ll spend a point to invoke Messy Office. This guy is seriously disorganized, and that extends to his computer as well. So opposition is +4.

Player 4: Ok fine. [Rolls] Not going well today, I’ve only got +2. I’ll spend a point to invoke my Government Calls Me to Solve Problems aspect to make it +4 and at least avoid a serious cost.

GM: Fair enough. You finally manage to sort through his nightmare of a file system. You find a few references to an upcoming project demonstration scheduled for a couple of days from now. Agnew has been coordinating a visit by some other military and government officials to observe the test.

Player 2: That’s not going to help us at all! If anything there will be more security.

GM: Actually, you notice that the demonstration will be held at a place called the Clearmoor Test Range. A quick search reveals that the range is about four hours away. There aren’t any detailed security plans for the event on this computer, but from some of the messages it seems that most of the security and military forces in the area will be used to protect the test equipment in transit and secure the range.

Player 2: So there won’t be much security here at the time, and everyone else will be a few hours away. That should give our guys a big enough window to take this place.

Player 3: Yeah… But what’s the catch, where’s that minor cost?
GM: Just then the phone in the office rings.

Player 4: Don’t answer it!

Player 3: Right. Just let it ring while we get out of here.

GM: The call goes to voicemail, and a woman’s voice leaves a message. “Dr. Agnew? This is Janice in lab 3. I know you just left here, but I need to get your signature on another form so we can finish making the preparations for the test. You mentioned you were headed back to the office, but I guess you’re not there yet. When you get this message, could you please drop back by the lab before you leave for the day? Thanks.”

Player 2: Great. We’re about to have company. Make sure you leave everything how we found it, and let’s get out of here.

Player 4: Yeah. Let’s get moving!

GM: You put everything back in its place and head out the door. As you step into the hallway you see a small man in a lab coat and glasses come around the corner and head in your direction. His eyes go wide when he sees you – a look that quickly changes to one of suspicion as he realizes were you just came from. “Hey! What are you doing in my office?!”

Player 3: Uh… “We heard the phone ringing and saw that the door was open, so we were going to answer it.”

GM: He continues to walk towards you after pausing momentarily. “You were just going to answer someone else’s phone?! How did you get in there?”

Player 2: No. This sniveling lab geek government flunky is not going to talk to us like that. I’m walking right towards him. “Look pal! We heard a phone and thought it might be important. We’re trying to help you out! And you thank us with this kind of attitude?! Maybe if you kept your door locked in the first place you wouldn’t have this problem! Come to think of it, that’s probably a security violation.” I turn to look back at them. “Aren’t we supposed to report that sort of thing?” I’m not breaking cover, but I want to intimidate him into backing down.

GM: Okay. We’ll call that creating an advantage with Manipulate. Roll against his Resolve. You’re right about him being a flunky; his Resolve is Mediocre and he defends with… [Rolls] zero.

Player 2: Hah. I got +2. How about Quaking in His Lab Boots?

GM: Sounds about right, with an invocation, but he’s still suspicious.

Player 3: Okay so now we need to press the advantage. We follow right behind and go to move past him like any other scientist.

GM: All right. Another Mimic roll to maintain your cover as you make your way past him to get out of the facility without him notifying security. Remember he’s a government liaison, so his Insight is Great +4.

Player 3: We’ll use our remaining free invoke on Just Another Lab Tech along with the invoke on Quaking in His Lab Boots.

Player 4: As we approach, looking like the lab techs we obviously are, I tell him, “Janice called and said she needed you back in lab 2 to sign some more forms. Don’t you just hate it when that happens? Like we don’t have enough paperwork to fill out already!”

Player 3: [Rolls] We’ve got +6 with those invokes.

GM: Okay. He stammers for a second, looking back and forth between the three of you. Then his shoulders slump and he turns around, heading back towards the lab section while muttering to himself.

Player 2: Right. Now can we get the hell out of here?

Player 3: We should have enough to make battalion command happy, let’s move before we press our luck any more than we already have.

GM: All right. You make your way through the facility and out the front door, still wearing your scientist outfits. No one gives you a second look. You remove your lab coats and head back to the battalion staging area. You’ve got the battalion a free invoke on Security? Just a Skeleton Crew. That should come in handy during the battle.

Player 4: Hey guys, what do you say to letting the grunts take care of the attack on their own? With security that light they should be able to handle it without us, and I’d like to see if we can find out what’s going on at this test range.

Player 3: I’m kind of curious to find out about this Clearmoor place myself.

Player 2: I guess it doesn’t do us much good to take that facility if they get away with whatever they were making and we don’t know anything about it. But this time we’re going armed.


Okay that was longer than I first intended, but I think it illustrates the point. All four examples end up with largely the same result: an advantage is created for the battalion’s attack. But there are four very different levels of detail and focus involved. Plus the actual advantage was established using different game mechanics. Only the first two examples used create an advantage. The third example used overcome actions in a challenge, and in the fourth example the aspect was created at the conclusion of the scene. The necessary information was actually uncovered with a discover action, but it didn’t become useful until the team got it back to the battalion.

I also tried to point out a few places in the last example where a roll could have been handled differently. Again, a key concept in applying the mechanics is to focus the story on the parts that are interesting. There are obviously a number of other ways that scene could have gone down. For example, the encounter with Dr. Agnew could have been handled as a full-blown conflict, starting out as mostly mental, but possibly transitioning if the PCs had to resort violence.

Or if the team had rolled success with style while looking for information, they might have learned that a captured scientist (perhaps a long-time acquaintance of one of the PCs) was being held in the compound and forced to assist with research. That one roll could take the scene in a completely different direction if they try to rescue him. Similarly, a failed roll could have resulted in guards being alerted at several junctures – which could easily have led to a contest to locate the information while the guards search the building floor by floor. That all assumes the characters try to remain covert; they could always escalate things and try to fight their way out.

That’s more than enough for now.

Fate’s Fifth Action: Discover

I’ve recently started seriously looking at Fate Core for my little game project.  I started converting my skill list over, but decided I needed to take a closer look at Fate’s basic actions first.  In addition to the four basic actions covered in the rulebook, many in the community value the utility of adding a discover action to the game.  This includes Ryan Macklin, one of the creators of Fate Core.  Feel free to check out his post, Fate: the Discover Action.

For my game, the discover action seems to be a good fit, so I’m definitely going to include it.  I’m also a firm believer that the use of Challenges, Contests, and Conflicts to zoom in on the action should never be compulsory.  You should be able to handle any attempted action with a single opposed roll if that’s what works best for your game.  Zooming in should largely be a concern of importance to the story, pacing, and how detailed you want to get with the results.  Read Robert Hanz’s post on this idea and how this can allow for zooming in and out to any level of detail.  This happens to hold great potential for my idea for a game that lets you shift between roleplaying and a more strategic tabletop game.

All this means that I’ll need to rewrite or expand on the descriptions of Fate’s basic actions to better clarify what action is used in different situations and at different levels of detail.  So I decided to start with taking a crack at a write-up of the discover action.  I also decided to create an icon for discover similar to those used for the other actions – it’s going to need one eventually.

This may need to be changed as I work through everything, but it’s a start.  Feedback is welcome.  So here it is: the discover action.

DiscoverDiscover

Use the discover action to reveal or establish information.

The discover action covers learning information that does not provide an immediate tangible benefit – though it may still be critical to advancing the plot of the story. It also allows a player to introduce new information into the game in a manner similar to spending a fate point to declare a story detail.

The discover action is about information; it is not about gaining anything tangible. You could use discover to look up historical events in a library, learn about building methods likely used in a structure, identify locations a criminal is known to frequent, find out the name and location of the best armorer in the city, ascertain that the creatures terrorizing the town are vulnerable to silver, recognize an opponent’s fighting style, and even detect a weak point in a stone wall – but discover will not provide anything which conveys an immediate advantage. Using the knowledge gained to your benefit requires an overcome or create an advantage action. Discover can be used to locate items, materials, and people, but it cannot remove a significant source of opposition. If acquiring the item or tracking down the thief is a source of opposition, use the overcome action.

The discover action can reveal aspects as well as more generalized facts, but success does not automatically award a free invocation on that aspect. If you want to use that aspect to your advantage, you will need to spend a fate point or use a create an advantage action. If your game includes hidden aspects, the discover action should be the primary means of revealing them.

Note that the GM is always free to provide the players with information and reveal aspects whenever it makes sense to do so. The discover action is merely intended to provide a means by which trying to gather information or learn the truth can be a source of dramatic tension. It also enables players to contribute story details without the use of fate points – much as the create an advantage action allows aspects to be invoked for free – but with the added risk that the facts they introduce into the story may turn out to be somewhat less than entirely true.

Oppose Opposing Discover

A discover action is typically rolled against passive opposition, with the GM setting opposition based on the level of detail and obscurity of the information, as well as any other factors that may make it more difficult to acquire. Certain circumstances may warrant rolling active opposition, such as trying to extract information from the subject of an interrogation. Just be sure that the character providing the opposition is only trying to avoid revealing the information, otherwise you might be dealing with an attack action.

Discover Using Discover

When you roll to discover information, you should describe what you are trying to find out (this can be fairly broad or very specific) and what you are doing to acquire the information. It’s normally assumed that you’re trying to reveal information already known to the GM, but if nothing’s established the GM can and should encourage you to introduce new details to the story. When introducing new information, you should clearly detail what you are attempting to establish prior to the roll so that the GM can determine appropriate opposition. You should also justify how or why you would have this information based on your aspects and skills. As with declaring a story detail using a fate point, the GM has the right to veto any suggestions that seem out of scope or ask the player to revise them.

Discover may be used to reveal aspects, but should not normally be used to create new aspects – that’s creating an advantage. Of course, information introduced through a discover action could later be turned into an aspect using the appropriate action or when it makes sense within the fiction. The GM can also decide to create a new aspect if it helps take things in a new direction or otherwise enhances the fiction, but you still shouldn’t get a free invocation unless you succeed with style.

If you’re using discover to reveal existing information…

  • When you fail, you either simply fail to gain any useful information or you succeed at a serious cost. What you learn is actually false, or perhaps part is true while the rest is complete poppycock; there could also be a serious complication. Maybe silver does affect the creature, but it makes them stronger somehow instead of weakening them. The armorer you were looking for turns out to actually be a long-time enemy of your family. The historical documents you reference turn out to have been written by a cult who twisted the facts. If success means revealing an aspect, then that aspect is changed to make the situation worse, or perhaps a new aspect is also created. It may also be appropriate to grant a free invocation to an opponent. Sure, you reveal Silver Gives Them Power, but the characters also gain the aspect Believes Silver is their Weakness. Perhaps you learn the magistrate’s dark secret, but now The Authorities Are After You, and the GM gets to invoke it for free. This tends to create lots of opportunities for compels.
  • When you tie, you gain the information or you reveal the aspect, but at a minor cost. What you learned is not as reliable or clear as you’d hoped, or there’s a complication. The information might be incomplete or misleading, it may need to be decrypted to be understood, or perhaps you inadvertently revealed the information to someone else as well. This could provide someone else with a boost, reveal the opposition of a later action is higher than expected, or introduce a minor problem. An aspect revealed on a tie remains true as always, but someone opposing you gets a free invocation or a boost. Maybe you tipped someone off while you were poking around.
  • When you succeed, you gain the information or you reveal the aspect.
  • When you succeed with style, you gain the information and get a boost or you reveal the aspect and get a free invocation.

If you’re using discover to establish new information…

  • When you fail, you either fail to establish the information or you succeed at a serious cost. Maybe you simply realize that you must have been thinking about a fort in a different valley, or you just do not recognize the fighting style being used by your opponent. On the other hand, you might remember the fort was abandoned due to a plague, or perhaps you mistakenly conclude that your opponent was trained by Si-Juk – when he was actually trained by Si-Juk’s arch rival. Normally, establishing new information doesn’t result in creating new aspects, but failing could mean a new aspect is created that creates serious problems. You may have been able to learn what part of town the thief calls home, but now The Thieves Guild Has Taken Out a Contract on You. Truly abysmal failures might also warrant giving a free invocation to an opponent. Again, lots of fertile ground for compels can come from a failed discover roll.
  • When you tie, you confirm what you wanted to know, but at a minor cost. What you learned is not as reliable or clear as you’d hoped, or there’s a complication. The information might be incomplete or misleading, you might remember that the only way to reach the fort is to fjord a river, or maybe you mistake the girl who used to live around here for her sister. This could provide someone else with a boost, reveal the opposition of a later action is higher than expected, or introduce a minor problem.
  • When you succeed, you establish the information as true within the game world.
  • When you succeed with style, the information is established as true and you get a boost, or the information becomes an aspect and you get a free invocation.

Discover in Challenges, Contests, and Conflicts

Discover is often used in challenges to gather information or supplies necessary to later actions in the challenge. Since the results of the challenge are determined after all rolls are made, a failure on a discover action often means that some of the information was wrong or the supplies were of poor quality, resulting in diminished or unintended results.

The discover action is rarely used to generate victories (unless the goal of the contest is to gather information in a limited amount of time), so discover sees little use in most contests. Similarly, the discover action is not used to accomplish many of the tasks commonly attempted during conflicts. However, discover can still play a key role in these situations by revealing aspects, which can then be invoked with a fate point or by creating an advantage.

Examples of Discover (In progress)

  • hw5
    From Bride of Re-Animator

    Studying a creature’s corpse to learn it is vulnerable to silver, followed by a create an advantage action to acquire silver weapons. Success with style on the discover roll could allow the character to remember the location of a nearby silver mine, or perhaps silver has declined sharply in value recently, making such weapons far less expensive.

  • Remembering that an old fort lies not far ahead while trudging through a blizzard, followed by an overcome action to successfully locate the fort. Unfortunately, the character fails the discover roll. They remember the approximate location of the fort, and manage to make their way there with an overcome roll. Little did they know that the fort has since become Home to a Pack of Wolves.
  • 7abd99f57de479f12c8c06b252607d10
    From Trail of Cthulhu: Bookhounds of London

    Searching through a library for information on a lost artifact and finding excerpts from an explorer’s journal describing where it was found, but the explorer moved the artifact and the journal itself is not located in the library. Notes in the library do mention the name of the last known owner of the journal. Succeeding with style might even reveal that the owner of the journal is currently in deep debt and in desperate need of money. In this case, acquiring the journal was intended as a source of opposition.

The Division – Review

The Division has been out for a couple of weeks now, and the first major update is expected in April. So why am I just now getting around to writing a review? Simple: I wanted to actually review the game – rather than just provide some early impressions based on beta or my first few hours after launch (like many other reviews I’ve seen). I’ve got over 70 hours logged on the game at this point, and I’ve experienced most – though not all – of what the game has to offer right now.

Visuals

Overall, The Division is visually impressive. Admittedly, there is a noticeable difference between the version of the game shown at E3 2013 and the final PC version, even at maxed settings. (This was due to necessary changes to allow the game to be ported to consoles. I’m not a fan of that common practice, but that’s a topic for another time.) Despite this unfortunate fact, The Division is still gorgeous. Volumetric effects of smoke and steam, myriad light sources, etc. – all look great. This is also one of the few games where weather feels realistic. Walking down the street in a snow storm looks and feels completely different from walking down the same street during a sunny day. Snow will accumulate on your clothing during a storm (and slowly melt while you are indoors), and visibility is appropriately compromised. The day/night cycle is well done, and the game world feels different depending on the time of day and the weather.

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Just a random cool buildings I happened to walk by while roaming Manhattan.

It’s also important to note that everything takes places within the game world. By that, I mean that the open-world PvE area, the Dark Zone (PvP), and the locations of the main missions all exist within the same instanced space. In other words, when you’re in the open world, you can literally hear what’s going on behind the massive wall that separates it from the Dark Zone. While inside a mission space, objects will often show up on your map that are located in the surrounding world. The day/night and weather cycles of the world also occasionally have an interesting effect on missions. Playing an outdoor mission in a snowstorm or at dusk is noticeably different due to changes in visibility. One mission in particular which I had played a few times already became more challenging when trying to deal with a sniper boss while the sun was setting directly behind him.

The game also runs very smoothly and looks great even on my aging rig. (I’m running 2x GTX 680s in SLI. High-end when they came out, but a bit dated now.) I will occasionally notice some slow-loading textures, but usually only when first exiting a safe house into the world proper, and the low-res textures that are visible in the meantime aren’t too jarring. Given the level of detail and size of the world this is understandable, and I’m glad they didn’t compromise the game just to speed up the texture-loading on some machines.

Detail

Simply put, the game is gorgeous, and the level of detail is superb. When you consider the open nature of the game world and the near absence of loading times, the level of detail in the game world is outstanding. Snow on the ground actually looks like snow – not just some white textures and a few white drift-like shapes – and you leave footprints. There’s junk everywhere – as you would expect when all hell has broken loose in Manhattan. Some of it is static (like heaps of trash bags), but plenty are represented as discrete objects (like cardboard boxes that move when you try to walk through them). Vault over a car with the hood open and the hood will close, and moving along a car while in cover will also result in you closing the car door. In fact, there’s even an achievement tied to doing just that.

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The remains of a supply drop. Note the nice smoke effects – and this is not at max settings.

The effects of gunfire on cover are also highly detailed – broken glass, holes in walls (cars, barriers, etc.), burn marks, blowing out tires, and so on – though full-blown destructive environments aren’t implemented. There are myriad light sources throughout the city, and the game really maximizes the use of shadows to aid in immersion. Anti-aliasing is impressive, and jaggies are virtually non-existent. Really, Massive and Ubisoft need to license this engine – it’s called Snowdrop, by the way – as there is a great deal of potential here for a lot of different game styles. I found myself wishing The Division had some horror elements to the story, though the Dark Zone does sometimes have that sort of feel to it.

Audio

The sound effects and music are nothing mind-blowing, but they’re not bad. However, The Division does use sound to great effect in immersing the player in the game world. Your primary means of receiving information on missions is via radio, and more than a hundred phone recordings scattered about the world tell the story of the fall of Manhattan and its rapid spiral into anarchy. Pirate radio broadcasts also tell more about how some people feel about the existence of Division agents, people will occasionally yell at you from their windows, and you can overhear all sorts of interesting conversations in your base of operations. All of this serves to make the world feel alive – in some ways more so than even most MMOs, and certainly more than nearly all first-person shooters. The voice acting in particular deserves special mention.

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Green Poison was unleashed on Manhattan on Black Friday.

Technical Polish and Bugs

Overall, the level of polish in The Division is quite high compared to most games at launch – especially compared to other massively multiplayer titles. There are very few bugs at all, and this marks one of the first times in recent memory that a game launched with sufficient server capacity. Queues occasionally exist during peak times, but a long wait is still on the order of 2-3 minutes and usually more like 60 seconds. I’ve encountered only four notable bugs. One was a side mission which couldn’t be completed because the enemies didn’t spawn – resolved by simply restarting the mission. One is an odd issue where some of your character’s stats don’t show up correctly in certain parts of the UI – not sure exactly what the deal is here, but simply looking on a particular tab is an easy workaround. I’ve had a couple of crashes when playing challenging missions in a group when a lot of fire and smoke effects were going on simultaneously – probably just due to aging hardware and simply logging back in puts me right back into the mission with my group. The last also relates to grouping for missions: Sometimes you will matchmake and travel to the mission start to find the mission won’t actually begin; the instance is bugged. It can sometimes take a few tries to join a working instance, but this is the most significant issue I’ve encountered thus far – and it really only impacts players at max level who are running the daily missions.

Customization

Long-time MMO players who relish fine-tuning every little aspect of their character’s appearance are going to be disappointed by The Division – it simply doesn’t have as many options as most MMORPGs. In my opinion, it doesn’t need endless options for customization and including them would only be irrelevant, not to mention taking development time away from more important pursuits. That said, there are still some good customization options.

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Sporting my then-limited cosmetic options, as well as a modded assault rifle.

Character creation is simple and just allows you to essentially pick your character’s head. For some bizarre reason, this is the only time you have the opportunity to add glasses to your character. Other character cosmetics come in the form of clothing. There is a wealth of clothing to be collected in the game – at least 400+ pieces – that can be obtained via loot drops, purchased from an appearance vendor, or dropped as a thank you for helping random civilians in the game world. A few jackets are also awarded for collecting intel scattered about the world. The nice thing about all this is that your character’s appearance is largely cosmetic – none of that “everyone looks the same because they wear the same high level armor”. Your actual gear (e.g. gloves, mask, vest, pack, pads, etc.) look different depending on what you have equipped, but the stand-out elements of your character appear how you want them to. Which brings me to weapons and gear…

Some pieces of gear can be modified to provide different benefits, but the majority of gear customization is tied to weapons. Depending on the weapon, you can modify the magazine, underbarrel, muzzle, and sights – all of which have specific mechanical effects based on the mod used. In other words, this stuff isn’t cosmetic, it’s functional and significant. However, you can also apply a weapon skin to each weapon to alter its appearance. Collecting these has become something of a thing amongst many in the community.

Crafting

Tied in with gear customization is crafting, which is also relatively well done. You can acquire crafting materials around the world, and once you locate them their position is marked on the map so you can farm them later – they refresh every couple of hours. There are three tiers of materials that align with five tiers of gear, and you can deconstruct unwanted gear for materials. Early in the game it is sometimes better to sell gear for credits if you haven’t been lucky with loot drops and need to purchase gear from a vendor. Later in the game, it’s usually better to deconstruct for materials as you can exchange lower-tier materials for high-end – and you’ll need plenty of those if you’re trying to craft anything close to your ideal gear and weapons. This is because of the way crafting works.

When you craft a piece of gear – a mask for example – you can choose the blueprint to use. Prior to endgame blueprints are awarded at the end of side missions, with high-end blueprints being purchased from certain vendors later in the game. This determines the level and general type of mask you are crafting (focused on firearms versus stamina, for example), but the actual attributes are rolled randomly when you craft the item. As a result, crafting becomes a significant endgame activity as players hope for the “perfect” item. In fact, a lot of the current endgame revolves around getting specific currency or materials needed to craft the highest level gear. There are still some issues here that are continually being balanced, but the overall result is that crafting remains relevant and provides motivation to continue playing.

Gameplay

Okay, now for how the game plays. In short, really well. The core gameplay is essentially that of an open-world cover-based shooter, and combat is satisfying. There is the issue of some enemies being “bullet sponges” – they just take an insane amount of damage to kill. However, this isn’t really noticeable until you start dealing with the Hard and Challenging versions of the missions or elite mobs in the Dark Zone. The AI is nothing spectacular, but enemy mobs definitely react in a more realistic fashion than many other games: they act based on what they see and hear. If they take cover and lose sight of you, they continue to operate based on the assumption that you haven’t moved. This creates great opportunities for flanking and introduces a degree of realism.

There are plenty of skills to choose from – each of which can be modded to provide different effects – and they are different enough from one another to allow for distinctive builds. Admittedly, some are much more prevalent and important than others once you reach endgame, but this is to be expected.

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Working to bring down an elite enemy during a Challenging mission.

The bulk of your time in the PvE area will be spent roaming around between Encounters and Side Missions. You will encounter random roving mobs of rioters, escaped prisoners, and others; these mobs are unscripted which can sometimes result in some interesting developments. For example, when dealing with a group of five or so enemies, after I killed the first 4 the last one decided to fall back and take cover. I waited for him to reapproach, but he didn’t – then I heard nearby gunfire and decided to investigate. Evidently his retreat had brought him within sight of another group of rioters and sparked a gunfight between them. I sat back to watch and then mopped up what was left.

I later stumbled across a gunfight between some mercs gone bad (Last Man Battalion) and a group of escaped prisoners (Rikers). The two groups employed the same tactics against one another that I had encountered before, and it was satisfying to watch them take each apart until I decided to wade in and clean up.

Encounters are more scripted but generally revolve around defending an area against a few waves of enemies or exploring a contaminated area. These are also one of the primary means of gathering resources needed to upgrade your base of operations, which in turn unlocks more skills. Side missions are a little more involved and require you to rescue hostages, track down a particularly troublesome individual, or look for a missing person. This leaves the game’s main missions.

Main Missions = Dungeons

For those that are more familiar with first-person shooters, the game’s main missions are more like individual scripted levels on self-contained maps. For the MMO crowd, think of them as dungeons. Either way, the important things to understand about these missions is that they are the primary ways to advance the main storyline, they give you lots of resources to upgrade your base, and they scale based on difficulty and the size of your team. You can play these solo or in a group of up to four. As you are progressing through main story you will play them on Normal, and you can return later to try them on Hard once you have leveled up a bit more and gotten better gear.

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Protect what remains…

Hard versions also play a key role in endgame activities, as 3 missions are designated as Daily missions on a rotating basis. Completing these will award you endgame currency (phoenix credits) and help get you ready for the Daily Challenging mission. The Challenging mission also rotates on a daily basis (though currently only between the same 4 missions) and awards you even more phoenix credits and a guaranteed piece of high-end gear. Unlike the daily Hard missions, the Challenging mission can be run multiple times per day and is currently the peak of PvE gameplay (i.e. outside of the Dark Zone).

Grouping

On that note, let’s talk about grouping in The Division. As a player who tends to play most game solo – and who has so far played the majority of this game solo as well – I’ll say that the game is markedly more fun when playing in a group. Weather roaming the map or playing missions, the gameplay is just more enjoyable with at least one teammate. That said, the storyline and overall atmosphere of the game is probably best experienced solo, so a balanced approach is needed. After playing a lot of the Dailies in a group (virtually a must for the Challenging missions), I found myself wanting to find a group to explore the Dark Zone – essentially the only thing I haven’t yet accomplished in the game so far.
Grouping itself is fairly simply, you can approach other players in common areas (the initial hub and safe houses in each zone) and attempt to group, or you can use the matchmaking feature from common areas (or via the map for missions). If you have people on your Uplay friends list, you can also see who is currently online via the Uplay app and just click the Join link next to their name. This will launch the game and automatically put you into a group. Note that the only players you will encounter in the PvE area are those in your group; you can play the entire PvE area solo if you wish.

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Exploring the Russian Consulate on Challenging. Actually, these guys didn’t speak a lot of English, but we still had a blast finishing this mission!

Voice chat is built into the game and is proximity-based, so you only hear people nearby or in your group. Regional chat is also available and can be hidden outside of common areas if you wish. This is one area in which The Division has a significant advantage over Destiny – with which there have been a lot of comparisons – as communication is simply easier in The Division and not limited to emotes.

End Game

The Division’s endgame essentially begins once you reach the maximum character level of 30, at which point the Daily missions become available. The focus of endgame is essentially a quest for the perfect loot – either crafted or dropped. Sources for loot drops, crafting materials, and currency for blueprints come primarily from Daily missions or the Dark Zone.

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End Game

Dark Zone

The Dark Zone is really the only aspect of the game which I have not yet fully explored. It’s essentially a combined PvP and PvE area, and I’m generally not a big PvP kind of guy. There are plenty of articles and videos out there explaining what the Dark Zone is, but here’s the short version:

The Dark Zone is a separate area of the map with higher level enemies and loot that also allows for open PvP. Loot acquired in the DZ must be extracted via helicopter is specially designated locations before it can be used. Engaging your fellow agents allows you to potentially steal their loot, but also marks you as rogue and makes you a target for everyone else. You gain DZ experience and levels (as well as dedicated DZ currency) independent of the rest of the game, both from enemies and agents killed in PvP. You can also lose experience, levels and DZ credits with each death inside the zone. This all results in a tense gameplay experience that is reinforced by the design and feel of the Dark Zone.
Many of the game’s better blueprints are only available from DZ vendors and only craftable using special DZ materials. And those vendors (and many loot chests) are only available once you’ve reached DZ level 30 or 50. While it’s technically possible to accomplish this by grinding the lower difficulty DZ zones, that could take a while, so grouping up or forming temporary alliances works to your benefit – assuming you can trust those you are with.

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Exploring the Dark Zone.

Massive is still working hard to balance the benefits and risks of going rogue – which is something of a challenge given that you always have players that want more of a cooperative or solo experience and others that want a grand melee deathmatch. Some players will like it and some will hate it no matter what, but for now I can say there is definite potential here and that the developers certainly seem willing to make continual adjustments based on community feedback. One positive aspect about The Division’s design is that while certain pieces of gear are only available via certain avenues, it is possible to get the highest level gear via either the Dark Zone or Dailies.

Other Issues and Ongoing Development

There are a couple of other issues with the game. New players at launch were greeted with a virtual line of players all waiting to access the same laptop. People had complete meltdowns over this rather odd design decision, but it not emblematic of the overall game and probably would not ever be an issue outside of launch weekend.
There is also a strong desire to have more of the buildings accessible so you can actually enter them. You can actually enter quite a large number of buildings – though the way in is not always obvious at first – but there are limits to how much the developers can create and how much of that would include meaningful content. I’d still like to see more buildings opened up down the road, hopefully with some purpose but even just for exploration. Some of these buildings might be planned for future content, but we’ll have to wait and see.

The other big concern in the community is the lack of use of the massive PvE areas in endgame. Once you’ve completed all the encounters and side missions and found all the intel, there is very little reason to return to explore most of the map. There are plenty of ideas floating around about how to fix this, and Massive has already said there are additions to endgame coming soon, so we’ll have to wait and see.

On that note, the game’s first major update is due sometime in April and will add Operations (formerly known as Incursions), which are believed to be something along the lines of a large dungeon/mission or raid-like activity. Loot trading at the end of missions is also being added around that time. There are two additional free updates with new features and three paid expansions anticipated during the game’s first year. I’m looking forward to these, but the fact that the 3 paid expansions suffer from 30 days of exclusivity on Xbox One really pisses me off. A couple of days early access for one group or another is one thing, but a month of waiting for additional content that already exists just because of some exclusivity contract is the kind of thing the gaming industry can do without. Oh well, hopefully the free updates add enough to the endgame to keep me interested while I wait.

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Snowstorm outside of the Base of Operations – more commonly referred to as the BoO.

What’s Still Needed

As mentioned, the PvE areas really need to be better integrated into the endgame experience. There are lots of ways this can be accomplished, but it needs to scale properly for both solo and groups to keep with the rest of the PvE elements in the game. This is arguably the one area where Massive can take a page from Destiny. Adding random events, bounties, and repeatable dynamically-generated side missions are just a few of relatively simple ways this area could be utilized, and the community has lots of great suggestions for more involved options.

Virtually the entire community would also agree there also need to be some tweaks to storage and weapon skins. Weapon skins are cosmetic, but because of how they are applied to weapons they are treated as mods in your inventory and take up valuable space. Combined with the limited inventory space in your pack and stash and the fact that you may want to keep different gear sets and mods for different builds and inventory space becomes an issue once you reach endgame. Easy to fix, but it needs to happen.

Balance issues still exist – depending on whom you ask – in the Dark Zone, but it seems the devs are willing to keep working on this. Many players also argue that there needs to be other ways of gathering the DZ-specific crafting materials (Division Tech), as their respawn rates and the fact that they exist in a PvP area makes farming them problematic. Again, lots of suggestions and lots of potential for a fix.

In One Word: Potential

Overall, the best way to sum up The Division is to say that the game has lots of potential. Plenty of players will hate it, usually because it does something differently from how it would if they made the design decisions – nothing new in the gaming industry. In the end, I’d say this game has more going for it than Destiny had at launch, and if Massive continues to devote sufficient time and resources to the game it should be around for quite a while. I’ve enjoyed it so far and cannot wait to see what’s next.

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A couple of kids playing inside of a safe house. This isn’t part of any mission – it’s just detail.

Life Is Strange – Review

Short version: Life Is Strange is one of the most unusual video games I have ever played – and without a doubt one of the best written and crafted. While the play style and themes will not appeal to everyone, it is an extraordinary piece of storytelling that clearly demonstrates the power of video games as an art form.

It is a game about choices. It is a game about friendship.

If you are reading this, then you more than likely have read a few other things about the game. If you are unsure about trying it for yourself, ask yourself two questions:

  • Do you only enjoy action games or games that are challenging at a technical level?
  • Do you have trouble investing yourself in characters while playing games, watching movies, or reading books?

If the answer to both these questions is no, then you should absolutely play Life Is Strange.

How I (Finally) Played Life Is Strange

To be honest, I’m late to the party. I didn’t even pick up the game on Steam until after all 5 episodes were out, so my experience will be a little different from those that had to wait between episodes. Actually, I didn’t even play much of the game on my PC. I started it, but didn’t even finish the first episode. Looking back, it was simply too easy to be distracted by other things in the early parts of the game – largely because I was playing on my PC.

Three days ago, determined to give the game another shot, I purchased the Limited Edition of Life Is Strange for PS4. I finished it last night – and I don’t regret buying it twice for one second.

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Aside – PC vs Console

I’ve seen a few reviews of Life Is Strange that compare the visual quality of the console version from that of the original PC. To put it bluntly, such comparisons are irrelevant. The visuals are about the same in either case, and this is not a game in which high resolution or graphical effects are important. That’s not to say the visuals of the game are not important – nothing could be farther from the truth – but those visuals are not related to the technical prowess of your chosen platform. Personally, I found the controls of the console version to be slightly more intuitive, but there are pros and cons either way. In the end, I think I found the game more enjoyable on the console because it was easier to immerse myself in the experience while sitting on my couch, in front of a large screen, surrounded by sound. It felt more personal this way.

First Few Minutes and Gameplay

My intention is to keep this review free of spoilers (You should absolutely AVOID SPOILERS if you haven’t played the game yet. Though I imagine it’s power will be felt even if some of the details are revealed to you ahead of time.), but I will describe what happens in the opening few minutes of the game. You play Max, an 18-year-old girl who has recently moved back to her home town to attend an art school and study photography. While she is struggling to fit in, another girl has recently gone missing. Max has an incredibly vivid dream of a tornado destroying the town, shortly before seeing her childhood friend get shot in the school bathroom. This is when Max discovers she has the power to rewind time…

The rest of the game is all about making choices and dealing with their consequences.

As you might imagine, the power to manipulate time lends itself to some interesting gameplay mechanics. Gameplay revolves around exploring the environment and speaking with characters, then making choices about what to do or say. The ability to rewind means that you can often try different options before deciding to move one. When Max rewinds time it moves around her, leaving her unchanged – along with just about anything in her possession. This enables her to take some creative approaches to problem solving. Overall, the game play is actually very simple, but it is used to great and powerful effect.

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Sound and Visuals

The game’s sound is reasonably immersive and helps ground you in Max’s reality, but the music deserves special mention. The indie folk style is not really my cup of tea in the least (I tend towards rock, metal, and blues.), but it fits the game perfectly. The best way I can express just how superbly the music enhances the experience is with these two statements:

  • I’ve been listening to the soundtrack in my car for the past two days, despite not usually being a fan of the style, just to revel in the experience a little longer.
  • I suspect that anytime I hear this style of music in the future, I will be immediately reminded of Life Is Strange.

As for the visuals, the game’s art direction is beyond good – at once majestic and intensely personal. At first, the emphasis on photography in the game seemed a little superfluous. As the game went on, however, I began to appreciate just well the writers integrated the use of photographs into the themes and presentation of the story. In the second half of the game, photographs are used to great effect to illustrate how your choices have a ripple effect on the lives of those around you, and the importance of photos just increases as you progress through the story.

Feelings and Themes

At several points while playing the game, I was reminded of a couple other stories that involve a sense of mystery in a small town. Last year I watched the TV series Gracepoint (an American adaptation of the British Broadchurch), which is a sort of murder mystery set in a small coastal town. That sense of mystery, combined with the tension felt between a cast of well-rounded characters, was also strongly evoked in Life Is Strange. The game also reminded me of my time playing the first few hours of The Secret World. Small town, mysterious sense of danger, coming to grips with forces larger than yourself – all of these ideas exist in both games.

Life Is Strange also doesn’t shy away from some heavy topics and themes. Loss, murder, privacy, suicide, quality of life, love, insecurity, sexuality, and personal responsibility are just some of the themes explored in the story. One truly remarkable thing about Life Is Strange is how the writers have managed to explore these themes without really steering you in one direction or another – there is rarely a “right” or “wrong” decision, which is often true in the real world as well. Other games have tried to do this, often by making decisions and morality largely ambiguous, but Life Is Strange manages to pull this off without the same degree of ambiguity.

A lot of this is accomplished through the fine art of subtlety. For example, I don’t think anyone would reasonably say there is a lot of strong sexuality in this game – although a different developer or medium could certainly have incorporated more sexuality into this story had they wanted to. That said, many who have played the game feel strongly about some of the romantic undercurrents in parts of the game. The beauty of what the writers have accomplished is that a lot of what this game shows you is dependent on what you bring to it and how you perceive things. It can mean different things to different people. Personally, I think one of the great lessons from this game is how true friendship and love are really one and the same – it’s about something deeper than our common thoughts on sexuality and romance. It’s about caring for one another and being human.

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Criticism

Some aspects of the game’s final episode have been criticized as “undoing” much of what occurred in the first four episodes. While I completely understand why someone would come to this conclusion, I do not agree with it. I want to avoid spoilers, so I’ll just say this:

While your decisions late in the game can “erase” some of your earlier decisions, those early decisions are in no way invalidated. They remain relevant to the story, and arguably take on an even larger significance.

That one issue is really the only common criticism I have heard from those that have really played Life Is Strange, which is impressive on its own.

I will admit to being a little disappointed that the game was not longer, but that’s just because I wasn’t ready to be done with its characters and story. I should also point out that several of the plot threads could have been taken in another direction and developed into something much different – many of which could have been made into some seriously interesting and fun games. But at the end of the day, I believe the writers likely told the best and most powerful story they could – taking things in another direction or making the game longer would have taken away from the whole and compromised something truly remarkable. Honestly, I’m not sure how DONTNOD (the game’s developers) can hope to top this one, but I’m more than willing to give them the chance.

Closing Thoughts

Life Is Strange is an amazing game – an experience – that takes the player on an emotional journey few games can match. As I right this, I’m still having a hard time coming to grips with just how good this story really is and how to explain it. As is true of all great art, it means a lot of different things to different people. It is a story about time travel, loss, bullies, compassion, responsibility, courage, guilt, fear, understanding, and love.

It is a story about choices. It is a story about friendship.

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