Category Archives: MMORPG Impressions

Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire Preview Shows Promise

I have a strange and complicated history with Guild Wars 2. Like a lot of people, I fell hard for the hype before the launch. Once I finally got my hands on the game, I played heavily for several weeks and had a great time… until I didn’t.

The new Crystal Oasis zone in Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire

Part of it was how far the game had drifted from its original concept. Part of it was the lackluster story. For a variety of reasons, I fell out of love with GW2, and while I’ve revisited it a couple of times, I’ve never been able to recapture the magic.

Still, when ArenaNet announced a free preview of the second expansion, Path of Fire, my curiosity was ignited (hurr hurr). I decided it was time to give the game one more try.

Into the desert

First, it needs to be said this was a very small preview. It included only a brief leg of the new story and a very small corner of one of the new maps, Crystal Oasis.

I was also mildly irritated by the fact that you could not bring an existing character into the preview, but instead had to create a new one that would then be wiped. I suppose that’s to ensure this is truly a preview and not early access, but given how little content was available in the demo, I’m not sure I see the harm in letting people get a head start on it.

One interesting thing about this, though, is that I was able to make a revenant character despite not owning Heart of Thorns. Of course, in retrospect, diving into some relatively challenging endgame content on a class I’ve never played before may not have been the brightest idea I’ve ever had. There was certainly a learning curve, to put it mildly.

It’s very difficult to draw any conclusions about the story of Path of Fire. I haven’t played GW2 in a long time, so I have no context on what led to these events, and the amount of story in the demo is, again, incredibly small.

A Norn revenant in Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire

So take this opinion with a hefty grain of salt, but it seemed like GW2’s story-telling had improved in the time I’ve been away. None of the dialogue made me cringe at all, the villains seemed truly threatening, and the characters displayed some genuine personality.

In other words, it’s minimally competent, which is more than can be said for all the Guild Wars 2 story I’ve experienced up until now.

I noticed some interesting environmental story-telling, as well. In town, you’ll occasionally find fanatical servants of the new villain trying to radicalize desperate refugees. You have the option to call them out, sparking a brief fight. There doesn’t seem to be any significant rewards for doing so, but it’s a nice little bit of immersive story-telling.

I groaned inwardly when I found out that Path of Fire was focusing on desert zones, as deserts are one of my least favorite video game biomes (jungles being another). That said, though, my fears may have been unfounded. While some sections of the Crystal Oasis were a bit bland, mostly it’s a very beautiful and inviting zone.

The architecture, for one thing, is fascinating. There are pyramids everywhere, but ArenaNet seems to have resisted the urge to ape ancient Egypt as have so many other digital deserts. Instead, the pyramids and other buildings seem a strange mix of Aztec design, Arabic stylings, and some unique flavor all their own.

The Crystal Oasis is at its most beautiful at night. The skies turn into a riot of stars, and the whole landscape is lit in soft, gentle tones. But even during the day, it can still be a pretty zone. Guild Wars 2 has always had a fantastic art style, and there are times in the Crystal Oasis it feels like you’ve walked into some beautiful old oil painting.

The town of Amnoon in Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire

On the whole, Path of Fire leaves a surprisingly strong first impression.


As I delved deeper into the content, though, I started to run into some frustration.

For one thing, mob density in the new zone seems absurdly high. You can’t walk two feet without getting attacked by at least one or two mobs. Definite flashbacks to Orr. At one point I became trapped in one corner of the map for what felt like about ten minutes because I just kept getting jumped by more mobs faster than I could kill them all. It wasn’t even part of an event or any particular point of interest. It was just a random patch of sand that was for some reason guarded like Fort Knox.

There are a lot of wandering veteran mobs, too. Again, playing a class that was totally new to me can’t have helped, but I found them largely impossible to solo, and most frustrating was that a lot of them spam crowd control on you. This is something I always found frustrating about high level Guild Wars 2 content; who thought that being stun-locked by every mob you meet would be fun?

I was also reminded that death is strangely punishing in GW2 for what is ostensibly supposed to be a casual game. Waypoints are few and far enough between that dying can send you miles away and cost you a significant amount of time just to get back to where you were, especially if you need to fight your way through respawned enemies.

Finally, Path of Fire adds one new annoyance in the form of unidentified gear. In the new zones, new items drop as unidentified items and can only be used once you take them to a vendor and pay to have them identified. This is being sold as a way to make inventory management easier, but in practice it’s just a waste of time, and I deeply resent having to pay for loot I’ve already earned (even if the fee is admittedly quite modest).

On mounts

A raptor mount in Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire

Of course, one of the biggest new features in Path of Fire — and one of the few available in this preview — is the addition of mounts.

For reasons that I’ve never quite grasped, mounts are a topic of incredible controversy in the Guild Wars 2 community. I think both sides of the argument have overblown things, honestly. I never saw any particular need for mounts in GW2, but I also never saw any real harm in adding them.

Having played with one, though, I think they’re a positive addition to the game.

Firstly, I like that you get your first mount almost immediately upon entering the new zones. Guild Wars 2 has always been good about not making you wait for the good stuff, and I’m glad to see that’s one element of the game’s design philosophy that hasn’t much changed.

As for the mounts themselves, they’re not just passive speed boosts. They also have special movement and combat abilities. The raptor mount including in the trial has a long jump that can be used to clear large gaps, thus allowing you to reach otherwise inaccessible locations, as well as a sweeping tail attack that allows you begin a fight with a nice burst of AoE damage.

The mounts themselves are also incredibly well animated and have a real sense of weight and momentum to their movements. It’s hard to explain, but they just feel good to pilot in a way that mounts of other MMOs simply don’t. Unfortunately, it seems some people are experiencing motion sickness while using them, but as someone without such issues, I found mounted play to be a real joy.

As a long-time MMORPG fan, it’s easy to be cynical about GW2 adding mounts. It can feel like they’re hyping a basic feature that dozens of other games already have. But credit where credit is due: Guild Wars 2 built a better mousetrap. I don’t want to go back to traditional mounts now.

The new Crystal Oasis zone in Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire

Walking the Path

I’ve got to be honest: I went into this preview expecting and on some level perhaps even wanting to dislike Path of Fire.

And there are definitely some things about it that deserve to be criticized, and it’s not exactly a revolution that’s going to solve all the game’s problems.

But it also needs to be said that there’s a lot about Path of Fire that’s genuinely worthy of praise. Mounts are awesome. The new zone is beautiful. The story at least has potential. If it’s not reinventing the wheel, then at least it’s putting some sweet rims on it.

For me personally, and perhaps other people as well, it may still be too little too late to bring me back to the game, but at the very least, current Guild Wars 2 fans can confidently look forward to what’s ahead.

LOTRO vs. SWTOR: Who Handles the IP Better?

Many games are based on pre-existing imaginary worlds. Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) and Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR) are two such MMO games that have become popular, not in the least due to their IP. But which of the two handles the IP better?

IP and Licensing

Intellectual property (IP) is an intangible ownership that is based on creations of the mind. While the word technically focuses on the possession of creations, fans often use it to refer to the collection of ideas themselves. This is how it will be used in this article.

For a fair comparison, let’s look at what intellectual property each MMO has access to. I’m going to assume you are broadly familiar with the fictional worlds of Middle-earth and Star Wars.

SWTOR screenshot of Yavin IV

Yavin IV 3000 years before the rebel base (SWTOR)

LOTRO is based on Tolkien’s Middle-earth, or ‘Tolkien’s legendarium’. However, the MMO only has a license for The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and The Hobbit. This means the game is not allowed to refer to events or characters from other works by Tolkien, such as The Silmarillion.

SWTOR is based on the Star Wars universe. The license covers the entire IP, but as the game takes place about 3000 years before the events in the movies, a large part of game design is left to the imagination of its developers. We know from interviews and livestreams that SWTOR’s developers have regular contact with Disney’s Star Wars team to discuss whether new story plans fit.

How do you measure the ‘essence’ of an IP?

Needless to say, the translation from book or movie to MMO is never going to be direct; they’re different mediums, created by different people at different times. Nobody is going to do a perfect job, and judging how good of a job has been done is subjective by definition. To come up with a convincing argument, I will measure three attributes: worldbuilding, aesthetics and story.

Worldbuilding is the process of constructing a fictional universe. One could argue that Tolkien was the ‘ultimate worldbuilder’. He described the imaginary world of Middle-earth in incredible detail, including history spanning thousands of years, genealogical trees of historic figures and entire languages (complete with alphabets and scripts) for the various races inhabiting his world. Some of Tolkien’s books are fictional historical works that are completely dedicated to worldbuilding and do not contain a plot. Because worldbuilding was such an important part of Tolkien’s writing, a successful use of the IP in an MMO would require a detailed and immersive virtual world.

Worldbuilding in Star Wars is done in a visual, cinematic manner. Think of the much celebrated first scene of Episode IV: a seemingly never-ending Star Destroyer dwarfs the helpless Corvette ahead. The Destroyer has a slick interior design; the many people working on it are faceless, void of identity, in their uniforms. No word has been said, but everything about the Empire radiates power and dominance. With the blink of an eye, the visuals explains the power structure in a galaxy far, far away.

LOTRO screenshot of Rohirric sky

The sky of Rohan: birds circle in the air (LOTRO)

Aesthetics is not so much about how the fictional world is constructed, but rather about whether its representation holds true. Think of auditive, textual and, above all, visual information. When judging aesthetics, we should not only look for obvious iconic elements (e.g. a Star Wars MMO should have lightsabers; the Shire needs hobbit holes), but also for less tangible aspects, such as immersion.

Finally, story is an important aspect. Both IPs feature an epic story with heroes that play a vital role in reshaping the world. But because MMOs are inhabited by many player controlled characters, not everyone can be the main hero. How are these stories handled? Do players have the feeling they are part of the narrative?

Use of IP in LOTRO

I wrote earlier that a successful use of the IP in LOTRO would require a detailed and immersive virtual world. I can already give away that the game has succeeded in this regard. Every detail that is in the books can be found in-game. Regions that are only briefly mentioned in LOTR, such as Dunland, have been believably filled in with the help of anthropological and archaeological knowledge.

LOTRO Screenshot hobbit hole

A hobbit hole in the Shire (LOTRO)

In one aspect, LOTRO’s developers have deliberately opted to deviate from Tolkien’s worldbuilding. The Lord of the Rings namely was written almost 70 years ago and is a product of its time: it contains some elements of racism and the narrative is dominated by males. From the Rohan expansions onwards, LOTRO has made a clear effort to make the voice of women and children heard, giving them a larger role than in the original IP. Children play out in the streets of villages you pass; several quests introduce you to how the war is experienced by them. Meanwhile, women are left in the charge of towns while their men are fighting in the war. Without deviating from the medieval inspired setting of Middle-earth, LOTRO passes the Bechdel test effortlessly.

As for aesthetics, all iconic elements that you would expect are present. Bag End, the Prancing Pony, Weathertop… even the Black Gate can be visited. Landmarks are an important aspect that makes players connect with the IP and carry over LOTRO’s feeling of realism. LOTRO’s landscapes are celebrated in the MMO scape, and with good reason: they are incredibly detailed (day-night cycles and a weather system) and are still competitive with new titles even though the MMO is a decade old. The in-game music varies by region and adds to the immersion.

LOTRO’s ‘epic story’ follows the fellowship to Mordor. The player character is no known hero, but helps persons of note from behind the scenes. This is a clever way of handling the unwritten rule that players are heroes, while all seats are already taken. However, it could be argued that the player is too much of a Mary Sue, being pals with all the important figures while saving countless towns and people in the time-span of one year – not very realistic.

Screenshot of the Eternal Throne of Zakuul in SWTOR

The Eternal Throne of Zakuul (SWTOR)

Use of IP in SWTOR

We have seen how the Star Wars movies use the visual to support intuitive worldbuilding. This method is also heavily utilized in SWTOR and is something that sets the MMO apart from others. ‘Visual worldbuilding’ is everywhere: from the black and red, slick design of the Imperial Empire to the Eternal Empire depicted above. The row of golden outfitted Zakuulan knights on the way to the Eternal Throne, situated on top of the Spire, signal wealth and power much like the aforementioned intro to A New Hope.

Of course, visual worldbuilding is not done exclusively in SWTOR, but the emphasis on the visual and cinematic throughout the game is undeniable. For instance, the overwhelming majority of quests have a cutscene. Cutscenes in SWTOR don’t merely consist of stationary NPCs, but are also action based and show your own character in their custom outfit. To strengthen the cinematic experience, quests in SWTOR have voice acting. Both NPCs and player characters are voice acted and a stunning amount of 16 different (base class and gender determined) voices are available to represent the player.

Developing cutscenes and recording voice actors must have taken a good chunk out of SWTOR’s budget, meaning that less funds were available for other aspects of the game. Landscape design seems to have suffered a bit. This is not to say planets in SWTOR look bad. Indeed, the landscapes are quite decent, but they lack the amount of detail and immersion of LOTRO: no day-night cycle nor weather are present. As for other aesthetics: iconic Star Wars archetypes are represented in the base classes, such as smuggler, jedi knight, bounty hunter and sith warrior. Lightsabers and weapons both look great and SWTOR easily beats LOTRO when it comes to animations. A clear effort has been made to meet the visually appealing combat of the movies. The in-game music gives the player the same feeling of epicness as in the IP and is of more consistent quality than in LOTRO.

Screenshot from SWTOR's desert

The iconic two suns of Tatooine (SWTOR)

Storytelling is another strong suit of SWTOR. Between its well-written, compelling stories, player choices (sometimes granting dark or light side points) and sheer amount of story content, every other MMO I’ve tried out since has disappointed. SWTOR’s base game comes with 8 distinct class stories that continue up to level 50. The game also features companions that have conversations and small stories attached to them. The latest expansions have focused on story exclusively and allowed players to make choices with more consequences.


So which MMO handles the IP best? I feel compelled to go with the boring answer: there is no clear winner. Both MMOs are inspired by the worldbuilding of their respective IPs and have made a unique translation of their IP to a virtual world. LOTRO has focused on superb landscapes and immersion while SWTOR stands out for its storytelling and cinematic spectacle. If you prefer one over the other, I suspect it is because you enjoy certain aspects (aesthetics, story etc) more than others. Or perhaps you have a preference of IP, or simply care about other (non IP related) gameplay matters more. It is not because one MMO has done a worse job with the IP than the other.

Heroes of the Storm 2.0 Isn’t that Different

If there’s one thing Blizzard seems to love, it’s revamping games. They never seem to be able to go very long without some sort of major overhaul to one of their titles. The most recent game to get this treatment is Heroes of the Storm, having recently been given a quasi-relaunch as “Heroes of the Storm 2.0.”

Opening a loot box in Heroes of the Storm

I used to be a big-time Heroes player, having been invited to the technical alpha and playing regularly up to the official launch and for some time after. However, I had started to lose interest in recent months.

2.0 seemed like a good opportunity to revisit the game, but would it reignite my love for Heroes of the Storm or drive me farther away?

What’s in the Box?

Most of the 2.0 changes focus on revamping the game’s progression and rewards systems. These changes are too complex to be declared entirely good or bad; it really depends on who you are and what you want.

2.0 is clearly taking a lot of cues from Overwatch, and while the two systems are not necessarily identical, you’ll definitely see a lot that’s familiar in Heroes if you’ve played Blizzard’s shooter.

Firstly, leveling has been redesigned. Account level is no longer its own thing but is simply the sum of your total hero levels across all characters. Whenever a hero levels up, you earn a loot box full of random cosmetic rewards, with certain level milestones offering boxes of a higher quality. And of course you can also buy boxes for real money if you so desire.

I may have argued in the past that the furor over lockbox mechanics has gotten a little out of hand, but I’m still not a particular fan of the idea, and it’s hard to celebrate when a game suddenly embraces them with open arms.

Tracer's Spectre skin in Heroes of the Storm

That said, for at least some people, this system can be seen as an improvement. Before, if you didn’t want to pay cash for cosmetics in Heroes of the Storm, you were simply out of luck. There were very few mounts or skins available for in-game currency, and they required a lot of grind to acquire.

Now, you can earn every cosmetic in the game without spending a dime. At least in theory. If you’re unwilling or unable to pay real world money, this update is bound to be a huge boon to you.

On the other hand, if you can pay, the news is much less positive. Whereas before you could get whatever skin or mount you wanted whenever you wanted (more or less — mounts tended to cycle in and out of the store, but they always came back eventually), now only a very small selection of cosmetics will be available for direct sale each week. If what you want isn’t available right now, your only choice is to gamble.

And while you can potentially get everything from loot boxes, the odds of actually getting what you want are not great. In a rather transparent attempt to keep people chasing the good stuff, Blizzard has clogged the game with reams of new items that I can’t imagine anyone really wants.

There are banners that only deploy under certain “blink and you’ll miss it” circumstances. There are announcers that are barely heard since they don’t cover map-specific call-outs. There are voice lines that are mostly just copies of the dialogue your characters are always saying anyway. There are tiny sprays no one really uses. And there’s a dizzying variety of emojis, for those who want to add a personal touch to the all-caps bile that is the chat in any MOBA.

Through various veteran reward systems, I received over fifty loot boxes when I first logged in after the update, and out of the all that, I got nothing that I actually wanted.

Purchasing a skin with shards in Heroes of the Storm

The new pyrotechnics for making a purchase are a tad… over-zealous.

Now, to be fair, there are some systems in place to limit the negative effects of RNG. As in Overwatch, if a duplicate of something you already own drops, it’s converted to a special currency (called shards in this case) that can then be used to unlock items directly, even if they’re not part of the current sales.

So while I didn’t get any drops I wanted, I did get enough shards to buy several several skins and a mount. It wasn’t everything I’d hoped to get, but it was something.

Progressing Progression

The loot boxes can be a positive or a negative depending on your perspective, but the other changes to progression skew more heavily toward the negative.

The leveling curve has been rebalanced to provide a much steadier curve. This means that higher levels are now earned much more quickly, which is a necessary change given we are now expected to keep leveling heroes indefinitely, but it also means that the lower levels go by much slower.

One of the best ways to earn gold in Heroes of the Storm has traditionally been to level as many characters as possible to level five, due to the 500 gold reward for doing so. The reward is still there, but it’s now much more of a time investment to achieve, so it feels much less worth it. This doesn’t seem like a good move for a game that derives so much of its appeal from constantly trying new characters.

Also, while high levels are earned more quickly, “quickly” is definitely a relative term here. Getting new loot boxes is going to become quite a grind after a while.

The new combined account/hero level in Heroes of the Storm

I’m also a little torn on what’s been done with master skins. Instead of being a mark of progression, they’ve now been thrown into loot boxes alongside all the other skins. Used to be if you saw someone with a master skin it meant something, especially if it was for a difficult or unusual hero like Abathur or Cho’Gall. Now it doesn’t mean anything.

That said, a hypocritical part of me is happy to be able to get master skins for characters I don’t play as much. I always loved Sonya’s master skin, but I don’t play her enough to justify the grind it would have required under the old system. Now I’ve just bought it with shards, which is simultaneously gratifying and demoralizing.

A Trying Challenge

Something else that deserves a mention is the recent Nexus Challenge 2.0 event. Like the previous Nexus Challenge, it sought to woo Overwatch players by offering rewards in both games for those who play a certain number of Heroes matches while grouped with a friend.

This event was a bit more rewarding than its predecessor, with four tiers unlocked over four weeks, each of which offered significant rewards for just five matches. However, the final three tiers all required that you play in PvP modes, whereas the previous Challenge only required versus AI games.

It’s a nice idea, but it didn’t work out so well in practice. The queues swarmed with inexperienced players, but what’s worse is that many of them weren’t interesting in learning how to play Heroes of the Storm and simply sought to throw games as quickly as possible. This was a miserable experience for veterans, and I can’t imagine it was a good introduction to the game for new players who are genuinely trying, either.

I don’t begrudge Blizzard’s desire for cross-promotion, but I have to believe they could have come up with a better system than this.

Status Quo 2.0

The Thunder-Guard Zarya skin in Heroes of the Storm

In the end, though, the bottom line is that Heroes of the Storm 2.0 isn’t as radical a change as Blizzard’s marketing department would like you to believe. When you get past all the pomp and pageantry of the new progression mechanics, the actual game isn’t much changed.

That can be good, and it can be bad. If you liked Heroes before, you’ll like it now. If you didn’t, I doubt lockboxes are going to bring you back.

I’m not really sure where I stand with the game. I’ve had a lot of fun with it in the past, and there’s still much about it I appreciate, but after so much time spent with it, I am a bit burnt out, and there are some things that have been driving me away.

All of my favorite heroes have been nerfed into uselessness or revamped into something unrecognizable. I swear the game was more stable back in alpha; now that it’s launched, I ought to be able to trust that my characters will maintain some kind of singular identity.

I’m also not thrilled with the direction the meta-game has been taking. Right now it seems dominated by increasing power creep, especially around burst damage. Heroes used to be a more laid-back take on the MOBA, but increasingly it seems to be the sort of game where a split second’s mistake will spell total doom.

I may find my passion reignites at some future date, but I don’t think the 2.0 update will be the cause.

For Honor Is Fascinating, Baffling

For Honor is the latest buzz-worthy title from Ubisoft, promising intense competitive action against a brutal Medieval backdrop. In the lead-up to launch, they held an open beta event, and I dove in to see how this latest entry in the online PvP field stacks up.

Two teams zone into a match in the For Honor beta

For Blood and Honor

Providing For Honor impressions requires taking a step back just to define the game. It incorporates elements of MMOs, RPGs, MOBAs, and fighting games, but it doesn’t exactly fit into any of those genres.

Its basic premise is an ongoing conflict between three factions: Vikings, Samurai, and Knights. You must pledge yourself to a specific faction, but oddly this doesn’t affect your choice of class. You can, for example, play a Knight class even if you’re sworn to the Samurai. I suppose it helps keep things balanced.

There are three classes per faction, and it seems each can be customized a fair bit, both visually and in terms of gear and stats. Some are gender-locked, though, which is a bit off-putting.

For Honor does feature a single-player story-mode, a decision I salute given how many similar games have neglected this feature (looking at you, Overwatch), but the beta only included competitive modes, so I can’t comment on its quality.

The heart of For Honor is its unique dueling-focused combat system, which utilizes combos, counters, and multiple angles of attack to create a very deep and challenging experience.

Executing an opponent in the For Honor beta

Executions are delightfully brutal.

If you’ve played Age of Conan, For Honor’s mechanics may feel familiar. You can angle your weapon to the left, the right, or above. This will block attacks from that angle, but also prevent your own attacks from getting through as long as your enemy’s stance is focused the same way.

This makes combat into something of a cat and mouse game where you are constantly trying to exploit your enemy’s weaknesses without exposing yourself too much at the same time. It rewards a deliberate style of play, but it’s also quite fast-paced, so you need to be able to think fast.

You can also guard-break an enemy to get in a few free shots — though there are counters to this — and each class also has access to some active skills that are unlocked as you gain experience throughout a match — much like a MOBA. Some game modes even have swarms of weak AI minions to farm for XP, strengthening the MOBA feel.

But this barely scratches the surface of the incredible depth of the combat system and its various combos, counters, and abilities. When I first started on For Honor, I thought the tutorials were incredibly thorough and had covered everything I could possibly need to know, but it quickly became clear they were only the most shallow and basic introduction to the game’s mechanics.

I’ve been gaming for a long time, and For Honor is honestly one of the hardest games I’ve ever played. It took me a fair bit of practice just to be able to survive basic training scenarios against the AI. The sheer number of different combos and interactions across all the classes is staggering.

A failed mission in the For Honor beta.

This image pretty much sums up my experience with For Honor.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to experience much of the game’s PvP thanks to frequent crashes and disconnects. On the odd occasions the servers did cooperate, I was once again slaughtered quite handily.

On the rare occasions everything aligned and I was able to best my opponent, I found it an incredibly satisfying experience, but that’s not something that’s going to happen often when you’re still new to the game.

That same complexity applies to its meta game, as well. While For Honor focuses on small scale matches — including duels, deathmatches, and a point control mode called Dominion — it all feeds into a massive territorial war between the three factions. A video explains the mechanics of this when you first investigate the game’s multiplayer, but it dumped so much information on me so fast I failed to absorb any of it.

A Niche Perfected

While I spent much of my time in For Honor being frustrated, I nonetheless developed a high opinion of it, at least from a certain perspective. It’s extremely challenging, but it doesn’t feel cheap or unfair, and I greatly admire its depth and complexity.

However, I do think it will only appeal to a specific type of player.

Let me be clear: For Honor is not a game you can just jump into and play. I do not think there can be such a thing as a casual For Honor player.

A duel in the For Honor beta.

This is a game that will require hours of research and practice in order to achieve even a basic level of competency. You will have to pay your dues.

For those who are willing to put in the time and effort to “git gud,” I think For Honor will prove an incredibly rewarding experience. I could also see it being a strong contender as an eSport, depending on what kind of community it ends up having. I think a duel between two highly skilled players could be thrilling to watch.

But for those of us who don’t want to put that much effort into a video game, For Honor will likely never serve as anything but a source of frustration. It’s an excellent entry in its niche, but that niche may end up being rather narrow.

I come away with two totally different yet not incompatible opinions. As a student of game design, I love For Honor. As a guy who plays video games for fun, I don’t like it at all.

One Tamriel ESO Review

eso imperial city dungeon

The One Tamriel update for ESO (The Elder Scrolls Online) launched on October 18, 2016. If you frequent any MMORPG site, you’ve probably noticed Zenimax Online Studios advertising the hell out of their two and half year old MMO. This is the update that supposedly vaults ESO into one of the genre’s top MMOs. Is it really something to be proud of? The feedback I’ve seen has been generally positive, but I had to find out for myself.

I decided to reinstall the game a couple weeks ago. Since then, I’ve been playing pretty seriously for the first time since launch. For those unaware, the update’s two biggest changes essentially level scales all of the players and enemies and removes faction restrictions. As one can imagine, this has sweeping ramifications for the players of virtual Tamriel. And a blog seemed like the perfect place to deliver my thoughts on those ramifications in the form a One Tamriel ESO review. I’ll be focusing on what One Tamriel brings to the table and how it integrates with the current content available to Elder Scrolls Online players. But first, I’m going to backtrack just a bit.


I’ve been playing MMORPGs for over twenty years now. The last MMORPG I really invested time into was Black Desert Online. BDO had some great ideas that drew me, despite some serious concerns about the international version. I was cautiously optimistic about the positives when I made my purchase. It hit at a time when there just wasn’t a lot I wanted to play, and it took advantage of my weakness. I knew servers in other countries had all devolved into skill-less grindfests where only the top 0.1% could meaningfully impact the game’s vaunted guild vs. guild PvP system. I knew the cash shops were pay to win. I knew the game was relatively content thin, relying of players to generate content for this ‘sandpark’ game. I bring up BDO because with One Tamriel, ESO has cemented a drastically different route to succeed where Black Desert failed.

eso purple vampire thief

In One Tamriel, a low level purple vampire master thief IS possible.

Black Desert Online combined pieces of both the themepark and sandbox MMO subgenres into something that was supposed to improve the overall experience. Unfortunately, BDO did this in very contradictory ways. The themepark felt extremely repetitive and the sandbox extremely limited. Those are two huge no-nos absent from The Elder Scrolls Online. ESO’s sandpark-crossbreed has thus far delivered a more cohesive and clever subgenre merge than any ‘sandpark’ MMO yet.  Walking the line between sandbox and themepark MMORPGs isn’t easy. How much safety do you give up in the name of freedom? This question may sound political, but I assure you it’s entirely gaming-centric.

Sacrifice? Not in My ESO

One Tamriel frees up the game without sacrificing any safety. In fact, if anything the game is safer than ever. Every player can assist at any time. Your level will match any monster’s. The world is now a place to explore on your terms however and with whoever you want. Here, the endgame starts on install, not a hundred hours later. A specific quest is undertaken not because it’s the only path to progress, but because it’s rewarding. Every dungeon has meaning at every stage, and the world feels so much less monotonous for it. In one fell swoop, The Elder Scrolls Online has left tiresome themepark based questing behind and done something rare for MMORPGs. It evolved. Reviewing ESO’s One Tamriel update as essentially a new player really opened my eyes to how easily some themepark MMOs could be opened up.

Many sandbox fans will disapprove of ESO because of this very safety net. I would say they should not be so quick to judge. Yes, dying is pretty rare without open PvP or threatening monsters. That is to be lamented. After all, I love the adrenaline rush of a Dark Souls world or wondering if a nearby player will turn hostile. But what I also love is immersing myself in alternate world. Unfortunately, a corpse’s point of view doesn’t make a great vantage point for immersion. That’s the typical viewpoint for most open PvP players in a genre that caters to the few grinding elite. I’ve argued in the past that horizontal progression best remedies this issue. The Elder Scrolls Online makes a strong counterargument for vertical progression.

eso one tamriel map

Unlike true sandbox MMOs, there is no open world PvP in Elder Scrolls Online. Instead, PvP is available in the form of a three-way faction war. Time and Dark Age of Camelot taught me that faction war rulesets make for the best PvP system. In ESO, players can join one of a few campaigns, each with slightly different rules like length and level restrictions. Because players are level scaled, they can always contribute and level up purely via PvP. Sure, they’re nowhere near as effective as a true capped out player. That’s OK. No would expect a master fencer to lose to a novice. Fifty novices against a master fencer? That should be too much to handle. It doesn’t work that way in a lot of MMORPGS, but it does here.

Not All is Rosy

There are some bittersweet aspects of the implementation though. First, resources gathered have gone from zone dependent to crafting level dependent. That means that high level crafters simply can’t easily mid level crafting materials. They either have to pay to respec to actually lower their skill or rely on rewards for crafting quests called writs. It’s a bizarre system that goes too far. Level scaling would have made it easy to find the right resources in the zone dependent system. This would let master crafters easily find what they need to fill demand. Instead, mid level crafters might actually fare better because the supply of them is smaller. Natural resources shifting in such an unnatural manner feels too gamey.

While it’s really cool that players of any level can play together, it does have some potential drawbacks when it comes to the dungeon group finder. Veterans might find it frustrating when they are grouped with a complete newbie. Low level players can only access a small number of dungeons, but high level players can play any of them. There’s a daily bonus for doing a random dungeon, so getting arranged together isn’t uncommon. I haven’t run into any issues with hostile high level players, but this is online gaming we’re talking about. People get mad over trivial matters. We may just have to exercise patience and understanding in this new world order.

eso one tamriel crafting

Finally, in most MMORPGs it’s important but not essential to upgrade equipment. It’s not technically essential in the ESO overworld either since the difficulty is pretty muted. But the fact remains that equipped weapons and armor get worse when you level. Since all equipment scales based on its level relative to yours, not consistently upgrading makes you considerably weaker. For lower level dungeons and PvP, this is can be a noticeable hindrance. I personally don’t have an issue with how this plays out. Upgrading low level equipment in most MMORPGs is rather blasé so feeling some pressure to keep up is nice. I could see others disliking the rather counter intuitive system though.

One Tamriel to Rule Them All

Level scaling in MMORPGs isn’t entirely new. Guild Wars 2 did it (though with player deleveling in PvE zones). World of Warcraft did it (though only in the expansion areas). But Elder Scrolls Online is the first to fully commit to it. For the most part, it works. The removal of faction restrictions also opened up the world on a massive scale. There is so much high quality content that it was always a shame to limit it or repeat activities. ESO features some of the best quests in the genre, ranking just after The Secret World. The incredibly fun PvP, dungeons, and DLC no longer feel arbitrarily restrictive. For me, not only does One Tamriel render Skyrim obsolete, it’s given me the home that I wish Black Desert had several months ago.

In case it wasn’t clear, I give a hearty recommendation for my review of ESO’s One Tamriel. It’s also free to play from November 16 through November 20. Details here.

Skyforge’s Ascension Doesn’t Seem that Different

Skyforge is a game I was fairly excited about prior to launch. I even gave the beta a try to see how it handled, but while I found it to be a fairly solid experience, it wasn’t quite enough to hold my attention, and by the time it launched I had already shifted focus to other games.

A group of NPCs in a cutscene in Skyforge's Ascension patch

Now, Skyforge has launched a massive new patch called Ascension. Aside from adding a new gunslinger class, Ascension rewrites many of the game systems, supposedly with the goal of making them more approachable and less grindy. This seemed like the perfect time for me to give the game a second chance.


I did immediately notice some changes to the game since beta, though I’m not entirely sure what’s part of Ascension and what came before it.

For one thing, the tutorial is a little different. You now go to character creation first, rather than the game making everyone a generic male character until after the first leg of the tutorial. This is definitely an improvement, though the final boss of the tutorial will still call you “him” even if you’re playing as a female character.

Otherwise the tutorial is the same, and still one of the better introductory experiences I’ve seen in an MMO. Plenty of action and some very nice cutscenes.

The layout of content post-tutorial seems a bit different as well. Thankfully I wasn’t asked to go back and repeat the same content several times as I was in the beta, but maybe that comes later.

Something else new is that shortly after the tutorial every character will be issued a small robotic companion to assist them, though the system seems a bit half-baked. Most of the time I forgot my companion was even there; it really doesn’t seem to do much. There’s a system to upgrade your companion to give it new abilities — some combat related, others gear toward convenience — but how exactly you do this is not at all clear.

A paladin fighting low level mobs in Skyforge's Ascension patch

Another new addition is that enemies may now drop powerful, limited use weapons that you can use to wreak havoc. Everything from whips to laser rifles. Those are a lot of fun and add an interesting new element to Skyforge’s already strong combat. However, the drop rates on them seem a bit over-tuned; I got them so often they quickly stopped feeling special.

Finally, I was amused to discover that I had ten days of premium time granted to me… somehow. I certainly didn’t pay for it, and nothing in the game explained it — I only noticed it because the premium bonus was showing up for all my rewards. Perhaps it’s a bonus for new players? I was using my original account, but this was my first time logging in post-launch, so it may have considered me to be a newcomer.


Most of the effort of Ascension seems to have gone towards streamlining the game’s progression mechanics. Most notably, class customization is basically gone. Every member of a class will now have the same abilities, the same passives, the same build.

I have mixed feelings on this. It is true that build systems in MMORPGs are often min/maxed to within an inch of their life, and you quickly reach the point where there’s really only one “correct” build. Anyone who does anything different — out of preference or ignorance — is ridiculed by the community until they conform. A choice where there’s only one correct option is no choice at all, and Ascension’s changes seem aimed at fixing that.

At the same time, I’m not sure going to opposite extreme and doing away with player choice altogether is the right answer. That seems to defeat the purpose of an RPG altogether. I’m not sure I have a better idea, though.

In theory Ascension has also simplified currencies and lessened the grind of the game, but as someone who hasn’t invested much time in the game, it’s hard to say exactly how much difference has been made. There still seems to be no shortage of currencies and different ways to increase your character’s power.

Some forgotten ruins in Skyforge's Ascension patch

Going in, I had assumed Ascension would make the greatest difference to new players, but now I’m thinking veterans are going to notice it the most.

I’m getting into guesswork here, but I get the feeling Ascension was probably targeted at midcore players — those who had some investment in the game, but were getting left behind in comparison to the most dedicated grinders and min/maxers.

Meet the new game, same as the old game:

Otherwise, Skyforge really isn’t that different than I remember, which has its pros and its cons.

On the plus side, it still has excellent combat. It’s visceral and visually spectacular, but also a fair bit deeper than the average action combat game. A mindless button masher it is not.

It still has stunningly beautiful graphics and a very unique, colorful setting. I admire Skyforge’s unique blend of sci-fi and fantasy, and I wish more games would be willing to break out of the standard fantasy mold like this.

On the other hand, most of my complaints about Skyforge still hold true.

For one thing, that unique setting isn’t explored nearly as much as it ought to be. Environments are tiny and linear, the storyline is shallow, and there’s little to no attempt to flesh out the lore of the world.

A paladin character in Skyforge's Ascension patch

And my biggest issue with the game remains: Your choice of initial class is severely limited. Skyforge has a broad stable of some very interesting classes, but to start you’re limited to three of the most basic — paladin, cryomancer, and lightbinder.

It’s not entirely clear to me how long it would take to unlock additional classes. I don’t get the impression it would be a massive grind, but after a couple of hours, it hadn’t happened, and that’s far too long to spend as a class you’re not interested in.

I don’t have a problem with working to unlock additional classes beyond your first, but I should be able to choose any class I want from the start. I just don’t understand what the point of limiting the choice is, especially in a game with such strong class design. Why do MMO developers so often feel the need to hobble their own successes?

In the end, despite all the hype around how much Ascension is changing the game, it’s still recognizably Skyforge. It’s still got a lot going for it, but not quite enough to grab me. I’ll stand by what I said when I first tried it: If you like action-heavy grinders like Vindictus, you’ll like this game. If you want something with a bit more depth, look elsewhere.