Friday, August 28, 2020

By Schism Rent Asunder: Crowfall Beta is HERE!

I had to look up when the last (and apparently only time) I had posted about Crowfall was and it was January 2016!  I knew that it was a new years post mentioning I was looking forward to seeing progress on the game but I'll be honest that I didn't think it had been over FOUR YEARS AGO!  Where does time go?  Ironically I had also mentioned I was going to blog more in 2016 and that turned into a whopping two total posts in 2016 and only a handful since (kids, real life, something, something).

With that recapped it is time to drop some thoughts about Crowfall now that the beta has arrived.  I am an original kickstarter backer so I've had access to all of Crowfall's testing phases.  In the last year I've jumped in and out to check on the game, but did not spend any serious time with it. 

I jumped into the beta with both feet and I've now spent just shy of 20 hours with the game.  There is a full game loop this test compared to previous tests, but I did not find anything that makes the game stand out and I am struggling to find anything that Crowfall does that makes me go "this is the thing that makes me want to play".  If I were to sum up my feedback on the beta so far it would be in the two letters O and K.

New Player Experience is OK

Unlike the past tests that I participated in there is a new player experience that is part of the beta (and from my understanding only 2/3rds of the full experience is in place so maybe some of the below issues I call out will be resolved by the last 1/3 when its added).  It is a straight forward quest system that guides the player from point A to B and explains basic concepts of the game.  

Unfortunately while it serves it's purpose it does nothing to actually bridge the player to what is purported to be the real game of Crowfall; the campaigns.  In fact I would say it does the opposite of bridging players.  The new player quest (and leveling to 30 in the God's Reach safe zone) builds the player up under the premise that you are building towards something and that there will be guided experiences (quests) along the way.

However; currently the only available campaign is "zero import" which means the player will have to strip naked, empty every single inventory slot, and dump everything into their bank in order to join the campaign and literally start over.  No where in the new player experience does it explain that and players can find themselves having geared up for a cosplay party at a nudist colony with strict entrance criteria.

Yes, I can hear forum warriors screaming "there is more than campaigns!".  There is "The Infected" that is a "safe" PvP zone available after level 15 which has no restrictions, but it's not clear what you actually do in "The Infected". Again just pointing back that the game does nothing to bridge you to the next step content. 

New Player Experience; OK at introducing you to the basic mechanics and GREAT at abandoning you without a whisper of what to do next. I'll admit I've not had that experience in an MMO in close to twenty years.

Leveling is OK

Leveling is simple in Crowfall.  Max level is 30 and can be reached within a matter of hours (I've gotten it down to about 2 hours now from 1to 30... it is that easy).  If you group up each group member gets 100% experience from every kill and as a group you can rifle through camps of monsters pretty quick (though respawn rate is glacial so I can forsee problems when population increases).

While leveling is easy what is not explained is that you will have to re-level when you get upgraded "vessels" which are upgraded characters that start over with better stats.  The basic take away (again not actually explained anywhere to you in the game) is that you will always be leveling in this game and characters are disposable so don't get attached.

Leveling; OK because its quick and GREAT that you get to do it over and over and over and over WHICH leads me to my next point.

Choices are final, yo!?

Crowfall is a game of choice and those choices are locked in when it comes to your character.  There is no undo button or respec.  Once a decision is made; whether in the passive skill system (more on this in a bit) or in assigning stat or skill points its final.  This is all fine and dandy except when you realize that wrong decisions can render your character unusable.  Forget to leave enough skill points to unlock minor/major discipline slots (basically leaving your character unplayable) and you will be starting over.  Have the audacity to increase more than a single stat point and therefore hamper your character?  You can't redo them so back to the new character screen and back to leveling!

This is honestly a mind boggling design.  As noted leveling is not hard and the PvE content by which you level is NOT an area Crowfall is focusing on so its a pretty damn boring experience.  Why on earth the game would want to force players back through that versus giving a method to undue/redo stat points is baffling.  It is complete "feel bad" as a new player.  I had to abandon my first two characters because of this.  I can see new players quitting over this without ever getting a taste of what the actual game is supposed to be.

This is the point I should also talk about the "passive" skill training system where you earn points every few seconds (whether logged in or not) that you can then spend on a skill tree to unlock various nodes and the effects are account-wide.  It is very much an EVE Online clone.  You can only gain points in two of the three tracks (you can switch which tracks are earning).  Once you spend points though its final; if you want to go a different direction you have to wait the required amount of time to pursue that alternate path.

Probably the most frustrating portion of the passive system is that some of the very first content you run into in the campaign is gated behind a week or more of passive training (and then only if you know exactly what to unlock and don't dilly dally points away elsewhere).  This goes back to the new player experience feedback and how it actively teaches you the wrong thing about the game.  Through the new player quests you are learning about harvesting yet when you get to the campaign you cannot harvest the nodes that you were trained to think you can harvest and no where does it explain why you can't harvest them or that you may need to go to the passive skill tree to unlock the ability to do so.  The lack of feedback in this game is astounding.

I honestly don't know why the passive skill system is in the game other than to time gate stuff and ensure that any new player in the future is utterly frustrated.  Maybe I am missing something, but I can't see how it contributes to the game in a meaningful way.

Also on the topic of choice one interesting area where choice is not locked in is your choice of faction in the current Dregs Campaign.  You can change your faction and in the current beta (as of this post) we are seeing a bit of faction hopping as a prominent guild has "unguilded" and opted just to play with "the newbs" in one faction.  Thus we have an exodus from other factions.  It's a curious decision.  If there is any decision I'd say warrants players being locked in it would be something such as what faction they select when joining a campaign since supposedly the game is all about campaigns and rewarding players for doing better in them.  Being able to flip flop factions (there is a time delay so it can't be overly abused) seems like an odd place to offer choice to the player when so many other fundamental things are locked in upon your first click.

Combat is OK

If there is one area that I struggled the most with it is the combat.  I'll be honest; I do not like it and it will be the reason I stop playing.  It is "twitch" based as in that you have to aim your attacks/skills (even heals) but the classes/skills are all built in the style of tab targeting combat where you are trying to chain skills together on your target.  

Without any form of lock on targeting there is a higher abundance (at least it feels like it) of skills with some form of area of effect (AoE).  However, it looks like there is a cap on targets so only a limited number of enemies can be hit by an AoE.  In some cases for cone AoE attacks they only hit one target which is really frustrating in crowded combat.

The "hit detection" is pretty generous so I didn't have much issue landing my clicks on target.  I know some players would like to see the hit detection tightened up, but personally I prefer the generous approach as the game (animations, skills, etc) do not lend themselves to a precise hitbox.

The aiming applies to melee as well and you do have to be right on top of your target to land melee hits.  This can be frustrating when combined with the fact that every character (player or NPC) in the game seems to have some form of super leap ability (don't even get me started on magical flying centaurs) which makes for a lot of Cotton Eye Joe "where did they come from/where did they go" moments. 

The best description of combat is the term "floaty" (which I nabbed from this video).  It is hard to describe in words, but as KiraTV noted in the linked video you will understand it when you play and I couldn't agree more. Attempting to use some words to describe it; there doesn't feel like there is any weight to combat.  Everyone is leaping about (just about every NPC you fight included) and characters seem to move as if just slightly skating above the actual ground.  You never feel like you are actually committed to combat and in group settings there is a lot of "I'm going in deep" over Discord voice chat as the bowling ball classes leap into combat (but knowing full well a second later they are jumping back out).  I'll touch base on crowd control in my comments on PvP.

And there is something I just cannot pin point with the combat to make it click with me.  I really struggle with getting skills to fire.  So many times I thought fired a skill or ability, but nothing happens.  No feedback; nothing.  Many skills are also just slight variations of something else so they feel very "samey" which contributes to the confusion.  

There is also some sort of resource system for each class, but of course like so many things in the game it's not explained and the error messages that flash on screen "not enough X" don't really help.  The main problem here is this type of system is best suited for tab target combat (using the term tab target as I lack better vernacular here) but is slapped into a twitchy wannabe FPS combat system in Crowfall.

Player vs Player is OK

If you read my section on combat then you know that I won't have much more to say about the PvP, but I will touch on a couple things.

To footstomp the note about the "floaty" feeling of combat: characters are flipping and zooming all over the place in combat and it is annoying and frustrating (I'd wager 50% of the skills in game are worthless aside from getting lucky with some button mashing to land them).  Centaurs take the cake on the ridiculous movement from having leaps and double leaps (I will admit I am not sure if these are class or racial unlocks) that are the equivalent of an in game Superman impersonation.  A good portion of my playtime was grouping up with a centaur champion pit fighter and in PvE I was lucky to be able to reach the mob in the time it took the centaur to have leaped and killed the target.  In PvP they were in and out of combat before I could even think bout contributing.

There is crowd control in the game so enemies can certainly be locked down, but that almost feels entirely designed to punish solo players so they can't escape a group or for stealth gankers to execute their targets victims.  In group combat scenarios with the twitch combat landing crowd control on key targets (at least CC that is not AoE based) is a tall order.  There is some skill in here somewhere (I've certainly been wrecked by getting locked down with CC in fights... well... mostly when trying to escape fights), but its beyond my grasp.

There is different areas for different types of PvP.  "The Infected" map for safe PvP where you cannot be looted on death.  Then the campaigns where there is full loot PvP (except oddly equipped gear), sieges, attack/defend points, and some smaller activities I haven't explored.  The biggest problem with this is the game does nothing to explain why you'd want to do any of it.  

I literally cannot figure out what "The Infected" is intended for.  It states "level 15+" so you'd assume you could jump in at 15 for some fun.  Yet the first PvE mob camps are 20+ so you can't go on a PvE excursion and the PvP is... ganking?  Maybe this is the practice area for us plebes? Maybe if I'm scared of full loot PvP and I'm not interested in campaign rewards then I'm supposed to play here?  CAN SOMEONE TELL ME PLEASE (preferably in the game)!?

I have some comments around the larger battles as well, but as I've not experienced them myself I am going off videos and other player feedback.  I will sum it up by saying I had sincerely hoped I'd never see another dodge/leap and AoE roaming zerg spam fest after Guild Wars 2 (dodge and AoE being my biggest complaints of GW2 combat). Unfortunately Crowfall missed my memo on that.  There is nothing really new here on the topic either; Crowfall has all of the same problems that this type of combat system brings and none of the lessons learned from those other games to discourage blobs of people piling up.  Is that hard to ask games to incentivize reasonable size combat scenarios instead of never-going-to-work "biggest fights of any MMO ever!".

Campaigns are OK?

Maybe?  I am not really sure.  Not much is explained about them in the game and after several hours playing guild-adjacent I can't say I've learned much.  At a minimum there are a few constants: 

  • I can't harvest anything (assuming passive skill system unlocks are needed, but again not explained in game).  
  • You will get ganked the moment you set foot into the first area (the maps feel small)
  • You will spend a lot of time roaming around and playing "capture the thing"

As I mentioned in my thoughts on the new player experience the current campaign is "zero import" so players are starting from scratch; just your character, levels, and disciplines.  In my experience (joining in a week+ after the campaign started) I immediately felt behind the curve and a character without any gear felt completely helpless.  With the small map sizes there is really no place for a solo player (well unless you consider the classic just-what-every-MMO-needs "stealth ganker" as "solo" play) to advance and gear up.  You will need friends (and you better go to the guild recruitment forums because there is no find-other-players-that-are-doing-stuff tools in the game unless you feel like getting hoodwinked and ganked by using the public chats to organize something).

I will have to revisit my thoughts if I stick it out long enough to see a campaign through.

JOIN A GUILD!!!!

Yes dear reader I can hear you slapping your desk and screaming "JOIN A GUILD".  That's a great suggestion; games are always better with friends.  This would be great if the game explained the importance of joining a guild and had a great feature set supporting active guild recruitment, player grouping, and other social connectivity features.

My follow up question to the "JOIN A GUILD" screamers is "then what?".  Joining a guild doesn't exactly unlock anything other than other's to play with.  Why does it have to be a guild?  There are factions in the game; why can't it better facilitate players working together without the construct of a guild.  

Some other things...

Just some other odds and ends (mostly negative; again struggling to find a light here with Crowfall)

  • There is no UI customization and the UI isn't great; at a minimum you need to be able to rearrange items and scale the UI.  After World of Warcraft I had just assumed we'd never see another MMO that didn't feature customizable UIs... how sadly wrong I was.
  • The UI is also a mess in some key areas
    • Buffs/Debuffs are represented on the top right as a stacked list. You cannot click or hover over them (that I can find) to understand what they are and there is no reasonable way to reference them in combat and there will be so many stacked up that they are basically meaningless.
    • Every time you loot it opens up your main character UI screen, the loot window, and any window you had not closed.  Hopefully you don't misclick and invest a stat point on accident because as noted that stat point decision is FINAL on click (whether you intended it or not).
    • Speaking of looting; there is no loot all or auto loot options.  Truly hardcore; to the fastest clickers goes the loot.
    • And speaking of looting; sometimes loot is sprayed out like candy from pinata instead of being in a screen you click in.  Harvesting also works under the pinata model as well which requires you then to go run over the items you harvested to actually collect them.  I'd prefer if the game went one way or the other; candy I just run over and pick up automatically or always have to click to collect.
  • Crafting is... well.. I don't know. Another thing not very well explained in game (and even more confusing if you venture on to the Internet to find out more).  At this stage of the game you get enough loot from leveling that you don't have to think about crafting outside of some basics for bandages and food.  Crafting is supposedly a "big deal" in the game but your average player starting the game will not know that which is disappointing.  I honestly miss the days of Ultima Online where you really had to find the merchants and crafters to keep you going right out of the gate.
  • There is a food system in the game? Why?  I don't know.  Its feels like another "idea on the pile because another game did it".  Maybe its about crafting?  Buffs?  It sounds like it works like Guild Wars 2 where you need food to get specific buffs and thus becomes an annoying "thing you just need to do to be able to play".
  • There is the (now standard it seems in MMOs) drag an item out of your inventory to destroy it feature which seems like a really odd choice in a "full loot" game because players can literally just dump their inventory to avoid it getting snatched up.  Probably can't dump everything but in the group I am playing folks have set up macros to insta-dump pretty much everything if they know they are going down.  Generally if you are going to have a "full loot" system you avoid outlets for players to get rid of stuff.
  • Stealth; meh.  Anyone that knows me knows I hate it.  It's dumb and is really invisibility; not stealth. There is an entire major discipline (Mole Hunter) that is intended to root out stealthers so at least there is some acknowledgement that it has to be kept in check.  This is good because the gerbil race gets stealth as a racial feature (I fully support unique racial traits... just not this one).  It cracks me up that there is "gerbil gank squads" that can  have a healer, DPS, and tank that can all go poof in/out of nowhere.

 

Final Thoughts

My final view of Crowfall is that it feels like a collection of ideas from various games rather than its own unique experience.

  • The characters/classes/skills want to be a tab target MMO while the combat wants to be an FPS; the game needs to go one way or the other instead of trying to straddle both (I'd recommend going tab targeting and I feel bad saying that)
  • The passive skill system wants to be EVE Online but without any clear reason as to why or what its trying to accomplish for the game (other than becoming a hurdle for new players to join the game in the future).
  • The hub/spoke model to the maps wants to be anything but an actual massive online anything

I'll be honest that I am disappointed.   The combat is the part that sticks out to me the most; it does not feel good and that will be a huge item for me to get past to continue with this game.

The lack of feedback about anything in the game is astounding and a road block to enjoying the game.  Some of this will be fixed with the last part of the New Player Experience, but that's only scratching the surface of the problem.  Skills/abilities need a hair cut; we need fewer and more impactful skills that pair well with the twitch combat and then that smaller set of skills/abilities need to be really clear to the players on what they do/don't do when being used.

Crowfall is OK; not great but at least now a full game you can play.

A quick note on performance

I have a new gaming rig (details) and saw pretty solid framerates the entire time I played.  I did not get into any major sieges so did not see combat at scale.  In smaller skirmishes (at most 20 players) I didn't notice any performance issues.  I tend not to get into FPS or other performance metrics; I base my feedback on how the game feels when playing and nothing felt off to me.

With that said I am not sure what is at the root of my feelings around combat.  Again it felt really clunky and I repeatedly didn't see skills fire that I thought I was using.  There could be a component of optimization/performance that I am overlooking, but as I've seen this same feedback about combat almost universally from other beta testers I tend to lean that it's just a core issue with the combat system.

But what about that post title?

Curious where "By Schism Rent Asunder" comes from?  It is a book by David Weber in the Safehold series which gets my vote for some of the best book titles in Sci Fi!  As it was present in my mind (and to-read pile) I wanted to throw it in the title (because #reasons).

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