Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Hold a Candle To

Two games have presented me with very different multiplayer combat in the last few weeks. First up, Fallen London. Back when I joined about a year ago, I saw a few references to a game-within-the-game known as Knife & Candle. It was already defunct, so I never experienced it myself, but it sounded interesting: a gentlemanly game of polite murder, pitting one person against another, with the winners stealing money from the losers and gaining prizes, including some otherwise-unobtainable items and lodgings.

In all honesty, I felt quite happy to not have the game as an option. I tend to dislike multiplayer games in general, and competitive multiplayer games in particular. One of the things I love most about Fallen London is that it can be very rewardingly played entirely solo: having friends makes certain aspects of the game easier, but nothing requires you to recruit new players to advance or other awful things that most "social" games require. I actually only started engaging in the social aspects of the game after I had reached the level cap, and I'm now at the point where I occasionally visit the forums, help out other players, and participate in in-game holidays like the Feast of the Exceptional Rose.

Speaking of which, it was at the Feast that I acquired a unique item, a Mirrorcatch Box. These were very rare, and required players to solve a very oblique puzzle in order to obtain. That made me happy - it was a fun process that involved a lot of speculation and collaboration - but also wary, since the game clearly warned players of the risk of Box Theft. Up until now, I'd been happily ensconced in a purely reciprocal social model. Any time one person wished to take an action (like give a gift), the other party would need to approve it (like accept that gift). Even theoretically competitive actions like the Tournament of Lilies require both the attacker and defender to approve of a bout. The idea that someone, somewhere, could snatch my box out of my hands without me being able to defend it... well, it was dispiriting, and seemed a notable departure from the friendly atmosphere among players that pervades Fallen London.

It turns out that this was a quite deliberate departure: the introduction of the Mirrorcatch Box was the first step in a planned rebirth of the Game of Knife & Candle. We box owners all received invitations to join the so-called Underground League. In the fiction of Fallen London, Mr. Irons runs Knife & Candle, and officially disapproves of this unsanctioned sport; however, he seems to be actually orchestrating it from behind the scenes, to some unknown purpose.

I dislike competitive games, but love Fallen London and particularly new Fallen London content, so I joined the Iron Leagues and started to play. It was an interesting system, a bit like paper-rock-scissors, where people choosing certain Forms were more likely to defeat others, and some Forms were better at defending themselves.

Torn between a desire to participate and a distaste of stabbing, I decided to compromise: I would be the Reciprocal Murderer, and only attack players after they had attacked me. Attacks were rare, just one or two a day. I held attacks in reserve, and would savagely retaliate. I don't know whether it's necessarily fair, but it seemed like a vaguely moral position.

After moving up to the Bronze Leagues, though, it got much more intense. Failbetter published a list of all the players in the leagues, and suddenly I was inundated with attacks. Which, again, felt unfair; some players would attack unprovoked multiple times, and I would often receive many attacks in a short amount of time. I later learned that, due to a quirk of the notification system, I was actually defending myself successfully a fair amount of the time; but just judging from my email, it felt like I was drowning under a wave of assaults.

Fortunately, the game does offer several means of respite: one can escape in their boat to Zee, or retreat to Flute Street, or purchase a safe stay in a cottage on Watchmaker's Hill. In my case, I simply abandoned my Form, which made me ineligible to make or suffer attacks. I figured I'd spend some time away from the game and see if things calmed down before deciding whether to take back up a Form or not.

While examining my options for safety, though, I had stopped by Wolfstack Docks to check on my options for traveling the Unterzee. There, I noticed a gold-bordered plot that I hadn't yet played, a Spider Council's lair. I thought that it might be a new addition, or else something I had skipped in my rush to reach the Labyrinth of Tigers. In any case, I thought, "Oh, this will be fun! I like stories!"

The storylet described entering the lair and meeting the spider, who purrs some words about the Correspondence and your lovely eyes. I had three options: attack, or run, or talk my way out of it. Well, given that my character is entirely oriented around the Persuasive and Watchful abilities, I barely hesitated before selecting the final option.

Big mistake! The spiders attacked. The next thing I knew, I was waking up on the slow boat. Noooooooooooo! I have very carefully kept my Wounds below 8 for the entire year-plus that I've played Fallen London, specifically because I want to be sure that I can return to the Surface with no ill effects. I hadn't even known that it was possible to be killed with fewer than 8 wounds; granted, I'd received some wounds from the attack, but they were still only at about 3 or 4. I felt devastated, and a little betrayed (appropriately enough for one who had only just escaped Knife & Candle): in every other case in the game where something bad can happen to your character, Failbetter is very good at putting warnings by those options: "Don't do this. That would be unhinged." or "Turn back now. This is a very bad idea." Being a reasonable person, I always heed such warnings. And now I'd been murdered!

Being in Knife & Candle was a mixed blessing. I had to surrender all of my Tokens to the Boatman, but he was willing to heal my wounds in exchange. I hope that this means that I didn't actually die, and I'll continue to believe that until proven otherwise.

Then, to add grievous insult to mortal injury, someone stole my Mirrorcatch box. Bah! Perdition upon all their houses!

Safely back in London, having only spent a few minutes away but feeling profoundly shaken as a result, I decided to swear off the Game altogether. I'm glad that it exists, and people seem to be delighted to play it, but it's entirely too rambunctious and harrowing for an upstanding citizen such as myself.

No, what I enjoy is: cooperative multiplayer! Specifically, Mass Effect 3 cooperative multiplayer! I actually started playing this around the same time as Fallen London, and I wouldn't have thought that I would still be playing and enjoying it so much more than a year later. It comes in waves for me - I'll happily ignore it for several months, then the itch to set Reapers ablaze will return, and before long I'm running around on Firebase London cackling maniacally. Good times!

When Bioware announced back in March that they were ending support for multiplayer, I had feared that the game would swiftly fade. That hasn't been the case, though. At least on the PC, at the times I tend to play, I never have trouble finding a game. I can usually quickly find an enemy/difficulty combo that I want (like Reapers/Silver or Geth/Bronze) in less than a minute. If I don't, I just start a new public game and solo the first wave or two. By the time we reach the first objective wave, I always have a full group of four. Players seem to be really good, too... I don't see much stupidity or selfishness these days, and people are good at cooperating to achieve objectives.

It's really interesting to look back over the past year and see how the game has evolved. It's definitely gotten much more feature-rich, thanks to the multiple free DLC packs that Bioware released that added an astonishing number of new character kits, weapons, mods, and gear, as well as a half-dozen new maps. But beyond that, player habits have changed too, and I love seeing how the community has slowly evolved and shifted, spontaneously developing new mores, standards, and habits. In the early days, most successful teams would hunker down in defensible positions, protecting each others' flanks and surviving the series of waves. People generally despised players who "ran off on their own." Today, teams are almost always mobile, and constantly roam around the map. It's a more challenging playstyle, but actually more successful: if you're constantly roaming, you'll never get swarmed by bad guys, since you'll always be able to retreat to the area that you just cleared. I think it's something that people started picking up on when they spent more time in the more challenging difficulties, and it's slowly filtered down to the easier levels, to the point where it's now frowned upon to camp in a single spot. There are other, subtler social changes as well. Microphone usage, never very common on the PC, has become virtually extinct. Players now often greet one another by performing a heavy melee at the start of a wave or match. Players automatically un-ready and re-ready to give teammates more time to adjust consumables between matches. And so on.

As for myself, I'm still definitely not an expert player, but it's been very encouraging to track my progress and see how I've improved over time. I have some big news to share: I've beaten my first-ever Gold match! It was extremely challenging, and I felt like I had about a dozen heart attacks during the match, but I pulled through, and even ended up in the #2 position on the score chart at the end. I played it with my most comfortable character, my Vorcha Soldier, against Reapers. I used all of the high-level consumables that I've been saving forever: Level III Explosive Rounds, Assault Rifle Rail Amp III, and Power Amplifier Module IV. I'd equipped them because I wanted to be ready if the game dropped me into a match; I ended up in a lobby with a much more experienced player who had queued up Reapers on Firebase Ghost. He immediately readied. I gulped: I'd have no trouble duo-ing or even soloing on Silver, but for a first Gold match, I was nervous. I waited as long as seemed socially acceptable for other players to join in. Nobody did. So, heart in my throat, I readied up, and we began.

The first two waves were embarrassing. I tend to play my Vorcha as a highly mobile incendiary tank: I generally lead charges, focus on early kills to get my Bloodlust rising, and set up fire explosions that my teammates or I can detonate. Since it was just the two of us, though, I trailed my teammate and followed his lead. I'd known intellectually that enemies hit for more damage on Gold, but there's a difference between knowing something and truly grokking it. I waded into a few situations that I should have been able to coast through - like facing four Cannibals - only to end up bleeding on the ground. In the first few waves. How embarassing!

Fortunately, things got better. Two more players joined us in Wave 2, and I think I only died once or twice more in the waves after that. There were tons of time when it was close, though! Gold is insane. Brutes start appearing in Wave 2, and Banshees in Wave 3. Cannibals disappear entirely by Wave 6, so the weakest enemies you'll face are Marauders. In the last few waves, the field is entirely dominated by heavy enemies, with multiple Banshees, Brutes, and Ravagers threatening everything.

For as awful as it felt, though, it also felt awesome. The team was rock-solid, everyone coming together to complete a challenging escort mission in Wave 6. I contributed rockets to our assassination efforts on Wave 10. Everyone helped revive everyone else as the need arose. Perhaps most encouraging of all, not a single person got sync-killed over the entire half-hour duration of the match. These were all clearly bright, experienced, talented players, and I felt super-lucky to have my first Gold experience with them.

Gold is financially rewarding, too. I think we earned something like 80k credits for the match. Considering it lasted just about ten minutes longer than a Silver match, and earned close to three times as much, that's a fantastic return. (The counter-part, of course, is that I probably took a year off of my life due to stress.) I won't be making Gold a habit any time soon, but it felt great for my first outing to be a success, and I hope to return in the future.

At the moment, I'm actually switching between all three difficulties quite often, and having a blast. I'm working on my N7 Mastery challenge, which requires promoting characters. For a while, I had left all of my classes at Level 20, since that's the strongest build and let me more reliably earn more credits. Now, I play on Bronze until around level 12-15, then on Silver until level 20, then I either play a Gold match or promote the class and start over again. This also has the benefit of increasing the value of the character promotion cards I get in packs: unlocking new appearances doesn't really help you mechanically, but being able to take advantage of the bonus XP can help me reach those promotions more quickly. I'm doing this with a variety of characters. Other challenges often require either extracting with a kit 10 times or completing 200 waves with them, so I'll play a kit for 10 games, promoting as possible along the way, and then switch to another kit for the next challenge. I'm making good progress: I have beaten the Earth challenge, am almost done with Rebellion, and decently close to finishing Resurgence.

Switching between so many characters and difficulties has given me a great incentive to try out still more combinations and techniques that I otherwise would never have tried, being content to stick with my more familiar tools of Salarian Engineer and Vorcha Soldier. In the past I've almost exclusively played power-based classes, focusing on light weapon loadouts and keeping cooldowns low so I can focus on tech or biotic damage. Recently, though, I've been able to play with characters who can completely ignore cooldowns, like the N7 Demolisher, N7 Destroyer, and Batarian Soldier. That has let me try out some heavy shotguns and assault rifles, and an entirely new playstyle. It's a lot of fun!

Just before I started playing my Batarian Soldier, I finally unlocked the Cerberus Harrier assault rifle. I'd read some of the glowing accolades players have lauded this gun with, gushing over its superior damage and high accuracy. So, I loaded up my Batarian Soldier with the Harrier and my Reegar Carbine, another often-beloved but hefty gun that I've eschewed on my cooldown-dependent kits. All I have to say is: holy cow, everyone is right, that is an awesome gun. It kills things so quickly, even on Silver! As people have noted, ammunition can be a problem; but with my play style, it's actually not bad, since I tend to move around the map a lot, and can easily drop by ammo boxes en route.

I've been generally pleased at my comfort level on Silver in general. I remember when the thought of bringing anyone other than my beloved Vorcha soldier into Silver filled me with terror. Now, after I've played at least a match or two on Bronze to get comfortable with the character, and have reached a decently high level, I don't really hesitate to take it up to Silver, and generally do well there. The exact level varies depending on the kit; my Batarian Soldier was topping charts in Silver at Level 10, but my Geth Engineer waited until he was 18 to make the jump.

Possibly the most fun character I've had, if not technically the most successful, was my Geth Infiltrator. One of the very first YouTube videos I'd seen of Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer gameplay gave an arresting view of a semi-exploitative (but perfectly legal!) way to play this guy by cleverly combining several game mechanics. The Geth Infiltrator, like a few other Geth, has the Hunter Mode power. This murders your shields, and makes your screen hard to see, but gives you a lot of nice perks (faster movement, more weapon damage) and, most importantly for this built, allows you to see enemies through walls. Well, that's good, for starters: situational awareness is a really good thing. Now, for the second part of this build, we equip the Javelin. This is a very heavy sniper rifle, which is doubly challenging: I very rarely use sniper rifles, and its weight will make Tactical Cloak slower. So, why do we take it? Simple: it is able to shoot through walls, at a distance of up to 1 meter. Pretty good. Next, we attach a Piercing Mod to the rifle. This lets bullets penetrate through up to 1.35 meters. It is cumulative with the Javelin's innate piercing, so combined, we can fire through nearly 2.5 meters of solid metal or rock. (If you wanted to go truly crazy with this build, slap on some Drill Rounds as well, which can get you up to 2.5 additional meters, letting you fire through pretty much anything.)

So, what does this mean? Basically, you can kill enemies long before they see you. Hang out in another room, watching their heat signatures. Then, bam! Even firing through walls, a single shot can take down any Cannibal or Trooper, and a headshot can down a Marauder or Centurion. It's especially comical on Firebase Dagger, where you can shoot through the floor and take out enemies far below you. The whole experience is surreal, and entirely unlike any other kit I've played. Which, of course, is part of why I love ME3 MP so much, and keep coming back to it. Playing a Vorcha is nothing like a Human Engineer, and a Batarian Soldier is nothing like a Geth Infiltrator. Your strategies change, your techniques change, your basic attitude shifts between aggression and caution, leading and supporting, close-distance and long-range, diversion and accomplishment. And, of course, every single game will change depending on your other teammates, their kits, their styles of play and skills, not to mention the map and enemy you face. It seems like there are multiple aspects of the game to master - your specific kit, each individual enemy, each map - but there's enough variety in the game that it never feels repetitive. Or at least, I have yet to experience any repetition.

Anyways! I did love the infiltrator, but couldn't take as much advantage of him as others have; I'm not great at aiming for head-shots, so I generally went for the center of mass, which was pretty effective but kept me from maximizing the kit's potential. I've since moved on to other kits, but I might dust that guy off again after I have some more sniping experience under my belt.

So, yeah... hooray for cooperative multiplayer! It's great to see the community still going so strong, and it feels like there's been a steady influx of new players over the past month or two, which makes me think that ME3 is enjoying a decently stable shelf life. I hope that this continues to bode well for whatever Bioware Montreal does with the franchise in the future - they're the ones who created the multiplayer game, and its staying power makes me feel more optimistic for the post-Shepard world of Mass Effect.

EDIT: Wow!  In the brief time since I started writing the post, I've had a few more awesome experiences. I completed another Gold match, this time as a Krogan Vanguard. It was even less smooth than my Vorcha, but I held my own all right... I personally delivered both of the objects on Wave 10, before stupidly getting sync-killed by a Banshee while running to revive a teammate. After promoting that guy, I've started playing with the Batarian Sentinel. I'm actually getting a ton of utility out of his Submission Net, which is pairing quite nicely with the Kishock Harpoon Gun. The net will freeze unarmored targets in place for a brief time, which gives me the half-second I need to line up a headshot with my sniper rifle. Sure, it's a bit of a crutch, but a great one that opens up some gameplay that previously had been too difficult for me to attempt. Man, this game keeps on getting better!

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