Saturday, December 14, 2013

Heroes of the Underdark

I think I reached a new low point over the weekend. At one point I realized that I was switching between no fewer than four games, spread across three separate devices. I was wrapping up The Last of Us on my PS3; navigating a particularly tricky war against the Clan of Embers and Hyborem while plotting construction of the Tower of Mastery in Fall from Heaven 2 on my PC (which will probably get a post of its own later); playing Heroes of Dragon Age on my iPad; and checking in on Fallen London on my PC or iPad depending on where I was at the time. Yeesh.

That said, it seems to be winnowing somewhat (TLoU is in the can, and I’m rapidly approaching the endgame in FfH2), and I don’t think I’ll be starting any new games before the end of the year, so I figured now would be a good time to check in on a few minor gaming topics. First of all, Heroes of Dragon Age!

My antipathy towards freemium, social, free-to-play games is well established by this point. I dislike their repetitiveness, their grindy-ness, their overly pavlovian construction, and their shallow gameplay. (Fallen London is, of course, a counterexample that shows how wonderful this category could be in the right hands.) So, my hopes for HoDA were not particularly high. After playing it for a few days, I can say that it’s… fine, really. Which is more than I was expecting.

I’m not super-familiar with the genre, but there are apparently several games with somewhat similar constructions, generally aimed at mobile or Facebook audiences. It’s based around a trading card game concept, not unlike something like Magic: The Gathering. The idea is that you build up a squad composed of various creatures and characters from Thedas. These creatures have different rarities, with rarer cards being more powerful and/or possessing special attacks. You organize your squad, then send them into combat; winning battles will give you prizes, which you can then trade in for additional heroes, which will let you take on more dangerous opponents.

The graphics are really well done, particularly for a mobile game. I’m playing on a retina 10” iPad, and was really impressed from the intro video all the way through to the actual combat. Characters aren’t quite as detailed as in the canonical DA games, but they do a great job at capturing their look, making use of iconic signifiers like Morrigan’s cowl or Cassandra’s haircut to make them readily identifiable. Combat animations are fluid and visually impressive, like those seen in DA2 (and in contrast to the more realistic animations in DA:O).

The tutorial goes on for what feels like an incredibly long time. The teacher (who looks a bit like a happy version of Velanna) shows a recap of a battle, then walks you through all the various mechanics of the game: organizing your heroes, entering combat, purchasing new heroes, using runes, leveling up, etc. It went on for long enough that I started to feel a bit annoyed at how un-interactive it was: I was just tapping on the screen over and over again! It took me a while after the tutorial finished to realize that this was actually a very accurate representation of the game. There are no tactics involved, and no need to click anywhere after a battle starts: everything auto-resolves automatically without your involvement. The only thing you can do is buy more heroes, decide which heroes to use, and where to put them.

Once I accepted that, though, I started to have a bit of fun with it. Most of my pleasure has derived from the fun of seeing beloved characters and things from the Dragon Age games crop up. I was really happy to get Ser Cauthrien as my first Rare hero; she was one of my favorite minor characters in DA:O, with a surprisingly well-developed background and personality, and I felt happy to have her fighting by my side. And my other Rare was… a Revenant. That’s the point where the lore starts to break down a little. It’s fun to make up little stories for yourself about, say, how a Gray Warden might join forces with a Carta Thief, or why an Apostate Mage might travel with a Sylvan. But I can’t think of any universe in which Ser Cauthrien and a revenant would fight side-by-side.

The concept of the game is deliberately rather loose. The single-player portion is divided into a set of separate quests, set in many different Ages, generally covering events referenced in the games and other media but not directly experienced previously. Some are truly ancient, like the fall of Arlathan and rise of the Tevinter Imperium; others cover more recent territory, like the origins of the werewolve’s curse that you ended in DA:O. The “story” is incredibly light, just a brief paragraph introducing each new map and a single sentence giving motivation for each fight, along the lines of “Defend the elves against the invaders” or “Defeat the Lady of the Forest”. Each map will end with a boss fight, and defeating the boss will open up the way to the next map.

There is also a multi-player portion of the game, which is optional but seems pretty essential to leveling up your team unless you’re prepared to spend a decent amount of money or a ludicrous amount of time in the game. These fights theoretically have you facing off against other real-world opponents, but I’m 99% sure that there are some AI opponents as well. At least, I’ve seen a LOT of matches against “Alistair”, “First Enchanter Orsino”, “Oghren”, etc., who always seem to be tuned to approximately my level; I’m fairly confident that my fights against “dani0002” and “SIR FLUNKUS” are actual people. Even then, though, you really aren’t fighting in real-time, which removes the stigma I usually have for these types of encounters…. instead, there’s essentially a list of opponents, and you can pick which one you want to fight against. I’m pretty sure that the server just stores the current version of your squad, and then offers that up as an opponent against anyone else.

Winning a single-player fight will give your characters experience and you gold. Characters get more powerful as they level up, but rarity is still far more important than experience; a Level 1 Legendary character is much more useful than a Level 15 Common character. They don’t learn any new abilities or get faster with higher levels, just more raw power and health. Multiplayer games also award experience and gold, scaled to the difficulty of your opponent. They also grant trophies, which are only used for leaderboard ranking and can be completely ignored.

Like seemingly all F2P games, HoDA has two types of currency. Gold can be easily earned in combat, and can be used to purchase low-level packs that will generally reward Common or Uncommon heroes. You can theoretically get rarer heroes as well, but I’ve only gotten a single Rare in perhaps 100 sets I’ve purchased. The other type of currency is Gems. You can earn a limited number of Gems by beating a map, or by achieving “mastery” by beating more difficult versions of maps you’ve already cleared. These are fairly easy to come by at first, but the difficulty ramps up drastically after the first few maps. However, spending enough gems lets you guarantee getting a Rare hero, with a chance at an Epic or Legendary one. This is the main source of income for the game, since it tries to sell you gems for real-world money.

When HoDA first came out, I read some blurbs along the lines of, “This game is crazy, the most expensive thing you can purchase costs $99!” The reality is both better and worse than that. Yes, you can spend $99 in the game. However, this doesn’t give you heroes, it gives you gems. So, on the one hand, $99 can buy you a LOT of heroes (and action refreshes). But, on the other hand, if you really wanted to get, say, Isabela, you could spend $99 and still not get her.

Unsurprisingly, the game gets really grindy after a while. These sorts of games are tuned to introduce pain points, then offer to remove those pain points in exchange for money. So you can breeze through the first map pretty easily with your starting team (probably 2 Rare characters, a Bear and 2 other Common heroes). Soon, though, it will get hard to progress any further without adding an Epic (available for just $1.99!). It gets exponentially more difficult; and, while I can’t prove this, I’m fairly sure that the game levels its single-player challenges along with your team, so even if you upgrade/level-up your characters, you’ll quickly hit a roadblock again.

So, that’s annoying. I like the game for what it is, but the more I feel like it’s dinging me for cash, the less likely I am to actually give it anything. (Again, Fallen London provides the best counter-example of how to behave: delight your users by giving them scads of content, then politely allow them to acquire small pieces of additional content for small sums of money.)

I doubt I’ll keep playing this much longer, but for posterity’s sake I figured I’d toss together a few thoughts on strategy. Note that this game is still pretty early, and these sorts of things get rebalanced a LOT to make sure nobody gets a strong advantage, so everything is subject to change. With that out of the way:

I (and the game) keep using the word “hero”, but really, there are 2 types of distinct units: Hero characters and Beast units. Your squad can have 1 Beast and 4 Heroes. You start with a Bear, who is useless and will usually die before getting a single attack. Actually, his one use is diverting an attack that would otherwise hit your heroes, which is a good thing to keep in mind. Units with column or row attacks that strike a beast will “waste” what could have been a multi-unit attack; as such, beasts are particularly good as meat shields, since the longer you can keep them alive, the more damage they can divert from other characters. As such, I’ve become a fan of Beasts with high health, even at the cost of lower speed of fewer abilities. (I’m currently rocking a Wyvern in that slot, which I’m pretty happy with.

Anyways, an early priority should be replacing the Bear. You can try repeating the Challenge Mode in the Brecilian Forest, which has a small chance to drop a Sylvan. Otherwise, save your gold and get Uncommon packs, since Beats units never drop in the Common pack.

For all of the game I’ve experienced so far, the quality of your individual heroes is much more important than any strategy or synergy around them. I think that at the upper levels, there’s more to be gained from having a deep bench so you can get squad bonuses, use vulnerable factions, etc. At the starting levels, though, it will help much more to identify your most valuable units and then pump them up as high as you can. The game lets you “consume” units you don’t want to improve the units you do want, so in general you should only keep 5 units (4 heroes + 1 beast) in your party, and consume everyone else.

That said, position is somewhat important. Each squad occupies a 2x2 grid. The units in the rear are better protected: they can still be hit by AOE attacks or by abilities like Archer’s Lance that penetrate an entire row, but in general, units back here are safe until the front row is defeated. So, the strategy is fairly straightforward. You’ll want to put your high-health, low-power units in the front row, and your high-power units in the rear row. (Note that all units have higher health than power, but the relative magnitudes will be different.) This will help make sure your big damagers stay alive as long as possible, which will let you burn down the opposition.

There are three other factors to consider: speed, attack style, and special abilities. Each unit attacks one at a time. This is somewhat randomized, but in general Fast units will strike first, followed by Medium and finally Slow. Combat is turn-based, not round-based, so it’s possible that one unit might be able to strike twice before another unit has moved even once. Being faster is always an advantage; this is generally offset by giving slower units better abilities otherwise. It’s important to note, though, that there’s a good chance a Slow unit might be fully defeated before it can take a single action. Because of this, you’ll almost always want to put Slow units in the back row.

There are four styles of attack. The most common strikes a single opponent. These tend to do the most damage, and if you get lucky, you can quickly eliminate a unit from the field. A column-based attack will either strike the beast unit, or all units in the front row; if no units remain in the front, it will strike all units in the rear row. A row-based attack will either strike the beast unit, all units in the middle row, or all units in the bottom row. Finally, an AOE unit will strike all units at once, including the beast.

In the single-player game, you can actually design some good strategies around what attack styles to use based on your opponent. If you’re facing a single, very strong unit, then you’ll do best using single-attack units; others will have a portion of their attack “wasted” with no extra targets to hit. Similarly, if there are two units in the front, a column attack might be good.

Keep in mind that, like many RPGs, all units remain at full effectiveness until their health turns to 0, at which point they die and are of no use. The difference between 0HP and 2HP is infinite; the difference between 2HP and 200HP is negligible. So, your goal is to eliminate enemies from the field as soon as you can. Unfortunately, since you have no tactical control over your units, you can’t focus on one enemy at a time. If you’ll get lucky, your heroes will attack people in the “right” order and their side will quickly fall; if you’re unlucky, they’ll spread their attacks around, bringing down their health but leaving those threats on the board. All that to say, in my experience it’s generally best rely on AOE and single-target attackers. AOE is great for wiping out already-weakened units: even if your other attackers spread their damage around, an AOE can finish multiple units off. And a single attacker’s blows are never wasted, since they’ll always strike a valid target. If you have a really good column or row unit, feel free to include it, but all else being equal, I’d recommend building entirely around single-target and AOE fighters.

The most limited resource in this game is gems, and the second-most-limited is action points (energy/stamina). I’m of the opinion that you’ll only ever want to start fights that you can comfortably win. That means fights listed as “Easy” in single-player, and fights with good odds in multiplayer. If you lose a fight, you get 0 gold and very little XP; winning a more challenging fight will give you slightly more of each than an easier fight, but not nearly enough to make up for the opportunity cost of the fights you’ll lose.

In single-player, this often means that you’ll want to either focus on clearing new maps, or revisiting challenges on earlier maps, depending on what’s easier at the time. Like I said before, I’m fairly sure that this is leveled difficulty, so beyond a point you may no longer get any Easy challenges. In those cases, you should turn to a Challenge node: these are repeatable fights that give a lot less Gold than usual, but have very good odds of dropping low-level Runes or Heroes, and slight odds of dropping an occasional Rare Hero.

In multi-player, check out your opponent. If it looks like a tough match, click Next to cycle to another opponent. If you’re running low on time to start a fight, click Retreat and then Battle again; there’s no penalty to backing out before a fight starts. Here are a few cues I follow when looking for a match:
* Avoid any fights against Grey Warden Mages. These are nasty units that can slow down your entire team, causing a frustrating loss.
* Tevinter Battle Mages are also fairly challenging, since they can stunlock your team. Note that both types of mages are Slow, so if you’re lucky and hit crits with AOE attacks you might be able to get rid of them early; but if they get in a single attack, you might be screwed.
* I avoid any fight with green (Legendary) units. In general, I try to avoid orange (Epic) units as well, though an epic is still generally easier to handle than either of the two AOE mages.
* Check out your opponent’s level (shown in a blue burst in the upper right). In general, an opponent who is much higher-level than you may have stronger units. But, this is a less reliable indicator. Some players maintain a broader stable of units, so an individual squad might be weaker than that of a more focused lower-level player. Also, someone who has directly bought a lot of units wouldn’t have a correspondingly high level. You can tap the question mark icon for a more detailed look at their individual unit levels, but I almost never bother with this.
* Take a look at the amount of money you’ll win in a victory and the trophies won/loss. As far as I can tell, the server generates this based on the win/loss record of a squad, so it’s a fairly reliable indicator of how effective a team is. (On the other hand, though, if you’ve just added a powerful new unit, you’ll probably enjoy advantageous odds until your record catches up to your capabilities.) The specific numbers will shift as you advance; I used to take matches that would cost me 8 trophies if I failed; now I generally try for matches that would cost me 30 trophies.
* Finally, it’s helpful to just see how fights play out. There are a lot of potential units out there, but a handful of them are most popular and will show up over and over again. Soon you’ll be able to recognize which innocuous units are actually deadly, and which scary-looking ones are quite manageable.

Two more things before I wrap up:

First, runes. You’ll occasionally get a rune when purchasing a hero, and can also win them in challenge rounds. These will give some benefit to your entire team. Some of these are generally useful at all times, like increasing your speed, increasing your health, or earning more gold. Others are more situational: a unit that protects against stuns won’t help at all in a fight with no stun attacks, but can totally de-fang a strategy built around Tevinter Battle Mages and Fenris. A bunch of bronze runes increase your chance at targeting certain types of characters (ones with low health, or high power, or low speed). In my experience, the particular rune you pick here doesn’t matter much; however, they are useful in that they encourage your characters to focus their fire more, leading to faster enemy death.

Runes expire after a few days, so you’re encouraged to use them instead of stockpiling. You can have two runes active at a time, and once you activate one, it will last for a fixed duration (between 5 and 30 minutes, depending on its ability and rarity). If you’re going to use a rune, you should probably activate it at the start of a play session so you can get the most of its utility, instead of waiting until you only have a few bars of energy or stamina left. Also, it’s a good idea to use the fast forward toggle button during battles (available on the left side of the screen), since the runes use a real-world time limit. Finally, have a plan of attack ready before activating your rune, so you don’t waste time navigating the map or menus.

Finally, card-buying strategy. I haven’t been able to figure out how the odds break down between common and rare packs. You can buy 4 Commons for the cost of 1 Uncommon. I’d guess that you get an Uncommon in a Common pack at least 25% of the time, maybe a bit higher than that. So, if you’re buying cards to improve your characters, Commons are the way to go. I suspect that Uncommons are a better bet if you want to acquire new Rare or higher cards, but I don’t have enough data to support that.

Consuming a card will increase a character’s critical-hit chance, so it’s best to use this on characters who (1) have a high power, (2) do AOE attacks, and/or (3) you’re sure you want to keep around. You’ll also get a slight boost in XP, which will help you gain more levels, but that won’t be as big of a boost.

Combining two cards of the same character will give a 10% XP boost, and raise the maximum level of the character. Usually, commons max at level 15, uncommons at 20, rares at 30, and legendaries at 70. (I’m not sure yet about epics, but I’d guess 50). Combining two rares will give a new max level of 35. This isn’t good enough to raise them into the next tier, but it probably helps in the endgame if you like a lower-level unit’s abilities and want to keep them viable in a more powerful party.

It takes a lot of battling to earn a pack, though. A safe fight will generally yield somewhere around 130 gold. You’ll need about three fights for a single common, or a dozen for an uncommon pack. In practice, if you want cards to consume, an even better approach is a repeatable grind challenge node. You might get nothing, but I often get a common character, and uncommons are not that unusual. With that in mind, you might want to save your gold to gamble on uncommon packs, and use grind notes to gather fodder for your heroes.

Anyways! Oh, yeah: I was delighted when I got Merrill in a gold pack. She was my love interest in DA2, and she’s also a fantastic fighter in this game, doing AOE attacks on a medium cooldown, and lowering everyone’s damage when she does so. I’ve been feeding all of my minions into her gaping maw (which seems incredibly appropriate for a blood mage), and have gotten her crit rate up to 13%; with her in the back row, she crits a LOT, which is a huge help against some of the nastier back-row opponents.

Currently I’m supporting her with my Dark Revenant, Ser Cauthrien (my starter Rare), a Dalish Warrior (a Quick unit who also drains power), and the aforementioned Wyvern. I’m also leveling up a Grey Warden Rogue and a Tevinter Slaver. The Rogue complements Merrill’s faction, and is also like a Quick version of my Dalish Warrior; but, until I get a fourth black Hero, I’m reluctant to sacrifice the higher-level Dalish Warrior, on the off chance I get two Blues before then. The Slaver is another unit that does AOE damage, which is awesome, and he also steals health, which seems intriguing; unfortunately, he is a Slow unit. I’m toying with a strategy of putting him in the front line, so he’ll soak up the brunt of enemies’ attacks, and then get back much of his health when he finally moves; but it would take a long time to make him catch up to Merrill, and it’s hard to see how well he’ll perform from his current level.

Oh! Between the time I started writing the post and now, I see that an update has come out. Apparently, it’s now possible to earn gems from grinding, and there’s a new challenge system too, which is awesome. I guess this game will be keeping my attention for a little while longer!

No comments:

Post a Comment