Thursday, November 20, 2014

More Than One Player

I’ve already started dipping my toes into the Dragon Age Multiplayer game (henceforth known as DAMP). It’s hard! And fun!

I’ve written a bit previously about my experiences with Mass Effect 3’s cooperative multiplayer mode. I ended up being really surprised by just how much I enjoyed it. I hardly ever play multiplayer games, but that one really sucked me in: it was fun, fast-paced, and had a fantastic design that rewarded cooperation while still making it easy to just drop into without a dedicated team.

My experiences with ME3MP actually spanned two distinct periods. I played a lot early on soon after ME3 dropped, motivated by the need to raise the Galactic Readiness rating in order to achieve the best endings in the singleplayer campaign. I stuck to the Bronze difficulty rating, and mostly ignored the weekend challenges which were aimed at more dedicated multiplayer folks.

I took a long-ish break from MP while doing some other stuff, then got the itch and dove back into it several months later. I started paying more attention to strategy, looking up various builds and doing my own theorycrafting about how to optimally play. Before long I was regularly playing on Gold, eventually maxing out my rares and earning my coveted “Best of the Best” Shepard banner.

Apart from my own improvements, though, I was also surprised to see gradual shifts in the community over this period of time. In the early days, the conventional wisdom held that the best way to play was for the team to gather in a defensible location (hopefully one with few entrances and a clear line of fire along approaches), and then hold it against the waves of enemies. We silently or loudly berated “heroes” who would venture off alone into the far reaches of the map, pursuing their individual glory at the risk of the team’s success.

By the time I returned, though, the playstyle had evolved: instead of consistently defending a fixed location, the new teams had evolved into highly mobile kill squads: still staying fairly close together, but constantly moving around the map, killing off enemies as they approached. At first that struck me as foolhardy - “You guys are doing it wrong!” - but as I adapted to the new style, I came to understand the motivation behind it. When you defend a fixed position, enemies are always coming at you from all directions; in the later rounds, it’s easy to get overwhelmed if any of the entrances fail to hold, and then there’s no way to fall back without advancing through enemy fire. In the newer, faster style of play, though, players are constantly clearing sections of the maps of enemy threads. So, when you run into, say, a ravager or a praetorian, you can confidently retreat back to the previous area, knowing that it’s safe. I’m sure it also helped that by this point most active players had memorized the maps, and instantly knew how to efficiently move around the map while still being prepared for enemy ambushes.

I’ve found myself thinking about that a lot while playing DAMP. At the moment, it feels insanely difficult. Even when playing on the easiest level, the matches are very punishing; I felt elated when I finally managed to win a game, after about a half-dozen party wipes. But, I need to remind myself, ME3MP also used to feel very difficult, back when we were underpowered and didn’t understand the strategy as well. I’m hopeful that DAMP will eventually evolve into a more forgiving experience.

The most significant difference I’ve noticed so far in DAMP is that party coordination is much, much more important than in ME3MP. In ME3MP, you could randomly throw together a team of people, and it would work out. There were advantages to certain synergies, so if three players in a lobby were engineers the fourth player would probably swap out an adept for another engineer or an infiltrator. But in general it would just work out fine, particularly if the characters were sufficiently advanced or you were playing an easier difficulty.

In contrast, DAMP is very deliberately built around the classic “holy trinity” of tank, healer, and DPS. (Minor qualification: there technically isn’t a healing spell in DAMP, but the Keeper plays the classical role of the healer through its Barrier spell.) When I was dropped into a game with four tanks, we wiped. Hard. I think DAMP’s structure is more fun and rewarding for pre-made groups, particularly if they plan beforehand and communicate during; however, so far it seems much less friendly to pick-up groups of random strangers dropping into a game.

Besides the well-defined combat roles (which, I should point out, are wholly in keeping with Dragon Age’s well-established class types, much as Mass Effect’s combat synergy system was faithfully expressed in both single- and multi-player modes), the game further encourages you to travel with a balanced party via its design. Levels will contain special types of doors which can only be opened by an appropriate party member: locked doors by rogues, magical barriers by mages, and bricked-up entryways by warriors. If you don’t have the appropriate type of player in your party, you may miss out on some extra treasure or a shortcut through a level.

That said, the one game that I have won so far had a party that, on paper, shouldn’t have worked. We started the match early from the lobby: me as a Legionnaire (dwarf warrior tank), and two others as Keepers (elf mage support “healer”). During the first map, a new character was added to our party, another Keeper. We did need to pass up some tempting locked doors; but the keepers were excellent, keeping up a defensive barrier on me while I drew the attention of most enemies, while also keeping each other protected and performing ranged attacks on our enemies. It was a really strong demonstration that teamwork is very important, and has an enormous impact on the outcome of a campaign.

Some miscellaneous observations and tidbits of advice:
  • If you want to get items, buy the larger chests. If you want a mix of items and potions, buy the small chests; each individual item will cost 270 instead of 240 gold, but you’ll end up with twice as many potions.
  • Use your health potions! This is the biggest mistake I’ve made so far, I always forget to use them. If you die three times (per game, not per level), you can’t be revived by your teammates. You get plenty of health potions from chests, there’s no reason not to use them.
  • There’s a healing fountain at the end of each level. As soon as any player touches it, all players are instantly restored to full health and any dead players are returned to life.
  • But, if your party is healthy, you should avoid touching it. This will “save” the fount for later, so if you get in trouble during the next map, you can run back and touch it. So far people are automatically tagging these things, but I’m pretty sure this will be one of the first pieces of wisdom to disseminate through the community.
  • Pressing shift to sprint DOES work in multiplayer, even though it doesn’t in singleplayer. I tend to use it for most of the game: it helps to move through the open empty areas more quickly, and also works as a poor man’s gap closer in combat.
  • While I always forget to use them, there are callout commands available on F1-F4 of your keyboard. (I think it’s D-Pad for consoles.) You can use these to highlight enemies that party members should attack, or to call for a retreat, etc. This is really nice for players who don’t have microphones or don’t want to use them.
  • Press Tab to cycle your character’s focus through opponents. (Same as for singleplayer.)
  • If you got the Deluxe version of the game, you’ll get an extra large chest at the start.
  • There’s really no reason to hold on to a weaker version of any weapon or item after you’ve unlocked a stronger one, so don’t hesitate to salvage those. You can figure out what to do with the materials later.
  • Crafting, upgrades, and runes all behave somewhat similarly to the singleplayer game. Unlike in singleplayer, upgrades can only be applied to a single weapon once and cannot be removed.
  • There’s no push-to-talk support. That was really helpful in ME3MP, and I really miss it here. I hate it when anyone (including me) is constantly on throughout a match, but it’s also really nice to be able to chime in with a quick “good game” at the end or something.
  • Melee combat on PC has pretty awkward controls. (Exactly the same as for singleplayer.)
That’s it for now. We should be seeing the first weekend challenge popping up in the next few days, and I’m eager to see what it brings. I regretted missing out on so many challenges early in ME3MP’s lifespan, so I’ll almost certainly be making an effort this time around to at least accomplish those. And beyond that, I’ll probably keep diving into DAMP periodically. Much like ME3MP, I can tell that practicing my craft in multiplayer is turning me into a much better player in singleplayer, and I’d love to develop those skillsets sooner rather than later.

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