Sunday, December 16, 2018

Ashes To Ashes: First Impressions Of The Apocalypse

Ashes of Creation is one of the contenders for the next MMORPG Mrs Bhagpuss and I might play together as a main MMO, the others being Brad McQuaid's Pantheon and Mark Jacobs' Camelot Unchained. To that end, when I kickstarted the game back in the spring of 2017, I made two pledges, one for each of us.

Ashes got the nod partly because it proposes using a form of "hybrid" controls that supposedly meld action and tab-target into a version suitable for fans of either. I'm somewhat skeptical of how that might work but at least they're trying.

Mrs Bhagpuss isn't a fan of action combat and doesn't favor games that lock the mouse. She's tried a few - DCUO and Black Desert to name a couple - but I think it's fair to say she's not keen. I wasn't either, to begin with, and although I've become more accepting of mouse-mashing over time, I still very strongly prefer what's often known as "WoW-style" combat.

Ashes will also offer a great deal of non-combat content, or so the developers claim, so there seems to be a passable chance of the game working for both of us. It is, however, still a long way off and most of the eventual systems and mechanics are shrouded in fog.

That's why I was pleased to see that what had been proposed as a closed alpha test for combat a few months back was going to spin off into a publicly playable mini-game known as Ashes of Creation Apocalypse. Eventually AOCA (now we can use the acronym!) is supposed to include full-scale siege warfare and a PvE Horde Mode but for now, of course, it's a Battle Royale.

There's been a certain amount of huffing about this. Some Kickstarter backers and later adopters  claimed to smell bait and switch. It's true the precedents are alarming. H1Z1 and Fortnite both started out as co-operative PvE projects only to find themselves derailed by the runaway success of their supposedly subsidiary Battle Royale modes.

I don't think there's any doubt that AOCA is intended to provide developers Intrepid with an income stream. It's monetized both via "Legendary Paths", which equate to seasons, and by a robust cash shop seling cosmetics. I understand why alarm bells are ringing for some but for now I'm willing to give Intrepid the benefit of the doubt and believe them when they say the main thrust of their operation is still working towards finishing the MMORPG they promised.

I backed Ashes at close to the lowest level, giving me access sometime in beta. I'm always interested in seeing MMORPGs develop but I'm not so keen on paying for the privelige. Not to say I'd never do it again but it would have to be for a game that appeals to me more than Ashes of Creation.

Low-level though it was, my commitment turned out to be enough to entitle me to an early-doors entry to the Apocalypse. A few days ago I got an email inviting me to stress-test AOCA before the gates open wide on Tuesday.

The testing was quite restricted, just a few hours a day, centered on primetime for the U.S. West Coast. There was about an hour or so when I could have feasibly given it a shot but unfortunately the launcher refused to accept my credentials.

I was going to forget about it but then this morning I received another email saying testing had been extended for twelve hours, meaning the servers would be up for much of Sunday. This time, a new launcher installed itself and my login details worked. I spent a couple of hours playing, took a bunch of screenshots, then I logged out to write this post.

With the exception of GW2's Southsun Survival I have never played a Battle Royale game. I've read enough about them to know the basic principle: you drop out of the sky, pick a place to land, grab some gear and weapons, then either hide and hope or search and kill.

I felt I that was enough. It's last man standing in a shrinking ring of fire. How hard can it be to understand? As yet there's no Character Creation (I believe there will be at some point) so I just picked a gender and hit Play...

My very rough first impressions:

  • Not impressed by having to wait five minutes in a queue just to get into the lobby. I was begining to wonder if the thing was working at all. Is that a normal wait-time for one of these games? I was under the impression part of the attraction of PUBG/Fortnite et al was instant gratification. Maybe I got that wrong.
  • Once in, it's slick. Everything works smoothly. The animations are fluid, movement feels weighted and natural, the UI is intuitive. 
  • It needs to be because there are no instructions of any kind. At any point. Anywhere. Okay, there are tooltips and a small pop-up window appears when you pick up a new item to explain what it does but that's your lot. I'm against tutorials but I'm pro instructions. Access to a simple "This is how to play" FAQ while you're waiting in the queue would be handy.
  • Graphics are appealing but somehow not quite there yet. Everything has a fuzzy, soft-edged look and although scale is naturalistic there's still an off-kilter "this is just a tad too big" feel to the architecture.  
  • Given the small map there's an impressive array of geographical and architectural features. Fields, farms, gardens, rolling hillside, coasts, caves, rivers and waterfalls, villages, mines, castles, towers, lava fields, giant mushrooms... it's as if the designers decided to showcase all the environments in one place. I didn't see any snowfields but I bet they're somewhere.
  • The interiors of the buildings are sumptuous and attractive. Bodes well for the housing. 
  • The music is generic but the soundscape is decent. Birdsong, water, explosions.

  • There's a bewildering array of gear already. Every building is loaded with stuff just waiting to be looted. When you open a chest everything bursts out and scatters around you so you have to pick it all up individually. I'm guessing this is a function of the PvP nature of the Apocalypse, creating ambush opportunities and adding a sense of urgency. It's certainly not going to play as a standard loot mode for PvE.
  • Gameplay is addictive. I can easily see why Battle Royale has become so successful so fast. There's a fascination with grabbing free loot combined with a tension caused by the imminence of sudden death that creates an immediate sense of immersion. Death, when it inevitably comes, is swift and sudden, leading to an immediate desire to try again.
  • On the other hand... the first two times I was killed by another player I never even saw them. Then in a later match another player and I spent the best part of a minute hacking away at each other with greatswords and axes and literally no injury to either of us. The fight only ended when a third player appeared and shot us both dead with his longbow.

  • Suffice to say weapons might need some balancing.
  • I don't know if this is a common trope of the Battle Royale sub-genre but I was surprised when, after my first death, my point of view changed to that of the player who'd killed me. I was then able to sit back and watch the game through his eyes - or rather from a few feet behind the back of his head. That's how I learned how deadly the longbow can be.
  • As a beta-backer I'm supposedly entitled to the benefits of the first Legendary Path. It's fifty levels (yes, there are levels and xp) of cosmetic rewards that carry over into the eventual MMORPG. I'm interested in that. Sadly, even though I finally managed to rack up some experience points, they disappeared the moment the match ended. I might have to wait until the official launch on Tuesday before I make a real effort. Nothing more annoying than losing progress you thought you'd banked.
  • I didn't count how many matches I played but it must have been at least half a dozen. They varied in length from barely a minute (I attacked an obviously well-geared player and he smacked me down in a second) to nearly twenty (I lasted eleven minutes, my best run so far, and then I stayed on in the persona of my killer to see him go on to win the match with the other three in his team). 
  • I found there was a real "just one more" bite to the game, although I can also see the impact fading quite quickly once the novelty wears thin. I also found that I was improving a little after each run, which is motivating. I'm certain I'll never be anything anyone would call skilled at this kind of thing but there seems to be enough randomness and luck involved to make it entertaining even so. I just know I'm going to yell out loud the first time I actually kill someone!

The more interesting part of AOCA for me is going to be the sieges and the Hordes, I think. Deathmatches and one-on-one PvP have never been my thing - I'm a lot happier hunting in a pack. As a taster for the eventual MMORPG I'm not sure it really tells us much (it doesn't even feature the "hybrid" combat I wanted to see) but at least it doesn't raise any red flags...yet.

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