Friday, October 2, 2020

Genshin Impact: First Impressions

Genshin Impact is a Breath of the Wild clone. That seems to be widely accepted. And word has it it's a good one. Belghast says it "improves upon that formula in so many ways that it feels iterative".

I wouldn't know. I never played Breath of the Wild. I've never played any Zelda game. I've never even watched anyone play a Zelda game. Any opinions I have about Genshin Impact are based purely on the game itself. Well, that and a comparison with the couple hundred other MMORPGs I have played, of course.

Is Genshin Impact an MMORPG, though? Depends who you ask. Some people are quite clear on that: "Genshin Impact is a beautiful new free-to-play MMORPG". But not all of them: "... the answer is a simple... No. It is not"

The truth, like just about everything in the game I've seen so far, is confusing. As PCGamer puts it: "It isn't massively multiplayer... but expect your time with Genshin Impact to feel... like playing an MMORPG". In other words, it's a single-player game that plays like an MMORPG. Kind of like Kingdoms of Amalur.

Except it isn't a single-player game, either. Once you reach a certain level in the game, you can start inviting friends in for four-player co-op. Or maybe you can play with random strangers. Just only three of them at a time. Belghast thinks you can. I wouldn't know. I haven't got that far yet. I'll let you know when I get there. 

And I will get there, because there's one thing I'm not confused about. Call it whatever you want - Genshin Impact is a very good game and a whole lot of fun. 

So much for set-up. Let's get to those bullet points.

  • Download, Registration, Installation - Clean, simple, quick. No hoops to jump through, no hanging around. Took me less than fifteen minutes, total. Apparently there were some issues with slow downloads on launch day. I guess there would be , what with ten million people trying to download the same thing all at once. No slowdowns for me, though.
  • Character Creation - There is none. Well, you get to pick a gender and a name. That's it.
  • Introduction - Brief and to the point. A short cut scene tells you you're one of a pair of twins who travelled between worlds together until some god snatched your sibling and left you trapped on Teyvat, yet another fantasy land begining with "T". And that's all the backstory you're getting.

  • Tutorial - What tutorial? A sprinkling of pop-ups tell you some basics on the order of WASD to move. If you needed to be told that you're in deep trouble because the game is going to throw a whole lot of less familiar systems at you in short order and you're going to have to sort them out for yourself. Exactly how I like it.
  • Graphics - Gorgeous. Anime style, so everyone says. I'm ignorant to the point of embarassment on anime. Looks like good comic art to me. Colors a lovely balance of bright and subtle. Edges sharp, surfaces soft. Animations fluid and natural. Ok, not natural. Stylized. Natural-feeling is what I mean. A huge amount of detail, particularly once you reach the town. Lush, sensuous, welcoming. Like I said, the art's gorgeous.
  • On my aging PC the quality defaults to "Medium", which sounds bad, but there's only one setting above it: "High". None of this Ultra nonsense. The game runs like mercury on Medium so I might crank it up some time and see how it handles. For now, I'm more than happy with what I'm seeing.

  • User Interface - Minimal. Clean. Intuitive. They really don't want much to get in the way of the art while you play and it doesn't. The back end is complex, though. Lots and lots of menus and sub-menus. All very clearly labelled, mostly with well-designed icons that are easy to interpret without explanation.
  • Screenshots - I'm pulling this out as a separate part of the UI because it was just about the one thing in the game I found awkward. One of the first things I do in any new game is re-set HideUI to F10 and Screenshot to the minus key on the numpad. You can't do that in Genshin Impact because keys are not re-assignable. To take screenshots you have to hit Escape to open the main menu, then click a camera icon. Hide UI is Ctrl-H, which is awkward. Screenshot is Enter, also weird.
  • There are other aspects to the screenshot function, like a slider for distance, which sometimes appears and other times doesn't. You get to see your shot before you save it. That's good. It goes into a folder in the game directory, which I like. The quality of the images is fantastic. 
  • And I yet still fired up FRAPS. Pictures aren't as good there but I can take them on the fly without having to fiddle around in menus. Also, the in-game camera wants you to pose. If you try to take shots when you're swimming or climbing it balks. That's no use for a roving reporter!

  • Movement - Fantastic! Seriously wonderful. This is one of the impressions I'm pretty sure all Breath of the Wild vets are going to smile at but I have never played a game with such seamless movement over obstacles and up vertical surfaces. If something can be climbed, and most things can, your character just climbs it. It's incredibly satisfying. 
  • You can swim, although only on the surface. Early on someone gives you a glider, which works exactly like the ones in Guild Wars 2. There are even updrafts. It all felt immensely familiar. Once I'd worked out I could climb up buildings and jump-glde across rooftops in Mondstadt you couldn't get me down. Telwyn would love it.
  • Combat - Possibly the most naturalistic and intuitive action combat I've encountered. Tobold, no action fan, called it "not overly complicated or difficult to execute" and I can't argue with that. As far as I can gather, combat gameplay revolves around controlling a team of several characters, swapping between them to use different abilities and create synergies. It sounds complicated and fiddly, just the kind of thing I don't like, but so far it seems the opposite. Granted I only have two characters but moving between them to change from ranged to melee or to set things on fire feels natural. That word's coming up a lot, isn't it?

  • I did a couple of quests that involved combat, cleared several hilichurl camps (the local goblin/kobold analogs) and finished up by completing the first storyline instance. Fights felt tactical and involving. It reminded me oddly of classic EverQuest or World of Warcraft, not in execution so much as in intent. I suspect it may be a game where fighting stuff involves as much thinking as thumping but I'll have to get a lot further to find out. Never wise to draw conclusions about combat from the very low levels. It so often changes out of recognition later.
  • Progression Mechanics - Oh, no! I'm not going there. Not in a First Impressions piece. Let's just say there are a lot of them and they're ferocious and leave it at that. I might have more to say when I begin to understand the basics, which I very definitely do not, yet.
  • Story, Dialog, Writing, Voice-Acting - This is where Genshin Impact really impresses. I mean, we've seen plenty of gorgeous-looking imports but in how many of them did it seem like someone had given the original text a pass through Google translate and called it a day? GI is well above the solid, professional standard set by something like Blade and Soul. It's up there with Final Fantasy XIV or any quality title written and voiced by articulate, imaginative native speakers.

  • It's not just that all the text, without exception, comes in grammatically correct, idiomatic English. It's that it's witty, funny, amusing and smart. I laughed out loud four or five times in a couple of two-hour sessions. I'm not saying it would win any Emmys but judged by the standards of triple-A MMORPGs, it very much holds its own. 
  • Here's an example of what I mean. You know how lots of games have books you can collect and read and how most of those books are very, very dull? Or just badly written? Genshin Impact has a library full of books like that but they're genuinely interesting. I collected as many as I could find, which was a lot and read about a dozen of them before I had to stop myself so I could actually get some adventuring in. It's not literature but it's not just filler, either.
  • As for the voiceover work, it's not at all bad. Everyone I've met so far speaks like a teenager on helium but that kind of goes with what they look like. More importantly, all the line readings are spot on. It bugs me when voice actors obviously don't understand the meaning of the lines or the director hasn't directed them appropriately. That's not the case here. 

  • Music - Lovely. I don't have much to say about it but it's in keeping with the milieu and pleasant to have in the background.
  • Overall Impression - Exceptionally favorable. If there's a word that comes to mind it's "polished". We're so used to games that feel barely started, let alone finished, it can be a low bar to clear but Genshin Impact really does feel fully-baked, at least in the opening areas that I've seen so far. It's as though miHoYo actually completed the game before they tried to sell anything to anyone. What a radical approach!

Since the game is free to play and genuinely so as far as I can tell, I can't see any reason not to give it a try. Other than the issues I discussed yesterday, that is, but frankly, if you let those concerns dictate your actions you're probably best not being on the internet to begin with. 

Expect a few more posts on this one, at least until the Shadowlands pre-patch drops in two weeks time and I follow the herd to the next watering hole.

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