Monday, July 8, 2024

What Does She Think She Looks Like?

I've said a lot of very positive things about Wuthering Waves since I began posting about the game back at the beginning of June. Sometimes strong first impressions like that fade and falter in the face of a fuller experience but I've had more than enough time now to firm up my thoughts on the game and I'm still very impressed with almost everything I've seen. 

The visuals are gorgeous. It's one of those games that doesn't look as good in screenshots as it does when you're playing so, since the screenshots look great, you can imagine how delightful the world looks when you're running around in it. 

On that theme, the exploration is first-class too. It's one of those games where, if you can see something, you can get to it. There's usually something interesting to investigate when you get there, too.

Getting around is one of the joys of the game. Wuthering Waves has a high-quality instant transport mechanic and it's my favorite kind; the one where there are lots of teleport points but you don't get to use them until you've visited them and opened them up for use via the map. 

Even though it's there and it's good, I don't use the instant transport option as much as I do in other games. People, especially explorer archetypes, often talk about the journey being more important than the destination. That may hold water as a metaphor but it rarely works as a literal description of getting from place to place in a game. In Wuthering Waves, though, traveling really is fun in and of itself.

That's down to movement, which is both highly kinetic and three-dimensional but also extremely comfortable and simple to use, a really satisfying combination. You can run, jump, swim, glide and swing from one high point to another, like Spider-Man, something that's common to many modern games, but what makes it special in this one is that you rarely run out of puff while you're doing it.

There is a stamina gauge but it's extremely generous. I have yet to run out of energy while swimming and in over a month I think I've only fallen off a mountain through lack of stamina a couple of times. And even then I was still able to glide to a soft landing. 

Best of all, you only use stamina when sprinting in a couple of circumstances: if you're in combat or if you're running straight up a vertical surface like The Flash. Running up sheer cliffs is a real rush, too. 

Outside of that, you can dash about as much as you want. You don't even have to hold a key down. Just tap it and it sticks that way until you stop running. 

I'm more than fine with that, although I do wonder why games that allow unlimited sprinting don't simply set sprint as the default, rather than getting you to press a button to make it happen. I played something the other day (I forget what it was.) where you always ran but if you hit Shift you'd slow to a walk, which seemed a far more sensible way of doing things.

I've complained on and off about the quality of the translation but really it's the variability that bugs me. The general quality is plenty good enough - it's the segments that are very good that cast shade on the rest. I should really be praising it for how good it can be rather than picking out the weaker moments.

One thing that really stands out for me is the combat. I generally find fighting the least appealing part of these kind of games, partly because I'm not a huge fan of action combat per se but mostly because they tend to be tuned for a considerably higher skill rating than I can manage. 

So far, Wuthering Waves has managed to balance very neatly on the dividing line between engaging and comfortable. Beating up regular mobs for quests and loot is fun and I have actually enjoyed most of the boss fights and set pieces. I don't know how long it can last but I'm optimistic.

I could go on with the positives but I actually wanted to post something about the one, big negative that slightly mitigates against the fun I know I could be having. I just wanted to take a run through the good stuff before I got to that part so as to make it quite clear how very much I like the game overall.

The thing I don't appreciate about Wuthering Waves applies to most gacha games. It's the extreme lack of character customization available. 

One of the biggest pleasures of most RPGs, whether on or offline, solo, co-op or massively multiple, is the control you have over what your character looks like. We've all heard the jokes and jibes about "playing Barbies" and "fashion wars". Everyone knows the real end-game of many MMORPGs isn't raiding - it's strutting around outside the bank in your finest. Entire games are funded mostly by the cosmetic items for sale in their cash shops. 

Leaving aside what you look like, being able to create a character is a fundemental expectation of the genre. It's so ingrained in the culture that even gacha games don't side-step it entirely. In the ones I've played, you do get a character that's supposedly your own at the start, even if you pretty much get a choice of two pre-mades.

With the exception of one game in the genre, though, that character has never truly been mine. The entire rationale of the gacha business model works against the concept of building a character and sticking with it. The whole purpose of gameplay is to keep acquiring new, better characters and using them to replace your old ones, so why would you want to spend time and money making any of them look good or feel permanent?

I find it very frustrating. It takes away all the fun of finding new items and seeing how they look on your character, something that has always been a primary motivator for me, going all the way back to when I commissioned a crafter to make my first set of reinforced leather armor in EverQuest a quarter of a century ago. There's no working on sets or trying to create a signature look. You just have to go with what you're given.

It also means that, when you get a character who's too powerful to turn down, you're stuck looking at whatever outfit someone else thought looked good, even if you think it looks terrible. I'm moderately happy with the pink-party-dress-and-bloomers look someone clearly got their ten year old daughter to design for Encore, the character I'm mostly playing at the moment, but it's not how I'd dress her, given the choice. 

At least it's better than the selection from the Victoria's Secrets nightwear collection I'm stuck with on my actual character. That one is just embarrassing but then Wuthering Waves is one of those games where every playable character and villain looks like they've come straight from a music video or a peep show. 

What really annoys me about it is that, although I've said it's almost a requisite of the gacha mechanics, it actually isn't. I have played a gacha game that both allowed for a great deal of character customization and let you decide how much skin you wanted your characters to show. 

That game was Noah's Heart and the main reason I stayed with it for more than a year was the way it allowed me to work on looks for my characters by acquiring lots of them through the gacha process and then persuading them to give me the patterns for their outfits so I could make them for myself. Better still, the outfits came in a number of pieces so they could be mixed and matched to make different, much more personalised looks.

Unfortunately, I suspect that and similar roleplaying-friendly elements like housing may have been what eventually sunk the game. I get the strong impression that the core audiences for RPGs and gacha games are quite different in their desires and expectations and having pets and homes and funny hats doesn't really excite gacha players the way it does even the most reluctant roleplayers in MMOs. 

My feeling is that, while MMORPG players love to be powerful so they can win big fights with Boss mobs, they also love to work on their characters at inordinate length, just for the sake of it. The twin motivations are beating the game and building the character; the two go hand in hand. 

People frequently want to beat a Boss so they can loot an item it drops, be that a flashy weapon or a shiny helmet or a sparkly mount. That's why we have transmog and appearance systems up the wazoo and people kick up merry hell if they can't go back and solo old raids for cosmetics.

In gacha games, it often seems as though power is an end in itself. Beating bosses doesn't get you stuff you can wear; it gets you materials you can use to upgrade your power. And you want to keep doing it so you r characters can keep getting more powerful until you ditch them for better ones and so the whole thing just keeps rolling.

It's not to say there's no way to change your appearance in a gacha game. It's just no part of the core experience. It's an after-thought, at best.

If you google "can you change the look of characters in Genshin Impact", the huge majority of results will tell you that you can't, which is how I remember things being when I played. It seems that has changed. There are at least outfits in the cash shop and in holiday events, now. Even so, it seems like a drop in the ocean compared to what you'd find in just about any MMORPG.

To anyone who doesn't play games the differences I'm talking about are probably barely discernible. To anyone who's used to the MMO experience, though, while it's a similar gameplay loop, it's really very different indeed. The question is whether it has to be

Noah's Heart definitely tried to hybridize the process and it didn't work, commercially, at all. That doesn't mean someone couldn't do it more successfully.

I hope they do. The open world gameplay of the post-Genshin Impact games would make an ideal base for an MMORPG. But only if you could also play a character you could truly make your own.


  1. Choosing a character and making it my virtual avatar for a month or 30 is a huge part of the draw of MMOs to me. Being able to customize my appearance is part and parcel of that, and if my skill selection is equally cusomizable so much the better. Basically the more ways i can make a character uniquely "mine" the more I tend to get invested.

    I never really thought of MMOs and gatcha mobile games as being on opposite ends of some kind of spectrum, but it's an intersting point. I suspect you are correct about players that are really into collecting characters/ building out a roster likely not getting too excited about custimizing any of the charcaters on their account in general. It's closer to building out a collection of cards, like MtG, than what you typically do in a MMO in a lot of ways.

    1. I hadn't made that connection but yes, there's clearly at least as much synergy between gacha games and CCGs as there is with MMOs. Quite a lot more, probably.

      A whole bunch of sub-genres from MMOs and CCGs to survival and cosy games kind of dance around the same fire, with the more adventurous players from different camps occasionally linking arms with each other for a while, before returning to their own side of the clearing. Maybe now and again someone switches teams for good but I would guess it doesn't happen all that often.

      And yet we do tend to treat all of these genres as though they're part of a continuum. I'm not at all sure they are.


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