Thursday, November 20, 2014

Overwatch Impressions From a Guy Who Loves Blizzard but Dislikes Shooters

Img: Blizzard

I figure the title's the best place for the full disclosure on this one. I have to reach back over ten years to find the last instance where I spent a good deal of time with a first-person shooter. That was Timesplitters 2, and I played the hell out if it. Before that there was Wolfenstein 3-D and Doom, but that's literally the extent of my experience with shooters.

Then, Blizzard announces Overwatch and I immediately wrestle with the dichotomy of my disdain for shooters and my love for Blizzard. Another team-based FPS. Hrmph. And in Blizzard fashion, a playable demo awaited. I've heard people mentioned Team Fortress 2 in the same breath as Overwatch---I can't speak to that. Seriously: I have zero frame of reference when it comes to the present-day state of these kinds of games. So I queued up in a line that turned out to be much, much longer than even Blizzard anticipated---there were Blizzard employees acting as stanchions, since the area they'd initially cordoned off wasn't nearly large enough to hold all of those who wanted to play.

TL;DR: it was a pleasant surprise. Looks like I'll be playing a shooter for the first time in over ten years.

The game is set up with two teams of six, one team having the role of Attacker, the other of Defender. To be forthright, I had little sense of what was going on in this regard. Luckily, my two friends and I were matched up with nine other players, six of whom had already declared themselves a team. Thankfully, the "team" willingly split up and we were guided by a dude who'd obviously been queuing all morning---he assisted us with character selection based on our familiarity with first-person shooters. He suggested a couple of characters to me who did damage, but ones where precise aim wasn't as critical to the success of the character.

I chose Pharah first, an attacker. The precise-aim-not-necessary advice wasn't quite accurate, and I didn't do too well in this match in which we were the attacking team. However, this wasn't because the game played awkwardly; it was 100% operator error. The controls themselves were pretty slick: aim with the mouse, and press the left-button for the main attack. Shift used her "Jump Jet," allowing her to hover or fly. WASD functioned as movement keys and Spacebar caused the character to jump. Her other two abilities, Concussive Blast and the ultimate Barrage were attached to the E and Q keys, respectively.

So you can see player controls are very similar to what you'd find in a mashup of an FPS and a MOBA-style game, and thus should feel relatively familiar to a player with even novice experience in these genres. The game itself is fast-paced, and to someone not used to playing this way, it was absolutely frenetic. I did feel a bit lost and ineffective as Pharah, though she seems like a character who, once you have a handle on, can be absolutely deadly. We ended up winning this match, despite my lack of skill hampering the team.

However, once we assumed the role of defending team, things changed. First of all, I got the impression that the defending teams in these matches have the advantage: during the minute or so countdown prior to the match starting, the attacking team is cooped up in a locked room, waiting for the doors to open. Not so with the defending team. They are free to roam the map and set up their positioning prior to the match's actual start. I don't know if this is a standard attribute of these sorts of games, but I felt it placed the defending team in a better position to be victorious. That, and the fact that the map objective we were tasked with defending sat behind a choke point that happened to be nearby to where our characters spawned after death.

Secondly, I discovered Bastion, who quickly became my favorite character (granted, I only tried three in all). This little robot has the ability to heal itself, remotely deploy mines across the battlefield, and coolest of all, transform into a powerful turret. I camped myself in partially shielded area and ripped through my opponents. We won that match as well, and I even earned Player of the Match which immediately convinced me that Bastion will see a significant nerf in due time.

And you know what? I'm just going to stop this post right here; the fact I'm even writing about a shooter right now---you'll just have to trust me when I say it's gotta be good if I'm taking the time to jot down some thoughts on it. It's a Blizzard game, after all: fresh, engaging, fun, intuitive, and challenging all in one. If you love shooters, or if you've generally stayed away from shooters for most or all of your gaming life, this is a game you need to check out.

Additional gameplay tidbits:

  • Not bound to one hero per match---players have the ability to select a new hero in the spawning area they return to after death
  • Heroes have distinct roles (each with unique abilities): offense, defense, tank and support
  • A full match lasts approximately 15 minutes
  • Many additional heroes and arenas to be added in the future
  • Currently no plans for a solo campaign; story elements to be developed outside of gameplay

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Pumpkin Cookie Recipe

I'm opting for something a bit different this morning. I look outside into the snow-filled, bitterly cold world and think things that I won't write down here because I generally like to keep this area PG-rated. Then I look at my desk and see the pumpkin cookie recipe my better half sent to work with me, the one my co-workers have been asking for since I brought in a batch last month. Snow makes me sad, pumpkin cookies make me happy. Maybe you're not dealing with snow this morning, but perhaps something else unpleasant. If that's the case, bake these. You'll feel better, trust me.

Pumpkin Cookies – 2 Dozen

Note: access to an electric mixture helps, but isn't necessary

Preheat oven to 375 degrees

2-3/4 cups Flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1-1/4 tsp salt
1-1/2 tsp cinnamon
1-1/4 tsp ginger
¾ tsp nutmeg
Whisk all of the above; set aside

¾ cup (1-1/2 sticks) butter – softened
2-1/4 cups brown sugar  (packed)
2 large eggs
1-1/2 cups (15 oz can) pumpkin
1 tsp vanilla

Mix BUTTER and SUGAR in bowl until fluffy, generally 3-5 minutes. Add EGGS, PUMPKIN and VANILLA – mix on low speed for two minutes (or mix gently if no electric mixer). Add this to FLOUR MIXTURE from above, mix until combined. Spoon onto cookie sheets---no greasing necessary---spacing roughly 1” apart. Bake about 12 minutes or until the tops of the cookies spring back. Cool completely before frosting.

If you've done it right, these will have a consistency less like cookies and more like cake: soft, fluffy and moist; not hard, dry and crumbly.


NOTE: This makes A LOT of frosting; can be halved for a batch of 2 dozen cookies, unless you prefer a generous amount of frosting on each cookie.

1-1/4 sticks of butter
4 cups powdered sugar
2 tsp vanilla
Splash of milk or heavy cream

Melt BUTTER in a small saucepan over medium heat until brown (3-5 minutes). Combine BUTTER, POWDERED SUGAR, VANILLA and MILK/CREAM; mix until smooth. Can add more MILK/CREAM to reach desired consistency. Apply to cookies once cookies have cooled.

Monday, November 17, 2014

WoW Weekly: A Little Bit Behind

WoW Weekly is a biweekly-ish, self-absorbed look into the things I've been doing -- or not doing -- in the game. From auctioneering and pet battling to mount farming and raiding.

I don't know how big of a high-pop server bubble I'm living in, but I feel compelled to say for the record that the Warlord's launch wasn't the smoothest. Whether or not the truth is that Blizzard should have learned these lessons by now, the presence of lag, restarts, bottlenecks, and disconnects seem seem par for the course on release day. However, I wasn't expecting the ridiculously long queues thousands upon thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of players were greeted with when trying to log in.

Since Thursday, I've spent more than twelve hours waiting to get into the game. That number would have been much, much higher had I not been fortunate enough to log in early on both Saturday and Sunday; guildies who turned up just an hour or two after I logged in faced a several-hours-long queue. Thursday I expected to be rough. Friday would be better, I was sure---we might see some residual effects, but there will be a marked improvement. Not so. Saturday then! Saturday the queues will be better once realm capacity is increased. No? Ok Sunday! Sunday will be the day. Or not, as several guildies experienced 5+ hours queues.

Some reports from yesterday seemed to indicate the queue was moving more quickly than it was in days prior, but on average it takes approximately an hour to move a thousand places. In other words, if you find yourself more than two thousand spaces deep in the queue, check your local theater listings---you've got some time to kill. While some may point out a two-hour queue is more reasonable than a five-hour queue, is a two-hour queue at all reasonable in the first place? No. It's not.

But I feel for Blizzard in all this, and fully understand why things look the way they do, as they really have but two choices: let everyone in, which would contribute to a substandard experience for everyone online since servers clearly couldn't handle the strain; or, limit entry to the server, which ensures those who are able to access the game have a smooth experience. The choice is clear, to me: please no one or please as many people as possible. Still, too many players were completely locked out of the game over the weekend and should be compensated for it.

Because of all this, I'm slightly behind in my leveling goals. I'm moving at my own pace, closing out each zone's main and side storylines and absolutely loving it. I hit level 97 late Sunday night before logging, the original goal being level 100. If the hours spent in queues were hours actually played, I'd be there.

Overall, I am loving the hell out of the expansion. Everything seems so cohesive, the story really flows. I'm enjoying how rare spawns work in Draenor, and really dig the optional side objectives you can seek out. And don't get me started on garrisons. Actually, scratch blaming the queues for my lack of leveling. It's the garrison's fault. That sweet, beautiful, addicting timesink.

This week you'll find me:

  • Closing out the grind to 100. Around a dozen guildies have already reached the cap, which has left me chomping at the bit to join them. First guild raid is December 4th and I plan to be in tip-top shape.
  • Sneaking back to Pandaria. I have a boatload of Windwool Cloth that I plan to use up in the tailoring daily. I'm a sucker for Royal Satchels. Also, I've discovered that right now is a really good time to farm Warbringers if you're missing any of the mounts. Pandaria is a ghost-continent. Seems players have found something better to do.
  • Establishing a second garrison. I did have some "A Character With That Name Already Exists" problems, so I used the free time to set my first alt up in her garrison. 
  • In a queue. Because history's told us this problem won't disappear overnight. 

How about you? What will you be doing in-game?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

My Blizzcon Adventure in Pictures

I've uploaded a selection of pictures from my trip to Blizzcon 2014, complete with captions for context. A few snaps of our journey there, a bunch from the con on the first day, and a bonus set of Dave and me at an F-16 flight simulator. If you ever get the chance to attend Blizzcon, do it.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Feckless Leader's Blizzcon 2014 Takeaway

Definitely room for another banner next Blizzcon.
Five days and approximately 25 total hours of sleep later, I'm back at my desk in Wisconsin after having a wonderful time in sunny, warm California. A friend of mine asked me to dish him the highlights of the convention and I was at a partial loss---I'm still processing everything. Overall, it seemed bigger, even though according to attendance numbers it was in line with Blizzcons '13 and '11. When pressed, there are a handful of things that stood out to me. Find those below.

Blizzcon Focus

Something felt different this year, and it didn't hit me until I woke up this morning: this was a very Warcraft-less Blizzcon. Blizzcons '08 and '10 also had no new WoW news, but I wasn't there---so it's hard to say if the impression I've been left with is accurate. And that impression is that Blizzard is moving away from Blizzcon essentially being a World of Warcraft Con to a true celebration of the Blizzard Universe. To me, aside from announcing a new IP, the tournaments (Hearthstone, Starcraft and WoW Arenas) were the big events at the convention. I can only imagine future Blizzcons will feature Heroes of the Storm tournaments, if not Overwatch as well when it's ready.

If this is the way Blizzard is evolving, I think it's a really smart move. While they will indeed support World of Warcraft for years to come, they'll need to diversify to maintain their presence as a titan in the gaming industry---and to keep players coming. And I think we've been witness to this in the past year or so especially with Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm. And of course now, Overwatch. Speaking of...

I did snap some shots of gameplay when I was spectating, but word on the street is I wasn't supposed to do that so...instead here's some art from the official site!


I plan to expand on my impressions of the half dozen matches of Overwatch I played in a separate post, but this was obviously a huge takeaway from this year's convention. Full disclosure: I avoid shooters (FPS) like the plague. My first experience was GoldenEye, and that game left me with such severe motion sickness that I literally couldn't play it for more than a few matches. In 2002, but a few years shy of discovering World of Warcraft, a friend introduced me to Timesplitters 2, which is a FPS with PvP and a campaign where the player travels through time in order stop a menacing alien race from effing things up. I played the shit out of that game: the complete campaign on each of the difficulty levels plus the vast majority of side missions and achievements.

Overwatch is going to be a very different game from what I've described above, but the point is that I felt a deeper connection to this game akin to what I felt with Timesplitters. Granted, part of the reason is that it's a Blizzard game---I trust them implicitly---but at the same time, I had a blast in the short time I spent with Overwatch. The characters are unique and engaging, the approach classic Blizzard: easy to play, but difficulty to master.

Anduin Lothar's armor from the movie.

The Warcraft Movie

I feel somewhat guilty talking about the movie given the fact if you weren't at the con, you won't be able to see what was revealed. They screened a short teaser trailer and also included a second clip to demonstrate the level of detail they'll be going into when it comes to characters/actors in the movie, this specific shot featuring orcs. It was screened in a special Dolby Atmos theater and security was tight. People may wonder how nothing was leaked, but given the threat of a $250,000 fine for piracy, and the men in black who strolled the theater as the clip played, it's not a surprise to me that the public won't see this til Legendary/Blizzard deem it ready. Though I'll say one thing: it looks good. Real good. If you want to know specifics, email me.

The fact that we're over a year away before we see this film hit theaters when held next to how amazing it looks right now gives me great, great hope. This film will be striking in its visual beauty, ala the same way Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings held us in awe. The lynch pin in whether or not this will be the beginning of a powerful movie franchise or the end of Duncan Jones' career will be how the story plays out. And based on comments during the movie panel, this is likely just the beginning of it all.

I have high hopes.

Pano of the Hearthstone Stage.

Hearthstone as a Growing Esport

I gained a sense of this when watching qualifying matches on Twitch during the lead up to Blizzcon, but it was something else altogether watching it go down in person. We spent more time than we probably should have watching the matches, if seeing as much of the con as possible was our goal. I really enjoy watching matches play out, seeing the professionals make decisions that leave me, as a novice, scratching my head. But then! Then you see how those choices play out and you realize you're watching players who are on a completely different level. I felt like I should've brought a notepad.

The set was beautiful, the fans were into it, and the casters were entertaining and spot on. Hearthstone as an esport is only set to get bigger in the years to come and I'll be interested to see how the upcoming expansion, Goblins vs. Gnomes, will affect the metagame.