Friday, August 8, 2014

Sins of a Dark Age - ambivalence

If my former victims think I might be slightly bitter about getting banned from SoaDA, well then, you don't know me very well.
I'm very bitter. No, really, I'm definitely the type to hold grudges. I still haven't forgiven my fifth-grade math teacher for criticizing my long division, and she's probably dead by now.
Buuuut, I guess that shouldn't prevent me from also pointing out the game's positive qualities.

To do so, you have to consider its place in the greater scheme of AoS games' development within the greater RTS genre. Real-Time-Strategy games, especially Blizzard's war, star and other crafts within which the AoS concept spread, tend to be hopelessly light on Strategy. They reward button-mashing almost exclusively. Games like Demigod, DotA, HoN, LoL or SoaDA are single-unit strategy, placing the player in a very short role-playing scenario every match, giving you a single hero to control as part of a greater conflict. You are, basically, a Hero of Might and/or Magic. And so are the other several players in the game, some of which are trying to kill you.
It's not a very complicated concept. It's what World of Warcraft promised to be before it degenerated into a meaningless grind/farm: a strategy game from a single unit's perspective.

Aside from lending RTS gameplay a more visceral role-playing feel, letting players identify with their chosen hero for half an hour at a time, this also reduced the dependence on button-mashing. Most of the Warcraft 3 maps which popularized the genre gave the player only 3-5 buttons to press in addition to mouse-movement. The emphasis is to be on situational awareness and strategic planning, building up one's character and team throughout a match. From this basic setup, one might rebuild the entire RTS concept as centered on strategy and teamwork. Context-sensitive hero abilities, improving the team's AI-controlled soldier waves, altering their course through the map, securing various resources.

Unfortunately, it turned out the limited basic notion of being a "badass dude" beating up other "badass dudes" was very idiot-friendly and suited for mass-consumption without any strategic involvement. In the end it was one of the most simplistic War3 AoS maps, DotA, which won the popularity contest, and just as the MMO genre has been nothing but WoW copycats for the past decades AoS games came to be seen as DotA clones and were re-branded as multiplayer online battle Arenas so as to remove any notion that strategy should interfere in the routine of measuring e-peen size over kill/death ratios and item farming. League of Legends, the big market success story, was a shameless DotA clone which brought many necessary balance changes but few if any new features into the old formula.

SoaDA is to LoL what LoL was to DotA, and therein lie most of its flaws. It slavishly molds itself into the threadbare old three-lane, five-player setup. It uses the same inventory and item upgrade recipe system from DotA. It uses the same imbecilic resource system (last-hitting enemy soldiers and heroes for cash) and the same 4+2 skill system from League of Legends. Its shallow, fifteen-level skill system allows players to max all skills at maximum level every game instead of making them choose. It copies the moronic notion of a "carry" which DotA popularized, glorifying the nuker from the team RPG nuker/tank/healer holy trinity.

Its positive qualities come mostly not in the form of advancement but of mitigating the negative effects of all that DotA idiocy. Last-hitting shares some money with nearby teammates. Skill leveling is better balanced, allowing more patterns than in LoL. The two extra globally-available hero spells can be upgraded instead of being the same every game. The "blink" spell is better balanced, preventing it from being a must-have as in LoL. Invisibility is more appropriately scarce. Towers are more powerful, making them a more meaningful feature on the battlefield. "Carries" are not the unstoppable juggernauts they are in DotA or even LoL. The jungle is put to better use through the quest system.

Speaking of which. If you ever call the developers out on the lack of strategic options (resources, unit upgrades, interaction with the team AI) they will likely immediately retort that the team quest system will eventually solve all of that. This is indeed SoaDA's one major addition to the game concept, their holy grail in the bid for popularity. In all fairness, they were doing quite a bit with it by the time I got booted. Here's how it goes:
Three or four times in a match, a quest announcement pops up. Temporary objectives spawn in various spots on the map. They play out like various team FPS scenarios: capture the flag, capture and hold, escort teammate, escort object, etc. The team completing one of these quests receives various rewards like improved NPC waves, a big gryphon which adds itself to one advancing NPC wave, a bit of cash, a tower-disabling ability so you can chase enemies past their defenses, a temporary map revealing ability, and usually a team-wide stat buff as a bonus.

This does add a fair bit of strategy, it's true. Capture-and-hold instead of securing resource nodes, assassinating an enemy flag-carrier, killing specific NPCs for a quest, using the temporary buffs as an advantage for a big push, these are valid team-oriented tasks. I'm willing to concede the team-quest system has more strategic potential than I'd have thought at first glance. I'm still not crazy about having the quest order pre-determined at the start of a match (I'd prefer more player choice in objectives) but I'd be a hypocrite if I outright denounced it after I myself suggested a Rogue-like system of algorithmically-determined features for team games last month.

So as far as gameplay goes, SoaDA is neither here nor there. It lacks the strategic scope or artistic flair of Demigod or the old WAR3 map Eve of the Apocalypse, the most promising incarnations of the AoS concept I've ever seen, but it also rises above the likes of DotA2, LoL or HoN... slightly, ever-so-slightly. It is, from what I know, currently the best AoS out there, even if "best" is a relative term not amounting to much. Unfortunately, with its competition all marketing to Brazilian/Russian twelve-year-olds who have no terms for comparison, SoaDA didn't really have to try very hard.
Artistically, it does use a very welcome, slightly darker and more realistic design setting it far apart from the anime-ripoff MOBAs littering the internet these days. Conceptually, the heroes are truer, less self-ridiculing fantasy archetypes (Drengar shouting "fight until your blades are dull!" or Vallamere's resounding "stand together!" are prime illustrations) and thus overall SoaDA is a much more pleasant environment in which to spend a few matches.

Unfortunately, Ironclad's worst decisions have nothing to do with the AoS concept.

First off, I was exasperated to find they were forcing their playerbase onto Steam, given my feelings about that disgusting perversion of digital distribution, and was also quite perplexed at the choice... until I saw their microtransaction system. I'm guessing the big draw was not only Steam's use as an ad-spamming and update platform, but the Steam marketplace. Yes, unfortunately, SoaDA has jumped on the legitimized cheating bandwagon along with the rest of the game industry. Players can acquire various permanent items to boost their in-game stats or take the shortcut of buying them with real money. The stat boosts don't look like much, but as I've previously ranted it takes very little to skew the odds. Hell, if cheating didn't skew the odds, it wouldn't be so popular that companies like Ironclad feel compelled to take bribes to allow it.

Second, SoaDA has jumped on another bandwagon - the one I martyred myself under. It pretends to police its playerbase. Emphasis on pretends. The Pretense of objectivity, pervading as it does every aspect of our "don't you judge me" society leads an increasing majority of online game companies to set up draconic means of sweeping player dissatisfaction under the rug. "Don't rock the boat" is the name of the metagame. You're allowed to wreck the game for other players by refusing to cooperate and even encouraged to do so by individual stat-tracking. You're not allowed to call others idiots for refusing to play a team game for the team. You're not allowed to curse, but you can sabotage your team by refusing to play and sitting at spawn to force your team to surrender because you personally have decided you no longer want to finish the thirty-minute match you signed up for. You can get reported for the low score you acquired through repeated deaths as a "feeder" but not for sabotaging your teammates by pretending to join a fight and then running away with full health. You never get blamed for causing a loss through complacency - only through "breaking the meta." You can't say four letter words... unless they're "noob" or "rox" (i maintain (5+3)/2=4 letters) or "lulz."

In this climate, it's not griefers who get punished, but those who actually give a rat's ass about the game itself, who are insulted by every brain-dead little snot playing a team game only to boost his personal stats.

I was only the first victim. Ironclad is creating a community of underhanded brats who constantly backstab and grief each other avoiding only the obvious triggers they know GMs scan for in a game transcript or 24x speed-through of a match replay. Remember your teachers who always just shrugged and told you to keep quiet when you complained the class bully was sticking a sharpened pencil in your back because the bully just smiled innocently and played nice for the big boss? That's the community created by any system of player reports and transcript-skimming, by pretending that the response to a crime is the crime itself: a playground custom-designed for quiet, brown-nosing bullies, rewarding facetiousness and punishing integrity. A cubicle farm. Shut up and RMT us some more cash.

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