It has been a few weeks since I first talked about League of Legends, since then I’ve hit level 20, found a champion I like and in the right conditions became a force to be reckon with; an interesting last few weeks to be sure.

I’m going to assume that you have read or will read my first post on LoL so I will not be covering the basics. Instead we’re going to get straight to balance and lack thereof, however unlike most games it’s not quite that simple.

In my first post I talked about how each champion is unique, with that said some champions are clearly better than others. Whether it is by stats or abilities, there is a reason why in tournament level play some champions are quickly banned from the game.

Abilities play a huge role in balance; attacks that prevent the enemy from responding normally are king in LoL. This covers stunning, slowing, blocking off the enemy and otherwise incapacitating the enemy. The reason is that if you can stop the enemy from responding then you can kill them easier, which gives you gold to buy better stuff and repeat the cycle. Champions who have at least one or more abilities like that or better yet, having an area effecting one are more likely to be picked then someone who doesn’t

The problem is that there is no real counter to this, having all the strength and armor in the world doesn’t mean anything if you can’t reach the enemy to hurt them. With all the different ways to stop the enemies there are very few ways to defend against it.

From what I’ve seen there are only four ways in the entire game. One is an item that only reduces the time being stunned by 25%; another is a summoner skill that has a long cool-down time. A few champions also have defensive abilities that can free them from these effects. The last way is an item that blocks the first skill that would hit you.

 A team without any stuns will be at a huge disadvantage. Battles in LoL are quick, being out of a fight for even one second can be enough time to take over 2k points of damage near the end of the game. Now if the only balancing that was needed was on a 1 to 1 field it would be easy, however there is more to look at.

When dealing with champions in a 1v1 it is easy to see who comes out on top, however with LoL being a team game 1v1 fights are not as common as team fights. Some champions are just better when paired up with someone else then when alone. Have two champions who can incapacitate in the same lane can be a huge advantage. Or having two ranged champions in a lane against two close ranged champions the ranged ones can effectively shut down the other pair.

Some champions may only be at their best during a 5v5 when you have abilities and bright colors going all across your screen, a well timed ability could be all that it takes to tilt the fight in your team’s favor. However we still have more things to look at in terms of balance.

Items in LoL grant huge benefits to champions with some getting more than others. The problem is that several champions become unstoppable at the late game with the right items. I’ve seen one champion take on the other team by itself and win then proceed to destroy their base and there really is nothing the other team could do about it.

Most often it is a combination of items that will do it. For example if someone just keeps buying the same item that increases the chance at doing critical damage, eventually a powerful close ranged damage champion will be hitting every time with a critical hit that does several times more damage. At that point it doesn’t matter how much armor you have if you are taking close to 800 points of damage every half second. Personally I think the way to stop this would be to have some effects not stack with having multiple copies of the same item, or just prevent the player from having copies of the same item.

Next are summoner spells, at level 12 you will have access to all the available spells and can pick any two to take with you into a game. Each spell has a different utility, for example Ghost increases movement speed and can be used to run down a fleeing champion or get away. Some spells are more useful than others and when combined with the right champion can spell trouble. The spell Flash allows a champion to instantly teleport to a position on the game screen, when combined with champions who have area of effect skills this spells trouble for the other team.

Other times there are spells that are almost a requirement to survive against some late game champions. For example the exhaust spell reduces the attack damage of the inflicted champion dramatically allowing you to survive against powerful champions. The Ignite spell reduces health regeneration which makes it a perfect counter to champions who recover health fast thanks to abilities or items.

The final point of balance has to do with runes and mastery points. Until you hit level 30 in LoL you will not be able to equip all the runes you want or place all your mastery points. High level players who know their preferred champions inside and out know how to allocate everything to optimize their play style. The problem for me is that I’ve reached the point that I am leveled enough to have to play against these people and have no way to defend against someone who has found the perfect combination of items, runes and mastery points to demolish me.

These bonuses by themselves aren’t that huge, but when you have someone who combines all of them together it’s like having a duel with one person using a pistol and the other one using an AK-47. For example with the character I like who is a close range, I’m focusing on runes that grant armor penetration which means that more of my attack damage will bypass the enemies defense to hit them. Currently I only have 16 points worth of this, but once I get enough Influence points and reach level thirty I should be able to increase that amount noticeably.

What makes that a big deal is that it means that I will be doing more damage early on when the other characters are weaker and at the late game I’ll be able to kill the other team quicker. Unfortunately for me I have a way to go before that happens and I am now playing against people who had the same idea.

I do not envy Riot’s designers who have to find a way to balance all these different mechanics together. Looking at the last few paragraphs there are at least five different areas of game balance to consider in LoL. This in turn does make LoL an interesting game to talk about balance. I would really like to be a fly on the wall when the designers meet to discuss the game and what they are planning on tweaking.

While talking about each champion could be an entry itself I do want to talk about my current favorite. The champion that I’m enjoying is called Blitzcrank. He is a steam driven golem who is tricky to play well with. His first ability shoots out his arm and pulls the first thing it hits back to Blitz and stuns it, this ability has to be aimed however which is where the challenge comes in. His next ability doubles the strength of his next attack and will pop the enemy up into the air for a second. The next ability increases attack speed and movement and when fully leveled can almost be used continuously. Finally his ultimate is an area of effect that stops spells for half a second and does ok damage.

Looking at his abilities, he has three that disable the enemy and his last one makes him stronger. His pulling ability in the right hands is awesome and what really makes him go from an average champion to an excellent champion.

With that said another reason why I pick him all the time is that if I decide to play ranked games where players can choose champions to ban, I’m pretty safe in not having to worry about a ban. There are far easier champions that are better and are more important to ban in a ranked game compared to Blitzcrank. The other team would be foolish to waste one of their bans on him compared to some of the more annoying champions.

At this point in time I am level 23; I’ve tried a few other champions but still fall back on Blitzcrank as my favorite. I will most likely play up to level 30 but I’m not sure if I will continue past that.

Josh

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Who doesn’t love messing with the time space continuum? When it comes to great video games built around time travel our options are few and far between. Currently the king when it comes to the rpg genre is still Chrono Trigger and while Radiant Historia doesn’t topple it, the unique mechanics still give us a great rpg.

The story is that the world is royally screwed. A strange malady is turning all the fertile land into desert and two powerful nations are stuck in war. You’ll play as Stocke, a secret agent for one of the nations who is given the means to turn things around with the white chronicle.

The white chronicle is a magical book that allows Stocke to revisit past events and change history. Sadly the book is not as powerful as Chrono Trigger’s Epoch or the Doctor’s TARDIS as it can only revisit decisions that Stocke makes. The first big decision Stocke makes involves staying with his secret agent department or returning to the army and this splits the timeline of the world in two. To the story’s credit both paths follow different routes and it is interesting to interact with different people at different points in time.

You can switch between the timelines at any save point and this is required to advance in the game. Many times Stocke will learn something important in one timeline that will be used in the other. Also there is this strange phenomenon that affecting an event in one timeline affects the other that is not really explained.
Side quests require Stocke to travel forward or backward along the timelines to get what is needed to solve them.

There are also a multitude of endings, the majority of which are bad. Stocke has to make important decisions throughout the story which show up in the White Chronicle. Thanks to the White Chronicle after getting a bad ending you can return to the decision and change it as you try to save the world. Moving on it’s time to talk about the combat system.

From the outside it looks like the old school traditional model of having the good guys lined up on the right and the bad guys on the left, however there is more at work here. First the enemies are placed on a 3×3 grid, the closer the enemy is to your group the more damage they’ll do and receive. This principle is also applied to how far away they are to the group in terms of taking less damage.

Turn order is a big deal in Radiant Historia. The top screen displays the next ten turns. Each character can change their position on the list, either swapping their turn with a teammate to have them go first or with an enemy to have your party members attack in a row. The consequence of this is that whenever you swap places that party member will enter a “baroque” stance meaning that they will take increase damage until they take an action. This forces you to weigh the consequence of setting up a big combo for damage vs getting hit a lot harder by enemies. There is an important reason for combos as it plays into the grid system.

Several of your party members have attack skills that allow you to push or pull the enemy across the grid which lets you prioritize who you want to fight first. If you knock an enemy into the same space as another enemy during a combo the enemies will be associated as one enemy in that space and take damage from attacks. You can do this as many times as you have character turns lined up and done right it will allow you to attack multiple enemies easily. Another use I found was using aliment causing attacks or status weakening ones; by grouping up the enemies I can try to inflict the entire group instead of one at a time.

You will have to get used to this system fast as for the majority of fights you will be outnumbered. Fortunately there are no random encounters, you will see enemies as you run around the map and can hit them with your sword to stun them before engaging, allowing you a first strike in combat.

I like how each one of your party members has unique abilities differentiating themselves. Each party member also has side quests specifically for them to learn new skills by finding special items in the world. Another strange affect of the book is that everyone’s stats are persistent between the two timelines. This does lead to the funny event of replaying a boss fight now that everyone is thirty levels above the fight. One problem though is that since in each timeline you’ll have different party members at different times and it does make it annoying to shop for everyone.

Leveling up party members will take some getting used to. As long as the party member is available to swap out for combat they will gain some experience after each fight. However there are long stretches of time when someone will not be in your party at all. When they are finally back later on in the game, they may be ten or more levels below the rest of your party.

One word of warning, or you could say a warning from the future. There is a sizable difficulty spike starting at chapter 4 of both timelines. At this point enemies begin using status boosting skills which unlike a lot of other rpgs is a big deal here. For example pre buff I was doing at least forty points of damage per attack, after the buff I was doing one. At this point in the game you won’t have access to skills that allow you to remove the buff.

Bosses start to become like brick walls and are more resistant to regular attacks. My best advice is using poison, getting bosses afflicted by it is almost like getting a free regular attack per each round of combat.

I want to stop things for one second to say that when I started chapter 4 my party’s level average was 25. I don’t know if I was under level, over level or just right for these encounters. The game is very generous with experience and you’ll also get extra experience for having longer combo strings during the battle.

Once you get past that sore spot the difficulty of the game evens out. Overall I enjoyed Radiant Historia, for the first game like this the designers did a lot right. I just hope if we do get a sequel the designers will allow us to mess with the time space continuum more such as creating messed up futures and getting a chance to play through them.

Josh

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When it comes to re-playability one of the strongest pulls in my opinion is the inclusion of Meta game mechanics. Over the last few years I’ve played a lot of multi-player games and found that the ones that feature a strong Meta game are the ones I like to come back to.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, I would like to define the term “Meta mechanic” for this entry:

Meta Mechanic: Rewards or improvements that can be earned during the actual game-play and/or outside of it, that carries over to repeat plays.

For this entry I’m going to ignore single player games, even though they do have this partially in the sense with achievements. However you cannot earn achievements for a game outside of it.

Meta Mechanics can either take center stage in your design or can be subtle. Let’s start with the predominant ones. Possibly the most famous currently would be Team Fortress 2, since its inception the game has added new weapons and cosmetic pieces to differentiate and personalize your character. The process of unlocking these items has also changed throughout the years.

First you could only get these via achievements, and then came random drops followed by crafting. This past year Valve has released the Mann-Co store as another way of obtaining these items using real money.

Recently I started playing League of Legends which has an extensive Meta game which I talked about my experience with here. Like Team Fortress you can earn items (or in LoL’s case Influence Points) from playing the game and also have the option of spending money to unlock content as well. The difference in LoL is that there is more to tweak outside of the game compared to Team Fortress. Mastery points and Runes allow you to further customize your champions either for specific roles, or to emphasize the innate advantages your preferred champions have.

Games like TF2 or LoL display their Meta game from the start; however there are plenty of games that are more subtle. Games like the recent Call of Duty titles and Killing Floor for the PC both use a “perks” system. In KF you choose from a perk like sharpshooter or flamethrower, this in turn grants you bonuses using specific weapons along with discounts on buying them. To earn them each perk requires the player to kill specific enemies a specific way, kill enough and you’ll go up in rank with that perk and granted more bonuses.

I have not played any of the recent CoD games so I can only go by second hand knowledge. I’ve read reviews of how you can unlock perks and new weapons as you play the game and level up.

Sometimes the Meta mechanic can be something as simple as unlocking new icons, as in the case with Star craft 2. By earning achievements you’ll be rewarded with new character icons to show off before a match. Granted it is not as important compared to the other games mentioned here but it is still an example of this.

The simplest example of a Meta mechanic is a persistent high score table linked to your game. In Geometry Wars 2 and Pinball FX 2, both titles integrate the high score list onto the game screen. While you’re playing GW2 you will see the closest score on your friend’s list to your best. This gives you motivation to try to beat it and if you manage to do that, the next highest friend’s score will take its place.

In Pinball FX 2 as you are getting close to beating a high score you will see an announcement flash on the top right of the screen. As an added bonus getting higher scores on each table will go towards unlocking achievements and avatar clothing.

Now that we’ve talked about examples of meta design it’s time for the difficult task of distinguishing what makes a meta mechanic good and what makes it bad.

1. Circular progression: A term I used for my home base mechanic analysis, but it can also be applied here. The best Meta mechanics are those that interact with the game and can be seen both inside the game and outside of it. For example in Team Fortress 2, by playing the game I can unlock and use all those items. Outside of the game I can either craft new items from the parts I find while playing or spend money to unlock them for use.

League of Legends is more involved with this progression thanks to all the tweaking the player can do. While the bonuses don’t seem huge from runes and mastery points at the start, when you get to high level play they start to add up.

This type of progression is missing from Star craft 2, as playing the game only gives you icons outside of the game but they don’t have an effect in game. By effect I don’t mean that they should alter the game-play in any way, just changing the color or how the unit looks in game would be enough (similar to the collector’s edition bonus for the Thor unit).

2. Keeping balance: Whenever you have an outside influence on the game-play in the form of Meta mechanics or micro transaction content, you have to worry about game balance. How much of an effect should these mechanics have on the game-play? If you make them too important to the design then you risk creating an imbalance in the game. On the other hand if they are too insignificant then the player won’t waste their time with it.

With Team Fortress 2 Valve has constantly made changes to their items in an effort to keep all Meta content as side-grades instead of full blown upgrades to the classes to preserve balance. For the most part they have achieved this however there are some items out there that do seem like upgrades (such as the medic’s unlocked gear).

There are also arguments over the poly-count sets that were released with the introduction of the Mann-Co store. The regular parts of the sets were just side-grades however if someone was to equip the hat the set would be enhanced further. The hats had a very low chance of dropping in game and could either be bought using cash or crafted with a multi item recipe. The hats became a full blown upgrade and could make or break the other set items; this caused a lot of complaints at Valve.

While League of Legends has a better progression system it does straddle this line more. The increases from runes and mastery points may not make a huge difference early on. However many high level games can be decided by proper rune setup and mastery point allocation. That is why Riot allows players to save copies of your rune and mastery point setup giving the option to switch to different load out before the start of a game. Also the mastery unlocks for putting at least 20 points into that respective talent tree are extra powerful, which you will not be able to get to until you reach a high level.

When I play with my friends who are at max level the differences are easily seen. Their champions are just innately better than mine and there is nothing I can do about that until I reach the max level. Runes also come in different strengths based on what tier they are, ranging from tier 1 to 3. You can only start assigning tier 3 runes at level 20 that means that there is a big difference between being level 19 and level 20 in LoL.

3. Always progressing: In order for a Meta Mechanic to work in my opinion the player should always make some progress with them while playing. It should not matter if the player wins or loses as long as there is some sense of progression from playing the game. In Team Fortress 2 the random drops only occur while playing the game (or if someone uses an illegal idle program). Similarly in League of Legends you will receive Influence Points no matter the outcome of a game, of course with more IP rewarded to the winners.

Strange enough after saying that Meta Mechanics wouldn’t work as well in a single player game, I started thinking of a game idea where it could work. The rogue-like genre could be a perfect fit for Meta Mechanics, as they require the player to replay the game and could be a great incentive to balance the challenge of playing them. I’m playing around with an idea that combines my love of class based rpgs and challenging rogue-likes that also have Meta Mechanics.

Improving re-playability is always a worthwhile goal. With more and more games being shipped with a multi-player component any little addition can help your game stand out from the crowd.

Josh.

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I’m reminded of a Family Guy episode, where the family was stuck in a panic room and Peter tells everyone about his ancestors. At the end he tells his family his dark secret, that he hated the movie: The God Father and for the next few minutes they argue with him about how he is wrong. I have a feeling that we’re going to have a similar interaction after this.

In keeping with my ongoing mission to have unpopular opinions about popular games, besides thinking that Bioshock was an overrated bad game; I have one about Bioware. I have yet to find a game from them that I thought was good and not overrated.

I’ve played the following games from them: Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2, Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, Jade Empire, Neverwinter Nights and Dragon Age.

I did not get into any of them and of that list I only finished Jade Empire, Baldur’s Gate 1 and Kotor. The rest I play a few hours and my interest waned and I stopped playing. I can’t help but feel that Bioware makes rpgs that are my antithesis.

1. Story: A while ago someone put up a flowchart showing how all of Bioware’s games reuse the same plot elements. Some gamers may find it comforting to know how the plot plays out each time, I don’t. I am sick and tired of playing a regular guy who just so happens to join a secret group who then discovers that he’s the chosen one.

I have been spoiled by the Shin Megami Tensei series along with The Witcher. Each SMT has a different story that leaves the player guessing. With The Witcher, you are playing as an already established bad-ass who is not interested in saving the world, but stopping the group that attacked him.

2. Morality and writing: Another nail in the coffin for Bioware’s games for me is the sense of morality. I just don’t find having a dual morality system realistic or good game-play. I don’t want to play my character as a naive fool or a complete jerk.

What was amazing about The Witcher was how it got away from this system and still delivered choices. Everything the player decided on had consequences to it, both immediate and down the line and there were no good or bad choices.

Another knock against choice in Bioware games is that the majority of them serve no purpose for the story. One detail I liked about Alpha Protocol was that everything I did was reference in the game at some point. For example people would comment on how stealthy I was or what I did on previous missions. That went a long way towards making the story feel personal. In Bioware’s titles after I make a choice I never hear anything else about it again. Some choices will have an effect at the very end of the game but waiting 20+ hours for that to happen doesn’t work for me.

The writing in the Bioware games also rubs me the wrong way. The issue I have is that none of it seems organic; it feels more like a bunch of conversations put in order by a computer. Characters ramble on in an unrealistic manner and with the morality system; my character goes from kind and sweet to a complete bully or vice versa at the drop of a hat. It breaks up the flow of conversations in my opinion and it is another example of why a dual morality system doesn’t work.

This mechanical feeling also permeates into the team-mates you pick up. There doesn’t seem to be any growth between the people who join you. I would assume after an epic quest that a rapport would happen between members.

In Alpha Protocol you had different options during conversations and even thought it had a similar three emotion system, it was more subtle then in a Bioware game. For example if I chose the professional option then the threatening, the character would still act similar but his tone would change. Many times you had more than three options depending on what Intel you have or what you did on previous missions further personalizing your actions.

3. Game-play: This is the deal breaker; the combat systems and general game-play in their rpgs have never hooked me in the same way as some of my favorite rpgs have done. There is no real growth in the mechanics outside the first area, nothing too really master and I’m not a fan of their UIs.

In Mass Effect, the controls and viewpoint clearly want the player to focus on one person, but at the same time if you want your AI team mates to be useful you have to control them too. While in Dragon’s Age once I got a few players to control it never felt that I was able to control everyone effectively.

I tried replaying Dragon Age the other night and to be fair Bioware has the right idea with the tactics system (which is basically an IF statement from programming). The problem is that it is too limited in my opinion; they first made the same mistake that the Final fantasy 12 designers did by restricting how many conditionals you can have from the start. Second with the types of spells and abilities available there should have been the ability to create nested if statements.

For those not familiar with programming that is creating an IF statement within an IF statement. For example if one of my team mates hits an enemy with a certain skill (and it is not resisted) I would like to set up another conditional for the AI to follow. With friendly fire on it would make it a lot easier to tell my teammates to get away from an enemy who is being targeted by skills that could hurt them.

In The Witcher, you can improve Geralt’s fighting abilities and magical signs to improve your odds in combat. Integrated with the consequences of your decisions there are some upgrades that are only accessible if you make certain decisions in game. By the end of the game you have more abilities and utility then at the beginning and chaining attacks at the hardest difficulty required good timing to master.

What I love about the SMT series (and most of Atlus’s rpg lineup) is that they challenge the player. Just pressing the attack button will not win fights in their games. The SMT series is known for unique boss fights with twists to mix up the regular fights. Their games reward players for learning and mastering the mechanics with better items and challenging fights. There is that sense of mastery when playing their games, when you reach the point that you fully understand the mechanics and get into a groove with winning fights.

That sense of challenge and reward is nowhere to be seen in the Bioware games I’ve played. Side quests require me to do the same thing I’ve done before and exploring with the only reward being experience points or morality points don’t interest me. Battles don’t offer variety and the only challenge is dealing with a stat difference. There is no sense of learning the game mechanics after the prerequisite tutorial and no growth of the established game mechanics. Which leads me to this: If a game doesn’t have a compelling story or good game-play, what is left to keep me interested in playing?

Now in case everyone reading this wasn’t ready to grab a torch and pitchfork I’m going to make the following comment: I think Square- Enix is more creative then Bioware with their games. Yes I know that we’re up to the 13th game in the Final Fantasy series.

Success or failure I’m not counting, but how they mix things up with each game. Such as the MMO style of FF12, the unique characters of FF6 and even the spin off Final Fantasy Tactics series showcases originality. This is even coming from someone who is not a diehard Final Fantasy fan as well. Then there is The World Ends With You which is one of my favorite rpgs and one of the most original ones as well.

Currently I only buy their rpgs when they are on sale, that’s how I bought Mass Effect for $5. I bought Mass Effect 2 on sale but have not played it yet. I was trying to get through the first one but I can feel my interest in the game declining. The poor combat already has my hand hovering over the uninstall button on Steam. Is ME2 better than one? Or more importantly can I just stop playing the first one and move on?

As you can guess I won’t be buying Dragon Age 2 on launch day, this means that you can look forward to my analysis of it maybe in the year 2014. On the other hand I just pre order the super collector’s edition of The Witcher 2, so you can expect an analysis on that far sooner.

Josh

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