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Defiance Daily Diary Part 4

Hello everyone and welcome back to my Defiance Daily Diary! Once again, my name is Ryan Coleman and I’m here to be your guide into the war-torn San Francisco Bay Area in the MMO shooter Defiance!

Today I’ll be taking a look at only a single facet of the game, but one so important and so much damn fun that I’d be remiss not to give it its own diary post. The topic of today’s entry is Arkfalls.

Arkfall 1

Arkfalls are random world events that cover a large portion of the in-game map in a deep red circle. Inside this circle, you’re given a Time Remaining counter and an event title at the top of your screen. Your objective, along with the objective of any and all other player who join in the event, is to destroy the ark crystals that have fallen from the sky. In a given arkfall area there are typically 4-5 individual large crystal events for players to converge around and focus their efforts on.

These crystals have tons of health and also attract the attention of hellbugs, which can and will kill you if you and the players around you don’t kill them first. Heavily armored, ranged, and even flying bugs will attempt to kill any players entering the area of a fallen crystal. There are two types of arkfalls — major and minor. Major arkfalls are the events that I’ll be describing in this entry, while minor arkfalls are rather simple events that consist of only the first part of the event that I detail in the next section, but you have to fight mutants instead of hellbugs and there are no crystal weak points.

Arkfall 2 - crits

The arkfall crystals themselves take normal damage from your weapons, but have a “damage phase” of sorts. Every so often, skittering hellbugs (the very tiny bugs that die from a single hit) will walk up to the crystal and take a bite out of it, exposing a weak point. Attacking this weak point causes your weapons to deal entirely critical hits for the short duration the weak point is visible. Your computer guide will point this out to you every so often just to ensure you’re looking for and focusing damage on those points.

This system presents an interesting dynamic — you can either choose to nuke the hell out of the crystal and destroy it with raw damage, or watch your collateral damage and allow the small bugs to chomp a weak point into the crystal to kill it faster. In the arkfalls I’ve been a part of, most players were cognizant enough to stay their fire when the skitterers were going to the crystal, and then everyone unleashed hell upon that spot once the vulnerable area appeared.

Arkfall 3 - destroyed

Destroying an individual arkfall crystal can take anywhere from 3 to 7 minutes depending on how many players have congregated around it. Once a crystal is destroyed, it vaporizes any hellbugs nearby and creates a brilliant beam of light into the sky. After it fades, you’re free to talk toward the former crystal resting spot and collect your loot, and said loot can be of quite significant value. Most of the weapons I’ve found myself using have come from arkfall events and I’ve found some very interesting and wacky weapons from these loot piles.

After the single crystal is destroyed, the game will display a marker on your HUD directing you to the next undestroyed crystal in the arkfall area. What often happens is, after a crystal is destroyed, all nearby players hop into their vehicles and speed off at full throttle to the next crystal. It creates an amazing scene of an impromptu caravan heading off to complete the next objective. Each new crystal you arrive at has progressively more players, and once the final crystal is destroyed, you head to the real objective: the boss fight.

Arkfall 4 - Hellion

This grotesque creature is known as the Hellion. Or, rather, the bug inside of it is. This three-headed monstrosity is just a host for a parasitic flying hellbug. This fight actually contains three phases, making it one of the more traditional MMO fights in the game.

The first phase involves fighting the towering beast itself. Its weak points in the mouth, as expected, cause critical hits. Phase two begins when the Hellion flies from the spiked back, revealing that it is in fact just controlling the grounded monster. This flying version has a weak point on the protected underside of its abdomen and forces players to face the enemy head-on in order to deal maximum damage. In phase three, the Hellion flies back into the larger creature and a slew of heavily-armored and very powerful hellbugs attack the players. Once these bugs are defeated, the Hellion flies out, and phases 2 and 3 are repeated until it dies.

During all three phases (but especially in phase 2), smaller hellbugs continuously pelt players with acid bombs and quick, hit-and-run melee strikes. Even if you aren’t focusing the main target, you can still eliminate the smaller targets to assist your teammates.

Arkfall 5 - Hellion2

These fights are some of the most intense, most grandiose, and most fun I’ve had in a video game in a while. They are extremely reminiscent of public quests in Warhammer Online, but they perhaps resemble the large world events in Guild Wars 2 even more. Player counts skyrocket to over 80 or 100, but interestingly and thankfully enough, my computer’s performance never once took a severe hit.

The action in these events is frenetic and fast-paced. Still, despite being surrounded by plenty of other players all focusing on a single objective, you still get the very real feeling that you are contributing. This is reinforced even more by the ‘end of event’ scoreboard, detailing your money and experience gains after each arkfall.

Arkfall 6 - completeNot pictured above is the actual scoreboard proper, which ranks all players in terms of their damage dealt to all enemies and crystals from 1st place to however many players were involved. Besides the XP and currency gains, you’re also given a piece of loot from the end of the event, and some of this gear has been by far the best I’ve seen.

Defiance encourages these arkfall events for a few reasons. Firstly, they are a major part of the narrative and story interaction (though I had to find this part out on the Wikipedia article). Second, they yield very good rewards and incentivize providing more damage and player revives to increase your standing on the scoreboard and gain a higher experience and money bonus. Third, they are fun as hell.

Hyperbole aside, arkfalls are one of the most fun events I’ve taken part in in an MMO. They are long enough to feel substantial, reward you for contributing, are difficult without being frustrating, and give you real, tangible encouragement to actually give it your best to complete them. If there are any more events like this in Defiance then I am absolutely ready for more of this game and the challenges that await.

Thanks for joining me on today’s Defiance Diary. Be sure to join me tomorrow where I give my overall impressions on the game, my progress update, and the lead-in to my full review coming next week.

If you’re interested, you can see these posts and more on Next Gen Update and Hard Reset. Thanks for reading!

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 5

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Lara’s Raiding Career Escapes its Tomb

Tomb Raider Header

“Keep moving forward.”

The venerable Tomb Raider franchise has seen its share of ups and downs since the first game was released for the original PlayStation in 1996. Tomb Raider was immensely popular because of its unusual, fantastical environments and emphasis on puzzle solving. Oh, and it was also popular because of its buxom, barely-clothed heroine, Lara Croft. “Sex sells,” as the maxim goes, and Tomb Raider‘s was no exception. The marketing focused on it, the gamers focused on it, and it seems to me that entirely too much time was spent shoving additional polygons into her ‘assets’, or at least as many as the PlayStation classic was able to render.

The storytelling and character development of the series continued to advance, but not to grow. Lara’s physical features became more pronounced with each new title and graphical upgrade, and the series evolved alongside and even heavily influenced its contemporaries in the early turn of the 21st century. Lara Croft, for better or worse, became an industry icon as “The Lead Female Protagonist”, taking a place among characters like Mario, Link, Sonic, and Megaman.

In the nearly 20 years since the first title, the franchise has been iterated upon, exploited, rebooted, genre switched, and even outright abandoned at times. The series, while having a few good titles from the original developers Core Design as well as other studios, never reached the popularity that it once had when it was originally released back in the mid 90s. It eventually became a parody of itself — ridiculous, cartoonish characters and a game that still relied almost solely on Lara and her short-shorts to sell copies. When this failed, the franchise did as well.

The last Tomb Raider title came five years ago in the form of Tomb Raider Underworld, a forgettable action adventure made to tie up the story of the previous three Raider titles. While some spin-offs have had reasonable success, the main series had remained stagnant and forgotten, unable to be held up by the weight of current genre demands. Lara’s success as an icon was borne not from her adventuring or puzzle solving. Like it or not, it came from her sex appeal, and the ship of her success had long since sailed away.

That has all been given the opportunity to change, though, with this year’s newest title from the Raider franchise. Simply titled Tomb Raider, the 2013 franchise reboot, created by the longtime series developer Crystal Dynamics, aims to reinvigorate the franchise using updated graphics, modern gameplay elements and a new, more vulnerable Lara Croft, fresh out of school and just starting her adventuring career. Tomb Raider puts the player in the hiking boots of a Lara who doesn’t dual wield pistols, back flip over Velociraptors, or have a giant mansion in London.

No, this Lara is scared,inexperienced, and unprepared. Raider 2013’s main objective is to show this weak and helpless Lara change from the action survivor she starts off as into the action hero she becomes. Crystal Dynamics shows us that this transformation is not going to be an easy one; Lara has to earn her place among gaming’s icons this time around with copious amounts of blood, sweat, and bullets. She is no sex symbol in this title. She is a real, living, and reasonably proportioned young girl struggling to catch a breath from one moment to the next.

Tomb Raider Plane

The most immediate difference from the previous entries is Tomb Raider’s cinematic presentation. The game borrows heavily from the set pieces and scripted action sequences of the Uncharted franchise. Ironically, Uncharted was even poked fun at in 2007 for stealing from the other Tomb Raider titles, with some going so far as to dub it “Dude Raider”. The circle of “borrowing” has come full circle, it seems, as Tomb Raider feels more similar to the Uncharted games than the latter ever did the former.

Lara and the crew she accompanies sets off into unknown waters off the coast of Japan in search for the lost island of Yamatai. The various locales on the island range from grandiose and breathtaking to drab and boring. The ruins and ancient temples are modeled with extreme and careful detail, but these amazing sights are nearly offset by the appearance of generic caves and dust-worn shanty towns. The presence of dilapidated Japanese World War II bunkers, however, offer an interesting environmental and narrative twist to what would otherwise be another romp through ruins.

Assisting in the visuals is a beautiful game engine. High texture quality, plentiful (but not overused) post-process effects, and some impressive optimization all make for a fantastic PC version of this title. An option for TressFX hair simulation for Lara’s ponytail is also available, but this new technology looks odd and confers a staggering performance hit even on higher-end machines. Thankfully it’s not required and Lara’s default hair looked perfectly fine to me. The company behind the PC port, Nixxes, also handled the exceptional port of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. They deserve high praise for their work on the Windows version of Tomb Raider, and it’s without a doubt the best platform to play this game on.

The Lara is this reboot is subjected to many, many kinds of excruciating anguish, not the least of which is physical. In the first 20 minutes alone she is beaten, bruised, burned, impaled, hung upside-down, and nearly drowned. The most important pain she must suffer, though, is mental. The emotional impact of taking the life of the man attempting to force himself upon her must be quickly washed away as Lara realizes she has to fight tooth and nail just to stay alive. Eventually, her “natural instincts as a Croft” allow her to slip into a stronger mental state where she is no longer just fighting to stay alive but instead fighting to protect those she cares about. Lara’s cries of “Please leave me alone!” in combat change into “I’m coming to get you bastards!” by the game’s end, although the transformation from scared little girl into accomplished killer may be too stark for some.

The supporting cast Lara fights to protect, however, are much less people than they are clichéd archetypes. The protective father figure, spiritual Samoan cook, and geeky tech guy are all present here, and nearly nothing is done to attempt to turn them into stronger, more compelling characters as is done so expertly for Lara herself. If it was the intention of Crystal Dynamics to have us feel empathy or anger when terrible things happen to Lara’s compatriots, it most certainly failed.

The main villain of the game is your run-of-the-mill madman protected by an army of devout zealots, but the interesting bits of opposition comes in the form of the supernatural. What would a Tomb Raider game be without some magical goings on, after all? In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’ll simply say that the supernatural aspects of Raider are some of its most interesting, but disappointingly sparse and underdeveloped.

Tomb Raider Combat

Where Crystal Dynamics absolutely succeeds, though, is the actual gameplay. Platforming and gun play are split about 50/50 in Tomb Raider and there is plenty done to keep them both interesting, at least for the majority of the game. Lara feels extremely solid to control and never will she perform an action that you didn’t intend. Good “game feel” is an art form that is not easily perfected, but Tomb Raider nails it. Lara’s movements during climbing and combat are startlingly realistic, though you may raise an eyebrow at the borderline inhuman leaps and bounds she manages to make. She reacts to interesting objects in the environment, slides her hand along a walls when walking close to them, and takes cover from enemy gunfire fluidly and expediently. Lara also has access to various tools that assist her traversal of Yamatai.

There are very few games that control as good as Tomb Raider does, even when set side-by-side to its most obvious comparison, Uncharted. Expect to see a lot of button-mashing quick time events, though. While I wasn’t personally bothered by them, some players may be turned off by their heavy inclusion in scripted events. In addition, should you ever feel lost while traversing the world, a quick press of the Q key or RB/R1 buttons will show Lara’s “Survival Instincts”, fading her surroundings into grayscale while highlighting important or interactive objects. This kind of optional assist is becoming much more prevalent in games and Tomb Raider encourages its use, but never forces it upon you.

The combat in Raider is a fairly straightforward cover shooter, though using cover is not necessarily required. Instead of a snap cover system like Gears of War, Lara slides in and out of cover simply by moving close to it. It was a gamble to rely on such an uncontrollable contextual mechanic to keep the player protected during the numerous gunfights, but it works beautifully and I strongly believe that this technology should be incorporated into future games. The weapons and enemies Lara uses and faces are far less interesting. Generic, nameless mooks charge into the line of fire of your generic, nameless firearms and expose themselves to well-placed shots for entirely too long, causing most combat situations to be easily beaten.

A melee and execution ability is gained later in the game that makes even being swarmed by machete-wielding enemies a mere inconvenience. The standout of Lara’s tools is certainly the bow; this weapon shines above the rest as being satisfyingly challenging to use while still staying effective in combat. Upgrades are available to all weapons using salvage collected from the environment, and although none of the upgrades are absolutely necessary, they do assist in bringing down some of the more heavily armored foes. Lara can also upgrade her own abilities using a strangely out-of-place experience system.

The sound design and voice acting in Tomb Raider deserve special praise. The members of Lara’s crew, uninspired as they are, all voice acted superbly. Oddly enough, it’s Lara herself that suffers from the occasional hokey, phoned-in sounding lines of dialogue. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s jarring when it does. The baddies of the island also have things to say and despite their rather boring appearance and sometimes incompetent AI, their voice acting is once again very well-done. You can hear candid conversations as you stalk enemies, convincing shouts of pain when they’re hit with stray bullets, and combat chatter is varied and add a sense or urgency or empowerment as you fight them.

Tomb Raider Water

What about the actual tombs, though? This is a Tomb Raider game after all, is it not? It may come as a surprise that, despite being in the title, the actual act of raiding tombs is not only completely optional but surprisingly unrewarding. The numerous “secret” tombs that dot the island of Yamatai (which are ironically pointed out to you in large, bold letters as you pass by them) are accessible throughout the game and they provide the only real puzzle-solving that Raider has to offer. The puzzles are typically simple, one-room affairs that require a bit of planning ahead but very seldom any quick thinking or reflexes.

In its defense and despite its name, Tomb Raider is less about the actual raiding of tombs and more about Lara’s personal story, which it portrays rather well. With a different title, they probably could have gotten away with so little raiding, but it’s something that came to be expected due to the series’ pedigree and the reboot disappoints in this regard. The various trinkets, notebooks, and ruins that Lara discovers and offers some informative narration about do serve as a nice segue into her future exploits, but they are unfortunately underutilized in this current game.

Also bundled with Tomb Raider is a multiplayer component. Like Uncharted’s offering, it’s wholly unremarkable, but does offer a progression system and multiple game modes that may keep players interested for a while. You’d likely not lose anything by never playing it, but it is there should the urge for some merely average multiplayer third-person shooting ever arise.

TR Logo

Despite its flaws and missed opportunities, Tomb Raider is most certainly a game worth playing. You won’t run a gamut of emotions and the gun play won’t knock your socks off, but Raider is a title much greater than the sum of its parts, and for every mundane moment or foolish AI glitch, there is a breathtaking vista or harrowing escape waiting to be experienced. Lara’s origins as a greenhorn adventurer set a strong foundation for her future as a world-class action archaeologist and I absolutely look forward to future titles with this reborn heroine.


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