Friday, 31 October 2014

Whiskey Commentary: Destiny DLC "The Dark Below"

Apologies for there not being a Whiskey Review this week - however there is one coming in the next few days. I'll be posting a Call Of Duty Advanced Warfare review either Tuesday or Wednesday, as time permits.
However, to fill the time I really wanted to address something that leaves a sour taste in my mouth, the expensive and meager Destiny DLC and the president of Bungie's reactions during an interview with Eurogamer. Hit the link and learn what I'm on about!

As some readers may already know, Destiny is getting its first DLC pack soon. Called "The Dark Below" it's meant to infuse a bit more life into the sadly flagging game. The main reason Destiny is already faltering is a dearth of content - Bungie either didn't work out or seriously underestimated the rate at which a player base can devour content.

Lets have the shiny promotional picture before we dive into what's in the DLC pack;

Posing heroically and staring wistfully into the distance is how you tell they're heroes.
Now, here's what Activision are saying is in the pack:

  1. New weapons and gear, including legendary and exotic items.
  2. New story missions for a character called Eris, who will be located in the tower. These missions revolve around foiling a Hive plot to summon Crota (subject of a previous mission on the Moon). There are apparently three new story missions.
  3. Three new Crucible (PvP) maps. Pantheon, Skyshock and The Cauldron.
  4. New Strike mission, The Will Of Crota, again revolving around foiling a minion of Crota.
  5. New Raid - Crota's End, set in the Hellmouth, an existing region on the Moon.
  6. Light level cap has been raised from 30 to 32.
  7. Five additional bounty  slots.
  8. Playstation gets exclusive access to another Strike mission called The Undying Mind until "at least" Fall 2015.
That's 8 (semi-)new things for £19.99.
Shall we break down what you'll be getting for your money and why it sucks? Of course we should.

New gear is always good, but it shouldn't be locked into a DLC since gear is a random drop. That is unless they're giving you the gear outright, in which case it falls into two categories; the much-hated 'pay-to-win' if the gear is good, or the arguably worse 'pointless' if this new gear isn't the best available.
There's also the question of how the new gear drops will be handled. In Destiny new gear often drops as Engrams, items that are a mystery until you get them identified in town. If the new gear can drop for players who don't own the DLC it presents two new problems; either they can get it and use it without owning the DLC in which case owning the pack for gear is pointless, or they have a little message saying 'you can't use this because you don't own the pack' attached to the items, which is a player wallet manipulation technique that's been around almost as long as DLC but has found a particularly nasty niche in the mobile market.
No matter how you look at it, adding new gear in the DLC is a jip - it should have been patched into the game free of charge. Sure, release it alongside the DLC on the same day but keeping player opinion positive is a large part of keeping a game like Destiny running and this is a concept that Bungie evidently understand well and I have to wonder just how much of Activision's heavy hand is in this particular pie.

The gear's a bust then. Maybe the story missions can manage to add a little bit of value to this pack.
Apparently we've got three new story missions for a new NPC character (who I personally suspect to be The Stranger) called Eris. In an interview with Eurogamer, Harold Ryan (president of Bungie) was asked about whether there'll be new cutscenes, dialogue or a better structure to the story than in the base game and his reply was this; "Have you done the Thorn exotic quest?"

That'd be this one then.

I initially took that to be a bit of a pithy answer, but in hindsight I was completely wrong, as Harold Ryan goes on to say; "So, looking at how the exotic quests work, like the Thorn quest, was the inspiration for how we're attempting to tell the story in this expansion. And so it's going to feel much more emergent and interactive in the world as you play through and unlock the story of Eris."
Industry buzzwords and answer dodging aside, Ryan has hinted at these three new story missions being structured like the Thorn exotic bounty, as pictured above.
This is all conjecture at this point, but there could be a considerable chunk of single-player/cooperative content in these three new missions if each one is structured like a multi-tier exotic quest (some of which can take days to finish, even for dedicated players). These three missions could in fact be three overarching goals split into half a dozen actual missions each, presenting a bit more of a challenge than the regular 'kill everything between points A and B, then kill monster C' game play prevalent through the rest of the game.

Conversely this could go the other way, and Ryan could have meant that the missions will be like three large bounties, a handful of objectives with very little overarching connection. The picture above is the entirety of the in-game content for the Thorn quest, there is no more dialogue, no cutscenes and apart from the fancy yellow icon denoting the bounty as exotic, nothing in the way of fluff items in your inventory or anything really explaining what's going off or why.
This all leaves the DLC story missions as a bit of an unknown quantity. They could either be a shot in the arm for Destiny's rather anemic story or it could be a handful of those coffee flavoured sweets that just taste like vomit.
Personally I'd like to err on the side of caution in this case, taking into account Bungie/Activision's hyperbolic promises and advertising before the game was released compared to what we actually got I think we have to write these DLC missions off as a loss too, until proven wrong.

Next up on the chopping block is three new Crucible maps. It's been pretty standard practice to charge for multiplayer arenas even before DLC was around so I can't really find any fault with the idea of having to pay for more multiplayer maps, so long as the matchmaking is handled well so that groups aren't broken up, denied games, booted at the map change, etc.

Abandon all hope ye who enter here, for there be leet 360 no-scopes.

What I do take issue with however is that there's only three of them. Destiny isn't really bursting at the seams with PvP maps right now and only adding three of them will likely only liven up the arenas for a week or two at most. Call Of Duty and Battlefield are other prime examples of this, they drop paid-for maps in bundles of three or four at a time and only invigorate the game for a couple of weeks or months at a time.
From a business standpoint it's an excellent strategy; why sell 20 maps at £20 with a bunch of extra content when you can half-ass it with the extras and charge £20 for 3 maps, which your hardcore fans and dedicated PvP players are going to pick up no matter what? This is an especially tempting, and heinous, tactic when games have a 'season pass' for DLC where players essentially buy all (or most) of the DLC upfront without knowing what's in it to save a few quid.
Bungie have done map packs well before, Halo 2 had a whole boxed expansion of maps, Halo 3, and Reach also had bundles of high quality maps for a pretty fair price. Bungie can get this stuff right when they want to so once more I'm left searching for the hand of Activision piloting Bungie's hollowed out corpse like a Cookie Monster style puppet, except it goes for money instead of choc-chip.
I'm not big into Destiny's PvP, you could say my stance on that particular aspect of the game is hostile at best so my opinion may be a little jaded towards these three maps. I doubt however that there can be a sufficient level of 'wow' to make only having three new maps available an acceptable choice. I just can't imagine anything a level designer or mapper could do to make this portion of the DLC worth the cash. 
Undoubtedly hardcore Crucible players will be able to argue the counterpoint that any new content is welcome and I can certainly see things enough from that perspective to see where they'd be coming from but I would urge those players to be wary; the only way you can make a huge company listen is by voting with your wallet, as the popular term goes. No matter how badly you want it, if you feel like it isn't entirely worth it, or disagree with any aspect of it, weigh the options and decide if you really want to support this kind of behaviour from these companies.

Little known fact; entering your credit card number into Xbox Live is the final step in resurrecting Margaret Thatcher.

I can't really argue against the addition of new Strike and Raid content either. Both of these things are really welcome, I've made some friends while playing these kinds of missions and they offer a far more balanced and enjoyable experience than just cranking the difficulty up on a solo mission.
I can't really find it in me to get worked up over the extremely long Playstation exclusive Strike either, Microsoft have been pulling this for years and it's about time Sony got a little revenge. Seeing as there's no cross platform play, there's no real reason this should ever be an issue.
The main point here really comes back to perceived value - are two new missions, one of which many players will have a hard time getting into if they don't have five other friends who're around regularly, worth it?
Taking them on their own, the question is ludicrous, of course they're not worth it. A single mission like this should be a free addition, something released before the big DLC hits to get players excited for it.
Even as part of the whole pack their worth is questionable, going by the existing Strike and Raid missions it's reasonable to assume these new additions will take somewhere between two-to-three hours minimum, but more likely about five or six hours the first time through. That's a decent chunk of time, but it's also only two missions that'll devolve into grinds for reputation and gear after the first run through. Sure they've got really high replayability, but do they really have replay value?

Perhaps the ultimate in both replayability and replay value, see also: chess.

Lastly we're brought to the increased Light level cap and bounty slots.
There's no word on the extra Light levels coming with any new class traits or skills so for now we've got to assume there won't be any. That leaves us with two more levels of soulless grind, dozens of hours of hunting for really rare materials to make moderately large numbers moderately larger in the pursuit of making a smaller number increment twice.
So what're we getting for our cash? Well, it ties back in to the new gear. No doubt the new Raid gear will be needed to hit the new level cap so on one hand we have a nice rounded package that's now come full circle to encourage players to give everything a go - on the other hand however we've got two more levels of grind that will suck any life there was out of the new Raid as players stop caring about any pretty scenery or inventive puzzles or battles and start caring more about the time/reward ratio and begin running through as fast as possible, something we're already seeing with the Vault Of Glass.
The added bounty slots tie into this latter point again; presumably when they say 'five new bounty slots' it means the player can carry five more bounties at once. This will help streamline the daily rush to complete as much as possible, much like MMOs add quest trackers or the ability for high level players to pick up all the quests in a town that's below their level.
It all comes together to coax players into that uncomfortable, obsessive loop that sees them logging in for a couple of hours a day to do a bunch of daily quests, just because they're trying to maximize their loot or reputation gain for another purpose.
It's a great method for keeping players in the game, but on a more personal level it sucks the fun out of playing pretty rapidly; making it almost an obligation rather than something you boot up to play because you genuinely want the experience it has to offer.

Finally I'd like to address the biggest pile of horse shit in this whole mess. On-disk content.
It's not rare for games to have vestigial content left hidden on the disk or in the code that the developers either didn't have time to finish or didn't work out or was cut for whatever reason. In recent years this has evolved from a fun curio to one of gaming's cardinal sins - the dreaded deliberately cut DLC. 
Numerous games have fallen afoul of this sin, usually from big publishers; HAWX, Resident Evil 5, and Marvel Versus Capcom 3 come to mind as particularly vile offenders with not only content on disk that was deliberately held back to sell later, but also being very expensive, the MvC3 for example had two characters which cost £10 each that were on-disk - bear in mind that this was a £40 game to start with.
Coming back to Destiny, over the last few weeks players have been glitching, jumping and stumbling into hidden content. Map markers and mission names, maps and areas that shouldn't be there and all other kinds of shenanigans.
It's thanks to these players that Eurogamer got to provide us with the following gem, which I repost here because it's been stamped all over half the web already:

That is Harold Ryan (president of Bungie, in case you forgot already) sidestepping the issue like the greasiest of politicians. Even taking his statement as truth, assuming Bungie were thinking ahead and considering their customers and bandwidth limits, it still means that Bungie went ahead and planned and manufactured content to put on the disk and deliberately withhold to charge for later.
So, assuming their statement is true still, what should Bungie have done?
They shouldn't have put it on the disk. Plain and simple. Just like the new gear, it's a matter of perception; sure you'll get a bunch of players who complain about the large download or have some trouble with bandwidth limits but I can damn near 100% guarantee that everyone is significantly angrier about this content being on the disk.

Naturally we've got the alternative, somewhat more likely based on past events, of the statement being partially or wholly bullshit. It could be that this content was meant to be in the game originally but some executive beholden to stuffing another wad of $100 bills up a shareholder's arse waltzed in and ordered yay-much content be cut and (maybe) padded out a little to be sold as a DLC later down the line.
Honestly I don't like either of these possibilities. They both smack of deceit, shady practices and the outright exploitation of their fans with no regard for how that makes them look.

If your imagination has somehow malfunctioned, they look like this.

I'm so very tempted to take a reactionary approach and call for a boycott to this DLC but Whiskey Reviews isn't that kind of site. The cynic in me wants to tell you not to purchase the DLC too, avoid it like the plague.
Thankfully the rational part of me has won out and I urge anyone considering purchasing the DLC pack to think hard about the value, and values, it presents. We've got a better platform to judge The Dark Below against past DLCs thanks to Bungie's extensive work on the Halo series under a different publisher - and what does that potentially tell us? 
These lessons, and this kind of analysis can be applied to other past and future DLCs too, sometimes with surprising conclusions to be drawn and so I reiterate: carefully consider what you're getting, what you're paying for it and whether you really want to support these kinds of practices.

Thank you for reading and may you have a spooky-scary Halloween!

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