A phrase that I've heard tossed around in the MMOG industry with increasing frequency over the past few years is “easy to learn, difficult to master”. Most often this will be said in reference to something as core to the experience as combat systems, but I’ve also heard the phrase applied to any number of other gameplay mechanics. Yet I’ve only experienced relatively few titles where that phrase rings true when you get right down to the brass tacks. However, if there were ever a game that exemplifies a truly easy to learn, difficult to master experience, that game would be Fallen Earth.
In many ways, Fallen Earth harkens back to a much earlier point in the industry’s history when MMOGs were a much more complex affair and character advancement meant far more than new tiers of the same skills you started with being automatically placed on your hotbar. A time when exploration and the journey were integral to the overall experience perhaps even more so than the final destination of being clustered among the critical masses whiling away their days at the level cap waiting for the next expansion to arrive.
At the same time, Fallen Earth also feels light years ahead of many of its contemporaries for the simple fact that it does not attempt to fit neatly into any kind of preconceived notions of what an MMOG is supposed to be. There is an interesting harmony of balance hidden beneath the post-apocalyptic facade of the wasteland: for all of Fallen Earth's many complexities there are also aspects of gameplay that offer a high degree of instant gratification. For my gaming dollar, I believe that it's this type of balance that sets the true virtual worlds apart from the churning seas of surface level theme parks that the industry seems so hell bent on achieving.
With that in mind, when I first heard about Blood Sports, I didn't have all that hard of a time imagining where something like a simple game of capture the flag fits into the bigger picture of that particular virtual world. The controlled chaos of a fast paced CTF match is one of the best things since cybernetic brain implants and almost as awesome as Prairie Chickens. But the notion of classic arena based combat scenarios such as CTF, Survival, and Deathmatch, along with the Fallen Earth team's interesting take on team objective maps ala Assault does fall neatly into that category of pairing long term goals with more immediate and tangible gains.
Last week I reported on my visit to Icarus Studios and the team's take on the company downsizing, however a good portion of my time and the main focus of my visit was spent sitting down to take an in-depth look at last Friday's Blood Sports update. This, folks, is the kind of content where that phrase “easy to learn, difficult to master” fits snug as a glove made from scavenged scraps of leather you found stuffed into a bandit’s back pocket.
While a good deal of time was spent discussing many of the intricate details that went into the overall package of patch 1.4, what most intrigued me was the thorough walkthrough of the Deathmatch and CTF maps. One of my absolute favorite things is witnessing someone passionately present one of their creative endeavors, and the presentation of these maps given by Lead Environment Artist Cory Farris, Senior Game Designer Marie Croall and Lead Scripter Michael Broadwater certainly did not disappoint.
On the surface you may not realize just how involved a process it can be to create something as seemingly simple as a CTF map. However, the attention to detail on the Blood Sports maps is simply mind-boggling. Not only did Cory point out many of the graphical nuances that have been added to give each map a layer of visual polish that goes above and beyond anything the team has managed to create so far, but everything from the placement of sniper lofts to the height and shape of placed objects was carefully scrutinized to provide the most enjoyable and balanced experience possible.
For example, what appears to be a reflective surface in Deathmatch might actually turn out to be a two-way mirror masking the presence of another player who could then pop out and crack you over the head as you run past if you're not careful. But were you to approach that same location from another direction that player would be fully exposed and potentially even cornered if they're not paying close enough attention to their surroundings. Even simple objects like barriers were specifically made to be the same height as a crouching player, providing a much needed form of cover should you find yourself pinned down by rifle fire.
Having lived a previous life as a competitive Unreal Tournament junkie, I was also pleased to see that the CTF map features multiple paths for both flag carriers as well as teams attempting to infiltrate the enemy flag room. But what would Blood Sports be without a Fallen Earth twist to the tried and true CTF formula? Rather than having the flag strapped to your back as you make your way across the map, you literally carry it in your hands. And as any FE player knows, if you can pick it up it can be used as a weapon which is exactly what the flag becomes in the hands of a player.
I left Icarus Studios thoroughly impressed by what I was shown, but as the saying goes the proof is in the playing. Since players can dive into Blood Sports from the surprising early entry point of level 5, I decided to whip myself up a fresh clone to see if I could put some of the excellent insights gleaned from Cory's walkthrough of the zones to good use.
A quick return trip through Midway later I hit the magical level 5 and hopped on my horse to set out for the nearest NPC who could register me to participate in Blood Sports. I naturally made a few stops to scavenge along the way, and after being slaughtered by a pack of angry Blood Rabbits that apparently weren't all too keen on me butchering their friends to make a new pair of shoes, I was feeling pretty confident with my melee skills. And what better place to put them to work than in some CTF matches?
Once registered, you can queue for Blood Sports matches from anywhere you'd like with a few clicks of your mouse, but rather than roaming too far away from town, instead I opted to scan through the list of available rewards. Needless to say, the devs did a good job of creating gear that certainly makes it worth your time to dive into PvP. At the end of a match you'll be rewarded Deathtoll which is a form of currency that can be used to purchase the available items for your current tier. The amount you gain depends on a number of different factors such as your overall performance during the match, and in the case of CTF a larger amount of DT is awarded to the winning team.
Players can queue for a Blood Sports match from anywhere in the world.
As I tend to keep some pretty nutty hours, I was pleasantly surprised that matches opened up fairly quickly even in the lowest tier in the wee hours of the night. I'm sure the shiny newness played a role in that part of things, though given how enjoyable the overall experience is I expect that Blood Sports will become a staple activity for many players in each bracket. I personally found the hectic nature of my first matches provided an excellent contrast to the much slower pace of the lower level PvE aspects the game. Additionally, I suspect that Blood Sports will ultimately breathe new life into conflict towns once more players become hooked on the experience.
In the coming weeks, I plan on diving headlong into the other various aspects that make up the larger whole of the update. In the meantime, Blood Sports is just what the doctor ordered and is an excellent addition to Fallen Earth. The new content it provides is polished, easy to get into, but most importantly it's fun to play.