Fri Oct 30 03:15:21 EDT 2009

fallen empires: legions: not worth all the colons

So I played in the Fallen Empires: Legions BYOC tournament at PAX, and found the game to be, basically, a pile of shit.

(Full disclosure: I was in the top three in the first round, and then was dead last in the second, with a massive 15 kill gap between me and the next shittiest player. I'm a blogger, so I have no credibility anyway, but if you want to further discount this whining as sour grapes, then go ahead.)

Legions is a browser-based FPS, a pseudo sequel in the venerable Tribes series.

Starsiege: Tribes was a open battlefield game that came out in 1998. 1998! It was the first multiplayer FPS with vehicles, customizable classes, large outdoor maps... It was great, and I played the shit out of it. It's abandonware, you can download it for free.

Tribes 2 came out three years later, and was also excellent. If you heed not my words, heed my dollars: I bought four copies of Tribes 2 over its retail lifetime. (Most of them at deep discount) It's also abandonware, you should download it too.

Then there were two more sequels I never played, but you get the picture. I was predisposed favorably towards Legions, a distinct improvement on my normal mood of hateful, bilious rage. I wanted, very much, to like it.


Legions, as a browser based free-to-play game, is inevitably going to be targeted at casual gamers; he said, his voice dripping with contempt.

Casual games are inevitably simplified to flatten the learning curve, and this does bad, bad things to Tribes.

Tribes gameplay has been massively simplified in Legions. There are no selectable backpacks, no deployables, no grenades, no mines, no command interface, no map, and no vehicles, especially unfortunate. There aren't even ammo pickups, just ammo stations. No health pickups, either, since you regenerate health.

And, as far as I can tell, there are only five weapons, two of which are of any use at all to a new player.

This astounding simplification is because Legions is a browser game, like Quake Live, and thus targeted at the casual market.

I've got a couple objections to this.

Casual gamers don't play FPSes, because FPSes are brutal, unforgiving things that demand memorization and dozens of hours of play before you become proficient, during which you are being repeatedly stomped into the ground by the skilled players. I have been playing FPSes since I was six years old and I sucked at Legions.

Simplifying the game down to pure deathmatch doesn't make the game easier on newbies, because it removes relevant, but combat-light roles. You can't lay mines, deploy turrets, repair machinery or ferry teammates around, useful but shooting-light stuff, because all of that has been removed.

Quake live has a matchmaking system to keep pros away from newbies, Legions doesn't. After five minutes of being killed over and over again, the casual gamer will give up, and go play solitaire. That is, if it ever gets installed, but more on that later.

Instead, look at this screenshot of the escape menu:

usability failure

This mess is actually an extension of Legions' simplification goal, albeit a confused and largely retarded one. They tried, they really did.

In a conventional multiplayer class-based game, such as Team Fortress 2, the escape menu, class change, team change, and scoreboard window, are all separate, and all accessed by individual keys that you have to memorize. Each dialogue is a marvel of consistent design, but together they present a sheer wall of inscrutability.

In Legions, all these are combined in the escape menu. This would be commendable, had they not entirely fucked it up.

First of all, to view the scoreboard in Legions, you have to hit escape, which seizes keyboard input, which stops you dead in your tracks.

This is insane. Completely and utterly fucked in the head.

The most common game mode in Legions is team deathmatch, whose victory condition is number of points, and then you penalize the player for checking their score? Why?

For fun, let's make a list of games where checking your score doesn't pause the game.

  • Half Life 1
  • Half Life 2
  • Counter Strike 1.6
  • Counter Strike: Source
  • Team Fortress Classic
  • Team Fortress 2
  • Halo 1
  • Halo 2
  • Halo 3
  • Call Of Duty 1
  • Call Of Duty 2
  • Call Of Duty 3
  • Call Of Duty 4

All right! Now let's make a list of games where checking your score does pause the game.

  • Fucking none of them, what the fuck is wrong with you?
  • Well, Fallen Empires: Legions, I guess. But they don't really count.

Secondly, by cramming all of those different functions into one screen, some usability was sacrificed. For example, you know the class change dialogue is in there, because I just told you. But where is it?

Why, it's the text box right under the scoreboard. Golly, that's so obvious and self-discoverable that I had to be told by a company employee where it was. And. And! It continues the venti-fication[*] by giving the armor classes wacky names. Tribes called its small, medium and large armor classes, uh, small, medium and large; thus making it the best game. Tribes 2 called its medium armor "assault" armor, since it's impossible to assault anything in either of the other armors. Legions extrapolates this trend right off the graph, and calls its armor classes the outrider, raider, and sentinel.

You could make a case for any of them being the heavy armor. It's as clear as mud, and a remarkably poor design decision, and you can't even make a case for it being hip, since who cares about how hip armor sounds? Well, besides Garagegames, since they did it.

*: Starbucks calls their small, medium, and large beverage sizes "tall, grande, and venti"; because they're jerks and I hate them.

What's even better, is that there's two separate, and radically different, class selection menus! You first select your class when you join the game using a neat graphical turntable, that somewhat makes up for the moronic naming scheme by showing you their stats, but you can't refer back to it, since you only see it for thirty seconds at the start of the game, and are stuck with text menu for the rest of the game.

I don't mean to portray myself as some kind of design mensch, as I am not, something that anybody with a pair of eyes and the ability to point them at the index of can tell, but even a chump like me can discern such tragic failures.

The basic pitch of Legions is that since it's browser based, it's trivially easy to just hop in and play.

Ha ha ha ha ha.

Let me recount the adventure of me, technically skilled power user, attempting to get a casual game working at a convention.

First things first, you have to create an account, then verify it, before it will let you play. Right off the bat, half of your users give up, since you have to fill out a form, send it in, wait five minutes, check your mail, then click on a link; all before it'll even let you touch their plugin. Creating an account is not hard, but it has non-zero difficulty, and if your potential user doesn't care enough, they won't bother.

But let us assume our hypothetical user has read a review of Legions, somehow, since he obviously does not read the enthusiast press, and is determined enough to create an account and verify it!

Now he goes to log in, and, uh oh! SSL certificate error!

This was just a problem at PAX, where there was a local server to avoid running any more traffic than necessary over their puny internet link. Since it had a different name than the one on the SSL certificate, IE threw up an error.

Certificate errors almost always indicate a phishing attempt, so neither IE or Firefox even render content, instead showing a scary warning page, and making it very clear that ignoring it is a bad idea. This is normal, since the edge conditions of SSL errors (self-signing, test certificates) are never seen in production, and only by experienced users.

You might question my heckling of Garagegames for failing to buy a SSL certificate for their tradeshow demo server, but I have a range of rebuttals, suitable for any occasion.

1.) Legions is an old school FPS that completely lacks LAN capability. For a genre that is inexorably linked to LAN gaming, this is an odd choice. A not inherently bad, and one made consciously by Garagegames, but behold how things break oddly when they hastily hack it in to work around a technical problem.

2.) This is something of a non-problem. The server sits behind a thin link to the internet, but it still has world addressable IPs. It should be fairly trivial to point the domain at the local server, either at Garagegames's DNS server, or at the local DNS server. This is not a hard problem.

3.) Let's give them the benefit of the doubt, and say it was utterly impossible. So? Buy a new one, just for PAX. This is a trade show, where you are showing off your flagship product. You've got a booth, you've staffed it with a bunch of guys, so spend some more money and make it actually work.

But, whatever. In this context, the certificate order was seen only by experienced users who knew to ignore it, so let's move on.

It says it is installing their plugin, but it invisibly fails. I was using IE, for maximum compatibility, but I was ever so foolishly using the 64-bit version, which didn't work, eight years after AMD introduced the first consumer 64-bit instruction set, software is still being produced that is not 64-bit compatible. Come on.

So I fall back to the 32-bit version of IE. This actually installs the plugin, will let me join games, but refuses to grab mouse focus when in game. I request help from an Garagegames employee, he does some voodoo waving, and suggests using Firefox, instead.


Now, Firefox is the superior browser, and I use it for everything, but, again, this is supposed to be a casual game? Casual users don't install open source software, casual users don't use alternative browsers, casual users use what came with their Dell. Why are you making this hard, Garagegames?

So I switch to the Firefox window that has been open all this time, go to the site, tell NoScript to allow everything, refresh, log in, install the plugin, reinstall, restart Firefox, wait for all one hundred of my tabs to load over PAX's excruciatingly slow internet connection, go to the site again, log in again, and I'm playing!


After half an hour!

Remind me, again, how is this any easier than just buying a game on Steam? Anybody? Bueller?

So Fallen Empires: Legions is a casual game that's hard to install, features brutal, punishing gameplay, but is still too simplified for hardcore players.

It has targeted, with laserlike precision, an audience of about five people.

Congrats, guys. You made a Tribes game that I don't want to play.