Free Games: A Weekend To Remember — Final Update

What a wonderful time to be a broke gamer. While no money in the cartridge eras meant spending our weekends doing unthinking things like finishing homework or, Heaven forbid, actually going outside, these modern times are blessed with free-to-play, trial events, and open betas. This weekend is especially spectacular for a number of reasons:

Super Monday Night Combat, a free-to-play class-based third-person hyphenated-description-heavy shooter, was officially released on Tuesday through Steam.

Tribes: Ascend, a fast-paced free-to-play more-hyphens first-person shooter, was released for download last Thursday to rave reviews (its 89% on Metacritic marks Tribes tied with Mass Effect 3 as the best-rated PC game of 2012 to date).

Star Wars: The Old Republic, BioWare’s subscription-based MMORPG strong enough to stand tall against reigning behemoth World of Warcraft, is hosting a Weekend Pass as a four-day free trial for everyone wanting to get into a new Star Wars universe without a Gungan in sight.

Diablo III, the long-awaited sequel in the beloved dungeon-crawler franchise from Blizzard, went into open beta at noon today, an event that will last until 10:00 AM on Monday. [Also, am I allowed to mention that Diablo II came out 12 years ago or will that make all of us feel too old?]

Quite marvelous, eh? The closest comparison I can come up with from when I was a kid is a Lucky & Wild machine that went free in hopes of drawing attention to the mall’s dying arcade. Ah, the memories…

*SMACK* “No one wants to hear about your sappy childhood, Luke! Get to the games!”

Right you are, Mr. Alter Ego For Comic Transitions! As the stars align to bring  fabulous and free choices to every gamer this weekend (well, every PC gamer that is…sorry, Console Kids), I decided to spend a full hour with each of the titles listed above. While its safe to say that you can’t go wrong with any of them, keep checking back throughout the night as I update this article with my early impressions and critiques, as well as specific recommendations on how you should spend that hard-earned shut-in weekend before you.

Order a pizza and crack the energy drinks, it’s time to have some fun.

[Current Status: Finished!]

Update #1: Super Monday Night Combat

We need to get a few things straight up front. 1: I do not like shooters. 2: I do not like competitive multiplayer. Given that background coupled with the game’s description, I should absolutely hate any time spent with Super Monday Night Combat. The question is, did I?

I entered Super MNC completely blind. To be honest, I didn’t even know it was a shooter until looking up the Wikipedia page for the single line of details written above. Really, the only thing I did know is that our own Nick Cane can’t get enough of this game, and it was time to find out why.

For starters, Super MNC obviously isn’t offended if you have no idea what it is. To help get your feet wet, the kind gentlemen at Uber Entertainment even put together a nice overview YouTube video to get everyone acquainted with the “sport.” What sounds confusing at first ends up being quite simple. Pick a class and character, escort robots to the opposing team’s Moneyball, have said robots take down said Moneyball’s shields, and all that remains is for you and your crew to destroy the Moneyball yourselves. Easy, right? Right, with only one problem: Super Monday Night Combat is insane.

I skipped all the usual digging around I would have done before entering a match to save on time and dove right in instead. It’s a shame, really, because I even passed up on character customization completely which seems to be a major portion of the overall experience. Given my rushed start, I quickly entered a game having no idea what I was doing. Now, I should mention it didn’t help that I had my visual settings and resolution set much too high for my low- to mid-range laptop to handle. As a result, my first match was sluggish and choppy disaster. I looked at the clock, sighed, and started second-guessing what I’d got myself into.

A quick graphical adjustment, however, and everything changed. The Super MNC ran surprisingly smooth considering my hardware limitations and all the craziness constantly happening onscreen. As stated, I have very little to no experience playing competitive multiplayer shooters, and it showed. Hard. I finished every match in second-to-last place on my team. But still, after only two matches, I couldn’t help but smile: I was having a total blast.

This hour flew by, and I could easily spend the entire night playing this game and this game only without ever getting bored. The visuals, a cartoony-ish styling with bright colors similar to Team Fortress 2, are a joy on the eyes. Even the commentators were amusing enough to avoid becoming annoying after a full hour listening to their silly banter. Everything is always moving so quickly, but at the same time there are no heroes. Because of the match layout, each team must truly work together if anyone even wants a chance at success, yet everything is hyper-fast and rash decisions are made on the fly as everyone fights concurrently for survival and the overall goal of exploding that damn Moneyball. A more fleshed-out tutorial would be nice (there’s a training mode packed in there, but it amounts to nothing more than a fight against bots instead of other people), but spend enough time with Super MNC  and you’ll pick up on the basics quick enough.

Though it can seem overwhelming to beginners, Super Monday Night Combat is a rollercoaster of excitement that no shooter fan should pass up, free-to-play notwithstanding. Fast, frenetic, and just plain fun, Super MNC still manages to have a deeper layer of strategy, leveling, and customization that will keep you coming back time and time again. Hell, once you get started, you might decide never to leave in the first place.

Update #2: Diablo III Open Beta

I really wanted to save this one as a “best for last” sort of thing, but I didn’t want to do two shooters back-to-back and SWTOR hadn’t finished installing its fat self yet. Thus, I went into Diablo III for my second kill of the night expecting over a decade’s worth of anticipation to culminate in an hour of sheer loot-driven glory…and got something entirely different.

Unlike my overall disdain for shooters, I am a sucker for dungeon crawlers. I entered the fray a bit late, not getting hooked until after the Diablo II Battle Chest was already out in stores for some time, but this franchise and Torchlight have fueled my genre-loving fire for years. As an aficionado of great narrative, the action-focused hack-and-slash nature of these types of games has never been able to propel the dungeon crawler ahead as my favorite choice, but I do indeed enjoy a good monster killing for treasure from time to time.

So let’s start with the good, shall we?

It didn’t take long for the Internet to come alive with outcries complaining about failing servers and an inability to access the beta. A large part of me highly doubted that I’d make it in so easily, if at all. Yet, despite even a foreboding “Your Hardware Does Not Meet The Recommended System Requirements, GET OUT NOW!” warning notification, entering the free Diablo III beta was as simple as downloading and installing the client before logging into my Battle.Net account. With only an hour to work with I chose a familiar class to get the most bang for my buck: the Demon Hunter (see also: Ranger, Archer, Rogue, etc.). To my genuine surprise the game started right up without a hint of a stuttering framerate, despite my lackluster laptop. I would learn almost immediately, however, that it wasn’t the performance that would let me down, but the game itself…

Diablo III is ugly. Yes, I realize I pulled the graphical settings down pretty hard to prepare for any potential performance drops, but even considering that, it’s still ugly. The graphics themselves aren’t the problem. Rather, it’s the style, and Diablo has none of it. Everything just looks so…blah. Dark and washed out colors paint straightforward character and environment models. Things pick up a bit upon entering the first proper dungeon, but not nearly enough to save the uninspired visuals. While I dislike direct comparisons, Torchlight is at the other (better) side of the spectrum. That entire game bleeds personality, with flashy colors and creative concepts not often seen elsewhere. Diablo III, however, just looks generic. The unadjustable high and fixed camera angle, too, makes the character and enemy models too small for any detail to stand out.

The visuals aren’t the only mediocre  mishaps, either. As a game, the adventuring process itself has been streamlined to the seams. Specific stats and skills are more-or-less chosen for you, essentially demoting the whole leveling up process to a simple statement of “I’m stronger now by this many!” While my subconscious probably knew this from a preview I read months ago, he wisely chose to block the fact out from my active memory. Without the micromanagement, hack-and-slash games lose half of what makes them playable (loot being the other half which, fortunately, is still abundant and addictive). Only being able to equip one weapon set bothers me too, leaving my bowman without a way to quickly switch to a melee weapon if I become surrounded.

It’s been 12 years since Diablo II, and Blizzard has understandably taken note by adding modern genre conventions. Health orbs thankfully reduce the need to fill half of the inventory space with potions. Load times are nonexistent no matter how big the upcoming dungeon on the other side of that cellar door may be. The environment itself is full of destructible objects and amusing animations, from crumbling rooftops to zombies crawling over cliff edges. Despite it all, though, it just isn’t enough.

In the end, Diablo III is missing that special something. There is just nothing revolutionary here, nothing fundamentally game-changing that will redefine or reinvent the genre. Diablo II wasn’t always the most original, but it was the best at what it did. For this sequel, however, that really is no longer the case. Playing the open beta felt like I was only going through the motions, not enjoying myself. I never thought I’d say this, but I couldn’t be less excited for Diablo III to release next month. Instead, why don’t we all keep our eyes on Torchlight 2? At a third of the cost (!), there’s a game I can truly rally behind.

Update #3: Tribes: Ascend

The only shooter I dislike more than a third-person shooter is a first-person shooter. That in mind, I had way more fun with Tribes: Ascend than I ever thought I would. While it isn’t perfect and won’t wrangle any genre avoiders like myself in for the long haul, Tribes is quite a fresh take on the FPS and likely the best “serious” free PC shooter out there.

I was afraid of Tribes from the get-go. Again, it all boils down to my poor PC problems. Frankly, even the character models in the menus looked too pretty. My performance was noticeably taking a dive before I even entered a match, and I didn’t think the visual adjustments were doing much to save me. However, after setting foot upon the battlefield, I rarely noticed a fraction of stuttering or lag despite the high-flying finesse of every character onscreen. Hi-Rez Studios built this thing to be accessible to as many people as possible, and they did fine job at it.

Unlike Super Monday Night Combat, Tribes comes off as much less intimidating to the newcomer (a very ironic first impression, as you’ll come to understand). Brief tutorials are available and narrated to make the player familiar with the game’s mechanics. And it’s these mechanics, I should point out, that make Tribes so intriguing. On the surface, T:A looks like any other post-Halo sci-fi shooter. But with just one addition, everything changes: Jetpacks (yes, I said jetpacks). Tribes veterans won’t be surprised with this rarely-seen bonus, but those new to the franchise that’s lain dormant for the past eight years will find that flying alters the entire ebb and flow of the battlefield.

Tribes is all about maintaining momentum. Activate your jetpack to soar towards an enemy or his precious flag, and initiate “skiing” on downward slopes to eliminate gravity and pick up speed. Do this continuously and you’ve got a landscape of warriors hopping about, constantly shifting from hundreds of feet in the air to sliding across the ground. It’s a sight to see, and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced within a shooter. My problem is I’m not very good at it.

Though not a slight against the game itself by any means, the constant motion of everyone on each team gives Tribes a significant learning curve. Gone are the modern FPS staples of creeping with an assault rifle or camping with a sniper. So much so, in fact, that both of these weapons are essentially worthless. In Tribes, timing for splash damage is key, aiming for the exact spot where your enemy is about to land and firing off an explosive early enough to leave him helpless. All while you’re flying. And being shot at. Dang.

Tribes: Ascend is a great game, and I encourage every first-person shooter fan to give it a try. You can play match after match without even killing anyone or dying, actually, and still have a ball cruising up and down hills and launching high into the air. Ultimately, though, you have to decide whether you’re willing to spend the time necessary to really learn the ropes to keep up with the big boys. I couldn’t take the heat, sure, but if you’re determined to succeed, I guarantee a rock-solid experience unlike anything else out there.

Update #4: Star Wars: The Old Republic

It’s almost six in the morning. Could not leave SWTOR installing as I gamed without sacrificing performance. The “Express Install” requires 25 GB. Never even reached halfway. Oh yeah, and it’s almost six in the morning!

Three out of four’s not bad, eh? Plus, The Old Republic’s been out long enough for you to find a review within a stone’s throw.

Still want my brief opinion? The game’s better than this:

And to all a good night.

 

Written by: Luke Frazier

Gaming industry addict. Twitter fiend. Unabashed lover of Kingdom Hearts. Other favorites include The Legend of Zelda, Portal, Bioshock, Journey, and peanut butter & banana sandwiches. Also, oatmeal. Let's be friends. @LukeAFrazier – Steam/PSN: GodAlliz

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