December 7th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Neocron 2.1: De-Evolution

Last Thursday morning, the folks at Reakktor rolled out their "long awaited" free upgrade to Neocron 2: Beyond the Dome of York, called Neocron 2.1: Evolution. You can download it for "free" and take a "free" 10 day trial run. (NCsoft has more class. When they do a free trial, they don't make you jump through the hoops to first set up a monthly opt-out fee account through the worst-customer-service payment processor in the history of the computer industry.) And to celebrate, if you already had an expired or lapsed Neocron 2 account, you can log back in and play for free through the 14th; your two-week free trial began on the 1st.

I've held off for most of a week on commenting on this, even though it meant running the risk that some of you would miss it altogether, because I've been waiting for them to actually release the bloody patch notes to document exactly what changed between Neocron 2 (patch 147) and Neocron 2.1 (patches 148-150). That was six days ago. The patch notes are still not out. This, as much as anything else that I'm going to write, should explain why I have no enthusiasm at all over an upgrade to a game I once loved. They're so cash-strapped, under-funded, and under-manned that they can't even managed a simple set of patch notes. They're so cash-strapped, under-funded, and under-manned that it took them since last April to deliver these tiny changes. Worse, the changes take all the things that I hated about Neocron 2 and make each of them worse. Nor did they fix anything that I actually cared about.

The change that they're hyping the most is that they gave the rest of the game a graphics upgrade to catch up with the work they did on the new sectors for Neocron 2, like richer, higher-resolution textures. This includes all new 3-D models for the guns, which was supposed to be a big selling point. However, for many of those weapons, the new models, while prettier and more complex than the old ones, look painfully stupid. More than half of them no longer look anything like a weapon by that name with that ammunition. For example, assault rifles and SMGs used to be boxy and a little flat, but at least they looked like assault rifles and SMGs. Now the assault rifle looks like some kind of weird sex toy with a folding stock, and the SMG looks like ... an assault rifle. The new graphics included re-doing all of the outdoor maps, adding more detail and more vegetation. But they clearly did it in a hurry, as the previously subtle gradations from one eco-system to another no longer exist. You're cruising along in your vehicle and now, one second you're in sandy desert, the next second you're in dense woods. Makes no sense. Also, in the interest of making things "more fair," they took out two graphics settings. For those of us on anything other than this year's graphics card, it used to be possible to turn off the client-side vegetation, areas of waving grass and swamp foliage and such. Yes, the maps look better this way. Yes, having it off meant that the people who had it turned off could hunt things through the (now invisible) tall grass more easily. But to be "more fair" to the people who were seeing the game with its full graphics settings, they made it less fair to the people who don't spend a couple of thousand a year upgrading their systems. And while they were at it, to punish the people who were using high "gamma" settings to see in the dark, they took the gamma setting out altogether. Your monitor and graphics card's default settings interact badly with the game, and make everything muddy and dark? Tough.

But so far, the thing I hate the most is what they've done with the PvP. The simplest summary is that it used to be, yellow meant "pale green." Now it means "pale red." Back in Neocron 1, people used to complain about how hard it was to put together a team when loyalties were so convoluted that any random 3 people from the same "side" probably had two of them who were supposed to kill each other. So in Neocron 2, by creating this inter-city war between Neocron City and the Dome of York, they created tentative sides and made it very punitively illegal to kill allies or neutrals except in designated warzones. Now, in Neocron 2.1, in most zones the penalty for killing neutrals is a mere slap on the wrist. Do it more than a couple of dozen times a day and you're in trouble, young man. And you know what? I don't know of anybody who was complaining that they were getting shot in the back, without warning or provocation, under the watchful eye of the cops who do nothing about it, in their own home city, by their neighbors, too seldom. Other than a tiny handful of bored griefers, so far as I know, everybody hated ally ganking. So how did Reakktor address the issue of ally ganking? By eliminating allies. Gah.

They market this game on the strength of its PvP, because of its hybrid first-person-shooter/stat-based combat system. But they managed to make that part of it even worse, too. They had already screwed up the game balance so badly that there is an obvious winning two-character combination that can beat anything in the game, NPC or player, including any size group up to three times their size. Did they fix that? No, they made it worse -- they increased reloading time between clips of ammo for everybody else but them. I'd hate that just a little less, and go along with the people who say, "So play that class, dimwit," if it weren't for the fact that the two classes in question are the ones that I thought, even on day one of Neocron 1, had no business being in the game at all: the magic users. Because, you know, every cyberpunk game needs magic users, right? Not for nothing do even its fans call this game "Monk-ocron." But wait, there's more. One of the biggest problems this game always had was griefing of low level characters by higher level ones. To which the designers replied, "that's why we gave you the Law Enforcement chip." Don't want to PvP, aren't ready to, don't take your chip out. So what did they do in NC2.1? Created whole classes of weapons that are so powerful they practically one-shot kill anybody who doesn't have one ... that you can only obtain if you have hundreds of hours to grind away at getting them. Once you have one of those "Wisdom of Ceres" weapons, anybody who actually, you know, has a life, who does anything for a living other than play Neocron, might as well not take their LE chips out, had better skip PvP altogether ... because the second someone with WOC walks in, they're rapidly cooling meat.

And of course, just as Disney famously had a sign in the story-board room for both Aladdin and Pocahontas that said, "When in doubt, hurt the bird," the one at Reakktor must say, "When in doubt, hurt the Tsunami Syndicate." My faction in-game were already badly screwed over. Did they fix any of the areas in which they were screwing us over? No, and then they added a couple more. To eliminate any chance that we might be having fun, they took the strippers out of our faction headquarters again. To make sure that nobody we recruit stays, they kept us the only faction whose faction supply managers don't sell anything. And since giving us two allies and an enemy who have to kill us to win their faction's respect wasn't getting enough of us griefed, they made sure that for us to go anywhere within our town, unlike any other faction in the game except for the Black Dragons, we have to pass through a zone where neutrals are encouraged to kill each other. And on the off chance that, despite all of those disadvantages, we might through sheer coolness and force of will manage to raise an army to try to hold our beloved Pepper Park neighborhood, for even an hour or two at a time? They made that part of Pepper Park an area that encourages neutrals to kill each other, too, so that even our supposed near-allies from the Dome of York hunt us there, too. Kissed? We didn't even get a reach-around.

It's been seven months since I quit the second time. In that whole time, did they fix the broken pawn broker NPC in Tsunami sector? No. The broken faction supply manager NPC for the Tsunami? No. Fix rubber-banding in ground vehicles? No. Fix the random aircraft crashes? Not so as I've heard. Fix the weird "synchronizing" bugs when logging in or crossing zones? Nope; happened to me already once out of three attempts to log on. Those strange drone-launching problems? No, and they created a whole new one (the best all-around drone no longer fires). Did they make it possible to survive wearing anything other than the same suit of armor that everybody in your class wears, so everybody looks alike? No. Fix the clothing vendor so you can change colors on clothes or armor, so that people don't all look alike? No. Redesign the end-game dungeon to be anything other than a pain in the neck for everybody but exploiters and griefers? No. Fix HackNet so that you can do anything useful in it, so that the half of the combat software that doesn't work properly worked as intended, or make any changes to HackNet to make it less boring for PvE and less stupid for PvP? Not so much, but despite all the broken maps and broken weapons, they did create a new, almost unkillable boss mob that only (the mostly non-existing, because nobody could stand the boredom of getting there) large groups of fully-capped HackNet combat specialists can even think of tackling -- how exciting.

Did they fix anything that I cared about? If so, I couldn't find anything. It would presumably say in the patch notes -- which still aren't out. Now, maybe there's something in those patch notes that we haven't seen yet that I would think was cool. But I'm increasingly confident that there isn't, and even if there is, they've screwed this game up so much that I can't see giving them any money. Heck, even this week when it's been free I haven't been able to talk myself into playing for more than an hour or two. So despite my occasional bouts of nostalgia for Neocron 1, and the fact that I managed to have some small measure of fun in Neocron 2, I can't muster any enthusiasm to recommend that you try Neocron 2.1. Yes, they gave it pretty new graphics. But it's like putting lipstick on a pig at this point. (And frankly, with Neocron being more and more "Monk-ocron" every day, at this point City of Heroes/City of Villains is a more cyberpunk game than the "official" cyberpunk game Neocron is. There should ever be anything in Neocron that feels as cyberpunk as the Sky Raiders or the Freakshow.)