Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Have at you Sir! - Being Bad in Dark Souls

Dark Souls pt. 3

So, are we all feeling nice and warm inside?  People are lovely aren’t they?  Giving up their time and their skills just for the satisfaction of helping strangers confront insurmountable odds.  The internet is truly a wondrous place, flowing with the milk of human kindness.  The birds are singing in the trees, the sun is shining, you’re probably whistling a happy tune.
Until some bastard comes along and ruins it all.
There you are, manfully (or womanfully) hacking your way through a horde of enemies, when you get the message that somebody has invaded your world.  Up pops a (usually red) figure, who then proceeds to introduce you to the pointy end of their sword.  There is often little you can do about this.  Welcome to the world of player vs. player in Dark Souls.
This is an area of the game that is fundamentally flawed, but can also provide some of its greatest moments – because you’re suddenly dealing with another, unpredictable, human being. 
So much of Dark Souls is spent learning attack patterns, where enemies are, where traps are that you get into an unconscious rhythm.  The normal enemies you face are predictable.  The hollow at the top of the stairs from Firelink Shrine will always try to throw a firebomb at you, and his mate with the axe will always attack as you get to the top.  A large proportion of your time is spent learning patterns like this, and a lot of your skill is being able to respond to them and overcome them.  The game trains you to perform the specific series of actions needed to progress and you become conditioned to that, because you do it over and over again.
So when there’s suddenly some red dude in strange armour, with a weapon you don’t recognise and who is definitely not following any attack pattern it can be um... alarming.  Especially as most of the time, in a straight fight, the red guy will win because, if you’re going to go around invading other player’s worlds, you want to stack the odds as much as you can in your favour (and more on this later.)  It can be properly scary to be invaded.  You have a new enemy to fight, and they don’t fit in with your carefully rehearsed little dance.  They provide you with a genuine test of skill and a different type of challenge to the normal single-player game.
There are lots of ways to enter into a player vs player fight.  You can put down a symbol, similar to a summon symbol, that other players can see and use if they fancy a fight, you can use specific items to invade or you can join a covenant – a number of which use fighting other players as a means of progress.  This can vary from the Blademoons (who invade the worlds of people who have sinned) to the Darkwraiths (who just invade anybody.)  The Forest Hunters covenant attack humans near the Tomb of Artorias, while followers of the Way of the Dragon duel others for more dragon scales.  They are all there, essentially, as ways of initiating PvP combat.
And, unfortunately, this leads us to our first flaw in the system.  There are some areas in the game which are set up for fighting.  If you go into the Dark Forest past the gate, and you are in human form (i.e. not hollowed) then you can expect to be attacked by some hunters pretty quickly.  Similarly, if you have a dark Anor Londo then you can expect constant attacks from Blademoons.  However, this predictability means that you can set ambushes.  You can avoid triggering the invasions (just don’t be human in the forest) if you don’t want them, and you can ensure that the environment is as hostile as possible if you do.  Summon some friends, make sure you’re high level and wearing the best equipment – and then any invaders are going to have a hard time fighting one against three fully decked out supermen.  This has made it an exercise in futility to be a Forest Hunter or a Blademoon unless you are very high level, fancy a challenging fight or get very lucky.  9 times out of 10 you will die in pretty short order.
The other flaw with the system (and I’m ignoring the actual fighting because it is prey to the usual problem of people saying that anything that beats them is “overpowered”) is that the only restriction is your relative levels.  You can only invade a player who is a higher level than you.  That sounds sensible right?  It stops unfair fights.  Unfortunately, in this game, your equipment plays as large a role in determining your ability as your level, if not more.  What’s worse is that there are numerous ways of getting very good equipment without having to be a high level yourself.  This has meant that there are a lot of (pretty sad) people out there who have collected end game weapons and armour and then use them to invade starter characters.  I would imagine they say this is “for the lulz.”  I imagine that is how they speak.
I should make it clear that I have no problem with invaders.  As said above it can lead to some of the greatest moments in the game.  Fighting another human character can be exciting, scary and lots of other really good emotional things.  What seems baffling is why somebody would go to all that trouble purely to make a hard game even harder for complete beginners.  This game is tough, especially at the start, and the last thing a new player needs is for some completely over-powered shitehawk to turn up and attempt to fill the yawning, howling chasm at the very centre of their being by engaging in the virtual equivalent of kicking a puppy.  A cute puppy.  With really big eyes. 
However, even despite these flaws fighting other players can be a lot of fun.  It can be infuriating, frustrating and exhilarating but it is always important to remember one thing.  You have already died hundreds of times.  What’s once more between friends?

Next:  Why (whisper it) Dark Souls isn’t actually that difficult.

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