Saturday, March 29, 2014

Dark Souls II Online Experiences

So a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to utilize a different connection for a few days and took advantage; and banked around 50-60 hours of online experiences into that small timeframe; this is virtually the same amount of time that I spent engaging in the online features of the first game prior to reviewing it so it seems fine; and of course it was at launch.

I wanted to get the perceived online trophies out of the way (there are tedious ways of doing these offline I’ve discovered since then, but online was much smoother) so I immediately made a character intent on being a Sunbro early on. This is actually more difficult than it sounds as getting to the Sunlight Altar is not a meager feat in this game and most people don’t get there until they’re around halfway through the first part of the game.

The first thing to notice about the online is that WOW summoning works fast, like being summoned was this irritating chore in Dark Souls and it takes seconds now. Put down sign, boom “you are being summoned” message within 5-30 seconds. This allowed me to actually do more white/gold phantoming than I believe I’ve ever done in Dark Souls. My fellow White Phantoms (and they were exclusively white phantoms until later) would also die with alarming regularity; again pointing to the loftier challenge of the early areas of the game. As you gain souls your Soul History goes up so regardless of whether you actually spend those souls on SL you’ll still eventually have to move on; this led me to look for the first “bottleneck” area.

The Last Giant is actually pretty tough in Co-op though I’ve never had any trouble in singleplayer; his AI is much more likely to be in a position to attack at all times and he does have the ability to one shot some classes; over around 15-20 fights the host died perhaps 6 or 7 times which was enough to deter me from focusing on farming Sunlight medals here. Pursuer is much easier in co-op thanks to the ballista capable of 1-2 shotting the boss, but one of the more amusing experiences happened here as well; whomever it is that is tanking the boss is also vulnerable to the bolts being fired and I swiftly killed the Pursuer and then the host in rapid succession in one of the first of these rumbles. This was naturally hilarious (unintentional) and is exactly the kind of stupidity I look for in Souls games online.

On my way to the Sunlight Covenant I had to rush through the Huntsman’s Copse early on still with mostly starting gear; much more difficult than my first, much more powerful character’s run through this area. Still it is doable and knowing how the boss worked enabled me to do that without too much trouble as well (though it did take like 120 sorcery casts). Given the time to digest it the Skeleton Lords actually have a pretty sweet musical track; and in general the game seems to have great boss music.

Now in the Sunlight Covenant I returned to the first few areas but was only summoned with frequency in Heide’s Tower of Flame; and while this area might seem pretty easy that didn’t stop people from dying. The esteemed Dragonrider, perhaps the easiest boss in the game, managed to dispatch a host in about 5 seconds; the host not having pulled the levers to make the boss arena safer. After returning from this wonderful experience I was immediately attacked by the Old Knight I was fighting just prior to the summoning, and lo and behold he had the exact same amount of life remaining.

Another thing that makes being summoned quite swift is that the summoners actually outnumber the summoned, at least for the time being. While it can occasionally be frustrating trying to summon people yourself (“Summon sign was already used”) the sheer wonderment of plopping that golden sign down and literally within 3 seconds being summoned is amazing. While it might not take particularly long to get summoned as a white phantom being summoned as a gold phantom is still undoubtedly faster; and I eventually made my way to No Man’s Wharf.

The Wharf is a fairly labyrinthine zone; another I did with a powerful character to start with which was quite a bit more troublesome on my frail sorcerer. I began by doing summon runs from the first bonfire which was never particularly effective; as the host would frequently die or get lost on the way to the “summon ship” lever. It didn’t help that I failed to stand conspicuously by the lever on more than one occasion and immediately rolled off the edge. I really don’t like how easy it is to miss that lever.

After a while I realized I could just put my sign at the edge of the Wharf and then in about an hour and 15 minutes I managed to accumulate the 30 sunlight medals necessary for Sunlight Spear; I also picked up the Sun Sword and started using it for the wondrous B/B (eventually A/A) Str/Dex scaling; which is still vastly inferior to various traditional 2 handed weapons.  In around 30 attempts the Flexile Sentry failed to kill a single host. It might seem cold but if someone summons you at the end of the pier and the ship isn’t there you can just black separation crystal if they don’t seem to be particularly intent on following you to that evil lever. No Man’s Wharf is of a sufficient difficulty to advance 200-250K Soul Memory prior to losing the chance at being summoned and the boss is the least lethal out of the early game; thus this is the most efficient way to get Sunlight Spear; though people are now doing it at higher levels as well.

I now moved on to the PvP portion of the wondrous spell gathering experience, I had to get the much (not at all) desired “Hidden Weapon” spell from the Bellkeepers Covenant; which again was fairly fast and efficient on the summoning front. The benefits of having an absurd number of Titanite Chunks from this covenant are myriad, but for starters I was able to upgrade the Sun Sword all the way to +10 fairly early on (still inferior to a +5 large weapon).

Prior to this I had experimented with the Bellkeepers in the Belfry Sol on the first character, but there just weren’t all that many people at that high of an SL and those that were were relatively competent at the game (though I still performed quite well in the proceedings, thanks in large part to my excellent weapons). But in the Belfry Luna there were an endless stream of grey invasion opportunities; and in the rare event that there was an interlude I could always invade the Belfry myself and get invaded instantly; because being a Bellkeeper does not prevent you from fighting Bellkeepers. Although most of the players I fought here were of middling skill the best overall player I fought was in the Belfries; he successfully dodged every single ranged attack I threw at him and I just barely won (I believe he had a Bastard Sword?) in melee range; no extensive backstab fishing period. This doesn’t quite trump my previous best experience of just barely dying to a guy next to a bridge at the Kiln of the First Flame, but it was definitely interesting.

On that point backstabbing is no longer a guarantee most of the time, while there will still be glorious lagstabs a lot of the time you can just roll out of the way of the initial animation. This leads to more shield turtling but From introduced a new mechanic of “pushing” the shield out of the way to set up a weaker critical hit to deal with this. Overall a melee on melee match is mildly more interesting than it was in Dark Souls. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for late-game spellcasting.

Spells are just too powerful right now, in PvE and PvP; the most glaringly overpowered spells are hexes but pyromancy isn’t that far behind and sorcery/certain miracles are also quite daunting to deal with. It is possible to roll dodge through almost everything but if you have the slightest bit of lag the dodge may just not record and essentially being hit twice is death. Yes backstabs are mostly a one shot with good builds but now that they’re no longer a guarantee they aren’t really that beneficial. I still won most of my encounters with spellcasters but it never felt like a loss was particularly skillful on the other player’s part. There was one guy who had a whip and was reasonably entertaining, but ultimately even that fight had a fairly unsatisfying conclusion.

In general the PvP experiences I’ve had have been almost entirely underwhelming; not because of the game mind but simply because of the boring approaches most players choose and the lack of any particularly impressive skill save for the aforementioned 2 rare situations. It could be I’m just better at PvP so I know what things to do in what situations and most of the time that leads to victory, but I would just like to see more creativity.

I get the feeling that NG+ is probably where you’ll be able to find the 5% or so of the playerbase that actually deals in inventive builds; and in Dark Souls 2 a whole shitload of builds are extremely viable. I’m not going to be able to engage in NG+ PvP for at least a few months and will probably never have a particularly clear picture on that front, and I also won’t be able to participate in the eventual “balanced” PvP; there’s no fog ring to make you passionately hate the playerbase or anything, it’s simply not a very interesting set of people to fight (note this is almost universally the same experience in other multiplayer games). Basically the overarching issue is the same as people playing PvE, everything is guide/online build driven and very little is driven by personal creativity or inspiration; and that’s just modern multiplayer games in a nutshell. As always my sample size is not overly enormous here so it could have just been my experience.

My second large batch of PvP was on the bridge in the Iron Keep, a fairly boring arena compared to the Belfry Sol and Belfry Luna (the Belfry Sol being the best designed PvP arena in the series); but it was the fastest place to find Dragon Eye signs given the proximity of the covenant. In a little under an hour and a half I managed to win 30 of said duels, winning 15 in a row; losing 10 in a row, and then winning another 15 with 1 loss. This wasn’t quite as successful as my Belfry experiences, but it didn’t take particularly long and I wasn’t using an uber powerful build or anything. For whatever reason backstabs have a huge damage range so sometimes the ol Malformed Skull did 1800 damage and other times it did 1300 damage with no clear reason why (regular strikes doing relatively similar damage throughout); could be the critical hit rings just reduce damage by a % and don’t negate them entirely. With this not so arduous task done I now had some of the best looking armor in the game, instead of looking incredibly stupid the Dragon Covenant actually looks pretty sweet/is pretty viable this time around. I guess some amount of stupid humor is lost so people are complaining about that as well.

After this I embarked on my final grand expedition to get the AI based achievements, escorting some of the worst summons in the game through some of the most difficult bosses in the series. This is actually surprisingly doable with an extremely overpowered hex build but I figured it would be more interesting/legit to do it with the meager Sun Sword+10 and actually engage in some Jolly Co-operation in the process; learning a fair amount more about people’s general experiences with various situations in the game.
The more difficult of these two was Lucatiel’s set; having to fight the much esteemed Smelter and keep Lucatiel alive throughout; as well as the Lost Sinner. For both of these fights her presence functioned as something like a 50 second enrage timer.  For Sinner I did some summons, looking for another competent player to message for my own summon on the boss; it took around 10 tries to find someone with an apparent amount of competence; the host dying about 6 of those times.  But, the process of messaging and setting up the summon was extremely smooth and intuitive; unlike console Dark Souls you can now basically just play the game with friends provided you hide your sign well enough. The guy I wound up playing with was very courteous and understanding and even seemed to have a good grasp on the English language, an extreme rarity in any console online endeavor. This is a huge improvement and server-wise Dark Souls II seems to be just as competent as Demon’s Souls; only there are so many people playing as to make it even more efficient; this is one of the major reasons why Demon’s Souls aficionados are embracing the newest game despite their various misgivings with the predecessor. We were perhaps a bit fortunate and managed to beat the Lost Sinner whilst keeping Lucatiel alive on the very first try; both of us using moderately powerful melee builds.

And now on to the meat of this troublesome experience, the beloved Smelter Demon. It took quite some time but I eventually found another compatriot, this one of the standard 4th grade English level variety. But this guy too seemed to be competent and understanding and we gave it our all, and Lucatiel died 15 times or so.  Yes, my time with Smelter would be a much more exhaustive experience. Smelter is just a monster, he attacks swiftly but at such a different specific rhythm compared to almost any other boss in the series; just enough to fuck with you completely. Yes, yes Smelter is optional so you could just come back at SL 170 or whatever and it’s not too bad at that point with a Great Resonant Soul spammer or two; but trying to do this vaguely legit with an average build will take you a lot of pain. I’m actually quite confident in my ability against Smelter now, only took around 30 summons to get every dodge down perfectly; of course that doesn’t necessarily stop the host from dying. If Gwyn is the beast of fast bosses (assuming you don’t parry) then Smelter is the beast of slower, larger bosses; and he’s just an all-around fearsome opponent.

It was an interesting experiment doing around 80 fights with Smelter as the summoned or as the summoner, by the end I was good enough at the boss to not die with any regularity but the same could not be said for the various hosts and Lucatiel; luckily the  summon range for Smelter is literally over 1.5 million Soul History wide and you get 10-12k souls just going from the bridge bonfire to the boss door (and another 10k from Smelter should you manage to beat him); this is definitely the place to be if you want to leech souls for lack of a better term from other worlds, because as always there’s a nominally limited efficient amount in your own. Eventually you’ll be out of range and have to move on to Dragon Shrine, but until then you should gain a newfound respect for the awe-inspiring powers of smelter (again, assuming you’re using a moderately powerful but not blatantly overpowered build). Eventually Smelter died out of pity on like the 4th or 5th attempt where Lucatiel and he were around 10% in unison, finally he decided to not do the boom attack at this vital juncture.

It should go without saying but the Flexile Sentry with Lucatiel is a joke, as it always is being one of the two completely trivial bosses. So I moved on to fight the Rotten; who while if you fight it early enough can be quite tough with a solitary character, isn’t too bad once you know his patterns and is quite easy to just wail on if he has another target.  Provided Lucatiel doesn’t walk into the lava this part isn’t too bad. For all of this effort you get a trophy, one line of dialog, and a set of armor/very interesting weapon; however if you just kill Lucatiel earlier you can get the weapon near the start of the game for 10k souls and the armor if you want it for another 30k. The dialog difference is minimal in the case of failing her quest.

I moved on to doing Benhart, who had a solitary difficult boss to fight and a few dicey ones aside from that. Giant Lord, Mirror Knight, and the Throne Watcher/Defender were the main obstacles here. Benhart also has a fairly easy (though not entirely trivial) boss in the Congregation; which shouldn’t pose too much of a threat. For Giant Lord basically you have to kill him in a short time period before Benhart dies, how fast Benhart dies is totally random so could be 30 seconds could be 2 minutes; I managed this one on the first try with the friendly neighborhood Malformed Skull lending a hand. Looking Glass Knight is pretty tough with a weaker 1 handed build but not a huge deal with a powerful 2 hander/spells and he went down relatively easily as well. For Throne Watcher/Defender it’s going to be random because that’s just how that fight is; if they don’t aggressively murder Benhart and you’re able to pump out a decent amount of damage it isn’t too bad, if they do then you’re going to get screwed; could see it taking a fair number of tries with a non-overpowered build. Benhart also helps with Nashandra and that conflict isn’t too harsh if you’re smart about it, but usually Benhart will die before you can kill the boss; not entirely sure which boss fight counts and which doesn’t but that isn’t how I wound up getting the trophy. For Benhart the reward is similar to Lucatiel, a trophy, some otherwise acquirable gear, and a single line of dialogue.

Having finished all of the online contingent rewards I moved on to another 20 odd hours of random online experiences. I spent some time in the Rat Covenant but didn’t really want to level a guy to the ideal SL (and thus was only able to summon a few grey phantoms) so I don’t have a clear picture of how that would go on the whole; I imagine it’s simply an easier way to be victorious than the Bell Covenant and a nice source of Pharos Lockstones. Doors of the Pharos seems like a much more ideal area to fight than the Grave of Saints, but you could probably have a fairly deadly dungeon in either case.

The next main thing I had to do was do some Dragon Shrine co-op; because I’m just fascinated by these absurdly powerful enemies. I’ve yet to actually agro the Ancient Dragon in my own games but I do know how the pattern works and I’m sure I could do it, I simply have respect for the boss at this point and since there’s essentially no reason to do it I’ve decided for the time being “we cool” more or less. Dragon Shrine nets you about 25000 souls with soul boosting equipment on the way to the boss door; you’ll get invaded and usually the invader will fail but the enemies will probably succeed around 30-40% of the time before they even get to El Dragon Grande.

Having done it a few times I think running around Dragon Shrine with no shield is a ton of fun, you learn how to dodge very precise attacks and how to approach some extremely daunting enemies in numbers. Yes you’ll still die, most assuredly, but it seems yet another future run to have where I make a full Drakekeeper/2h mace/no shield set and go mano-a-mano or mano-a-2 mano with the Mace Drakekeeper in NG+7 (spoilers: he’ll probably win a few times). The boss however is uh, not fun. Now, conceptually a gigantic fuck-off dragon would probably swat a few humans in a second or so and instantly win the fight every time; and that’s kind of what he does. Even if the phantoms/host know the pattern there’s a lot of times where with multiple players his AI is totally unpredictable and if you’re even in the vague vicinity of the wrong spot you’re just dead. Sure there’s plenty of ways to go about cheesing the AI in this fight but taken on the whole it’s just a massive “why would you do something so stupid dumb fuck” message to the player. Yes, yes the internet will inevitably make this a farmed boss fight but in the general context of a mythical knowledge-less utopia where people choose to rely on themselves this boss is actually pretty damn legit. But, that’s not the case so like many things in Dark Souls and online experiences in general these days it’s just people saying stupid shit because they learned XYZ thing from someone else who learned it from someone else who learned it from the guide who maybe learned it from the development team.

For the record I don’t think the Ancient Dragon is an interesting boss but it does make a lot of storyline sense. I think if he just killed you instantly and there was literally no recourse it might actually be better. As it is it’s just kind of a tedious slog where you hope he doesn’t do something unpredictable. They definitely could have made him Smelter/Guildenstern levels of hard instead of just “recognize the pattern and succeed, fail pattern and die instantly” and that would have been way better. I will probably eventually fight it just for review purposes and likely beat it on the first try because I know what to do; but for the most part he’s kind of just a big ass dude chilling on his big ass platform minding his own business (dictating the future of the world), what’s wrong with that you savages.

Online Stats:

Active PvP: 110-25
Smelter W/L – 60-20
Ancient Dragon W/L – 40-0
Souls sucked from other realms – 2.5 million

Note: If you really don’t like the idea of doing PvP for the Bellkeepers for whatever strange reason about 1/5th of all invasions will be successful without you lifting a finger, so simply afking next to the Servant's Quarters bonfire for 10-12 hours will probably get you 30 titanite chunks.

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