Thursday, June 23, 2016

Killing Floor 2 Early Access: One Year Later

Killing Floor 2, Tripwire Interactive's cooperative zombie-killing first-person horde-mode shooter, has been in Steam's Early Access for over a year. I've been playing it on and off over the span of the last 14 months, racking up 178 hours of gameplay during that time, usually coming back any time there's a new update, playing for a while, and then eventually losing interest. With the recent release of the "Bullseye Content Pack," which finally introduces the beloved Sharpshooter role from the original Killing Floor, I figured it was time to take another look at KF2 and update you all on where it stands after a year of development, and whether it's worth getting when it inevitably goes on sale this summer.

I wish I could sing praises about how far the game has come since it launched into Early Access, because KF2 is a game I really want to like. The original Killing Floor is the most-played game in my Steam library, and KF2 has a lot of great ideas that would seem to improve upon the successful formula of KF1. And yet, I find myself constantly annoyed by all the decisions Tripwire makes in regards to the game's development. It seems like every time they roll out a new update, it comes with some feature that completely breaks the game, or else makes it significantly less fun to play. With Tripwire's ridiculously slow development process, it then takes months before they get around to fixing things, if they ever address the issue at all. Meanwhile, they can't seem to make up their minds about what they actually want the game to be, which leaves the game feeling like a confused mess that often just isn't very fun to play.

When Tripwire first announced Killing Floor 2 was coming to Steam Early Access, they made a big deal about how this was going to be "Early Access done right," in terms of delivering a thoroughly polished and play-tested product that was basically ready for market, but was just missing a lot of its intended content, which would be complete and ready for official release by the end of 2015. Well, they're now a whole six months past their original release date, and have only just now gotten around to finishing the last of the original roles from KF1, with still two more roles yet to be released. In the meantime, they've seen fit to add Team Fortress 2-style crate drops and micro-transactions for cosmetic items, and even threw out a Left 4 Dead-style player-vs-player game mode, neither of which was part of the original design philosophy people bought into when they signed up for Early Access.

I was a big supporter of Tripwire's cosmetic DLC packs in KF1, mainly because I wanted to support their efforts, but also because they offered players a pretty good value -- four entire character skins for $1.99. With KF2's random crate drops, which give you one of nine or more random items if you're willing to spend $2.49 on a key to unlock them, I planned to ignore them completely because I didn't like the idea of spending money on something without knowing if I would actually like what I got. But after accumulating a few crates I broke down and said "what the hell," bought three keys, and unlocked three crates. I got an ugly pistol skin that was worse than one a friend had already given me, an ugly mask for a character I never intend to play as, and a duplicate copy of the same ugly pistol skin I got off the first crate. So that was $7.47 completely wasted on cosmetics that I was never going to use, and I vowed thereafter that Tripwire would never get another dollar from me buying keys.

As for the player-versus-player game mode, "Versus Survival," I haven't even played it in the two months it's been out because I have absolutely no interest in it. I made a strong effort to get good at Left 4 Dead's PVP mode back in the day, but eventually got sick of the toxic community, with people constantly trash-talking the other side and insulting their own teammates for not being as good at the game as they were. Similarly, I've never been interested in other competitive online shooters (except Tripwire's other game, Red Orchestra 2) for that very reason. The whole appeal of Killing Floor to me was that it's a purely cooperative game where I wouldn't have to put up with those kinds of obnoxious jerks, where people would be more inclined to be nice and helpful towards one another.

Supposedly, the PVP mode was mostly developed in some of the team's spare time, away from the office, but the fact that they spent any official time at all working on it, before finishing the base content, is pretty frustrating. The problem, now that the PVP mode is live and official, is that they have to balance both game modes concurrently -- if something is broken, not balanced very well, or just not that fun in the PVP mode, then they have to spend official time on the clock fixing it, when they could be spending that time working on new perks, new weapons, new maps, other fixes, and so on. And now, when they create new content like that, they have to playtest and balance it for both game modes, which would seem to set back the development cycle even further. Maybe it's not any issue at all, but I just don't see why we needed this game mode when literally no one was asking for it, and hardly anyone is actually playing it now that it's out.

Tripwire's methodology for balancing the game has been really annoying, speaking as someone who's been keeping up with the game's development progress and playing with each and every update. It really seems like they don't have any idea what they're doing, despite their supposed "extensive playtesting." When they realize that something is over-powered, they don't just give it a moderate nerf that they can steadily tweak down as need be, they go all out and nerf the thing into complete and utter uselessness, and then it takes them forever to realize that they didn't actually fix the problem but instead created an entirely new one. Sometimes, if an individual perk or weapon is already pretty weak, they'll accidentally make it weaker by applying a global tweak to the entire game without considering how it affects things individually.

Then you've got things like teleporting enemies, which has been there since day one -- everyone has been vocally against it, and yet Tripwire has insisted on keeping that system in the game. Their goal with the teleporting zeds is to make sure the players are constantly surrounded by enemies and therefore constantly under pressure, so that you can't just run away and let everything follow you at a safe distance. To accomplish this, the game takes enemies that have already spawned and warps them ahead of you to cut off your escape routes, so that every corner you turn, you're running head-first into another glob of enemies. That, frankly, is bullshit, and I can't believe they've left it in the game this long. I understand that desire to keep constant pressure on the players, but it's completely game-breaking for the enemies to magically disregard the laws of physics just to screw over the players at every opportunity. It's not fair, it's unpredictable, and it breaks immersion.

A bloat teleports into the player's path the moment he turns his back (Source).

Another feature Tripwire added to the game, in effect to screw with players even further just for the sake of "balance" -- every zed that hits you now knocks you back about three feet. They did this so that berserkers couldn't just hole up in a narrow doorway and completely block zeds from getting past him, but it has the annoying effect of making all players, even when you're not abusing that particular technique, feel like pinballs getting bounced around all the time. Killing Floor is a game of precision, lining up headshots quickly and efficiently, and timing everything just right; the difference between taking down a big enemy safely versus getting your face ground to a pulp can be just a matter of seconds, and it's so goddamn frustrating having a tiny little crawler defy the laws of physics to knock you three feet out of position just as you were about to fire on a priority target.

Perhaps the biggest insult to injury in this whole development cycle is the "resistance system" they put into effect with the recent sharpshooter update, which makes all enemies arbitrarily and illogically resistant to specific types of damage. Assault rifles would do full damage against crawlers, clots, and stalkers, but do about 20-30% of their normal damage against gorefasts, bloats, sirens, husks, slashers, and alpha clots. Stalkers and crawlers were arbitrarily resistant to shotguns, in the case of the stalkers making a shotgun do about 10-20% of its normal damage. The whole system is broken for two reasons: one, there's absolutely no logic behind why a particular enemy would be 80% resistant to assault rifles, but take full damage from sub-machine guns, and two, because it turned all of the "trash" zeds -- the ones that are easy to kill, but overwhelm you in numbers -- into legitimate bullet sponges, which went directly against Tripwire's original design philosophy of explicitly not making enemies bullet sponges.

This whole time, we've had to go an entire year without perhaps the most iconic, quintessential perk of the original game, the sharpshooter -- the role who specializes in precision rifles and doing high headshot-damage. Until this point, I'd been commenting on how annoying the gameplay was by not having a role that could specialize in taking down the big targets (we had the demolitions expert, but it took nearly a whole year of tweaks before he became decent), because it made the big zeds an utter pain in the ass to take care of. And now that the sharpshooter is out, I feel like all the big zeds die so quickly that they're barely a threat, while all the trash -- the stuff that's supposed to wear you down while spacing out the big threats -- pose the real threat to the team. Clearly there's still a lot of balancing that needs to be done before the game strikes a good chord.

There's a lot of other stuff I could complain about, but it's all highly specific, almost nit-picky stuff. The bottom line is that Killing Floor 2, in its current state, and as it has been for virtually the entirety of these past 14 months, just isn't that fun. When it was released in April 2015, it felt like it the had the bare bones of a good game that just needed more content and a little more polish. Yet, over time, they've been slow to release new content, and have pushed out several balance updates that have altered the gameplay for the worse, ultimately. Everything is just a tedious, chaotic mess with enemies hitting you from all directions, all the time, because they're teleporting ahead of you and spawning right on top of you, and you're always getting bounced around like a pinball while being unable to line up headshots due to the zeds' already crazy-erratic movements, with stuff constantly in your face all the time, shaking the screen and just making life miserable in general.

The good news, here, is that Tripwire may finally be listening to reason, and may finally be treating the Early Access platform like it was intended to be used -- to listen to community feedback and develop the game based around what the community likes and doesn't like. With the most recent update, they've scaled way back on the zed resistances, reverting them almost to what they were before the resistance system was implemented, and have also mentioned that they're looking into ways to change the zed teleportation system. These are positive signs, but they've burned so many bridges along the way that I'm not sure it's enough to win over enough of the playerbase who has turned their backs on the game. Because, even with these changes, Killing Floor 2 is still a long way out from reaching its potential, or even resembling a finished product. 


  1. Enjoyed reading your reviews as always.
    I was wondering what video games or board games are you going to review next time?

  2. Enjoyed reading your reviews as always.
    I was wondering what video games or board games are you going to review next time?

    1. I'm playing The Witcher 3 at the moment, but who knows when I'll be able to get a review out. It's a long game and I'm making very slow progress through it.