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From Helldivers 2 to Last Epoch, 2024 is already the year of server issues

2024 has already been a wild time for big game launches, which has seen me bouncing between them at a dizzying rate. Palworld, Enshrouded, Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, Helldivers 2, Skull and Bones, Nightingale, Last Epoch and countless more have been demanding attention, some more deserving than others. One of the things they have in common is that they’re predominantly multiplayer affairs, most of them online-only. So as well as playing a heck of a lot of games so far this year, I’ve also spent an inordinate amount of time stuck in queues and grumbling about server issues.

Helldivers 2 has been the main culprit, at least for me, and that’s largely because it’s 2024’s best game, so I’ve been playing it a lot. Or at least trying to. If I could, I’d be playing it all the time. But that, lamentably, has been pretty hard to do, not just because of this year’s myriad distractions, but because it’s been overloaded with players and, as a result, pretty buggy.

These issues arose straight away, when nobody on PC or PS5 could use the matchmaking system. More than a wee problem for a game that’s fundamentally squad-based. While the initial issues were resolved, the explosive popularity of Arrowhead’s shooter put so much strain on the servers that things got worse, and by the second weekend trying to find a match was nearly impossible unless you were teaming up with friends directly. Matchmaking wasn’t the only issue. To create a buffer, Arrowhead capped the servers at 450,000 players. Before that, more than 400,000 players were in-game on PC alone. Queues, then, were inevitable.

Arrowhead has been incredibly responsive to these problems, it must be said, but even now it’s still very much a work-in-progress, and Sony has had to come in and provide assistance as well. It’s just too damn successful for its own good, and Arrowhead was entirely unprepared for the vast horde of Helldivers eager to stomp on bugs and blow up robots. Even now, with a new player cap of 700,000, Arrowhead still expects queues.

Problems arising from unexpected success are less likely when online games run stress tests and betas to gauge interest and better prepare for launch day, but as Last Epoch‘s launch has shown, even then smooth sailing is not guaranteed. Eleventh Hour Game’s ARPG has been in early access since 2019, but despite this the launch has been a bit messy.

Waiting game

Jumping in last night, I was stuck in a loading screen for five minutes as the game tried to connect, and my trials and tribulations did not cease once I finally managed to get in. Every time I tried to enter a new location, I’d find myself stuck waiting. And waiting. And waiting. After completing a quest I attempted to portal back to town, but the server wouldn’t let me. I logged out to grab some food. Upon returning, I simply wasn’t able to get back in. No loading screens, just a notification that the servers were down. Another attempt later saw me stuck in an infinite connection screen.

Last Epoch does have an offline mode, but you have to make a separate character, so you can’t bring your online hero into your offline game. Starting again doesn’t really feel like a reasonable solution.

In the face of this rough launch, Judd Cobler, Last Epoch’s game director, admitted his optimistic launch expectations “aged like milk”. 20 minutes into launch, 150,000 players flooded the servers. “This did mean that all of our scale testing efforts were immediately put to the test,” he said, “and unfortunately a service failed in a way that we didn’t suspect, and we immediately went to work to investigate and resolve it.” This work is ongoing.

Earlier this week early access survival game Nightingale suffered a similar fate. While it can be played in its entirety solo, it still has an online requirement. Some players have complained about high ping due to their distance from the nearest servers, while others have reported being stuck waiting to get in. I’ve managed to avoid the worst issues, it seems, but even so I’ve noticed some stuttering and lag, which is especially annoying when I’m playing on my own.

Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League‘s launch also really emphasised the need for a lot of these online games to have an offline option. While one is coming in this case, future plans were of no use to the players who jumped in during the early access period only to find the servers had been taken offline entirely to fix a single bug. Since then, players have faced login and server problems, which were not resolved in the latest patch. Rocksteady says fixing these issues is a “top priority”, but that it’s “not an easy nut to crack because it’s not one single issue”.

The biggest game of the moment, Palworld, hasn’t been able to entirely sidestep server issues either. Last month, the deployment of a patch caused some difficulties for players attempting to hop back into the survival crafting romp, though in comparison to other online games that have launched this year it’s managed to avoid the worst pitfalls. Even now, though, issues are being reported of players being unable to connect to official servers “due to cheating and the influence of fraudulent activities”. It does, at least, offer an offline mode.

Plain sailing

Skull and Bones seems to have been one of the few exceptions. Even with its online requirement, it seems to have had a pretty smooth start. Players have reported some errors, but a lot of them seem to be related to not updating the game, GPUs or because of firewall configurations, rather than game-wide server issues. It’s a shame that out of all of these games, this is the one I’m least interested in returning to—just my luck.

Enshrouded has also managed to avoid some of the big disasters its peers have run afoul of, but also benefits from an offline mode that’s been available since launch, as well as allowing players to host their own games locally or rent dedicated servers. Being in early access, there have still been teething problems, and some reports of players having trouble when more than a few people join their dedicated server, inspiring some speculation that it’s a game issue rather than a hardware one, but so far there haven’t been any issues rendering it unplayable. At the moment, that makes it something of a novelty.

With so many games plagued with similar issues, there’s been plenty of discourse about what players should expect from multiplayer games, and how they should react to these issues when they arise—especially in games that are still in development or dealing with launch teething problems. In most cases, there’s a significant rise in negative reviews when the servers buckle, meaning games like Helldivers 2 end up with Mixed reviews on Steam, despite the fact that players seem to be digging the game itself. Even the negative reviews tend to come with the caveat that it’s great, when it’s playable.

Last Epoch is now going through the same thing, with the initially positive rating quickly being chipped away by server complaints. But just like Helldivers, this is a game with a very enthusiastic community who largely seem to think it’s a killer ARPG. They just want to play it.

A lot of the negative reviews for these games have been attributed to review bombing campaigns, but as I said earlier this week when covering Helldiver 2’s dip into a Mixed rating, these do not meet the criteria for review bombings. As much as I think in most cases the developers are handling things the right way, if you cannot play the game that you bought, leaving a negative review is absolutely valid. Steam reviews are designed to give prospective players an idea of what they’re getting into if they grab the game, and these issues are more than worth highlighting.

Negative reviews are ultimately feedback, and feedback is crucial to the ongoing development of games. Nightingale is a great example of this, as Inflexion Games just announced that it was developing an offline mode, and that’s exclusively down to players criticising its current lack of one.”We misjudged what some of you were looking for in your experience,” Inflexion said. “We are now prioritizing and developing an offline mode that we plan to release as soon as feasible.”

Still, it’s been an undeniably frustrating time for players of multiplayer and live service games, and I’m definitely reaching the point where I’m starting to look at my library of offline singleplayer romps and thinking “You wouldn’t treat me like this, maybe I should be giving you all of my attention.” But no, because I still crave more medals in Helldivers, and I’ve got some fun build ideas I want to try in Last Epoch, and I really need to finish my hideous tower in Nightingale so I can jump off it with my magical umbrella. I’m never going to escape them, am I?

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