Category Archives: Impressions

ONI Goes Gold

Another Klei game has graduated Early Access, showing the world how Early Access should be done.

I had stopped playing Oxygen Not Included (ONI) back in March, because I was getting a bit overwhelmed with my longest-running base, but didn’t want to start over with a fresh one because there were some pending updates. I continued holding off because the release date was going to happen soon, then it got delayed, so I waited some more. Booting up the launch version last night was satisfying, like slipping into a well-worn chair after a month-long vacation.

For the most part.

New biomes have been introduced, new machines, new elements, new critters, and a new selection of theme asteroids with random modifiers like “metal-rich” or “magma channels” or “frozen core.” There are trees now, in certain locations, and an entire engineering path in which you can burn trees for fuel, turn them into ethanol, and so on. There are also some major changes to heat deletion, specifically removing some of the cheesy methods and making it more of a hassle.

At the same time… the (optimal) early game is pretty much identical. Construct some Outhouses, dig out some 16×4 rooms, make your vertical shafts three tiles wide for airflow and future-proofing reasons, dig out a basement for your Carbon Dioxide to settle so the Dupes don’t smother in their sleep, and so on. The Research tree has been rearranged, Skills have undergone a third (final?) revision, but everything you learned about the first 50 cycles or so is pretty much the same.

The one thing that stays interesting is the placement and types of geysers that can spawn. In the beginning there were only Steam geysers and volcanoes and such, but now there are ~19 different varieties that can radically change the trajectory of your entire game. For example, having a nearby Natural Gas Vent (i.e. geyser) means you can rush an early Natural Gas Generator and otherwise skip Coal power entirely. A water geyser, in whatever form, is pretty much required for any kind of long-term survival, so it’s good to find an early one and get that concern out of the way.

In many ways, ONI reminds me of Civilization in this regard. Many of the steps you undertake are the same, although early environmental resource placement can cause you to switch strategies. By the mid-to-late game though, all roads lead to Rome and you end up doing the same sort of things, e.g. the one that work, as you coast to an inevitable conclusion.

Granted, I haven’t made it to the endgame in the released version of ONI – or in the beta for that matter – so maybe they changed things up. Hell, there are some asteroid options like Rime, wherein everything is basically frozen except for the starting biome, causing you to be very concerned about generating heat instead of having to worry about cooling everything down like normal.

In any case, Steam says I have played 80 hours of Oxygen Not Included already, so even if the release version doesn’t capture my long-term attention, it’s because I have already spent a long time enraptured in its systems. It is decidedly NOT Rimworld or Dwarf Fortress, but it is another fun game from Klei (makers of Don’t Starve). If you like failing miserably several times before becoming lord of the elements, I recommend the game.

Graveyard Keeper

In my still-limited free time, I have been playing Graveyard Keeper.

Even before I purchased the game – or got it through a bundle, I forget – Graveyard Keeper had been unfavorably compared to Stardew Valley. Specifically, how the game devolves into an inordinate grind. Having played the game now for about 25 hours, I have to agree. But it is not the grind that is the problem, but the overall disjointed experience.

As you might imagine from the name, the primary task is the maintenance of the graveyard and nearby chapel. Bodies will be delivered periodically, and interring them can not only improve the overall quality of the graveyard, but gives you a Burial Certificate which you can trade for coins. As things progress, you get the ability to perform autopsies to improve the “quality” of the bodies before burial – primarily by removing “sinful” organs – such that higher quality headstones and such can unlock the full potential of a buried corpse.

So, the gameplay loop starts relatively tight. You chop trees and mine stones/ore to build headstones and such to improve the graveyard. Improving the graveyard eventually allows you lead sermons that generate Faith resources, which allow you to research further technology.

Things fall apart in the mid to late game. The ultimate goal of the game is to collect six items from certain NPCs in town and spend 12g on a last item. 12g is 1200 silver and you get 1.5 silver for each buried/burned body. Thus, you need alternative means of making money. Which is fine, because the quests necessary to get the special items are long and involved and require you to do all sorts of tech-tree development, building dozens of workstations, and basically creating a little empire. However… you can’t specialize. The bartender will purchase the wine you make, for example, but each bottle sold will reduce the price of the next bottle, and prices only recover slowly over time. Which means you need to do all the things all the time, when there will never be enough of it to matter.

To me, that is not even the worst part. The worst part is that your time horizon is ever only seven in-game days. In Stardew Valley, you had seasons and yearly events to plan towards. Sometimes that was a massive pain and source of min-maxing, given that you could spend a lot of time on crops only to have them all die a day before harvesting because the calendar changed. But it also gave you a focus. Hell, you could focus on just a few things, e.g. fishing vs animals vs growing crops, depending on your mood. Graveyard Keeper requires a generalized approach of running around all day every day, never really getting a sense that you’re making progress on any particular thing.

I even have some zombies now to assist in automating resource collection, and I still never have time to do all the things I need to do to feel satisfied on my progress. At one point, I just abandoned the whole corpse part of the game for several in-game weeks because I couldn’t be bothered. I was trying to unlock the second-tier Alchemy Bench so that I could actually start using the Embalming techniques I had unlocked 10 hours beforehand, but the convoluted tech tree and components meant I couldn’t do much of anything. Even when there are interesting choices to make, such as removing more organs than necessary to turn them into alchemical ingredients at the cost of corpse quality, all it becomes is just another chore to do on the path to something else.

It is difficult to discern why I still like playing this game. Well, perhaps not too difficult: it’s a game that encourages planning and thinking even when not actively playing. Same with Fallout 76, really, in that even at work I am strategizing on what I plan to do in-game when I get home. But this chronic tension and sense of never making particular headway is also exhausting, and the last thing I need more of in my life.

Pebbles Can Still Ruin Your Day

Pebbles are small, but if one finds its way into your shoe and you can’t get it out, it can be enough to ruin your day. Or in this case, your gaming experience.

DOS2_Hidden

Another pebble: needing to walk around with Alt held down all the time

I started playing Divinity: Original Sin 2 (DOS2) recently, and it’s been fun thus far. There are a lot of interesting new design directions this time around, and I might talk about them in a different post. In this post though, we need to talk about a pebble: inventory management.

…actually, that might not be the root of the issue. This pebble has layers.

DOS2 and the series in general makes a big deal about the autonomy and uniqueness of each character. Characters have origin stories, personal quests, unique special abilities, and their own dialog options. Talk with one distraught woman as Ifan and she shouts “stay away from me you disgusting pig!” Talk with the same woman as Sebille, and you’ll hear her story. It’s immersive… to a point. It’s also awkward, considering you are a player controlling four unique beings, one of which is supposed to be the “main” character.

The awkwardness extends out into the game proper too. Some of the “Civil Abilities” you can put points into are Persuasion and Bartering. The former will let you overcome conversation checks, while also improving your discount with a vendor; the latter improves just the latter. That’s fine, right? It’s typical for CRPGs to essentially encourage specialization, such as you have someone really good at disarming traps, someone running interference for your wizards, and so on.

DOS2_Pebble

It’s 2% now, sure, but it’ll be higher later… and not even the point

The problem is when the “main” character isn’t the one with the Persuasion skills. I had been playing for about 5 hours and wanted to offload some goods at a local vendor, only to realize that the person with the biggest discount wasn’t carrying any of the merchandise. And there was zero way to move items around except one at a time. That’s the pebble. There’s a “workaround” where you stash everything inside a backpack that you can then pass around, but that still involves manually moving one item at a time into the backpack. Why isn’t there a “move all items” option?

My characters are like level 3, and the difference between the “main” character I had been controlling and scooping up all the loot with and the guy with the highest discount is 2%. No big deal, yeah? Also, there is apparently a magic mirror in Act 2 or whatever that allows you to freely respec all your characters any number of times, so I’ll be able to solve this Persuasion situation to make my “main” character also be the primary seller.

Like I said, it’s a pebble, not some bottomless chasm.

…at the same time, this little pebble is drawing my attention to the fact I’m walking on a trail full of them. With sandals. I made Ifan a Summoner, who is apparently going to need to be the most Persuasive out of the bunch if I want to be using him to click on treasure chests and dead bodies. Or I could keep the Red Prince as the sell-bot since he’s already the best at it, but that would mean I’ll need to be using him to pick up stuff and talk to people. That would mean I’ll miss out on Ifan’s dialog options though, so I’ll need Ifan to be the sell-bot. But he’s a Summoner, not a warrior, so my carrying capacity is lower. I guess I could move crafting material around to compensate…

DOS2_Dialog

Significantly more chatty than when I clicked on her with Ifan

By the way, there’s another Civil Ability called Lucky Charm that gives you a chance of finding special loot in every container you check. Originally, this proc’d only if the character who had the skill checked the container. It’s since been patched to be party-wide, which is nice. Because that is otherwise insane. Which is what is kinda feels like for the rest of these abilities.

All of the above because I noticed a 2% discount between characters. But try walking for 80+ hours with a pebble in your shoe and tell me it doesn’t become a big deal over time. And make you question why you can’t just take off your shoe for a second and get it the hell out.

Prey in Conclusion

I completed Prey over the weekend, after about 35 hours.

Prey_Material

I could craft 870 rounds of ammo, if I wanted. Or if it mattered.

The majority of my concerns were comically overblown. Prey does tally up your behavior during play, but it only merits a single line of commentary at the end, and didn’t tip the scales in any case. I got the “best” ending doing the sort of things one would expect to merit a best ending, and that was that. Feel free to take all the special powers you want, unless you are specifically going for the achievement for not doing so.

How do I feel overall? Disappointed.

There are parts of Prey that are amazing. The GLOO Gun is an amazing tool that remains useful for 99% of the game. You can spend a lot of Neuromods to augment your jumping capabilities… or you can create your own path pretty much wherever, and whenever you want. At the same time, the GLOO Gun “platforms” are just tricky enough to utilize that you never think that it’s required to progress. In other words, it feels like the designers threw it into the game as a toy to play with, rather than a central mechanic (e.g. Gravity Gun in Half-Life 2), and thus you feel clever every time you use it to bypass obstacles.

The set pieces and overall level design are top-notch as well. The environment is cohesive and dense, making you feel as though you are exploring a real place. There is a ton of backtracking, which gets pretty annoying by the end of the game, but it also doesn’t necessarily feel artificial. Yes, if you want to track Volunteers, go to the Volunteer terminal. Yes, if you want to do something with Neuromods, go to the Neuromod area (again).

Prey_Psychoscope

At least it’s not sepia-toned, but still… ugh.

Where the weakness starts creeping in is two-fold. First, the designers fell into the same design hole as Dishonored vis-a-vis “detective vision.” One of the marquee enemies you face in Prey are Mimics, which are capable of perfectly disguising themselves as chairs, coffee mugs, etc. After a few hours of exploring, you get a Psychoscope that will allow you to scan for Mimics. At this point, the rest of your gameplay experience will tunneled down a blurry circle, with buzzing in your ears.

Do you have to use the Psychoscope 24/7? No. It’s possible to pop it on to quickly glance through a room for Mimics, then turn it off. Hell, by the mid-game you likely have so many supplies and weapons that it won’t matter if you get ambushed by half a dozen at once. Nevertheless, you aren’t overtly punished for Psychoscoping the whole time… other than ruining the ambiance for yourself. Which, IMO, the is dev’s fault.

The other disappointing element is the ending.

Spoilers are below, but let me go ahead and create some more buffer.

Spoiler-Alert-Red

Last chance… okay.

This is basically Bioshock Infinite all over again. Not specifically with Alternate Universes, but in the fact that the devs thought they could take another of the most reviled, cliche plot devices in history and polish that turd till it gleamed.

Nope. Even a polished turd is still a turd.

The ending actually failed on multiple levels for me. First, it was essentially spoiled in-game around halfway through by completing a quest. I expected a bad ending for trying to bail from the station via escape pod without even doing anything, but wanted to “get it out of the way” so I could continue the correct way. What I wasn’t expecting was Alex’s words after the fade-to-black. Whoops!

Prey_Ending

Yeah, actually, that’s exactly what I’m thinking.

The second level of failure was using the “it’s all a dream” cliche, period. I have read some arguments that state this implementation actually made your simulated in-game actions matter, given the extra-special reveal. Nope, still doesn’t work for me. Just because I’m being evaluated on my simulated actions, doesn’t mean I view simulated actions with any particular regard – none of it actually happened. Maybe it’s “based on a true story” when it comes to Morgan, but if all my actions can be rebooted with the flick of a switch, I’d rather them not have occurred in the first place.

Which… they didn’t.

Finally, the ending actually ruined a lot of the nuance I had hitherto been impressed with. For the majority of the game, your one directive was blowing up the space station. Given that, the still-living crew were effective dead already… so why bother helping them out? Was it not more cruel to give them hope before killing them all? At the same time, I felt better easing their more immediate suffering, so they could relax and eventually accept their fate when the time came.

Oh, but hey! Now we have a sudden third solution that magically makes everything better, revealed in the final act! Those dilemmas aren’t really dilemmas anymore. And they never were anything but contrived, simulated scenarios in the first place to judge your empathy. Congrats on playing through the trolley problem – not metaphorically, but literally. Woo!

I’m sure the ending worked for some people, just as there are people who feel Bioshock Infinite is a real deep narrative instead of the total bullshit cop-out it is. The special, second reveal at the end of Prey was indeed surprising, and I guess novel in the scheme of things. Nevertheless, I did not feel any better about how none of what occurred actually did, nor did it apparently matter to the people of Earth. Hell, we still don’t even know what happened, or if anything is real. It could be simulations all the way down.

And that’s why the plot device is such bullshit. A sequel, assuming one ever exists, would have to have a radically different tone or go through a lot of effort to convince the player they weren’t being duped again. But I guess we won’t be seeing a sequel so none of it really matters.

Sort of like any of your actions in the game.

Impression: Prey

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Prey is how much of its cleverness is wasted on me.

Prey_Mimic1

There’s a Mimic in here.

I knew from prior reporting that this game was different than standard games. I had heard of tales of fancy solutions to seemingly impossible situations. That “cheesing” encounters might even be necessary to survive. What I had not considered though, is how tunnel-visioned I had become on rote, formulaic solutions to cliched problems such that I had not even considered the possibility of trying something else.

The very first weapon you pick up is a wrench, which is about as tropy as you get. Then you get the GLOO gun. This is a weapon that deals no damage, but spits out expanding foam balls that can immobilize enemies, put out fires, seal flaming pipes, temporarily block arcing electrical panels, and become climbable platforms when it dries. The silenced pistol comes an hour or two later, and by then you will have encountered quite a few of the stronger enemy types with just a wrench and GLOO gun. The designers were very clearly trying to educate the player on all the myriad solutions to the problems they want you to solve.

Trouble is, I’ve been “trained” too well over the years.

It’s only well after the fact that I realize a better solution existed. For example, I walked into a room, and saw the windows sealed with GLOO foam. A note on the counter read “I sealed two Mimics in there, but there are casualties, so as many as eight.” I wrenched the foam out of the way, and used a combination of Wrench, Silenced Pistol, bullet-time, and panic to kill the half-dozen or so Mimics that popped out of the window.

Prey_Mimic2

As it turns out, no Mimic in here.

After searching the now enemy-less room, I realized a few things. First, there was a broken turret in the hallway before this room. I could have repaired it, then set up the turret to cover the window. Second, there was a flammable oxygen pipe that run just under the window – which could have been shot to spray a jet of flame across the opening, catching the Mimics on fire. Third, I have Recycler Grenades, and could have just blown them all up. Instead, I chose the dumbest, most caveman solution possible and wasn’t overly punished for it.

Speaking of Recycler Grenades, these are items that basically convert everything within a certain radius into blocks of materials. And I do mean everything, furniture and enemies included. You can spend a lot of Neuromods (e.g. skill points) unlocking the ability to to lift ever-heavier items out of the way – and there are quite a few early rooms barricaded with heavy objects – or you can… just toss a Recycler Grenade at the obstruction and clear it instantly plus get some materials to make more grenades. This was not my own discovery, I had to read about it. It’s entirely possibly that I would not have even ever tried. That’s some goddamn 1984 doublethink shit, where you lack the language to even acknowledge your oppression.

Prey_Clever

At least four ways into this locked room, and I always choose the dumbest.

To be clearer in my own language here, I am praising Prey. It’s just blowing my mind a bit that years of other, less clever games could essentially atrophy any out-of-the-box thinking. I even played Deus Ex back in the day, and I enjoyed all the sequels too. Part of me feels like Prey should punish more mundane gunplay more, or just forgo guns altogether.

At that point though, perhaps forced cleverness isn’t really cleverness at all.

Anyway, six hours in, Prey is an exceedingly unique experience with some really inventive scenarios. The existence of Mimic enemies cause you to really examine all the debris in a room, which can sometimes (and sometimes not, apparently) lead you to realize alternative solutions to an otherwise straight-forward enemy situation. The GLOO gun is pretty much the closest thing to the Gravity Gun from Half-Life 2 that I have seen a game introduce in a decade. And damn near everything else is similarly polished and grokkable in surprising ways.

Pick this game up when you can. On sale, of course, but on the next one.

Impressions: Sundered

Pretty much everything you need to know about Sundered is encapsulated in this picture:

Oh my

That’s the first boss.

The premise of the game is that you are a human (?) adventurer who gets sucked into a desert temple by some tentacles, and are tasked with defeating some monstrosities by the Shining Trapezohedron. If that sounds Lovecraftian, it is. In fact, that being in particular is straight-up from a Lovecraft book, and the rest of the game takes heavy, sometimes direct, direction from the genre.

Indeed, the eerie disquietness of the game proper has been a wholly unique experience for me. I have seen tentacled monsters with teeth and eyes in all the wrong places in games before. That’s common.

Pictured: tentacle monster with teeth and eyes in wrong places.

What I never really experienced is a sense of trepidation regarding a gorgeous, hand-drawn background that features nary a monster or blood stain, but simply a construction completely out of human scale. The whole time, you are immersed in an environment very clearly not made for you. Hell, even the Sanctuary – the place where you spend Shards to increase your stats – feels “off” due to the massive, smooth stone in the background. It reminds me of looking up at a skyscraper from the street, and feeling as though the whole thing is moments away from falling on me.

The weakness of Sundered comes from its gameplay direction. It plays as a semi-modern Metroidvania, akin to Hollow Knight or Ori and the Blind Forest. However, the map features no pre-set monster spawns, and has randomly-generated sections that change upon your death. You will be randomly beset upon by “hordes,” which are essentially a dozen or so enemies at a time. Defeating them sometimes grant you Shards, which is a currency used to purchase your way through a FFX/Path of Exile-esque ability grid.

Ah, yes, just make a right at the corner of Ehshkht’aetag’ling and Kytag’yeh.

The gameplay loop itself doesn’t necessarily feel bad, and the horde spawning mechanic does allow you to take in the environment more than if there were set spawns in specific locations every time. But it does end up feeling… weird. And not the Lovecraftian weird, but the sort of “okay, here we go again” weird. Also the “weird” in which you might find yourself overwhelmed and possibly dead due to what feels like random chance. For example, you might have been able to easily handle a specific horde composition if you were not “ambushed” in a tight corridor with spikes everywhere.

In any case, if you can persist through the first hour or so of the game, before you have unlocked any interesting abilities or encountered tricky enemies, you will possibly come out the other side… changed, as I did. I have not quite played a game that made me feel this way, not even The Forest or other traditional survival horror games.

In those games, the monsters were the invaders. In Sundered, it is you who doesn’t belong.

Impression: Frackin’ Universe (Starbound mod)

So, about 100 hours later, I continue to play Starbound’s Frackin’ Universe (FU) mod.

StarboundFU_Title

Just to reiterate: FU is a mammoth mod that fundamentally changes complicates nearly all aspects of the vanilla Starbound experience. For example, the vanilla experience has you leveling up an Environmental Protection Pack (EPP) to survive the elemental rigors of planetary progression – from no breathable oxygen to radiation immunity to cold immunity to fire immunity. Each EPP upgrade was a strict upgrade, incorporating all of the immunities of the prior ones. This progression path ensured that you went to the correct systems in the correct order on your journey to defeat the giant tentacle monster final boss.

In Frackin’ Universe, all that is thrown out the window. There are now at least 33 EPPs with wildly varying effects, none of which give you blanket immunity to everything. You are expected to use the proper EPP with a relevant Augment (21 choices) with a corresponding armor (101 new sets) tailored to the planetary conditions. Which have gotten more granular as well, of course. A fiery planet might have three degrees of flammability, tied to 20/40/60% resistance levels, affected by all the previous items plus your race’s innate resistances (if any). Having high resistances might be good for normal exploring, but extreme weather events might end up overcoming said resistances too.

Does all of that sound too complicated? I agree.

StarboundFU_Base

My current base. Not pictured: Healing Water hot spring.

What has won me over are all the changes made to support the above complexity. Dozens of new elements and ores have been added to the game. There is now a large number of completely new planet types, and every planet has been infused with micro-biomes. Difficulty is increased across the board as well, making the exploration and exploitation of these new worlds require a lot of attention.

After every night that I play this game, I spend a few minutes in bed thinking about what I plan on accomplishing during the next playing session. “I need to restock my supply of lead.” “Okay, I built the armor set that gives me immunity to proto-poison, so I should be able to get some Protocite Ore.” “I should really create an ocean base for the free water.” “Why haven’t I gotten my crop situation in order?” It never seems to end. Which is great because, at the moment, I don’t want it to.

That said, I did struggle in the beginning. There was too much to take in. There are some tutorial quests that kind of guide you around, but almost all of them simply exist to get you to construct one of the many new crafting stations and leave you staring at yet another huge list of miscellaneous nonsense. The only way past the Analysis Paralysis is to hyper-focus on the one thing that you want to craft, and follow that one thread all the way to the bottom.

A few days ago, I finally constructed my Terminal network. What does it do? It allows me to link together a bunch of storage containers and then output the results on terminal stations placed around my ship, such that I can type in a name of something, then have it spit out the requested item into my inventory. You know, functionality that… exists by default in most of these sort of games. But it doesn’t here, and now it does, and I feel very satisfied about it.

StarboundFU_Miniboss

Sometimes you have to be unfair.

One additional positive I want to mention here is that I like how the mod author(s) included means to bypass some of the systems. Between the various vendors in the new science outpost and a craftable Ansible Network station, you can outright purchase a lot of the more rare ores and components, if you haven’t been able to track down their locations on planets. It costs pixels (aka money), sometimes A LOT of pixels, but it is there as an option if you just so happen to need three more bars of Quietus Ore or whatever.

What I will say though, is that not every aspect of the game is especially coherent. The Medical Station allows you to craft healing items, like in the base game. The Medical Kit II recipe requires Honeysilk Bandages though, which requires you to to engage with the whole Beekeeper system. Meanwhile, Medical Kit III goes back to more typical FU materials, and you don’t need to have crafted the prior version to unlock this one. The armor system behaves similarly – there are redundant sets (sometimes a good thing), many completely useless ones (comparatively), and a few that are clearly superior in every way.

Oh, and you can craft booze too. Unlike the Bee things though, I can’t tell that any part of it is necessary. Maybe for roleplaying purposes?

In any case, there it is. After ~100 hours of mucking about, I feel like I’m within spitting distance of some of the best armors in the game, and likely the end of novel experience. The skeleton of Starbound’s linear story remains in place, but I’m not sure that I’ll continue on with it once I get bored of flying around. Unlike other random-gen games, Starbound doesn’t benefit from multiple playthroughs, as you can pretty much go wherever you want, making anything you want, as soon as you want.

That is, of course, one of it’s biggest strength too.

Frackin’ Starbound

I have kinda let Fallout 76 slide these past few days, as I reach the mundanity of the endgame. Which mainly consists of server hopping for weapon plans and getting distracted by nuke zones in the process. We’ll see if any of these patches fix anything.

Still in a mood for survival game though, I was sucked back into Starbound with the Frackin’ Universe mod pack. This is a full-body mod that basically changes nearly every aspect of the game by adding dozens of new systems and results in thousands of different interactions. To give you an idea, one of the early buildings is a “wooden centrifuge” that allows you to put water in, and get Hydrogen and Oxygen canisters back out. There are other systems changes as well, including the fact that your character no longer emits light, so things like flashlights and seeding tunnels with hundreds of torches becomes important.

So far I have spent about 8 hours playing and haven’t even left the starter system yet.

The problem I’m facing is two-fold. First, there is a noted lack of direction/progression. The mod includes a whole host of “tutorial” quests to introduce some of the concepts, but in practice they are more like “craft a growbed… now have fun!” While I can’t quite build everything yet, I have like a dozen different crafting stations and no sense of what I should be building, or working towards. “It’s a sandbox, do whatever.” Yeah, no, not how it works. If you look at ARK or even Minecraft, there are subtle channels of progression – things are either level-gated or material gated or biome gated. There’s gating in Frackin’ Universe too, but the starting gate is way too big.

The second issue is sort of mundane, but… I’ve already beat this game. Frackin’ Universe puts in all these new systems and such, but the core game is still about collecting six artifacts and defeating the tentacle monster. There is a longer journey to get there – the mod rebalances things so its not as easy – but the destination is the same. While I could and probably should just create my own goal and do whatever, I feel like if I’m already having to do that, I should probably do that in a game I haven’t already beaten. I mean, I already had 60 hours in vanilla Starbound.

We’ll see. It’s fun (and a bit frustrating) for now. The question will be for how long.

Impressions: Metal Gear Survive

The other day I bought Metal Gear Survive for zero dollars.

A bargain at twice the price!

Although most of the internet would probably suggest that zero dollars is still too expensive for this game, I found it to be a rather fascinating experience.

Before I start, let’s address the elephant in the room: Konami sucks. Like him or hate him, Kojima is/was a ground-breaking (and budget-busting) designer and Konami will ultimately rue the day they let him go. That whole episode also marks the ignoble end to some of my favorite franchises too. So, in a way, Metal Gear Survive is a complete mockery of Kojima’s legacy – a survival game knockoff recycling the majority of Metal Gear Solid 5 assets in what is presumably a complete cash-grab.

That said… the MGS5 skeleton is better than most studios could dream of creating.

Metal Gear Survive surprised me right out of the gate with something novel. In the tutorial section of the game, your first weapon is a spear. Fantastic zombie-killing weapon, IMO, and I’m always surprised when no zombie game ever lets you craft one. Then you are introduced to chain link fences. And then they drop the bomb: you can stab zombies with a spear through the fence.

Mind. Blown.

My amazement might sound factitious, but I’m being serious here. It’s a tiny, little thing that grounds the game in some sort of believability. It’s something you feel clever doing every time it occurs. There aren’t any spears in 7 Days to Die, and the only way you can attack zombies through something is if you build columns or have some kind of iron gate. I had been playing Metal Gear Survive for only an hour at this point, and already all future survival games will be judged based on whether I can attack through a chain link fence.

The boldness continued right on the second mission. The task itself was “download(?) the memory board” and the AI advisers warned me that “there will be some Wanderers (i.e. zombies) nearby.” Which, when I turned the corner and saw the building, happened to be a contender for understatement of the year.

That was just half of the enemies milling about.

It’s the second goddamn mission, I have zero weapons other than a spear at this point, and the ability to build chain link fences. And while that sounds like an unstoppable combo, let me just say the devs have specifically accounted for situations in which there are dozens of zombies being held back by a flimsy chain link fence.

Legit freaked out the first time it happened.

Beyond that, the gameplay loop is… deceptively serious. Hunger and Thirst meters are present, and they dictate the maximum recovery level of your HP and Stamina meters, respectively. This means that if your hunger is at 25%, you can only ever heal back up to 25% HP. On top of this, food items are incredibly scarce. Animals will respawn, but it can take several real-world hours, which means you will spend the first dozen or hours of the game rather hungry.

On top of that, most of the game is spent exploring “the Dust.” The map is covered in a fog that requires you to wear an Oxygen mask to survive in, which is yet another meter to watch. Each time you are in a new area of the (Dust) map, your traditional tracking mechanisms, e.g. waypoints, will not work either. While there are distant lights you can use to kind of manually guide your progress, you can quite easily lose track of time or direction and otherwise get into a bad situation.

Teleporting Wild Ass back to your base is important too.

There is one final element that kind of brings this all together in a hardcore-ish way: Metal Gear Survive works on a Checkpoint Save system. Until you actually make it back to base camp, none of what you pick up or map or achieve counts for anything. If you die 5 seconds before the end of the mission, or if the thing you need to protect blows up, you start all over. While this isn’t too different from all the other survival games I have played, it certainly feels a tad more hardcore in practice, somehow. Possibly because in other survival games, you don’t necessary have to go into that clearly-dangerous area again.

In any case, I’m about a dozen hours into the game and continue to feel compelled to log in again and again. It’s not the best-looking survival game, and there are definitely pared-down elements compared to something like ARK or Fallout 76, but the combination of the formula and the MGS 5 vibe makes it very engaging to me. Even if everything else seems goofy as shit, on occasion.

[Fake Edit]

I just completed the game this past weekend, with 28 hours played. My overall impression has soured somewhat in the meantime.

The first thing to note is that Konami didn’t just recycle assets, they recycled maps. I kinda already knew this heading into the game, but I found the experience rather jarring when a mission sent me to the mansion from MGS 5 for no particular reason. That is, there was a memory board located there that I needed to progress the story forward, but no actual storyline or plot purpose for the mansion itself to exist. There wasn’t even a boss fight or anything inside. Instead, it felt like the devs just said “oh, hey, there’s a mansion in these asset folders we haven’t used yet” and then slapped it in.

The second note is that the game’s cadence changes substantially in the latter half. Instead of survival, everything becomes long action sequences of surviving waves of zombie hordes. While this is not entirely out of character for the game, the fact that the last half-dozen mission are pseudo-time limited is. At no point did I feel the game adequately express the need to ensure that I had stocked up on enough ammo; that I managed to survive the onslaughts at all was a fluke of my hoarding nature.

15 minutes? Are you fucking kidding me?!

Finally, speaking of hoarding, the “endgame” itself radically changes from a resource-gathering perspective. Essentially, instead of wandering around afield in new locations, the optimal method is to simply teleport to every waypoint and gather whatever is located there, then teleport back to base to offload it. This gives you enough material for damn near everything… except for bullets. Specifically, gunpowder can only be collected from specific items you pick up. You can convert materials in dozens of different combinations – turning Iron into Gears, Nails, Steel, etc, etc – but you cannot convert anything into gunpowder. Which is especially frustrating considering that you can convert gunpowder into TNT, but can’t down-convert TNT into anything.

The end result is that you basically can’t really use guns as your primary weapon. Which is fine, I guess. Other games like Dead Island really emphasized melee weapons too. But the fact remains that Metal Gear Survive allows you to farm this gunpowder over the course of several hours, such that you could use guns as a primary weapon if you put in enough mindless time. This ultimately just makes the entire situation feel worse though.

In any event, I do not necessarily regret my hours spent in Metal Gear Survive. If nothing else, it reminded me of how engaging Metal Gear Solid 5 was, and how cool the Fox Engine could be for use in other games. That will… never be made. Sigh. Fuck Konami.

The Real Issue of Fallout 76

Played an unhealthy amount of the Fallout 76 Beta this weekend. I’m now convinced of a few things.

FO76_Farm

Oh country roads…

First, PvP and griefing will largely be irrelevant. Some people may have claimed the same thing before the beta even went live, but having now experienced the game for myself? Yeah, it’ll be no biggie. My one “PvP” experience was inside the Morgantown Airport “public instance,” one of the locations the game funnels you into for story purposes. While trying to access the computer, some guy with a shotgun was shooting me at point-blank range (for like 1 damage). As I looked at him, I saw what presumably was his buddy nearby, naked and holding an axe. At first, I misinterpreted the red “50” over his head as being his level (it was actually the Caps reward for killing him), so I decided to walk calmly to the exit and left the area. They did not follow me outside the instance. I came back later and completed the quest.

Now, yes, their shenanigans caused my behavior to change. It’s also possible to find yourself in the middle of a fight with actual enemies, which would prevent you from Fast Traveling away to wherever. It’s also technically possible for dedicated griefers to Fast Travel to wherever you Fast Traveled to… unless it’s your own CAMP, in which case your Turrets would do your dirty work.

But the real reason none of that matters? Because you get a random server every time you log in. You will not see the same people ever again.

Incidentally, random servers is also the real issue with Fallout 76.

At first, the idea seems liberating. There will not be any “alpha tribes” in Fallout 76 who systematically take over everything. There will not be any sort of administrative busywork in finding servers with the lowest ping or whatever. There is no concern about picking the wrong server, or being left on a dead one, or being on one that is overstuffed. People will pop in, people will pop out, and life will go on.

The impermanence cuts both ways though.

FO76_Workshop

Junk might actually be the most valuable out of those.

One of the big features in Fallout 76 are public Workshops. These are locations that you can capture and claim for your own, and have to periodically defend from waves of enemies. In exchange, you can use Workshop materials to craft basically a 2nd (or 3rd, etc) CAMP to your liking, including being able to Fast Travel back to it for free. Build walls, traps, turrets, crafting stations, and so on. Most importantly, you can craft Resource extractors on specific nodes in the Workshop area, and these extractors will produce 25 whatevers per hour. This is really good if you’re looking for a specific resource, of course – concrete, gold scrap, acid, titanium, to name a few that I’ve seen.

But guess what: the moment you log off, for any reason, for any length of time… poof. You’re on a different server the moment you log back in. I have heard it claimed that your Workshop setup will remain for the next person to have to clear, but you personally will never see that specific Workshop again. Now, you could certainly head back to that same Workshop on a new server and set everything back up. But… why? Even if you blueprint your setup such that you don’t have to fiddle with placing all the turrets over again, the impermanence makes such a task a bizarre sort of daily chore.

Speaking of dailies, there are Daily Quests in Fallout 76 as well. Unless it’s weird beta behavior, these are reset every time you log into a different server too.

Speaking of logging into different servers, a lot of items exist out in the world for you to pick up. For example, there are many known locations for Power Armor that are just laying around. You can’t really equip the Power Armor until level 40, but you can certainly scrap it or sell it to a vendor. And guess what… another copy of that Power Armor is going to exist on a different server in the same place, unless someone just happened to have picked it up before you got there.

As you can see, the real issue with Fallout 76 is its random server situation. It’s not just the potential exploits of farming the same location across multiple servers. It’s the fact that random servers also removes Workshops as being worthwhile to own over time in any capacity. And later down the road? What happens if you spend day/weeks finding all the nuclear codes, launch a missile to create a high-level nuclear zone, and then… disconnect. Oops. Is this why Bethesda was stating the nuke thing is a team effort? So that if you disconnect, you can (presumably) get back to a specific server by joining a friend who is still there?

Ultimately, these are solvable problems. Somewhat. Todd Howard states that eventually there will be private servers such that you can control who or who is not allowed to play with you. This permanence will make taking over Workshops mean something, even if it’s a bit OP in the equivalent of single-player… although waves of enemies do attack the location periodically. This will not stop the ability of people to server hop to farm resources, and I’m not sure how Bethesda will solve that issue. Maybe they won’t. Maybe a baseline level of exploitation is acceptable – people have been crouch-sneaking into a corner for hours in their games for a long time now.

Other than that teeny, tiny systemic issue that impacts every corner of the game’s design? Fallout 76 is great. I want to be playing the game some more right now. And I guess in a week I’ll be able to.