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Bygones

It was once said:

“A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.” -Shigeru Miyamoto

These days, we have this:

“All of the games like this… It’s not how you launch, it’s what it becomes.” -Todd Howard

There are a number of interesting articles out this week, including this one, which covers a candid interview with Todd Howard regarding (among many other things) Fallout 76. Specifically, how he and the entire team knew it was going to be a widely panned shitshow… but released it anyway. Because eventually it could be made better.

…and it has. Even if you were hostile to the idea of a Fallout survival game in the first place, it is undeniably in a better state than before. It may still not be your cup of tea at all, but it’s better.

None of this is particularly ideal for anyone though. As consumers, we should not be offered half-completed games riddled with bugs and half-baked design philosophies. On the developer side, while they do indeed get cash for a half-completed game, they also get (well-deserved) bad reviews and negative press for releasing a shoddy product.

The thing is… this method appears to work. As pointed out in the Ars Technica article:

The examples are almost too numerous to list. There are the games like Evolve, Paragon, Battleborn, Artifact, and Lawbreakers that were never able to turn things around after moribund launches. Then there are titles like Rainbow Six: Siege, For Honor, Final Fantasy XIV, and Bethesda’s own Elder Scrolls Online that have found long-term success despite some early troubles. Right now, Bioware’s rough launch of Anthem seems to be sitting on the razor’s edge between these two possibilities.

The other two poignant examples listed earlier in the same article are Diablo 3 and No Man’s Sky. While we can quibble over whether No Man’s Sky is any better conceptually than it started, the game is undeniably a huge success now, with each content update pulling 100,000 concurrent Steam users. In other words, it did not crash and burn – the poor initial showing was only a flesh wound. And Diablo 3? The game that launched with literal P2W in the form of Real Money Auction House? Blizzard was punished with… 30 million copies sold by 2015.

And, really, at what point does it all end up sounding like sour grapes? I had to look back, but apparently the Diablo 3 RMAH was removed back in March 2014. Are we still mad five years later?

I mean, the RMAH was absolutely a terrible idea and Blizzard should have known better and we’re all so terribly disappointed in them. But if someone asked you whether they should play Diablo 3 today, is the RMAH really something you would legitimately bring up? What’s the statute of limitations on poor game design that no longer even exists in the current game?

It’s a struggle, I know. If you buy/play/enjoy Fallout 76 or No Man’s Sky or Diablo 3 or anything else today, you are indirectly supporting the (usually) same people who screwed up these games the first time around. “How will they learn, then?!” Well… they did learn. As evidenced by the game getting better. It will probably not prevent them from releasing a half-baked mess with their next game, but that may simply be the unfortunate reality at this point. We can hope that by delaying our purchase until the game is fixed – instead of preordering or Day 1 purchasing like a chump – the devs get the memo on what stage of completeness we are willing to accept. On the other hand, giving them money later on kinda justifies the whole “Release Now, Fix Later” approach.

And on the third, mystery hand? Taking a principled stand is exhausting when you could just sit down and play some damn games. If it’s fun now, play; otherwise, don’t.

Sometimes it IS that Simple

I had been having an issue in No Man’s Sky where I did not know how to retrieve my prior base. The internet said there should be a quest in my log to fix the issue, but didn’t see it. The internet also said you can find a “base computer” in the wild by going through a very tedious process of scanning planets, moving your ship, scanning again, etc. I eventually abandoned that latter endeavor after a few hours, and wrote the whole thing off as a loss… then found the quest in my log. Base restored.

Of course, the base was mostly broken nonsense, but I at least retrieve my materials. Now begins the long journey in finding a new planet to set down roots on. Or continue using my Freighter, that the devs just gave away for free to everyone at this stage of the story, as a mobile base. Glad I didn’t grind the 50+ million credits that they cost before I left.

I had been having an issue in Fallout 76 where right-click was not letting me look down the scope of the gun. The internet said the issue was with a mod, specifically Better Inventory. I had already deleted that mod and the custom .INI file though. I also uninstalled the whole game and reinstalled, without a fix. Given the 55 GB install size, that was a serious time investment.

After a while, I stumbled upon a Reddit thread mentioning that as part of some update or another, your custom .INI file was copied over to a My Documents subfolder in addition to it existing in the normal game folder. Lo and behold, there it was, complete with a call towards a mod archive that no longer existed. How that specifically and only affected the right-click function of guns, I have no idea, but deleting it resolved the issue.

Both these issues were show-stoppers for me, and would have led to me abandoning the games forever if I had not been so damn stubborn. It remains to be seen whether either game will ultimately be worth my time playing in a “fixed” state, but it’s interesting nonetheless how precarious one’s gaming experiences can be even with “simple” issues. At every stage of troubleshooting, I was reminded of the other dozen or so Good Enough games that work out of the box.

How Not to Return

Coming back to a game can be incredibly daunting. Coming back after it has gone through several updates can be more concerning still.

Then there’s No Man’s Sky.

NMS_Restart

I didn’t want to play that character anymore anyway.

The No Man’s Sky meta-narrative is inspiring in its own way. In the beginning, the game was hyped beyond belief (and reality), the designers actively lied about features, and it was the go-to example of a failed game. Over the years though, the same designers have… stuck to it. Update after update has improved the gameplay experience, and now it is very close to completely resembling the product that was promised in the first place. While some may decry giving the company any praise for fixing what ought not have been broken in the first place, their dedication towards making things right is completely unexpected in the current gaming environment.

The problem is that so much has changed between the various patches that my 50+ hour character may as well have been erased.

The main culprit appears to have been NMS’s “Next” patch. There was a major overhaul in the crafting system, or upgrade system, or both, or something. Basically, all of my upgrades and enhancements were turned into “Obsolete Technology” that I had to scrap for upgrade currency. Which would have been slightly okay on its own, but now I have no idea how anything works anymore. Which resources are important have changed, all of the planets in the galaxy have changed, and my previously-existing base appears to be lost entirely/”archived” somewhere. While there have been a few prompts to check the Codex here and there, otherwise there is nothing resembling a tutorial on solving the “Dude, Where’s My Base” situation.

Slightly perturbed, I decided to spend my limited free-time patching up Fallout 76 instead. There have been several feature patches there too, resolving some long-term Quality of Life issues and introducing some new quest content as well. Everything was looking good… until I realized I could not aim-down-sights anymore. Right-click and nothing happened. With a melee weapon equipped my right-click would Block attacks like normal, but no scopes apparently.

Kind of a bummer when you are a Rifle build.

Near as I can tell, this problem might be related to mods. Deleting the mod file and removing the Custom.ini did not fix anything, nor did reboots or verifying file integrity. So, I’m typing this up while waiting for another 55 GB install to complete. [Edit: this didn’t fix the issue either]

Both experiences are giving me time (literally) to reflect on the situation though. Blizzard spends an inordinate amount of time trying to make the transition from lapsed to paying subscriber as easy as possible, to the extent of not changing systems that desperately need fixing. It’s hard to see value in that approach when you are actively playing the game, as all that occurs is basically stagnation for the sake of people who aren’t even customers. But if I weren’t so starved for survival-esque experiences, my first five minutes back into No Man’s Sky would have ended with an uninstall.

I’m not even sure there’s a middle path anymore. Games require you to learn their arbitrary, sometimes non-intuitive systems in order to succeed. It is hard enough trying to remember which buttons do what after a year or two, and then you add the possibility of previously accumulated experience no longer being useful (or actively bad)? You might be worse off than a brand new player at that point. In fact, I am worse off, because my patience for relearning tasks is immensely low – if I am to spend time learning something, it may as well be a new thing.

Patch Purgatory

There is a special sort of exquisite suffering involved in waiting for game patches. Like, there is an acknowledgement from the game makers that a problem exists, and they even have a date listed for when the problem will be fixed. That’s good! Fantastic, even. But it’s going to be next week. And seven days is so long from now, but it’s also entirely reasonable to have patches scheduled for certain days, and last week was Thanksgiving… so, yeah. Purgatory, basically.

Over on the Fallout 76 subreddit, Bethesda has laid out a general cadence for upcoming patches:

December 4, 2018 – Next week’s update will bring an increase to the Stash limit, as well as a variety of performance and stability improvements, balance changes, and multiple bug fixes to the game. We’ll have full patch notes available later this week ahead of Tuesday’s update. […]

December 11, 2018 – The next update after December 4 is currently planned for the following week. Like previous patches, it will include a variety of bug fixes, but we’re also planning to bring some more notable changes and features to the game. You can catch a preview of these improvements below, and a full list of changes will be included in the December 11 patch notes.

The post itself has actual details, but the big ones to me are the Stash limit increases and better boss loot on the 4th, and Push-to-Talk, (limited) Respec, and CAMP improvements on the 11th.

There are also a variety of possible bug fixes and balance changes that could materially improve my enjoyment of the game. Melee right now is incredibly OP, for example. I’m running a Rifle/Sniper build myself, and the fact that there are no rifle weight-reducing Perk cards (Gatling guns can be reduced to 2 lbs but a machine gun always weighs 20+ lbs) and apparently Legendary Hunting Rifles don’t exist in the game is a big bummer. Adding in a Perk card might be out of scope of a “bug fix,” but if they made getting the Lever-Action Rifle schematics easier to acquire, I would suddenly be back in business – I’m still using a level 25 one with no mods at level 50, because it’s still awesome despite the reloading glitch.

In the meantime though, it’s tough. I’m always dancing around the 400 lb Stash limit each time I log into the game. For the longest time, having too much Steel was a common event, but the moment you essentially delete 1000 pieces, you suddenly need that amount for something else, such as crafting bullets. There are vendors out in the world, but most are on a shared Cap limit, such that you can only vendor X amount of things each day.

The ideal solution to all of this is to simply not play the game until the patch hits. Which is perfectly acceptable as a solution… provided you aren’t actually that invested in the game in the first place. If you are though, god help you.

Fallout 76 is a Survival Game

Seeing as I’m a cynical bastard most of the time, it’s fascinating experiencing the frothing internet rage from the other side of the glass for once. “Don’t buy Fallout 76!” “This game feels like an alpha!” “The micro-transactions are ridiculous!” “It’s a glitchy, buggy mess!” Cool story, bros. Imma be over here being totally absorbed in my hunt for Aluminum and Adhesives for 5-6 hours a day.

Hey, I’ve been there IRL.

I mean, is this what it feels like to really enjoy something and then encounter someone who doesn’t, for reasons that seem so disconnected from your personal experience so as to seem divorced from reality? Politics is one thing, but somehow this seems even more extreme.

Let me break it down for you: Fallout 76 is a Survival game. I do not just mean Fallout 76 has hunger and thirst meters, I mean the games you must compare it to are other Survival games. Games like:

  • ARK
  • The Forest
  • Metal Gear Survive
  • RUST
  • State of Decay (1 and 2)
  • Subnautica
  • The Long Dark
  • 7 Days to Die
  • Conan: Exiles
  • No Man’s Sky

Fallout 76 does indeed come up short against some of those. Subnautica is much prettier, for instance. You can’t dig into bedrock and build your own personal bunker like in 7 Days to Die. But the complaints about lack of story, or the emptiness of the world, etc, suddenly become quite silly when you start asking where the NPCs are in, say, ARK. Fallout 76 is better than State of Decay in every category (story, gameplay, basebuilding, etc). Conan: Exiles lets you have slave NPCs at your base, but they aren’t materially different than some turrets most of the time.

Granted, some of these are $30 games and not $60, but still.

Totally stealing this player’s base design.

If you want to be mad at Bethesda for not making Fallout 5 happen in 2018, then… okay. I don’t think that was ever in the cards even if Fallout 76 didn’t exist, but maybe. It’s like being mad at Blizzard for the Mobile Diablo fiasco – that was a mismanagement of expectations, and likely had zero impact on the work of Diablo 4, which is inevitably coming.

Having said that, I begrudge no one for waiting 6+ months for the (ahem) fallout to settle before taking a second look. Fallout 76 is absolutely a game that will be in better shape a few patches from now. Stash size will be bigger, bugs/crashes will be reduced, some of the quests will actually be completable, there might be more of an endgame, Workshops might be worth something, and so on. No Man’s Sky was a huge letdown on release, but look at it now, within the context of survival games. If I still had space on my SSD, I might have booted NMS up again with this latest patch.

If I were not spending every waking moment playing and enjoying (!!!) Fallout 76, that is.

Fallout 4: Actual Impressions

I want to go back to playing, so let’s do this stream of consciousness style.

Bugs?

I’ve experienced very few, if any bugs. Or at least, I’m so used to Bethesda’s janky game engine that most things don’t register as bugs anymore. The only “game stopping” bug I’ve encountered has been when my Pip-Boy stopped showing up; it was technically there (I could hear the beeps) but it would not render. Saved my game, exited, and it was there upon my return.

Beyond that, I’ve seen Dogmeat fall off ledges, some enemies get stuck, and the AI act goofy in the thousands of ways you put up with in Skyrim for years.

#JustGameybroThings

#JustGamebryoThings

Considering I was fully bracing for the Fallout: New Vegas-esque “download a fan hack to be able to even play the game,” this is one of the smoothest Fallout releases, ever. The bar is laying on the floor, but still.

Gameplay

It’s Fallout 3/New Vegas.

…in fact, I’m almost concerned. I played those games so much, nearly everything about them is a known quantity. It’s like quitting WoW for a few years and then resubbing for the expansion – things have changed here and there, but you fall into your old habits pretty quickly. Fallout 4 is going to have to do a lot to surprise me in any way. Not that it has to necessarily, but it can’t rely on novelty to get me in the mood.

By the way, I know it’s largely a thematic issue and all, but it would it kill them to not reuse all the posters and even radio songs from Fallout 3? The asset recycling got so bad in New Vegas that the entire game ended up feeling like an expansion to Fallout 3 rather than its own game. Thus far, Fallout 4 is getting a pass from me (voiced main character adds a little… character, to the story), but it’s a tiny bit disappointing just the same.

Crafting

The crafting system in Fallout 4 reminds me of exactly how garbage-tier The Witcher 3’s crafting is. I’ll have to make another post on this topic, as I feel a rant coming on.

In Fallout 4’s case, the crafting system is both robust and perhaps too clever for its own good. As you may have heard, now everything is useful. Which is great! And miserably awful. Here is an example:

There went my afternoon.

There went my afternoon.

Rather than require discrete units of a particular item – such as Wonderglue in Fallouts past – nearly every goddamn thing in the game world can be broken down into crafting components. This is pretty cool, as it was a giant pain in the ass in prior games when you unlocked a weapon blueprint and then spent the next two hours desperately looking for that one specific item in all the junk of the world.

The downsides… are many, unfortunately. First, when everything is useful, you tend to want to grab everything. There was never any reason to hoard telephones and hotplates and all the random bullshit debris in abandoned buildings before, but now there is. Right now, screws in particular seem almost more important than purified water. I love how you can “Tag for Search” specific components though, as it will tag items you are looking at with a magnifying glass icon to remind you that you need to grab that specific thing without having to double-check some crafting spreadsheet.

The second issue is that it appears Bethesda really, really wants everyone to have Charisma 6 for the first rank of the Local Leader perk. Without that perk, all of the Workshops you encounter in the world aren’t connected, e.g. they are not a shared stash. Which doesn’t sound too bad until you realize that you can easily grab 100 lbs of random garbage in any given building. Can you Fast Travel back to your whatever settlement you decide is your main base? Yep. Is it annoying to sit through those load screens just to unload your bags every 15 minutes? Yep.

The last thing that’s annoying feels like something that will get addressed with a fan mod eventually, but it’s still annoying right now. Basically, there’s no prioritization when it comes to breaking down “Junk” for crafting components. In the picture above, you’ll notice how one of the items being broke down is the Giddyup Buttercup Body. I actually already collected various pieces of this item (which is a little wooden horse toy), and I imagine that there may be some kind of trick or achievement to reconstruct it. Or would have been, had I not scavenged it for screws. Same deal with Deathclaw Hands: if you aren’t careful, those will be scrapped for generic leather, of all things. Not sure if there are craftable Deathclaw Gauntlets this time around, but for sure there are Baseball Grenades that require intact baseballs, and the game won’t stop you from breaking those down into leather either.

So the bottom line is that you have to be particularly vigilant when crafting lest you scrap an item you’ll need intact later. Which is a pain in the ass, considering Workshops have a “Transfer All Junk” button that’s too convenient not to use. I have taken to transferring everything over, then manually picking out what I suspect will be useful and placing those in a separate container.

Revamped Perk/Leveling System

I don’t know how I feel about it.

Actually, that’s a lie. Right now, I don’t like it. Back in the day, Skill Points were really like the old WoW talents in that there is really no “choice” in the matter (after you chose your direction) and the tiny incremental improvements didn’t feel that impactful either. That said, their absence leaves a void. For example, Sneak (Rank 1) makes you 25% harder to detect. Uh… 25% more than what? What’s the baseline? Another example are the gun perks, which gives a given weapon type (rifle, pistol, etc) +20% extra damage. There are level requirements to most Perks, so you can’t just get +80% damage with rifles right off the bat, but the difference between that first rank and not having one is immense.

I mean… okay… 20% immense, but still.

Amusingly, the way the game is set up, you can get at least a stat or two up to 10 right off the bat, granting you access to the “top tier” Perks straight away. Further ranks are gated by levels, but it’s an interesting approach. Want to be a level 2 character with Grim Reaper’s Sprint? Go for it.

The tricky part is that after character creation, the only way to access deeper Perks is to spend your Perk point from leveling up to raise the SPECIAL stat it corresponds to. Want to just start playing the game like a normal person? Fuck you, newbie, now you gotta spend the next four levels getting nothing of value. This is the situation I’m in with the whole Local Leader perk – in order to get one rank in Local Leader, I’ll need to dump three points into Charisma to unlock it (I only had Charisma set to 3 at the beginning). At the moment, I’m thinking that I don’t actually need that perk that bad, but it still sucks knowing that I could have “fixed” things at the beginning had I not, you know, started playing the game.

Skip “optimizing the fun out of the game” one time, and this is what happens. Lesson learned.

More?

Yes. Despite the negatives above, I have a burning desire to get back to playing. And I shall do so.

Battlefield 4 Impressions

I have spent the past few days gorging myself on Battlefield 4, and feel it’s time to come up for some air and reflect on my self-abuse. As you might recall, I dabbled in the BF4 beta for a hot minute and was none too impressed. That opinion is… mostly still intact, although there are some definite surprises.

Progress!

Lens flare technology has definitely improved.

Right off the bat, the game does not feel materially different from BF3 in any way, shape, or form. The environments are detailed, geography diverse, the physics palpable, and actually seeing people to shoot without an over-reliance on Q-spam is a study in #firstworldproblem frustration. “The game is too beautiful to notice the bad guys.” All of this existed in BF3 to an indistinguishable degree. The “levolution” upgrade to the engine makes for some nicely-done scripted destruction, but that appears to be it. Well, the weather effects are pretty damn amazing too.

Indeed, about the only thing that became immediately apparent in terms of differences between BF3 and BF4 is how DICE continues to lurch further away from anything resembling intelligible UI design. The Battlelog fiasco is fine, whatever. What I’m talking about is how convoluted the menus and unlocks and the rest happen to be. Back in BF2, you earned ranks via XP and received an upgrade of your choice for any class (occasionally there were prerequisites). In BF3, all this was shook up with the introduction of assignments/etc, which had you to unlock weapons/items via the completion of what, in retrospect, closely resemble MMO quests: getting 20 kills with gun X and doing Y twice to unlock Z.

That's right. I took out an armored patrol boat with a blowtorch.

That’s right. I took out an armored patrol boat with a blowtorch. It only had 4hp but STILL!

For the most part, BF4 does away with that unlock scheme. Instead, weapons are unlocked linearly based on XP earned using any particular weapon in that class, e.g. using any LMG eventually unlocks more LMGs. The “problem” is that there is (still) really no incentive to use the newer weapons because you’ll likely be stuck with iron sights and no other accessories (bipod, laser sight, etc). The workaround appears to be via “Battlechests,” which are basically briefcases you earn via leveling up (and sometimes randomly in a match) that contain XP boosts, attachments, cosmetic items, and so on. Unfortunately, the accessories you earn can be for any weapon, including ones you haven’t even unlocked yet, so it’s too random to be useful for assuaging the new weapon issue.

One of the worst parts of BF3 was that feeling of utter uselessness that came with being a brand new player with zero unlocks; not only were you likely bumbling around getting no kills, even if you were in a position to be useful, you couldn’t really pull any of it off with the tools available to you. Even the DICE developers came out and said they “should be slapped” for it.

Well, the devs must have been talking about their BSDM preferences because BF4 proudly continues in that hazing tradition. The default Engineer anti-vehicle tool, for example, is a dumbfire rocket launcher that sometimes-maybe veers towards the roof of vehicles if it passes nearby. Which sounds neat, except this rocket hits like a dry pool noodle. You get stocked with five of them, and all five rockets are required to kill a single tank, assuming the driver is dumb enough to just let you launch five rockets at him. Or smart enough, I guess, because he’ll likely live past the barrage via passive vehicle repair and meanwhile you’ve just spent a full minute accomplishing nothing. Thankfully, the later weapons are significantly better in every possible fashion, but it’s still a ridiculous way to handle the new player experience, IMO.

Shooting lock-on rockets at vehicles while parachuting from 10,000 ft is my favorite thing.

Shooting lock-on rockets at vehicles while parachuting from 5,000 ft is my favorite thing.

It would not be a DICE game review without mentioning the bugs. I would say in the ~25 hours of play time I’ve racked up this far, I have to Ctrl-Alt-Del my way to the Task Manager and End Process about once every 2-3 hours; the Ctrl-Shift-Esc shortcut is apparently not powerful enough to break through whatever memory hole BF4 generates. Rubberbanding is occasionally an issue, although it mainly appears to be a server-specific problem. I have not encountered any obvious hackers, but I’m sure that’s inevitable. I still get in a full round of Candy Crush before the level will load when starting a session for the first time, but that’s been the case since BF3. DICE is saying they’re putting future expansions on hold until they sober up enough to fix the problems, which has to start sounding embarrassing to someone over at EA since that seems to be the case with every game they release.

Overall though? I’m having a lot of fun for my $26 thus far. I’m extremely burnt-out on PlanetSide 2, and BF4 scratches an itch in the way only someone slightly resembling your long-gone ex can. “Remember when you played Battlefield 2 for four years in college?” Yes, yes I do, BF4. You’re not BF2, but you’ll do. For now.

Bugs

As you may have noted along the sidebar, I am “playing” the original Crysis on and off. The scare-quotes are there because the game itself is borderline unplayable with all the bugs and crashes I have been experiencing. For as much as I love Steam and try to get 100% of my PC gaming through it, I am finding it increasingly asinine how little support Steam offers for the very games it sells. Generally speaking, if the game is more than 5 years old, I don’t even bother trying to install it before checking out the forums first; luckily, most of the first page is usually filled with similar customers in dire need of tech support as all of us stumble in the dark together.

I give games like the original Borderlands a pass – despite needing to download a swath of mods to make it less of a brain-dead console port – because that was how the game was designed. With Crysis though? The goddamn game crashes 100% of the time when you try and change any of the settings. If I alt-tab out of the game, it automatically switches to windowed mode, with no way to go back to full-screen without crashing the game. And it’s buggy even inside the game too; I was stuck for over an hour before I realized that the Objectives not updating was a bug and not me missing some sort of programming trigger (which would still be stupid).

I get that computers are hard, what with all the potential variations in hardware and software. But, seriously, some of this shit needs to be bundled with the download of the game itself.