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The Outer Hype, part 2

When I started playing The Outer Worlds back in December, I was not impressed. Having just completed the game yesterday, I can report that the game did not particularly redeem itself.

Dystopian dark humor only works when the rest of the game is dystopian, guys.

To be clear, the game may have been rigged from the start, so to speak. This was Obsidian, makers of Fallout: New Vegas! With a brand new IP! Like some kind of Mass Effect x Fallout space western! Except it wasn’t. At all. Like not even remotely close.

Was that Obsidian’s fault? Probably not, but they suffer the consequences of the hype just the same.

Parvati made most things bearable.

Regardless, the game did not improve. I was playing on Hard difficulty and the combat was just a mess from start to finish. Companion AI is tough to get right in any game, but here they are glorified abilities that you press once per combat, as they typically die immediately after they use them. Exploration was pointless, rewarding trash consumables or weapon mods you never have need of using. The whole Tinker/Upgrade system for level-based gear starts out as a promising way of keeping unique weapons (etc) relevant, but the escalating cost of doing so spirals out of control. When it’s easier and cheaper to just buy guns from a vending machine rather than try to upgrade the super-special gear you spent time exploring/questing for, you know things have fallen off the rails.

Quest-wise, things did not improve either. If you treat the game overall as a comedy, things might play out better from a tone perspective. And indeed there is some witty dialog to be had. Aside from that though, there was precisely one moment towards the end of the game in which I was surprised at the visual impact of a particular decision. Arguably though, it was surprising precisely because nothing else was ever taken seriously.

Kind of like this game, amirite?

Overall… well, I was going to suggest to give this game a pass, but I myself played it for a whole dollar via the Game Pass, so… do what you want. If you get past the first planet and aren’t feeling it though, don’t feel bad about moving on. It’s not going to scratch a Fallout itch, a Mass Effect itch, a BioShock itch, or any itch beyond a bizarre one for BBB Unreal engine comedy games.

And if you have one of those, you might want to see a dermatologist instead.

The Outer Hype

I have been playing The Outer Worlds via the Xbox Game Pass lately. And… I am not impressed.

People have been gushing about how this is Obsidian’s return to form, how it is a non-Fallout Fallout game, and so on. From what I have seen thus far though, having completed the first major area? It’s a slap-stick snooze-fest generic Unreal Engine title. That might be a controversial impression, so let me unpack it a bit.

First, it’s slap-stick due to the comically evil corporations in charge. One of the very first side-quests you get is to collect the grave fees from the families of those workers who have died. No payment, no continued burial. Another NPC mentioned how one of their workers committed suicide, and if anyone found out, the family would be fined for destruction of company property. All the words were there to evoke a sense of capitalist dystopian hellscape… but the tone wasn’t.

Every single quest or conversation is accompanied by a wink and/or eyebrow waggle. This isn’t Deus Ex or Syndicate or Blade Runner, this is Rick and Morty-level irreverence. And while there are certainly outlandish elements to the Fallout lore and in-jokes aplenty, the actual post-apocalypse piece is taken seriously. That isn’t the case with the Outer Worlds. I don’t know if that was done intentionally or not, or if perhaps things get more serious later on. I just know that when I completed a recent quest in which a NPC was sold as an indentured servant to pay off her debts instead of being assassinated, it did not even remotely register as a moral quandary.

Second, the snooze-fest piece refers both to combat and the non-combat pieces of the game. Having heard that Normal difficulty was actually quite easy, I went ahead and chose the next level up on the slider. And while I have indeed died several times in routine combat, there was never a sense that it was due to skill or anything. “Oops, there was a melee guy there, and he deals increased damage because the difficulty level is higher.” Indeed, combat feels disjointed most of the time, especially when you have companions who essentially teleport around when you trigger their special abilities.

Outside of combat, things are so formulaic that I don’t even know why Obsidian bothered with exploration elements at all. There are three ammo types for all guns (light, heavy, energy); there are multiple damage types (physical, corrosive, etc) but they map 1:1 in a cookie-cutter resistance way; 99% of everything you find is either currency, unnecessary food, and more copies of generic guns/armor to break down for generic parts to repair the guns you chosen to use; mods for guns/armor sound important but are again generic nonsense (your melee weapon deals plasma damage now!) that just ticks the customization 101 box. Even the Perks are boring.

Finally, when I said “generic Unreal Engine title,” you probably know what I mean. NPCs look basically the same, enemies look the same, you can look at a room and immediately understand where you might be able to go and how you might interact with the space. For all the bugs and shortcomings with the Gamebryo/Creation engine that Bethesda uses, going from that to this game is like going from an Erector Set to Mega Bloks.

Like I said, I’m only past the first planet so maybe things turn around. I have heard from basically everyone on the internet already that the game doesn’t though, and it’s only a 20-hour trip besides.

Suffice it to say, I’m not impressed. And I’m starting to think Fallout had more to do with Obsidian’s success than the other way around.

Stage 76: Acceptance

Well, I certainly feel better now.

Essentially, almost all of my concerns surrounding Fallout 76 have been addressed in several follow-up interviews with Todd Howard and others. There is something to be said about the failure of BGS’s marketing department that there needed to be three days’ worth of interviews and a 40-minute documentary to explain what kind of game the studio is even putting out, but whatever. It’s a Bethesda game, so if we can successfully log into it and the game not immediately explode, things are going well.

Here are the videos I have watched lately:

The summation? The griefing potential in Fallout 76 is limited.

You do not lose any items when you die, and you can choose were to respawn afterwards. When you log off, your base disappears with you. Anything you build can be repaired if destroyed. You can pack up and move your base pretty much at any time, and potentially save the layout as a blueprint for easy re-setup. Nukes do destroy everything in the area (for a time), and they also drop a endgame zone with high-level monsters in the blast radius, but there is apparently enough time for you to pack up and scoot out of the area. Plus, with the nukes, there are actual high-value areas (monster-spawning zones) for which the nukes are intended to destroy. Ergo, for every pack of sadists collecting launch codes for trolling potential, there will also be a group of PvE players interested in grinding loot and otherwise competing to Do The Right Thing.

Oh, and there will be areas (including the beginning area) in which no player bases can be built, specifically to avoid scenarios where you cannot find/complete a quest.

There are still some areas of mild concern – presently all players are visible on the map all the time – but honestly? I’m good now. People may indeed track you down and murder you from afar. There are systems in place already, apparently, to prevent them from being able to continue harassing you thereafter. And… I kinda get it. If other people were impossible to attack, griefers would just find another way to grief. But this way, there is a little bit of drama. Would you implicitly trust every person you ran into after the apocalypse? Maybe if you needed to supplies, or felt contact was inevitable. So now, there will be stories.

I will still, of course, be rolling on a PvE server if those are available.

Fallout76_Order

Speaking of, I already pre-ordered. That’s not something I do but Amazon offers 20% off preorders, and more crucially, preordering grants access to the beta. Member of Press©, and all that, right?

So we’ll see how things go soon.

Fall(ing)out

First up, everything that Jason Schreier from Kotaku reported was true: Fallout 76 is an online survival RPG. Second, my Concern Meter has been dialed to 11 since the E3 presentation.

As I said before, I am all onboard with a Fallout survival game. Exploring the wasteland and looting all the things consists of about 80% of my gameplay in this series, and I am currently on an extreme survival game kick the likes of which I have not experienced since my high school JRPG days. All of that sounds fantastic to me.

What was considerably less fantastic was this bit:

Bethesda Game Studios, the award-winning creators of Skyrim and Fallout 4, welcome you to Fallout 76, the online prequel where every surviving human is a real person. Work together – or not – to survive. Under the threat of nuclear annihilation, you’ll experience the largest, most dynamic world ever created in the legendary Fallout universe.

That is direct from Bethesda marketing material, and you can hear Todd Howard say it several times during the E3 presentation. Oh, and here is Todd with the final nails to finish that RPG coffin:

“You cannot [play offline]. Even if you are playing by yourself doing quests, you will see other players.”

There are no NPCs. […] There are still robots and terminals and holotapes.”

“We want a little drama there [with PvP/griefers] without it ruining your game.”

Sometimes I wonder whether any of these people have ever played a videogame before.

So there it is. Apparently there will be private servers at some point in the future, complete with modding capabilities. Considering that would likely compete with their own (presumed) microtransactions, I won’t be holding my breath. I haven’t actually heard anything about microtransactions, for the record, so maybe they will surprise us by keeping things honest. Howard did admit that the modding scene is always where their games end up in the long term.

In the Reddit thread where I found the interview clip above, there was this amusing exchange:

So what do you do then?

Do quests and build stuff with friends.

Quests from who? Doing what? With no NPC’s who’s going to give a quest, or at least one that’s meaningful. How am I supposed to give a fuck about the quests if theres no reason in behind them

It’s a fair question, especially if someone has never played a survival game before. The answer: it doesn’t matter. ARK has no NPCs or quests and I racked up 136 hours playing by myself on a local server. For reference, my /played time on Fallout: New Vegas and Fallout 4 are 128 and 96 hours, respectfully. Granted, the quality of those gameplay hours differs significantly – I can recall specific quests and epic moments from the Fallout games in a way I couldn’t describe cutting down the thousandth tree for wood in ARK – but the point is that entertainment can occur without there being a reason for it.

Plus, you know… Minecraft. That is a thing that people do.

Based just what we know today and random musings, here’s what I’m thinking:

  • Basically Fallout ARK minus the taming
    • Ghouls/robots/etc = dinosaurs
    • No human NPCs
  • Overseer quest is extended tutorial to get you to visit all six maps
    • Each zone unlocks specific progression crafting stations/items
    • Overseer is a robot/AI and possibly the Navi to your Link
  • All quests are passive, e.g. go here, find this, activate X, defend Y
    • No direct quest giver NPC, no factions
    • World boss spawns, and public group quests are frequent
    • Radiant-esque quests via Note Board or similar
    • Might find magazines/notes that lead to mini-dungeons
  • The six zones are not contiguous; fast travel at the edges/specific locations
  • Looting/scavenging is a big deal for building supplies, main motivator for exploring
  • CAMP system will reduce base griefing a little bit
    • Pack up your base before logging off; crops (etc) probably won’t grow though
    • Unable to spam buildings across the map to block locations
    • A ton of people setting up hostile turret bases near newbie areas though
  • XP and levels and Perks and Skills, like normal Fallout
  • “Jobs” in the trailer correspond to group-based roles (scout, tank, etc)
  • Always “dozens” of players per map, per server
  • Expect a lot of activity near best resource spawn locations
  • Nukes aren’t necessarily for griefing – they create endgame locations
    • Getting codes to unlock nukes is its own mini-progression
    • Extra hard enemies/bosses spawn in nuked area
    • Some kind of endgame resource spawns only there
    • Radiation requires loot/crafting grind just to survive brief trips inside
  • No private servers at launch
    • “Progression follows you” means getting OP on private, then griefing public
    • Or farming Power Armor quickly, then handing it to your friends
    • Alternatively, allow private servers but character cannot migrate

Most of that is idle speculation, but we can come back to it once more details have been released.

[Edit: Updated Youtube link, since first interview was taken down]

Fallout: Survive

The big news is that Bethesda teased the next Fallout entry: Fallout 76.

People were understandably confused by the naming convention. “What happened to Fallouts 5-75?” The mirth turned to trepidation when Jason Schreier from Kotaku tweeted:

Well, as of this afternoon, Jason tightened the thumbscrews further with this article:

When Bethesda announced Fallout 76 with a teaser trailer this morning, promising more information at E3, it was easy to assume that the new game would be a traditional single-player role-playing game. But Fallout 76 is in fact an online survival RPG that’s heavily inspired by games like DayZ and Rust, according to three people familiar with the project.

Jaw… dropped.

This could be a total disaster. An unmitigated, unrelenting disaster.

…or this could be the best thing of all time. Either/or.

No, but seriously, it’s difficult to assess the firestorm going on in my head right now. Am I disappointed that we’re not seeing a straight-up Fallout 5 right now? Sure. But take a moment and remember back to Fallout 4 and Fallout 3 (and New Vegas for that matter) and ask yourself: how important was the main story, really? Conversely, what were the best parts of this series for you?

For me, it was precisely the post-apocalyptic exploration bits that I love; the mini-vignettes in the form of skeletons or computer logs; the hoarding of thousands of pounds of tin cans and bottle caps; looking at my map, seeing the quest marker, and decidedly going in the opposite direction. While there were never many traditional survival elements to the Fallouts – baring the New Vegas option, which did not change much mechanically – the game setting just had a certain… je ne sais quoi which led me to ransacking every ramshackle shack in the wasteland, in spite of it being totally unnecessarily. Fallout 4’s base-building components were… well, also unnecessary, but at least gave those thousands of pieces of debris a purpose.

So, in short, my body is ready for this.

In fact, I have never been more ready. The only reason why I don’t own Metal Gear: Survive or Conan: Exiles is because they haven’t been bundled/deeply discounted yet. I only uninstalled ARK because it takes up 100+ GB on my limited SSD. I only stopped playing 7 Days to Die because I didn’t want to burn all of my interest until at least patch A17 is released (which is apparently in July). I don’t really advertise it, but my own personal dream game elevator pitch is “Fallout 3 meets Silent Hill – post-apoc psychological survival FPS.”

Now, it’s entirely possible that the devs won’t be able to thread all the needles:

Originally prototyped as a multiplayer version of Fallout 4 with the goal of envisioning what an online Fallout game might look like, Fallout 76 has evolved quite a bit over the past few years, those sources said. It will have quests and a story, like any other game from Bethesda Game Studios, a developer known for meaty RPGs like Skyrim. It will also feature base-building—just like 2015’s Fallout 4—and other survival-based and multiplayer mechanics, according to those sources. One source cautioned that the gameplay is rapidly changing, like it does in many online “service” games, but that’s the core outline.

How exactly does one have both survival multiplayer and quests? Is this going to be a stripped-down The Elder Scrolls Online? Jason mentioned in the comments that “Yeah I’ve also heard people who know the game make comparisons to Ark, fwiw,” so I could imagine it being… well, ARK with quests. But are they going to all be radiant quests ala Skyrim? Can people kill the quest-givers? Can you create your own private (single-player) servers? Will there be modding available?

Details will emerge in the next few weeks, for sure. In the meantime, I’m loving it. Even if Fallout 76 is a total disaster, it has solidified in me the understanding of something I wasn’t quite able to express. Namely, that I want a Fallout ARK. The RPG elements and VATS and such are traditional features that help define the narrative a bit, but I don’t view them as essential anymore. And maybe they never were. I just love that setting, and that gameplay loop of exploring the wasteland.

War never changes, but perhaps our appreciation of it can.

Stat Synonym Overload

I am not entirely sure whether it is due to my age, experience with MMOs, or perhaps a combination of the two, but the naming conventions in these games are becoming increasingly obtuse.

In the beginning, or near abouts anyway, there was HP. Then there was Constitution, which affected HP. Or perhaps Endurance, circa the Fallout series. Then it seemed to be Stamina for a long while. Now it is Vitality, or straight-up Health, or even Grit, or whatever. Strength seems to be pretty consistent over the years, but Dexterity can be all over the place – Nimbleness, Precision, or split into Perception and Agility. I was browsing this fan page for Wildstar and slowly blinked at the attribute names. Here are the main six:

  • Brutality
  • Finesse
  • Moxie
  • Tech
  • Insight
  • Grit

Pop-quiz hotshots: what do any of those mean in-game without looking it up?

Personally, I know what somebody means when they refer to someone “having a lot of moxie,” but I wouldn’t be able to define it off-hand, let alone venture a guess as to what it would do in-game. Hell, the only time I’ve ever heard the term used for anything in a game was during the brief period I played Kingdom of Loathing (which has a Moxie stat). In Wildstar, it will apparently depend on what class you’re playing as to what the stat does: it’s Critical Chance and Critical Severity Rating for everyone aside from ESPers, for whom it increases Assault Power. Meanwhile, Insight raises Deflect and Deflect Critical Rating for most, and Support Power for the heal-y types. And good luck with figuring out Tech, which can be Assault, Support, or Deflect increases depending on class.

I mean, I get it. Maybe the designers want to thematically set their gaming world apart from what came before. Perhaps there is a concern that theorycrafting from one game will carry over too easily to the next. Who knows, maybe game companies have actually trademarked attribute terms and it’s actually illegal to use them.

All that I know is that, to me, stats in these games have become unmoored to any ready understanding of them. Dungeons of Dredmor made a tongue-in-cheek point by including 29 different stats on the character sheet, but I’m no longer going to be surprised if Savvy or Caddishness shows up unironically. I mean, Moxie for god’s sake.

I find this entire scenario a problem for game companies because my ability to care – let’s call it Tolerance Rating – is approaching zero. I enjoy numbers, theorycrafting, and so on. I do not enjoy translating foreign languages, or having to otherwise refer to some sort of cheat sheet just to see if what item I picked up is an upgrade. But maybe attribute names were always goofy and arbitrary, and that I specifically have simply accumulated too much game-lore detritus.

In which case… I’m apparently in for a bad time.

Review: Fallout: New Vegas

Game: Fallout: New Vegas
Recommended price: Full Price ($20)
Metacritic Score: 84
Completion Time: 70+ hours
Buy If You Like: Fallout 3, Oblivion

The ever-important first vista shot.

The ever-important first vista shot.

When I played Fallout 3, it completely revolutionized the series to me. A storied veteran of the original Fallout, Fallout 2, and Fallout Tactics, the idea of a first-person non-grid-based combat game filled me with dread. Would it feel like Fallout? Why turn this series into a FPS?

By the end of the first hour, my fears (and free time) melted away in the vast furnace of Fallout 3’s immersive, brilliant post-apocalyptic world. I had already played games like Oblivion, but it was not until Fallout 3 that I truly appreciated the depths in Bethesda games; the ability to just strike out and roam. While it lacked the brilliant storytelling of the prior games, I felt it made up for it in all the unspoken narratives of the world around you. Suffice it to say, Fallout 3 remains in my top 5 games of all time.

This is not, of course, a Fallout 3 review.

Fallout: New Vegas is a noble attempt at having it both ways: the exploration and the narrative. You start not as a fresh-faced Vault Dweller, but as a middling Courier, shot in the head in media res ala Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. And in typical narrative-driven fashion, your quest for revenge starts at Point A and leads inexorably to Point B.

This is roaming on rails, at least for the first few dozen hours, with the slightest deviation leading to certain death. Strike North from the starting city and you will face level 20 Giant Radscorpions. Stray too far West outside the plot-directed Southerly route and Super Ghouls will eat your face off. Cut through the mountains to the East and you will inexplicably face the Blind Deathclaw guarding the path, conveniently immune to the effects of even your Stealth Boy invisibility cloak.

Decisions, decisions.

Decisions, decisions.

Between the visible fences of high-level monsters and being able to see New Vegas’s Lucky 38 tower from any vantage point in the game, F:NV starts off by feeling microscopic in comparison to Fallout 3. But a curious thing happens as you finally reach the Southern reaches of I-15 and turn East. “Tutorial Mode” over, the game suddenly opens up, blooming with hidden depth and density like some desert flower. There is still the highlighted yellow-brick plot road to follow, but you can actually strike out on your own at this point with less risk of instant death. I decided to plow my way to New Vegas proper at this point, stopping only at the various locations within sight along the way.

It ended up taking me over 40 hours just to reach the gates.

Combat in F:NV is more or less identical to Fallout 3: you can still treat the entire game as a normal FPS or you can pause the action in VATS mode to specifically target enemy extremities. Weapons skew a lot more towards traditional Spaghetti Western fare as befits the motif, but classic laser/plasma guns are not too far behind.

F:NV does feature some interesting innovations compared with its predecessor, including the use of Factions with mostly independent reputations. Don’t like the New California Republic? Join Caesar’s Legion. Or vice versa. Or screw them both and embrace Mr. House’s vision of the future. Or screw him too and embrace your own brand of justice. While the burgeoning complexities of the midgame collapses into an endgame constant, fundamentally the ending is one you can choose. Classic Fallout.

Well… mostly. While all of the set pieces are in place, including many of the same (recycled) posters last seen around the D.C. area, I could not help but feel that F:NV was… missing something. Something ephemeral, something intangible. F:NV is set in the same Fallout universe with the same people and the same post-apocalyptic problems. And perhaps that is what felt off. If this were the 1990s, F:NV would have been an expansion pack to Fallout 3, not a spiritual sequel.

I do kinda miss the Fallout 1 & 2-style depth to responses.

I do kinda miss the Fallout 1 & 2-style depth to responses.

Don’t get me wrong, there is more than enough to do in F:NV to justify its own existence. But it felt more like Fallout 3.5 than its own game. And yet, at the same time, F:NV feels like it didn’t have to be a Fallout game at all. Sure, there are Vaults and Nuka-Cola and Super Mutants aplenty. But the overarching narrative of revenge never felt personally compelling, and the coming clash between NCR and Caesar’s Legion seemed a digression. This game was Fallout when I was just wandering around, eager to scavenge what I can out of crumbling ruins I see just on the horizon. When I was the Courier just trying to make a final delivery for no particular reason? Not so much. The Platinum Chip is not too different from the Water Chip when it comes to plot McGuffins, but it felt different just the same. I wasn’t protecting my home, my family, nor was I my own person. I was… the Courier, a stranger in familiar skin, following a past everyone knows about but me.

Ultimately, Fallout: New Vegas is not Fallout 3. For some people, that will be a relief; for others, a deficiency. But it is important to keep in mind the scale of this particular comparison. I am pulling out the microscope and judging the relative merits of Mt. Everest versus the Grand Canyon. I am quantifying and comparing the love felt for a firstborn son with that for a granddaughter. Fallout: New Vegas cannot be fairly judged by a jury of its peers because it has no peers other than Fallout 3… and possibly Skyrim/Oblivion. So while I still feel that Fallout 3 is better than Fallout: New Vegas, the latter is better than damn near every other videogame I have played. I am being so critical not because Fallout: New Vegas is a bad game, but precisely because it is so good.

DLC

There are four main pieces of DLC for Fallout: New Vegas, although at this point they will all likely be bundled with any Game of the Year copy you will buy. Briefly though, I will describe them for posterity.

Honest Hearts: Technically speaking, this was my least favorite of the DLCs. Heading into the outskirts of New Caanan, the Courier gets to interact with Burning Man, the hitherto presumed-dead former leader of Caesar’s armies. While there is a main plot concerning the story of revenge/redemption, it simply does not flow too well, in my opinion. I never really cared about the plights of the tribes or the lands they occupied.

Conversely, the sort of understated plot line of “The Father in the Cave” revealed via in-game computer archives was one of the more poignant mini-narratives I have seen in Fallout, if not in games period. If you’ve chosen to never play F:NV (and are still reading this review for some reason), go read the transcript here; it is presented in the Wiki exactly as you see it in-game, aside from actually exploring some of the locations (and seeing the traps) mentioned in the text.

Outside of that, the Hearts DLC does feature a lot more plant materials for use in homemade stimpacks, and an abundance of clean drinking water for those doing a Hardcore run.

Old World Blues: Modeled on 1950s-era space dramas, I found this DLC to be exceptionally fun and funny both. The premises push the boundaries of believability even in the Fallout universe (your brain is scooped out right at the start), but after a while it ceases to be particularly relevant as you blast giant mechanical radscorpions and other ridiculous enemies. As a sort of bonus, by the end of the DLC you essentially receive a remote mountain base with all sorts of crafting stations and other amenities that you can teleport to at any time.

Dead Money: While this DLC opens up with my least favorite gaming trope – the sort of Metroid-esque “remove all your gear” mechanic – it does sort of ratchet up the tension and make the rest of the storyline work. Collared with explosives, you are forced to try and open up a vault underneath one of the few surviving casinos outside of the New Vegas area. The limited weapon selection and deadly dust clouds skews the DLC more towards survival-horror than Fallout sidequest, but I was pleased with the plot, imagery, and ultimate payoff.

Lonesome Road: Out of the four, this DLC most fits the narrative of the game proper. I felt it a smidge too linear for my liking (although not as linear as Dead Money) and a bit too ridiculous in other places (trigger nuclear bombs to move wooden debris out of your way, what?), but out of the four this most fit the tone of Fallout games.

The Stealth Dilemma

As I mentioned last week, I have started playing Kingdoms of Amalur. At one point during the tutorial, the game showcased the ability to perform stealth kills.

Surprisingly brutal.

Surprisingly brutal.

So, now I have a dilemma. Do I actually trust the designers to have gone all the way?

Stealth is always a risky game design concept. By its very nature, stealth avoids traditional combat; yet unless a game is stealth-centric – such as Tenchu, Metal Gear Solid, etc – it must feature traditional combat robust enough to satisfy a more action-oriented playstyle. The more robust the traditional combat is though, the more powerful stealth itself becomes. Indeed, as players become stronger and enemies increase in deadliness, stealth can pass a certain threshold of absurdness that makes any other strategy seem poor in comparison.

Few mixed-gameplay games handle stealth well, and even fewer take stealth “all the way.” When I started up Dragon Age: Origins for the first time, I chose to make a dwarf rogue. My thought process at the time was that I always wanted access to lockpicking and trap detection, but the thought of those sneak attack criticals also appealed to the tactical gamer in me.

As it turns out, playing a rogue in DA:O was a pain in the ass. While you can scout out rooms and such, the nature of these sort of games (and most games, actually) is that ambushes are controlled by invisible programming triggers, such as “enter this room.” Sometimes this let me pull some counter-ambush maneuvers, such as flooding a room I knew to be occupied by hidden enemies with fireballs and poison gas. Other times, my rogue was made visible automatically by mini-boss or cut-scene decree. While I could still occasionally score sneak attacks in combat, doing so basically removed my main character from the battle until she could slowly move into position while the rest of the party got battered.

There are only two games in recent memory that I feel handled stealth well. The first is Dishonored. While it is true that the game is stealth-centric and thus shouldn’t really “count,” I was nevertheless impressed by the designers’ gumption to take the stealth mechanics all the way, i.e. even usable on the last boss. Unfortunately, killing the final boss with a single shot also felt horribly dumb, all things considered; it should not have been easier taking out the last boss than the very first enemy you encountered. The opposite wherein bosses are immune to stealth isn’t much fun either, as Deus Ex: Human Revolution demonstrated.

The second game that I felt supported stealth all the way was Skyrim. While I am not entirely sure if you could actually stealth around the last boss (such as it is), there was a talent at the end of the Sneak tree that allowed you to temporarily cloak long enough to activate your heightened Sneak Attack critical multipliers for an attack or two. Like with Dishonored, it felt sort of cheesy, but I had been two-shotting sleeping dragons with my bow for hours beforehand, so I already knew the absurd stealth line had been crossed.

Now that I think about it, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas also supported stealth gameplay all the way. Indeed, sometimes I feel like my playthroughs would have been 20-30 hours shorter, had I not been crouch-crawling through most of the game.

And so now I am left with the Amalur decision. As I level, shall I invest in stealth-based skills and abilities in the hopes they won’t be made irrelevant by boss battles and dungeon design? Or should I ignore the fig-leaf stealth design and instead focus on more mundane, useful abilities that I can actually utilize against 100% of the enemies I face, including the final boss? Or perhaps I should trust in my moment-to-moment stealth gameplay joys, having what fun I can in whatever percentage of the game allows me to stealth through?

It remains a dilemma either way. Many people celebrate having these sort of choices in their videogames, but choice requires trust in designers that one’s choices will actually be meaningful, and most importantly: balanced. When it comes stealth, as fun as it is, sometimes it is not worth letting the player have his or her way.

Chicken & Eggs, PlanetSide Edition

I have been playing around with PlanetSide 2 (Ps2) for the past couple of days.

As far as initial impressions go, the “introduction” to Ps2 is uniformly awful. Oh, hey, they lifted the character creation head presets from Fallout. Pick a faction and server without knowing anything about either. And before you even get a chance to check out character/class settings and such, you are launched via drop pod into the heaviest fighting on the map and, in all likelihood, killed immediately. Now that you have some free time, go ahead and look over the thoroughly unhelpful menus while trying to ascertain to what degree SOE is set to gouge your wallet (spoiler: the Nth degree).

Not that it really matters, but hey.

Once you finally respawn, things do not get much better that first day. Coming from Battlefield 3 and even Tribes, killing people seems to take 1-2 seconds of full-auto fire more than it should. It is also difficult to tell who the enemy actually is – while you get a No Smoking sign on your crosshairs when aiming at a friendly, everyone has the same profile and even colors at first glance. Character animations look stiff, and the models seem lifted from Natural Selection, that Half-Life mod from a decade ago.

I respawned time and time again, courageously throwing myself in front of bullets intended for players actually capable of accomplishing something, while I returned fire with my Nerf Gun that shoots wads of wet tissue paper. In a lull in the dying action, I tried deciphering the stone tablet hieroglyphics that was my minimap. “Generator destroyed.” “Generator repaired.” Was that a good or bad thing? Whose generator? When the the vehicle I was spawning at finally got destroyed, I found myself literal miles away from any discernible action, with no way of knowing where to go, what to do, or why I was doing this instead of finishing packing.

I was lost and alone in the blinding snow.

Forever Alone…

The second and third days, by contrast, were infinitely better.

It took a lot of outside research, but I started understanding the pros and cons of the various classes. I learned enough about Certs (i.e. upgrade points) to know what they are, how to get more, and good places to spend them. I used Reddit to find a Google Doc that explained what the symbols on the map are, how to properly assault a Bio Dome, and some tricks for getting around. I learned enough about the weapon shop to know how badly SOE is gouging me (way worse than Tribes: Ascend, by the way)… but also the cool bit where you take a new weapon out for a 30 minute test-drive without paying anything.¹

On the third day, I found one of the best features in almost any game I have ever played:

Please make this the future.

I called this post Chicken & Eggs because games like PlanetSide 2 (and nearly all MMOs) require you to have social structures in place before you can really start having fun. Social structures which, incidentally, seem like a waste of time to seek out/develop when you aren’t having fun. “Join a guild to have a good time.” Why would I, if I’m not having fun currently? Which is supposed to come first? I am not necessarily suggesting that fun should occur without effort, but let’s be serious for minute: there are a hundred different games you could be playing right now that are fun from the word Go.

While I still believe the First Day experience in PlanetSide 2 is pretty awful, I absolutely love this grouping system with descriptions they have in-game and hope this sort of idea is lifted wholesale by every MMO multiplayer game. Why can’t there be some sort of in-game bulletin-board-esque system that allows like-minded individuals find each other in every game? Why do socially-oriented games basically require out-of-game social structures to work at all? I have always enjoyed the no-obligation/instant grouping of LFD, but I still recognize the existence of a social hole it cannot fill. Yet here, in a single simple feature, I can differentiate between the friendly strangers, the SRS BSNS folks, jokers wanting to recreate that helicopter scene from Apocalypse Now, and more.

So come on, social game designers, this is not that hard a concept. If the game is made better by playing with people we know, make it easier to get to know people in your own goddamn game. Nearly 99% of everyone I know online I originally met through WoW or blogging about WoW. Make your game a foundation for new friendships (by making it easier to do so) and people will continue coming back. We get the opportunity to express ourselves and meet new people, and you (likely) get a pair or more of multi-year customers.

¹ This feature is cool, but it has a 30-day cooldown on that specific weapon, and starts up an 8-hour cooldown on every other item. Apparently this cooldown is per character though, so you can cheese the limitation by rolling a new toon, trying it out, and then deleting it later.

Unfortunate Obsolescence

It occurs to me that we – or more specifically, I – have well and truly crossed the barrier beyond which old, amazing games go to die, unplayed and forgotten.

For example, today you can buy Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II on Steam for $1.24. I have heard many, many great things about this game over the years (and it indeed has a 91 Metacritic score), but I never got around to experiencing it. And so when I saw it up for 75% off, I decided to take a look at the game’s page. What I saw was this:

This probably looked amazing to my 14-year old self.

I just couldn’t do it. Whatever it was that this game could have added to my life experience is gone forever.

Of course, this is not just Dark Force II’s problem. Have you tried booting up Planescape: Torment lately? I wrote an awful, awful review of the game back during the height of my JRPG fandom phase a decade ago, and have always wanted to return to give the game its proper dues. But that is unlikely to ever happen. I tried, I seriously tried. Planescape always had a super zoomed-in camera compared to the Baldur’s Gate titles, and combined with the 640×480 max resolution was simply too much. I could not bring myself to get out of the morgue, the technical/compatibility issues notwithstanding.

To bastardize a phrase: the flesh is willing, but the spirit is weak.

Who though, in all honesty, is going to go back and play Fallout 1 & 2 after being introduced to the franchise via 3 or New Vegas? There are hundreds of classic games like this. Certain ones, like Chrono Trigger and the like, can survive rerelease after rerelease without changes. But these others? Not going to happen. I talked about the haunting legacy of Deus Ex in regards to its modern-day prequel, but who is going to play the original if they have not already? I understand there are mods that do amazing things to the visuals, but that presupposes a desire to go through the trouble to begin with.

Indeed, I feel the entire gaming industry is entering a bizarre new landscape with the advent of the App/Indie/F2P Age. I wrote over 60 RPG reviews back in the day, and every single one of them had a Replayability score. Now? Who cares about replayability? Story choice is fantastic, but the typical likelihood of my actually going back through New Game+ or its equivalent is somewhere between zero and no way in hell. I’m not looking for something to kill my time anymore – time is the one precious thing I ain’t got anymore. Any game that wants another roll in the hay is competing against an entire library of unplayed Steam titles, indie or no.

And that, sadly, also goes for older titles regardless of their presumed timelessness. So when I see people complain about, say, Syndicate looking like this instead of this, well… that latter game is dead and gone. I just went through an Eeyore routine with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, sure, but I would rather some remnant exist in a modern form than nothing at all.