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Official reviews are coming in regarding Fallout 76, and almost all of them are universally bad. Like, real bad. In reading them though, it’s very clear that Bethesda did not live up to games these people invented in their head:

The collision of Fallout and multiplayer sparks all sorts of exciting ideas in my mind, most of which have to do with post-apocalyptic role-playing. What if I ran a town, hosting elections and keeping the peace? What if I opened a shop, selling exotic items to other players in a desperate bid to raise enough caps to survive the harsh wasteland? What if I worked behind a bar, serving drinks to other players, passing on gossip and words of wisdom? What if I was the head honcho of a group of raiders, ordering other players to attack camps and loot the corpses of our enemies? What if I founded my own faction, something like Caesar’s Legion from Fallout New Vegas, perhaps? What if I wanted to infiltrate a player-run faction I didn’t get on with, befriending their leader before stabbing them in the back?

Unfortunately, Fallout 76 does not facilitate any of those fantasies. What it does instead is facilitate boredom, frustration and game-breaking bugs.

Like, what the shit, Eurogamer? “Bethesda didn’t make EVE/Star Wars Galaxy mashup, 0/10 stars.”

The rest of that review is slightly less ridiculous. There are complaints about the tutorial quests that ask you to boil water and pick up bottles:

Most missions are little more than fetch quests. Go here, get the thing, bring it back, interact with a robot, job done. It’s mind-numbing in the extreme. It’s Fallout at its worst: basic, monotonous and lacking nuance.

Of course, that had me trying to reach back and remember the quests in Fallout 4, New Vegas, 3, and so on. Replace “interact with a robot” with “talk with an NPC” and… does that not describe basically everything, in any game? A lot of people post memes about how Fallout 3 was finding your daddy and Fallout 4 was about finding your son, and yet here we are lamenting about being free from such mundane burdens.

To an extent, that’s an unfair comparison. Fallout’s best stories were always side-quests, with the main narrative basically acting as a vehicle to drive you around the wasteland looking for them. While holo tapes can be poignant, they just aren’t the same when you can never affect the world.

At the same time… I don’t know that I miss any of that.

I want you to remember all the things you did in Fallout 3, New Vegas, and Fallout 4. Think about what was fun for you. Was it…

  • Striking out and going wherever you wanted to go
  • Exploring ruins, caves, and cities
  • Collecting junk to craft gear
  • Leveling up skills, getting Perks
  • Shooting things in the face
  • Solving moral dilemmas among various NPC groups

Hey, what do you know, Fallout 76 has five out of those six things! And arguably does those five better than any Fallout has before.

I am not trying to denigrate story and narrative here. I’m just saying that I don’t miss it in Fallout 76. In fact, the whole thing is making me question the cohesiveness of the prior games. For example, how much does the ability to strike out and roam around really improve, say, New Vegas’ narrative? Back when I played, I didn’t give two shits about finding Benny beyond the fact that I had a quest entry that wouldn’t go away otherwise. As I wrote back in 2013:

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. […] 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.

This is the same problem I had with Witcher 3 – the setting and the story were at complete odds at each other. Your motivation is to find Ciri before the Wild Hunt can, but oh hey, look, there are 40 hours of sidequests you can do over here first. All of which are a hundred times more interesting and immersive than the main, ostensibly racing against time one.

I appreciate the fact that you could kill just about anyone in New Vegas. Or kill next to no one. It is fairly uncommon in gaming to be able to resolve conflict in many different ways. But you don’t need the Fallout scaffolding to do that. By which I mean the wandering around, the looting abandoned buildings, the Power Armor, the Fast Travel ferrying of dozens of pipe rifles to sell to vendors for Caps to buy new shit. I was not “the Courier” when I was hunting for Wonderglue in a half-collapsed shack. I did that for gameplay reasons and because it physically felt good to do so.

So when I hear people say things like this:

To be fair what the hell is Fallout without the story and the player options/personalised quests/interesting world side of things beyond a clunky shooter.

…I feel like I’m going crazy. Open the map, walk over there, kill something along the way in an alternative-history post-apocalyptic 1950s. THAT’S FALLOUT (since 2008). You sure as shit aren’t playing New Vegas for 300+ hours for the storyline alone, son. You play it for that long because it’s fun walking around in that world, fun interacting with things, fun immersing yourself in the wasteland life.

Fallout 76 has systemic problems. The main one being the random server system, from which all other problems follow. All that glorious made-up shit Eurogamer was pining for could become a reality if there is a Moonguard-esque server that people specifically sought out and congregated on. Always-on PvP servers could also be a thing, with forced respawn areas and such. Pretty much everything is solved with servers, actually.

But all these people talking about the gunplay and the “emptiness” of the world? Clunky compared to what? New Vegas? Empty compared to what? Human NPCs with relatable human stories are fantastic, I agree. I just don’t need them to push me over the horizon and into the ruins – the hunt for Gears and Ballistic Fiber is motivation enough. There is still map to see, still ever-stronger enemies to face, and more guns to shoot them in the face with.

Fallout 76 is like when you finish (or ignore) the main story in a Fallout game but you just keep playing anyway. If you don’t do that sort of thing, then yeah, this game is not for you.

Impressions: Fallout 76 (Beta)

I managed to put a solid five hours of play into the Fallout 76 Beta last night.

My overall impression is that the game is fun, despite the frustrations. Whether the game will continue being fun for any particular length of time is another matter entirely.

Let’s start with the basics. The game is gorgeous. Prior Fallout titles judiciously used green/brown wasteland scenery and only populated certain pockets with relatively normal plant life. Here in West Virginia though, you start out in a vibrant, Autumnal wilderness. The music has also been surprisingly good. In fact, I pretty much have left the Pip-Boy radio off through my entire playthrough. One, because it was unnecessary, and two, because everyone around you can hear it.

Speaking of other people, well, they exist. I did not run into any griefers during my playthrough, nor did anyone stream rap music or racial slurs. Conversations were cordial, and mostly focused on pointing people towards where the good loot was located. As reported pretty much everywhere, there is no text chat – everything is open mic.

That said, people are also distracting. Listening to one of the dozens of holotapes strewn across the landscape is hard when XxSephirothxX is chatting about (and demonstrating) how the cars can be punched until they explode in a huge fireball. You can always listen to the holotapes later, but they are often context sensitive to where you found them.

The economy of the game takes a significant shift in thinking. Within about ten minutes of starting, I came across a few ruined buildings with about five Scorched (burnt ghouls that can use guns). I killed four but actually died to the last one, which appeared to be an elite of some kind (had a crown near his level indicator). I respawned, walked back down, picked up my bag of dropped junk, killed the elite, and started looting. The elite was somehow carrying half a dozen pipe rifles. Jackpot, right?

Not really.

There are vendor robots and kiosks in various locations, but the vendor rate appears to be 10% or less. As in, if the item says it’s value is 30 caps, you get 3 caps at best. Fast traveling about four inches on the map costs 7 caps. Moving your CAMP costs 5 caps. Blueprints are 120 caps.

The vast majority of the time, you are much better off scrapping… well, everything. Collect a bunch of weapon, Junk, and other sundries, find a workbench of any kind (thankfully) and break them down for parts like scrap metal, screws, and the worth-its-weight-in-gold aluminum. Breaking down weapons gives you a chance to acquire modding blueprints and the like as well. Then take those bits and pieces and upgrade, repair, and otherwise craft the gear you want.

This feels like more of a sea change in practice than it might come across in text. Damn near everything drops weapons… which I guess normally happens in Fallout games. But now you need to hoard stuff and collect all the things so you can scrap it, because crafting is now a huge component to the game at every level. Settlements in Fallout 4 might have been whatever to you, but your CAMP is basically the only home you’ll ever have. Weapons and armor wear down and break at inopportune times, and even if they don’t, you need this stuff to upgrade your existing stock.

Having said all of the above, there are some somewhat serious concerns.

For one thing, the inventory management of Fallout 76 is hardcore. Now, it’s a typical Fallout game insofar as weight is basically the only driving concern… but it’s a big one. A lot of people on Reddit found out early that your Stash (shared inventory) has a weight limit of 400 lbs of stuff. This might seem like a lot or a little, but the bottom line is that you can easily reach this cap in less than 10 hours of playing. Hell, if you come across some early Power Armor, that’s nearly 100 lbs right there. Junk has weight, scrap has weight, weapons that you can’t use yet – yes there are minimum level restrictions on weapons – have weight. All of this adds up quickly, and I have no idea what exactly the plan is for when you aren’t level 7 and have a full Stash. Throw everything out? Only loot 1-2 key resources? I’m hoping that this weight limit is a Beta thing.

Another issue is that this game is very much a console port. Again. Pressing Esc brings up your map. Then you have to press Z to open the settings/options menu. What? Fallout has never had a particularly good UI scheme, but I found it largely impossible to tell what blueprints I had just acquired from scrapping a gun. For example, I unlocked “Ivory Handle” but did not see it as an option when modifying any of my guns. Maybe it was an ivory handle to a knife? No idea. You have to dig into the Pip-Boy to find out what the disease you just picked up does. Again, this is par for the course for Fallout games, but this is also a no-pause, no safe place survival game.

Don’t get me started on the CAMP screen when trying to build shit. Let’s just say that Z and C are involved to navigate around. It’s not intuitive at all.

There is no Beta tonight, but there will be some extra time this weekend. I plan on playing as much as possible. The game is a lot of fun, despite my grumblings. But like I said at the beginning, it’s hard to tell for how long. At some point, there will be a transition from “loot all the things” to “can’t loot all the things” to “don’t care about looting things.” It’s tough to forecast how quickly that transition will occur, but I can already see it on the horizon.

When it comes, I suppose that’s when we’ll see the griefers really come out of the woodwork.

Space Ninja Janitor

Warframe was going so great. All the way up until I wall-ran into the payslope and slid back down on my space ninja ass.

The problem I currently have is that all of the blueprints I have available require materials I do not have enough of. In my specific case, it’s Plastids. While mobs do drop some resources, your primary source of most everything are breaking containers and opening lockers. This is essentially the equivalent of breaking clay pots in Diablo. But hey, it’s a looter shooter, right? No big deal.

Let me tell you, there is nothing more disillusioning than a space ninja terminator walking around at normal speed breaking open containers and opening lockers.

Warframe is about leaping through the air and slamming into the ground, knocking your foes aside. Warframe is about drawing an energy sword from the void and instantly slicing five enemies in half. Warframe is about dodging attacks and taking down tough bosses and then escaping as an infinite amount of enemies try to block your path.

I was not expecting Warframe to be a JRPG in which you perform the equivalent of pressing X on everything to discover hidden Elixirs.

Alas, this is a F2P game with cash money solutions to the problems it arbitrarily introduces for that express purpose. I can buy 300 Plastids from “the Market” for 30 Platinum, and $20 will get me 370 Platinum. So… $1.67ish? Warframe will periodically give you 50% and even 75% off Platinum purchases for 48 hours coupons, so technically the price can be a bit lower than that. At a certain point, it absolutely makes more sense to pay to skip the parts of the game which require you to not play as a space ninja terminator. Both money and time are fungible, after all.

…then I remember that these designers do this shit on purpose.

For now, I will ignore my empty crafting queue and continue progressing through the story missions as best I can. There is technically a “resource extractor” that I can purchase with in-game currency that will presumably collect things like Plastids while I am away. It also apparently takes damage and could blow up if I do not retrieve it fast enough, e.g. leave it running for longer than a day. Because of course it does.

If I end up burning out from having to use the same weapons and classes I am stuck with, well, that’s the designers’ fault. I’m 25 hours into the game and am still hunting down the final blueprint that will allow me to “craft” a new class. Once that occurs, I’ll reevaluate and see where things stand. Considering that I only have two Warframe class slots by default, and have to pay Platinum to open more, things might get a bit cramped.

Impressions: The Elder Scrolls Online

Over the past few days, I played around 10-15 hours of The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) and the experience has been… odd. I say “odd” because while in general I found the experience pleasant, the more I played the game, the more I wanted to be playing something else entirely.

I'm pretty spoiled by my 970 card at this point.

I’m pretty spoiled by my 970 card at this point.

There is a lot of interesting things going on in TESO. For example, while there is an option for a more traditional 3rd-person perspective, I stayed in first-person the entire time for its sheer novelty. I also appreciated the dedication to the traditional Elder Scrolls trappings, up to and including the ability to literally steal all the things. Want some Grand Soul Gems as a level 3 character? Just crouch behind the merchant’s cart and pocket (?) them. Finding a random armor rack with a full suit of wearable armor that you could just take and equip was rather delightful.

The progression/leveling system in TESO is interesting as well. There are four classes, each with three class specializations. Beyond that, every class has access to the same dozen or so general specialization lines: Light Armor, Two-handed Weapons, Destruction Staves, and so on. Most of these specialization lines have ~6 active abilities and a number of passives. Your character has a total of five hotbar buttons and one ultimate, and it is up to you to mix and match. Additionally, individual abilities level up with use in typical Elder Scrolls fashion, but once an active ability hits rank 4, it can be “morphed” into one of two mutually exclusive options, which typically adds bonus effects.

While all of the above systems felt satisfyingly crunchy, it reminded me heavily of Guild War 2’s system – limited ability slots, choosing abilities from a wide list, earning Skill Points from exploration (every three Skyshards found in TESO grants 1 Skill Point), and even “leveling up” skills in a sense. In fact, that was my exact problem: the more I played TESO, the more I felt like I’d be having more fun playing GW2. Especially when I started thinking about PvP and three-way battles.

Hell, I’m resisting the almost overpowering urge to redownload GW2 right now.

Not pictured: any combat.

Not pictured: any combat.

Strictly viewing TESO as a sort of pseudo-Skyrim did not assist in keeping my interest level high enough to justify more play time. As tends to be the case, the existence of other players ruins the MMO experience. Apparently mobs drop individual loot so there isn’t any kill stealing, but objects in the world (chests, etc) absolutely disappear if someone loots them. I did not stick around a particular place long enough to see if they respawned, but the bottom line is that there was never a point in time that I was thankful to see another human playing “my” game.

It’s worth noting that I made it to level 10 without seeing even one “kill 10 whatever” quests. In fact, many of the (non-side) quests I encountered were fairly lengthy and involved. Not quite Secret World-level involved, but more than the industry standard. That being said, I found myself actually missing those kill quests, as the opportunity to kill anything was rather muted.

Sometimes I like pushing buttons, you know?

In any case, those are my impressions of TESO. I deleted the 44gb installation yesterday and don’t particularly see myself downloading it again. It wasn’t bad – at least the little slice of the beginning I played – but my New Years resolution is to not play “just OK” games to completion as if I don’t have a backlog of potentially amazing games to play through.

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.

Fallout 4: Day 1

It’s been a while since I played a game for seven hours straight. On a weekday.

Taking that GTX 970 for a spin.

Taking that GTX 970 for a spin.

I’ll have more to say about Fallout 4 when I feel like typing instead of scavenging for supplies.

System Shock 2: That 90s Feeling

System Shock 2 (hereafter SS2) is a game I’ve heard about a lot, but up to this point didn’t have much of an interest to play. I mean, I immensely enjoyed Bioshock and all, but I have found by experience that “spiritual successors” tend to make their source material difficult to play. Which makes total sense, considering a game is a spiritual successor if it emulates and expands upon all the good things about the prior title while discarding the rest.

Plus, you know, 1999 was a long time ago. There is a whole swath of games that are more or less forever unplayable by me simply because I can’t get over the terrible (by today’s standards) graphics. Watching the intro to SS2 did not inspire much confidence:

I'm trying to remember a time when this looked amazing.

I’m trying to remember a time when this looked amazing.

Luckily for everyone, there is a wide selection of mods out there that more or less brings the game to at least 2004.

I was actually somewhat impressed.

I was actually somewhat impressed.

At this point, I am roughly 10 or so hours into the game and I must admit that SS2 still has value to give. For example: it’s pretty damn scary, but not in the way you might be used to. FEAR has some great moments, Silent Hill definitely gets the horror angle correct, and Resident Evil does “crash through the window” better than most. None of those really capture the unique (as far as I know) dread that is hearing the “whisk” sound of a spaceship door opening behind you. In fact, I find myself developing somewhat of a complex with these doors, as evidenced by nearly jumping out of my chair from the sound of one door – that I had just activated – closing behind me.

Aside from the evil doors, I want to spend a moment and praise the overall sound design of the game in general. For the most part, you can hear nearly every enemy before you actually see them. Which, now that I think about it, is not as common a gaming trope as it should be. What this allows SS2 to do is make the various types of enemies resistant or vulnerable to specific weapons without the player feeling cheated. If you hear a robot walking around nearby and aren’t switching to your energy weapons in anticipation, it’s your own damn fault.

Another thing I can appreciate about SS2’s design is the overall upgrade mechanic. Your character has like four tabs worth of various stats and abilities you can upgrade/purchase with Cybernetic Modules. While you do receive some periodically as “quest” rewards, the vast majority of Cybernetic Modules are stuck in desks, on dead bodies, and sometimes hidden in plain sight on the floor. Combined with a traditional (the de facto back then) non-regenerating health system and the necessity to collect currency for ammo/hacking/etc purposes, Cybernetic Modules provide an immense incentive to explore every inch of the ship. Contrast this with, say, Bioshock Infinite which has painstakingly-designed nooks and crannies without any reason at all to search them.

As an aside, I can understand why some games might not go that route. If you hide a bunch of upgrade currency throughout your game, you are then faced with a dilemma: either that upgrade currency is necessary to realistically defeat the final boss, or it isn’t. If it is necessary, you are forcing everybody to comb your game for supplies, including the people who find that sort of thing tedious. If all the upgrades aren’t necessary, the people who enjoy looting all the things are “rewarded” with trivial encounters for the rest of the game. It is much easier to control your game’s pacing by directly tying upgrades to specific plot points, so no one is ahead or behind. That does make your game more boring and empty however. Hence, dilemma.

In any case, I am likely closing in on the System Shock 2 endgame and should be done in the next day or two. While I do not consider it to be as groundbreaking as something like the original Deus Ex, it is at least in the same parking lot as the ballpark. If you picked it up as part of one of any number of bundles in the last two years, go ahead and spend the 20 minutes or so it takes to set up all the mods and give it a whirl. Part Deus Ex, part Half-Life, and extremely atmospheric.