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Fixing Problems*

After about 75 hours of RimWorld, I decided to download mods to “fix” the base game.

As mentioned a few times around here, RimWorld is still currently in an Early Access state. Version 1.0 is on the horizon, but we do not yet have a complete feature list or an itemized accounting of what is going to change. This was frustrating me quite a bit in my current playthrough, due to an outcome I cannot help but question whether it was intended.

The basic gist is this: a group of mechanical enemies attacked my base, and Wolle got shot and was bleeding out. I rescued him and patched him back up… but he would not leave the medical bed. Prognosis: shattered spine. Vanilla RimWorld actually has bionic arms, bionic legs, and bionic eyes as core features. You can’t craft them, but you can buy them from traders occasionally, and clearly have the medical technology to install them. Additionally, there are nanite serums in-game that can automatically boost your skills, which by the description function specifically by moving from the orbit of the eye, into the skull, and then transmuting into the necessary brain tissue.

RimWorld_Pre-Wolle

The Days-Are-Numbered version

Plus, there is something called Luciferium, which are medical nanites that can fix permanent scarring – including in the brain – for the low, low cost of permanent addiction. If you miss a dose every 5-6 days, and you will go on a berserk rage until death. A “devil’s bargain” indeed.

Trouble is, nothing cures a shattered spine in the core game. Was this an oversight? If Luciferium can cure stab scars in the brain, surely it could repair a spine too? Well, it doesn’t. So that led me to question whether it was intentional. There is nothing that cures shattered ribs either, for example – they just permanently reduce the amount of torso damage a colonist can take before collapsing/dying.

So, perhaps the designers were wanting to force the player to confront a scenario in which they have a permanently disabled colonist. Do you maintain them as dead weight, perhaps even taking them with you somehow if/when you escape the planet? Do you simply euthanize them and turn them into a hat? I can see how the emergent moral dilemmas come about. On the other hand, it’s hard to draw a line at spines and ribs when nanite magic is already out of the bottle.

Despite this, it wasn’t until I wasted an in-game month unsuccessfully trying to find uranium to start building a ship that I broke down and modded the game. I added a mod that augments the ground-penetrating radar to actually tell me the resources that are located underneath. And then I added Expanded Prosthetics and Organ Engineering (EPOE).

With EPOP installed, I did the relevant research and built the required workstation and finally crafted a fresh new bionic spine for Wolle. After a successful surgery, I took a look at his Health page… and realized that he wasn’t just fixed, he was better. Specifically, something like 20% better. So now I’m in a scenario in which I could craft 11 more bionic spines and implant them into my colonists to maximize the amount and quality of their work. Then I could get to work on about a dozen other bionic implants too.

RimWorld_Wolle

Now his spine is broken in a different direction.

Like I said before, bionic eyes, arms, and legs are already in the base game. In fact, I have some spares hanging around for emergencies, but bionics are better than standard-issue meat in every way already. While you cannot craft your own, you can generally pick up extras without too much trouble. So it’s not quite too far a bridge, right? Right?

Sigh.

Yeah, yeah, I know. I do think shattered spines are a hole in the vanilla game’s original design, hopefully to be filled in a more balanced way upon release. But then again, sometimes it is precisely the gaps in satisfaction that moves us out of our comfort zone.

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Impression: Civilization: Beyond Earth

I think I am beginning to understand those old-school gamers who were miffed by EA’s Dungeon Keeper app. Because, you see, with Beyond Earth I thought I was buying Alpha Centauri and ended up with a full-price Civ 5 mod instead.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

That is not an entirely fair comparison, of course. I knew this wasn’t going to be Alpha Centauri. But… you know… I kinda wished it was. Alpha Centauri consumed a solid chunk of my adolescent mindspace, where it resides to this day. Like… like a mind worm. That will need to be nerve stapled to be removed. And don’t even get me started on those real-world quotations used when researching new tech – I walked into my college courses years later with the equivalent of AP credit from being inspired by Plato and Aristotle half a dozen years before they were required reading.

Anyway. Back to Civ 5 Beyond Earth.

You know, it’s actually extra unfair that I keep belaboring this Civ 5 point because I didn’t start playing Civ 5 until about two months ago. I have a total of 24 hours /played in Civ 5 actually. By contrast, I have 16 hours in Beyond Earth as of this morning. It came out three days ago. So there is that.

What I already like about the game are the barbarians aliens. There are multiple kinds roaming about, including ranged and flying units, and even some “endgame” aliens right from the start. While it feels a bit unfair to stumble across a Siege Worm with an Explorer on Turn 3, I enjoy that extra level of randomness insofar as it gives you some interesting decisions. Such as A) run screaming, B) decide you didn’t want to build a city over there anyway, and/or C) New Random World.

Another thing I like – thus far – is the tech web:

*Rubs chin*

*Rubs chin*

The basic gist is that instead of needing to research lame things like Pottery and Horseback Riding on your road to thermonuclear weapons, you can make a beeline to wherever you want. Each tech “branch” has tech “leaves,” which I thought was a pretty clever way to keep the web itself relatively clean. Still, there is a lot of convoluted nonsense in there with some techs granting bonuses to buildings on the other side of the tree and the rather unfortunate necessity to research certain techs to “unlock” strategic resources. I know Civ 5 had something similar, but it’s extra important in Beyond Earth because your Affinity special units “reserve” a certain amount of said resource, and you never really know how much you’ll have until unlock the ability to see it. Combine that with Civ 5’s “we still don’t like you building cities” M.O. and you could be frustratingly locked into a different Affinity or just use standard units forever.

Speaking of forever, my Civ 5 experience in pressing End Turn about a thousand times before anything of consequence occurs has carried over into Beyond Earth. I have completed one game thus far, where I decided to go for the Supremacy victory instead of “just roll over the insane enemy Civs” victory. After grinding up Supremacy to the prerequisite level, I had to spend 30 turns building an Emancipation gate. Then I needed to… send 1,000 Attack worth of units through the gate. And you can only send one unit per turn. I get that this would probably be completely compelling in a multiplayer match or something, but Jesus.

Worth it.

Worth it.

My second game was on a bigger map that ended up being an Archipelago-ish area. Which could be interesting… except, whoops, you need to spend ~17 turns researching the ability to Embark your land units. Remember when I told you that high-level aliens are everywhere right from the start? That also includes the seas. You can’t even escort a colony expansion until you research Gunboats in such a scenario, and one Gunboat can eat about two hits from the standard sea alien. It was literally turn 98 before my 2nd city came up to speed. I might have been able to push for a much earlier expansion but, again, Sid Meier apparently hates cities these days so I wanted the few he would deign to grant me to be near some strategic resource.

Want to know how that game ended? I came into it deciding to go Harmony and channel my inner Deirdre this time around. After unlocking the ability to see Xenomass, I check out the map and… huh. There is pretty much just one free node anywhere near me. Which makes sense, in a way, given that it spawns on land and this particular world is mostly water. Still, it was discouraging enough for me to just abandon the effort altogether. No doubt I could have switched strategies to something else – there were alternative avenues of (eventual) victory – but I wanted a Xeno Titan. Oh well.

There is more to say about Beyond Earth and it’s inevitable parade of expansions that will socket in more Civ 5 mechanics, but these are my impressions at 2am after playing 16 hours across three days. If you liked Civ 5, you’ll probably like this game. If you liked Alpha Centauri, you probably won’t. I am not quite sure what I ultimately feel like right now, but I do know that I would like to try it again.

Old Skool

In my continuing efforts to reclaim hard drive space and knock out some more of my Steam backlog, I booted up MINERVA: Metastasis. For some reason I thought this was the user mod for Bioshock I remember hearing about back in the day, so I was quite surprised to find it was a Half-Life 2 mod. Still, at 5+ gigs, I figured it was about time to see what’s what.

And that what seems to be old fucking school.

More than anything, the sound FX is what took me back.

More than anything, the sound FX is what took me back.

As I turned the first corner into some Combine while armed with the machine gun, the first thing I did was hold the right mouse button and prepare to aim for the head. Instead, I shot an under-barrel grenade which damn near instantly killed me. “Oh. Oh my.” The machine gun clearly has a holographic targeting reticule, but in this circumstantial trip down nostalgia lane, aiming-down-sights hasn’t been invented yet. “Am I supposed to be hip-firing like some kind of animal?!” Yes. The answer is yes.

Also, your bullet spread pattern will always random, no matter whether you squeeze one round off or empty the clip. That is some Bronze-Age shit right there.

Game design evolution is a funny thing – very rarely is there ever any going back. For example, remember when you just had 100 HP, maybe 100 shields, and neither regenerated at all no matter how long you cowered in the corner with 17 HP remaining? It seems like just yesterday to me, because it literally was. I pooh-poohed Bioshock Infinite for having CoD- (and now Battlefield-) style regeneration, but now I’m not entirely sure what to think. I mean, is regeneration worse than spamming QuickSave every 30 seconds? Going to a CheckPoint system sounds even worse, as designers rarely hit the sweet-spot between The Last of Us’s one-enemy-filled room or Far Cry 1’s “hope you brought a sandwich, because the CheckPoint is on another island.”

I think that the first two Bioshocks got it right, insofar as there was no regeneration but you could stockpile medkits and the like up to a certain point. I felt no reason to explore in MINERVA when I was at full health, as there was literally no reason to; without hidden upgrades or things to stockpile, frequently there existed many rooms completely void of any reason to exist (beyond verisimilitude, I suppose).

In any case, the mod was worthwhile for the nostalgia and game design lesson alone. I just talked about having arrows over quest objectives the other day, but there were probably half a dozen spots in MINERVA where I had no idea where to go, or what the game expected me to be doing. And as is usually the case, the answer was staring me in the face. Then again, I did have to look up how to get past the room with the shield generators because, for some ungodly reason, we were just supposed to know that two grenades were necessary to destroy them. I tossed a grenade into each of the four generators, alarms went off, and once they recovered I went “Aha! They must need to be disabled in a specific pattern!” Nope. Just a dev’s modder’s Gotcha! moment.

Or maybe we were just all smarter in the olden days.

My Mod/DLC Dilemma

I started playing Torchlight 2 a few weeks ago, and I am having some issues. Now, I did not like the original game all that much, but picking up the sequel for $5 during one of those crazy Steam sales seemed safe enough. And so far, I am not experiencing the same acute symptoms of frustration as in the first game. Except… now I kinda am.

My biggest gripe with the original game was that the loot system was broken. Specifically, there was no real sense of gear progression in a hack-n-slash Diablo-clone genre that is based entirely on gear progression – I used the same “legendary” level 3 necklace all the way into the endgame, never finding an upgrade. While I have not ran into this problem as much in Torchlight 2, the contours of the issue remain in place. For example, I ran into this gearing decision the other day:

We're back to getting Best-in-Slot at level 7, I guess.

We’re back to getting Best-in-Slot at level 3, I guess.

Maybe “higher level = better” is too simplistic a progression design, but… is it really?

The more pressing concern in Torchlight 2 though, is how a lot of things that should be rewarding are really not. Each main area map has a Locked Golden Chest which contains, as you might imagine, a lot of loot. The key to this chest can drop randomly from any mob on that particular map, or from a specific fairy mob 100% of the time.

Compelling design, right? It would be, if these chests dropped something more than vendor trash.

Random loot is random, but after spending more time than strictly necessary opening these chests up and walking away with nothing of any value, I am finding myself souring on game in general. Indeed, even the extra-large treasure chests at the end of boss encounters reveals greys and greens more often than not. Why should I be fighting bosses when smashing pottery is clearly the more profitable activity?

Par for the course.

Par for the course.

In Torchlight 2’s case though, there is a “solution”: mods. In fact, the #1 highest-rated mod in the Steam Workshop is one that tweaks Golden Chests (and boss chests) to always drop a Unique item. That’s not as broken as it sounds – items are still random, scaled to your level, and sometimes class-specifc – and does a lot to fix what I otherwise consider a problem. There are mods for all sorts of things, in fact, including Skill tweaks, doubling the amount of gold drops, Respec potions (base game only allows reshuffling of last 3 Skills), improving game textures, increasing view distance, and even additional whole classes. Indeed, one of the big selling points of Torchlight 2 was its modability in comparison to Diablo 3.

Thing is, I don’t like using mods on my initial play-through of a game. Hell, I usually don’t even like loading in DLC that affects the core game, even when I’m playing the Game of the Year version that bundles it all together.

My situation is a bit unique (and self-inflicted) insofar as I fancy myself a game reviewer. But even before this website, I preferred going in vanilla and raw. Not all my friends had the extra spending money for the expansions and whatnot, so telling them Diablo 2 was better with Lords of Chaos installed really just means “the base game is deficient.” Well, perhaps not deficient in D2’s case, but you understand my meaning.

Good game design is supposed to be good out of the box. If developers are stumbling around for the first several months from release, that stumbling needs to remain part of the overall narrative. I failed to mention in my Fallout: New Vegas review that the game was literally unplayable for the first two weeks without downloading a crack that fixed the DirectX issues; it’s an important detail to know for when the next Fallout game is released, lest it too require Day 0 patching from players to fix what the devs rushed to production.

I suppose some of this harkens back to that debate over whether MMOs (etc) are toys vs games. There is no wrong way to play with a toy, no real rules to govern your interaction with them. In this sense, mods are sort of like adding salt to your meal – some chefs might see that as an insult, but perhaps your individual taste skews more salty than the others sharing the meal. Ergo, developers letting mods fix any subjective “problem” only makes sense. Keep the vanilla pure, and let players add the chocolate and sprinkles as they wish.

Personally though, I am much more interested in the game portion of things, or more specifically: experiences. Show me the genius of your rulesets, the compelling nature of your narratives, the excellence of your craft. Anyone can imagine a stick into a lightsaber, just as anyone can turn a crappy game good with tweaks. I am interested in what you can do, Mr(s) Game Man Person, not mod developer XYZ. I want to be excited that you are releasing another game, not that the modding community has another opportunity to fix a deficient product. And besides, only one of those two parties is getting paid. Hint: it’s not the person/people improving the game.

It may not be entirely rational, but there it is. Odds are that I will keep trucking along in vanilla Torchlight 2 so that I can give an accurate report on its (so far) many failings. It is worth noting that while you can import your vanilla save into the “game + mods” version of the game, you cannot thereafter go back – neither your character nor your gear will appear under the default game any more. While that probably has little meaning beyond the people interested in Steam achievements, it sort of highlights how even the developers believe a segregation between the two ought to exist.

In which case, I shall play their game and complain about it, rather than fix things myself.