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Waxing my Wane

I’m generally a pretty frugal guy. Parsimonious, even. And yet I just bought half a dozen games in as many days, after having avoided doing so for these specific titles for as many years. “They were on sale though.” They were on sale last year too. What changed?

The void.

Specifically, I finally exhausted my desire to play modded Starbound (Frackin’ Universe)… after 100 hours. One. Hundred. Hours. When you get up to triple digits like that, with any game, the entire experience becomes more than just “having fun” and instead morphs into a whole routine. I would play in the evenings, lie in bed planning my actions the next day, and browse wikis and such during the day. It all really hearkened back to my heydays of WoW. Minus a few thousand hours, of course.

Then, one day, it’s all just gone. Whether it’s the game ending or just getting tired of it, the experience is over.

I am not sure how other people handle post-game depression. My go-to move appears to be ennui of unknown duration. I know of games that could probably suck me right back into mainlining. But I don’t feel like it. In this lucid state, smaller experiences seem like the better course of action. If I don’t play them now, I definitely won’t be playing them later when absorbed in something else.

So out comes a little retail therapy.

We’ll see how it goes. Right now the routine is playing a few missions in Far Cry 5, followed by an area or two of Knife of Dunwall (Dishonored DLC). The segmentation is not on purpose – I can only seem to stand playing either one in short bursts. Not exactly a glowing review, but I blame the ennui more than the gameplay itself. After these two, hopefully the pallet will be cleansed, and I can get into the more cerebral titles like Hellblade, Prey, and/or Final Fantasy XV.

And then… we’ll see.

Being the Change

You never quite realize how much the internet requires unceasing, anonymous effort to function… until it doesn’t. I’m not so much talking about keeping the lights on and the modems running, although there is that too. I mean something like keeping a game Wiki up-to-date.

About six months ago, I opined that a lot of Stellaris’ historical Wiki information was no longer correct or missing altogether. Having recently spent over 100 hours with Starbound’s Frackin’ Universe mod, I can safely say the same situation applies. It’s actually almost worse in a way, because someone ran some script to auto-generate pages for most every item, and then never touched it since. The result is a false sense of information that hasn’t been accurate for months, if not years.

Frustratingly, even the Frackin’ Universe mod creators will routinely mention that the Wiki is out of date. It’s like, dude, you made it out of date by changing stuff. How about you take some time to post change notes or update it yourself?

As I was lamenting the situation, it occurred to me that, you know, I could be the change I was looking for. The whole point of Wikis is to crowdsource information, right? The struggle though is A) I’m pretty much done with Frackin’ Universe at this point, B) I surely have better uses of my time in any case, and C) it’s possible everything is going to just change and be wrong later anyway.

On the other hand… maybe. I’m already in the process of writing up a Quick & Dirty Guide for the mod, as I sometimes do for certain games. Part of my hesitation on updating the Wiki as I went along was the simple fact that “testing” things is a pain in the ass in a normal environment – you have to gamble resources you spent hours collecting on a potentially useless item. Now that I’m basically done with the mod, giving myself /admin powers no longer threatens the integrity of the experience.

Hmm. Wait a moment, what’s written at the bottom of this page?

WARNING – This is an “automated” page. As the Wiki is getting an extensive overhaul, any content added to this page may get deleted in the near future! If you think this page needs a particular piece of information, join us on the Discord server:

…on second thought, maybe not.

Impression: Frackin’ Universe (Starbound mod)

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

StarboundFU_Title

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

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

Does all of that sound too complicated? I agree.

StarboundFU_Base

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

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

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

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

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

StarboundFU_Miniboss

Sometimes you have to be unfair.

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

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

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

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

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

Frackin’ Starbound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.