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Crafting Survival

It is not very common for me to succumb to a desire to play a particular genre over everything else, but I got hit by a “crafting survival” bug pretty hard on Memorial Day. I’m deep in Mass Effect: Andromeda, I’ve got FFXIV on my plate, and yet I wanted to collect things by punching them repeatedly something fierce.

The somewhat surprising problem is that I’ve already played most of them.

My go-to game in the the Crafting-Survival genre is 7 Days to Die. I could – and did – play that game all damn day, and it’s hard to really indicate why. I have more or less mastered the flow of the game, so technically I should be “done” with it. The extra issue is that the Alpha 16 patch should be out (Blizzard) Soon™ and it contains some pretty big feature sets, including auto-turrets and electricity and more traps and such. I’m worried that spending more time playing in Alpha 15 will result in me getting bored with the base game and thus miss out on all the new stuff.

Once 7 Days is off the table, I’m back to a weird state. Minecraft? That’s the quintessential hook for the genre, but I’ve long been done with the game. Terraria has had some updates since I last played, but no thanks. Starbound is done. I’m passing on Ark until they actually spend time optimizing their goddamn code. The Forest might be satisfying, but I’m not sure I want Survival-Crafting-Horror at the moment.

What else? The Long Dark was intriguing, but a bit too much on the “never be safe” side of survival. I have high praise for Subnautica and will definitely play again… once it gets out of Early Access. The vast majority of these games languish in Early Access for their entire duration, actually, which is only usually a problem when you get hooked on them. Don’t Starve was a fantastic game that graduated Early Access and even has two expansions. That said, I have spent considerable time playing it already and don’t have much of a drive to go back.

Okay… what’s left? I have zero interest in PvP-centric survival, which crosses off a lot of the more famous examples, like Rust or H1Z1. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds actually popped up under “Crafting” for some reason, but no thank you. Craft the World? Played. Empyrion: Galactic Survival was actually on sale a while ago, but I’m not paying $20 for it now. Same with Rimworld.

What I ended up purchasing was Dig or Die, sadly at full price (8 whole dollars). It is still in Early Access (of course), but the description basically paints it more as a Tower Defense Terraria: build a base with turrets and defenses to survive the night. Except with more fluid physics, e.g. water and lava. We’ll see how it goes.

Cold Open

There have been two games I played recently that have started with a cold open, e.g. one with no tutorial that just sort of throws you into the game. The first was The Long Dark, and the second is a space-sim called Hellion; both are in Early Access and both are survival-based games. So, in a sense, it’s difficult to determine whether either one intentionally set out to have cold opens, or if this simply reflects their current, unfinished states.

Hellion-Oops

Pictured: falling out of the airlock into open space.

 

There is a lot to be said regarding the power of cold opens. In an age of 24/7 information coming from every angle, it is refreshing to be thrust into an unknown environment without any sort of hand-holding. It absolutely appeals to Explorer-types, and also those looking for more difficulty in their games. Plus, many times it makes thematic sense, say, if you just woke from cryo-sleep in an otherwise abandoned life pod.

Personally, I find cold opens to be exceptionally difficult to pull off well.

The fundamental issue I have is the dissonance between what the player expects and what the designers intend. What ends up happening is that players must essentially “metagame” how the designers actually intended the game to be played.

For example, in Hellion you awake from cryo-sleep inside a life pod without functioning Life Support. While there are a few tablets on the ground which give you a general idea of steps to take, that is basically all the guidance you are given. I searched the area and did not find enough items onboard to repair the Life Support. I found a jetpack without fuel, and supposedly a charging station for said jetpack, but could not determine a way to refuel.

So… what now? Did I miss an item in the search of the ship? Am I supposed to try and space walk without a jetpack? Is it a bug that there weren’t enough items to repair the Life Support? I have mentioned before that I am fine with tough puzzles, as long as I understand where the pieces are. What I absolutely despise is not knowing whether my failures are due to not performing correctly, or because I didn’t trip some programming flag from 10 minutes ago, or some other nonsense.

LongDark_GL

Somewhat more literal cold open.

I had a similar issue in The Long Dark, of which I played about an hour before turning off. It takes 30 game minutes to break a stick into pieces by hand? Okay, fine. But having found a shelter and tools, I saw no particular way to locate food, or reconcile my exhaustion meter with my temperature meter with the time of day, e.g. how was I to sleep and keep warm in the middle of the day and still survive the night? I understand that perhaps the intention is for the player to be constantly on edge in the quest for survival, but again, I’m not even sure how food really even works in this game yet. I have not seen any flora or fauna beyond sticks and snow.

Flailing around in the darkness is not my idea of quality game time.

I’m not saying game designers should go full Ocarina of Time and have Navi pester you for hours. Minecraft has (had?) a cold open that was relatively straightforward once you got over the intellectual hump of punching trees. Don’t Starve is a much better example of how to do a cold open – there isn’t much of an explanation of anything, but I still felt a sense of agency in being able to interact with things.

And maybe that’s just it: I might not be doing the right things, but being able to do something is important.

I dunno. I think the best compromise would be to have cold opens with a fairly robust PDA/AI Assistant/Crafting Menu. Those that want to wander around blindly can, but those who want to know what they can do… well, can.

Survival Survival: Subnautica

Short version: survival… underwater.

subnautica-2017-01-17-19-38-26-69

Auspicious beginnings.

You know, it’s easy sometimes to get jaded with videogames. Go around the block a few times and it will feel like you have seen it all. Same mechanics, different textures. Then, something manages to catch you by surprise. Subnautica is precisely that something.

The premise of Subnautica is that you are a survivor of a spaceship crash on what appears to be a complete waterworld. Your lifeboat contains a Replicator, a Medical Replicator, a locker, and a damaged short-range communicator. Good luck.

I played version 42313 (Dec-16), and already the game looks goddamn amazing. More importantly, the game feels amazing. This is important because you will be swimming underwater 99.99% of the time. Initially, you are slow and clumsy, and have to stick to the safety of the shallows to find scrap metal to turn into Titanium. Over time, you can craft some swim gear, extra oxygen tanks, and eventually vehicles to travel with greater style.

Subnautica-2017-01-20-21-24-05-45.jpg

It really does feel great swimming.

The surprising part of this game, to me, was how… new everything felt, mechanics-wise. In Minecraft, Ark, Rust, 7 Days to Die, and countless other games, the beginning is always the same: look around, punch trees, collect rocks, build a fortress of doom. I spent the first 15 minutes of Subnautica in that same mindset, and filled my inventory with anything I could grab by left-clicking. Which ended up being a whole lot of relatively useless Acid Mushrooms that, while they can be made into batteries later, did nothing in the survival department right now.

That was when I realized that I needed to let go of what I knew before. Subnautica is its own game.

There is no better example of this than the Subnautica take on weapons. Basically, you have a survival knife. That you have to craft first. As far as I am aware, that is it. Stalkers and Sand Sharks and other carnivores have little issue taking a bite out of your scuba suit, so there is absolutely a sense of danger in the game, above and beyond the mundane (yet omnipresent) risk of drowning. Poking one with the knife will get them to retreat for a while, but this is a game where discretion is pretty much the only part of valor. Which, again, is completely refreshing.

subnautica-2017-01-19-23-03-20-99

Yeah, don’t poke this guy.

 

I’m not entirely sure how much of the “game” game is implemented yet, but I am impressed by what I see thus far. I just hit what I imagine to be the mid-game: constructing underwater bases. This allows me to craft where the resources are, instead of having to swim back to my lifeboat each time. The crafting isn’t terribly complex, but yet still feels involved considering your limited inventory, which is limited further by extra oxygen tanks (which take up 4 cells). At the moment, I am trying to nail down additional debris fields so I can scan technology to build better vehicles/base structures.

Overall, Subnautica feels like… a breath of fresh air.

Yeah, I went there. And you should too.

Survival Survival: The Forest

Short version: Survival Horror, with more of an emphasis on Survival.

forest_1

Really nailed down the forest bit.

Right from the start, I just have to say that the Forest is one of the most visually impressive games I have played, and it’s still in Alpha. Specifically, I played Alpha version 0.52

The game starts with you on an airplane with your son. The plane crashes on an island, you see a dude in red paint and loincloth take your son away, and… action. Loot some airplane food for sustenance, grab the emergency hand axe from the body of a flight attendant, and you are in the middle of the forest. Good luck.

While The Forest initially plays out like your standard Survival game, it diverges in interesting ways. For example, most Survival games limit the amount of items you can pick up either by weight, or fitting into grid, or something like that. In this game, you are limited by type. For example, you can only carry 8 sticks… but can also carry 8 rocks, 20+ arrows, a half dozen medicinal herbs, four melee weapons, a few bombs, a bunch of animal skins, and so on.

forest_rainbow

Sometimes you gotta stop and smell the storage containers.

The other interesting bit comes in the form of logs. Logs are the basic building component for pretty much any structure, but they are much too large to carry around in your inventory. So… you carry them on your shoulders, one at a time. You can craft a “Log Sled” pretty easily, which allows you to store and easily move up to 8 logs, but the physicality of it all adds an unexpectedly potent bit of immersion.

Also, dude must be ripped and/or a lumberjack.

The main hostile force in the game are the cannibals. While I have not spent a whole lot of time testing things, the cannibals are absolutely not the sort of mindless enemy that traditional Survival games utilize. Sometimes they rush at you and attack. Sometimes they rush forward and stop when you don’t make some move to retaliate or run away. Sometimes they just get on their knees and worship you a bit.

As time goes on – and as you destroy the forest around you building tree houses – the cannibals get more hostile. And that’s when you start building traps, walls, and stocking up on armor made of lizard skin and leaves. Or perhaps you chop the cannibal corpses into pieces, and construct a burning effigy to establish your dominance.

It was around hour 10 when I descended into a cannibal cave, confident I had enough supplies and arrows to face what was down there. That’s when I saw it, while I was dangling off the end of 50 feet of rope:

forest_nope1

Nope, nope, nope.

That’s enough Forest for me, for now. I’ll… yeah, I’ll wait for Beta. Or release.

Or the heat death of the universe.

Edit:

Since that last screenshot is too dark, here is what the creature looks like via an in-game photograph:

theforest_legs

…yeah…

Can’t quite tell if it is supposed to be two women fused together, or three. Probably three.

Dirtbound

In Starbound, I have officially surpassed the number of hours I spent playing Terraria. And I am more convinced than ever that Terraria is the superior game.

Simply put, Starbound is a game of multitude of systems that have zero synergies with each other. Dig dirt, mine for ore, create armor, and so on. Pretty basic stuff, right? Not really. The actual crafting mechanics in Starbound are terrible, as are 99% of the items you can craft. Your “tier 1” armor is made from iron and woven fabric (made from plant material), but tier 2 is made from tungsten and cotton wool. Not only does this skip Copper, Silver, and Gold ores, but I’ve been playing 20+ hours since the 1.0 release and have encountered a grand total of three (3) cotton plants.

I can understand if the cotton bottleneck was intentional. But it’s not: the interplanetary gas station sells every fabric type other than cotton.

Starbound_GasStation.jpg

Bold move, Cotton, let’s see if it works out for them.

You can’t explain that.

Indeed, it seems like the devs simply abandoned any attempt to structure progression in the face of a billion procedurally generated worlds (filled the same three enemy attack types). Matter Manipulator modules are a sort of upgrade currency that can be found in nearly every box, everywhere. So are the tech cards, which unlock double-jumping and the Metroid-esque ball rolling. Getting those upgrades early kinda sorta maybe trivializes a lot of the content that comes later. And it’s not as though you get more of them in more dangerous areas – the algorithm basically puts one in 25% of all containers.

Then there is the fact that the best items are drops, full-stop. I mean, I get it, trying to balance gear progression around both player crafting and dropped loot is hard. But the fact that there are effectively zero good weapons from crafting means that that entire element is gone from the game. So your whole desire to dig for ore is reduced to the amount you need to craft the next tier of armor. Without the desire to dig though, you don’t, which means you’re just exploring the surface of the world and missing out on all the dungeons/set pieces that exist beneath it.

“But what about building bases and such?” Yeah, that’s still there. Given the default “survival” mode requires constant eating, it makes sense for even a story-focused character to stake out a simple farm. But honestly? It’s about a million times easier just coming across an already-built set piece randomly, and then planting your flag on it. Or tearing one down and transplanting it elsewhere, as opposed to crafting the individual components.

I don’t know. There are a million more things going on in Starbound than Terraria, but Terraria actually has synergy between what its got. In Terraria, the houses you build unlock NPCs you need, and the act of building settlements attracts monsters and even bosses. The deeper you dig, the more dangerous stuff appears. You can actually craft cool shit in Terraria. All the pieces fit together into a cohesive whole. In Starbound? Not so much.

Ark: Griefing Evolved

I picked up Ark for $12 as part of the Humble Monthly bundle the other day, and my five or so hours with it have been… interesting. Even more interesting was what I was reading on the Steam forums about the recent addition of handcuffs into the game:

Ark is a great game but it’s become unenjoyable for some and unplayable for others. As I write this, my avatar on official server 16 has been caged, immobile and unplayable for over six hours. I’d suicide and respawn… but that’s not an option. […]

And no, you can’t do anything about it. Handcuffs can’t be escaped and don’t allow you to use your hands. No punching walls or using anything to suicide with. Your captors encumber you so you can’t burn stamina, food and water to kill yourself. And captors are able to force feed you to keep you alive indefinitely. So you’re stuck, unable to actually play Ark for as long as they decide to hijack your game.

In case you don’t know much about it, Ark has a “torpor” mechanic that is primarily used to knock out dinosaurs so you can tame them. As it turns out, torpor can also be used on other players (the game is PvP by default). There have been cages and prisons and the like for a while now, but players used to be able to kill themselves by thrashing about, as the esteemed sir throttlejam mentioned above. Handcuffs remove this ability, and make it so that other players can manipulate your inventory directly.

The player responses to throttlejam’s plight go on to demonstrate that one really can justify anything. They basically run the full gamut from “your friends will save you” to “you got what you deserve for not playing with friends” to “go play on a different server.” Quick note: your character’s progress is limited to the specific server you are on. Playing on a different server basically means rerolling.

Some people were doubting throttlejam’s description of events. Surely it can’t be that bad? Which then led to this description:

You’re not unconscious. You’re handcuffed and they put weight in your inventory to encumber you so you can’t move and they force feed you like taming a dino. All you can do is stand there and wait… forever. You’re in a cell made of greenhouse glass and you can see everyone else being held around you… and there are multiple levels of nothing but cells and captive players. I can see them all.

An immobile player uses very little food or water… so it’s not a big drain on a large tribe’s resources to imprison a LOT of player avatars. On this server there are maybe 20 – 30 players online at one time… and these guys have most of those players avatars in lock up. How’s that fun?

…I think I’m done with Ark for now.

For the record, it is not necessarily due to Ark’s dedication to raising the bar for sociopath simulators. Indeed, my gameplay thus far as been entirely on a single-player server – I went to a official PvE server for about five minutes, saw a huge player-constructed tower, and remembered I don’t actually like people all that much. No, I’m primarily done with Ark for the time being because not even a GTX 970 can eek out more than about 24 fps on a good day.

Well, that, and I built a small hut, then a larger hut with a better view, then realized that I’d never be able to farm with a nearby source of water. I actually scouted abroad pretty far, found a nice area near a river, and then it occurred to me that I’d be looking at another half dozen hours just gathering resources. Let alone taming dinosaurs, or venturing out and getting immediately eaten by raptors.

There’s fun, and then there’s fun. I’m more in the mood for the latter.