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Tension

Tension in gaming is an interesting experience.

Tension feels uncomfortable. Relieving tension feels satisfying. Ergo, the introduction of tension-producing elements in your game can naturally propel players through the gameplay loops necessary to remove the tension while also rewarding them for their efforts. This pathway is different than one that relies on the player seeking rewards; the designer is instead threatening the player’s status quo.

While elegant, tension comes with risk. If a player is unable to relieve the tension, e.g. fails the test, that failure state can be a permanent stopping point. Players can become discouraged. Even when successful, players can also burn out from being under stress all the time, feeling as though the satisfaction states are either too infrequent or too brief. Even players who thrive and seek out tension scenarios may burn out in the other direction, mastering the game systems enough such that even the tension that still exists isn’t enough to ring their bells.

I have been thinking about this lately as I continue to be engrossed with Oxygen Not Included (ONI). While it may not immediately look like it, or even feel like it, ONI is decidedly a survival game.

In the beginning, the tension is apparent. You start with three Dupes and they have nothing but a little bit of space and some air (starter oxygen is included after all). If bathrooms are not created within the first day, all three Dupes will pee all over the floor by the morning of the 2nd day. After that, you have a bit of a reprieve… but it’s kind of a trap too. The calories provided by the starter food will only ever dwindle, and I hope you didn’t build their beds where all the CO2 lingers.

Although I have over 90 hours in the game now, I nevertheless still fell into the mid-game trap regarding (mostly) non-renewable resources. I started a game on the Oceania map, which had an absolute abundance of Algae and Coal. Algae in particular is a finite* resource on the default Terra map and its scarcity often forces you into Electrolyzers early on, which forces you into taming Steam vents, etc etc. Conversely, having 21 tons of the stuff on my map allowed me to keep the early-game Oxygen-creating machines running longer. I was even good on Coal too, as I had a Hatch ranch going which was producing Coal at a good clip.

If those details sound ominous, they should. While my Coal reserves were fine for everyday use, I had been building a Metal Refinery to make refined metal for future projects. Simultaneously, I was setting up a Hatch ranch to breed regular Hatches into Stone Hatches into Smooth Hatches, the last of which eat metal and poop refined metal exclusively. Normal Hatches and Stone Hatch eat basically anything and poop Coal, so I didn’t think twice about crafting two Incubators to speed the process along. As it turns out, adding nearly 2000 kJ stress on my power grid will burn through Coal pretty quick, as will replacing normal Hatches with ones that don’t poop Coal.

ONI has a particular tendency to punish complacency, going from Comfortable to Colony Collapse within a matter of a few Cycles. If you are not creating enough Oxygen for your Dupes, the game will give you a notification with the exact discrepancy. If your Oxygen-creating infrastructure is entirely dependent on Algae and you’re about to run out though, you get no warning. Well, you will eventually get the “not creating enough Oxygen” notification, but by then you will have to be scrambling to Electrolyzers regardless of whether your infrastructure currently supports it.

In some respects, ONI feels like the ideal tension-based game. The tension of keeping all the survival balls in the air exists, driving you ever onward. But you can also engineer stable systems such that you solve (some) problems permanently. Or “permanently” until the rounding errors in your design round up to whole errors. It can be frustrating though, coming from other tension-based games where the tension is more immediately apparent.

76% Fallout

SynCaine has his 30-minute impression of Fallout 76 up and, spoilers, he’s not impressed:

If you ever wondered what a Fallout game would be like if you removed all the story, all the reasons why you might play and care, F76 is the answer. It’s the same gameplay, the same systems, basically the same world, just empty of reasons to care.

While I am sure that is intended to be a damning indictment of Fallout 76’s failure… it really isn’t, IMO. The overwhelming vast majority of any Fallout gameplay is, well, gameplay. Specifically, it is wandering around, collecting junk, killing Super Mutants and Ghouls, experiencing environmental storytelling, and otherwise exploring the post-apocalypse wasteland. You know, all of the fun bits that occur inbetween questing. So when SynCaine says something like:

In Fallout 3, you also start in a vault, but as a child surrounded by other humans, including your family. Shortly after leaving the vault, you had to a fairly large settlement of humans that gets you rolling.

…I had a puzzled expression on my face. When I emerged from the Vault 101 for the first time – still in the top 5 videogame experiences in my entire life, by the way – I must have gotten turned around because Megaton was not where I went next. Instead, I explored some burnt-out buildings, fought some raiders, collected a bunch of junk, and basically hit up a bunch non-story locations.

I was not trying to avoid whatever the main story quest was supposed to be, but I wasn’t particularly bothered in speeding towards it. And while it was interesting finally getting to Megaton and having to make those moral decisions regarding the sheriff and the nuclear bomb in the middle of town and all the rest… that wasn’t everything that Fallout is. Shit, some of the best narratives in the entire series do not involve NPCs either, e.g. Father in the Cave.

Is there anything approaching Father in the Cave level so far in Fallout 76? Nope. Of course, there really hasn’t been anything of that level even in the main story quests for any Fallout game. Were you really that enmeshed with finding your father, finding your son, or deciding who rules the Mojave? Or was the main plot just a vehicle in which you drove around the wasteland, finding all the poignant stops along the way? Fallout 76 has that same vehicle, that same main story quest, getting you to explore every corner of the map. It’s a beater instead of a Porsche, but it still gets you from A to B.

Which is astounding for a survival game.

SynCaine would surely not care that Fallout 76 was never intended to be anything but a spin-off survival game and not some Fallout 5 substitute. But that is a distinction that matters. There is no plot reason to care what occurs in ARK, or Rust, or Conan: Exiles, or most other survival games. And yet there is an overarching plot to Fallout 76, complete with hours of voice acting, tragedy, and dark humor. There are no moral decisions, true, and yet that is about to change with upcoming patches in a natural way, e.g. everyone died from Scorchbeasts, Vault opens, we followed in footsteps of the dead but succeeded in eliminating the threat, newcomers are now moving in.

The devs did not set out to construct the plot this way; they honestly felt like “players are the NPCs” would work, which is some Silicon Valley startup fantasy bullshit and any actual player of videogames would instantly say is dumb. Bethesda is trying to turn the ship around though, and they have largely succeeded thus far with monthly patches and new quests. Some of it is a bit grindy, like the recent Boy Scouts-esque stuff which comes down to Achievement hunting to unlock a backpack. But, well… it fits this game, and gives you a reason to go back around the block.

I dunno. People aren’t still playing Diablo 3 for the plot, or Destiny 2, or Anthem (at all, *rimshot*). They play because the gameplay loop is fun. Complaining about Fallout 76 not having the same narrative quality of actual Fallout games just makes me question why you played Skyrim so much, and possibly still do. Was it for the engaging faction warfare? Or for whatever the situation was with that one dragon final boss that I 2-shot from stealth? Is that why any of us played and enjoyed Skyrim so much? Or was it perhaps the walking around, the fighting, the exploring caves, and otherwise existing in that world?

Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps you played Fallout and Skyrim exactly one time, never went anywhere other than towards a quest marker, and turned it off the moment the credits rolled. If you don’t play these games that way, well, you are in for a treat. Not because there is a grand narrative you are missing – although it ain’t that terrible – but because there is a huge map full of nooks and crannies actually filled with things worth picking up, killing, or looking at. And it’s getting better all the time.

Too Much Cheese

I have always had mixed feelings when it comes to Early Access games, but not always for the same reasons as everyone else. For example, one of the biggest dangers is getting hooked on a game that just never gets completed. Money dries up, development stops, you never get any sort of conclusion. I’ve never been too worried about that – either the game was fun when you played it, or it wasn’t.

No, my biggest concern is when the game gets better or more balanced… but I’m already done.

Oxygen Not Included (ONI) is a colony-management game from Klei that I started playing last year and it has gotten significant updates on the regular. Some new buildings, some new creatures, a sort of end-goal to strive for, and so on. Other things have not changed over the year, and it’s questionable whether they ever will. And that bothers me because some of the things that haven’t changed are broken mechanics.

One of the mid-to-late game threats in ONI is heat. In the beginning, you’re worried about Oxygen (hence the name), so you burn algae for air. Then you run out of algae. Switching to an Electrolyser allows you to turn water into Oxygen + Hydrogen, so you focus on getting clean water to burn, while finding a use for all the unbreathable Hydrogen (generally via Hydrogen Generator to power to the Electrolyser). This is another trap though, because the “free” Oxygen getting piped out is hot, and as your base heats up, your crops will fail. Thus, cooling things becomes a top priority.

While there are a number of “legit” ways to cool things down, the Water Sieve method is straight-up broken. Water Sieves are used to turn Polluted Water into normal Water, for use in bathrooms and such. The supposed downside of this is that the Sieve itself outputs relatively hot water at 40°C, which will gradually heat up your base and ruin your crops (which typically stop growing at 30-35°C). The real issue though is that the Water Sieve always outputs 40°C water… even if the Polluted Water was at a much higher temperature. Thus you get physics-bending/game-breaking (IMO) solutions like piping your clean water out of a Water Sieve and into an Aquatuner (which cools liquid down at the expense of heating itself up)… which is being liquid-cooled in a tank of Polluted Water… that you are piping to the Water Sieve.

Clever use of game mechanics, indeed.

Along the same lines, I have a 100% zombie-proof base in 7 Days to Die. It’s a tower with a nearby ramp and fence, along with a half-block on the other side of the fence. To the zombie AI, this half-block would allow them to jump again and land on the tower and start eating my face. In reality, once they hop over the fence, they miss the half-block, and plummet to the ground, taking damage. From there, they run back up the ramp and try again until they die again. I still try and kill them myself for the XP, but I have all the time in the world to line up the shots or try again if I miss. The devs have added a “tantrum” mechanic whenever a zombie tries to run a path and fails, but that just means the zombie will wail on a bunch of iron spikes.

There are two “easy” solutions to my “problems”:

  1. Don’t use these mechanics, and/or
  2. Don’t play these games yet

To which I would say:

  1. Handicapping myself via willpower alone isn’t fun, and
  2. These are precisely the type of games I want to be playing at the moment

If you have a list of non-Early Access survival/crafting games that I haven’t already played, by all means, let me know. Otherwise, I’m going to be over here stuffing my face with delicious cheese, and paying for it later.

Quick & Dirty Guide to Starbound (Frackin’ Universe)

Frackin’s Universe (FU) is a Steam Workshop mod that revitalizes (and complicates) the entire Starbound experience. It is not recommended for a first playthrough – go beat the base, vanilla game first. Then, just when you think you’ve had enough, come back, load the mod, and play what feels like Starbound 2.0.

StarboundFU_Title

Beyond FU itself, I highly recommend the following (compatible!) mods:

In particular, Improved Containers will change your Starbound life. They added a button to automatically stack anything you’re carrying into an existing stack in a container. Great for off-loading one of the dozens of new ore types introduced in FU after coming back aboard your ship.

Beginning Recommendations

Play or skip the tutorial. When it asks whether you want the default ship or the Build Your Own Ship (BYOS) option, choose BYOS. This allows you to skip a huge block of vanilla Starbound progression and immediately construct a ship of your dreams.

Incidentally, you can construct your dream ship out of any materials lying around. Including dirt. Despite floating in deep space, you are free to destroy the walls and background tiles of your ship at any time; there are no decompression mechanics in Starbound. Just note that “loose” items/blocks fall to the bottom of the screen, and walking onto a spot without background tiles puts you in an airless, zero-g environment. This will likely be fatal to you at the start of the game, so construct your ship from the other side of a wall first.

Get off the starter planet ASAP. Complete the required quests first, but try to get to a different Lush or whatever planet when you can. Tungsten Ore is an especially vital part of early-game progression, and the starter planet probably doesn’t have any.

Get a Mining Laser ASAP. It is better than Mining Picks, Mining Drills, and the best, most upgraded Matter Manipulator any day. You will still want to upgrade the latter over time though, as the Mining Laser burns through both normal and background blocks, which can be problematic in certain edge cases. Like when the background is full of lava, for example.

Roughly 99% of your deaths will be related to fall damage. That is not so much a recommendation as it is a fact. Mitigating fall damage is super important, but you won’t have very many options at the start, especially considering how dark FU is generally. Until you can get armor/Augments to assist with the issue, your best bet is to focus on unlocking Physics Field tech in the Tech Console. That way you can press F if you notice yourself falling to prevent all damage.

Cheese the lighting system by printing lighted signs. One of the FU changes is that you no longer emit a minimum aura of light. Combined with the fact that EPP upgrades are not cumulative, you will often be in a situation where you need to craft thousands of torches to see anything. Alternatively, once the Pixel Sign maker is up at the Outpost – unlocked after the first artifact – you can create a white, lighted sign that practically shines with the force of a thousand suns.

StarboundFU_Lighting

It also costs nothing but the effort of spam-clicking the print button. Torches are still useful in that they don’t require background tiles to work, but signs are otherwise better when you can use them.

Check every vendor you see. Most of the time, a vendor’s inventory is randomly set when you meet them. This can sometimes result in fortuitous situations like a vendor selling unlimited amounts of, say, Graphene for 28px a pop.

StarboundFU_Graphene

Base Recommendations

Build your first base on an Ocean planet. If you are anything like me, you’re concerned about where your “real” base should be located. So you go planet to planet, looking for the perfect spot, and meanwhile junk and crafting benches continue to accumulate wherever you placed them (probably on your ship). Eventually, by the time you find the ideal location, you’re overwhelmed by all the items you have to move, so you stick with your first “choice.”

StarboundFU_Base

I recommend an Ocean planet base for two reasons. First, it’s a planet. Ship bases are perfectly viable options, but you essentially forgo easy power generation from Solar/Wind stations, and easy materials from Atmospheric Condensers. Second, Ocean planets have infinite water tiles. There are craftable Wells and other water sources wherever you are, but nothing beats the convenience of holding down left-click and soaking up as much water as you need. Or automating it all later.

Keep a Sifter up and running 24/7. A full stack of 1000 Sand will keep a Sifter occupied for quite some time, but the end result will be a dozen or more different materials, some of which can be loaded back in an Alternator to power the Sifter to continue generating free goodies. The Centrifuge is similarly useful, but certainly less perpetual… unless you have Solar panels on an Ocean planet.

Farming Recommendations

Did you build a base on an Ocean planet? Lobsters are EZ-Mode. Craft some Lobster Traps and watch as they magically fill up with free food. Lobsters stack to 99, do not require cooking to eat (but you can if you want), and actually sell for a decent amount (1980px per 99 stack). While there is an indication of freshness, lobsters do not appear to spoil; this may be a bug that is fixed later.

Rice is the easiest vegetable crop to manage. Uncooked rice stacks in your inventory, never goes bad, and you only need a Campfire to cook it. Wheat is similar, but Rice does not need to be replanted (assuming you aren’t using Growing Trays). You forgo any fancy buffs, but it is incredibly straight-forward. If you haven’t found rice on a planet yet, “purchase” it from a Greenhouse.

Grow Trays/Hydroponics are niche tools. On paper, they sound amazing: drop in three seeds, a stack of water, maybe some Fertilizer, and off you go. The problem is that there isn’t a good visual indication of when the product can be harvested. Or when it runs out of water. Or when all of the output slots are full of spoiled food.

Where Grow Trays excel is when they are used either with a stackable product, such Silk, or with a food item that normally despawns when harvesting, such as Wheat. In most other situations, I prefer planting crops in dirt.

Aeroponic or Hydroponic Tubing is strictly better than dirt, once you unlock them. They are kinda expensive considering dirt and the broken sprinkler are so early in the tech tree, but there are benefits to be able to pack more plants into a smaller area (sprinklers need height to water everything). Just keep in mind that you do have to “till” the tubing before planting.

If you want the most-filling food, then you’ll want Ultimate Juice. Incidentally, it also provides +20% Jump/Energy/Health/Run Speed and a Rage effect. This requires six different crops to craft though: Boneboo, Feathercrown, Oculemon, Neonmelon, and Toxictop. Finding these crops before reaching the endgame will be a challenge.

Critical FU Functionality

Frackin’ Universe adds a lot of very complicated systems. Here are the most important/useful ones.

Power – Both Power Generators and Batteries (when charged) output X number of Watts. Plugging a 4W battery into an Arc Smelter (req. 40W) isn’t going to work. That said, wattage is cumulative on a wire. Connect ten 4W batteries to that Arc Smelter – or preferably, to a Wire Relay – and you will be in business. Just note that if you are using 40W, that is 40W less on the wire. If you have multiple stations running simultaneously, you will need a power surplus to keep all the lights on.

Terminals – A Terminal is a clickable interface that grants you access to an “Item Network.” Linking all your storage units together into an Item Network means you can use Terminals to search for and retrieve your items from a single location, e.g. the Terminal itself, instead of having to manually look for it across all your storage units.

StarboundFU_Terminal

What you’ll need:

  • Storage unit(s) full of stuff
  • Craft and place Storage Bridge near storage unit(s)
  • (optional) Craft and place Repeater to hook into multiple Storage Bridges
  • Craft and place Terminal near crafting stations
  • Connect the blues to the reds, e.g. Storage Bridge to Repeater/Terminal

Item Movement – If you want to take something from one container and physically put it into another container, you want an Item Transference Device (ITD). If you click on the ITD, you will get a bunch of pseudo-programming options that I have zero interest in learning or explaining. Instead, all you really need to know is that it basically works out of the box. Connect the red circle of your container to the blue circle of the ITD, then connect the red circle of the ITD to the blue circle of the other container. Bam. All items that appear in the first slot of the first container will get moved.

StarboundFU_Transfer

For me, the most practical use of an ITD was moving items from a Lobster Trap or Growing Tray to a box automatically. If the box is actually refrigerated storage, then all the better. Red, blue, red, blue, done. If you want something more fancy, you are on your own.

Survival Recommendations

One of your quick-slot items should be Dirt. If you find yourself in trouble, close off the tunnel you’re in with dirt; it will block melee and the majority of ranged attacks while you heal yourself or escape. While it’s a kinda cheesy move in vanilla Starbound, the enemies in Frackin’ Universe are exceedingly more deadly. Some enemies can pass through walls though, and explosive damage can penetrate tiles, so take care.

Always deploy with your Mech on new worlds. Depending on how much (if any) time you spend with the Mech-building side of things, your Mech will not make you invulnerable to planet effects or damage for long. That said, it will absolutely extend your life by a few precious seconds in case you get beamed down in the middle of a USCM camp full of snipers that can one-shot you. Just note that if your Mech explodes, you die with it. So either beam back up to your ship or bail.

Craft a few dozen flags and plant them everywhere. Flags are cheap to craft and act as bookmarks that allow you to get back to where you want to be quickly. Think you might die or encounter a tough fight? Plant a flag. If you come across a planet with a lot of good resources, plant a flag and name it “Penumbrite (Acid, Hot)” or whatever. This will save you oodles of time if you find yourself in a situation of needing more of X resource but being in a Y system instead.

Get an X (Radiation, etc) Ball Wand/Staff. Regardless of your fighting style, having a Wand/Staff with Radiation Ball (or whatever) will change your life. Specifically, it will allow you to attack enemies around corners/from range with guided death. Even better, you can dig a 1-block hole in a wall or floor and then squeeze your orb of death through it to murder your foes with impunity.

StarboundFU_Cheap

I snaked a Radiation Ball right through the one-tile gap to fry that guy.

Cheap? Sure. Effective? Hell yeah.

Armor Combinations – There are over 100 sets of armor added with Frackin’ Universe, so determining what you want to wear can be a challenge. For the most part though, it’s best to craft a bunch of mannequins and just have specialized sets ready for each planet you beam down on. That said, here were my go-to options:

Nautilus Armor / Kraken Armor / Leviathan Armor
This armor series eventually grants you Acid, Poison/Bio, Gas, Pressure, and Oxygen immunities once you reach the end. If you combine this with the Thermal Shell EPP, you will be immune to the most common damage types. A Field Generator EPP will make you further immune to Radiation, at the expense of making lava a concern again. This will cover just about everything aside from Shadow and Insanity, which can handled with EPP Augments.

Valkyrie Armor
With this set, you get Oxygen, Gas, Pressure, and Radiation protection, plus technical immunity to fall damage (you float downwards). This seems like considerably less protections than the same-tier Leviathan Armor set, and it is, but the Valkyrie gear boasts a 500% weapon damage modifier instead of 276%. Definitely a glass-cannon set, with half the armor of Leviathan and a third of War Angel.

Sunwalker Armor
This is a “War Angel-lite” tier-6 set that provides Radiation, Heat, Cold, Breath, and Pressure immunities. Additionally, there is an extra 40% Radiation resist and a +15% bonus to Plasma weapon damage.

War Angel
Basically an endgame armor, this nevertheless makes you immune to Pressure, Cold, Heat, Radiation, knockback, and all fall damage. On top of that, it provides 35% Physical Resist, so you’ll be taking less damage from mobs. Oh, and 93 Armor and tons of extra HP. Definitely a tanky set. Chain Swords deal 250% extra damage in your hands with this set as well.

EPP and Augments –  Much like with Armor, there are dozens of different types of EPPs and Augments to slot into them. The ultimate goal is find a combination that works for your play-style and providing the necessary protection to survive whatever planet you’re on. That said, some of the choices are better than others.

[EPP] Thermal Shell
Providing protection against heat, cold, lava, and burning on top of 20% Fire and Ice Resistance, the Thermal Shell is one of the most useful EPPs in the game. Many armors can give you heat immunity, but none of them will save you from taking damage in lava, which is weird. Even the Field Generator, which appears to be a strict upgrade to the Thermal Shell given how it includes Radiation protection, makes you vulnerable to a lava bath once again.

[EPP] Repulsor Field Pack
While outclassed in the midgame, the Repulsor Field Pack is a fantastic early-game EPP since it provides 20% Physical and Fire Resistance. The “penalty” to Cosmic Resistances isn’t particularly relevant until much later in the game.

[EPP] Plasma Light Pack
The final word in backpack light generation, the Plasma Light Pack doesn’t appear until the endgame and may end up being a fool’s errand to chase after. While it provides Breath and Pressure Immunities, most armors offer the same by then.

[Augment] Immunity I & Immunity Field
Pretty much the final word with Augments, Immunity I provides protection against Heat, Cold, Gas, Radiation, and Proto-Poison at a base level. Immunity Field is a recent, stronger addition that grants a 2nd level protection to those same qualities while adding on Radiation Burning, Poisoning, and Liquid Nitrogen immunities. Still does nothing versus Shadow/Insanity/etc damage, so be wary of what planets you are beaming to. Although having a specialized armor set against those qualities with a Thermal Shell with an Immunity Field Augment to handle the rest will do you well.

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.

Fallout 76 is a Survival Game

Seeing as I’m a cynical bastard most of the time, it’s fascinating experiencing the frothing internet rage from the other side of the glass for once. “Don’t buy Fallout 76!” “This game feels like an alpha!” “The micro-transactions are ridiculous!” “It’s a glitchy, buggy mess!” Cool story, bros. Imma be over here being totally absorbed in my hunt for Aluminum and Adhesives for 5-6 hours a day.

Hey, I’ve been there IRL.

I mean, is this what it feels like to really enjoy something and then encounter someone who doesn’t, for reasons that seem so disconnected from your personal experience so as to seem divorced from reality? Politics is one thing, but somehow this seems even more extreme.

Let me break it down for you: Fallout 76 is a Survival game. I do not just mean Fallout 76 has hunger and thirst meters, I mean the games you must compare it to are other Survival games. Games like:

  • ARK
  • The Forest
  • Metal Gear Survive
  • RUST
  • State of Decay (1 and 2)
  • Subnautica
  • The Long Dark
  • 7 Days to Die
  • Conan: Exiles
  • No Man’s Sky

Fallout 76 does indeed come up short against some of those. Subnautica is much prettier, for instance. You can’t dig into bedrock and build your own personal bunker like in 7 Days to Die. But the complaints about lack of story, or the emptiness of the world, etc, suddenly become quite silly when you start asking where the NPCs are in, say, ARK. Fallout 76 is better than State of Decay in every category (story, gameplay, basebuilding, etc). Conan: Exiles lets you have slave NPCs at your base, but they aren’t materially different than some turrets most of the time.

Granted, some of these are $30 games and not $60, but still.

Totally stealing this player’s base design.

If you want to be mad at Bethesda for not making Fallout 5 happen in 2018, then… okay. I don’t think that was ever in the cards even if Fallout 76 didn’t exist, but maybe. It’s like being mad at Blizzard for the Mobile Diablo fiasco – that was a mismanagement of expectations, and likely had zero impact on the work of Diablo 4, which is inevitably coming.

Having said that, I begrudge no one for waiting 6+ months for the (ahem) fallout to settle before taking a second look. Fallout 76 is absolutely a game that will be in better shape a few patches from now. Stash size will be bigger, bugs/crashes will be reduced, some of the quests will actually be completable, there might be more of an endgame, Workshops might be worth something, and so on. No Man’s Sky was a huge letdown on release, but look at it now, within the context of survival games. If I still had space on my SSD, I might have booted NMS up again with this latest patch.

If I were not spending every waking moment playing and enjoying (!!!) Fallout 76, that is.

Impressions: Metal Gear Survive

The other day I bought Metal Gear Survive for zero dollars.

A bargain at twice the price!

Although most of the internet would probably suggest that zero dollars is still too expensive for this game, I found it to be a rather fascinating experience.

Before I start, let’s address the elephant in the room: Konami sucks. Like him or hate him, Kojima is/was a ground-breaking (and budget-busting) designer and Konami will ultimately rue the day they let him go. That whole episode also marks the ignoble end to some of my favorite franchises too. So, in a way, Metal Gear Survive is a complete mockery of Kojima’s legacy – a survival game knockoff recycling the majority of Metal Gear Solid 5 assets in what is presumably a complete cash-grab.

That said… the MGS5 skeleton is better than most studios could dream of creating.

Metal Gear Survive surprised me right out of the gate with something novel. In the tutorial section of the game, your first weapon is a spear. Fantastic zombie-killing weapon, IMO, and I’m always surprised when no zombie game ever lets you craft one. Then you are introduced to chain link fences. And then they drop the bomb: you can stab zombies with a spear through the fence.

Mind. Blown.

My amazement might sound factitious, but I’m being serious here. It’s a tiny, little thing that grounds the game in some sort of believability. It’s something you feel clever doing every time it occurs. There aren’t any spears in 7 Days to Die, and the only way you can attack zombies through something is if you build columns or have some kind of iron gate. I had been playing Metal Gear Survive for only an hour at this point, and already all future survival games will be judged based on whether I can attack through a chain link fence.

The boldness continued right on the second mission. The task itself was “download(?) the memory board” and the AI advisers warned me that “there will be some Wanderers (i.e. zombies) nearby.” Which, when I turned the corner and saw the building, happened to be a contender for understatement of the year.

That was just half of the enemies milling about.

It’s the second goddamn mission, I have zero weapons other than a spear at this point, and the ability to build chain link fences. And while that sounds like an unstoppable combo, let me just say the devs have specifically accounted for situations in which there are dozens of zombies being held back by a flimsy chain link fence.

Legit freaked out the first time it happened.

Beyond that, the gameplay loop is… deceptively serious. Hunger and Thirst meters are present, and they dictate the maximum recovery level of your HP and Stamina meters, respectively. This means that if your hunger is at 25%, you can only ever heal back up to 25% HP. On top of this, food items are incredibly scarce. Animals will respawn, but it can take several real-world hours, which means you will spend the first dozen or hours of the game rather hungry.

On top of that, most of the game is spent exploring “the Dust.” The map is covered in a fog that requires you to wear an Oxygen mask to survive in, which is yet another meter to watch. Each time you are in a new area of the (Dust) map, your traditional tracking mechanisms, e.g. waypoints, will not work either. While there are distant lights you can use to kind of manually guide your progress, you can quite easily lose track of time or direction and otherwise get into a bad situation.

Teleporting Wild Ass back to your base is important too.

There is one final element that kind of brings this all together in a hardcore-ish way: Metal Gear Survive works on a Checkpoint Save system. Until you actually make it back to base camp, none of what you pick up or map or achieve counts for anything. If you die 5 seconds before the end of the mission, or if the thing you need to protect blows up, you start all over. While this isn’t too different from all the other survival games I have played, it certainly feels a tad more hardcore in practice, somehow. Possibly because in other survival games, you don’t necessary have to go into that clearly-dangerous area again.

In any case, I’m about a dozen hours into the game and continue to feel compelled to log in again and again. It’s not the best-looking survival game, and there are definitely pared-down elements compared to something like ARK or Fallout 76, but the combination of the formula and the MGS 5 vibe makes it very engaging to me. Even if everything else seems goofy as shit, on occasion.

[Fake Edit]

I just completed the game this past weekend, with 28 hours played. My overall impression has soured somewhat in the meantime.

The first thing to note is that Konami didn’t just recycle assets, they recycled maps. I kinda already knew this heading into the game, but I found the experience rather jarring when a mission sent me to the mansion from MGS 5 for no particular reason. That is, there was a memory board located there that I needed to progress the story forward, but no actual storyline or plot purpose for the mansion itself to exist. There wasn’t even a boss fight or anything inside. Instead, it felt like the devs just said “oh, hey, there’s a mansion in these asset folders we haven’t used yet” and then slapped it in.

The second note is that the game’s cadence changes substantially in the latter half. Instead of survival, everything becomes long action sequences of surviving waves of zombie hordes. While this is not entirely out of character for the game, the fact that the last half-dozen mission are pseudo-time limited is. At no point did I feel the game adequately express the need to ensure that I had stocked up on enough ammo; that I managed to survive the onslaughts at all was a fluke of my hoarding nature.

15 minutes? Are you fucking kidding me?!

Finally, speaking of hoarding, the “endgame” itself radically changes from a resource-gathering perspective. Essentially, instead of wandering around afield in new locations, the optimal method is to simply teleport to every waypoint and gather whatever is located there, then teleport back to base to offload it. This gives you enough material for damn near everything… except for bullets. Specifically, gunpowder can only be collected from specific items you pick up. You can convert materials in dozens of different combinations – turning Iron into Gears, Nails, Steel, etc, etc – but you cannot convert anything into gunpowder. Which is especially frustrating considering that you can convert gunpowder into TNT, but can’t down-convert TNT into anything.

The end result is that you basically can’t really use guns as your primary weapon. Which is fine, I guess. Other games like Dead Island really emphasized melee weapons too. But the fact remains that Metal Gear Survive allows you to farm this gunpowder over the course of several hours, such that you could use guns as a primary weapon if you put in enough mindless time. This ultimately just makes the entire situation feel worse though.

In any event, I do not necessarily regret my hours spent in Metal Gear Survive. If nothing else, it reminded me of how engaging Metal Gear Solid 5 was, and how cool the Fox Engine could be for use in other games. That will… never be made. Sigh. Fuck Konami.

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.

Why? Just why?

Why did I think it was a good idea to start playing Stardew Valley for the first time this weekend? The Fallout 76 Beta is coming out like tomorrow, and I decided it was a good idea to boot up a game that has already consumed 10 hours of my time in two days? Good lord.

As a side note, it’s amusing experiencing the same synapses firing off when I farm and plant crops as I do when playing survival games. It’s starting to make me wonder whether I like survival games, or if I have been using survival games to scratch the itch for farming simulators.

Either way, it’s trouble. I gotta do stuff this week.