Conan: Exiles (hereafter Conan) is basically ARK where the dinosaurs are people.
Not really… but kinda.
The first thing I want to say about Conan is that this is perhaps the first survival game I have played that has completely nailed the setting and tone. In a lot of these games, you are a faceless protagonist, or a random nobody who just suddenly is completely fine with butchering cannibals within minutes of regaining consciousness. In this game, you are a barbarian, in a barbarian land, doing some very barbaric things. And it fits.
In ARK, you tame dinosaurs by beating them unconscious with clubs, rocks, or narcotics. Then you… put food and more narcotics into their inventories. In Conan, you beat warriors/cooks/etc unconscious with a club. Then you… tie a rope to their legs and drag them along the ground back to your camp, and lash them to your Wheel of Pain, feeding them gruel or even human flesh, until their will to resist finally breaks and they join you. Crom would be pleased.
Like I said, it fits the theme and tone of the game. All of that is further reinforced by the demonic mobs, corruption of mad gods, and other sort of weirdness that permeates the land. It feels right.
Having said all that, there is a lot of jankiness all over the place. I’m not just talking about the typical survival game tropes like carrying 500+ stones in your loincloth inventory, or how your Thralls will sometimes unequip themselves of their weapons. I mean the very consistent outright bugs, like how attacks don’t register if you are fighting under a tent. Or the overall jarring inconsistencies in progression, like the ridiculous hoops you have to go through to complete the early-game Journal task of “skinning a creature with a knife” (literally a dozen+ steps). Or the general incongruent nature of a more “realistic” game in which you cannot simply loot the items that NPCs are wearing, or interact with any of the set pieces that dot the land.
I think that, more than anything, there is one thought that is draining most of my enthusiasm away from playing Conan: “Elder Scrolls Online did it better.” Can you slaughter a camp of people and drain the Unfulfilled Desires from their corpses to fuel your ritual offerings to Derketo in TESO? No. You can, however, interact with the world in a meaningful way, like… you know, sitting in a chair, opening a crate, stealing a bowl. Certainly the whole dungeon thing works a hell of a lot better when death does not send you back across the map, naked and alone.
For the record, my experiences in Conan have been from the viewpoint of someone playing it single-player on a local server. I ended up cranking up the resource gain to x4 rate, which is probably too high, but farming iron ore for days and days is just dumb. It was dumb in ARK too, but that was on purpose: you were meant to tame dinosaurs to make collecting resources more efficient. In Conan, it’s just mindless labor meant to create PvP opportunities in which someone jacks all your stuff.
We’ll see how long interest lasts. I tried my first dungeon the other day, and was slaughtered by the boss all the way at the end. Despite having admin powers and the ability to spawn all my equipment back on my body and teleport back to the area, there was a very tangible part of me that felt like that was an interest-terminating loss. I never felt deprived in ARK for not seeing the bosses there while playing single-player, but dungeons in Conan are more of a thing. Probably because there are less “things” in the world otherwise.
Tropes are a thing. A lot of people feel like tropes are the worst thing imaginable, and every new title should be breaking new ground every time, or what is the point? That’s a bit unrealistic, I think. To me, tropes can be comforting. Experience in one game does not often transfer to another, so when it does, it can help in understanding the mechanics that interact in new ways. Plus, sometimes the tropes make the genre what it is.
That said, I have been playing a lot of survival games lately, and some of these tropes have got to go.
Starting out naked with no items? That’s good, important even.
Crafting recipes that require a resource that should be abundant, but turns out to be super rare? That shit has got to go. I’m in Conan: Exiles and there are two early-game arrow recipes: one requires bones and the other requires feathers. Just guess how many bones exist in the average human or animal. If you guessed “a similar number to the amount of feathers that are contained in a clearly-feathered ostrich-like creature,” you would be correct. Zero, specifically, on average.
Although, arguably worse is how little bark you can harvest from trees.
Shit like that didn’t phase me much in the past, but I think I was spoiled by The Forest. In that survival game, you can just chuck dead bodies on your campfire, and 6-7 bones would pop out a few minutes later. Oh, and it has the best building mechanic in any survival game I have played: you set down a blueprint and then have to carry the materials to that location. That makes way better sense than putting 540 stones in your (loincloth) inventory, crafting a Furnace that mysteriously weighs 50% less, and then plopping it down wherever.
At the same time, having experienced the ability to climb anywhere in Conan, it will be tough to go back to other survival games in which a waist-high cliff is an insurmountable obstacle.
One step forward, two, three, sometimes forty steps back.
Project Zomboid (PZ) is an Early Access, isometric post-zombie apocalypse survival game set in Kentucky. While the pared down graphics and isometric camera might give one pause, I was fairly excited to give the game a try. What I discovered is possibly one of the more “realistic” survival games out there… and that realism is way overrated. And less fun to play.
Honestly, I was actually surprised how much I disliked PZ almost immediately. After character creation, you take control inside the one for-sure non-zombie house – your own. From here, you go through houses and find… normal stuff. Fully stocked refrigerators and freezers. Ovens to cook raw meat. Working lights. Faucets that deliver fresh water directly to your mouth. While your character starts with no skills, you are fully capable of surviving quite a while just fine doing nothing.
That does not last for long, of course. Within a month or so, both the electricity and water will shut off permanently. So the game’s central conceit reveals itself: how long can you survive?
In the abstract, this is not dissimilar to, say, Oxygen Not Included, wherein there is no win condition per se. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find myself immediately repulsed by PZ, conceptually. When you wake up naked on a beach in ARK, there is a very obvious, grokkable progression path towards survival. All of that is turned on its head with PZ. I found myself ransacking houses for supplies, and then asking myself why.
The answer is supposed to be “to prepare for self-sufficiency and safety after the lights and water turn off,” but that feels like such a weird, abstract endgame. It’s definitely unique in this particular genre, don’t get me wrong, but I feel like it’s probably unique for a reason, e.g. it feels bad. You aren’t building up to self-sufficiency, you’re building down. It is also harder to feel any particular sense of urgency without metagaming the entire experience.
I dunno. There is technically a starting game mode which takes place 6 months after the start of the zombie apocalypse, which features the water and lights already off, and most things already looted. In other words, a more typical survival game experience. But after spending a few hours with the base game, I don’t know that I feel it.
This is definitely going to be one of those Early Access titles that needs more time in the oven.
An hour or so after yesterday’s post, I went ahead and bought State of Decay 2. Life is short, I have the money, let’s do the thing.
Just as a warning though, Microsoft doesn’t make it easy.
State of Decay 2 is not on Steam. Further, there is no express PC copy. The game is apparently part of Microsoft’s “Play Anywhere” initiative, which means you end up having to buy the Xbox One copy, which can also be played on Windows 10 machines. I purchased on Amazon because of my 5% cash back card, but I suppose you could do so from the Microsoft store a bit more directly.
The problems were just beginning though. One of the first things I had to do was associate my PC with a Microsoft account. My copy of Windows 10 is legit, but I never bothered to register it or anything, so now apparently I had to reconfigure how I sign into my own damn computer just to get access to the storefront. Once that was done, I took my digital code, followed the links, and redeemed the code in the Microsoft store. But… where was my download button? Where was My Games? Every link I followed just took me around in circles.
In case you follow my lead, hopefully this link works:
That will hopefully take you directly to the game’s page. Be aware that you’ll probably still need to add your PC as a Device on Microsoft’s servers or whatever, but you should be able to eventually download it from there.
I cannot comment much on the gameplay thus far, beyond confirming that it’s definitely scratching the itch. I’m not a fan of the game giving me a mission to kill a Plague Heart, pointing me to an NPC that gives me explosives for free, and then surprising me with the fact that the very items it told me to use were not enough to actually kill said Plague Heart, but whatever. I’m looting things, building a base, and killing some zombies. That’s exactly what I wanted to do in this moment.
First up, everything that Jason Schreier from Kotaku reported was true: Fallout 76 is an online survival RPG. Second, my Concern Meter has been dialed to 11 since the E3 presentation.
As I said before, I am all onboard with a Fallout survival game. Exploring the wasteland and looting all the things consists of about 80% of my gameplay in this series, and I am currently on an extreme survival game kick the likes of which I have not experienced since my high school JRPG days. All of that sounds fantastic to me.
What was considerably less fantastic was this bit:
Bethesda Game Studios, the award-winning creators of Skyrim and Fallout 4, welcome you to Fallout 76, the online prequel where every surviving human is a real person. Work together – or not – to survive. Under the threat of nuclear annihilation, you’ll experience the largest, most dynamic world ever created in the legendary Fallout universe.
That is direct from Bethesda marketing material, and you can hear Todd Howard say it several times during the E3 presentation. Oh, and here is Todd with the final nails to finish that RPG coffin:
“You cannot [play offline]. Even if you are playing by yourself doing quests, you will see other players.”
“There are no NPCs. […] There are still robots and terminals and holotapes.”
“We want a little drama there [with PvP/griefers] without it ruining your game.”
Sometimes I wonder whether any of these people have ever played a videogame before.
So there it is. Apparently there will be private servers at some point in the future, complete with modding capabilities. Considering that would likely compete with their own (presumed) microtransactions, I won’t be holding my breath. I haven’t actually heard anything about microtransactions, for the record, so maybe they will surprise us by keeping things honest. Howard did admit that the modding scene is always where their games end up in the long term.
In the Reddit thread where I found the interview clip above, there was this amusing exchange:
So what do you do then?
Do quests and build stuff with friends.
Quests from who? Doing what? With no NPC’s who’s going to give a quest, or at least one that’s meaningful. How am I supposed to give a fuck about the quests if theres no reason in behind them
It’s a fair question, especially if someone has never played a survival game before. The answer: it doesn’t matter. ARK has no NPCs or quests and I racked up 136 hours playing by myself on a local server. For reference, my /played time on Fallout: New Vegas and Fallout 4 are 128 and 96 hours, respectfully. Granted, the quality of those gameplay hours differs significantly – I can recall specific quests and epic moments from the Fallout games in a way I couldn’t describe cutting down the thousandth tree for wood in ARK – but the point is that entertainment can occur without there being a reason for it.
Plus, you know… Minecraft. That is a thing that people do.
Based just what we know today and random musings, here’s what I’m thinking:
- Basically Fallout ARK minus the taming
- Ghouls/robots/etc = dinosaurs
- Overseer quest is extended tutorial to get you to visit all six maps
- Each zone unlocks specific progression crafting stations/items
- Overseer is a robot/AI and possibly the Navi to your Link
- All quests are passive, e.g. go here, find this, activate X, defend Y
- No direct quest giver NPC, no factions
- World boss spawns, and public group quests are frequent
- Radiant-esque quests via Note Board or similar
- Might find magazines/notes that lead to mini-dungeons
- The six zones are not contiguous; fast travel at the edges/specific locations
- Looting/scavenging is a big deal for building supplies, main motivator for exploring
- CAMP system will reduce base griefing a little bit
- Pack up your base before logging off; crops (etc) probably won’t grow though
- Unable to spam buildings across the map to block locations
- A ton of people setting up hostile turret bases near newbie areas though
- XP and levels and Perks and Skills, like normal Fallout
- “Jobs” in the trailer correspond to group-based roles (scout, tank, etc)
- Always “dozens” of players per map, per server
- Expect a lot of activity near best resource spawn locations
- Nukes aren’t necessarily for griefing – they create endgame locations
- Getting codes to unlock nukes is its own mini-progression
- Extra hard enemies/bosses spawn in nuked area
- Some kind of endgame resource spawns only there
- Radiation requires loot/crafting grind just to survive brief trips inside
- No private servers at launch
- “Progression follows you” means getting OP on private, then griefing public
- Or farming Power Armor quickly, then handing it to your friends
- Alternatively, allow private servers but character cannot migrate
Most of that is idle speculation, but we can come back to it once more details have been released.
[Edit: Updated Youtube link, since first interview was taken down]
The big news is that Bethesda teased the next Fallout entry: Fallout 76.
People were understandably confused by the naming convention. “What happened to Fallouts 5-75?” The mirth turned to trepidation when Jason Schreier from Kotaku tweeted:
Well, as of this afternoon, Jason tightened the thumbscrews further with this article:
When Bethesda announced Fallout 76 with a teaser trailer this morning, promising more information at E3, it was easy to assume that the new game would be a traditional single-player role-playing game. But Fallout 76 is in fact an online survival RPG that’s heavily inspired by games like DayZ and Rust, according to three people familiar with the project.
This could be a total disaster. An unmitigated, unrelenting disaster.
…or this could be the best thing of all time. Either/or.
No, but seriously, it’s difficult to assess the firestorm going on in my head right now. Am I disappointed that we’re not seeing a straight-up Fallout 5 right now? Sure. But take a moment and remember back to Fallout 4 and Fallout 3 (and New Vegas for that matter) and ask yourself: how important was the main story, really? Conversely, what were the best parts of this series for you?
For me, it was precisely the post-apocalyptic exploration bits that I love; the mini-vignettes in the form of skeletons or computer logs; the hoarding of thousands of pounds of tin cans and bottle caps; looking at my map, seeing the quest marker, and decidedly going in the opposite direction. While there were never many traditional survival elements to the Fallouts – baring the New Vegas option, which did not change much mechanically – the game setting just had a certain… je ne sais quoi which led me to ransacking every ramshackle shack in the wasteland, in spite of it being totally unnecessarily. Fallout 4’s base-building components were… well, also unnecessary, but at least gave those thousands of pieces of debris a purpose.
So, in short, my body is ready for this.
In fact, I have never been more ready. The only reason why I don’t own Metal Gear: Survive or Conan: Exiles is because they haven’t been bundled/deeply discounted yet. I only uninstalled ARK because it takes up 100+ GB on my limited SSD. I only stopped playing 7 Days to Die because I didn’t want to burn all of my interest until at least patch A17 is released (which is apparently in July). I don’t really advertise it, but my own personal dream game elevator pitch is “Fallout 3 meets Silent Hill – post-apoc psychological survival FPS.”
Now, it’s entirely possible that the devs won’t be able to thread all the needles:
Originally prototyped as a multiplayer version of Fallout 4 with the goal of envisioning what an online Fallout game might look like, Fallout 76 has evolved quite a bit over the past few years, those sources said. It will have quests and a story, like any other game from Bethesda Game Studios, a developer known for meaty RPGs like Skyrim. It will also feature base-building—just like 2015’s Fallout 4—and other survival-based and multiplayer mechanics, according to those sources. One source cautioned that the gameplay is rapidly changing, like it does in many online “service” games, but that’s the core outline.
How exactly does one have both survival multiplayer and quests? Is this going to be a stripped-down The Elder Scrolls Online? Jason mentioned in the comments that “Yeah I’ve also heard people who know the game make comparisons to Ark, fwiw,” so I could imagine it being… well, ARK with quests. But are they going to all be radiant quests ala Skyrim? Can people kill the quest-givers? Can you create your own private (single-player) servers? Will there be modding available?
Details will emerge in the next few weeks, for sure. In the meantime, I’m loving it. Even if Fallout 76 is a total disaster, it has solidified in me the understanding of something I wasn’t quite able to express. Namely, that I want a Fallout ARK. The RPG elements and VATS and such are traditional features that help define the narrative a bit, but I don’t view them as essential anymore. And maybe they never were. I just love that setting, and that gameplay loop of exploring the wasteland.
War never changes, but perhaps our appreciation of it can.
It’s been a while since I was last gripped by a game for 5 hours straight. Over multiple days.
Stellaris is a non-Paradox game developed by Paradox. This is important because of my history with this developer. Much like with EVE, I had heard a lot about Crusader Kings 2, all sorts of crazy stories, and bought it thinking that I’d like to play the game that generated them. Nope, I played about 3 hours before uninstalling it. So when a friend of mine recommended Stellaris recently, I was skeptical. So skeptical that I ended up installing Galactic Civilization 2 (free download) and Galactic Civilization 3 (don’t even know where this came from) in order to scratch the itch that Civ 6 had left. Then, finally, a recent 60% sale on Stellaris pushed me over the edge.
I have been falling ever since.
I’m about 30 hours into my sort of beginner tutorial playthrough and I’m trying to decide whether to start over or not. There have been some noob mistakes on my part, and some additional jankiness with the game that I am coming to terms with. I was in a recent war, for example, and was prevented from claiming total victory because… an ally was occupying the last planet instead of me. This enemy civilization had zero unoccupied planets and yet they “forced” me into a truce… that still resulted in me claiming all their shit. Except that last planet, with was taken over by my ally a few in-game months later. I don’t even know if it matters – the internet is awash in outdated information on the game – but it still bothered me.
Regardless, I am more excited about a game than I have been in quite some time. I’m still trying to figure out if it’s because Stellaris is a new puzzle for me to figure out, or if I’m excited about a new “survival-ish” experience of exploring and uncovering resources, or something else altogether.
Either way, I’m looking forward to figuring it out.
The other day I was playing Words with Friends (aka Scrabble app) with my SO. She is not much of a gamer – although she did play WoW back in vanilla – but she enjoys board games, and word games the most. I play along with the word games mainly because it’s something we can do together, but… I don’t really enjoy it. Word games are not my forte, and it does not help that she is way better at words than I am. I have actually legit won on occasion, primarily on the back of a few critical plays when the tiles line up just right. For the most part though, she kicks my ass on the daily.
For those who don’t know, there are an abundance of Words with Friends “cheat” apps out there. What those will do is analyze your seven tiles and the board, and then list out the best possible scoring combinations via brute-force analysis. I have never played with any such apps, but I find the idea amusing simply because that is exactly what I try to do a lot in-game.
See, Words with Friends will only allow valid plays. So, if you don’t know whether something is a word, you can drop tiles and get instant feedback. I have gotten a lot of points before basically dropping random tiles in key locations and making a word I had never heard of.
The difference between my method and using an app to do it for me is… something.
I suppose it becomes less of a contest between two players’ knowledge when automation is involved, cheapening the experience. On the other hand, my SO plays word games a lot – she runs several concurrent games at a time, in fact – so she has memorized all the different Q words that don’t need a U, and so on, which is a pretty big advantage. And like I mentioned, I can do everything the cheat apps would do, if I was patient enough to do it myself. So, at some point, her overwhelming knowledge versus my very basic brute-force tactics becomes analogous to one or both of us facing two different kinds of bots.
That thought led me to another: what if we both used cheat apps? At that point, the game would probably come down to the random nature of tile distribution, and perhaps a few scenarios in which we had to choose between two same-point plays. Regardless, it doesn’t sound particularly fun, right? If we have automated things that far, we may as well automate the selection of the answer, and just have two bots play against each other forever.
So… from whence did the fun originate?
I think it is safe to say that certainty reduces fun in games. While I do not necessarily mean that randomness needs to exist in order for fun to occur, I do mean that the outcome needs to be unknown, or at least in contention. If one person has the cheating app and the other does not, it’s not likely to be a fun game. Even if no cheating was involved, one player having an overwhelming advantage – either knowledge or skill – and the outcome is probably the same.
But what does that really say about our games, and the way we play them? The better we are at a game, the less fun we likely will have. Having a little advantage is nice, and the process by which we get better (experimenting, practice, etc) is a lot of fun too. At a certain level though, it tapers off. What’s fun after that? Direct competition? Maybe. Part of that fun is likely tied into the whole “unknown level of skill from opponent” thing though. Because if we knew he/she was using a cheat program, that fun would evaporate pretty quickly.
Now, there is a sort of exception here: it can be fun to totally dominate your opponent(s). Be it ganking in MMOs, or aimbots in FPS games, the reason a person would do such a thing is precisely to “collect tears” by specifically ruining other peoples’ experience. At that point though, the medium is kinda immaterial; the bully is just using whatever is convenient and less personally risky.
In any case, I went ahead and shared my thoughts above with my SO and her response was interesting. For her, the “game” within Words with Friends is actually just challenging herself in finding the highest-scoring move each turn – she does not necessarily care about the ultimate outcome of the game. Which, to me, sounds like she should be playing against bots, but nevermind. And I actually understand that sentiment: whenever I was playing BGs in WoW, my goal is not necessarily to win at all costs (e.g. sitting on a flag 100% of the time), but to amuse myself on a micro level, even if I was grinding Honor.
Still, I suspect my SO will eventually tire of the wordplay over time, once her skills plateau. Or… maybe she won’t. After all, I somehow find it infinitely interesting to collect resources in Survival games despite having achieved maximum efficiency usually by clicking the button once. Which leads me back to my original question: from whence fun?
I was reading through The Long Dark’s (TLD) wiki the other day, when I came across the missing piece of the game’s puzzle: it’s okay to starve. Mind. Blown.
Fundamentally, you die in TLD when your Condition meter reaches zero. There are four separate meters (Needs) that affect the Condition meter: Warmth, Fatigue, Thirst, and Hunger. If any of those meters reach zero, you start losing Condition. However, you can still do things while a Need is zero, e.g. chop wood while hungry or thirty or cold. When at zero, the Condition loss per hour is:
- Warmth -20%
- Fatigue -1%
- Thirst -2%
- Hunger -1%
While you technically regain Condition as long as all four Needs are above zero, the gain is like 1% per hour. Meanwhile, if you sleep in a bed for 10 hours, you can regain up to 65% of your Condition bar in one go. The requirements? Drink some water before bed and consume ~600 calories. That’s it.
To understand the implications, here is a paragraph from the wiki:
2800 calories would be consumed during 14 hours harvesting carcasses. But if no calories are available (Hunger is empty), about 15% of condition would be drained instead. Only 600 calories are required during 10 hours of fully replenishing sleep. So eating only 600 calories prior to sleeping can maintain a character with only briefly lowered condition taken as a trade-off. This is a great reduction from the 3,400 calories that would have been required to keep hunger satisfied the whole day.
In other words, instead of consuming X calories a day, you really only need ~600.
I always thought it was a bit too gamified how I had to maintain such a large calorie intake for normal things, but I chalked it up as one of those weird genre requirements. Turns out that was not the case. So, if you were like me thinking The Long Dark was a bit too brutal of a survival simulation with the constant juggling of resources… just stay hungry, my friends.
I first played The Long Dark ages ago back when it was in Early Access. It was back then, and still is today, a survival game of another kind: a true Player versus Environment. Your primary foe is hunger, thirst, and a cold Canadian wilderness hostile to your continued existence.
Having played it for a dozen or more hours now, I can safely say that I am pining for some zombies.
When I said your primary opponent is the environment, I meant it. Outside of the story mode (broken down into Episodes), there are no NPCs. Fauna consists of rabbits, deer, wolves, and bears. I have heard there might be moose involved, and I guess you can technically fish up, er, fish. But that’s really it. While you can eventually craft a bow or loot a rifle, this is not an action survival game by any means.
Given the above, the fundamental gameplay tension is food and warmth. The Canadian tundra is cold, the windchill is colder, and blizzards are colder still. Keeping warm is a challenge, and just finding shelter is not necessarily good enough. That’s when The Long Dark’s thumbscrews come out.
See, picking up sticks is easy. Come across a branch that can be broken down into sticks? That’s going to take 10 minutes by hand. Which the game fast-forwards through, but your warmth meter is depleting rapidly all the while (depending on weather and your gear), and now you’re at risk for hypothermia. And those three sticks you got from breaking said branch? That’s maybe 22 minutes of heat in the campfire, which might not be long enough to regain the Warmth you lost breaking the branch outside, nevermind the other firestarting materials. Oh, and it took 42 calories.
The Long Dark takes counting calories to a whole new level. Sleeping takes 75 calories per hour. Breaking down a crate for wood for a fire takes ~62 calories. Walking around for an hour takes 270 calories. Harvesting meat from an animal, so you can cook it to regain calories, takes X calories. Hopefully less than the amount it took you to kill said animal, but not always.
What ends up happening is that you never really feel safe, anywhere. Sure, finding a sufficiently warm shelter is nice. But necessity will drive you from that place eventually. Water is abundant, but needs fire to be produced. Which needs fuel to be collected. Which needs calories to burned. Which needs food to be scavenged or hunted. Which needs you to be outside, in the cold, taking risks.
Being naturally driven from your comfort zone in a quest for survival is brilliant game design. But it is also dissatisfying. Instead of feeling like I have agency, I instead feel despondent. In 7 Days to Die, I forage for supplies so that I can construct defenses capable of outlasting next week’s Blood Moon. In The Long Dark, I forage supplies so I can… stave off the inevitable for another 24 hours. Technically they might be the same in principle, but one feels a hell of a lot better than the other.
Having said all that, I am currently working through Episode 2 of the Story mode and having a plot to follow makes things a bit better. Plus, the locations where the story NPCs live have a fire going 24/7, which makes things considerably easier. Not having the ability to unlock schematics and such as one does in the regular Sandbox version can be a bit stifling (e.g. not being able to craft a bow), but the overall experience is quite good, if a bit linear and directed.