Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Now Playing: Mad Max

Mad Max is a third person open world game based upon the famous movie franchise. Well, based upon the recent Fury Road, at least, aside from perhaps one or two nods to the original ‘trilogy’. But as with all the Mad Max films, the game acts as a standalone tale. It may reference certain elements of the most recent movie, but it’s largely disconnected in terms of narrative.

I’ve been a fan of the movies for a long time, so I always going to be interested in a Mad Max game. So is it a good Mad Max game? Well…yes and no. In terms of visuals and technical performance, Mad Max is pretty flawless. The open world captures the tone and beauty of the wasteland to a near perfect degree. And more importantly, even with everything set to Ultra, the game runs at a smooth 60FPS and barely seems to trouble my system.

I guess you could argue that’s because the world is mostly just an empty desert, but it’s a damn fine looking desert with an extremely impressive draw distance and a lot more variety in terms of terrain than you might expect. So yeah, the world is great. It perfectly captures the atmosphere of the harsh, Mad Max wasteland. And like all the best moments in the Mad Max films, the game has you partake in many, many, many on foot battles where you punch people in the face and slam them to the ground using wrestling style moves.

Wait, what? For a Mad Max game, it’s a little strange how much of it revolves around not driving. I get the need for variety. And I really don’t mind the on foot stuff…but there’s just so much more of it than the car based action, that it really baffles me. Outside of a handful of specific story quests, the only car based ‘objective’ type missions are the races and the convoys. It’s no surprise the convoy missions are by far the most enjoyable parts of the game, because it’s during these (sadly short) ‘road wars’ that you actually feel like you’re in a Mad Max movie.

But before we talk more about content, let’s talk about characters and narrative. Although not quite hitting the mark in the same way the open world does, the characters and narrative do feel very at home within the Mad Max universe. None of it is fleshed out to a great degree, although I did enjoy seeing and learning a little more regarding the various gangs of the wasteland.

The story keeps things ticking over and pushes you along, but it’s not the star attraction. It’s competent. It does the job. There’s nothing I can really praise…or complain about. The story is just sort of there. But honestly, I wasn’t expecting much in terms of story and it’s not really why I wanted to play Mad Max anyway. It was the world and the car based combat that interested me.

Which is kind of funny, because at the start of the game you lose your car and have to run about on foot for a bit. But this provides a neat hook for the player and a quest upon which Max must embark – to build the ultimate wasteland ride. I really liked this aspect of the game. You’ll be able to switch between various car chassis, and then further customise various aspects of them ranging from the engine, suspension, armour, rams, spikes, colours and lots more. You’ll unlock new components as you advance through the game allowing you to build your perfect machine.

Which is why it’s such a damn shame you mostly use this perfect machine to simply travel between A and B, and then get out to punch things in the face. For all the fun I had customising my car, I rarely felt like I got to use it beyond travelling from one location to the next. Now, travelling is still fun, don’t get me wrong. The world is full of random encounters and potential road battles, but the game never gives us a proper road ‘war’ like we saw in Fury Road, or even the climactic chase of Mad Max 2…or even 3, for that matter – but let’s not talk about that one.

Which is why, although I liked Mad Max overall, I’m also really disappointed by it. It seems like such a strange oversight. I mean, the mechanics are there, in the game. The cars, the environment, the atmosphere…but it never lets loose and gives us a truly memorable or exciting road battle. The closest we ever come is the convoy missions of which there are only a handful and you can’t even replay. Hell, even the final story missions – a chance to build up to a truly epic and final road war – is just a slightly longer convoy chase, and not even on a larger scale.

So let’s talk about how Mad Max structures its content. You begin in the territory of a guy named Jeet. He controls 5 regions. In each region is a balloon you can use to (tediously) scout the area. There are between 2 or 5 enemy camps, several ‘scarecrow’ towers, a couple of minefields and a handful of sniper positions. Each region has its own ‘threat’ level. By tearing down scarecrows, killing snipers and taking down camps you’ll eventually reduce this threat to zero which…does something, I guess?

It seems like the thing to do though, so you’ll likely spend a bit of time travelling throughout Jeet’s territory and helping him take back control. And it’s pretty fun. There are only 3 or 4 different camp types, but each has a unique design. You take these camps down on foot by running in and punching everyone. These make up the bulk of what you might call the ‘meaningful’ content.

There’s also lots of small locations you can find and scavenge for scrap, which is essentially the currency of the game world. You’ll need it to upgrade your car and Max, although Max can also be upgraded by earning special tokens, although that whole system feels like a poorly tacked on and unnecessary afterthought.

After a time, you’ll effectively clear Jeet’s territory and the core missions will send you on to a new territory of 5 more regions. And that’s when you realise you’ve pretty much seen everything Mad Max has to offer. Because everything beyond this point is essentially the same content recycled in a new location. And it gets pretty tedious, to say the least.

Mad Max may offer a lot of content, but it’s largely bland, repetitive, recycled content. It’s filler. I wouldn’t say it’s bad filler, but it’s filler nonetheless. Now, you can argue that a lot of this content isn’t strictly necessary to progress, so if I got tired of doing it, then why didn’t I stop? But the problem with that argument, is that if I did ignore this mostly optional, repetitive content, then what would I be left with? Not much of anything, really. Aside from a few unique story missions, Mad Max is 85% repetitive filler.

That said, I can’t deny I still enjoyed it. There’s something satisfying about clearing out the regions and hunting down every last piece of scrap. But ultimately, you’re really just doing the same 5 or 6 things, 5 or 6 times in every region of a territory, before doing the same 5 or 6 things, 5 or 6 times in the next five regions of the next territory. And then the next one. Yeah. So the content on offer isn’t exactly stellar, but if you don’t really care too much about the lack of variety or the repetition, then you’ll certainly get a good few hours of value out of Mad Max.

So let’s talk about the gameplay. This is split between on foot combat and car based combat. The on foot combat is styled on the ‘Batman’ system of counter and strike, but it’s the most basic version of this. It’s literally two buttons – counter and strike. You can do a roll, I guess, but that’s about it. It’s true there are other ‘moves’ you can unlock such as a shoulder charge, but none of these make the combat more dynamic or complex, and it’s often easier to just spam the attack button and counter when necessary.

You’ll eventually activate ‘fury’ mode where you hit…harder. You can pick up some weapons but these break after a few swings, and you can do a couple of finishing moves but overall, the on foot combat system is as basic as you can get. It’s also not at all challenging, even when the game throws a lot of guys on you at once. Hell, even the ‘Top Dog’ boss fights are disappointing, because every single one is exactly the same. They’re literally the same recycled guy, with the same attack pattern. I wouldn’t say the on foot combat is bad, but it lacks complexity, variety and challenge.

Which sort of applies to the car based combat too. I’m willing to cut this more slack, however, as there’s only so much you can do to make car based combat interesting and varied without it getting a little too silly. You’ll use your car to ram opponents, and upgrading elements of your car will make this more effective. You can use your shotgun to blast exposed fuel tanks, or your harpoon to rip pieces or even people out of their vehicles.

Given the speed of some of the chases in the game, particularly the convoy missions, the car combat is as complex as it really needs to be. And the game does a decent job of introducing new enemy car types as you progress. The problem with the car combat, as I’ve already said, is simply that there’s not enough of it. You’ll mostly be tangling with one or two vehicles at a time in the open world. The only larger scale car battles are the convoy missions.

I really don’t understand why the game never built up to or included any kind of road ‘war’ featuring dozens of vehicles on both sides. I mean, a big chunk of the game is about gaining allies by helping them take back their territory. But ultimately, it’s pointless doing so because it has no impact on how the game plays out.

Another disappointing aspect is that of survival. At the start of the game it seems like fuel and water will be in fairly short supply. Which makes sense for a Mad Max game. But you soon realise that fuel is literally everywhere in Mad Max. It also automatically replenishes whenever you revisit an upgraded stronghold. Now, I wouldn’t have wanted to be worrying about fuel all the time, because that would have taken a lot of the fun out of the driving, but it should have been of some concern. Instead, outside of the scripted search for fuel early in the game, I never had to refuel my car once.

If there was one word to best surmise how I feel about Mad Max, it would be – frustrated. I’m frustrated because the world is fantastic, and whilst the on foot and car combat is fairly basic, they certainly do the job. But beyond this, Mad Max offers a very repetitive experience full of recycled content. There were times I just had to take a break from it for a few days because I was getting sick of doing the same things over and over again. And because the story, whilst not bad, didn’t exactly hook me, I could have stopped playing it completely at any time and not really given a shit.

It would be pretty easy and cheap to slap a MEDIOCRE!/10 on this review, but I’d say Mad Max does just enough to rise above average. Just. Because there are moments when the game hits its stride, when everything clicks into place – you’re tearing across the wasteland, a warboy horde around you, ramming into other cars, using your shotgun on their fuel tanks, causing them to explode and flip into the air…it’s f**king glorious to watch and even more fun to play.

Why they didn’t do more of that and expand upon those elements and build up to some truly epic road wars simply baffles me. All the ingredients are there, they just go unused. Instead, they thought it would be better to have you spend 90% of your time running about on foot, punching people. In a Mad Max game. I just don’t get it.


Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Clayton Awards 2015

Game of the Year 2015 – The Witcher 3

I described The Witcher 3 as ‘bloated, messy, frustrating and wonderful. And for all its problems, it’s still one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played.’ There’s little more I can add. It’s not a perfect game. I could pick flaws in just about every area. But as a complete experience, The Witcher 3 is easily my Game of the Year. (Full Review)

Most Disappointing Game of 2015 – Fallout 4

I said I wasn’t disappointed by Fallout 4 in my review. That in many ways, it was exactly the game I expected it to be. But is that enough? Should the bar be set so low? In that sense, Fallout 4 is the most disappointing game I’ve played this year. Because ultimately, it couldn’t even rise above my low expectations.

I concluded my review by saying ‘Bethesda needs to step up its game’. And it really does. Although Fallout 4 has a few nice additions it takes far more steps back than it does forwards. It’s not a bad game. Far from it. But is this really the best Bethesda can do? (Full Review)

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Now Playing: Age of Charlemagne (DLC)

Age of Charlemagne is a new campaign DLC for Total War: Attila. Set at the dawn of the great medieval kingdoms, Charlemagne plays quite differently to the core game in terms of both battles and campaign. It’s a mini-expansion of sorts, featuring a new campaign map with 8 new playable factions.

As a piece of DLC, as opposed to a fully fledged expansion, AoC recycles many elements of the core game, most notably battle maps and voice work. This isn’t unexpected, but it may disappoint some who feel this period would have benefited from the full expansion treatment along the lines of Fall of the Samurai or indeed, Attila itself. But that’s not to say that AoC doesn’t come with a substantial amount of content, or that it doesn’t introduce any new features or mechanics of its own. The 8 playable factions all offer a fairly diverse range of campaigns based around their starting positions, unique event chains and faction bonuses. 

Unlike the core game, where I wasn’t particularly interested in playing as every single barbarian horde, AoC actually makes each of its factions feel unique enough to the point that I’m interested in eventually playing them all. And if you do, you’ll get good value out of AoC. For this review, I completed two ‘Short’ campaigns, both of which I enjoyed for different reasons, and each campaign took roughly 10-15 hours to complete.

There are two major changes to the campaign in AoC. The first is the mechanic of War Weariness. It seems like a strange introduction given the name of this series, but it’s a smart inclusion that also changes diplomatic AI in a positive way. Essentially, the more wars you’re involved in, the more negative effects will stack up in terms of penalties to public order and morale.

There are ways to combat this by making peace, or by winning battles – after all, your people and soldiers won’t be so tired of war if you’re the one winning. It introduces an interesting dynamic to the campaign, especially compared to the core game, where it seemed like an endless war on all fronts. It also changes the behaviour of the campaign AI, which is more interested and willing to make peace, sign non-aggression pacts and maintain its existing borders rather than aggressively targeting the player.

The downside to this, however, is that it can make the campaign a little too easy. I can’t say this applies to every faction, but in the two I played, it was far too easy to manipulate the AI with alliances or non-aggression pacts to keep them sweet until I was ready to invade. It allowed me to take my time and pick and choose my targets as I pleased, as opposed to the core game, where I’d usually be under threat on all sides.

The other major change to the campaign is how it handles victory conditions. Victory conditions are now tied entirely to ‘Imperium’. Unlike the core game, you don’t simply earn imperium by winning battles or expanding your borders, but also by researching various technologies or by constructing certain buildings. This means that it’s entirely possible to ‘win’ a campaign in AoC without ever expanding your borders or going to war.

I can’t say if this would work for every faction, because not all begin with a substantial piece of territory, but for those that do, it seems theoretically possible to play a fairly ‘peaceful’ campaign in AoC by purely focusing on technology and settlement construction. I actually completed my second campaign by doing just that. Once I’d expanded my borders to a size I was happy with, I focused on research and construction to push my imperium over the victory limit.

It was a change I wasn’t too sure about at first, but I’d say it’s the best new mechanic of this DLC, and I hope it’s something we see more of in the future. Unlike the typical ‘take X amount of regions’ conditions of previous games, this new system allows the player to approach their campaigns, even with the same faction, in different ways. I think it could probably be tweaked and improved further (such as strong military/marriage alliances having an impact on imperium too) but it’s a good first step.

So the campaign side of AoC has some interesting new mechanics and gameplay dynamics, but what about the battles? As I’ve already said, the battle maps are recycled from the core game, which is a little disappointing, if understandable. But each faction does have an entirely new roster of units. Sort of. This is an area that may prove a little more divisive, because each faction has a very similar roster in terms of unit types and upgrades.

The rosters also aren’t particularly extensive, which means that regardless of which faction you choose, your army composition will likely be largely the same. I’m sure some people will be disappointed by that, but it seems to be an intended design decision, especially when you take into account the rebalancing of unit health.

It means that battles in AoC have more in common with those in Shogun 2, than with the core game. The rock-paper-scissors dynamic is far stronger in AoC, with a more uniform unit balance between every faction. As a fan of Shogun 2, I actually quite liked this aspect, although those looking for more diversity in terms of units may find it lacking.

Overall, AoC is a solid and enjoyable piece of content that’s comfortably worth its asking price. In some ways it’s a shame it’s only a DLC, because the limitations are clear to see, but nevertheless, it offers enough new content and interesting mechanics to make it worth your time. It’s a good example of DLC ‘done right’, and I hope to see more like it in the future of this series. And maybe, just maybe, AoC is laying the foundation for a possible Medieval 3. Wouldn’t that be neat?


Monday, 14 December 2015

Total War: Arena (BETA)

When I first heard about a free to play, ‘MOBA style’ Total War spin-off I wasn’t really sure what to think. It wasn’t something that interested me a great deal and honestly, I kind of expected it to be a bit pants. But after watching some streams of Total War: Arena over the last few weeks, I decided to give it a try. And to my pleasant surprise, it’s actually pretty fun.

So how does it play? You have two teams, each comprised of 10 players, and each player controls 3 units of troops. The goal is to eradicate every enemy unit, or to capture the enemy base. You might think that a public/random 10v10 battle of that scale might translate into a poorly coordinated clusterf**k. And it does happen, on occasion. But in the 10 or so hours I’ve put into the game so far, it’s actually pretty rare.

This is because Arena is quite cleverly designed in terms of maps, player starting positions, and the unit limits. It’s a game which, even when playing with random strangers, is designed to encourage and reward cooperation and coordination. Team based support and strategy feels like a natural aspect of Arena. Players just tend to work together – primarily out of necessity.

If you’re fielding three units of archers, for example, you’ll want to stick close and support another player fielding infantry. You can screen their advance, whilst they protect you. With only three units to field, you can’t tackle everything alone or be everywhere at once. You rely on your team to engage, support, flank and defend.

Although the Beta only has a limited map selection, every map feels pretty balanced and neatly designed to support this natural team based play. They each have three main routes for players to advance – left flank, right flank and central. You’ll generally either advance along or defend one of these three passages with two or more of your team.

This tends to stop battles in Total War: Arena from becoming a Total Mess. Players are forced to spread out to cover every approach. Battles usually begin with small skirmishes as each team probes for a weakness in the enemy lines. Smaller battles then begin all across the map, players naturally supporting one another out of necessity. But individual engagements are only part of a larger whole – even if you’re not winning on the left flank, your team mates on the right may have broken through enemy lines, forcing the enemy you’re engaged with to retreat and reform.

And it’s pretty fun. I’ve had some really enjoyable battles in Arena. Without the need for any voice or text chat, players just naturally work together. To accompany this post, I’ve also released my first piece of video content. It’s a battle from Arena where you can not only see the game in action, but see how the game encourages and rewards good team play. You can view it here.

So what does Arena offer in terms of content? You can pick your troops from three cultural groups – Roman, Greek and Barbarian. These break down into different types of infantry, ranged, or cavalry units. Each cultural group has different Commanders to select. These provide unique abilities you can confer to your troops. For example, one Commander provides a bonus to ranged units, whilst another is more suited to cavalry.

Each Commander will ‘level up’ by increasing their abilities, and ranking them up also unlocks new tiers of troops. Your units can also be customised and improved by spending experience and ‘silver’ on new weapons and armour. There’s also an option for cosmetic customisation, although I haven’t unlocked anything in that category yet.

Given that Arena is a free to play title, I suppose the concern is going to be about its microtransactions and if they’ll make the game ‘pay to win’ when it eventually releases. Right now, I honestly can’t say. There are some units you can buy with ‘Gold’ which is the purchasable currency of Arena, but I don’t know if/how you can buy these units normally. It was possible to earn Gold by playing matches in an earlier build of the game, but that’s currently disabled for testing.

All I can say, is that I’ve been able to rank up three of the available Commanders to tier 4-5 and fully upgrade their troops without any real trouble or grind. You earn silver and unit/commander experience with every battle, all of which adds up and can be spent to increase your rank or upgrade equipment/abilities. I don’t know how/if this will change in the future. But in its present state, I can’t accuse Arena of being anywhere near ‘pay to win’.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Total War: Arena. It clearly still needs work in terms of new maps and content, in addition to some balancing between certain units and abilities, but it seems to be getting fairly regular updates even in the short time I’ve been playing it. That said, I’m not quite sure what the long term appeal will be.

Although I’ve enjoyed my time with it, it’s not something I feel desperate to play or seriously addicted to. For me, Arena isn’t much more than a fun little diversion between playing other titles. But it’s something I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Now Playing: Hearts of Stone (DLC)

Hearts of Stone is the first expansion for The Witcher 3. It’s not set at any particular ‘moment’ with regards to the core story, but it’s intended to played at a high character level of 30+, so you’ll likely be tackling this content after completing the main game. You can, however, jump straight into this content with a custom level 30+ character if you wish, which is a nice touch.

Without spoiling too much, the core quest line of Hearts of Stone begins with what appears to be a fairly standard monster contract, but quickly transforms into something far more complex. It’s a decent tale, not quite up to par with the best quest lines of the base game, but it’s a solid and enjoyable adventure nonetheless.

You have a series of main quests which will spin off into several related side missions. This is in addition to a few non-related side quests including some new ‘treasure hunts’ and several new points of interest to explore, all neatly incorporated into one of the existing open world maps. There’s also new weapons and armour to buy, craft or loot, including a new system for weapon and armour upgrades. If you complete absolutely everything, Hearts of Stone should offer around 10-15 hours of content, which is fairly reasonable value at its RRP.

Having jumped into Hearts of Stone from Fallout 4, it was refreshing to play some quests which didn’t simply revolve around murdering everything. Hearts of Stone has a good variety of quests to undertake, such as attending a wedding whilst possessed by an amorous ghost, or assembling a skilled crew to take part in a heist. It doesn’t quite hit any emotional notes, but it did make me laugh more than once.

If it’s combat you like, however, Hearts of Stone does offer some new enemy types, including a series of pretty enjoyable boss fights. One of my main criticisms of The Witcher 3 was that it didn’t have many memorable boss style encounters. Hearts of Stone addresses this issue with several boss fights, each of which is unique and enjoyable in their own way, forcing you to use different potions, signs or tactics to prevail. And if you’re playing on a higher difficulty, they will certainly give you a decent challenge.

The only real issue I have with Hearts of Stone is that none of it feels particularly ‘essential’. Whilst it’s true that the content is good and offers fairly decent value, it’s also true that you won’t really miss anything important or fantastic if you do decide to skip it. There’s nothing here so outstanding that makes it an essential purchase. It’s good, but it’s really just more Witcher 3.

And that’s okay, as far as I’m concerned. It was nice returning to the game and embarking on a neat little adventure. It’s not a substantial piece of content, and it’s not something I’d say you definitely need to play, but if you’ve finished the core game and would like more to do, you really can’t go wrong with it. Hopefully the second upcoming expansion, which is supposed to be a larger piece of content, can take that extra step and provide an experience that you really won’t want to miss.


Saturday, 5 December 2015

Gaming / Blog Update

I thought I’d do a quick post just to lay out what I’ve got planned for December. I picked up The Witcher 3 Hearts of Stone DLC in the recent Steam sale. I’ve already played it, and the review should be up within the next few days. I also bought Mad Max, which I’d intended to play before Fallout 4 but just didn’t have the time. I’m currently working my way through this one, but hope to have a review up in a week or two.

Following that, I’ll likely be picking up the Age of Charlemagne DLC for Total War: Attila and hope to have a review of that up either later this month or in early January. I’ll be doing another ‘Clayton Awards’ at the end of the year, and I’m thinking of doing a ‘Top 10’ post of some kind because they’re always good filler posts when you run out of other ideas.

I’m also looking at updating some of the older blog posts and merging some of the multi-post game reviews. I don’t know if I’ll get around to that this month though. And maybe I’ll get another writing/project update out before the end of the year. Maybe.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Now Playing: Fallout 4

Bugs. We need to talk about bugs. I think we’re all willing to cut open world games a little slack when it comes to bugs. And that’s especially true for a Bethesda game. I expected Fallout 4 to have its fair share of bugs, but I didn’t expect it to be the most shoddy Bethesda release I’ve played.

And the fact is, with Fallout 4, Bethesda really needed to step up their game. For comparison, I put over 120 hours into The Witcher 3, yet I only experienced 2-3 crashes. Whereas with Fallout 4, in the 90 hours I’ve played, I’ve actually lost count of the times it’s randomly closed to desktop.

Most of the bugs I’ve encountered have proven more amusing than irritating (some of the animation bugs are so f**king hilarious I nearly shat myself laughing), but there’s been plenty of irritating issues too. The most serious issue is a bug that caused me to crash whenever I ventured near a certain area of the map. Several core quests require you to pass through this specific area, essentially breaking my game.

Fortunately, as I was playing on PC, I was able to use the in-game console to ‘cheat’ my way around the area and complete the effected quests. But a bug this serious and apparently widespread should have been caught before release. (And at the time of writing, its still not fixed). My patience and the slack I’m willing to grant Bethesda only goes so far. Fallout 4 pushed it to the limit and beyond.

Even after completing the game, I’ve hit another potentially game breaking issue with my companions, who keep vanishing into thin air whenever I fast travel. Even using the console, I can’t seem to get them to reappear until I dismiss them by recruiting a new companion. But attempting to re-recruit the previous companion seems to cause the new companion to vanish. You couldn’t make this shit up.

You might think I’m bitterly disappointed by Fallout 4, but that’s not really the case. Despite the serious bugs and issues, I still enjoyed the overall experience. It’s a tricky game to recommend, especially in its current state. But it’s a game I see myself sinking a lot more time into, especially as mods begin to roll out which will fix, enhance and refine various aspects of the game.

Although I feel Fallout 4 takes some good steps forward, it also takes several back. If you’ve read my initial impressions post, you’ll know my feelings were somewhat mixed. And those feelings haven’t really changed. But let’s start with all the good stuff, shall we?

Although the bugs are an issue, I couldn’t fault the technical performance, with a solid 60FPS on Ultra settings. This is probably helped by the fact that Fallout 4 isn’t the most demanding title from a graphical standpoint. As I said in my initial impressions, Fallout 4 is best described as ‘visually inconsistent’. Depending on the area, the lighting or the time of day, Fallout 4 can either look fantastic or look like utter ass.

Animation quality is improved over previous Bethesda titles, but it still feels like I had better animation mods for Skyrim. Of course, things like graphics and animations will likely be improved through mods. In fact, I can see mods significantly improving many areas of this game. Unfortunately, I’m not reviewing what mods may do, but rather what we’ve got.

In terms of exploration, Fallout 4 has a decent variety of locations and environments. The urban wasteland areas are great to explore and far superior to comparable areas in Fallout 3 or New Vegas. This feels like a far more interesting and diverse world to explore than those titles. As someone who primarily enjoys these games for the random exploration, I’m pleased that it remains a compelling facet of this series.

Something I feel Fallout 4 also does better than FO3 or NV is companion characters. Although their pathfinding is as wonky as ever, I loved the way your companions interact with the world around you, even stepping in during quest related conversations to voice their opinion. For the first time in a Bethesda game, I actually wanted to traverse the world with a companion at my side. Yes, it meant putting up with their irritating habits – such as getting stuck on scenery, or stepping into my line of fire – but it now felt worth the trouble.

Another area the game surprised me was its main story and quests. I wouldn’t say Fallout 4 hits the mark in the same way New Vegas did, especially not in writing, dialogue or choices, but it’s still pretty good. I actually enjoyed following the various quest lines throughout the game. I felt there was a point when the main story got a bit stupid, but it didn’t detract too much from the overall narrative.

There are three primary factions in the game who you can link up with – the Brotherhood of Steel, the Railroad and the Institute. Having played through every core mission for each faction to see how things go, I’d recommend choosing either the Brotherhood or Railroad and sticking with them if you want the most enjoyable paths. There is another faction in the game – the Minutemen – but they tie more into the settlement management element than the core story, so we’ll get back to them later.

Each of these factions offer multiple variations of repeatable quests. So much in fact, that it’s initially hard to tell which are the ‘core’ missions and which are not. Although I appreciate these types of quests for pushing the player to explore new locations (usually to kill stuff or retrieve an item) they quickly get a little tedious and repetitive. They also seriously drown out the ‘unique’ side missions.

Despite the time I’ve put into the game and the locations I’ve explored (over 200), there feels like a serious shortage of unique side quests. Maybe I’ve just not stumbled across them all yet, or maybe it just feels like a shortage because of the overwhelming number of repeatable quests the game keeps throwing at you – I’m looking at you, Preston Garvey. The ones I have found, however, have been a bit of a mixed bag. Some are decent, fairly elaborate and provide a satisfying pay off. Others…not so much. (EDIT – I checked a list of side quests and discovered I’d only missed a couple, which is pretty disappointing).

Weapon and armour variety and modification is also something of a mixed bag. Weapon variety is good. Armour variety is not. Weapon modification is great. Armour modification is a bit pants. When I heard that Fallout 4 was finally introducing a modular amour system I was quite pleased, as it seemed it was taking inspiration from some excellent mods for Fallout 3 and Skyrim. But Bethesda have only half-cooked it, with an extremely limited selection of outfits you can customise, with an extremely limited variety of armour pieces.

And then we have the settlement management aspect. I both f**king loved and hated this system. Early in the game you’ll rescue some folks and begin to unlock missions which will secure various settlements across the map. This is the Minutemen stuff I was talking about. Although I didn’t mind doing one quest per new settlement, there comes a point where you’re given repeatable quests to help existing settlements, sometimes the same settlement twice in a row.

It gets really f**king irritating, especially when that Preston twat can give you quests even if you’re not speaking directly to him. There were times when I was using a workstation and he just strolled up and dropped a new quest in my log. Seriously, Preston, f**k off. I hope there will be a mod that turns this shit off. It also makes being the ‘General’ of the Minutemen seem completely ridiculous. Can’t I send someone else to deal with this tedious bullshit? Like Preston, maybe? Why don’t you go and do it for once you useless…yeah, as you can probably tell I really hated the settlement quest system.

Which is annoying, because I actually liked the settlement management a lot. Being able to build all kinds of structures, place furniture, establish farms, stores and defences…I’m addicted to it, I must admit. It’s a shame my ‘main’ settlements never get attacked due to their high defence rating. That’s kind of boring, but mods will likely fix that too. The UI is a bit of a fiddly mess, and assigning settlers to various roles is a total nightmare, especially when they just decide to ignore you. But despite those issues, I just can’t get enough of it.

Returning to more ‘core’ aspects of Fallout 4, let’s talk about the new dialogue system. It’s shit. There’s not much else to say. It’s so vague that you never know exactly what your character will say. Yes, there’s already a mod to fix that, but I’m not reviewing the mods, remember? I don’t see why Bethesda couldn’t have included the same option.

But even if you know what the full dialogue will be, it’s so limited compared to say, New Vegas. Which I suppose is the result of using a voiced protagonist. I don’t hate it, but I can’t deny it severely reduces the dialogue system. There’s less options, less variety and less complexity in terms of speech checks.

Whereas you might expect dialogue skill tests based around your charisma, intelligence or strength stats for example, or even based around specific skills in guns, medicine or explosives, all you get in Fallout 4 is a shit colour coded ‘success’ chance to persuade or intimidate. And it doesn’t even tell you what the percentage chance is. Compared to New Vegas, and even Fallout 3, it’s a load of old wank. As I said in my initial impressions, I don’t like the term ‘dumb down’, but it feels entirely appropriate here.

This also feeds into the skills system, which is now based entirely around Perks in your S.P.E.C.I.A.L tree. I didn’t hate this either, but it’s still a reduction on what the previous games in this series offered. It’s simply not as good. And this reduction of dialogue and skills makes Fallout 4 feel less like an open world RPG and more like an open world FPS.

I think that’s going to prove a divisive matter for many players. For many, it may just be a step too far. Personally, I’m torn on the matter, because despite my issues with the dialogue and skills system, I really didn’t hate them. I can live with them, even though I wish they were handled more like the previous games. It’s such a shame because Fallout 4 has some pretty engaging quests and characters, but it then severely reduces the way in which you can interact with these elements.

Many quests also simply revolve around shooting things. It’s rare I came across a situation I could resolve without a massive fire fight. And if you’re expecting multiple endings based on choices or which faction you choose to side with, you will be disappointed. Because unlike New Vegas, which handled that aspect pretty well, Fallout 4 just doesn’t bother.

Fallout 4 is a tricky game to recommend, but even more so to score. For every moment I was absorbed by the action, I was pissed off at experiencing another crash. For every time I was surprised and pleased by my companion becoming involved in my quest, I was irritated when they bugged out and got stuck on the scenery. I loved the settlement management, but I hated the repetitive settlement quests.

The dialogue and skills system feels like a reduction to what the series previously offered. And though I enjoyed exploring the world, I didn’t discover enough unique quests or encounters to satisfy me. I liked the main story and faction quests, but they lack complexity compared to New Vegas in the way they all tie together. They’re also disappointing in the sense that when you do eventually choose a faction, they all devolve into a simplistic ‘you must now murder everyone else’ situation, even when that doesn’t make much sense.

So where does that leave Fallout 4? Well, despite all my issues with it, I can’t deny I enjoyed Fallout 4. I know I’m going to keep playing it, keep building my settlements, and when patches and mods begin to arrive in full force, I’ll undoubtedly sink a lot more time into the game than I already have. But could I recommend it in its current state? No. Not yet. I might be willing to forgive its flaws and issues, but that doesn’t mean I think they’re acceptable. One thing is certain – Bethesda needs to step up its game.


Friday, 20 November 2015

Fallout 4: HATE NEWSPAPERS (Part 2)

Because I just had to....

...and it was bloody disappointing.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Fallout 4: First Impressions

It’s a Bethesda game! That’s what I said when the NPC I was speaking with suddenly winked out of existence. It’s what I said when I spent a few minutes trying to figure out where a quest related NPC had gone, only to realise they’d somehow gotten stuck on an inaccessible rooftop. It’s what I said when my weapons suddenly became invisible and a truck fell out of the sky.

Buying a Bethesda game on release? You’ve either got to be very brave, or very stupid. Mostly stupid. Fortunately, most of these bugs and glitches are more amusing than irritating and can usually be solved by a save/reload or by exiting the area. What wasn’t so amusing was when my 25 hour save corrupted and crashed my game on every restart. Fortunately I had a back-up. It’s a Bethesda game – always have a back-up.

Unfortunately, those solutions didn’t solve another game breaking issue – every time I venture near a particular location, my game crashes. Something of a problem considering several quests pass through the area. I’ve had to use console commands more than once to cheat my way around it. It appears to be a common problem from what I’ve seen online. They better patch that shit asap.

I’ve now sunk 60 hours into Fallout 4. I’ve explored over 150 locations, I’m just shy of Level 33 and I’ve completed numerous quests. So I figured it was time to drag myself away and write up my initial impressions. I must admit, I didn’t go into Fallout 4 with the highest of expectations. I was sure I’d enjoy it. For all the issues I had with Fallout 3 and Skyrim, I still put hundreds of hours into those titles.

In many ways, Fallout 4 is exactly what I expected it to be. But I’m also pleased to say that it’s actually surpassed my expectations in areas I didn’t expect. The game opens with a character editor which is easily the best Bethesda have yet released. What follows is a short ‘prologue’ which builds to your introduction into the wasteland.

The initial few hours of Fallout 4 aren’t its best. Although I liked the opening prologue, the ‘starting’ area is rather bland to look at and not particularly interesting to explore. I limited myself to the north-west area of the map, but very few locations proved worth the time or trouble to investigate, and the only quests I was being offered were repetitive settlement related missions.

Eventually, however, I pushed south into the urban wasteland. And that’s when the game really began to come to life. Although I can’t say the writing and dialogue is all that fantastic, the game already has far more character and charm to its world, people and quests than either Fallout 3 or Skyrim. The quest/character aspects were the two biggest areas I really wasn’t expecting much from, but they’ve actually left me pleasantly surprised.

I can honestly say I’m having fun with the quests in Fallout 4. I feel invested in what I’m doing and why. It’s strange, because I expected to enjoy Fallout 4 more for the random exploration element, but instead, I’m actually enjoying it more by following the various quest lines. That said, I’m still only a little way into the ‘main’ quest so there’s still a lot to see and do. Hopefully it holds my interest all the way through.

Okay, it’s time to talk about the dialogue system. I’m not that bothered by the voiced protagonist, but the dialogue ‘wheel’ is pretty shit. A lot of the time it’s rather vague with its options so you never really know what your character is going to say. It also totally ruins the ‘speech check’ aspect with a silly colour-coded ‘success’ chance to persuade or intimidate. I don’t know why the dialogue system was changed when it was perfectly fine as it was.

But this ties into another major issue. With a voiced protagonist and vague dialogue options, you don’t really feel like you’re playing as your ‘own’ character. As much as you might ‘build’ one character to be different from another in terms of stats, there’s not enough flexibility or complexity to the dialogue options to really forge a unique personality.

You could argue that this time around you’re essentially playing as an ‘established’ character, but that’s hardly the case at all. All the dialogue responses in Fallout 4 are generally short, bland and personality free. As a result, Fallout 4 feels less like an RPG than perhaps it should.

This is also true of the quests. The vast majority of the quests I’ve played have nearly entirely revolved around ‘go to location – KILL EVERYTHING’. To be fair, I’ve had a few non-combat related quests, and I was even able to talk my way out of a potential ‘boss’ fight using the shitty colour-coded dialogue options. But still, Fallout 4 feels more like a open-world FPS than an RPG. Fortunately, the FPS aspect is much improved.

With a few tweaks to combat with regards to movement and aiming and the introduction of a cover system, Fallout 4 has some pretty enjoyable action. It’s even more fun when random NPCs get involved leading to entirely free-form ‘set-piece’ style moments. And that’s in addition to some rather enjoyable scripted set-pieces as part of quests.

V.A.T.S is no longer a combat ‘pause’ more a ‘slow down’ which I’m a little torn on, as it forces you to make quick decisions regarding targeting, especially when dealing with fast moving enemies. The result? I’ve rarely used it because I’ve found it less dangerous and more efficient to target things manually. The new system doesn’t really enhance the combat experience. If anything, I feel it detracts from it.

There have also been changes to the level and perk systems. Everything is now tied to your S.P.E.C.I.A.L stats, with multiple ranks per perk. Once again, it sees Fallout 4 shift even more from an RPG to an FPS with ‘upgrade points’. Although I didn’t mind the new system, I can see problems arising in terms of replay value, because like the dialogue options, it’s a reduced system that doesn’t allow for such extensive character customisation.

At only level 24 or so, I was already hacking or picking ‘Master’ locks and terminals despite only a handful of points in the corresponding perk trees. I’m not fond of the term ‘dumb down’, but in the case of Fallout 4’s dialogue and skill systems, it seems entirely appropriate.

I can see this shift away from RPG style dialogue and stats is going to be a serious issue for many. Combined with a heavy emphasis on combat, and Fallout 4 is moving ever closer to something like the Far Cry series, at least in terms of gameplay. Fortunately, from what I’ve seen so far, Fallout 4 has improved in the areas of characters and quests. But it does feel a little like one step forward, two steps back.

One element of the game I just have to cover is the settlement management. I’ve probably put something like 20 hours into this aspect of the game alone. Despite its irritatingly fiddly menu system, it’s a system I’ve become sadly addicted to. It’s like playing The Sims crossed with Minecraft as you scrap and build various structures, furniture and items in the world. It’s a system with surprising depth, allowing for a nice degree of creativity. The only downside to this system (aside from the UI) is the Settler AI, who sometimes get stuck on scenery or simply refuse to do the jobs you assign.

Speaking of AI, enemy AI is better in the sense that they’ll toss grenades your way or take cover, but still dumb in the sense that jumping on an object barely a foot off the ground will totally baffle them. And then we have the companions, who like to step in front of you just as you’re throwing a grenade, causing it to bounce back and hit you in the face. Or they get stuck on something and run against it on the spot. Because of course they do.

What I do appreciate is how your companions interact with the world, other NPCs and even comment on what you’re doing, or give opinions related to your current quest. It’s much better than endlessly recycled ‘stock’ phrases, although I’m sure there’s a limit to it. But from what I’ve seen, Fallout 4 has a pretty neat and varied selection of characters to travel with, and will likely prove to be a highlight of the experience. If only they could fix their bloody pathfinding.

What else? I really like the weapon modification system, although I’m concerned by what feels like a very limited variety of armour and armour modifications. Hopefully, there’s a lot more to come. Oh, and though I like the settlement management, it does feel kind of pointless. They’ve made it so ‘optional’ for the player, that they’ve also rendered it largely redundant. It’s still f**king fun, though.

Graphics! During the day, when outside, Fallout 4 can look great! But at night, and in certain interior environments, it looks like f**king ass. It’s flat, ugly and it frankly doesn’t look a lot better than a modded Fallout 3. It’s visually inconsistent, to say the least. Some areas look fantastic, others look like shit. But I’m sure there will be mods to tweak/improve the visuals so it’s not a major issue.

Aside from the expected bugs and glitches, technical performance is fairly solid. I’ve got everything set to Ultra and I maintain a stable 60FPS, although in some areas it can dip a little, but it’s only temporary.

Okay, time to wrap this up. Fallout 4 will likely prove divisive based on what I’ve played. But personally, I’m quite enjoying it despite my issues and the occasional bug/glitch. My main concern is replay value with such a limited dialogue/skill system. And I’m yet to see a good 60% or so of the map. I hope the southern wasteland areas are far more interesting than the north. The urban stuff is great though.

I’m also concerned a little by the lack of proper unique side quests, but we’ll see how that goes. I don’t expect to have a review up until late November/early December. In the meantime, I’m sure I can put up a few related filler posts. Just remember – it’s a Bethesda game!