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!

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Now Playing: System Shock

System Shock 2 is one of, if not my favourite game of all time. But I never played the original, not until many years after the release of SS2. Unfortunately, there were numerous compatibility issues with the version I had which prevented me from progressing beyond the first level. So when this ‘enhanced’ edition of System Shock was released, I just had to pick it up. This was the first time I’ve played System Shock to completion. It’s also, I must admit, probably going to be the last.

Now, don’t get the wrong idea. System Shock is a decent game. But everything System Shock does, System Shock 2 does better. Far better. My primary issues with System Shock are its level design and mission structure. I’ve seen SS1 praised for its complexity of level design, but I’d argue that convoluted is a more apt description.

The level design in SS2 is fantastic. Every deck has a logic to its layout with regards to the overall structure of the ship. Every location and corridor has a consistency to design and an obvious purpose. As you traverse the ship, it feels like a real place. Sadly, I can’t say the same about SS1. 
Every level of SS1 feels more like a maze. Aside from the odd section, the majority of each deck doesn’t serve any purpose, or adhere to an overall cohesive structure. There’s a lot of corridors/service ducts which lead nowhere or simply loop back on themselves. There’s a lot of empty rooms and pointless ramps or raised blocks/pillars. There’s gravity elevators in strange positions, and rooms with bizarre platform puzzles.

As a result, none of it feels like a real place, where people once lived or worked. There’s no logic to its layout, and no consistency in terms of design between decks. With all the looping corridors, ramps and gravity elevators it honestly feels more like a Quake or Unreal multiplayer map.

To make matters worse, there’s also little in the way of obvious landmarks to get your bearings as you attempt to navigate this needlessly convoluted maze. It’s not challenging as such – more tedious. And this leads us directly into my second major issue – mission structure.

In SS2, your objectives are always very clear. Not just in terms of where you must go and what you must do, but also why. SS1, however, is vague in every respect. On each level you’ll be searching for audio logs. These provide clues as to what you should be doing to progress. This is why it’s very important to fully explore every deck – if you miss a log or two, you may also miss a key piece of information.

But even once you have all the logs and a rough notion of where you should be going and what you’re supposed to do, the game doesn’t give a very good sense of why. I was very thorough in terms of collecting the logs and exploring every deck, but even so, there were a lot of times when I just didn’t get why I was supposed to be doing something or how it would enable me to progress. I didn’t understand the logic behind certain actions, and I frequently found myself backtracking through levels trying to figure out what I’d missed.

The game doesn’t do a very good job of putting a clear set of objectives before the player. A lot of the time, you’ll only have a vague notion of exactly what you’re supposed to be doing or why. You’ll be stumbling your way through objectives, without ever quite being sure that what you’re doing is right. It’s something that improves as the game progresses, but it’s still rather frustrating, and it significantly weakens the narrative aspects of the game.

Exploration is hampered somewhat by the UI and controls. Even with the addition of mouselook and key mapping, SS1 is a fiddly game to play. It’s not too bad once you become familiar with the hotkeys for switching between various tabs of the interface, but compared to SS2, you feel like you’re struggling more against the UI and controls than anything the game can throw at you.

The enemies of SS1 don’t put up much of a fight. Weapons and ammo are fairly plentiful, (for reference, I played on the Normal difficulty) and the only times I really ran into trouble was on the occasions when the game spawned a large number of enemies practically right on top of me – which felt more cheap than challenging.

Graphically, SS1 still looks okay. Some areas hold up better than others. Although the game lacks a consistency to design, it still has some striking environments to explore. In terms of sound, the music seemed to kick in and out at odd moments, which I think might be a bug. Combat would occasionally be completely silent, although admittedly, that was preferable at times as the looping tracks grew rather repetitive.

Like SS2, the best thing about SS1 is SHODAN and your interactions with this devious AI. Unfortunately, this interaction is limited to odd messages sprinkled throughout the game. Combat is basic as is enemy AI. There’s little to differentiate the enemies or how to tackle them. The weapon selection is decent, but there’s a lack of variety in terms of how they handle.

As I’ve already said, everything SS1 does, SS2 does far better. In terms of story, environments, missions, enemies, weapons and controls, SS1 is rather basic compared to its sequel. Whereas SS2 still holds up solidly today in terms of its mechanics…SS1 – not so much.

Upon release, I can see why so many aspects of SS1 would have been considered impressive. But SS2 took those aspects and refined and improved them so much that it’s hard to recommend SS1 over its sequel. I still had some fun playing it through, and there are some genuinely well designed sections, but it’s not a game I can honestly say I feel any great desire to ever play again.