Review: Fallout 76: A Good Start

It seems that I’ve started most of my recent reviews this way, but the Fallout universe has a special place in my heart. I came of age in the late 90’s, and isometric RPGs were my video game of choice (surprised?).

I spent countless hours playing and replaying Fallout, Fallout 2, and Fallout: Tactics (I even played Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, despite its many flaws). I lamented when the “Van Buren” project was cancelled and rejoiced when Bethesda announced Fallout 3. The nostalgia factor and fanboyness runs high with this title, so be warned.

And here we are now with a new offering in the Fallout universe, one that divurges greatly from that to which we’ve become accustomed. Multiplayer. Is it the Holy Grail of Fallout gaming, a despicable money-grab by Bethesda in recycling the core of Fallout 4, or something about which we should feel a little bit less extreme and a little more ambivalent?

Multiplayer is a strange thing for me. As an introvert, I’m far more inclined to adventure by my sullen self than to link up with some randos who do or say things that do not recommend themselves to further association. The anonymity of the internet, and multiplayer games, draws out the worst in people. I just don’t have time for that in my life.

On the other hand, playing video games with people I know and have built relationships with away from the glow of the LEDs is something I very much enjoy. In this hectic world, online gaming is sometimes how I best keep up with certain friends–we play and we converse while we play. Maybe it’s the modern equivalent of those long telephone calls I used to have in high school, before texting made such obsolete for high-schoolers.

I love open world video games and the hours of exploration that come with them–truth be told, that’s probably my favorite aspect of video games altogether, though at any other moment in time I might say that it’s strong and meaningful narrative, a well-crafted story.

I’ve had the pleasure of spending hours walking through the West Virginia wasteland as a lone wanderer and as part of a team with my friends–even a complete four-person team. None of us have had the time to hit the “end-game” activities yet, and I’m not fully certain what they are at this point. Did I mention I lived in West Virginia? Only for about two years when I was in kindergarten and first grade, so my memories of that part of my life are fragmented and vague, but this perhaps adds another touchpoint for me.

Okay, background to review complete. Now on to what you really came here for:

The Good

Fallout 76 is like getting a whole ‘nother Fallout 4 worth of locations to explore. That alone piques my interest.

There are new enemies (Mole Miners, Radtoads, Gulpers, the Scorched, and more), new weapons (my favorite for its weirdness is the “death tambo,” a tamborine with the cymbals replaced with blades) and a greatly-expanded crafting system.

The use of SPECIAL and hot-swappable Perks is a lot of fun and allows for a lot of different character builds–both within one character and those that necessitate running multiple characters for different SPECIAL arrays. The theorycrafting of character builds fascinates me in Fallout 76, much moreso than any other MMO-style game I’ve played.

Fallout 76 is, by default, like “Survival Mode” in previous Fallout titles. Not only must you manage your health and radiation levels, but you must manage hunger and thirst, disease and mutations! Your gear deteriorates relatively quickly, so keeping things maintained and finding plans to build new equipment or CAMP (the mobile equivalent of a settlement) items gives the player a lot to do without even interfacing with the quests. These needs create emergent narrative, the kinds of stories that begin, “So no shit, there I was, knee-deep in spent brass and hand -grenade pins, having drunk my last purified water and then a Deathclaw shows up.” I love that, even if no one else wants to hear my stories–especially my wife.

The consequences of dying are scaled well–you lose the junk you’ve been carrying but not all of the other precious items you’ve spent so much time finding or building. If you’re fast enough (or there are no other players around), you can return to the site of your death (if you dare) and retrieve these parts. There’s a cost, sometimes fairly steep, but not one that makes you want to ragequit anytime you die. Good job on this balance, Bethesda, that’s not an easy thing.

Another well-thought out idea is that you can change the sex and appearance of your character at any time. A minor thing for some, but a great convenience for those who may want to change up their character’s visuals every so often.

The Bad

If you’re reading reviews of Fallout 76, you’ve likely come across the complaint that it “feels empty.” I think that that’s a misleading statement (there’s another Location to scavange over every crag and just a short ways down every road), but it’s true that Bethesda’s choice not to include human NPCs in the game is a massive let-down. The self-conscious weirdness of characters in Fallout is one of the main draws, and finding the corpses of these characters and listening to holotapes to give you their background just doesn’t match encountering and dealing with the characters in life.

Yes, this simplifies a number of things for the designers: there’s no need to craft dialogue trees, to manage faction reputation, to deal with conflicting narratives and closing off certain quests to certain players, etc. But it misses one of the best parts of Fallout.

At least Bethesda had the good sense to write the narrative around this concept–there is a reason everyone in West Virginia is dead. But the idea that this approach accentuates player importance by making every living human you encounter a PC just doesn’t work. Quite the opposite, in fact, as it deprives players of a sense of agency. There’s no one to really save, no cause or ideal to support, no settlement or character to get attached to (as much as is psychologically healthy for a fictional character, I suppose). There’s no choice between the Minutemen or the Brotherhood of Steel or the Enclave or the Institute. There’s no choice of dialogue options. There are choices in branching quest lines. There are no choices.

As with any online game, you also have to deal with the jerk gamers on occasion–and they are legion. I’ve gotten into several PVP situations and had about half of them also involve the other player sending me insulting messages over Xbox live and other assorted jackassery. That is, I suppose, unavoidable.

The Ugly

Bethesda stubbornly resists logical physics in a number of ways. No, I don’t mean the super-sciency stuff, I can suspend disbelief for that. But despite many games in this series, Bethesda still thinks the average rifle weighs about 20 pounds (unless the weight units are not pounds–I’m honestly not sure). This is somewhat mitigated by the starting carry weight without penalty being 150 lbs (and Perks that allow certain items to be reduced in weight by up to 90%), but the numbers in weights across the board still bother me. I’m trying to remember back to Skyrim about whether this applies to their concept of medieval weapons as well (a real two-handed sword should weigh between about 3 and 4 pounds–though the massive zweihander could weigh 8 or 9, that’s a very specialized weapon for a very particular purpose and was used in the fashion of a spear as much as a sword).

There are a number of bugs in the game, some leading to program crashes, others causing questlines not to advance, items to suddenly disappear or other minor but infuriating issues. I have not found a glitch that restarting the program (or just logging out and back in) hasn’t fixed.

Hope for the Future

Bethesda has indicated that they intend to support Fallout 76 for the long haul. What exactly that means is unclear, but I assume that it means something like Destiny 2–at least a few years of support with new DLC quarterly or so.

If that’s truly the case, Fallout 76 could have legs–provided that Bethesda has realized that it needs to add human NPCs and everything that comes with that (factions, etc.). If not, it’ll be fun while it lasts; maybe it will tide me over until Fallout 5.

Review: Far Cry 5: No There There

As a writer of both fiction and theology, the premise of the latest Far Cry game (creatively entitled “Far Cry 5”) quickly piqued my interest. Where the previous games in the series played upon the otherness of exotic locales, the latest installment brings the action close to home, setting us in (fictitious, though the geography is based on real geography in the southwest corner of the state) Hope County, Montana, a strange community of traditional heartland folks, stereotypical “preppers”–and a mysterious and dangerous cult calling itself the “Project at Eden’s Gate.”

The premise of such a location is full of narrative possibility, particularly in the current political and religious background of America. Here are some of the things I hoped to find within the game:

  1. Some investigation of the interplay between certain types of Christian fundamentalism and the Prepper mentality. Though entirely unscientific, my own experience with Prepper culture (some of which is through personal encounters, but most of which is through the admittedly not-entirely-trustworthy media of the internet and reality TV) seems to indicate a strong correlation between pre-millennial dispensational theology and Prepper culture. On the more disturbing end are those with even more extreme spiritually-based conspiracy theories that create within them the fears that lead to prepping for the end-times. Here, I should mention an unsettlingly-common belief that demons or fallen angels have infiltrated American government (and/or foreign governments) and are purposefully driving us to apocalypse. Yikes! This whole subject merits a post of its own, I think, but that’s for another time.
  2. Narrative that deals with the interplay between Trumpism and Christianity–the ways in which Trumpism distorts Christianity into a self-justifying parody of itself and the ways in which more honest Christianity defies the values of Trump and his compatriots.
  3. Tension between cult beliefs and traditional Christian beliefs.

Was I naive to expect any of these things? Of course I was. On the other hand, as video games are pushing into a more maintsream and respectable narrative medium, we should be expecting our games to push the envelope, to make philosophical arguments and investigate both theological ideas and political ones. Spec Ops: The Line is an excellent example of a game that’s already done this, as are the Bioshock series (is there much that’s more interesting than a well-crafted video game that investigates a philosophical system like Rand’s Objectivism?) and games like Heavy Rain.

And to be fair, the game starts off in a misleadingly promissing way for my hopes. You play as a rookie deputy sheriff in Hope County, Montana; the game starts with you in a helicopter as part of a joint sheriff’s office and federal agent task force to arrest Joseph Seed, the “father” and prophet of the Project at Eden’s Gate. Walking through the Eden’s Gate compound, surrounded by tense believers with automatic rifles, knowing what you’re there to do creates a great dramatic moment with which to launch a story.

It gets better. You approach Joseph Seed to arrest him, and he does not resist. He does tell you that God will not let you take him. Exactly what you’d expect a cult leader to say. But his prophecy becomes reality. As you return to the helicopter and it attempts to take off, fanatical cultists swarm the vehicle, with some even throwing themselves into the rotor to cause the chopper to crash. Joseph leaves the wreck remarkably unscathed and with the obligatory, “I told you so.”

That’s where the narrative peaks, unfortunately–right when it poses the following fascinating questions:

  1. Was it divine intervention that Joseph Seed walked away from the crash, or was it simply fanatical human action combined with coincidence and luck? This search for an understanding of whether some felt but unprovable synchronicity lurking behind human events is real or merely imagined is a fundamental existentional question.
  2. As a corrollary to the first, is Joseph Seed right? Is he a prophet? Of course, we never really get a clear view of the theology of Eden’s Gate, so this question falls quickly by the wayside.
  3. Has America, through its recent history, culture and politics created a landscape ripe for the likes of extremist cults?
  4. What do you do when faced with a violent cult using the trappings of Christianity but promoting patently non-Christian courses of action (Eden’s Gate are murderers, thieves, abusers, drug pushers, kidnappers and a whole slew of things that you’d think would give some of its members pause, but this is never really addressed). Is violence a legitimate means for the Christian to resist evil being done in the name of Christ (though I don’t think that Joseph actually ever mentions or alludes to Jesus in the game if I remember correctly). Under what circumstances? Can a cult like this really be taken down by violence, when the expectation of violence and aggression from external sources feeds directly into their eschatological expectations?

Instead, we are treated with a two-dimensional bad guy, a stereotype onto which the elements of religiosity have been crudely grafted. Joseph Seed is made to look distinctly like David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, complete with 90’s-style yellow-tinted aviator glasses. He quotes (paraphrases, really) the Book of Revelations, but never mentions any other part of the Bible and never makes any concrete theological assertion–only claiming that the end is coming and people must repent and be cleansed of their sin. By sin, he apparently means the extra-biblical “seven deadlies.” One minor caveat to this–the signboard of the church in Fall’s End (the one non-Eden’s Gate church in the game) does have a reference to a verse (but not the text of the verse) in Jeremiah that warns to beware of false prophets.

The game sends you on a blood-soaked path of murderous resistance to Eden’s Gate without sufficient self-awarness to question what that really means, underlining it only with a repeated chorus of “America, Fuck Yeah!” The other characters in the story are likewise various survivalist and prepper stereotypes that bleed into a muddy morass that deprives the game of any real humanity.

And the cultists aren’t really even that convincing. Turns out, it’s drugs, not beliefs, that create the fanaticism of the “PEGgies,” as the game calls them. The enemies are dehumanized and the bodies in your wake only a tally of progress. This may be lamentably American, and perhaps that disturbed me most about the game (kudos to the writers and designers for that if it was intentional and not a sad symptom of our culture).

If you came to this post looking for a review of what gameplay is like, I’ll have to direct you elsewhere, as there are already a plethora of reviews to handle that. But I will admit that, if you like the previous Far Cry games, you will enjoy playing Far Cry 5. It’s the “theme-park” experience to be expected in this line of games and it does have a humor and gameplay style deep enough to entertain. I played through the entire campaign and–so long as I didn’t think about it too much–enjoyed it.

But I finished the game disappointed, as is common when some narrative promises us great ideas and interesting story in the previews but fails to adequately exploit and explore those ideas in the actual doing of the thing. In my struggle to ideologically bolster the lackluster storytelling, I even watched (yesterday) the half-hour movie teaser that Ubisoft made for the game (it’s on Amazon Video). This did nothing for me (though I did like the one they put out for The Division some time back).

And maybe that’s the greatest commentary about current culture to get from this game, whether the creators made the commentary intentionally or just happen to magnify this running theme. And that’s the idea that much of American Christianity is really only the cultural stylings of the faith appended to ideas that may be “American” but almost certainly aren’t Christian–the idea that Christianity is a style of doing things rather than a substantive approach to existence. Then again, that could be a concern of mine fully projected onto the game in a desperate attempt to create some meaning where I could find none.

That ultimate emptiness and sense of unfulfilment was all that remained after I finished the game and when I think back on the hours I spent playing it–a great opportunity lost by the writers, either because they did not understand the subject matter well enough to intelligently comment on it while coopting the trappings for the style of their game or because they opted not to make any particular commentary for fear of hurting sales. That’s understandable in a commercial sense, and money often influences all forms of art. But I can’t help but feel that it’s a cop-out anyway.

So, for the TL;DR (I know, it should be at the beginning, not the end): Far Cry 5, a game to play for mindless fun and a few cheap laughs, but don’t expect any depth. There is no there there.

Kingdom Come: Deliverance – Playing at History (an early review).

I backed Kingdom Come (KC:D) a long time ago–maybe more than two years. An open-world historical medieval RPG? Yes, please! Just the sort of thing that pulls at the desires of a person whose favorite video game is the Witcher 3 and who, for a time, was a professional student of the medieval.

There was, of course, a long roller-coaster of development that followed–teasers, delays, the realization that my computer wouldn’t be able to run the game, the revelation that it would be released on console and so my computer didn’t matter, etc., etc.

Finally, it arrived this week, and I’ve spent some significant time becoming immersed in the Bohemia of 1403. With the caveat that I’m nowhere near finished with this game, this is what I have to report to the present:

If you are the type of person who plays Fallout and Skyrim on survival mode, this game will appeal to you. You must sleep and eat. Your food rots over time, and spoilt food will make you sick. Eat too much and you’ll be sluggish. Take an injury (whether in combat or not!) and you might begin to bleed. Fix it with a bandage quickly or prepare to die. Keep your weapons and armor in good repair or they’ll become ineffective. Get your clothes bloody or dirty and people will notice–and they don’t take you as seriously when they do. Carry weights are (relatively) realistic, and you improve your skills by using them–not easy to do when it comes to using a sword.

The game is relatively “on rails” for the first few hours of play–while you can do your own thing for long whiles at a time, only advancing the main quest will get you to the point where you can seriously begin to play the game. It’s a slow start that left me, at first, with an unfavorable impression of how gameplay with develop that is still being dispelled as I move through the game.

So far, the game doesn’t feel as “open world” as I had hoped. It is true that there are sidequests (and perhaps I just haven’t discovered many of them yet) and you can easily spend hours just “living” in the medieval world–practicing a trade, acting as a merchant, traveling and fighting bandits, etc. In a certain way, I think you could ignore the quests altogether and simply view the game as a “medieval emulator.”

Further, there seems to be an intimation that the world will be expanded and even more opportunities for self-directed tasks will become available as the game progresses. Despite my several hours of play, I’m sure that I just have no gotten that far into the story yet.

And that main story is, at least, an interesting one. Set within a discrete historical event–King Sigismund of Hungary’s invasion of Bohemia on “behalf” of his half-brother King Wenceslaus IV (“the Idle”), who Sigismund had kidnapped, you are thrust into the world as the son of a blacksmith and the vassal of a lord loyal to Wenceslaus and targeted by Sigimunds’ invading army.

The attitudes and motivations of the characters seem deep. You get the expected behavior of some nobility toward the peasantry (particularly in Sir Hans), but this is never flat or without nuance:you earn the friendship and respect of Sir Hans as the story progresses and he is–in private at least–willing to admit his own faults and the shortcomings of his behavior. The struggle between adherence to duty and ideals when faced with the grim necessities of the day plays out on multiple levels, both personal and political. No assumption of medieval life is treated as straightforward, with a range of different lifestyles and living situations that more accurately portrays the era in a way we often miss in movies, dry history books and, especially, fantasy roleplaying, where the “medieval” is more often a pastiche or a facade than an actual description of setting.

Despite this, at least as far as I’ve played, the real joy of the game is in the way it immerses you into the historical world with a sense of realism and reasonableness. For instance, fighting several poorly armed bandits by yourself is difficult; attacking multiple well-armed or well-trained enemies (to say nothing of those who are both) is near suicidal. Unless you use tricks, like stealth, surprise and ambush, weakening the enemy with ranged weapons, hit and run tactics and any other approach that generally makes the fight less fair. This was the reality of the middle ages, just as it is today–no matter how good you are, fights are brutal and deadly, and fighting honorably will likely just get you killed.

Each fight is, however, very interesting. As a student of historical medieval martial arts myself, as both scholar (my Master’s Thesis was entitled “Shakespeare, the Sword and Self-fashioning”) and a martial artist (mostly with the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts or ARMA), I’m especially keen on in-game fighting that captures something of the speed, grace and precision of actual swordplay–something very difficult to do in a video-game because of the infinite array of techniques, maneuvers and responses in combat with a blade. KC:D does the best I’ve seen yet, with the combat not only accounting for the directionality of attacks, but incorporating parries, feints, grappling, counter-attacks and animations that perfectly capture some of the techniques used. This is no clumsy hack-and-slash; the only video game that has even come close to this kind of swordplay was Mount & Blade (whose new edition should be out later this year). While satisfying, this also means that combat is difficult and partially based upon your own twitchy-skill. It should be noted that there is only one difficulty mode for the game (so far as I’ve discovered): realistic.

As a side note, I am note a fan of the Dark Souls games. I just feel that should be said when I communicate how much I’ve enjoyed the difficulty of the game.

For the first few hours of the game, I was very frustrated by the save system. The game automatically saves when you sleep, complete an important quest step, or drink Saviour Schnapps. Saviour Schnapps is expensive, takes up inventory space, and can get you drink. At the beginning, when your skills are low and the game is at its most difficult, you will die a lot and have to replay moderate sections of the game (at least I did). As I progressed into the game and got into the mindset, I actually began to enjoy the save system. In a game that strives for immersion and realism, this save system reinforces these without becoming full-on rogue-like. You cannot get lucky for a minimal gain, save, and replay until you get the next minimal gain and save again. Three men in armor down that path? Best just to go a different way. This goes a long way into breaking the hero mentality we usually carry with us into video games; I particularly respect that.

This is not to say that playing heroic (or superheroic) characters in games is not appropriate, good design, or fulfilling–it certainly can be. But the occasional game that makes us live in an alternate world as a regular person–even one who may be an exceptional fighter (though still clearly mortal) provides a truly rewarding exception as well. In some sense, I do wish the game had some aspect of the fantastic to it, but that’s really only because I’m such a fan of fantasy. Realistically (and more sensibly), it’s great to see such an enjoyable game and interesting world and narrative created without any need to resort to the “unrealistic.”

As is probably indicated by the amount of words I’ve dedicated to this preemptive review, I’m really enjoying this game. If you’re willing to devote the time to acclimate to this game’s approach to play–and you’re willing to accept the design principles on which the game was built–I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.

In some ways, at its heart, this game is a history lesson you play–one about everyday living in the medieval world.