Fallout 4

"Pirate Lord Captain Gregle, Slayer of Ancients and World-Renowned Trapeeze Artist" sounds like a pretty legendary character, right? Well, he wasn't. In fact, he was a very lucky, over-achieving halfling rogue in a short-lived campaign of Dungeons & Dragons. I rolled for the character's initial stats, got fairly low constitution, and then rolled the minimum value for hit dice for the first few levels. The result was a sixth-level character with a pathetic sixteen max hit points! A single lucky shot from virtually any enemy could be an instant KO for that character, and getting engaged in melee would practically be a death sentence. While some power gamers may scoff at the idea, rage against their dice, and then remake their character with a standard array and average HP, I decided to run with it and role play the hell out of little Gregle.

Dungeons & Dragons - Halfling Gregle
Character sheet for "Pirate Lord Captain Gregle, Slayer of Ancients and World-Renowned Trapeeze Artist"

With the low initial constitution, I focused my character around stealth abilities, disengagement and evasion tactics, and ranged attacks, and continued to improve those skills as I leveled. Knowing that he's a pathetic weakling, Gregle overcompensated by being a very flamboyant braggart and narcissist (I took inspiration from Stephen Colbert), and thought that he was more charming than he actually was. He routinely hid in the shadows, taking pot shots at vulnerable enemies and racking up kill steals from afar while his two warrior companions did most of the heavy-lifting. He would occasionally disarm a trap or unlock a door, and once used a clever trick to pacify (and subjugate) an entire band of pirates. He then took credit for much of the party's achievements.

Despite having only slightly above average charisma, he leaned on his halfling luck to succeed on some charisma checks and make himself a bit of a celebrity with the local townies for his exaggerated heroics. He reveled in the unprecedented access to their community that the locals provided, and he reveled in the adulant gifts that they showered upon him, happily hoarding it all in his bag of holding. The other party members never called him out on it in public, since they were just happy to have the cooperation of the locals.

While the other players and DM enjoyed Gregle's antics, their characters only barely tolerated his presence. During the actual adventuring, he was constantly getting into trouble and needing to be bailed out by his fellow adventurers. He once falsely awakened the party during his night watch after mistaking a wyvern for a dragon. In another instance, he was KO'd while using spider-boots to walk up a ceiling to pursue an enemy that had climbed a rope to escape the conflict, and he became stuck on the ceiling, forcing the party to figure out a way to get him down. They reluctantly obliged to help him, since Gregle was the possessor of the party's bag of holding, and was actually good at sneaking around to perform recon, unlocking doors, disarming traps, coming up with clever plans to avoid direct conflict, and other appropriately roguish things.

Gregle was one of the most fun characters that I've ever played, and he provided me with one of my most entertaining gaming experiences. This is the power of role playing to a character's strengths and weaknesses. It's a power that Bethesda shows no interest in utilizing for Fallout 4.

Out of the vault and into the wastes

I have to give credit to Bethesda for making one really interesting decision with Fallout 4: the game starts in a time period prior to the Great War that triggered the nuclear holocaust, and so it explores as yet unseen elements of the series' backstory. Or at least, it does for all of fifteen minutes. Much like Fallout 3, the pre-war gameplay and time that you spend in the vault is really just an extended tutorial and character-creation process. But unlike Fallout 3, it doesn't give enough time and depth to those settings to make the player legitimately care about them or the characters in them.

Fallout 4 - pre-war home
You don't spend enough time in your pre-war home or vault to develop any attachment to the place or people.

After creating your character and setting your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats, you and your spouse immediately flee with your infant child to the neighborhood vault. Once inside, you're handed the trademark silly superhero pajama jumpsuit and then promptly cryogenically frozen. You awake to witness your spouse get murdered and child kidnapped by apparent raiders, but then get frozen again. Then you awake again to do the combat tutorial against radroaches before leaving the vault and starting the game proper.

You spend virtually no time in the pre-war time period; you don't bond at all with your spouse or child; you don't establish any connections with your home or neighbors. There is absolutely no emotional bond between the player and what is lost in the war. So when the game drops you in the wasteland with a dead spouse, a missing child, and a quest to track down the kidnapper/killer, it does so without creating any emotional connection or investment for the player. I could go to Concord and then to Diamond City and search for my son, or I could just wander off in any random direction fighting raiders and painstakingly building my own little settlement out in the middle of nowhere using salvaged car tires and scrapped raider armor. Fallout 4 doesn't waste any time taking a nose-dive into the open world limbo.

Fallout 3 - birthday in vault 101
Fallout 3 simulated an entire childhood in the
vault, with friends, family, and even bullies.

Compare this against Fallout 3's prologue. It spent a considerably longer time developing your character and immersing you in the vault. Your dad (voiced by Liam Neeson) plays with you as a baby to teach movement and camera controls, he teaches you how to shoot, and throws a surprise birthday party for you. You interact with a childhood friend, other vault dwellers, and even a bully in order to tutorialize persuasion and speech checks and learn how to solve conflicts without violence. You even go to school and take a test to determine your default skills. In the short amount of time in the vault, you've lived a montage of an entire life.

With only a little bit of buy-in from the player, Fallout 3's Vault 101 becomes a living, breathing place populated with people who you can relate to and care about. You, as a player, have an investment in it and the characters that inhabit it. So when shit happens and you have to leave the vault, it's a monumental moment, and the events of your life, and the decisions that you've made, will shape your character's development over the rest of the game.

Even Skyrim gave the player interesting role-play decisions in its tutorial by required your character to make an immediate decision to follow the imperials or the Stormcloaks (though the scenario makes that decision a pretty one-sided one). And your initial choices of weapons and battle tactics would level up those specific skills; thus, starting the character down a path towards specializing in those skills as the game progressed (though you were completely free to change all that if you want).

And Fallout 4 has a perfect opportunity to take that father / son dynamic from Fallout 3, and invert it! The game could have opened with the birth of the baby. Since Bethesda had to record dialogue for multiple names for the player character, they could just as easily have done the same with the child's name. The doctor could hand you a paper with "This Year's Popular Baby Names", and you could chose one of those names that were explicitly recorded in dialogue. You could even be given the option to type your own name and replace the child's name with "my son" in dialogue. You could fill out the child's name and your own character's name on the birth certificate. Naming the baby would create a sense of ownership and connection to the child that might help encourage the player to pursue the main quest.

Fallout 4 - leaving the vault
Fallout 4's vault serves only as a combat tutorial with no depth, emotional resonance, or meaningful decisions.

But it doesn't have to stop there...

[More]

Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - title

Let me tell you a little story. It's a story of my first few days with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. This is a game that I eagerly anticipated. The previews for it were grand, and I expected it to be everything that Skyrim wasn't, and more! I was all ready to give my first 100/100 game review! I spent some time juggling whether to buy the game on PC or PS4. I knew that PC would likely be a better overall experience, with prettier graphics, shorter load times, and the eventual ability to mod. But I decided to go with PS4 instead for two reasons:

  1. my cousin had pre-ordered the PC version, so I could play his if I wanted to see if it was any better,
  2. I wanted a good showcase of what the PS4 is capable of compared to high-end PCs.
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt - open map
Previews talked up the large, dynamic world, in which your decisions supposedly have major consequences.

Bad first impressions

Oh boy, The Witcher 3 did not make a good first impression with me!

I started the game on the hard difficulty. I had just come off of Bloodborne, so I was in a mindset to be challenged. My first two reactions to the game were fairly negative. Load times seemed long, but then again, the world is supposed to be open and seamless, so loading shouldn't be a frequent necessity. I also had some comfort issues with the controls in the tutorial. I dismissed them as a result of my unfamiliarity with the game and assumed I would get used to it.

The biggest problem was trying to figure out how to reliably heal. I kept losing vitality in small skirmishes, and it just wouldn't recharge. I kept running out of potions, and the game wouldn't let me make more. I had to throw away the empty potion bottle in order to craft more of the healing potions. I assumed this was a glitch.

Does the game require absolute perfection from the player? If so, I wasn't sure if I could handle it. The combat controls are sketchy to say the least. As I got into the game proper, the nagging discomfort that I felt in the tutorial was only amplified as the game threw more enemies at me. Even Geralt's "fast attacks" are lumbering compared to most enemies, and he is fidgety in his movement. Enemies are swift and relentless. It was hard to find an opening for my own attacks without taking damage, and my finger started getting tired from holding down the block command that only sometimes worked. The dodge commands also seemed unreliable, the camera never seemed to focus where I wanted it, and the target lock was nigh useless. It didn't help that the spell and accessory wheel is cumbersome to use.

The Witcher III: Wild Hunt - Nithral
I almost gave up on the game at this first Nithral fight because I had completely forgotten about
the meditate feature, and didn't have any healing items (not that healing items do much).

I eventually hit a brick wall in which all the attrition set in. The sloppy combat mechanics constantly sapped my vitality, and I gradually ran out of healing items which the game was unwilling to provide more of. I ended up in a boss fight with literally half my health gone and no healing items left. My NPC companion spammed lightning spells at him, but these did no damage and only got him stuck in a corner so that I was unable to get behind him and actually attack. To make matters worse, my weapons started breaking, and I had no replacements, and only one repair tool. I tried lowering the difficulty, but it didn't help. It seemed to be a no-win scenario.

I had to reload from an earlier save and tried some other quests to hopefully gain experience, levels, and supplies. I tried exploring the world to gain experience from random encounters, and I sometimes come across mobs of monsters and try to draw the sword and start blocking as I approach. Instead, I go into Witcher sense mode, since witcher sense and block are the same buttons. Often, the enemies get close enough to attack me before the game switches me from witcher sense mode to block mode, and so they get to leech some health away with free hits. This lead to some cheap deaths.

The Witcher III: Wild Hunt - witcher sense in combat
Witcher sense is overloaded to the block button,
leading to some cheap hits while exploring.

I jumped between the quest menu and the map (because the map could only track a single active quest at a time) to try to find a quest in my level range that was nearby. I tried a missing person's case that lead to a warewolf den. The warewolf proved impossible for me to take on, since his health regened faster than I could cause damage. So much for that "doable" quest.

I tried picking up the lowest-level monster contract available (a level 5 one), and died to some kind of porcupine alghoul enemy that damaged me everytime I attacked it. After a reload, I was able to beat it, and for some reason, it didn't damage me when I attacked anymore. Weird. What had I done differently? But my health was low, I was once again out of healing items, and I wasn't even halfway to earning my 5th level yet. The next set of bandits killed me.

I was about ready to give up, as I was getting sick of staring at the long load screen every time I died and not having any sense of learning or improvement. I started squinting at the microscopic text of the menus to desperately find something to help me progress. It was then that I noticed the Meditation option in the menu. It was something that I had forgotten about all this time. I tried meditating for an hour thinking it might restore at least some of my hit points. I figured a full 6 or 8 hours would be required to fully heal. But, much to my surprise, that single hour fully restored my vitality. And it refilled my healing potions. Armed with restored health, some new weapons, and the knowledge that the constant war of attrition that I'd been fighting with the game was unnecessary, I pressed on, defeated the bandits, and managed victories against some other mobs of enemies in the overworld!

Perhaps now I could finally start enjoying the game?

This game certainly has a steep learning curve. But admittedly, most of my early troubles were largely my own fault for not remembering to use the meditation feature...

[More]

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor - game title

Shadow of Mordor was a game that almost sold me on the next gen consoles. I knew I was going to need a PS4 for Bloodborne, and I was very tempted to buy one early so that I could play Mordor. The central game mechanic of orc NPCs fighting amongst each other in order to become Sauron's personal favorite sounded like an interesting mechanic for organic story-telling. It was a concept that sounded like something truly deserving of the name "next gen". The biggest thing that held me back was the fact that the game was also available on last-gen consoles, so I figured it probably wasn't pushing any serious boundaries of game design.

Bat-Assassin's Creed: Arkham Middle Earth

The basic gameplay is highly derivative of Assassin's Creed and the Batman Arkham games. It ports both of these feature sets more or less as competently as those original games, including the same perks and problems. The free running feature suffers from the same lack of control that plague's Assassin's Creed, in that it's sometimes hard to predict exactly where the character will land, and he loves to climb up a wall if you run too close to it. Is it really that hard to allocate a dedicated "climb" or "jump" button?! In Mordor's defense, every button on the controller is mapped to something, so at least it has an excuse (unlike Assassin's Creed with its redundant jump button).

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor - investigating dead orc
The martial culture of the orcs means that when they find a dead comrade,
they assume he was murdered by an ambitious peer, leaving the player off-the-hook.

Stealth mechanics work pretty well; although the orcs are a bit oblivious to my movements through the game world. Sometimes, I can be moving right across their field of vision within 10 feet of them, but because I'm crouched or hanging off a wall, they just don't see me. Orcs don't care much about each other. Their martial culture means that when they find a fellow orc dead, they assume that he was killed due to his own stupidity, or in a brawl / duel with another orc. This removes the need to drag and dispose of bodies while also masking the fact that orcs don't look for the player when they find a dead body. There are examples of stealth games in which enemy guards don't notice or care about dead bodies that they find, and that's always immersion-breaking. Shadow of Mordor cleverly turns what could have been an immersion-breaking limitation of the A.I. into an appropriate element of the world and narrative. As long as they don't actually see you kill their fellow orc, you can rest assured that throwing an archer off a ledge won't alert any guards who pass below to your presence.

Combat mechanics are almost identical to Arkham Asylum, except you have an ethereal bow instead of all the gadgets or grappling hook. But it also blends some elements of Assassin's Creed insta-kills into the fighting mechanics as well. Fights are much more challenging than in Assassin's Creed because you can't insta-kill enemies when you parry them. Instead, you can stun them and then perform an execution or coup de grace, but you're not impervious during this time. You have to time your coup de graces appropriately in order to avoid being hit in the middle of slitting a prone orc's throat. There are insta-kill special attacks that behave a bit more like Assassin's Creed's counter kills, but you have to build up a combo streak before they become available.

Executing a coup de grace [LEFT] on a single orc in a mob requires split-second precise timing.
Or you can perform a combat execution [RIGHT] mid-combo if you get your hit streak high enough.

Attacks are fluid, controls are responsive, timing is tight, and you can counter or dodge out of any single attack or action. This all combines to give the player a tremendous sense of control as long as you are patient and deliberate in your button-pressing. The strict timing will severely punish you for button-mashing, which makes the combat challenging and satisfying throughout the game.

[More]
Skyrim DLC

In my Skyrim review, I pretty much only considered the base game content. But the game does include three paid DLC packs that are fairly hit-or-miss. Instead of making my original review longer and more complicated (it's already long enough), I'll lump all the DLC reviews into this one post.

As a reminder, I am playing the PS3 version of the game, so my review applies specifically to the console version. Many (if not all) of my complaints can probably be relieved on the PC by mods. Sadly, I do not have access to mods...

Table of contents

  1. Hearthfire adds more meaningless time-sinks
  2. Stupid vampires create genuine motivation in Dawnguard
  3. Dragonborn hides worthwhile rewards behind an unmotivated adventure and horde of glitches
[More]
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - title

Skyrim is one of the biggest names of this console generation. It's already earned the status of "classic" in some circles. It's over three years old now, and I've been playing it (and its DLC) on my PS3 off and on for much of that time. I've been wanting to write a review, but I just never felt that I had progressed far enough into the game to have a full idea of its overall quality. Considering how long the game's been out, and how successful it's been both critically and commercially, this is more of a retrospective than a true review, since I'm not going to influence anybody's purchase decision. All I can do at this point is talk about what I think he game did right, and what it did wrong, so that future games can hopefully improve on the formula.

After years of playing, I've finally made enough progress with various characters to feel comfortable writing a review. With the recent rumors that Fallout 4 may reuse Skyrim's engine, I feel that this review actually has some relevance still.

The game also includes DLC, which I have reviewed separately in a another post.

The engine finally works! … Mostly …

It seems like Bethesda’s open-world game engine is finally maturing. It’s still a little rough around the edges and has its fair share of bugs and glitches (particularly pertaining to companion characters and home customization), but I was amazed when I realized that, for the first time with a Bethesda RPG, I had been playing the game for weeks without needing to consult the online wiki to find a work-around for a glitch that rendered any characters missing, quests inaccessible, or items missing! With Oblivion and the two Fallout games, it didn’t take more than a few hours of gameplay to start running into such glitches.

Skyrim - world size
The large, open world is finally stable enough to be more fun than frustrating.

My roommate actually had a game-breaking glitch that prevented him from saving after the initial character creation (including auto-saves), so he lost a whole Saturday afternoon’s worth of progress and had to restart the game. That one was a doozy, and admittedly the worst bug that I've experienced so far in any Bethesda game! But these problems have been the exception rather than the norm.

So that’s one big check mark in Skyrim’s favor compared to previous Bethesda games!

Removing level-scaling makes leveling a reward rather than a punishment

Believe it or not, it wasn't the frequency of glitches that deterred me from finishing Oblivion; it was the level-scaling system. On paper it seemed like a good idea. Leveling up the enemies, quests, and loot so that the game is consistently challenging and rewards are consistently worthwhile sure sounded like a good idea!

Oblivion - overleveled bandits
Oblivion's level-scaling resulted in a world overrun by trolls, glass-armored bandits, and Daedra.

But in practice, it turned out to be completely ruinous. Leveling felt more like a punishment than a reward, as everything in the world also became progressively harder. This issue was compounded by the poor balance between different classes. If you weren't leveling your combat skills, and had created a class built around - say - Mercantile, Athletics, and Acrobatics then you could easily over-level early in the game simply by walking around and talking to NPCs, only to get slaughtered in the first Oblivion gate because the enemies were stronger than you and you couldn't talk your way out of the fight.

Skyrim fortunately, does not retain Oblivion's strict level-scaling feature.

Some quests, enemies, and loot are scaled, but most things are not (or they're only slightly scaled). Now, bandits are always just bandits, overpowering enemies start the game overpowered, and the world does not suddenly become exclusively populated by trolls and Daedra halfway through the game. "Dungeon bosses" do seem to scale with the character’s level. As you start going up in levels, you’ll start to notice that the grunts in the dungeons are trivial to fight and leave worthless loot. You’ll actually feel like all that leveling has paid off! Then you get to the "boss" at the end of the dungeon and might get your ass handed to you and have to reload several times.

Hard areas should be hard, and easy areas should be easy. It's just mildly annoying that this game gives you no indication which it’s going to be until you’re already a mile underground, and the difficulty varies wildly - even within a single dungeon crawl.

Skyrim - bandits
Most ambient encounters aren't scaled to the player's level, so bandits always remain just bandits.

Removing the class skills frees up the player to develop whatever skills he or she needs without the compulsion to micro-manage leveling class skills versus non-class skills. Character development feels much more natural and organic, and you can change your specialization at any time if circumstances change ...

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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