No Man's Sky

After experiencing some annoying performance issues on the PS4 version of Dark Souls III (including a framerate capped at 30 fps), I decided that I'd hold out the extra three days for the PC version of No Man's Sky. I assumed that the keyboard and mouse controls would be more comfortable, since the game is half shooter, half flight-sim. I assumed that the PC version would perform better and look better. And I figure that the game will eventually enjoy a vibrant modding community that is likely impossible to spring up on the PS4, since (as far as I know) the PS4 does not support modding in any way. I, once again, may have been wrong in my choice of platform

In addition to having to wait three extra days for the game to release on PC, I've read a lot of reports of severe problems with the PC version of the game at launch. It simply won't run on certain machines with certain graphics cards. Many rigs have consistent performance issues. My PC is a few years old, but it more than meets the system requirements for the game, yet I've been stuck having to run it on medium graphics settings. Upping the settings to high only results in the game becoming unplayably slow whenever I step into the cockpit of my ship. I'm talking, like half a frame per second, and the game dropping all my inputs. The final insult is that the game breaks when you alt-tab out of it, which prevents you from alt-tabbing back into it. If you alt-tab out, you'll have to kill the process in task manager and restart the app - which, of course, will cause a loss of any progress since the last autosave. So despite having a dual-monitor set-up, I can't alt-tab out to open up podcasts or play some tunes while I warp around the galaxy.

Most of these problems will likely get fixed at some point (and some of them already have), and hopefully I'll be able to run the game at high graphics settings. But in the meantime, if you're interested in playing the game, then the PS4 version is probably the technically superior one right now. Apparently, the PS4 version also has numerous performance issues, including crashes.

Sadly, technical problems are only the beginning of my complaints with this game.

Betraying the naturalist within

Instead of being a game about exploring strange new worlds and discovering exotic wildlife and natural wonders of the universe (as I'd hoped), No Man's Sky turns out to be quite the opposite: a game about conspicuous consumption. The core game loop does not consist of landing on an alien world to explore and catalog the local flora and fauna. Instead, you land your ship in a vibrantly-colored patch of minerals and plants, and you begin strip-mining the site clean. You harvest the raw materials that you'll use to refuel your space ship so that you can warp to the next planet to strip its resources for more fuel.

No Man's Sky - cataloging alien life
The incentives to catalog alien life feel extrinsicly-imposed and not a natural part of the core game experience.

Actually seeking out and cataloging the local wildlife takes a backseat - if you even bother to do it at all. The game isn't about that. There's nothing in the core gameplay loop or narrative that actually sets the game up to be about cataloging alien life. The only reason that the player has to even bother with scanning and analyzing is because you're rewarded with in-game currency for scanning stuff, even though there's no in-game reason (that I could discern) for why you would be getting paid to catalog alien life or who it is that's putting the money in your account. It all feels so thoroughly divorced from the rest of the game, and the money feels like an extrinsic incentive that is imposed from outside the scope of actual gameplay. In fact, I don't know why the game would have an in-game reason for why you would get paid to catalog stuff. After all, these planets are all already known by somebody in the game universe - they have space stations in every star systems and colony modules and trading posts on every planet long before you ever get there to "discover" them. So not only does cataloging life feel like an extrinsically-imposed mechanic, even this process of "discovering" feels completely fake and artificial...


Fallout Shelter

My recent forays into mobile and casual games has been pretty disappointing. I'm becoming pretty pessimistic about these games, and hoped that Bethesda's Fallout Shelter might have the production quality and complexity of design to keep my attention. After all, Bethesda doesn't seem to be using this game as a simple delivery service for micro-transactions and actually seemed to be taking it seriously as a video game.

Fallout Shelter does, indeed feel like a more honest attempt to make a true video game for mobile devices. Some of the telltale features of casual games are present, such as rewards for daily play and some micro-transactions. But the game isn't constantly badgering you to buy micro-transactions, and the player can't spend money to accelerate the basic production cycles of the game (as is the case in most other casual, resource-production games of this type). In fact, there are plenty of high-level items that can be unlocked fairly early via in-game rewards without having to spend any money at all.

Fallout from a different perspective

The player assumes the role of a vault overseer in the Fallout universe and must build your vault and manage the dwellers that live inside. Each dweller is assigned to a specific room in order to produce resources. There are three resources: power, water, and food, that are each produced in various rooms that you can build in the vault. Each resource has its own unique utility. Power allows rooms to keep functioning. Food keeps the dwellers from losing HP. Water keeps the dwellers from suffering radiation poisoning. And bottle caps are used as the primary currency for building rooms and buying or selling equipment. I don't get the sense that the different resources are just a way of forcing the player to grind more to pad out the length of the game, and the costs of new items stay fairly low and reasonable. There is still grinding, but it's nowhere near as painful or tedious as in Trexels, which has a very similar basic gameplay mechanic. Management is also more complicated than in Trexels, since each dweller has specific S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats that affect how quickly the room will produce resources. So it matters which room a dweller is assigned to.

Fallout Shelter - low food
The different resources have different utility, which makes the game feel less like a grind.

Worked rooms will produce resources every so often, but they can also be rushed if you're desperate. Or if you want extra money, or if you want experience for your dwellers, or if you just want surplus resources, or if you're just bored. Rushing production seems to be highly encouraged by the game mechanics, since it is the fastest path to bottle caps, experience, and resources! The tradeoff is that you risk triggering an "incident" whenever you rush production. Incidents can include the room breaking out in fire, or radroaches or mole rats infesting the room. Both will do gradual damage to any dwellers in the room while the dwellers try to fight them off. Incidents are easy enough to deal with, especially if you have a hefty stockpile of stimpacks, and if all your dwellers are equipped with weapons. The risk of incidents will increase each time you attempt to rush, and so everytime I load up a vault, I usually collect all the resources already accumulated, then I repeatedly rush all the production rooms until the risk of incidents goes up to 60% or more. And once you get a medbay and laboratory, you can produce (and rush) stimpacks and rad-aways to heal your dwellers from incidents, which makes this cycle almost trivially easy to maintain.

Incidents can also occur randomly, and you'll even see the occasional random raider attack...


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Star Trek Trexels

I finally got around to buying a modern phone, upgrading my Galaxy SII to a Galaxy S6 Note Edge. With the upgrade in tech, I've finally started trying out some of the free-to-play mobile games that are flooding the market. I had already played SimCity Buildit on my previous phone, but its poor performance and bugs held me back from bothering with any other games on that old SII. But now that I have a new phone, I wanted to try the Star Trek-themed game Trexels.

Star Trek games are few and far between, and good ones are virtually unheard of. Probably my favorite Star Trek game ever was the Windows 98 4x-strategy game Birth of the Federation, which was basically just a Trek reskin of Microprose's Master of Orion II. It wasn't the most technically proficient of games, and the A.I. blatantly cheated, but it was a game that captured the essence of Star Trek by being primarily about exploring the galaxy and colonizing new worlds. Most Trek games are content to just be reskins of shooters or space combat games, which always feels out of place. So Birth of the Federation, despite its obvious flaws, has always stood out to me as a game that really felt like one of the most appropriate uses of the Star Trek license for a video game.

Trexels - exploring space sector
Finally, a Star Trek game that's about exploring space, rather than just shooting things!

And that brings us to Trexels, a free-to-play mobile game that is about exploring space while developing the skills of your ragtag crew and completing the construction of your ship. Sounds like a Star Trek-worthy premise. At least it isn't a first-person shooter. You start the game with a mostly-empty ship and handful of crew members. Your task is to build infrastructure in the ship to allow you to acquire new crew and harvest resources (including "command point", "research", "power", and "dilithium").

To boldly grind...

Resources are harvested by assigning crew to work the relevant rooms, and then you wait some period of real time for the crew to complete the assignment so you can collect the resource. You spend your accumulated resources to build new rooms in the ship, train your crew to increase their ability points, and attempt missions. Completing missions rewards you with experience and ... more resources? So it's kind of circular: you spend resources to attempt mission, and then are rewarded with some of the resources that you spent.

Trexels - harvesting resources
Your crew harvests resources from specific rooms, and other rooms unlock abilities and power-ups.

You also gain general experience, which doesn't really do much other than to unlock new expansion slots for rooms in your ship. Virtually everything you do gives you experience, so you level up fairly quickly. I always have way more available expansion slots than I can possibly use due to the slow rate in which you acquire resources. Once you get past the very first few missions and room-construction, the game really starts to turn into a slow, slogging grind...


A friend of mine introduced me to the social game SimCity Buildit, currently available for mobile devices and tablets. Since I currently lack a strong mainstream entry in the SimCity franchise, I thought I'd see if this social game does anything to fill my long-neglected need for spline-reticulation or if it presented any new features that could be worth pursuing in a full PC version of the game. I don't generally play social games. I dabbled a bit with CivWorld and Sims Social, but that's about it. So I lack a lot of reference for judging SimCity Buildit in terms of other social games.

SimCity Buildit

Most of the fundamental SimCity elements are here: you set housing, commercial, and industrial zones, link them with roads, and build service buildings in order to satisfy various citizen needs within a certain radius. None of the deeper simulation elements of newer city-builder games are there. Individual citizens don't exist; there's just an abstract population, and happiness levels are set for each residential building. It's understandable for the limitations of the platform, and it provides a retro quality that reminds me of the good ol' days of SimCity 4.

But since this is a social game, the design has to put up numerous barriers to restrict the player's freedom to construct the city that they want. You have to "level up" your city by building new buildings. The number of residences that you can build, as well as the availability of industry and shops are also limited by your level or by the city population.

You also don't really have an economy to manage - at least not in the traditional sense. Citizens don't work at factories and shops. Instead, these buildings create certain building materials that are used to "upgrade" your residences into higher-density buildings that generate more tax revenue. This provides the core challenge of the game: you have to build the necessary materials in order to upgrade your buildings. Each of these materials take different amounts of real time to construct in your factories and shops (or you can buy the materials you need through real-money micro-transactions). As you level up, you'll unlock new materials, which residences will suddenly demand in order to upgrade their buildings.

SimCity Buildit - city
You don't have to manage employment, tax rates, or city ordinances; only resources and service coverage.

The ability to upgrade a building seems to be limited by its happiness level. Only happy residences can be upgraded, so you also need to provide city services such as power, water, waste disposal, emergency services, entertainment, and so on. But these services are very frustrating because they are tied to your city level. New services or entertainments become unlocked when you level up. That's fine. But once those services are unlocked, your entire city starts demanding them, and happiness plummets (as well as tax income, which is tied to happiness) because you don't already have the infrastructure ...

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Grid Clock provided by trowaSoft.

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