Atomic Society - title

After going back and revisiting Cities Skylines for its Airports expansion and being thoroughly underwhelmed, I decided to did into my Steam backlog for some other lightweight city-builders. Far Road Games' Atomic Society had just left early access in August of 2021, so I went ahead and downloaded it to give it a try. And I was underwhelmed again.

Atomic Society just doesn't have enough content to keep me playing for very long, and the content that it does have is not nearly as engaging as I would like for it to be. It is a town-builder with a post-apocalyptic theme that seems to be heavily inspired by Fallout (possibly by Fallout 4's settlement customization mechanics). In fact, despite being a town-builder, Atomic Society requires the player to create an avatar character whose backstory is that they had emerged from a fallout shelter and is attempting to lead a band of wasteland survivors to a new home. So yeah, it's basically what you get if you imagined Fallout 4's settlement management in the form of a top-down city-builder instead of a first-person shooter. Sounds good on paper, but Atomic Society is far from the best possible take on the subject matter.

Imagine the settlement-building of Fallout 4 ... but without any of the personality.

Wandering alone

New buildings are few and far between. Because this is a post-apocalyptic game with very scarce resources and population, the total number of structures that need to be built is relatively small (though multiple copies of many basic buildings are required, and I'll be talking about that soon). As such, most of the actual game consists of micro-managing the Town Leader. This Town Leader is usually the one who has to build new structures by hand, and who has to go in and salvage materials from ruined structures and vehicles.

In fact, micro-managing this one character is so critical to keeping your town running, that the SPACEBAR (of all buttons!) is assigned the sole function of automatically selecting and centering the camera on the Town Leader. Usually, I would expect the spacebar in a town-building game to do things like pause or unpause the simulation, or to bring up the build menu or some other important management menu. Nope. In Atomic Society, the most important button on the keyboard is for selecting the Town Leader.

The Town Leader will be doing most of the scavenging, building, and repairing.

Micro-managing the Leader wouldn't be so annoying and tedious if the U.X. for managing him were a bit better. For instance, it would be nice to have a widget in the corner of the screen somewhere that shows what the Town Leader is doing at all times, and a small overview of his current inventory. There's not even a mini-map or hotkeys to quickly navigate to important locations on the map. It would also be really nice if the player could queue up actions for the Leader. Without being able to put multiple actions in a queue, I am stuck having to pause the game every few minutes to check on what he is doing and manually assign him to his next task. I'm constantly stopping the game to tell him to run to a salvage site, then back to a stockpile to drop off the materials, then out to build some building, then somewhere else to repair some building before it collapses, then back out to another salvage site.

All this babysitting gets very tedious, very quickly. Worse yet, when it does come time to actually build things, the need to manage the Town Leader can often get in the way and disrupt the flow of settlement-planning.

It doesn't help that path-finding is completely broken. I'll tell him to go to a ruin site or to deposit his inventory in the nearest storehouse, and he'll circumnavigate the entire map to get there instead of taking a direct route. Or he'll pass by right by a storehouse to get to a different one further away. And if I want him to go to a specific nearby storehouse that he refuses to path to on his own, the only alternative for me is to take manual control and walk him across the map myself using the W,A,S,D keys. It's just miserable.

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Star Trek Strange New Worlds

CBS and Paramount are finally learning. After years of trying to force some offensively awful Star Trek down our throats, they've finally given us something palatable. Well, I guess that's not entirely fair. I actually like Lower Decks. But Lower Decks is a self-parody animated comedy, so it's not really "serious" Star Trek, even though it's far more worthy of the franchise than the first season of Discovery or Picard.

Well, now Paramount+ also has a live-action Star Trek show worthy of the name, in the form of Strange New Worlds.

The first episode of Strange New Worlds is much more in-line with what I expect from a Star Trek show. I already talked up the virtues of an episodic format in my Lower Decks review, but focused mostly on how the self-contained nature of episodes allows some to be bad without dragging down the entire season or series with them. But the episodic nature of Lower Decks and Strange New Worlds also highlights another fundamental advantage of the episodic format: those self-contained episodes can tell more high-concept stories.

Star Trek Strange New Worlds - past mistakes © CBS
Strange New Worlds is about learning from past mistakes and getting better.

The first episode of Strange New Worlds isn't the most creative or the highest of concept stories, but it's a serviceable story that is true to the spirit of classic Trek, and I'll be spoiling a lot of its plot in the coming paragraph. A first contact goes wrong, and the Enterprise has to be called into rescue the missing crew of a small scout ship. They find a pre-warp civilization that learned to reverse-engineer a warp drive from observing the events of Star Trek: Discovery. Except these people didn't use the technology to build a propulsion device; they're using it to build a weapon that they plan to use to end their own civil war. Realizing that Federation activity has already influenced the cultural development of the planet, Captain Pike decides that General Order One (the non-interference Prime Directive) does not apply. He choses to share the history of Earth's World War III (which this series assumes lies in our real-life immediate future) in an attempt to convince the warring factions to reconcile instead of risk mutual destruction.

Put simply, the first episode of Strange New Worlds differs from Discovery in that it is about preventing a war instead of starting one. It's about learning from the mistakes of past history so that they aren't repeated. And it's a stark warning of what might go wrong in today's society if political tensions don't cool off, without having to depict a future for humanity in which no social progress seems to have happened at all.

It's the type of forward-thinking story that I like about classic Trek, but which is absent from Discovery and especially from Picard (well, the first season anyway). Those shows give us a view of the future in which all the same problems that exist today still exist in 2 or 300 years. Strange New Worlds goes back to depicting a future in which humanity has learned from its past mistakes and improved itself. It's the hopeful, optimistic future that I loved from the older shows. I want to see more modern science fiction depicting futures for its audience to aspire to, instead of all the bleak, dystopian settings that dominate modern sci-fi and makes our future feel hopeless.

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Imagine Earth - title

I've been seeing more and more games putting an emphasis on mechanics oriented around environmentalism and sustainability. Games in genres that typically encourage unchecked exploitation of resources are now becoming more and more about the sustainable use of resources. It makes sense. Climate change is becoming more and more of a visible problem that affects our lives in tangible ways. Milliennial game developers are also searching for ways to cope with the fact that our generation and the next will be stuck paying the consequences of the short-sightedness of our parents' and grandparents' generations. Many members of those earlier generations are still, unfortunately in positions of political and corporate power, and make up a large voting block, and are continuing to make selfish, short-sighted decisions that will only make matters worse for the younger generations. It makes sense that younger game developers would be baking those anxieties into the games that they make.

Ecologically-focused colony-building

Imagine Earth is the type of city-builder / strategy sim that has typically been about conspicuous consumption, but it now wants the player to consume more responsibly. Not only does this game expect the player to industrialize the surface of entire planets at the behest of a corporation, it also asks the player to do that with an eye towards limiting greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and other pollution. Developing a sustainable economy doesn't only mean cutting back on emissions from power plants, industrial activity, and so forth. It also requires restoring or expanding natural habitats by planting forests, growing corals, and so forth.

Imagine Earth prioritizes limiting greenhouse emissions and pollution.

Either the player has to plan the growth of your colonies in a sustainable fashion and prevent emissions and pollution from ever getting out of hand to begin with, or you have to spend the back half of each mission doing damage control.

Unfortunately, just like in real-life, any individual person or corporation or government's environmental efforts aren't necessarily sufficient to curtail the effects of climate change. There are often other corporations or settlements on these planets which don't have the same noble ecological goals, and who will happily ruin things for everybody else. They are there to make a quick buck by exploiting as much of the resources as possible, with no plans for sustained long term habitation -- the other people living on the planet be damned. But the corporation we work for in Imagine Earth does plan on prepping these planets for long-term colonization, so we have to pick up those other corporations' messes. Sometimes through violence, coercion, or sabotage, but usually through a hostile takeover of majority stake.

Not all corporations are concerned with long-term colonization that requires a stable environment.
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Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye - title

When I played it last year (after waiting over a year for its timed Epic Store exclusivity to end), Outer Wilds quickly became one of my favorite games ever due to its innovative sci-fi, exploratory gameplay in its dynamic sandbox solar system full of interesting places that are genuinely worth exploring. It was a compelling sci-fi game about the nature of science and the desire to find out place in the universe. It was also a compelling player-driven mystery game that doesn't hold the player's hand and which provides genuine "eureka!" moments.

I wasn't expecting an expansion because the game seemed so perfect and self-contained that I struggled to even think of what could be included in an expansion. Would they add more planets to the solar system? Would it be a stand-alone prequel with the player playing as one of the extinct Nomai?

But I sure as hell was not going to pass up an excuse to revisit Timber Hearth!

I wasn't going to pass up an excuse to revisit Timber Hearth!

River rafting around the world

One of my favorite things about Outer Wilds is its open-ended exploration of the hand-crafted solar system. Each world is a little puzzle box for the player to unlock, with the solutions to every puzzle involving some sci-fi physics concept that the player has to learn and apply.

The puzzles of Echoes of the Eye don't seem to have that same sci-fi quality to them. Most puzzles involve the use of light, and feel like they could be puzzles in any earthbound adventure or fantasy setting. I just point flashlights at things to trigger mechanisms, turn lights off or on to trigger secret passageways, or turn off my source of light to sneak past photo-sensitive sentries in the dark. I guess I should praise the puzzle design for never falling back on the tried-and-true (yet rote) method of reflecting light off mirrors or through prisms. The actual puzzles are a bit more clever than this, but I just don't find it to be a very engaging or interesting gimmick, especially compared to how novel and creative the core Outer Wilds puzzle box is.

The use of light as the instrument for most interactions with Echoes of the Eye seems to be the result of a concerted effort by the developers to use base game mechanics that are under-utilized in the base game, such as the flashlight and ability to nap at bonfires. The puzzles just lack that sense of awe and discovery that comes with progressing in the base game.

Echoes of the Eye starts off strong with solving a space-based mystery.

Some of the late puzzles do start to embrace Outer Wilds's sci-fi nature. They hide some very fun and interesting surprises that really mess with the player's perception of reality in a very video-game-meta sort of way. But they are so esoteric that the game almost has to literally tell the player what to do. It's like "summoning the tornado in Simon's Quest" levels of esoteric at times.

Honestly, I think the single best puzzle in the game is the one that the player has to solve just to get access to the DLC! It's also the most "Outer Wilds" feeling puzzle in the game. The developers managed to cleverly hide the DLC in plain sight, as if it had been there all along.

The opening for the DLC tasks the player with finding a remote satellite and solving a simple puzzle involving it. Then the expansion treats the player with the awe-inspiring discovery of a massive hidden world that makes up the expansion's primary setting. After that, however, everything feels like pretty typical adventure game stuff. Instead of planet-hopping in a tiny space capsule, I find myself white-water rafting and watching home movies on slide projectors. Later on, there's some horror-adjacent exploration of dark spaces with just a flashlight, and even a little bit of hide-and-seek. Again, it's nothing I haven't seen in a hundred other indie games.

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Outer Worlds - title

Obsidian Entertainment's follow-up to Fallout: New Vegas was a hotly-anticipated game for me, but it's timed exclusivity on the Epic Game Store meant that I had to wait an extra year to play it. I probably could have gotten it on console. I didn't because I was worried about performance limitations, but I don't recall reading or hearing too many complaints, so maybe it was fine on consoles. Ah well, much like Outer Wilds, I may have ended up waiting unnecessarily long to play The Outer Worlds. Unlike Outer Wilds, The Outer Worlds is not the instant-classic that I had hoped it would be.

Here I come to save the worlds!

The early hours of Outer Worlds seemed promising enough. The game is based largely around the same factional conflicts that drive the plot of Fallout: New Vegas, with the player dropping into an unfamiliar situation, and solving the locals' problems in one of several ways. Most quests will require the player to chose sides in a conflict and fight the opposing side, unless you have high enough speech skills to negotiate some kind of peaceful solution.

This sort of stuff is, of course, the highlight of the game. The relationships between quest-giving characters and their respective factions are like little puzzles for the player to figure out -- puzzles that can be solved equally effectively with kind words, as they can be with a gun, or sometimes both a kind word and a gun. Outer Worlds rewards the player for doing that little extra bit of due diligence to complete an optional objective, or to hack that terminal to find some juicy bit of intel that I can use to sway an NPC to give you what you want.

Players also assemble a crew of companion characters, each with a strongly-defined role. Each companion provides buffs to certain player skills. Parvati provides a buff to engineering skills, Ellie provides a buff to medical skills, Max provides buffs to hacking, and other characters provide various combat skill and intimidation buffs. These buffs can stack together and get quite large too, especially after you take one or two perks to improve them. I hardly ever needed to use food or drugs to buff a skill because my companion characters almost always provided me with enough of a boost to get me through most quests.

Players create a crew of companion characters to go questing with you.

I was actually surprised at how early in the game I had recruited all possible crew member. All but one come off of the first world, and the final one can be acquired on an early game quest on another world.

Which companions I take on a particular quest is, therefore, important. I found it was a good idea to pay attention to the dialogue from quest-givers to get a better idea of what lies ahead for me in a given quest. It's also worthwhile to check out the quest log to get any insight on what I'm expected to do. Going on a "bug hunt"? I'll take my heavy-hitters like Nyoka or Felix. Need to hack my way into a derelict outpost and get it operational again? Take Parvati and Max. Need to rescue some colonists who are trapped in a cave? Take Ellie and Nyoka in case anyone needs medical attention.

Or at least, that's how it works in principle. Remember when I said that the game seems promising in the beginning? Well that's because the opening chapter of the game is a very well-constructed vertical slice of everything that Outer Worlds has to offer. The downside is that, unlike Fallout: New Vegas (which has a similarly excellent opening chapter that serves as a vertical slice preview of the whole game), the whole rest of The Outer Worlds is just the opening quests repeated several more times on different planets, and it never gets much harder or more surprising.

In practice, there weren't very many quests that required diverse skills. I only specifically remember having to treat an NPC's wounds twice, and one of those was at the very start of the game before I had Ellie in my party anyway. Even though I kept taking Parvati whenever I thought I was going to need to repair things, there were still only a handful of engineering checks, and I recall them all being relatively easy. Honestly, I found that quests seemed to be much more dominated by speech checks, and my companions were mostly just bullet sponges and pack mules.

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A gamer's thoughts

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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