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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35mm - title

December, January, and February is usually a time when I try to make a dent in my ever-growing Steam backlog. I buy lots of games on Steam sales, and then end up not playing most of them. So when I do go into the backlog, I always try to emphasize some of the shorter, indie games in the hopes that I can power through several before the big spring game releases start rolling in. This time around, I loaded up an independent Russian game from developer Sergey Noskov, which was very well-reviewed back when I bought it in 2016. Apparently, it's going to be released on PS4 soon, so this review is sort of topical. It hasn't really held up as well as I hoped it would in the almost-5 years since its release.

Ironically, this game is set during a fictional ebola pandemic that has turned Russia into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and I'm playing it during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The game was released back in 2016, long before COVID.

35mm is a hard game to classify. It's not quite a shooter. Not quite a survival game. Not quite a horror game. And not quite a walking simulator. It straddles the line between all of these sub-genres, shifting from one to the other at the drop of a hat, but without ever feeling jarring about it. There's even a few little mini-games thrown in for good measure. As such, there's plenty of variety that helps prevent this game from ever feeling stale. Regardless of whichever genre 35mm is currently residing in, its slow pace, subdued, aesthetic design, and melancholy tone remains consistent. It is this pacing and tone that defines the game much more than any one genre.

35mm straddles the line between walking sim, shooter, survival game, and horror.

We play as a mysterious protagonist travelling across a post-apocalyptic Russia, presumably to get home to see his family. He is accompanied by a travelling companion for most of the game. The history of these characters and the relationship between them are never clearly defined, which feels like its setting up for some kind of narrative twist right from the start. Nevertheless, the companion character acts as a sort of guide through the first half of the game, telling the player where to go and what to do. Unfortunately, since these characters are never very well-developed, any potential tragedy or impact of the final twist (regardless of which ending is achieved) is severely neutered.

What's the deal with the camera?

Even though I can't quite put my finger on what genre to classify 35mm, one thing that I can definitely say is that it is not a game about photography. Given that the game is named for the type of film in a camera, and the camera is featured in the game's title screen and promotional material, I would think that the camera would feature heavily in the game. But this is not the case. The camera is never necessary. It isn't used to progress the plot. It isn't used to solve puzzles. There isn't even a recap of the photos I took at the end of the game. Photographs become a major part of the game's finale, but they aren't the pictures that I took during the course of the actual game.

The camera is not utilized, despite inspiring the title of the game and being featured on the title screen.

So I'm really puzzled as to why the game is named "35mm". It kind of set my expectations a little bit higher than they probably should be. I thought I was going to get something a little bit more artsy and creative. But instead, what I got is a pretty straightforward, linear game.

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Death Stranding - title

I had no clue what to expect from Death Stranding. I probably would have bought it regardless because I usually enjoy Kojima's games. I was also curious if Death Stranding would be, in some way, representative of what the canceled Silent Hills might have been. Most of all, Kojima is a bold, and usually innovative creator, and I felt compelled to support his new studio -- if for nothing else than to give a middle finger to Konami.

After spending several dozen hours with it, I'm still not really sure what to think of Death Stranding. Much like with Final Fantasy XV, Death Stranding is loaded with novel ideas and messages that I find personally interesting or compelling. But just like Final Fantasy XV, those novel ideas take a back seat to time-wasting filler quests. Death Stranding can be hypnotically beautiful, zen-like, and maybe even emotionally moving, but it's also big, bloated, and convoluted, and it takes far too long to get where it's going.

At a very reductionist level, Death Stranding could be accurately characterized as "side quest: the game" or "Amazon courier: the game". But that characterization would be overlooking the nuance behind the game, and what it has to say about modern gaming and society in general. That makes it a very difficult game to review without giving one's self some time to let it soak in ... which is part of the reason why I've been mulling it over for more than a month now...

Rebuilding America, one Amazon delivery at a time

Carrying cargo is, in fact, the entire game! Our protagonist, Sam, is unwittingly tasked with delivering cargo across this post-apocalyptic America in an attempt to get in the good graces of the settlements dotting the land, and connect them all up to a vast information network to restore a semblance of civilization. On the way, you can literally build roads and bridges as you go -- rebuilding the American infrastructure little by little.

Online players will leave guideposts and infrastructure to help each other out.

This infrastructure is actually a clever implementation of the Demon's Souls / Dark Souls style of asynchronous multiplayer. In principle.

Instead of the ghostly visages of other player warning you of traps or ambushes or pitfalls, online players can build bridges, roads, vehicle charging stations, storage boxes, and other helpful infrastructure that will make your trek through the world legitimately easier. They aren't just cluing you in about what dangers to expect, or what course of action to take, the other players are actively helping you (and everyone else) without ever needing to set a digital foot in your game. Just like in FromSoft's Souls games, you can also leave little notes that take the form of emoticons, and which combine the function of the Souls player messages with avatar gestures.

When you first step out into the world, there's a sense of desolation and loneliness about the landscape. It reminds me a lot of Shadow of the Colossus, except our only company is a crying fetus instead of Aggro (who's such a good horsey!). The scenery itself is more evocative of Iceland, and doesn't look like any part of the United States that I've ever been. But then again, this is the same game designer who put a tropical rainforest in the middle of Soviet Russia, so... It's beautiful and serene, and figuring out how you're going to navigate the environment can be a legitimate zen-like puzzle.

Trekking through the map reminded me of the beautifully desolate environments of Shadow of the Colossus.

This game requires very precise and deliberate inputs from the player, and it can sometimes be very unforgiving of small mistakes. If you turn too quickly, Sam may lose his balance and fall over, possibly damaging or destroying the packages that you are carrying. Walk to quickly down a steep slope, and you'll risk loosing your footing and face-planting. You can hold one or both trigger buttons to try to stabilize yourself or catch your balance -- and there's no real reason to not hold both triggers the entire game, since balancing your load doesn't make Sam walk noticeably slower. And you'll have to manage Sam's stamina, the battery supply of vehicles or certain tools, and so forth. You might even find your hands cramping from holding down the triggers after a particularly long or strenuous journey over rough terrain, providing you with a small degree of physical discomfort to go along with Sam's physical exhaustion. And you'll be pushed along by occasional rainfall that will cumulatively damage your cargo and equipment.

Even though Sam will progressively get stronger and better able to keep himself balanced, and even though the game will gradually unlock new mechanics for making it easier to traverse the landscape, you can never get sloppy, and the game will punish you for impatience! It reminds me a lot of Dark Souls, except instead of getting killed by a hollow undead sword flurry because I thought I could sprint through a return trip through an early area of the game, I'm instead tripping over my own two feet because I tried to run down a mossy slope to get this delivery done faster.

Simply navigating the open world terrain without tripping and falling is a primary gameplay mechanic.

The terrain is important and relevant, and navigating it safely and efficiently is the game's core gameplay. You aren't simply holding the stick forward and walking a straight line to a point on the mini-map or radar, as you might do in, say, Skyrim or Far Cry. This is how you design an open world game! You make the traversal of the space into the operant challenge. Or, at the very least, make the space between landmarks -- and the act of traversing that space -- feel meaningful. I feel like game designers are really starting to vindicate all those blogs that I wrote years ago about the failings of open world design. The destinations aren't important in Death Stranding. It's the space in between (the open world itself) that is important.

...

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Mad Max game

Normally, I try not to get excited about movie-tie in games. They have a very bad track record - with only a handful of exceptions. But this Mad Max game wasn't a direct movie adaptation, and it didn't release simultaneously with the movie, implying that it hopefully wasn't being rushed out the door to meet the movie's release. Warner Brothers Interactive had previously released Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, which was also sort of a tie-in to the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, and that game was actually very exceptional! It had a novel and innovative concept around which the entire game revolved (making it very focused), and it was a very well-polished game that was immensely comfortable to control. So Warner Bros had earned some benefit of the doubt for its next game. I wasn't expecting Mad Max to match (let alone exceed) Shadow of Mordor, but I still had hopes that this one would turn out to be a well-realized game that could stand tall and proud as one of those rare, good movie tie-in games. After all, the concept of an open-world, post-apocalyptic action game about smashing spiky, nitrous-fueled cars into each certainly sounds like a solid premise for a game!

Well, not quite...

Wasteland chaos

Mad Max - conflicting button prompts
Many actions are overloaded to the X button - the game even displays conflicting prompts at times!

Virtually every interaction that I had with the game was either naggingly uncomfortable in some way or was prone to glitches. Even the basics of moving around and interacting with objects in the game world was a constant chore. When one button does everything; it does nothing (see my Assassin's Creed III review). Fortunately, a couple really important functions (like getting in and out of cars) were mapped to different buttons, but virtually everything else uses the X button. So if you're standing in front of a ladder and holding a weapon, it's a crapshoot whether the game will decide to let you climb the ladder or make you drop the weapon, and then it'll be a crap shoot whether the game lets you pick up the weapon again. Oh there's button-prompts to tell you what you can and can't do, but sometimes they outright conflict with one another. Besides, when you're running or fighting, then you're reacting on impulse and muscle memory rather than reading screen prompts. It doesn't help that the character's movement is very fidgety, so it's hard to position yourself properly when trying to interact with objects. I think the developers recognized this, which is probably why they make you have to hold the button for a second in order to perform most actions - to give you time to ask yourself "are you sure this is the action you want to do?".

Not enough space for vehicular combat

Clunky movement isn't limited to walking on foot. Steering vehicles is also very fidgety and floaty, and I found it very difficult to perform any precision maneuvering in the cars. The cars all tend to understeer at high speeds, but then strangely oversteer or fish-tail whenever you let off the gas. Trying to hit a ramp or knock down an enemy scarecrow or ram a sniper tower would often require multiple passes in order to succeed, and doing slaloms through the canyons resulted in a lot of cheap impacts. The rough terrain also leads to a lot of spin-outs. The vehicles feel so weightless and floaty that they can park on nearly vertical slopes, and running over a pebble can send the car hurtling and flipping 20 feet in the air. On a more personal note, I prefer my driving games to have cameras very close to the action, and so Mad Max's driving camera feels like it's a mile away from the action, which makes it harder for me to get a feel for precisely where the car is in relation to the environment. Virtually none of the game's vehicular set pieces really worked all that well for me due to these nagging control and scaling issues. If the map were bigger to accommodate multiple vehicles running side-by-side on a road, then dealing with the low-traction sand or the unlevel rocks wouldn't be so much of a consistent problem. Even having the option to zoom in the camera (an option that I couldn't find) would go along way towards helping me make more precise maneuvers.

Mad Max - vehicular combat
The primary gimmick of vehicular combat works fairly well in spite of the map not feeling big enough to support it.

This game really lives or dies based on how well the cars perform. The bulk of the game is played from within your car. You use the car to travel the world, and it's actually your primary weapon thanks to the game's novel vehicular combat. This vehicular combat would actually be really fun if the cars handled a bit better and were durable enough to actually take the beating that the combat entails...

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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...

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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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