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Why Fallout 4 Is Terrible Part 3: Setting and Characters
Posted on Saturday, December 3 2016 @ 10:38:38 PST

Author's Note: This is a somewhat unfinished draft.  Some sections are too long and unfocused and overall it lacks a single driving pulse toward the broader thesis of the essay.  It's unlikely I'll revisit this for a few reasons.  First, Fallout 4 is an extremely unpleasant topic for me to think about.  Bethesda took a perfectly fine (I'd dare say one of the most important) RPGs ever and turned into a stupid mediocre action game.  Second, redoing it would likely require a complete rewrite from the ground up rather than a simple revision.  Third, I'd much rather finish the remainder of the work and put it up instead of continuously revising existing material.
If this section's length is offputting I'll summarize its thesis with a few items: Fallout 4 as a setting is internally incoherent Its characters and groups and group dynamics lack motivation or direction It contains a number of retcons The game and story usually meet at the setting but here the opposite takes place. Most important of all, Fallout 4 contains plagiarism.     The story may be worse than a bad episode of a bad soap opera with worse dialogue but if the actual moment-to-moment play is fun then it really doesn't matter; games are games first and Bethesda makes hiking sims with window dressing so as long as there are good trails, a good place to go, the hiking is good.  If the hiking is good the game itself is good even if it's a terrible sequel to a franchise of much better games.  Besides, Bethesda apologists love pretending that Bethesda excels at environmental storytelling (they do this by pointing to Fallout 3, a game with an environment so illogical it creates plot holes) so we'll focus our efforts there.
    So what kind of a place is the Commonwealth?  It's been 210 years since the bombs fell, government collapsed and so on.  All the trees are still dead and the wildlife is very dangerous of course.  The feeling one gets is that there's not much of an actual economy anywhere.  It's not like there's a trade of imported goods, valuable prospected scrap and loot from dangerous pre-war structures, local manufactures, and food.  There's no sense that two whole centuries have passed.  In two centuries language drifts, norms change, nations can be made and broken and made again.  The empires of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great, two of history's finest conquerers, came and went in less time.  Religions can get founded and enter into the establishment of orthodoxy in that time.  In Fallout 4 there's no sense anything like this has ever happened.  People still speak with familiar Boston accents and language hasn't drifted, cultural reference points haven't changed, no new culture has been produced, fashions haven't changed, mores don't seem to have changed for the most part.  There doesn't seem to be any kind of religion, old or new, in the commonwealth despite how much religious belief and expression takes on a central role in society when strong secular authority doesn't exist.  People still huddle in old ruins or refurbish buildings and almost nothing new has been built from Sanctuary Hills to the Sewage Treatment Plants.  Some of these buildings are damaged in such a way as to suggest that they have no right to be anything more than a pile of rubble.  The Museum of History, where the stream-of-contrivance that ended the prologue took place, had a VTOL aircraft-sized hole in it exposing the load-bearing members of the structure to over two centuries of North Atlantic coastal weather.  This would be rather recondite and picayune had Bethesda not bothered to somewhat realistically model the effects of two centuries of neglect on the general Boston harbor area.  In real life, as in Fallout, it's mostly built on fill.  If there's no one to maintain that fill, then the land sinks back into the ocean with time.  Had Bethesda consistently shown natural sources of erosion seemingly arrested in their progress then there would be no problem and it would be an interesting connection to other parts of the series which show that technology of that kind does indeed exist in the Fallout universe.  There are a few farms here and there and a large encampment inside Fenway park but there's no sense that any particular place is chosen for any specific reason.  It's as if these kinds of questions never once came up.  So the place doesn't make sense.  This extends to the game's factions.  The raiders, gunners, the Minutemen, the Brotherhood of Steel, Diamond City, the Super Mutants, the Institute and last and definitely least, the Railroad.
    We'll start with the raiders.  They outnumber productive members of society by a factor of ten to one at the very least.  There's nothing supporting them.  Raiders, by definition, don't produce things.  They steal things.  Someone else has to produce it.  If everything in the setting acts as though the bombs went off two decades ago instead of two centuries, and arable land is a precious resource to be fought over just as viciously as the things it produces, then it makes no sense for there to be an endless supply of thugs to steal food that doesn't exist from farmers who aren't farming anything.  The basic lynchpin of all economic activity is survival, and there's no way for the raiders to even survive on their raiding, let alone thrive to the degree that only one in ten need work on anything, let alone the even smaller fraction than that which actually produce food, while the vast majority of people living in the region play a very lethal version of cops and robbers.
    The Gunners are, if anything, even more absurd than the raiders.  They're mercenaries with no contract that the player can discover, paid for by no one of whom the player can become aware, they come from nowhere, their equipment comes from nowhere, their training comes from nowhere, their goals are nonexistent, and the word 'mercenaries' is supposed to cover all this up somehow.  In other words they're The Talon Company Part 2.  Let's contrast this with a similarly chaotic faction in Fallout: New Vegas, the Powder Gangers.  The Powder Gangers are convicts from NCR sentenced to hard labor, working on building roadways for California to get into the Mojave more easily.  Part of this work involved blasting rock to create paths and they had to be able to protect themselves against the especially vicious predators found in the Mojave.  Due to personnel limitations (and in keeping with the theme of the NCR being a society with good intentions but neither rationality nor will to see them through) large numbers of these convicts had unsupervised access to blasting powder, dynamite and firearms.  The result was inevitable.  A charismatic leader emerged in the group who got them to cooperate with each other instead of fight, they laid careful plans, kept violence and misbehavior down in order to mislead higher ups that they were not as dangerous as they were, and when enough of those guards had been transferred to frontline duty along the Colorado, they took their opportunity and overthrew the prison authority, killing them all.  It ties into the main story (the NCR's goal of holding Hoover Dam) makes logical sense, gives the faction a motive (dispossessed convicts with no future, lots of free time, no real recreation to cut loose, the desert heat beating down on them, access to explosives, and no particular direction in life but to get some ill-defined revenge on the system that put them there) and also helps develop the character of the NCR as well-meaning but dangerously incompetent.  This is a theme which comes up repeatedly throughout the game, reinforced in different ways.  Further, as their rebellion wasn't done for some specific goal (integrate into Mojave society, join the Legion, leave the region entirely) they quickly broke down into little more than a pack of heavily armed bandits stranded in the middle of a very hostile desert.  So all of their behavior makes sense.  Apparently Bethesda wanted there to be a 'mystery' surrounding some elements like the Gunners.  This is a blatant cop-out.  The same defense was used for Little Lamplight in Fallout 3 and in both cases 'mystery' is code for 'didn't think this one through'.  If a well-armed, well-trained, coordinated group of mercenaries are rampaging through the area, ransacking pre-war structures for valuables and generally making complete asses of themselves at every turn, what's the point?  Mercenaries need orders.  Who is funding them?  Mercs need more than just the promise of good loot.  They're not Huskarls under Yaroslav I, they would expect to be paid regularly in a currency acceptable to them, 'no silver, no Swiss.'  What are their goals?  They pulled a backstab on the local strong group at the time, the Minutemen, but we never find out why.  In order for the mystery to work, there has to be a solution somewhere to that mystery.  There is none.  The Gunners are a cardboard cut-out of a faction but they didn't need to be.
    Across the table, but definitely at that same table, are the Minutemen.  As a faction they appear to be on their last legs when you first encounter them, then a bunch of them start materializing out of nowhere if you start doing the innumerable fetch quests that Garvey hands out to you.  They're supposed to be some kind of local volunteer militia that got horribly backstabbed at Quincy by one of their members going over to the Gunners (it's never explained properly, I guess the player isn't supposed to care) but the entire region isn't really settled all that much until the player shows up and plays a demented combination of Johnny Appleseed and Jimmy Carter to fix up the place so it's vague at best where these ranks actually come from.  Their weapon of choice is a ludicrous hand-cranked laser rifle (misleadingly called a musket) and they all adorn themselves in antiquated eighteenth century period wear (where they get it isn't even so much as hinted at) for no specific reason other than 'the original minutemen existed in the 18th century so they'll cosplay as 18th century colonists because that's what Fallout is now.'  One rather wistfully (whistfully?) looks back at how the old school transformed American iconography, giving it new meaning in the hands that carried it, and how this affected things.  There's nothing like that in Fallout 4.  We're told they declined because they 'forgot their values' or some such but it feels more like a handwave.  The story of how a region-wide volunteer militia representing everyone in the area declined from being a de facto army to half a ghost story is actually interesting but it gets compressed to something that could fit on a post card in large print.  One of their major goals is to retake "The Castle" (Fort Independence, a trace italienne on Sullivan's Isle) and use it as a central hub of communications.  Actually all it does is provide a radio station with which they can nag you about things without having to wait for you to show up, making the unpleasant quest-log-clogging feed unavoidable, to make siding with them even more annoying.  The player is made into the 'General' but there's no giving orders, setting out plans or modifying tactical or strategic doctrines.  The ingredients are all there, so it would be surprising that nothing is done with them if the game didn't have such a strong Adam Sandler minimum effort vibe about it.  While not as egregiously nonsensical as the bandits stealing from people who aren't there to produce pilferables or the mercenaries with neither contracts nor orders to follow nor goals to achieve, the Minute Men are still clearly a case of underthinking.
    The Brotherhood of Steel being on the East Coast (not to mention Washington DC not being a giant crater) is enough of a problem on its own.  It's something that merits discussion in a general overview of Fallout and the problems with Bethesda's approach to it but it's outside our scope.  The Brotherhood is here, they're badly written, get used to it.  Their motive in coming to the Commonwealth is to harvest technological resources.  Gone is the completely out-of-character philanthropic mission of the Brotherhood in 3, they seem to have returned to some semblance of their roots.  Their morally bankrupt, self-serving, technology hoarding roots.  Furthermore, in the ten years following Fallout 3, they don't seem to have meaningfully stabilized their hold in the Capital.  This makes the gesture of taking the Commonwealth seem rather Quixotic in character.  This seems intentional, the idea of the Brotherhood as having retreated to a simplified version of their old beliefs in the naive hope that it will somehow dispell the bad fortune they've endured is actually a sadly common human failing.  Beyond that their goal is to survive by keeping knowledge out of others' hands and only doling it out to those they consider reliable.  This helps explain the '2 decades after the bombs dropped' effect throughout the game world.  If the world looked more like 200 years had passed, like the Mojave does, the Brotherhood of Steel would find itself in a worse position than besieged.  They would be irrelevant.  Power armor and lasers are no longer guaranteed victory makers on battlefields and scavenging and research and independent discovery see the New California Republic achieving a similar level of technological development through sheer attrition and, what's more, having a superficially viable solution to the basic problem of political order in the region.  The Brotherhood can't even offer that to anyone.  Their organization cannot solve such problmes and isn't meant to.  Their irrationality extends toward their basic attitude.  From the rank-and-file up there's a severe hostility toward Ghouls, Super Mutants, robots, synths, anyone who has fancier technology than they do and so on.  Now, they arrive in force at a certain point in the main plot via airship.  An airship that moves very slowly, is a very big target, and doesn't appear to have any real defenses of its own other than sending troops out.  In a setting in which guided missiles, .50 caliber machine guns and rifles, portable nuclear bomb launchers, man-portable gauss rifles, Anti-Aircraft guns, SAMs, and even directionable EMP weapons exist.  Much like the Minute Men's desire to retake the Castle, this makes no sense.  This is frankly idiotic.  Airships disappeared from war right around the time easy methods for knocking them out of the sky became viable.  Those same methods have existed for over two centuries and yet they do it anyway because Bethesda decided that it was high time to canonize just one of the many stupid things about Fallout: Tactics, a game nobody cares about.  As bigoted, shallow, unsympathetic, and generally unlikable as the Brotherhood is in Fallout 4, they're also stupid enough to deserve to lose.  They also conveniently forget their own beliefs and rules if the writer needs a plot twist or hook and that sort of thing wouldn't let them go where they want with it.
    Camped out in Fenway Park is a 'city' of sorts.  It's the major trade hub of the region and it's mostly the location of choice due both to Bethesda's irrational obsession with pre-war iconography and to the park's high walls.  Here, again, we see an obsession with classical fortification ideas that makes little sense.  Bethesda's Fallout is a world in which the average raider gang carries enough explosives to blow a hole in the park big enough to march a small army through it shoulder-to-shoulder.  A large, static, location with large numbers of people and great stores of material wealth isn't a city.  It's not even a fort.  It's a target.  While the economy of the city makes little sense (other than some farms to produce enough food for the inhabitants) in that there's no indication of who they would be trading with or what for Diamond City is still a mile ahead of Rivet City and Megaton in that the location makes some kind of sense.  That it is some kind of trade hub is well established, but we have no idea who it's a trade hub between.  It's parked smack-dab in the middle of downtown Boston, in between armies of mutants, raiders,  and mercenaries and there's no easy way in or out of the part of the city that houses it.  Any approach by caravans has to fight through those hazards.  The merchants all seem to avoid the city, preferring to trade with small settlements and basing themselves in Bunker Hill.  The city itself is a bunch of one-off gimmick characters and NPCs with no conversation trees.  Most of the area is unoccupied and doesn't show signs that it ever was occupied.  Instead of some kind of housing complex, even a scaffold hive of wood and steel sitting in the park and on the bleachers, there's nothing.  As insulting, patronizing, wasteful, and most of all, lazy as it is, we're only talking about the layout.  When we get down to it the society of Diamond City is even worse.  There's a newspaper in town and while it might suffice to point out that there is absolutely no explanation how or why this newspaper even exists or continues to operate it bears mentioning that it implies something even more troublesome.  In a society without public or private education systems and people who generally don't need to be able to read to go about their daily lives, the only thing in history proven to keep literacy high or even statistically significant is culture.  But Fallout 4's commonwealth has no culture, to value literacy or not.  So it's a newspaper printed with resources no one seems to pay for, written by someone who doesn't have to earn  a living, sold or given away to a readership which has no reason to exist.  It's governed by a mayor who apparently unilaterally forced out all the ghouls.  Putting aside how this ties into the idiotic non-reveal that he's a synth, it leaves a major question hanging.  What about those ghouls who are old enough to have valuable knowledge of pre-war technology, some of which Diamond City depends upon?  Remember, we're talking about a setting full of illiterate people with no culture so the only ones around who could fix the flood lights around the city (or any other such complex equipment) would be those who still had that knowledge from before the war.  So people just blindly acquiesced in the few people able to do such work being forcibly removed, never to return?  Why was the mayor given such unilateral power, how did he get it, could anyone challenge him, did no one speak up on behalf of the displaced residents?  Why do I get the suspicion this is the umpteenth time some random critic has put more thought into the setup of this game than the developers themselves?
    The super mutants are back.  I'd like to say that this ties nicely in with the Brotherhood showing up somehow.  Maybe they failed to contain them in the Capital and now they're charging North to round them up or just to find a place where they're not already completely out of control.  Maybe enough got away prior to the destruction of Vault 87 that they're still a viable threat despite not being able to reproduce.  But, no.  Nothing like that.  This is just one more way Fallout 4 feels like an island with respect to the rest of the series.  A black hole turning all points toward its collapsing singularity.  And it includes retcons.  Until Fallout 3 FEV, which is what turns people into Super Mutants, was a top secret pre-war experiment conducted at Mariposa.  It was first described in detail in Fallout 1.  The only source of the mutants was from the original Mariposa experiments.  Even the original Enclave in Fallout 2 didn't just have the stuff lying around to use for whatever purpose they saw fit.  They had to steal the contaminated, flawed, remains of it from Mariposa.  Then Fallout 3 happened and suddenly Vault-Tec was in on these experiments, because throwing away large parts of the setting you bought for the artistic credibility you can't muster for yourself is always a sensible move.  Then Fallout 4 made it worse.  As of Fallout 4 it seems everyone and their grandma had unrestricted access to FEV and Mariposa and West Tek's research.  This now includes The Institute, who needed decades and an uncounted body of kidnapped test subjects to learn what West-Tek learned before abandoning the project more than 200 years before the game starts.  Their fooling around with the stuff makes no sense in view that West Tek themselves viewed it as a dead letter for precisely the reasons The Institute would end up abandoning the project.  Speaking of the Institute...
    The biggest question hanging over The Institute is, 'why?'.  They're the Think Tank from Old World Blues minus the intelligence of writing or wit to not play them completely straight.  Why did someone think that was a good idea?  Their motive, such as it is, is completely ludicrous, their supposed attributes are never actually demonstrated.  Their capabilities are questionable at best.  They seem to have little idea what they're doing or why.  Why do they kidnap people, dip them, turn them into mutants and send them off willy-nilly into the Commonwealth?  This is never explained.  Why do they replace these people with Synths, some of whom don't actually know they're Synths?  Why have they spent colossal amounts of effort on learning things that they should already know?  Why do they take an active hand in manipulating regional politics instead of staying out of it to avoid drawing the very attention they claim to want to avoid?  If they're the most scientifically advanced body in the world, why have they been completely overtaken by other groups acting entirely several of one another, including a pack of senile lunatics in Arizona, the descendants of the crew of a Chinese submarine, a bunch of hippies from LA, and a pack of bureaucrats from California?  Why did they spend a great deal of effort to build or discover things which they should have already known?  I've tried to write a description of the plot hook used to give the player some possible reason to sympathize with this pack of idiotic psychos, but even describing it sounds like an indictment of the game's writers.  
    The Railroad is, without a doubt, the most ludicrous of the groups in the game.  Their entire existence hinges on everyone being a bunch of morons, themselves included.  This accidentally justifies the player's role in the story.  Everyone in the setting is either too stupid to tie their own shoelaces or they read the script.  One never gets the sense of ordinary (let alone extraordinary) human intelligence at work anywhere in the environment.  One railroad operative is the manager of the three caravans in the region.  Those same three caravans are staffed by Institute informants.  There's never so much as a hint that either is aware of the other's affiliations.  Neither the writing nor dialogue systems allow for that kind of open-ended generalized inquiry (we'll cover that later) nor does the game's mechanics bear this out in a substantial way.  They've got a hidden base with a clearly marked path from the Boston Common to its exact location, the lock on the door is a password and the password is 'Railroad'.  No, I'm not making that up.  Even if someone didn't randomly guess it, the markings on the path also tell the player the password.  Every interaction the player has with their network of informants suggests that it's completely rotten with double agents and few, if any, of their locations are ever safe, getting knocked over by raiders or hit by members of the Institute.  No one seems to like them or agrees with their goals, their agents are dangerously incompetent at best, their enemies treat with either contempt or indifference, and their preoccupation with freeing robots through dubious methods is both ethically questionable and impractical.  Their organization, as such, only does or accomplishes anything because the player wills it, much like the Minutemen.  Unlike the Minutemen, there isn't the flimsy justification.  They're just plain stupid, and the player has to play along with their stupidity if they want to help them.
    Fallout 4 is a practically bottomless pit of retcons.  Anytime something from a previous game comes up it's either totally or heavily reconsidered.  This turns the entire series into a black hole with Fallout 4 at the core of it.  Everything else gets destroyed as all questions of canon point to Fallout 4.  Discussing all the known retcons at length would dwarf the rest of this already overlong essay so I'll just point to a few items which go straight to Fallout: Tactics level of incompatibility:
-The Advanced Power Armor from Fallout 2, 3 and New Vegas gets renamed to X-01, and is no longer a postwar development at Poseidon off the coast of California.  Its presence in various places in the game implies it existed before the war.  This means that the entire history of how that armor came to be, and who created it, are effectively crossed out and no longer exist.  In effect, Fallout 2 never happened.
-Jet, which was invented by an amoral teenage pharmacist named Myron in New Reno in 2241, is now a pre-war drug that existed throughout the US and had the same street name for over two hundred years.  In effect, everything relating to Jet and how it was created no longer exists.
-Power Armor no longer has an internal power supply, instead requiring continuous support in the form of disposable batteries.  This is apparently how it always worked.  This means Fallout 1, 2, 3, and New Vegas never happened or the environment of Fallout 4 is stocked entirely with these mysterious inferior suits and for some reason the Brotherhood of Steel decided to switch to them despite the obvious, crippling, limitation it imposes on use of them.  It's clearly a lazy attempt at balance (in a game that has no sense of balance at all) that creates a massive plot hole with relation to the rest of the series.
-Vertibirds now existed before the war, for some reason, instead of being a game changing postwar innovation that gave the Enclave in Fallout 2 a massive edge over all other factions.  So that job the protagonist of Fallout 2 was hired to do by the Brotherhood of Steel to bring back Vertibird plans in exchange for directions to a GECK, the thing which drives most of the story?  It either never happened now or it makes no sense.
    It may seem that ire at cavalier mishandling of recondite details is unjustified but I offer a contrary position.  We're talking about a sequel.  Specifically we're talking about the fifth main entry in a series that has been running, off and on, for nearly twenty years now.  Bethesda didn't buy the rights to Fallout because they liked the word Fallout.  They were buying its cachet, its artistic credibility, and its historical importance.  The first Fallout was the spearhead of the revival of RPGs.  Without it, many classics in the genre would never have been made and most of the genre's history outside of dungeon crawlers, which reproduced the letter of RPGs while entirely losing their spirit, would not exist.  The best of Bioware's output was directly influenced by it and the financial successes of Fallout, Fallout 2 and Bioware's Baldur's Gate games likely helped ensure that Bethesda's own Morrowind didn't get the axe when Bethesda's finances were in dire straits.  Bethesda's contributions to the series stand to have worth only insofar as they meaningfully build on top of what came before.  Retcons are more than not doing that.  They're doing the opposite.  They cross out what came before as unworthy or insufficient, replaced with whatever whimsy should suit them now.  They're doing it to a series which helped make their careers possible and it reeks of severe ingratitude.  Fallout deserves better, as do the brilliant minds responsible for creating it.
    It is admittedly a little odd to tackle characterization after other aspects of writing, such as their mishandling of various lore obscura.  There's a good reason for it, though.  I didn't have a smart plan for tackling them earlier.  In no particular order, here are some characters who make no damn sense or are just horribly written.
    The protagonist's background is always just fixed enough to greatly mitigate roleplay to the point that it's all but impossible, while not ever being used in such a way as to give the character any real depth.  This isn't like playing Adam Jensen, JC Denton, Geralt of Rivia or The Nameless One.  Those developers (Eidos Montreal, Ion Storm Austin, CD Projekt RED and Black Isle, respectively) turned what could have been this very kind of weakness into a strength.  One of the key limitations of building RPGs is the resource issue.  Choices need consequences and feedback and even a few choices with possible branches can quickly grow exponentially to the point that there's no way to keep up on the development side.  Developing the character more, giving them some personality, allows for a pruning of the branches by the natural limitations of what a certain person wouldn't do, while still giving the player meaningful choice within that to say what the character might have done.
    It never really matters whether the player chooses man or woman.  The only live element to consider is whether one likes Brian Delaney or Courtenay Taylor better.  For my money Taylor handles the emotional scenes better, but Delaney does a better job of sounding casual and natural when he's given enough room.  In addition to the strange, stunted, dull delivery both actors deliver for most of their lines there's little actual depth to the characterization.  Once the prologue ends there's simply no substantial references to the pre-war background they spent so much effort putting front and center for the beginning.  The problem for the spouse, and not the protagonist, is that this lack of fleshing out extends also to basic character traits.  Trying to actually describe these characters is almost impossible.  Neither one seems to have any real hobbies, quirks of personality, nor do they play off each other well to give a sense of chemistry and connection.  Beyond 'what do these two people see in each other?' is another question, 'who are these two people?' and the game never really tries to answer either question, nor is the player given the tools to choose or create a real answer.  It's not hard, even in the restrictive format they gave themselves, to produce that kind of nuance but they chose not to.
    After getting raised by the dumbest pack of supergeniuses imaginable, the son turns into a complete sociopath.  It's not exactly unexpected, but it's such a blatantly obvious textbook case that it lacks any nuance, and said sociopathy also makes all of his behavior questionable or illogical.  If it's pointed out how hypocritical and contradictory it is to bemoan the Institute's reputation resulting from kidnapping, murder, inflitration, sabotage, and the use of proxies like Kellogg he'll try to deflect personal responsibility but, despite being his father/mother, the player is never able to drive the point home.  Even unfreezing the parent makes very little sense in the larger pattern of his goals, what with this protagonist being a  complete wild card, the son being a sociopath, and already having an army of killer robots at his disposal to do as he pleases.  It's as if the game is patting the player on the head for noticing and then saying, 'now stop noticing and go shoot some more mutants'.
    Kellogg isn't badly written so much as wasted.  A few minor edits to the prologue, a rework of the meeting with him, and he could have easily been in the running for most interesting companion and character in the game.  As written and used he's a throwaway character who is given a great deal of interesting character development after he is incapable of actually driving the plot forward.  Instead he's a pile of wasted potential and irrelevance, like much of the rest of the game.
    As for the DLC...there's documented plagiarism in Far Harbor.  That's unforgivable.  This studio had over a hundred million dollars, a studio sized team, and seven years in which to make a game.  They chose to rip off a group of fans working in their spare time instead.  Three of the DLCs are just added lists of workshop items, one of which contains a method for making ammunition that makes negative sense and so all three are really a colossal waste of the DLC launch window and the studio's time to have them doing something modders would have done, an additional one is another workshop list with a (very dumb) quest attached.  Finally, Nuka World is iconographical leg humping with lore holes abound and a combination of a premise so idiotic, execution so intelligence-insultingly bland, and a tone so insipid and patronizing that I couldn't finish it.  If I wanted to play a game that tries to make me feel like an ******* for playing it I'd play Spec Ops: The Line and snicker at all the parts where it's pretty obvious they cribbed their understanding of the works of Joseph Conrad from skimming Wikipedia and never read an actual word the man wrote.  Seeing all the parts where it's clear Bethesda skimmed Nukapedia articles (and didn't understand them, or understand why the community generally prefers The Vault over Nukapedia) instead of staffing the writing and design department with people actually knowledgeable about Fallout doesn't make me laugh because it's not funny.

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Regarding Skyrim's Disappointing Remaster
Posted on Sunday, November 6 2016 @ 19:18:20 PST

Skyrim Special Edition is a re-release, free to owners of the complete edition on Steam, a full retail release for PS4 and XBOne.  The PS4 release appears to be the best version of the bunch, especially when compared to the disastrous PS3 release.  The XBOne and PC releases are...not so hot.  Overall, the remaster job is a minimum-effort project that barely qualifies as such.  Skyrim was already looking old before it hit store shelves in 2011.  It requires no less than five separate, very large, mods to make it look like a 2011 release.  The 2016 release would still get a face lift if those same exact mods got applied to it right now.

Some of their problems are shared between all three versions but comparisons across console generations tend to make the PS4 version look better because, again, the PS3 release was an unmitigated disaster.  One area where the PS4 version gets the long end of the stick is in audio.  Specifically, the bizarre overcompressed and clipped audio on the XBOne and PC versions is not found on the PS4.  The result on those two platforms is a somewhat lifeless soundscape compared to the original, which could reliably fill up the channels to the extent that there was always a good ambient backdrop especially pleasant with good headphones.  The selection of sound effects tailored to environments gave a sense of tactility to them - one can tell by those sounds alone what type of environment the player is in at any given time.  Those sounds are still there but the lack of detail and range results in a functional, if less convincing, effect.  It's best to liken it to props in a stage play.  The new audio is a bit like going from full-scale three dimensional ones to simple cardboard cutouts.  The intended evocation is there but it's not convincing, it requires the player simultaneously notice the sounds, but not pay careful attention to them or take them at face value.

The visual department is where the game stumbles, seemingly endlessly.  The lighting improvements, though undeniably technologically superior to the original release, are still somewhat divisive.  On the one hand it handles soft shadows, global illumination and other effects very well, on the other hand most of what it does well or at least adequately was done far better by mods years ago.  There's also the aesthetic criticism surrounding the obvious attempt to ape The Witcher 3's lighting effects.  It doesn't look anywhere near as good as The Witcher 3 (and not just in lighting, there isn't a single thing in either version of Skyrim, mods or no, that looks even remotely as good as its Witcher 3 equivalent) and on the side manages to ravage the color palette intended for the game.  There are areas in Skyrim that are deliberately designed to look almost monochromatic.  It's a deliberate effect to mimic how extreme cloud cover can seemingly desaturate color.  This is utterly destroyed when the game is bathing those same areas in pastel light, making them look like they were loaded with test assets instead of being the thoroughly designed and prepared environments they are.  The real kicker in this is both what they didn't improve, and what they 'improved'.  There was no work done to improve animations, meshes, UV mapping, or most weather effects.  Seeing as those are the things that people generally notice look off first, it's a shame they didn't bother.  The one area where something obvious was done was texture work, and it was handled in almost the worst way imaginable.

The textures in Skyrim Special Edition are based on the X-Box 360 textures.  They used what appears to be either nearest neighbor or bilinear upsampling to upscale them.  This is a problem for a few reasons.  First, it looks like crap.  It's obvious that it was done due to the presence of noise in the textures.  Second, it wasn't necessary.  HD texture packs were released for PC which replace most of these new textures with something that isn't a horrible mess.  Third, and this is the part where the complaining gets a bit nitpicky, it doesn't look uniformly bad.  Some textures, such as dirt, cobblestone faces or the like, actually look better with the noise applied because it looks like the kind of roughness natural to those surfaces.  The lack of uniformity is also felt with textures that look like they received no treatment at all.  Fourth, this was a completely slapdash way to go about it.  A smarter way of doing the textures would be to go back to Bethesda Game Studios' original archives, get the master textures (which are too large to use normally) and compress them down to the desired resolution targets with Lanczos or Sinc filtering.  The result would look far better, have the exact same performance cost for end users, and would effectively future proof the base game for some time.  I have no idea why this was not done.  It's not as though Bethesda is strapped for cash - the original release of Skyrim made them something around a billion dollars.

Going a bit further, under the hood as it were, we see a mixture of serious improvement, mixed bags and wasted opportunities.  The most obvious improvement, especially for those who love extended mod setups that pushed the original release to the upper limit of the memory cap (originally 2GB, 4GB with a Large Address Aware mod, then 4GB for everyone, then 3.2GB with no LAA mod option because they broke it) is that the 64-bit executable that came with the Fallout 4 version of Creation Engine paid off very well.  No one's running out of memory anymore.  But, while we're on the subject of mods, they haven't apparently done anything for archive names.  A bit of an explanation: There can only be so many strings of characters in the total .bsa filenames before the game starts to thrash, the only solution for this is to either remove the archives entirely, alongside any other mods or software that requires them, or unpack the assets and use them as loose files, though this comes with problems of its own, including the issue of loading a large number of loose files into memory at once, and the issue that some mods are only meant to work with their assets stored in an archive.  The .bsa will contain things like textures, meshes, navmeshes and so on, so a mod-heavy setup is going to build quite a list of them.  On the other hand, it's hard to complain too much because they stuck with the original .bsa format instead of using the awful .ba2, with the mass of attendant headaches. 

The biggest wastes of opportunity are in bug fixes and structure.  Bethesda had a chance to greatly simplify Skyrim's file structure by collapsing the contents of the DLC packs into the base .bsa and .esm files keeping the counts for both to a minimum.  No one else can do this because they don't have access to the proprietary materials and tools needed to do it.  It isn't just for end users, it also gives them options they otherwise don't have due to the limitations of the file structure.  In this setup the DLC can 'talk' to each other directly in ways that are currently impossible, such as loading crossbows with Stahlrim bolts.  So there's a lot of advantages to doing it.  They didn't do it at all.  The files are in the same shape as they were when they last patched the game in 2013.  Running them through xEdit's cleaning filter returns identical fix counts, complete with the same exact number of unfixable elements.  Every single bug left in the game as of the last patch of the original version is still here, untouched.

I wasn't going in expecting an aggressive overhaul of the game's actual systems, given what Bethesda generally does in that direction I shudder to think.  No, Skyrim is still Skyrim but this doesn't feel like a definitive edition of the game in any sense.  It's a problem, for me, because I can't really recommend it as is.  Mods can already improve it but if someone is looking to use mods then the original release has a library about thirty times larger, with much more expansive and ambitious content, and communities like STEP have ironed out all the wiggle room for getting the most out of it already.  In the future, when a script extender comes out and mods which need it get ported, I can recommend it wholeheartedly.  Until then, I can't.  If you need to spend any money at all to play it I suggest you wait for now.

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The Last Guardian Goes Gold
Posted on Sunday, October 23 2016 @ 18:45:52 PST

Shuhei Yoshida sent out a tweet confirming that The Last Guardian has gone gold.  In other news a species of birds that oink, weigh about seven hundred pounds, have four legs with cloven hooves, snouts and curly tails have been discovered in and around the Minato Ward of Tokyo.  The best experts from Tokyo have assured this news desk that these two events are completely unrelated.

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Why Fallout 4 is Terrible Part 2: Writing
Posted on Monday, September 26 2016 @ 14:17:20 PST

    Fallout 4's writing, its use of it as a context for play and for informing design, is incredibly difficult to analyze quickly.  A thorough breakdown of every failing in its writing, from retcons to plot holes to broken cha...   read more...

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It's (Semi) Official: Bioware is Dead
Posted on Tuesday, September 13 2016 @ 17:25:28 PST

Today, at EA's website, an announcement by Andrew Wilson, CEO of EA, declared that Bioware, Maxis, and their mobile division will be merged into a single entity called 'EA Worldwide'.  This announcement, just six months in advance of...   read more...

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Why Fallout 4 Is Terrible Part 1: Technology
Posted on Tuesday, September 6 2016 @ 11:24:11 PST

"Lasciate Ogne Speranza Voi ch'intrate" --Dante Alighieri
    This is not really a review of Fallout 4  so much as it is a post-mortem of the game's launch, support cycle, DLC cycle and current state n...   read more...

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Rumor: Trademark Filed for Fallout New Orleans
Posted on Monday, August 15 2016 @ 12:27:25 PST

The ever-diligent Fallout subreddit picked up a short article from Australian game blog Press Start, titled rather simply 'Fallout New Orleans Trademarked'.  In it, the post links to a seemingly above board trademark filing with the info...   read more...

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Metroid 2 Fan Remake AM2R Releases on Metroid Anniversary (Update)
Posted on Saturday, August 6 2016 @ 18:42:10 PST

Today, August 6, 2016, sees the first version release of 'Another Metroid 2 Remake' version 1.  It's a free remake of the Gameboy classic on PC which incorporates some features from later 2D Metroids for smoother control.


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Metroid Is Officially 30 Today
Posted on Saturday, August 6 2016 @ 11:31:52 PST

On August 6, 1986, the first Metroid released for the Famicom.  30 years have passed, and it's been a bumpy ride, but it's definitely a series with many solid entries.  The good ones, including Retro's wonderful Prime trilogy, a...   read more...

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The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Bethesda Game Studios Part 2
Posted on Wednesday, July 13 2016 @ 17:39:00 PST

I honestly wish I didn't have cause to write this post.  I've given Bethesda a very hard time in my comments on this site and elsewhere for their lack of originality, my genuine and severe dislike of their approach to design, and their i...   read more...

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