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Welcome Back to the West
By oneshotstop
Posted on 08/01/16
The only thing that stops the dust is the rain. It’s a sweet reprieve, but there is no middle ground. The land is either as dry as the Betty Ford clinic, or as wet as the ocean floor. Everything can be seen from the ridge overlooking Armadillo as John Marston gently bounces along atop...


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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 characterization to a setting which makes very little sense on even mild scrutiny and everything in between, could go on practically forever.  The failures in Fallout 4's writing aren't isolated; they weave together, producing additional problems in how the broken individual bits relate to a larger, even more disjointed whole.  The preceding paragraph is a sufficient identification of the kind of problems it has but it lacks the flavor and depth of actual description.  For those interested, I warn the following section is of rather unwonted length.
    Writing in Fallout 4 is generally bad.  It's not that it's poor in prose styling (it is poor in prose styling but that's largely irrelevant) but that it is incoherent and lacks a solid grasp on the medium, its setting, its genre, or what theme - if any - that is meant to drive the game.  The writing, in this respect, reflects every other aspect of the game.  It's a cornucopia of tropes, flowing over with a variety that lacks any coherent center that drives it in some direction.  The ingredients are there but they don't get mixed properly and the result is devoid of composition.  It shouldn't be controversial to say that the writing of Bethesda's two Fallout games is way off the tone of the others.  Where Fallout 1, 2, and New Vegas (hereafter collectively refered to as 'the old school') use black comedy to leaven an otherwise incredibly bleak experience, Fallout 3 and 4 use slapstick and random gags to disguise a lack of any real meaning in the endless, repetitive, badly designed violence that drives their games.  Because that's all their Fallout games are at the end of the day.  They're parades of violence with the barest of pretexts stitched on to hide it.  This is one of the most bitter contrasts between 3 and 4 and the old school.  In the old school the violence was a natural product of the loss of civilization, law and order, and the low opportunity costs for violent or otherwise criminal behavior.  It happened because circumstances both encouraged it and were more permissive of it so its manifestations were logical products of that.  The player was invited to think about it and what it implied about the human condition.  This in turn was a means to the end of making the setting and the game more grounded and realistic amid all the ray gun science fiction.  In Fallout 3 and 4 the violence is an end in itself.  They can reiterate 'war never changes' until they're blue in the face but they've never once indicated the slightest grasp of its meaning.
    Fallout 4 opens in one of the most hilariously wrongheaded ways imaginable.  It starts before the war.  It depicts the pre-war world as a kind of wonderland of high-tech 50s nostalgia.  Right out of the starting gate everything is wrong.  The tone is wrong.  Pre-war America was a Hellhole.  This was continuously established across all previous games, in any and every way that America just before the bombs fell ever came up it was always reinforced that it was a place that had gone as far as it could, had degraded into a totalitarian nightmare of brainwashing, resource shortages, perpetual war, cultural stagnation and blind lurching toward nuclear brinkmanship.  Further, the wallowing in 50s nostalgia is fundamentally off.  Fallout was never about the 50s.  Nor was it about 50s American values.  It was about the kind of future that Americans of the 50s imagined, looked forward to, and believed in.  It set about showing how utterly rotten that future would actually be.  It's a deconstruction of a set of ideas, not a critique or satire of a specific historical period.  Bethesda never understood that nor the difference between the two.  Anyhow, during this tone-deaf introduction that plays havoc with the setting (we'll get back to that, dear reader!) we're introduced to our spouse, son, and robot butler.  Of the three the robot butler has all the charisma and none of the drawbacks, mostly because Stephen Russell does Yeoman work with bad material.  The son looks like a cheap doll and the spouse has no chemistry with the protagonist.  Then vault tec rep (that's actually his name, he doesn't have an actual name, you see, it's supposed to be symbolic somehow) shows up, you allocate your stats (they kind of don't matter) and pick a name for your character, then you stand around, console your kid, hear the bad news about the war finally going fully hot, run to the nearby vault, watching a nuclear explosion go off as you descend the elevator, sit through one of those needlessly elongated loading screens, inside the vault you're manipulated into getting turned a human popsicle in a cryopod, you wake up some unspecified time later, can't do anything but watch as your spouse gets shot for no good reason while two mysterious jerks in hazard suits abduct your son and Keythe Farley ominously growls, "at least we have the backup," and then you get frozen again.  Then you wake up again, this time the pod opens, and the game finally starts proper, with the player having to kill about a dozen radroaches to get out of the Vault and from there you can pick up the plot thread or ignore it.  The sandbox is open now.
    Let's talk about this introduction.  Before we get to the heavy part, let's just talk about pacing.  Fallout 4's intro has terrible pacing.  It wastes a great deal of the player's time.  The old school got the job done quickly.  Fallout 1 took all of two minutes of Overseer briefing plus a small cave to get the player out into the wild doing their thing.  The cave is an applied lesson in what the player would have learned from reading the manual, which was expected and customary back in the '90s.  Fallout 2 had the Temple of Trials which was, admittedly, overlong compared to Fallout 1' s intro, especially in view that the game dates to a time when players were expected to fully read the manual before so much as inserting the disc into the drive.  A further problem with it is that it affected the flow of experience and equipment upgrades for the early game.  It still has better pacing than Fallout 3 or 4.  Then New Vegas takes about the same amount of time as 1, and what's more important is that it doesn't really 'gate' player activity.  As soon as the player leaves Doc Mitchell's office, all the breaks are off.  It's possible to break almost the entire narrative sequence in under an hour.  Fallout 4, at about the hour mark, will have you just leaving the Vault for the first time.  There are other problems with the introduction.  Problems which make it an incoherent mess and suggest possible plot threads or branches which got arbitrarily cut off for no good reason.  First, the depiction of the pre-war world.  It's completely at odds with everything established about the setting.  Second, despite staring straight at a nuclear blast, the character's vision is in no way affected (staring directly at a blast at that distance would result in severe - potentially permanent - retinal damage) and neither the heat nor the gamma radiation (which both travel at the speed of light) apparently affected anyone standing on the platform.  Third, the timing of all the events is beyond suspect.  Everything happens conveniently right on top of each other, with no hitches, surprises or sudden left turns.  It's almost as if it were a crude facsimile of a real memory designed by someone who had only vague data about how a nuclear blast happens and designed it to trick someone into thinking they were someone they were not.  There are two reasonable explanations as to why this is the case.  Either the writers are terrible or the main character is a synth and this pre-war experience is a carefully stylized illusion as a form of programming to set up expected behavior.  If the former is the case then the writers are just bad and that's that.  If the latter then they bit off more than they could chew and wrote a pretentious, sniveling, nihilistic waste of the player's time.  This most likely means it was a possible outcome of the player's personal story but got dropped at some point with chunks of the material left in.  The result is an incoherent mess.  The intro makes little sense and is flatly at odds with established background, while the player character's identity is suspect.  It's the worst of both worlds because Bethesda's attempts at ambiguity always tend to go this way.  They try to make a situation complex and difficult but just end in making it stupid, as were the cases with Sierra Petrovita, Tenpenny Tower and the novitiate priest in Fallout 3.  Another possibility worth considering is that the entire pre-war background setup may have been some kind of late addition to the script.  The only references to it after the prologue that come to mind were all in the E3 presentation.  The protagonist never makes much in the way of mention of, say, prewar trips to Fenway, commonplace knowledge from before the war which is now lost or even personal knowledge of their professions that might be relevant.  The lawyer wife sits through a condescending lecture on elementary Latin that she herself could have given being a lawyer, the combat veteran husband has to take terrible tactical advice from incompetent fools who destroyed their own organization through sheer ineptitude.  It insults the character and the player alike.
    So, having escaped the vault our protagonist is told to head home by the user interface.  When they get there, a conversation with Codsworth (which doesn't make a lot of sense) leads them to Concord, a setpiece, and five of the stupidest characters ever written.  So they're trapped inside the museum of history by a group of raiders (it's not clear why such a large group of raiders felt the need to harass five dispossessed nobodies, nor is it ever made clear what they were doing in Concord other than waiting to get shot and mauled by wild animals) and can't leave the way they came.  Instead, they want the player to activate a suit of power armor that's been conveniently sitting up there on the roof for 210 years, next to a vertibird which crashed into the roof (and existed 210 years ago, we'll get to that later) and in order to do this the player must use a completely non-extraordinary set of skills to retrieve a fusion core to power the suit (which was never necessary before) and use a similarly non-extraordinary set of skills to activate and use the suit.  We know all these skills are not extraordinary because we see random NPCs using them all the time.  So their sitting around and waiting for the player to miracle along and solve all their problems for them really doesn't add up.  The player is also expected to believe that no one else with the same basic survival skills that everyone else seems to have has ever happened upon this spot, in 210 years, and got the bright idea of making off with the suit and minigun.  This entire scene is a bunch of big stretches, is what I'm getting at.  Anyhow, the suit is activated, minigun pulled, bad guys fried, a Death Claw pops up and the player has to likely burn through the remaining Minigun ammo and some other ammo besides to get the job done.  The Deathclaw pops out of the underworks of Concord but it's not clear, on further inspection, how the Deathclaw (which is about the size of a grizzly bear) got down there in the first place, what it was doing down there, or why it did what it did so suddenly.  The party of random misfits makes off to Sanctuary Hills (what's left of your old home) and in gratitude for saving their hides and finding them a safe place to live instead of running them off what is still technically the player's property the player is rewarded with the obligation to house, feed and protect them.  This involves some 'go kill some random nameless people' quests and of course interacting with the game's awful inventory and building interfaces.  Other than XP there's not much in the way of substantive benefit and the whole thing is ultimately a big, meaningless, distraction.  It doesn't advance the plot at all, nor does it really help shape the player's relationship with the setting any better, and it introduces the obvious question 'if any random jerk can come along and do this, why is this place such a Hellhole?' and it feels like something slapped together after installing New Vegas' Real Time Settler mod with less actual design work than that mod has, but I'll wait until discussing Far Harbor to actually accuse Bethesda of plagiarism.  The player can not engage, can forge ahead with the plot, can get involved at least enough to get some directions on where to go next.  The next stop is Diamond City, which feels like equal parts bad ideas and wasted opportunities on careful examination but it seems this is a good place to put the plot inquiry on hold.  The problem with trying to dissect the flaws in Fallout 4's writing is that a similarly painstaking and verbose approach is needed, from the player's arrival in Diamond City to the various endings.  There's simply no way around it and by the time it's done it would be longer than an average novel.  As I'm not making any money doing this and my desire to enjoy my leisure time still exceeds my contempt for Bethesda I'll not go any further.  Tune in next time for even more recondite complaints!

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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 Andromeda's release, on the heels of the closure of their official forums, with the nigh-impossibility of finding accurate statistics on the sales of Dragon Age: Inquisition, can only mean one thing.  Bioware is done.

You can read the eulogy major announcement here.

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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 nearly ten months after launch.  Another way of putting it is a digest of the game's faults.  Fallout 4 is a thoroughly broken game in many ways with a number of obvious and not-so-obvious flaws and basically bad design concepts at work in it which undermine it so there will be a lot to talk about.  I wish to break it down according to a few sections for clarity and simplicity because there is no one thing wrong with Fallout 4.  There are many things wrong on many levels and it all weaves together to produce an overall package of failed design.  Broadly speaking the game's problems break down into two classes, the technical and the artistic.  A third class of problems has its own sources and also emerges out of the other two.  Many problems in one area affect many things in other areas in a kind of design imitation of the perspective effect of Escher's Ascending and Descending.  It's dizzying just how complicated this game's flaws can be.  In today's segment, we'll discuss some technological flaws which weaken the experience and otherwise inhibit functional play.     For some reason, which is unfathomable to the present author, Fallout 4 uses CPU core 1 for calculating all shadows.  That same CPU core is the one handling all the other instructions the game sends, as well as all OS tasks.  The consequence being that any area with a high number of shadows bottlenecks the CPU and turns dynamic lighting effects of any kind into a massive resource hog.  Leaving these problems for the GPU would have solved this and removed the bottleneck.  For some reason, Bethesda seems allergic to letting the GPU do much of anything, really.  This is especially evinced in how they handle Mipmapping.
    Mipmapping is an older method for saving on visual processing power at the cost of a higher memory footprint for texture maps.  By storing multiple resolutions of the same texture (sampled from the original high resolution master) and using them as needed, the need for certain kinds of processing and post-processing is greatly cut down.  However, as with the shadows, Bethesda have resolved to utilize this technology in the most bizarre, obtuse, and unnecessarily heterodox way imaginable.  Instead of loading the textures into memory and letting the driver sort out the mip values on its own (like almost every other game running on PC that used mipmaps ever did) the mip values themselves are stored in the .ba2 file.  This leaves the video card with one less task to handle.  It's one more set of instructions needlessly cut out of the loop.  Meanwhile, because of the way mip values work, the lower resolution sample getting swapped out for a higher resolution sample (this happens as you approach objects, higher and higher resolution samples get loaded and if you get close enough the master should load) is much more resource intensive than it needs to be - the sample texture has to get dumped, and a higher mip level loaded.  The pipeline for doing this appears to be poorly designed and built because one will almost constantly see muddly low resolution textures up close, see them slowly phase back up to master value, and so on.  Letting the drivers handle the mipmaps directly would certainly improve performance and stability.  The only practical reason for going this route is that it cuts down on load times.  But this is a rather asinine solution to a problem they don't seem to actually want to solve.
    Load times in Fallout 4 are intentionally artificially lengthened.  This is done so the player can...stare at load screens.  The ones that pop up on average every five to ten minutes of play.  Removing the loading delays results in areas coming through in as little as three seconds (compared to an average normal load of twenty seconds) and the difference adds up if we consider that the average Fallout 4 playthrough is about 150 hours long.  If the average load time is about 20-30 seconds normally, and the average player encounters a load screen once every five minutes that's about twelve load screens an hour or up to six minutes of loading per hour.  Across 150 hours of play time 15 of those hours are loading screens.  Loading screens that are often glitched.
    Static meshes, otherwise known as brushes in map maker lingo, are non-movable three dimensional objects made up of a polygonal mesh with a texture map.  Placing and editing them is normally a relatively simple process.  However, Fallout 4 does incorporate a lighting model which imposes a hefty performance burden if it's not meticulously optimized to use the least amount of resources necessary.  Where these two data points crash into each other, and a problem emerges, is in how Bethesda decided to get the GPU/CPU loads under control.  Instead of finding a way to use the GPU intelligently on PC they used a bit of a cheat.  They baked the meshes, along with their lighting data, into the cell itself.  This does have numerous advantages - it cuts down on CPU/GPU load signficantly, allows additional tricks for especially complex areas and somewhat more freedom for laying out physical space.  However, it's akin to treating a mild rash on the knee by cutting off the leg.  With mesh data now baked in as part of the Frankensteinian revision to the lighting model there's now no practical way to modify meshes globally.  So, let's say a specific mesh, a certain type of lamp post, has a broken model (the vertices aren't all set up right, resulting in an 'open' polygon or one with four sides, or the polygons are just laid out wrong for the texture map, it sets up the texture to be used incorrectly resulting in 'smearing' or 'tearing' or just unnecessarily large memory footprint) and this adversely affects performance as long as any cell currently loaded into memory uses it.  Fixing it is simple, a small geometry edit and you're good.  But the problem is that these fancy new lighting tools actually create a new burden for doing even such a small edit as that.  Instead of going to the .BSA or .BA2 or whatever and editing it directly, each and every instance of that particular mesh must be redone.  But wait!  There's more!  Because the old, broken, mesh had to have its lighting data baked into the cell, a new bake has to be done for the whole cell in every single cell containing that particular defective mesh.  This means that any patch or mod looking to fix or improve on broken meshes and texture maps, Skyrim Mesh Improvement Mod style, must also include the new bakes with the download.  The result is that even a small set of edits will quickly mount up in file size.  Given that Bethesda's problems with mesh construction, UV mapping and placement are much more extensive than a single defective lamp post, a comprehensive SMIM style overhaul would quickly grow in file size to rival the entire game's installation directory.  As bad as it is for mods it also hamstrings professional development.  For these sorts of problems an ounce of prevention is now equal to a metric ton of cure.  The problem is that Bethesda's QA process is woefully inadequate to provide such prevention, and slobbering fanboys eating up their every offering like it's the last meal before the restaurant shuts down for good means they have no incentive to improve the only feasible way to avoid a problem that will only get worse as time goes by.
    In addition, these seem to be desperate measures to solve a problem that does not need to exist.  The best way to improve performance and stability in any of their games is to replace the built-in memory allocation with a generic C MALLOC or an OS-specific one.  The gains are instantly noticeable.  Load times get shorter, performance targets improve, crashes are less frequent, and the differences are not small.  They're massive.  Anyone who has ever used the heap replacement functions in New Vegas Anti-Stutter, or Meh321's Crash fixes mod for Skyrim can attest to it.   For a game which relies on so many scripts, it's absurd that there is no built-in sanity checking to prevent unresolvable scripts from turning into memory leaks or just plain crashing the game.  This has been a problem, literally, for three console generations.  It's been an engine-level problem since Morrowind.  If this problem were a person it could legally drive a car and vote.
    At this point I'd like to introduce a possible explanation why these bizarre problems exist and have a seemingly impeccable habit of either subverting some other design goal or just plain drag the whole experience down.  This explanation is simple: the game was not built with a strong, unified voice.  The technological problems are reminiscent of the flaws in tools designed by committee.  One part of the committee went to a great deal of trouble to build visually attractive loading screens with detailed lore messages written on them.  They wanted the player to look at them.  Another part of the committee wanted the game to load quickly at all costs, including to live performance, and that part of the committee was in direct odds with the ones who wanted the load screens to last as long as possible.  Meanwhile at some point, physically based rendering, volumetric lighting, global illumination and god rays became must-have features in the final release.  They were becoming big deals in the industry at the time and games like The Witcher 3 were showing off just what was possible with them (as an aside, post downgrade Witcher 3 looks far better than Fallout 4 in every sense and has more modest hardware requirements - I guess when you purchase it you secretly download a tiny vodka-powered slavic elf in a track suit who furiously runs from transistor to transistor on the GPU ensuring perfect performance and timing while shouting 'Kurwa!' with his microscopic lungs - it's either that or Bethesda's programmers are bad at their jobs because mod makers routinely do much better work) so at some point those features got jawboned in and the poor memory management meant that severe concessions needed to be made for it to not completely destroy performance on even SLI-Titan X rigs at launch.  So they did things to the game that would make it much harder to mod, even though modding the games is pretty much the top-and-bottom of their long-term.  Bethesda's games, especially New Vegas and Skyrim, have such insanely long tails to their sales curves mostly composed of PC users because of mods.  Anything which interferes with it is a threat to the game's long term viability in the market place.  One could keep on with this, a cascading series of self-defeating decisions, but some of it belongs in other sections (like how Bethesda's staggering incompetence has torn the mod community in half with the service little more than an intellectual property fence shop) but other bits are simply repitition.  It's a case of the snake eating its tail.
    As we get away from technology and into the art and design, it becomes necessary to compare it to previous entries more and more.  There's no getting away from it.  If a sequel wants to wear a brand on its sleeve, it has to earn it.  Otherwise the name is pleonastic at best and an insult to the previous entries at worst.

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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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The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Bethesda Game Studios
Posted on Sunday, July 10 2016 @ 20:14:31 PST

I've not reviewed Fallout 4, yet, and I might get around to it some day.  Until then I'm most likely going to chuck gravel at Bethesda's increasingly crack-brained approach to design and technology.  Today is for technology.

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System Shock Remaster Hits Funding Goal
Posted on Saturday, July 9 2016 @ 10:01:09 PST

On Saturday, July 9, Nightdive Studios' Kickstarter for a System Shock remake reached its funding goal.  The goal was reached with 19 days to spare and additional funding now goes to stretch goals.

Nightdive is perhaps best kn...  

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Six Other Games Which Did Not Measure Up
Posted on Sunday, July 3 2016 @ 07:58:13 PST

Jeb Haught wrote an article about ten games which failed to meet expectations they'd raised.  So here's six more.

-Bioshock Infinite

Five years of development to create an overproduced arena shooter with wor...   read more...

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