Fallout 76 is Challenging my Expectations

I bought this game the day before it came out so I could play with my roommates and friends. I played it the first night people could access the servers and not much since then, thanks to National Novel Writing Month. That being said, most of what I’ve learned about the game has been from my solo playing after the brief introduction with my friends and from watching my roommates play it. Well, plus reading about it online because it is currently the internet’s favorite thing to love to hate right now. While I don’t have as many hours as I’d normally like in the game before reviewing it, I really think that it needs to be talked about.

First of all, it plays like pretty much every other Fallout game. There are a bunch of minor variations, like V.A.T.S. (the auto-targeting system that lets you use character stats to shoot or hit things instead of your ability to aim) not pausing time and jumping costing Action Points, but those seem like fairly obvious concessions necessitated by the change from a single-player game to an online multi-player game. You can’t pause the world if someone on the map is using V.A.T.S. and it’s unreasonable to expect the developers to find a way to pause time for only your character. Other than those two things, it feels remarkably like Fallout 4. Maybe even disappointingly like Fallout 4, since I was really hoping for a change in color. You get bored with browns and washed out blues or greens. I was hoping for some orange and yellows, maybe, or some vibrant color variants. It is a solid entry in the same vein of most Fallout games, simply trading one contrived plot for another, one vault for another, and one location for another. Which isn’t a bad thing, mind you. I quite enjoy all the Fallout games even if I tend to get bored of the endless side missions and weird power curves before long.

The biggest downside to this being a standard entry in the Fallout line of games is the number of bugs. There have been tons of them and even the most forgiving players would characterize Fallout 76’s first month as a “rough start.” That being said, it’s still managed to pull off a multiplayer online game while avoiding all of the worst problems. Griefing people is difficult, since the Player versus Player combat rules require two consenting adults to shoot at each other before removing a huge set of damage reductions on either character. It is still possible, of course, but there’s no way to stop a determined player from griefing someone if they want to. The lack of a good, in-game reporting feature is concerning, but the fact that they can real-time track every player, who is doing what events, and how your individual actions might set up the environment for a player passing through later is monumental. We expect it because we’ve been spoiler by online multiplayer games that are good at faking it, but we actually get the whole thing here. There have been myriad issues with the gameplay itself, things like players getting trapped in their Power Armor or the one player whose character is unable to die. There are a lot more bugs attributed to the game acting weird than issues arising from it being an online game, which has so far shocked no one but the people who’d never played a Fallout game before this one.

The internet has been going on about this game a lot. Most people seem to absolutely hate it or love it, which seems to be a theme of internet culture these days. Everything is all of one thing or it’s all of the other. There’s no room for middle-ground or change over time, everything either sucks or is the greatest. To be fair to the haters, Bethesda kinda deserves it. There have been issues with pre-orders, people feel like they were misled about the game they were getting, some of the pre-order people received sub-standard items with their pre-orders, and people feel like the game is limiting them from actually enjoying their online experience because of the rough start to the game’s release. At the same time, not all of the criticism is as valid as the rest. Advertising a canvas bag in one of the top-tier pre-orders and sending a low-quality nylon bag instead is dumb. They either should have had the prototypes and pricing done before they advertised, or they should have sucked up the cost and given people what they were promised.  Being mislead about the game they were getting isn’t really valid. Sure, people expected a fully finished game on launch, but I think people’s expectations are wrong in this case, especially seeing how the video game industry has changed over the years.

Sure, there’s the basic change of development from risk-taking hobbyists to corporate profit-chasers that has resulted in micro-transactions and a “new” Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty game every year, but that’s about how the industry makes its money and what sort of staple games appear. What I’m talking about is the way games are delivered and what is handed to us when we download it. Back in the day, there wasn’t a way for games to get an update so they’d take a few years to create despite being relatively simple. No amount of computer tools makes a 3D model easier to create and animate than a sixteen-bit pixel model and every level in an old game was a two-dimensional surface with shading to give it a sense of depth. The games took longer and were as complete as possible when they reached our hands because they had to be. The games that weren’t that good have gone down in history as being enormous flops or cult classics. Sure, everyone probably remembers the Missingno trick from Pokemon Red and Blue, but not every realizes that doing it wrong or making a poor choice at any time could have really screwed up your game. I mean, I played Majora’s Mask for a week, trying to get to the first save point before my game froze on the N64 and I only ever saw it as a challenge I had to overcome. Our expectations were different back then. The only games that were “perfect” where the ones that were too simple to mess up, and even most of those had bugs or exploits for whoever went looking for them. At some point, we got it into our heads that games had to be perfect when they come out and it’s ruining our ability to enjoy perfectly playable if buggy games.

In addition to that, the product being delivered to us has changed.  Gone are the days when we expected a game to stay exactly the same as when we bought it. There are still some games like that out there, but most of our big games change overtime. Almost all of our online multiplayer games shift as time passes, introducing new events and story tidbits for us to enjoy. Look at Destiny 2. The game has an entire year of additional content planned. Most of it isn’t story content or anything that’s really going to change the game for us (we already got our big chunk of story content and changes to the game this year, so that’s all for us until the next expansion), but it’s still new activities and weapons and so on. Look at World of Warcraft and the way they spread the pieces of a new expansion out over the course of several months. Look at literally every multiplayer online game out there. We, as consumers, have grown to expect this, and yet the entire customer base loses their shit when a game isn’t perfect the minute it releases. For whatever reason, we love a story that unfolds over months but can’t stand a game that transforms from a basic, ambitious concept to a fully realized constantly developing world that ceaselessly incorporates community feedback in its decisions about what to do next? That’s ridiculous.

I think that we, as a whole, need to cool our jets and just enjoy the alright Fallout game we’ve got as the development teams continues to improve it. It is far from unplayable and the fixes they’re delivering are a sign that they’re listening to what the community wants, even if they’re slower about responding to it than we’d like. People should just play what they can and give the game a chance to live up to our expectations rather than trying to shut it down the moment it fails to conform to our desires. I think people will be presently surprised at how much the game has grown if they return to it in the spring.

This Week’s Theme isn’t Evolving at all!

In keeping with this week’s unofficial theme, let’s talk about Evolve! Matthew Colville worked for Turtle Rock Studios as a writer on the creative team that designed the world and many of the core aspects of what would eventually become the asymmetrical multiplayer game, Evolve. The world was incredibly interesting and the core concept was novel, so pre-release reactions to the game were very positive. It even sold well when it came out, but it was plagued by a variety of problems that ultimately lead to its demise and the shut-down of its servers a couple of years after release.

The basic plot of the game is that you and your allies are a squad of monster killers that are occasionally called in to protect an at-risk Human colony on a new planet. The planet in question, Shear, seemed like a great place at first, but the colonies were eventually attacked by native inhabitants that showed the ability to quickly evolve in response to whatever defenses the Humans mounted. In each mission, you and your three human allies are tasked with taking out the monster. The monster, another human player, is tasked with killing all of the hunters or completing an objective (destroy a particular part of a facility or something like that). It is possible to play with fewer than 5 human players as you can set up a game with one to four AI players, but the main mode of play is online with a group of humans.

In concept, the game was a lot of fun. The battles were interesting and, though every game I played ended with the hunters winning, it was still a lot of fun to play the monster since there aren’t many games out there that have a similar style. It can be really fun to basically play hide-and-go-seek with a bunch of people online. It can also be incredibly frustrating if they always, unerringly hunt you down before you have a chance to even get established. Or if they seem to always find you as you find a hidey-hole in which to begin the annoyingly slow process of “evolving” so that you’re forced to give up your progress and flee only for it to happen again the next time you think you’re safe. Or if you wind up playing two dozen matches in row as the monster since none of your friends play the game and solo-queuing seems to always mean getting stuck as the monster.

There were a lot of problems once you got past the novelty of the game. You needed a bunch of dumb, negligent players on the hunter side of things for the monster to win and I don’t think I ever won as the monster and won maybe half of the matches I played as a hunter because my fellow hunters seemed to be incapable of working together or rudimentary communication. My hunter teams would almost always start to fall apart as soon as we started losing. Everyone ran off in their own direction, certain they alone knew what to do, and got picked off by the monster who was able to easily take us down when we separated. In short, it was every problem you’ve ever faced with online multiplayer compounded by a higher-than-average frequency of one-sided fights.

All that is without mentioning the various exploits and bugs that showed up every few weeks. The developers didn’t update very frequently (which we eventually learned wasn’t the fault of the developers but the publishing company who wouldn’t put out updates more than once every few months), so a lot of exploits and broken gear/abilities/etc stayed around long enough to make it difficult to play against.

Most of the problems could have been fixed with enough software patches and a better response from the PR team of the publisher, but they seemed very uninterested in trying to please their customers once the game had achieved commercial success. I’m sure there’s most to it than a simple money grab from the studio that published the game, but that’s what it felt like at the time and it is ultimately why I stopped playing the game.

Looking into it now, after I discovered that Matthew Colville was a part of the creation of this game and did some research since the way I felt everything played out didn’t seem to jive with the way he acted in his videos and various online accounts, I’ve learned a lot. Originally, the game team was put together to create an alien world and that’s what they did. Incredible art, different modes of evolution, how species adapt to their environment, and so much more came out of their first years of work. It wasn’t until about two years of this research and development had passed that they learned the game was going to take the form we got: asymmetrical shooter. If it had been an exploration game or a team shooter against only computers, that would have been another thing entirely. I would have loved the shit out of the game if it hadn’t been so heavily dependent on the only PvP multiplayer.

It was nice to learn that the game they poured their hearts into wasn’t the game we got. I can only imagine how disappointed the team was when they learned what all their research and work was going to turn into. From some of Matthew Colville’s posts on the matter, it sounds like they didn’t get much of a choice in the matter since no one at the publisher believed that an exploration or PvE game would sell enough to pay for the development and distribution costs. I’m pretty sure a lot of people who have bought that and the studio would be swimming in all the money they got from it if they’d actually delivered the game the writers and artists had spent two years creating. It would have been like what No Man’s Sky could have been if it hadn’t been hyped so idiotically when it was still clearly far from complete.

Honestly, as the game slowly winds its way to complete shutdown (the servers are being turned off for good in september), I’ve gone back to play it a couple of times. It still isn’t the game I would like it to have been and I’ve spent more time waiting for a match than actually playing it, but I can see the game the development studio wanted to make in the background. Knowing what it could have been makes it a little more fun to play since I’m more focused on that than the outcome of the matches, but it leaves me sad once the match is over because I feel like I’m missing out on what would have been an amazing opportunity.

Until September of 2018, the game is free to play for anyone who downloads it. If you want a glimpse into what is an amazing world and what could have been a game to remember a few decades on, download it and play a few matches, even if it’s just with a bunch of bots. You might be frustrated, but you won’t be disappointed.

The End of a Long Road

The road was long and the directions did not always make sense. Despite it, he prevailed. It took years, many false starts, innumerable dead-ends, and more moments of hopelessness than he cared to remember. Finally, after everything he went through, he had reached his destination.

He walked through the empty city, admiring the towering structures that he had thought he’d only see in his dreams and trying to imagine what it would look life a year from now, when it was filled with people.

It took everything he had to keep himself from being overwhelmed by excitement. He wandered from one landmark to the next, checking them out as he passed and doing his best to stay calm as the city matched everything he’d always imagined.

Of course, it wasn’t entirely perfect. The entire city was in ruins, but that didn’t excuse the misaligned walls he found and the scattered bugs throughout. Nothing major of course, since the fact the city was a ruin hid most of them from even the most dedicated observer. He made some notes, but knew they’d need to wait.

Finally, it was time to leave. He’d be back eventually. He’d never be away for long, that was for sure. For now, though, it was time to leave and let everyone else in. He glanced at the timer overhead and decided to stick around a bit. Seconds after the timer expired, the first person showed up. A scant few seconds later, two more people blinked into existence around the first one.

“Have fun!” He smiled at their bewildered expressions and then logged out. After taking off his headset and gloves, he tapped a few commands on his computer and sat back to watch the active user counter quickly climb toward one million.

Talking to Strangers on the Internet

When I was growing up and first got to use the internet, one of the biggest rules I was given was that I could not talk to strangers on the internet. Around that time, tales of child abductions, predators, and catfishing had started to gain prominence, so my parents’ concern makes sense. It made sense back then, too, because I wasn’t supposed to talk to real-life strangers, so why should I be able to talk to internet strangers?

The funny thing is, now there are entire platforms for talking to strangers. Randomly-paired video and/or text chat, Twitter, Imgur, Reddit, Facebook… Pretty much everywhere you can go to on the internet, it will have an endless stream of strangers you can talk to. Sometimes, you even wind up making friends. One of my closest friends in my freshman year of college was someone who was a friend of a friend of a friend, that I’d maybe seen in person once. In the entire time we talked and were close friends, we met in person once, when I was back from college for winter break and we wanted to be able to stop making jokes about either one of us being a fat old man in a fake mustache.

Hell, even most video games pair you with strangers these days and all the team-based ones require some degree of communication, even if you only ever use emotes/macros to ask for healing or to show off your character’s mighty muscles. Up until a couple of weeks ago, when I started getting more involved on Twitter, most of my interaction with strangers came from playing Overwatch. I’d queue up for a match by myself or with a friend and we’d get stuck on a team with random strangers. For the most part, communication with them stay in the realm of healing requests and indications that we need to group up.

Sometimes, though, people start using text chat. Sometimes, people even use the team-wide voice chat. While myself and the friend I usually queue up with don’t generally join the team voice chat unless the team asks us to, there have been a few times when we have and it went well. One time, we did so well with two other groups of two that we all teamed up to make a group of six and went on to win another four matches. Another time, one guy spent the whole match whining into the team chat about how no one was playing well or helping him and it created such a thoroughly toxic atmosphere that no one would work together.

Most of the time, it’s just normal chatter. People talk about what they’re going to do, call out enemy positions and maneuvers, we coordinate our movements, and trying to work together for a common goal before moving on and never talking to each other again. I’ve had mostly neutral experiences with team voice chat, but the negative ones stand out so much that I generally try to avoid it if I can.

Text chat has been the opposite. There have been a few negative experiences, including one lately that made the match so negative that people on my team started throwing the match, resulting in an embarrassing overtime loss to a team we should have beaten easily. For the most part, though, people are friendly and at least neutral if not positive. If you play as a part of a group, there’s a high chance of playing with other groups and sticking with them for a while, across several matches. As that happens, people start friendly conversations, congratulate each other on good places, and all report/shout-down the one asshole trying to ruin everyone’s good time. Then you inevitably wind up fighting against a long-time ally and tears are shed on both sides as you ruthlessly exploit your experiences with each other to try to beat each other.

Good times.

I always kind of marvel at the casual nature of human connection via video games. You can meet someone new, bond over your shared enjoyment of a game, and then part ways without ever expecting to meet or talk again. If you do, that’s great! If not, then you’ve lost nothing. Or have you? It is so easy to connect over the internet, but we’re still so guarded with most of our personal information. Games all use usernames, most social media allows the restriction of personal information so only friends can see it, and most people who know anything about internet/identity safety recommend keeping most personal information completely private.

This attitude (which is still entirely sensible because the people who want to exploit personal information are ruthless and entirely too common) keeps us from connecting with friendly strangers. We don’t even share our names. We keep ourselves hidden behind the masks of our characters and our usernames. We connect with people, make friends, and them go our separate ways. It always makes me kind of sad when it happens, even if I’m not really willing to be the one to try to break the pattern. For the most part, anyway. I use my real name here, and on my Twitter. Those aren’t terribly brave, though, since most people also do that.

 

Communication and Teamwork in Overwatch

Watching the Overwatch League has made me want to play the game more than ever. Watching teams pull off these amazingly well-coordinated plays makes me want to assemble my own team. Not in order to compete at even the amateur level, but to play with that level of communication and trust. That being said, the league is still rife with examples of people doing their own thing, including both times that it pays off and times that it does not. Single DPS players have, with minimal support from their teammates, either crippled or halted an entire enemy advance. In juxtaposition, tanks have recklessly charged and players of all kinds have wasted ultimate abilities that would have been more useful if they’d saved them for a minute or less later. Often, the reckless tank and wasted support ultimate ability have led to the team collapsing. Interestingly, half of the team collapses I’ve seen have turned into times when a single DPS found the right moment and help the enemy team off.

The best teams, though, are the most coordinated ones. New York Excelsior, Seoul Dynasty, and London Spitfire are all the most coordinated on average and they’re all the best teams in the league in a general sense. Having actually tried to build a 6-player team in Overwatch, I can definitely say that team coordination matters. To be fair, you don’t need to have six people in order to see that, it just makes it easier to see. I love playing with one of my roommates the most because we’ve played together long enough that our play styles complement each other, we trust each other to know what we’re doing, and we can anticipate each other’s needs and movements in a way the really streamlines communication. He also plays DPS (damage per second) characters and I play tanks, supports, and filler characters (swapping around to meet the team’s current needs rather than sticking to one character in particular). Comparing our play to me playing with only one of most of my other friends highlights just how important that almost unspoken communication is to our success as a team.

I’m hopeful that, if the 6 of us play together often enough, we’ll eventually figure out the communication stuff. I have a hard time verbalizing my thoughts in generic specifics because I’m so focused on what is going on in front of me, so my ability to call shots and direct the team is at its best when I can either get the words out properly or when my teammates are aware enough of what is happening in the battle as a whole to interpret what I’m trying to say correctly. It can be annoying, to have a shot-caller who has trouble saying the right names for characters and coming up with the right word while it is still relevant, but I’ve got the best battlefield awareness of the group right now so working on communication is out top priority. For now, I am grateful that my roommate is one of the six people and that I can count on him to interpret and then translate what I’m trying to say.

As much as I try to relax and have a good time when I’m with a large group that isn’t communicating, it is incredibly frustrating. As a tank, a lot of my ability to do anything effectively, aside from soaking up bullets, is contingent on having the rest of my team performing their duties and following the called shots. The other day, I kept telling everyone to group up with me since I was using the other team’s expectations against them, by setting up patterns that I’d subsequently break. It was working great except that most of my team wasn’t following me. I’d call them over to me, see them around me, start moving into position, and then they’d all be gone, getting cut down somewhere else because their tank is off trying to set up a flanking team-fight that would pick off the enemy sniper and supports before the enemy DPS could be brought to bear against us. We were so close to winning so many times that match and we had no good reason for losing, only that we were never all together and focused on figuring out how to circumvent the enemy traps and defenses. That was kind of the theme of the night, really. Knowing we should have won and being unable to say that we just got outplayed is frustrating to me because I’m trying to become a better player than I currently am and those kind of losses don’t do anyone any good.

It isn’t all of my teammate’s faults either. If I’d followed them in and stuck with the grind-y team-fights they kept running into, we might have won. We might have come out on top with enough ultimate abilities left to hold off the inevitable second wave when they re-spawned and pushed to retake the final point they were defending. I played a little more aggressively than I strictly needed to, winding up with all of the gold medals for enemy kills, enemy kills around the objective, enemy damage, and time spent on the objective(s). No tank should ever have all of those. A good tank can often wind up with gold medals in objective time and objective kills, but the DPS should always have the other two.

I’m going to focus on trying to be a better communicator when I’m playing with less experienced players and people who don’t know how to interpret my non-specific exclamations. That is something I can work to improve in every match, regardless of whether or not I’ve got a team skilled enough to help me improve as a tank. As long as I’m improving, I think I’ll be able to accept and number of wins or losses.