Eight Things Fallout 76 Gets Right

Despite the emergence of a hate click economy, some people are still enjoying their video games. Fallout 76 is the latest to weather the manufactured rage of an increasingly toxic online community, and will be a new measure of a publishers resilience to criticism. While Bethesda games have earned a certain infamy for shipping with a lot of bugs, and Fallout 76 certainly did, I believe most of the criticism leveled against the game is undeserved. There are quite a few innovative ideas pushed in the latest title in the franchise, ideas I hope are not drowned out by malcontent noise. Here are just eight of the reasons I am enjoying Fallout 76 as much as, and in some ways more than Fallout 4.

Everything is a side story. For every player that has ever put off the “main story” in a Bethesda title for as long as possible, or rushed through it, Fallout 76 is a natural leap forward. There is absolutely no camera-stealing main quest or cut scene heavy narrative – only audio tape and written notes hinting at things you can optionally pursue. It errs on the side of next to no direction at all, making every snippit of lore hinting at something to find a bit more interesting. Some of it is just flavor, but most of the time it is very effective at creating a storytelling device in a world in which everyone is dead except for you and the other players. There are a lot of different opinions on how this was executed, but I felt it is a near-perfect survival horror RPG atmosphere; one that is frequently dark, occasionally funny and often sad.

Puzzles you have to read to solve. Some quests are more forgiving than others for auto suggesting the next step hints (or marking an exact location for you), but in a lot of the find-it-yourself exploration puzzles key clues require actually listening to the content of the audio tapes or reading computer files and paper notes.. It has been a while since any RPG game outside the indie circle tasked players with basic deduction or light reading to solve dungeons, which I am thrilled to see in a full release of Fallout. I hope the next Elder Scrolls carries the torch.

The “Dragonborn” trope no more. Not to pick on Skyrim specifically, which I still rate as one of my ten favorite games of all time, but the “savior” trope in so many single player RPG and Action Shooters is so common that the story devices to explain them in later sequels are even tropes themselves. From Halo to Mass Effect and earlier Elder Scrolls titles, the “avatar” essentially becomes legend – occasionally even a literal deity. Some series (looking at you, 343) have yet to resolve this and it begins to drag the character down. You save the world NN times and eventually you are a parody of yourself.. but I digress. Fallout 76 avoids this with grace with their tiptoe into multiplayer, making everyone a survivor of one of the earliest vaults to open after the bombs drop – and each left to their own motivations create a narrative highly resistant to predictability.

Character build feels meaningful. The fresh face of the series S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stat advancement lends itself to diverse builds and a proper sense of character ownership. Being able to collect and eventually switch out different sets of ability cards for different play styles takes this further, making the deep spec system of Fallout 4 seem primitive in comparison. In a December update, an additional feature will be added to allow players to respec these points (perhaps at a higher level, when it would make the most sense) to better fit their card collections.

Power Armor is useful again. This was actually one of my biggest complaints about Fallout 4, which was that Power Armor was relatively fragile even with upgrades and a properly outfitted hero with advanced light armor upgrades could match or outperform a suit of Power Armor wearing upgraded civilian attire. Too many times I would collect fusion core fuel for my suit to tackle a difficult area only to carry broken pieces of the armor out with the loot I did get. Worse yet, these sets weren’t all that easy to collect, which means that my top tier set with fancy paint job was more or less just a display piece unless I wanted to ruin it by wearing it once. Fallout 76 is almost the opposite case – I feel safe in my armor, and the wear is slow enough that with care I can collect everything I would need to fix it before it actually breaks. Fusion core fuel is still rare enough to make it feel valuable, but otherwise obtainable enough I can wear my Power Armor all the time.

Crafting. Like a good RPG, crafting evolves with level, and finding new plans and recipes makes for a natural reward system for doing otherwise optional side quests. There are also some plans you can only get by capturing workshops, which dips into potential player vs. player engagement. By blending gear, C.A.M.P., food and water upgrades into your crafting progression makes the time spent working on crafting worth while.

Multiplayer-light is strangely effective. I had more apprehension on how this would work than any other feature ahead of trying the game, and have been pleasantly surprised that it feels exactly like I expect Skyrim might have as a multiplayer title, not worse or better. Interactions are far from mandatory, outside of proximity chat being on by default. If someone attacks you, you can opt to ignore them and they will do next to no damage until you attack back – which you can manage somewhat by using V.A.T.S. to target to help avoid accidentally striking another player unless you mean to. Individual mileage may vary here, and it is open to some troll-ish behavior, but by comparison I would say trolling in Fallout 76 is very mild compared to troll playgrounds like Sea of Thieves (which to be fair, is part of their pitch, after all). Dying in PvP feels well balanced, and cooperative play seems intuitive enough. I’ve probably played 80% solo, but each time I do team up with a few friends we have had a lot of fun no matter what we were working on. Many of the quests or location specific events work best with multiple people, which is a welcome change to puzzles in Fallout.

Playing without saves changes how I play. Every Elder Scrolls and previous Fallout title to date shared in common the need to save frequently and sometimes in multiple save slots in the event of sudden death (or progression-breaking glitch), which intentionally or not lends to a certain sense of safety that you can quickly rewind time if something goes wrong. Moving to a persistent online world trades off this ability, making for a greater sense of caution and thinking ahead, and combined with the added requirement to manage your own food water and general health sets a completely different tone; one more fitting of a survival horror. This feature was actually key to how survival mode in Fallout 4 worked, but was probably only experienced by a small subset of players who saw it as a enticing challenge. Now in Fallout 76, when you get surprised by a pack of Super Mutants and the first sound you hear is “CATCH!” followed by a grenade-close warning, you get the full experience of the ambush rather than just reaching for the quick-load hotkey. Forget to check a sketchy area doorway floor once for a trap wire and you’ll visually check every room you walk into after that – guaranteed. (well, until you don’t and die anyway, but I digress again). This change alone evolves the title into something a lot more engaging in ways previous Fallout weren’t – at least out of the box.

To conclude, I do concede that there are a lot of bugs still to fix in Fallout 76 that should have been fixed before it shipped, but I do not subscribe to the toxicity that thrives in the online gaming community at the release of practically every other game these days. Fallout 76 is a great game and a worthy addition to the franchise, and I hope the same creative minds that made it possible are not discouraged from pushing the envelope in the future by a narrow subset of noisy gaming fans.

Now, back to West Virginia to see what other new friends Rose has for me to meet.

My Five Favorite 4K HDR Games

One piece at a time, I upgraded the components of my console gaming setup to support true 4K and HDR, and found myself revisiting a lot of games to see how much better they looked, or didn’t. Some games that seemed like contenders for exceptional graphics at the high end lose a lot of their luster in actual gameplay due to UI or effect choices, and others seem to apply the ultra HD textures inconsistently at best. However, there are some games that really do shine in 4K next to their 1080p versions. Here are my five favorite.

Forza 7

It is no accident you might find this as the running demo at your electronics store for the most expensive televisions, as this flagship of eye candy by Turn Ten is laps ahead in terms of extreme graphics performance.  Forza 7 and its playful openworld peer Horizon 3 are as well tuned as the real world cars they depict, and are a must play for any racing enthusiast. The cars, environment and weather effects are pure bliss on the eyes, and play as well too.

Sea of Thieves

This unique and immersive open seas pirate adventure by Rare Ltd is one of the most dramatic examples of a game that looks completely different on 1080p next to a proper 4K HDR display running on the same hardware. Its cartoonish style is deceptively nuanced, and features some of the most jaw dropping lighting and dynamic weather. The animation is also exemplary, maintaining its looks even in combat while keeping an ear to ear grin. Hats off to the art direction team for making one of the best looking games of this generation.

Assassin’s Creed: Origins

Where this game does suffer a bit from losing polish in chaotic combat sequences, it more than makes up for it in its breathtaking presentation of historical settings and grand sense of scale. The included free camera photo mode makes these moments all the more enjoyable, giving the player opportunities to capture truly spectacular screen shots. From shots of Senu against a sky of kites over the Nile at sunset, Bayek atop monuments, wind sailing, free diving or sneaking through glittering hoards of treasure lit by torchlight, Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Origin is visually quite stunning.

Mass Effect: Andromeda

I include this game although it was never upgraded on consoles to proper 4K like PC, it does support HDR and is nothing short of a masterpiece of visceral, well animated graphics that seem to get better (instead of worse) the more serious the action gets. Everything from the environments, UI, vehicles, weapons and armor are showcase examples of top shelf, built for 4K graphics. The Bioware title had a mostly undeserved initial reception for odd issues that included character faces, some silly animations and such but I felt they had near zero impact on actual gameplay where it mattered. At the heart of the game was a genuine breakthrough in combat mechanics that still look and play a generation ahead of most other games. Take issue with the facial appearances of some characters if you will, or a departure from deeper RPG elements of Mass Effect 2 and 3, but this game still shines on its merits.

Destiny 2

Bungie’s grand space opera shooter is another prime example of a game that looks generations different on a 4K HDR display next to a 1080p one. The lighting and effects aren’t even close. I do believe some compromises are made in the fastest of the game modes like PvP (similar to the degradation one might notice in For Honor), but in nearly every other case it remains faithful under fire, made all the better by some of the best monster and environment designers in the business.

Notes on the future of 4K gaming

Looking ahead, it isn’t a guarantee that the coming generation of games will automatically look better. In fact, the burden is on them to match and maintain (let alone surpass) the standard given accelerated release schedules and a shift in what is considered to be innovative in games. Upcoming megahits like Anthem look pretty on the E3 big screen, but will it play as well as Destiny 2 or Mass Effect: Andromeda? Contender with good credentials Cyberpunk 2077 melted faces in a closed-door gameplay demo but is already getting side-eye for not sharing this footage due to it (presumably, maybe) changing before release. Battlefield V looks promising, but may also get sucked into the propeller of Battle Royale resource prioritization. Fallout 76 is too early to tell. Shadow of the Tomb Raider *should* be born to win, given how good Rise of the Tomb Raider already looks but the E3 trailer was kind of modest in comparison.

Are high end graphics the most important feature of a game? Arguably not, but this coming year or so should really show if we can have both.

 

Three Sheets to the Wind – Thoughts on the Sea of Thieves Beta

It is easy to see why there are so many poems about the ocean. “My heart lies in the sea, at anchor”, and so forth. Not many games manage capture this feeling, an intangible, deep enjoyment of sailing. Not only does Rare Ltd pull it off but spectacularly so, crafting an experience so engrossing time slips away, day turns to night as you navigate under starry water-colored skies. But this is no ordinary seafaring simulator – these waters are a veritable nest of knives; a voyage punctuated by completely unhinged PvP hijinks and peril. Sea of Thieves is a masterpiece-in-progress.

Pirates, In Progress

The beta being a slice of early gameplay features just one of the quest-giving characters at the starting island, and most of the character or ship customization has been kept under wraps for now. Your pirate is randomly generated for the beta, and you start with all of the basic equipment you’ll need and a ship appropriate to the size of your crew. If you begin alone or with just one teammate, you have a single mast, two-cannon ship that is smaller, fast and relatively easy to manage. Team up with three friends and you get an impressive warship with three masts and a mouthful of cannons, but have more to manage in terms of keeping sail length and angle ideal for wind conditions. Other tasks aboard include repairing the hull should it be damaged by rocks or cannon fire, bailing water from any number of ways it can get aboard, reloading cannons and keeping a sharp eye out for other ships. Between destinations you can get fall-down drunk, dance and play music together with your crew. Players must communicate to navigate, as the ships map and wheel cannot easily be crewed by the same person – and definitely not when the pressure is on. It is important that everyone on the crew is able to do most of the tasks required to keep the ship off the rocks and in fighting shape, as once combat starts all hell breaks loose.

Salty Dogs

Dying in PvP is worth a brief stay on a ghostly Ferry of the Damned; a short time-out before returning near your last location. Shoot, stab and outwit the opposing crew, steal any treasure they may have had and protect your own. Escape, or for the truly committed: sink their ship. More than likely, a lot of the above with perhaps a pursuit mixed in. The penalties for dying are only relative to the risk of losing the treasure chests, for which the treasure maps may have cost some gold. This dynamic fuels a nothing to lose, winner takes all spirit. As of closed beta there is no strict PvP ranking, scoring, tracking or advancement other than the standard advancement for turning in a treasure chest. As-is, this works great and keeps superfluous concepts of kill-death ratio off the table, and negates some potential for griefing or other bad behavior. That isn’t to say you wouldn’t run the chance of encountering a crew with underhanded intentions or find yourself attacked while vulnerable, but rather that the reward for attacking a smaller crew isn’t measurably better than sailing to find your own treasure, nor is the setback for failure. As the game heads to retail release I hope any system added later to augment or celebrate PvP maintains some code of honor to preserve the current zany feel of ship to ship combat.

In spirit of full disclosure, my very first treasure chest was quickly swiped by a pirate who had trailed me to the island and watched me dig it up. He however had forgot to put anchor down on his own ship. I didn’t get the chest back, but he had a long swim back to that ship, if he ever got there. I think I saw sharks. Lessons, learnt.

Scanning the horizon

Tangle with a few well-coordinated crews and you’ll develop a good habit to mind the horizon. You will also do well to keep good friends. Sailing alone, as well described right in the opening menu of the game is quite dangerous. Crewing your ship solo is difficult enough without a cannon in sight, and truly frightening when you spot the topsail of a triple mast ship… with lanterns dimmed and bow in your direction.

Beta only provides a basic glimpse at how character advancement will work, which appears to follow an intuitive “get maps and find treasure” curve. More advance maps have multiple treasure chests and may also require solving riddles or locating and defeating enemies. As you rank up better gear and more advanced objectives unlock. Presumably this will include ship and character customization in final release.

I really enjoyed every minute of beta, and am excited to see the final work at release. I recorded a few clips of solo game play from one of my return voyages, mostly just sailing, but they show a glimpse of how pretty the game is.

I hope to see you on the high seas!

Star Wars Battlefront II – Not A Trap, Actually

Crush the Rebellion. Commander Iden Versio leads Inferno Squad from the written novel page to a breakout cinematic gaming experience that has to be played to believe. Combining the solid variety of multiplayer and arcade game modes of the first next-gen Battlefront reboot, stunning top shelf graphics and the A+ story mode the series deserves, EA’s Star Wars Battlefront II is the game we were looking for. Or, so the developer had hoped.

With launch week marred by a few wildly out of control fans threatening individual developers over micro-transaction related features, the opening cry of horns and trumpets felt more like a disturbance in the force. I feel this was hugely undeserved and representative of an increasingly toxic culture within gaming that has soured the launch of many titles the last few years, and in this case, it was over mostly bogus information. Even today I see negative comments about the game tied back to an idea that you have to pay real money to unlock certain heroes, which is inaccurate in more than one way.

Edit 11/17 – Huge Update: EA removes micro-transactions, for now

Heroes unlock via in-game credit system, NOT from real-world purchased currency.

Star Wars Battlefront II has two forms of progression, one represented by experience points earned only through multiplayer matches, and another measured by “credits” earned through all activities, including a big handful for story mode and more via tutorials, challenges in all game modes, and based on merit in multiplayer. Game Revolution breaks down specifically how long they estimate it would take to unlock all of the heroes, but not counting the large chunk of credits you’ll have after finishing the story and some arcade (from which you can definitely get your favorite hero), it is reasonable to expect you could unlock a hero in a night or two of regular gaming. Furthermore, none of the “crystal” credits you can purchase with real money can be used to unlock heroes, and the crates you can buy with those crystals will not unlock a hero, so there is literally no way to unlock the hero with cash. This is a far cry better than the “time saver” bundles available to be purchased for other EA shooters, which actually do unlock functionally superior equipment and loadouts other non-pay-to-win players have to earn via advancement.

Edit: As mentioned in a release day statement (11/17/2017), EA has since turned off micro-transactions and disabled use of the “Crystals” credit option, which will be reintroduced at a later date following review of the feature.

As Game Revolution also points out, there are other potentially more valuable things to spend your in-game credits on, like upgrading the loadout for the base troopers and vehicles you are leveling up, which gives players more choices on how to advance and get an edge in fast-paced multiplayer.

My officer is almost level 15

Crates, earned for completing challenges, logging in daily or when purchased via in-game credits or crystals, do contain Star Card upgrades that directly improve your loadout in multiplayer, so there is validity to the idea that you can buy superior gear with cash, but you get these so frequently there is hardly merit to dropping your beer night monies into randomly drawn upgrade cards you already get multiples of in an average gaming night.

Bomber with an astromech repair upgrade Star Card

 

No, seriously, these are the droids we are looking for

I am actively recommending Star Wars Battlefront II to all of my gaming friends. The gameplay is a fantastic mix of the more serious, gritty Battlefield 1 it shares an engine with and the lighter-hearted arcade feel I associate with Star Wars titles. The various maps and game modes draw from at least all seven main movies, and includes additional locations and references to anthology and novel locations including Christie Golden’s “Inferno Squad”. Every aspect of the game from the breathtaking cinematics and rousing story to the frequently cheeky humor in multiplayer and kid-loose-in-a-toy-store flight combat shows the developers share a true passion for Star Wars and for great gaming. The actor capture and performances make it feel like you are in the movie, and I was left stunned at its conclusion.

I hope to see you online in a galaxy far, far away!

 

For the love of unnecessary RPG character backstories

While diving through some old documents, I found a backstory I wrote for two of my Elder Scrolls Online characters. It reminded me, sadly, of an era of online RPG when you commonly ran into other players who enjoyed playing in character.

In his mind, it would have been raining as he stood at the bottom of the mage guild hall stairs, waiting for her to emerge. For a week on the trail here he had thought
through this moment, if she would recognize him, what he would say or if he would be harassed by the city guard before he could deliver it. His burden that had started as
light as a passing thought now dug into his shoulders with weight beyond the natural, a weight on his heart of what he had promised to do. Although by birth his word is worth nothing, for he was no fair-born orc, to him it meant everything because it was for her. She had given him a name.

It wasn’t raining. It wasn’t even cloudy, just a seasonally strong coastal wind of spring in Daggerfall on an otherwise sunny morning. His black hair whipped about
his face as he caught a scent of his own odor, his lips creasing into a frown. He looked around the square outside the guild hall, wondering how long he would have to wait. A
nearby guard patrolled peacefully, paying no mind to the outsider. Other travelers and laborers bustled about the busy cobbled streets, further down a cheerful din could be
heard from market square. The beautiful voices of hammer, anvil and bare metal sang in the distance. Then came the ringing of the guild hall bell, and the great oak doors
parted to a horde of young robed mages.

Arms full of books and eyes on the ground before her, she sped down the stairs and nearly passed him before he spoke. “Naya,” be tried to say, but croaked. He cleared his throat as she glanced up. “Naya,” the old orc said clearly as he forced a smile. She froze as disbelief painted across her face, her fellow students’ bootsteps fading into the distance. “Rom’tog?” she wondered, smile beaming as she recognized the orc. “You came!” With a lunge she wrapped both arms around him, fumbling her books. His heart leapt, he was certain she would feel it pounding in his chest. Or maybe she would faint from his smell. For a moment it didn’t matter, despite the lump in his throat.

“How did you get here?” she began, taking a half step back. “I had heard all paths from the north were ordered closed.” She shook her head to dismiss her own question, looking him over. “You look great.” Compared to how he had looked when they first met, she was right. Rom’tog was among the few mine bilge to survive to be sold before dying young, broken and nameless.

It must have been the troubled look he could not hide, as her smile faded and fears tucked safe away in the back of her mind came to the surface. “Something’s wrong,” she guessed correctly. “What’s happened?”

Again with the lump in his throat. “I found it,” he forced. “The one she was looking for”. Unshouldering his ruck, he untied the leather just far enough to reveal its edge to wide eyes. “She was right about where it would be.”

He wished he could read her thoughts behind the now stone eyes as she slowly looked up back at him, searching his eyes for the answer she wanted next.

“I saw her,” he blurted. “I saw your sister,” forcing himself to remember what he would say. “She’s still in there.” Naya fought back tears, face flush with anger and disbelief. Her mind was ablaze with unanswered questions.

“Your sister is still alive”

Five Fortnite Tips I Wish I Had Known

We thought we were prepared for the storm until it got ugly. In the distance, we heard the bellowing roar announcing the arrival of a colossal mutant zombie known best as a Smasher. Down to the last magazines of ammunition and with weapons looking the worse for wear, there was little more than harsh language between the behemoth and the hastily boarded up wall around our objective. Epic Games’ Fortnite is a clever mix of quick thinking, base defense building, exploration and all out combat. Although it can be played alone it is geared towards play with a full team of four players, and the harder the missions the more extreme the challenge. Thankfully the game shines best when the zombies are at their worst.

Fortnite is an “early release” title but plays as well as most released games, although it is not without a few bugs, performance issues and potential imbalances that may be changed later. Below are a few things I learned “the hard way” that I wish I had known when I started.

Green is Good

We’ve been taught in other games with similar loot rarity coloring that grey and green items are generally trash if you have access to better. Although this is technically true in Fortnite, green weapons and traps are particularly useful in that they require only common materials found in abundance on any map. Given that all items break fairly quickly and traps are one time use in every mission outside the storm shield base, knowing when a green weapon is good enough becomes critical to managing rare crafting resources you might not find every mission.

To be more specific, it is unlikely you will find enough “rotating gizmos” to replace 2-3 Epic weapons as fast as those weapons wear out. In some cases I would say this is true of even one Epic weapon – which could require three of these gizmos each, enough for three Rare weapons that are just as durable and almost as powerful. It is business as usual to be completely out of these key materials, and probably when you need them most.

The bottom line is don’t discard, recycle or otherwise lose the only green schematics you have for key traps and weapons. I’d keep at least one for each class of weapon and level up that schematic to make it closer to par with a rare blue of the same sort.

Examine Apparent Duplicate Rare Items and Heroes Twice

Any two items of the same rarity might look identical if you examine only the base stats, but in almost every case the optional stat bonuses for leveling up that schema will be randomly different. This is true to some degree for survivors, defenders and even Heroes. Before cashing in that hero for quick XP or collection book advancement, check the perks, support squad bonuses, and other abilities they would get if you leveled them up. Traps especially have different abilities when leveled that could make a huge difference, like in the case of passive floor and wall spikes.

For heroes, there are both support squad roles they can take and expedition seats to fill even if they aren’t among your favorite to play. In the case of the latter, expeditions become an important source of crafting materials and survivors later but require leveled up heroes – ones you spend XP on but can’t actually play while they are out on expedition. It makes sense to keep a deep bench of talent rather than retiring heroes for this reason alone.

Blue Rare Schematics may be better than Epic ones

Another way that rare crafting materials shapes the economy of the game is when you compare a Blue weapon and a Purple of the same type, and consider the cost of keeping your favorite weapon replaced once it is worn out. In almost every case I have examined, a Rare Blue schematic leveled to 10 is much better than a level 1 Epic Purple, but may cost half or a third the key materials. Sure, the level 10 Epic Purple weapon would do more damage but unless the perks included dramatic reduction in wear and tear, you aren’t getting “three times the weapon” out of it. The comparison gets even more comical if the Rare weapon has the wear rate reduction perk instead, also at the cheaper cost of materials. That blue sword will be more than just “good enough” long after the less durable purple one breaks.

Use the Outlander Pathfinder to gather.

All heroes do almost every task equally as well as one another – specially at the start of the game, with a few exceptions. Soldiers do get bonuses to ranged weapons, and in some cases stacking bonuses to a specific type of ranged weapon, but no one can hold a candle to the gathering mastery of a Outlander Pathfinder. Once you have “focused acquisition”  and “in the zone” perks, along with the ability to create Loot Llama supply drops the Outlander is significantly faster and better at locating and gathering treasure. The difference isn’t slight, even the 6% chance to find double loot is noticeable over the course of a single mission. Level up your Outlander further and you can see loot through walls and floors and even how rare it is. Given how often you will need to restock on materials needed to make ammunition and traps, the speed boost and faster pick-ax of “in the zone” is a welcome ability indeed.

Never overbuild.

Traps and any section of building count towards the build limit objective in almost every mission in the game. The limit and associated penalty for overbuilding is shared by the whole team, and is the highest weight penalty for end of mission scoring next to complete mission failure. Very few other objectives are classified as “gold” objectives, and most are ones you obtain through exceptional effort (rescued all bonus survivors, etc), rather than one you “lose” by being careless. Watch the build limit when you are setting up defenses or using stairs to reach loot and survivors. I try to stay under half the limit just in case zombies create an unexpected route to the objective or additional traps / healing pads have to be made in the heat of a fight. If your teammate looks like they are working on a masterpiece of excess mats, hold off on putting down floors or traps in hopes that they stop before they hit the limit.

Another way to help reduce build time and stay under the limit is to use perimeter walls sparingly – imagine funneling the zombies into a few open sections of the outer fence rather than trying to build a solid barrier. Save your fortress construction passion and skill for the more critical objective walls. Perimeter knee-high walls are easy to shoot over and will usually direct zombie traffic to a different (or less defended) entrance point, which is a great place to put a few key traps without needlessly carpeting the entire area in spikes.

 

Fortnite is a lot of fun, and is quite addictive. The early missions do a good job of introducing key mission concepts like building under a time limit to precise specifications under pressure, customizing structures and dealing with attacks from multiple directions, as well as effective exploration of an area for loot and survivors. The harder missions will test your teamwork, but these are also the best parts of the game. I hope the above tips make a difference in helping to keep you in gear when the hordes descend on your base, and enough ammunition left to drop that Husk Smasher. I hope to see you online!

My picks for best of E3 2017

A Way Out (Hazelight, EA)

My pick for best of show is Hazelight’s “A Way Out”. This story driven tale requires two players, and was designed to play split screen on a couch. It is one thing to create a great single player experience with optional multiplayer, but this flips the assumption entirely when the story is specially crafted to be told from split perspectives simultaneously. Given the variety of gameplay shown and innovative story telling on par with a good movie, I feel this will be the breakout title of 2017.

Anthem (BioWare, EA)

Shrouded in mystery, this new IP from Dragon Age and Mass Effect creator BioWare looks like a solid challenger to the “Destiny-esque” throne when it is released in 2018. There are a few moments in this trailer that remain my favorite from all of E3 – there is something magical about the perspective of putting on power armor and arriving at the jump point prior to heading into the wilderness. The flight mechanics looked like a Iron Man dream come true, but with even cooler heavy weapons.

As a fan observation, I thought a few things here reminded me distantly of Mass Effect 3. The design of the lead narrator’s helmet, a few NPC that appeared to possibly be a familiar non-human race, and ruins of a giant ringed structure and storm that to me resembles a mass relay. No word yet if this world exists in the same universe as the Mass Effect series, or if the art style is just a nod to their prior work.

image credit vg247

Life is Strange: Before the Storm (Square-Enix, Deck Nine Games)

We had heard some chatter from developers that a new content in the Life is Strange setting was in the works, but I didn’t expect to see a trailer for it at E3, nor how soon its first chapter would be released. I was also unprepared for how emotional it would be to see these characters again. The story appears to be told from Chloe’s perspective prior to the events of the original series over the course of three new chapters. I’ve cleared my schedule for the day these come out, and look forward to these more than any cable tv series.

Edit: Corrected development studio to Deck Nine Games.

Ori: Will of the Wisps (Moon Studios)

The debut Ori and the Blind Forest was a masterpiece of difficult precision platform exploration puzzles that hail to an era of gaming I grew up with. Add to it gorgeous graphics, heartwarming story and a breathtaking musical score and you have Ori. Seeing Ori’s return in the 4K “Will of the Wisps” is very exciting news.

image credit vg247

Sea of Thieves (Rare)

Once you’ve seen actual Sea of Thieves gameplay footage from people who aren’t actors you immediately understand why they choose to use a typical gameplay scenario as the E3 trailer. This is a game that demos better than you could explain in as many words. Comedy, ingenuity, exploration and PVP mayhem. Oh, and Pirates, obviously. I can’t wait to play this with friends.

image credit Ubi Blog

Beyond Good and Evil 2 (Ubisoft)

A trailer for the long awaited sequel to Beyond Good and Evil was the big close to Ubisoft’s E3 show and was my favorite from the publisher this year.

 

Honorable Mentions:

Fortnite – Although it did not get a lot of screen time, Fortnite looks like an excellent twist on team survival defense games. It also has very interesting premium bundle pricing, the most expensive comes with two additional full copies of the game to give to friends. Given the team first emphasis of the game, it should do very well.

Forza 7 – It would be a rare show that didn’t have a Forza title to show off, but between the flagship Motorsport series and the openworld racing in Horizon, Forza enjoys a full lap advantage over the competition. Every iteration of the game improves on the last, and there is simply no other racer that compares to it in terms of pure driving enjoyment and vast range of features – nor one that looks half as good in 4K. It’s almost unfair.

Ashen – Beautiful water-color style cell-shaded graphics on what appears to be a co-op (?) dungeon explorer with freakishly awesome bosses not unlike those of Dark Souls. Can’t wait to see more on this.

image credit vg247

Mario Rabbids Kingdom Battle – an unlikely mashup of Nintendo’s Mushroom Kingdom and Ubisoft’s Rabbids, this tactical RPG-ish game packs signature crude humor and characters from both franchises into what looks like a riotous good time. I expect it will be a big hit.

For Honor – Such Beautiful Flaws

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Like a spring-loaded boxing glove in a shiny wrapped box, For Honor is the gift that keeps on giving well past your second black eye. Equal parts stunning faux-history medieval brawler and cruel test of patience and temper, Ubisoft’s unconventional arena fighter pits Knights, Samurai and Viking warriors in a cycle of never ending war. As unforgiving as it is breathtaking, it will bring out the worst – and occasionally the best – in any team.

The heart of the game is symmetrical, cinematic 1v1 Duels, 2v2 Brawls and a variety of epic 4v4 melee battle modes. Each of the three factions has four classes loosely categorized into well-rounded Vanguard, armored Heavy, nimble Assassins and wildcard Hybrids. However it would be more accurate to just say there are twelve characters, as you can only draw distant similarities between two of the same class, like the Samurai Hybrid and a Knight Hybrid, despite both using polearms. Each of the twelve has a staggering amount of visual and technical customization to further match a specific playstyle or loadout, with gear appearance and performance customization on par with the highest end RPG and way beyond anything I’ve seen in traditional arena games. The feeling of ownership of a fighter as you raise them, unlock feats and collect gear for different loadouts is only further emphasized when you’re thrown into the fray. Unlike some other competitive games where gear stats only matter in top tier combat, the default PvP mode here has gear stats enabled. Battles are brisk, do-or(and)-die trying pace with zero room for mistakes. The melee combat itself is a masterpiece of exact directional blocking, dodging, parries, strike distance, stamina, footwork and oh, learning to avoid any ledge taller than a street curb. Combine light and heavy attacks into Street-Fighter-esque combination moves that must be memorized per hero, each with situational advantages and potential one hit kill uses, and try to survive for the chance to show off a brutal execution move. The difficulty of the combat also makes it very rewarding when you win. I’d dare say this is the skeleton in the closet – the dirty secret, so to speak. If it were easy, it would probably be a lot less fun.

New players will do well to enjoy the story mode first, which is not too short and teaches most of the class basics along the way. It can be played alone or co-op with a friend. Ratchet up the difficulty and the story mode is also nearly impassible challenge on “realistic” mode, at least towards the last few chapters. The AI in both the story mode and the Player vs. AI versions of the multiplayer modes is often surprisingly clever, although prone to predictable patterns in some situations. I find it fascinating in either case, as the different bots seem to have assigned behaviors. Also as they seem to also have a set of pre-assigned names (a few which are just as ridiculous as some real names I run across), you soon start to recognize some of them from prior battles. Some are notably more aggressive, others will flee a fight to find help, and some are just as cheap as their human counterparts can be. I’d love to chat with the team that worked on the AI to see how they make the magic work. In mixed AI and PvP modes, the game auto tunes the AI bots for the skill ranking average of the teams. In custom modes you can select the difficulty level of the bot AI to better test yourself as you practice for the apex predators of For Honor; the other real players.

Even in game modes like elimination where it is a series of four not-quite-isolated 1v1 duels (4v4 total on the same map), it is more or less guaranteed that as soon after the first body drops, someone will find themselves defending in a 1v2 fight, likely injured. Even though there is a scoring mechanic that gives extra points for honorable 1v1 kills, most matches center around uneven fights. A skilled player can survive being outnumbered, but in an even match the odds are definitely with the mob. This encourages some very bad tactical behaviors, and combined with working knowledge of ledges and natural bottlenecks in a specific map can turn a lot of fights into a slaughter by the better coordinated or plain dirty tricks. Class balance is arguably imperfect, specially in certain modes with characters that have easy-to-perform block breaking or body tossing chains yield a lion-vs-lamb advantage if a ledge or spike wall is nearby. An easy, legitimate counter argument may be to try and squeeze the classes into rock-paper-scissors classifications, which feels super accurate if you are playing paper against a scissors class in a 1v1 duel. Is that balanced? Maybe. For Honor treats the entire concept of dirty fighting and unfair situational advantage as the last rule of the battlefield: victory to the team that wanted it more.

Despite its glitches and numerous flaws, it remains highly engaging to play. It gets under your skin, for the better or worse. You’ll find out for yourself if you are comfortable being the plus one in an unfair fight, or if you can muster the respect to let your ally live or die on their own merit on principal alone, even risking a loss to let your opponent settle his affairs one honorable fight at a time. Or maybe you’ll cackle with glee as you finally behead the ledge kill spamming Heavy at any cost. This is a game for both types.

If I wasn’t clear, this game is a blast to play. It is easy to pick up, difficult to put down and worth hundreds of hours to master. It will definitely be a candidate for Game of the Year and is one of the more ambitious Ubisoft multiplayer games to date. With an optional season pass and another six fighter types coming in future expansions plus an innovative seasonal faction vs. faction persistent score, their intentions for this to be supported for the long haul are well entrenched.

Broken controller replacement not included.

Battlefield Beta Breakdown

Evidently, DICE does not believe in resting on one’s laurels. The pioneers who brought us the undisputed king of epic-scale sixty-four player battles in Battlefield 4 already had their sights on something higher, and are finally able to reveal the game they had been wanting to make for years: Battlefield 1. The “reboot” in sequel numbering is symbolic of a return to the root of all-out warfare in what history would call World War I. DICE invited players to help beta test their latest build of the nearly finished title, which features just one battle in the Sinai Desert. At a glance it seems like a narrow slice of the game to preview, but the resulting mayhem feels anything but small, and is shaping out to be the best in the series to date.

Keeping the familiar

More than any other modern wartime themed shooter, the Battlefield family is distinguished by a specific feel , one that starts with a common foundation. Squad up with five friends and choose between one of four iconic supporting roles, control heavy armor and dominate objectives to win.  DICE did not meddle with its successful formula much at all here. The four classes to choose and develop over time include the close quarters anti-armor Assault class, a field Medic, passive defense and ammunition lugging Support and the sharpshooting Scout. Individual performance is secondary to successfully coordinating capture and defense of key locations and mitigating enemy heavy armor while keeping your own running. It’s no accident this will feel familiar right away to returning players.

Raising the stakes

Unlike the near-present day battles in the hypothetical clash between US, Russia and China in Battlefield 4, Battlefield 1 is a trip back to the earliest conflicts of WWI nearly a century prior. The changes are far from cosmetic. Gone are the signs of hyper technology in every aspect of game play, including effective visible range, how spotting enemies is communicated between allies, and nearly every other aspect of the UI. Other changes come from improved game engine, like dramatic weather effects and ultra-realistic detailed environments. Everything from weapons, vehicles and uniforms and even dynamic dialog is historically accurate. Marksman rifles excepted, nearly all of the fighting takes place at much closer range than ever before, including the most terrifying trench and tight quarter troop to armor fights I’ve ever played in a game. Even the sounds the soldiers make in reaction to a threat – like a live grenade or soldier charging with a bayonet – is downright frighteningly intense. Even more so is the inevitable gas attack. Every troop carries a gas mask – a startlingly authentic and claustrophobic recreation of what you might see and hear – your own labored breathing, mostly, as you struggle to make out friend or foe in the dense smoke through dirty lenses.

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Among my favorite improvements and additions are the classic WWI dog fighters and bombers. Battlefield already had the best air combat outside a dedicated flight combat sim (and still better than most of those), but the historically accurate planes in Battlefield 1 are one of the most genuinely breathtaking additions to the game, and are a dream to pilot. To be quite honest, I feel that a lot of the jets in prior Battlefield titles were silly and Helicopters, well, that’s something else, but here I feel like a kid again imagining the dog fights of legend including those of the Red Baron himself.

Mixing things up

Borrowing a theme from an unlikely source – Star Wars Battlefront –  special weapon crates scattered around the map offer much more of an upgrade than map-specific weapons in prior Battlefield titles. So far in beta I’ve seen a plated armor heavy machine gunner, an anti-tank rifle and the shock trooper style flame thrower. Teaser trailers and other alpha footage suggest there are other of these “elite classes”, each which turn your soldier into a much tougher than usual threat that can turn the tide of a close fight. Also available is cavalry, which can either be chosen prior to spawn or by hopping on a loose horse in mid fight, offering valuable speed and vital saber reach in melee quarters. A well timed charge can close the gap with marksman, a squad mate in dire need, or to an enemy trench. A skilled rider is a serious threat, a welcome dynamic on either side of the barbed wire.

The game changer

In the second half of the game of conquest one team will take control of a vehicle of unprecedented size and power – in the battle in Sinai Desert it is a massive, densely armored train loaded to the brim with heavy guns. Other pre-release footage shows a colossal zeppelin-style gunship entering the fray on a different map. Even if it fails to turn the tide of a one-sided fight, its appearance is certain to make an impact and can make a huge difference in a tight match. This escalation late in the fight further underscores overall improvements to the flow of battle and sense of urgency when the score is too close to call.

Blowing everything up

Another hallmark of the Battlefield series is environment destructability. Battlefield 4 had an uneven mix of nearly static maps and ones where some or most buildings could be destroyed, as well as some amazingly catastrophic map-changing destruction – the collapse of Shanghai Tower among the most notable from the previous in the series. From the beta and other footage, Battlefield 1 is a step forward in overall general destruction, including realistic cratering from explosions and bombs that create dynamic cover. Nearly every structure and object I found was vulnerable to explosions, including some portions of the landscape like the giant stone archway so many marksmen traverse. The buildings in the village sustain heavy damage under fire from tanks or other artillery until they are reduced to rubble. Seeing great clouds of sand and individual sandbags rain down where a wall of cover once stood before a bombing run left measurably deep holes is an experience no video footage can really do justice to. I was blown away by how visceral it felt.

Parting observations

If I didn’t make it clear already, I have really enjoyed beta and think it will be a huge success at launch. I do however see there are bugs yet to fix, and some further thought needed to balance the four classes in their roles. Scouts as long range marksmen are super effective and very easy to play even for the inexperienced. I believe a sniper should have some challenge or aspect to limit domination seen in beta, and require some sort of real skill to play well. As it stands, you could win a reasonable number of fights with mostly scouts on your team, which for team balance just sounds… wrong. At the moment there is almost no reason to play Support as they have next to no anti-armor capability and an effective range similar to Assault; the latter of which has the only useful close range anti-tank ordinance. Furthermore, since ammo refills prior to the coveted ammo crate are also available from cavalry and some vehicles, it further limits the importance of having Support in your squad. I’ve read that at launch that Support players may get a mortar of some sort, which may help answer both of the prior observations as it could help make sniper nests a little less effective at asserting unanswerable deadly threat to a large area. Sure, tanks, cavalry and counter sniping (sigh, MORE snipers) are valid responses to a sniper flush enemy team, but as it stands playing on or against a team with three-quarters Scouts doesn’t feel like a strategy, it feels like… imbalance.

Melee combat needs finishing touches – it is really squishy at the moment in determining who in a face to face combat comes out on top, making a lot of melee feel random rather than calculated. Horse melee is supposed to be dominant against foot troops (don’t break this) but at the moment it has unexpectedly long reach from certain angles, leading to deaths from riders who didn’t seem to be close at all. A tweak here and there could go a long way, as well as routine fixes for graphical oddities like backpacks that appear to swing like lassos (super strange to witness… why are you swinging that like that??) and floating objects left untouched by explosions. Some of these are just funny, but most look plain unfinished. None were game breaking.

Above all, it’s clear DICE still has the magic touch. Much like Battlefield 4 before it, Battlefield 1 will emerge at the head of the pack in true next-generation gaming when it is released later in October and maintain the high bar at least as long as its predecessor did. There seems to be quite a bit of the game they have kept under wraps this time, I think I’ve only seen real footage from two or three maps and almost nothing from the single player story – but what they’ve shown is really second to none. I look forward to discovering what else they have in store soon.

Impressions from the Titanfall 2 Tech Test

“Follow mode engaged. I have your six, pilot” – Ion, skirmish at Forward Base Kodai

It’s tough – and potentially just inaccurate – to write a review on a pre-alpha test of a game when so many aspects of the finished product were kept under wraps, but what we were allowed to see does say quite for what we can expect. The bottom line is that almost everything has changed since Titanfall 1, except that pilots are still the real heart of an experience that has grown a bit more personal.

To demonstrate, compare the training and story mode from the first title to what we see in the technical test. The objectives covered in the training modes are quite similar, but despite being spoken to in a direct manner in the first, it is almost deliberately generic – you play an anonymous pilot playing through a training scenario designed for mass consumption, like a pawn in a galactic corporate bargain. Granted, the program and module was stolen – which leads into a genuinely interesting story – but in the second your training is one on one with a very specific character – and you seem to be playing an actual character in the story, one with a voice.

The contrast between wordless anonymity and personal experience seems to carry into the main gameplay. In Titanfall 1’s campaign, you get a mission briefing and a flow of feedback as you work towards (or fail to achieve) various objectives in your nameless pilot’s role in the story, but in the sense of chatter over radio. It has a good style and fits with the theme, but you’re really just on the sidelines of the story most of the time. I liked it in that it made itself pretty distinct from other games at the time. Although we get no glimpse of the story mode of Titanfall 2 in the technical test aside from a teaser video, the way your titan speaks to you already shows a subtle shift towards having an actual personality. The little details add up, and coupled with a fantastic orchestra musical score heard in select moments, we may be in for something really amazing.

Pilots, like in the first, are highly agile with a broad range of customization options. The movement, traversal and parkour feels better than ever, rewarding a skilled hand. Unfortunately the three maps available in the technical test were relatively flat, having just a few opportunities to really show off wall-run chaining or other exceptional feats. The new grappling hook is both really fun and also somewhat of a skill gap closer for players who may have a harder time using wall jumps to reach high places, as it can take a pilot from the ground to a high perch in a flash. Oh, and it is also effective as a ranged weapon – something I learned on the fly when an enemy pilot used me (in mid jump) as a hook anchor to get from one place to another. Ouch. Well played, sir.

As for Titans, we see the biggest changes here. I suspect the two Titan loadouts available in the tech test are just samples of the finished game – but gone were the weapons and most of the abilities from the first. Also gone is a lot of Titan survivability – at least, at first glance. Ironically, also gone is the direct Titan rodeo kill attempt. That’s not to say you cannot kill a Titan by jumping on it, but it does completely re-imagine the concept of the rodeo attack and the circumstances in which you would want to attempt it. The resulting mechanic does surrender a centerpiece of the classic Titanfall “feel”, but in return yields a whole new level of optional objective management. When your pilot successfully jumps on an enemy Titan, you steal a shield battery and do a small amount of damage. This takes place in a much shorter period of time than a legacy rodeo attack – with less in return. If the pilot survives escaping with the battery and delivers it to a friendly Titan or her own, that Titan gets a sorely needed shield and will survive a little longer on the field. With practice, you can time this attack along with a team mate to steal the battery right before the Titan would explode, which results in both a battery and a destroyed Titan. If a pilot dies carrying a battery they drop it, which either team can pick up. These “micro objectives” encourage a new level of teamwork that felt somewhat absent from the first, and give a little more life to your somewhat fragile Titans. Hopefully in the full game the loadout choices will include some to improve overall Titan durability.

Among the changes to Titans includes an increase in the personal performance bonus towards the build of your next titan. Players who are doing well, or at least participating with effective assists, can expect their titan much sooner than someone who is off objective or struggling.

The three maps available in the technical test were each a bit larger than most maps in Titanfall 1, although with smaller five man teams this can easily lead to feeling alone on the map if you aren’t working closely with your squad. Despite the previously mentioned mostly horizontal layout, the attention to detail and map design is actually quite nice and offers a lot of opportunities for flanking, clever ways to hold otherwise open objectives, plenty of sniper roosts (including one that is labelled by graffiti “Pew!”), and a lot of scenery. I can’t wait to learn more about these places and the new factions and references that are hinted at.

Another new feature is an awesome boost to in game clan support, “Networks” can be created and managed directly via the game client. Once set up, you can see who from your Network is online, the clan message of the day, and invite those online that arent in a match to join in a match with almost no effort. It’s a jump ahead in terms of match making speed and organization. I give a hearty applause for the team that engineered this.

Although it was just a short test, we can see all the pieces coming together and I have a good feeling about the finished product, due late October. Titanfall 2 dares to be different than its competition, and even different than the first in the series. They’ve set a high bar for themselves. Finally, sequel or not, I still get a small chill every time I hear the impending sonic boom and operator call out “Confirmed.. stand by for Titanfall”.