Words Matter

*unrelated photograph of Gearbox Software’s CEO, proven liar and alleged pedophile Randy Pitchford

 

The gaming media has a credibility problem called game developers

There hasn’t been a week since the launch of Fallout 76 in which Bethesda didn’t somehow manage to humiliate itself. Time after time the developer\publisher was found to be either; lying to customers, overreacting and hurting loyal fans, allowing others to swindle said fans with terrible products or just being overly incompetent to a farcical degree. It has gotten so bad that I hardly want to click on any news story or video with the word Bethesda in its title.

Yet, as the slew of bad news and burnt bridges continues to spew from Bethesda’s headquarters, one word has been repeatedly used to describe this ongoing trainwreck: misled. I see it pop up again and again to describe the debacles surrounding Fallout 76. From the limited game editions canvas bags, the actual game features to other marketing ploys such as the Nuka Cola rum bottles that turned out to be just cheap plastic casings for an industrial waste cleansing solution, or so I’ve been told they taste like. The word doesn’t seem able to leave headlines and video titles even though I think it is high time it should be replaced by a different word: lie.

Because this is what Bethesda ultimately did. It lied to consumers. It lied to its fans. Its representatives such as Todd “It just works” Howard stood in front of crowds and simply lied to the faces of gamers worldwide. They lied and lied and lied again and all the gaming media had to offer in return is to label it all as “misleading”. Now, words have meaning. Misled is a very soft word in comparison to lied. It gives a wiggle room in terms of intent. It gives the impression that it was erroneous rather than nefarious. In a way it exonerates the accused of malicious intent. And it is absolutely used erroneously by reporters and writers in relation to the whole situation.

After all, Bethesda had been caught lying not once or twice, but pretty much on a weekly basis since the launch of Fallout 76. Not calling it lies at this point looks like dereliction of duty from the gaming media. That said, I can understand why the gaming media is afraid to bust out the “lie” word. First and foremost, it opens them to libel lawsuits. Though at this point the only court Bethesda could win a libel lawsuit in would be in opposite land, the fact remains that lawyering up is expensive not to mention intimidating. No one wants to get sued, not least gaming sites and YouTube content creators who don’t generate the amount of cash needed to keep a fancy lawyer on retainer.

However, there is also another reason why these people are reluctant to name the problem child and it is the fact the entire gaming industry is built on lies. Jim Sterling made a good video highlighting this, calling it the business of lies, and he is not wrong. In his 20 minute video, Jim Sterling was able to highlight just a few examples from a few years prior to the video’s release, and since then more have been shamelessly uttered by executives and game directors. Lie after lie, all provable, all documented, all ignored or given different labels so as not to offend the people in the industry.

I can understand why, after all, the people lying are the people signing on access to exclusives, press passes and review copies. If these people are made to feel uncomfortable or get called out for their lies, of course the ones feeling the repercussions would be the reporters, not the game developers and suits in management. In the vicious and savage place that is the internet, a loss of access can cost a media outlet its advantage. Many consumers want launch day reviews and recommendations. Sites blacklisted will not be able to supply those reviews and subsequently lose readers, which in turn means a loss of revenue. A site may survive one or two blacklists, but when most of the major publishers decide not to work with a site, that can spell its doom.

Thus the media sites publish the lies and give their enthusiastic impressions to all the fancy trailers and pretty but vacuous cinematics. They’ll disregard years and years of lying, act all surprised when a publisher messes up a launch and publish the corporate response which could be literally copy and pasted from all the previous incidents. Even when they would rebuke these people, they’ll soften the blow using comfy words like “mislead” rather the obvious “lie” even though they have proof. It’s predictable as it is maddening to see.

Of course, there is another reason for the shoddy journalism on display. Like myself, most people writing in the gaming space are not professionals. They are enthusiasts who got into gaming media following their passion. As Jim Sterling himself pointed out, there are very few real journalists in the field of gaming media and it sure as hell shows. Thus it is not hard to see how many writers get bedazzled by the treatment, the access to the people that pretty much made the games they grew up on. Without the proper training or background, these writers simply succumb to the charm and the VIP treatment.

There is also another side to it. People in the game media often work with developers and public relations personal. These are the people they are in constant contact with. Whether it is for interviews, game conventions or events, the two sides often interact with each other. Thus it is no surprise that developers and media people develop friendships and relationships. It is after all, human nature. While it is always nice to see people get along, the downside of such connections is reporters are less willing to challenge or pressure their friends. Too many times reporters would softball questions, be unwilling to challenge developers or just won’t call out blatant lies and bad behavior.

If the above makes you think that perhaps this is why the gaming media often takes the side of publishers and developers, its because it does. I still remember when Geoff Keighley disrespected Angry Joe in the 2010 Spike Video Game Awards, a show that basically functions as one huge commercial. Now, Angry Joe was a young upper comer, still wet behind his ears. However the way Geoff pretty much humiliated him spoke volumes. The fact that Geoff is also a friend of Hideo Kojima and often helped him in his stupid pranks only further sheds a light on how many of the so-called “professionals” in the field view themselves: on the side of the developers. After all, these are the people they often work with, depend on, and develop friendships with.

This was on full display when Jason Schreier, a somewhat respectable game journalist, pretty much went to war with YouTube to justify microtransactions in AAA games. Even though microtransactions and loot boxes are exploitative, have been proven to be so and have poisoned much of the mainstream gaming landscape. To attempt and justify such a measure, after it was proven time and again to be harmful to consumers, exploitative of children and hurtful to the quality of the games themselves (see Middle Earth: Shadow of War) shows exactly who Jason Schreier stands with, and it is not his readership.

Last, but not least, there is also fear. The fear that clouds the gaming media is not just the fear of publisher retaliation which I already covered, but something much more stupid and horrible – the fans. Every time the gaming media actually tried to act more aggressive towards bad actors, the fanboys reared their ugly heads and attacked the reporters. To fanboys, their lives are intricately connected to the products they consume. They will defend these products, and those who produce\manage it, to the death because their entire worth as human beings rides on the perception of the product. It would be sad if they weren’t such a toxic, frothing mad population that sends death and rape threats against reporters who dare state the truth. I wouldn’t want to find myself in their crosshairs, a target for constant, unhinged harassment. Why would any sane reporter would either?

All of this contributes to the erosion of trust. It fuels reader backlash and further poisons the well. After all, what gamers need, what consumers should have is strong advocacy. That is the role of the media – to inform them and amplify their voice. It means researching, it means questioning every corporate message and public relations statement. It also means to frame things correctly. If unable to use the word “lie” outright, then at least remind the readers of the long string of disasters a company such as Bethesda had (my, Bethesda really can’t catch a break these days). George Lakoff put it best when he created the concept of the “truth sandwich”. If media must repeat a lie, it should do so by starting and ending with the truth to nullify the impact of said lie.

Gaming media needs to have a reckoning with itself. For a brief moment, I thought that was what GamerGate would force. Sadly I was mistaken as the conversation was hijacked by political agendas. Yet in its heart, the argument about ethics and disclosure remained. If the gaming media could remember that it serves gamers, not companies, and start acting accordingly we’d all gain for it. That is because there is a little secret that publishers and developers don’t want the media to know: they need the media. Without gaming sites and reviewers, there won’t be hype. Without gaming media to print the lies, no one will buy them. If gaming media stops reporting on a company, that company will die.

For once, game journalists and writers, game sites and YouTubers should look into their mirrors. They should meet the gaze of their reflections, look deep into them and decide who exactly do they serve: game companies, or gamers?

Stellaris: MegaCorp (Le Guin Patch)

It took me more time than I figured write a review for Stellaris’ new update/expansion Le Guin/MegaCorp. Part of the reason was that like any other Paradox Interactive game, it takes hundreds of hours of play time just get a feel of it. Another part is the fact that like any major overhaul, I had to basically re-learn how to play the game from scratch.

This is the main problem with reviewing any of the Paradox Interactive grand strategy games. They are constantly morphing. What is true today may be completely different by the end of the year as more and more expansions, downloadable content and free updates are implemented into them. This means that on the one hand players can rely on years of new content and game support. On the other hand, they’ll need to open their wallet frequently and be certain that coming back to any game after a long absence means going back to square one.

If you are interested only in my thoughts on the changes themselves, you can skip to the end of the article where I give them in bullet points. If you want a full review of all the major changes, you’ll have to wade through all the following paragraphs. You, the reader, have been warned!

So Stellaris Is…

For those still unaware, Stellaris is a 4x (eXplore, eXpend, eXploit and eXterminate) game set in the distant future of 2,200 AD. In the game the player can build a stellar empire from scratch, explore a vast galaxy filled with various mysteries, settle planets, confront marauders and fallen empires and in the end try to survive against a galaxy threatening crisis. So far, so good, so what does Le Guin add to the mix?

Le Guin is basically a complete economical overhaul. Pretty much everything had been changed to make the economy a more robust and complex system. I can write countless pages comparing this new system to the old one but that would be both boring and very technical in nature. Instead I’ll write this review as a first time player learning to play the game (though I may still bring up the past here and there).

It’s the Economy, Stupid!

Playing Stellaris well requires mastering the economy. The economy consists of five resources; food, energy, minerals, alloys and consumer goods.
Food is obvious. To grow a population, you need a surplus of food. Food requires farmers and agriculture districts or hydroponic farms.

Energy operates as currency and is needed by pretty much everything in the game. From trade to the upkeep of structures and fleets. Only technicians can create energy in generator districts.

Minerals are basically raw materials which are used in their base form to build structures, districts and mining stations. They can be harvested in mining districts by miners.

Alloys and consumer goods are both created from minerals using specialized buildings and workers. Alloys are required to build ships and star bases while consumer goods are, well, consumed by the population. Consumer goods can also be used by other specialists for various jobs.

Phew, let me catch my breath. This is the basic economy, without getting into other stuff like unity output, influence and strategic resources. So let’s get into them! Unity is basically a pseudo resource that can be created by various specialists. Unity itself is used to unlock traditions which give various benefits and abilities to the empire (just an example, the prosperity tradition lowers upkeep and increases specialist output among other things). Once a tradition tree is completed, a perk point is unlocked which gives the empire a special, distinct ability (from building galactic wonders to advance genetic tailoring and so forth). In the late game, unity can be spent to purchase special edicts.

Influence is a more static resource. Each empire has a fixed increase of influence based on its civics and government type. Though some technologies and traditions do give flat increases, it is still a very slow replenishing resource. Factions can also contribute to the overall influence gain, but most empires will fluctuate between a 3 – 6 monthly gain. This is because influence dictates expansion as claiming systems requires the use of influence. This also applies for conquest claims for wars. Last but not least, diplomatic agreements also require influence to maintain. Thus influence can be seen as a check against unlimited growth.

Strategic resources can be found all over the galaxy, some are more common than others. They have many applications in ship construction and in the creation and maintenance of advanced buildings. Suffice to say that securing an adequate amount of them is important for any empire. Besides being used for those things, strategic resources can be stockpiled just like any other resources and used in special edicts that give temporary bonuses to an empire such as faster terraforming speeds or stronger ship shields for example.

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The Invisible Hand of the Free Market

Say a player is lacking alloys for a construction project or requires certain strategic resources they have no access to, what would they do? In the past the answer was either to wait for production to catch up or fight to gain access to the resources. With Le Guin, the answer can be much simpler, and less bloody; the galactic market. The galactic market is accessible to players from the start and has pretty much every resource imaginable. A player can purchase stacks of material from the market or put in place monthly orders. The market only accepts energy credits as payment and if a player is short on cash, they can always sell other resources to make up the difference. Truly capitalism at its best.

That said the market collects a fee and commodity prices aren’t set in stone. If a player buys a lot of alloys, the price per unit will spike depending on volume. Prices may subside as time goes by, but with other empires also purchasing or dumping resources into the market, players should expect some wild swings.

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 Adam Smith’s vision on a galactic scale

Trade Makes the Galaxy Go Round

One of the newest additions to the game is the trade mechanic. Trade routes are established between colonies and the capital along hyperlane and gateway connections. For trade to be collected in a system, it needs to either have an upgraded star base in it or be in range of a trade hub, which is a star base module. The trade value itself is fixed on asteroid and other celestial bodies but on colonized worlds differ according to many factors. The more populous and developed a world is, the greater its trade value is. That said, there are ways to directly increase trade value like certain buildings and jobs. Once trade is collected it generates energy credits and can, through policies, be partially converted into consumer goods or unity points.

Where there is trade, there is piracy. Pirates are attracted to trade lanes. In fact their new spawning mechanics sees them grow in overstretched and poorly protected trade lanes. The more they are allowed to operate uncontested, the more they grow, eating into the profits and finally spawning an actual pirate fleet. Should the fleet overwhelm the local star base, a pirate base will spawn. Thankfully, the player can assign fleets to patrol trade routes and keep the pirate presence at bay.

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District 9, 10, 11…

The word district had been mentioned before and now I want to expand on it. In the previous iteration planet size dictated the number of tiles it had which would have exploitable resources on them. With Le Guin, this has been radically changed. Planet size now refers to the amount of districts a world can build. There are four major types of districts: Agriculture, Mining, Generator and City. Each type provides housing and jobs. While city districts are only limited in number to the planet’s overall size, the other three are determined by the planet’s properties. These planetary features can be viewed, showing how each contributes to the number of available districts. If a planet has a lot of ore-veined cliffs for example, these will increase the available mining districts while if a planet had an abundance of bountiful plains, that means it will have a large number of agriculture districts available for construction.

So far, so simple. Besides districts, each planet has 20 building tiles. These are unlocked by population size, with each five members unlocking a new slot. Building slots are universal, with most buildings available across the empire. That said some planetary features may grant special buildings such as crystalline caverns which allow the construction of special mines to extract the strategic resource. Most buildings though require population to work at, so balancing districts, housing and population is important in colonial development.

Last but not least is the aspect of specialization. As written above, planetary features dictate the amount and type of districts available for construction. This means some worlds will have an overwhelmingly large amount of mining districts available while others may have an evenly spread number of districts. If a world has a large number of districts or buildings of one type built, it will gain a specialization. A simple explanation would be a world where only mining districts are built, making it a mining world that has an inherent bonus to mining output. On the same weight, a world where most building slots are used by forges will become a forge world that will gain a bonus for alloy production. Specialization is important in the grand scheme of things as it is more efficient.

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Work, Work and More Work!

Districts provides housing and jobs, and so do buildings, but what does it all mean? Simply put, housing is the number of population a world can accommodate without negative penalties. Jobs, on the other hand, are basically everything needed to produce and manufacture everything. Temples have priest jobs, civilian industries have artisan jobs and mining districts give miner jobs. These jobs need to be filled by citizens, slaves or machines. That said there is a job hierarchy. Administrators need to be part of the ruling class, specialists need to be rights holding species and workers are pretty much the riffraff.

Jobs basically create everything. Miners work in mining districts and produce minerals which are used by specialists in the civilian industries to create consumer goods which are then converted by the priests in the temple into unity and social research. This is the essence of Le Guin, the creation and operation of production chains. Of course this machinery needs workers at every stop. If districts and buildings lack workers, they won’t operate, or will do so in reduced capacity. This means players need to keep an eye on staffing levels and make sure population grows to the desired levels.

Of course, districts and specializations are not set in stone. With stellar expansion, the needs of an empire may change, not to mention the increase in size. Le Guin’s current expansion driver is mineral wealth which is needed for alloys and consumer goods. This means worlds may change designation as population growth unlocks more building tiles. Agriculture worlds may turn into industrial worlds filled with civilian industries and generator worlds may turn into refineries, synthesizing the strategic resources needed by the empire and so forth. This change in designation happens automatically but may pose a problem due to stratification.

According to empire civics, traditions and species rights, the population is sorted into jobs. If districts and buildings are replaced/demolished, these jobs disappear. The population that worked there is left unemployed which may pose a problem. Unemployment may cause unrest and is a drag on local resources. Worse yet, depending on various factors, new jobs may not be staffed by existing population as social mobility is now a thing in Stellaris. Thus planning is very important in colonizing worlds, not to mention the importance of knowing the benefits and drawbacks of the civilization the player chooses and their forms of government.

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Workers of the galaxy unite, you only have your magnetic restraints to lose!

Blackjack and Hookers

I’ve already mentioned housing and jobs, now its time for the other important factor governing population: Happiness. Happy population increases the world’s stability which is translates into higher resource output and trade value. The more unhappy a population is, the less stable the world which will lead to unrest, nasty negative modifiers and even open revolt. Happiness itself is a complex thing (ain’t that the truth) that takes into account species rights, traditions, civics and amenities.

Like everything else in Le Guin, amenities are created by jobs, with certain buildings offering better amenities production. These are important as a lack of amenities will lead to unhappiness. That said, the happiness approval rating is wholly dependent on what type of a civilization a player plays. For a feudal society, so long as the ruler class gets its amenities, the rest of the population will have little to no influence on the approval rating.

Crime and Punishment

I may have already discussed piracy, but crime can occur everywhere, especially on the planets below. Crime can be the result of civics and species rights, government type and even external factors like criminal syndicates branching into a player’s world. When crime does rise, it will start effecting a planet’s stability (not good) and a population’s happiness (doubly bad).

There are ways to combat crime, such as buildings providing enforcer jobs which suppress it, declaration of martial law, crackdown campaigns and other measures. That said, if a player doesn’t get a handle on the rise of crime early on, it may lead to a chain of events which will worsen the situation considerably. Players have to make sure that there are no criminal syndicate empires around them, because those like to spread crime like the plague and also make sure their own worlds are adequately policed.

Speak Softly and Carry a Large Stick

Besides the economy, the second major overhaul the game has seen was the removal of hard caps. An empire can hire as many leaders as it sees fit, the only barrier being their cost and upkeep. For colonization, the same applies but with a caveat. In the past, colonizing beyond the empire’s capacity would often result in huge penalties, necessitating the creation of sectors and transferring planets to them. In Le Guin, the hard cap has been replaced by administrative capacity and empire sprawl.

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To put it simply, empire sprawl is the size of the empire as derived from the total number of built districts, claimed systems and colonized planets. The administrative capacity is the ability of the empire to handle this sprawl. That capacity can be increased with technology, perks, certain civics and starting ethics. However any expanding empire would soon outpace its capacity, resulting in negative modifiers.

In the past, these modifiers would wreak havoc on the economy and stability of the empire. With Le Guin, they become more of a nuisance than an actual disaster. Going over capacity results in increased technology, tradition adoption, campaign (edicts costing energy credits), leader recruitment and upkeep costs. These can go quite high but by medium to late game are manageable even at very high multipliers thanks to total empire earnings. That means that leaders may cost a bundle to hire and maintain, but all fleets will have admirals at their head, and the same goes to governors, scientists and generals.

Empires that keep to their administrative cap are basically more efficient, as they don’t incur penalties to research and upkeep. This means that while expansionist empires may manage, more isolationist empires can remain competitive with faster research and more traditions and perks adopted.

Sectors themselves have become automatic. They cover a radius of two hyperlane jumps from planet of origin, with each world settled in their sphere becoming part of that particular sector. They cannot be created by the player and instead spring automatically once a colony world is too far from either the home world or another established sector. There is no way to edit existing sectors either.

A Whole New World!

Talking before on planetary features and exploitation, colonization itself had somewhat changed. In the past, it was always beneficial to terraform a planet before colonizing it since most species have a preferred climate type. Colonizing a planet with low habitability score would result in unhappiness which would make for quite a rebellious populace.

In Le Guin, that changed. Happiness is no longer dictated (for the most part) by planet type. Whatsmore, with certain planetary features being unique to one planet type or another, terraforming becomes less desirable since districts can be lost in the process. Instead, habitability score penalizes the upkeep rate of population as well as its amenities consumption. The worse the climate, the more food, consumer goods and entertainment a population needs.

This saves the hassle of needing to terraform worlds to exploit them and helps, in my opinion, keep a far more diverse empire.

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Future planet Norway, just as hospitable as the real thing on Earth

The Silk Road

The last addition, which I myself view as mostly miscellaneous, are the caravaneers. These are small fleets which roam the galaxy in search of trade. They are quite strong early on, but are quickly outpaced by the player by the mid-game. They travel through an empire’s borders triggering diplomatic events in which they offer to sell products or exchange goods for a price. They may also trigger other events like energy theft (the thieving bastards!).

The Caravaneers are mostly harmless, giving a tad of flavor and life to the galaxy but not much else. Their home system is generated randomly and offers the player a chance to buy reliquaries which contain random stuff for CaravanCoinz. Some can have extra resources in them while others are just filled with junk. So yes, loot boxes have made it into Stellaris, even as a joke (my god).

Retro

That said, not all civilizations are as effected by the recent changes. Hivemind and machine consciousness empires remain the exception. Both empires cannot generate trade value, are unable to trade or create trade lanes and have no need for consumer goods. This means that for players still getting to grips with the changes, these empires still offer a more vanilla experience and are somewhat easier to play.

MegaCorporations

The expansion which launched alongside Le Guin, MegaCorp is basically the addition of vulture capitalists as playable empire type and a few interesting add ons. If a player ever wanted to role-play as Weyland-Yutani, they now have a chance.

Civilization wise, Mega corporations are basically trade oriented empires with special civics of their own and a special, exclusive mechanic. They can be made to be pure inter-stellar traders, televangelists working to convert the entire galaxy (and make a lot of money in the process of course) or criminal syndicates like Star Wars’ Hutt Cartel which spread crime and corruption for monetary gain.

Game-wise, they handle pretty much similarly to other empires with one crucial exception; they can open branch offices. Branch offices cost energy credits to establish and can be opened in other empires regardless of permission. Of course distance plays part in their cost but once established, they will generate half the trade value of the world they are located on as income. This makes them pretty lucrative.

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Branch offices can be even further expanded upon as the world they are located on grows in population size, unlocking unique building slots available only for the owning mega corporation. These can be used to increase branch office value, build temples to sway local populace into a more spiritual path or underground labs that generate research points with less than ethical methods. The upgrades of course depend on the type of mega corporation in charge.

The branch offices and the host empire can have either a symbiotic or parasitic relationship. Criminal syndicates for example, are complete parasites. The mere existence of a branch office of theirs will generate crime, with each subsequent corporate building only adding to the anarchy. Empires that are forced to host such branch offices will often need to invest a lot in crime prevention. On the other hand, a trade league will establish beneficial buildings that can supply amenities and more trade value to the host civilization, thus ensuring both sides benefit from the presence of its outposts. In both cases though, these buildings provide jobs for the local population and require it to staff them.

Should a mega corporation overplay its hand, especially criminal syndicates, empires do have a remedy. There is a special casus belli (expropriation) added to the game for opening branch offices in a civilization. Winning it will basically shut down all existing branch offices in the empire (though be certain other mega corporations are always ready to jump in). Funnily enough, two mega corporations may also fight each other over branch offices in a hostile takeover. Begun, the franchise wars have!

In a way, branch offices feel more like the beginning of an interesting mechanic rather than a finished product. I suspect they may be fleshed out more in future updates. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was Paradox Interactive testing fledgling covert ops mechanics for future iterations since the current system does have a slight feel of it (such as the devastating impact of criminal syndicates). That said, not a huge fan myself.

Age of (Galactic) Wonders

Alongside mega corporations, MegaCorp also added four new galactic wonders into the game, two of which quickly became my favorites; Matter decompressor, strategic coordination center, mega art installation and interstellar assembly.

Matter decompressor – used on black holes, this baby somehow excavates the black hole, creating minerals. With the industrial needs of a growing empire, these matter decompressors become a HUGE boon.

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Strategic coordination center – adds naval, star base and defense platform capacity as well as a permanent sub light speed bonus for all empire ships. Quite useful when building up fleet power later on, not to mention the increase in defensive capabilities with more bastions and defensive platforms.

Mega art installation – adds unity and amenities to the empire. Never felt the need to build one.

Interstellar Assembly – increases other empires opinion of the host empire as well as generates immigration pull. The only structure to need consumer goods rather than energy credits to operate. Again, felt no need constructing it.

Besides these, all galactic structures require alloys to construct rather than minerals, meaning that any attempt to rush them early game will be met by the alloy production bottleneck, which is quite fine by me. Each mega structure is a huge investment of alloys (a full mega structure will require as many alloys as two 200 sized fleets which include titans). Another change is ring worlds having only three district types (city, agriculture and generator) but having an upward limit of 50(!) per segment, making them huge energy/food producers.

Perks of the Job

MegaCorp also saw the introduction of three new perks, one being the arcology project, the other being the xeno compatibility trait and last but (not) least being universal transactions.

The arcology project can only be unlocked as a third perk and for a good reason – it is immensely powerful. Once a planet had converted all of its districts to city districts and built them to capacity, it can be transformed for the poultry sum of 20,000 minerals and ten years of hard labour into an Ecumenopolis – a world spanning city. Ecumenopolis replaces all of its districts for four new ones; residential, which offers twice the housing a city district has, foundry which produces alloys (one foundry district is better than a fully upgraded forge plant), industrial which creates consumer goods and finally leisure district which supplies amenities. All told an ecumenopolis can house hundreds of people and generate an absurd amount of alloys and consumer goods.

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Xeno compatibility allows different species in an empire to mate with one another (eww) and create half breeds which inherit the traits of both parent species and have an extra trait point and trait limit. This allows quite a remarkable ability of min/maxing breeding to create a truly amazing species with ludicrous traits. That said, while the perk has no tier lock, it does have several perquisites including xenophile ethics, a resident alien species and a specific technology to be unlocked. Also sex with aliens is gross and against Imperial Creed and anyone practicing it should be reported immediately to nearest Inquisition office.

Universal transactions gets to be the runt of the litter. It basically gives a permanent 15% discount on the creation of new branch offices as well as remove the influence maintenance cost from commercial pacts. Not a huge fan of it.

Outside of those three, the rest of the perks had received a nice re-balancing thanks to the patch’s many changes, meaning players have more freedom to choose various new builds rather than stick to the same old, rigid molds. I found myself trying different things and actually creating several new perk suites, each tailored to fit a certain race/playstyle rather than using the same old tired approach I had before.

Corporate Slaves

The galactic market may be a useful tool to get resources, but it has its own seedy underbelly. MegaCorp introduces a dark aspect to the galactic market, namely the slave market. Players are able to buy and sell slaves, which is great for despotic empires to quickly fill workers’ jobs. A player has an excess of slaves? Sell them on the market for some quick energy credits. The same can be done to robots, which is fitting. This also makes the nihilistic acquisition perk extra poignant as a player can raid an enemy planet, enslave its population and then sell it on the market… Talk about unchecked capitalism!

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My Personal Thoughts

For experienced Stellaris players that skipped the wall of text to go straight into my personal thoughts/views of the changes I’ll give them in bullet point form:

– The economic overhaul makes Stellaris more hard but at the same time more fun as there is a lot more to manage/do even so far as the mid game.

– The soft cap is a better way to penalize expansion while giving the expansionists a fighting chance rather than previous mechanics. Also there never should have been a leadership cap to begin with but that is my personal opinion.

– The automated sectors are terrible and need fixing. I am okay with a sector size limit and reach, but it needs to be more flexible than what we currently got.

– New perk balancing is a godsend.

– Habitats have kind of become rather useless in the grand scheme of things, being too limited by their district availability and cap.

– Tall game is more viable than before.

– The introduction of amenities and the change to colonization penalty makes early colonization easier and helps in crappy starts.

– New mega structures are a mixed bag, with matter decompressor becoming as important as a Dyson sphere and the strategic coordination center proving very useful for increased fleet power.

– Black holes are the new black gold (pun very much intended). Every empire needs to secure one!

– The arcology project is an amazing perk considering the advantage an Ecumenopolis offers in the raw production of alloys and consumer goods.

– Mega corporations are just not my cup of tea but I understand anyone who does want to play them. That said, there is no better way to grief players early on than with a crime syndicate. Really, that build is just powerful and annoying and can ruin friendships when played cooperatively.

– Not allowing machine mega corporations is a grave miscarriage of justice that should be amended!

– Xeno compatibility is for heretics and anyone using it should be burned at the stake.

Summary

To summarize, Le Guin is a gigantic overhaul that pretty much touches on every aspect of the game through the lens of economy. It made planet management more complex and interesting, population growth and housing important, not to mention governing ethics and government form more pronounced overall. It brought a much needed complexity to the game without making it too obtuse or confusing. It removed artificial barriers that felt more constrictive than actually beneficial and re-balanced a lot of different perks and traditions.

MegaCorp itself added a new government form with its own civics and unique mechanics, a few more perks and several new galactic wonders one of which has become pretty much indispensable. Though I admit the mega corporation stuff itself is not my cup of tea, I do like the rest of the expansion and can understand players who do prefer this new form of government with its peculiar mechanics.

That said, the question comes down to, would I recommend it? Its at this point that I feel a tad hesitant. On the whole, I love pretty much everything introduced except the sector mechanics which, to be fair, is a petty gripe. Much of this is things I always wanted to be in Stellaris and getting them feels like a great birthday present.

However, I can’t ignore the voice in my head telling me that this is a patch and an expansion aimed strictly at Stellaris players. If you own Stellaris, then you already get the Le Guin overhaul for free. Chances are you’ve already purchased the MegaCorp expansion as well. If you are not already a fan, this is not going to win you over. So my recommendation will be for the people who pretty much already have it… What a strange thing to do.

-End-

Ground to Dust

Game publishers are ruining their games with one simple mechanic

I’ve been ruminating a few weeks on the issue of cheating. It all started with Bethesda banning cheaters in Fallout 76 even though that game was so horrible and broken that cheating seemed the only option to make any parts of it bearable. I usually don’t advocate cheating in multiplayer games but considering the PvP aspect of Fallout 76 was so vestigial, cumbersome and unrewarding that I really didn’t see how cheating could even negatively effect it.

I admit that the article was poorly written for my standards, more akin to an angry stream of consciousness rant than a cohesive, well constructed argument. That said, it did serve as a catalyst for me to examine something that had bugged me considerably in the last couple of years. That subject is grind, or to be more precise, its rise in “AAA” games.

Most gamers will be familiar with the concept of grind, but for those unaware it is a term coined in MMOs (though precedes them) which means the investment of a great deal of time and resources in order to surmount an artificial obstacle in the game to unlock more content. Many MMOs are built around these mechanics as they are (or were) subscription based, and creating artificial barriers for progress encourages players to continue and pay for the experience. The form the grind takes may differ from genre to genre but it remains identical in essence.

An example of grind from an MMO I played are officer modules in EVE Online. Of course with the in-game market its possible to purchase them (at a high price) from other players but if a player wants to get them themselves they’ll have to find the region the specific officer spawns. They will then have to find which systems have the highest negative security which increases the possibility of said officer to spawn in the system. After that, they will have to scan belts and celestial objects after every scheduled downtime. Once they did kill the officer, they have to loot the wreck and hope the item they wanted spawned. Otherwise they’ll have to keep doing so until the correct item drops, which is all based on loot mechanics coded and controlled by the developers.

This is of course just one example, and there are many more, but its enough I think to illustrate the point. Grind is putting countless hours into a singular activity. I don’t think there is something wrong with grind in particular. I play a lot of games where grind is a key component. A lot of JRPGs for example, like the Final Fantasy or Yakuza series. Heck, the entire dungeon crawler genre is based on it (Diablo III or Path of Exile anyone?). That said the grind in all of them is kind of the point. You grind to become stronger, get the best gear and take down bosses.

I am pointing this out because lately the grind had seeped into games in which it has no business appearing in. Games like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey to name a few have all had grind shoved into them without any adequate reason. Call me old fashioned, but I thought that series about pounding tactical espionage action and assassins respectively had little to do with grind and loot. Of course I’d be very wrong.

The reason for these mechanics isn’t in service to the story or the experience because neither series had these mechanics to begin with. Metal Gear Solid had been up until then a third person stealth\tactical shooter with a somewhat bonkers premise, ridiculous characters and many botched ideas though with some poignant points (more on this in a future article) and Assassin’s Creed was about assassinating people in various historical settings and the occasional pirate adventure. So why was there an introduction of grind elements in the form of base management, unlocks, resources and weapon tiers? Simply put – Microtransactions.

In Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain players could buy currency to speed up research projects or purchase the mad amount of resources needed to unlock more stuff further down the line. In Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey players can purchase experience boosts in order to level up faster, not to mention the usual loot box malarkey. Reading user reviews of the latter I got the same impression I got playing the former – A fast, smooth progression at the start which quickly hits a concrete wall in the middle game, forcing countless hours of repeated grind just to surpass what feels in every conceivable way an artificial road block.

I could feel in my playthrough of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain how the grind was negatively effecting the story and my own enjoyment. It became so slow, tedious and soul crushing that I just couldn’t take it anymore. I quit the game because I just couldn’t keep clearing these artificial road blocks even though I was enjoying the story (as weird and insane as it went). The grind was literally holding the story hostage for me and asking me to pay for it. Yeah, not gonna happen. I don’t negotiate with terrorists . And for what was all of this done? As stated above, microtransactions.

After all, these are genuine modern ills in genres that had never been truly plagued with them before. An experience that throttles enjoyment from a story, halves or even halts progress and threatens players with endless tedium. However this malady has a cure. Funnily enough, the same publishers that sell you this ailing game have the medicine to treat it. The only thing a player needs to do to lessen or completely ignore this disease is to pay cash. In return, the publishers will give them the experience boosts, top tier gear and all the needed resources to remove the blocks they imposed to begin with.

Of course, some people have been skeptical of this. They refuse to believe publishers will sabotage their own products to such a degree and often insist that the extra monetization is simply an aid for people who have less time on their hands. The excuses baffle me completely because they ignore the examples to the contrary. The biggest one is Middle Earth: Shadow of War. The sequel to the unexpected hit Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, it was saddled with microtransactions from the start to such a degree as to cheapen its main selling point (the nemesis system) and turn the final act into a test of patience as players were forced to grind endlessly in order to unlock the game’s true ending. When the publisher saw no further profit from direct monetization, they had the developers remove it in order to score some publicity points and pick a few late sales. This forced the developers to revamp the entire game economy in order to remove the microtransactions.

Would the exclusion of microtransactions from the start had boosted the popularity of Middle Earth: Shadow of War and had players express more favorable opinions to its story? Possible. What is known though, is that the microtransactions had alienated part of the original game’s player base, caused a lot of bad publicity for the game itself and left a lot of actual paying players with bad taste. A good game completely ruined by a mechanic that had no point being included to begin with.

This is the core of it all. This addition of grind feels foreign in such series, because it is. Grind was never meant to be core to the Metal Gear Solid experience, and I certainly don’t remember Assassin’s Creed formula requiring endless faff to get better weapons. In fact, the story progression rewarded the players with the tools needed. Now though, if a player wanted a better weapon, they ought to grind enough hours to gather the resources for it, have it spawn as a percentage drop or perhaps buy a loot box and hope they get it – basically gamble.

This is the end result of the microtransactions and loot boxes. After all, for companies to get more digital currency sales, they need to create demand. For demand to exist, they need an incentive for players to purchase microtransactions. Just carving parts of the game and day one downloadable contents isn’t enough and often have negative coverage. Instead, put in soul crushing grind and offer people the ability to skip it with an easy payment. Its so scummy and transparent as to make my skin crawl. It is also very effective as microtransaction revenue keeps growing.

The worst part is that many gaming sites fail to report on this at the start. Grind itself is often set up at the middle\late game in order to trap customers. Give players the feeling of smooth progression, get them hooked on the rewards then spring the trap when they are already halfway into the story. Since many game sites compete to release early reviews, they fail to mention the effects of the microtransactions because they rarely reach the grind stretches. After all launch windows are small and writers need to push reviews out as fast as possible for consumers to read. Missing that window literally costs money for those sites. Whatsmore, if they lean too hard on the score due to the effects of over monetization, they may get blacklisted by publishers, which further decreases their launch window opportunity. Not to mention that nowadays many publishers simply keep the microtransactions offline during the review window and turn it up after the period where most game copy sales are made (usually the first couple of weeks).

The last part is that in order to accommodate these services and limit consumer recourse, many major publishers seek to introduce their own platforms. Electronic Arts’ (with the biggest quotation mark on the Arts) Origin, Activision Blizzard’s Battlenet and Ubisoft’s Uplay are all examples of platforms created specifically at first to sell the publisher’s games and now offload microtransactions. Even Bethesda has gotten into the game with their own buggy, broken launcher and I suspect we may see more major publishers go this route. The problem with such platforms is how cumbersome they become. The average gamer will often purchase a game from Steam, then will need to install a Uplay or Origin client, register in that client and make sure its online just to play the game. God forbids if that player loses connection to the internet. What happens in five – six years when the publishers’ turn off the specific game’s server? The answer is one non functioning game. So much for amassing a game library and replaying games.

Yet we continue to see the insidious introduction of more grind into games. We already lost the sports games to them and now they threaten all sandbox games. What will be next? Will we need to grind hours or buy a loot box in order to get a tank in a real strategy game? Will recruiting soldiers in grand strategy games take two real time hours unless I purchase a booster from the online store? Will a weapon in a first person shooter only become usable if I gather 230 pieces of metal playing online matches? If yes, then I suspect that I’d be turning to other developers for my games, or just cheat. Because cheating seems to be the only remedy for the amount of grinding required to play any modern game. So let us cheat and be proud of it. Fuck grinding!

Red Sand – Prologue

*picture created by luth, please follow him on twitter and support him on patreon

Venqah sat in the middle of the room, facing the transparent wall. Outside of it, the cold void of space stretched from one side to the other like a great black curtain. Within that darkness, distant stars, like so many dots, shone brightly. Each of them, she knew, held a host of secrets that she could never learn in a mere single lifetime, even one as long as hers’. Sitting cross legged and rigid at the center, she slowed her breath and stilled her body in preparation for the coming trance. She wore a simple flowing blue gown that complimented her light blue, almond shaped eyes. Her long raven black hair was tied in a top knot and cascaded behind her back like a waterfall.

She gave one last sweeping glance, making sure all her preparations had been met. The room itself had its illumination lowered to the barest minimum, drowning everything in it in long shadows. The floor had been covered in pinkish sand, evenly distributed across it. It served as a vast canvass into which Venqah had painstakingly engraved runes in concentric circles radiating from the room’s center where she now sat. Smooth polished stones had been carefully laid between the circles, forming constellations now lost to her kind forever while also serving as a pathway of sorts from the only door to her seat. Her seat was a raised circular dais made of what looked like polished obsidian. Even with the dim lighting, it shone with a purple hue that seemed sinister to the naked eye. Outside of these there were no other decorations, the walls and ceiling themselves showing only the smooth bone white surface of the material used in their formation. With the low light and the pink sand, the white walls conjured into Venqah’s mind the inside of some enormous predator’s mouth. The transparent wall only adding to the illusion.

Feeling reassured by her examination, she started to block all of these sights from her mind. After all, they had all been prepared for the ritual. Now her concentration was needed to make it work. Adjusting her sitting position, Venqah took a small parcel which she had placed between her feet. It was a bundle of silks, the size of a clenched fist. In it was wrapped the object of her inquiry. Carefully, she unraveled the fabrics, revealing a piece of jagged metal the length and width of her thumb. It was immediately obvious this was a piece of something larger, a blade of sorts. The surface of the shard was scratched and gouged, having seen repeated use. A couple of stains showed where acids and even rust had eaten into the metal. Even so its edges were still sharp, a testament to which Venqah’s hands bore silent witnesses. The smooth pale skin of her palms was scarred in crisscrossing patterns.

With the shard completely revealed, she plucked the shard and discarded the bundle of silks to her side. she carefully held the shard in one hand then overlaid her other hand on top of it. Clasping the two together around the shard, she drew in a deep breath. She focused her consciousness and her considerable psychic gift, forming an image of herself and throwing it into the shard. She felt herself sink into the shard, seeing it expand all around to encompass her, or perhaps she was shrinking into it. She could see into the metal constructs, the myriad of tightly woven threads expand all around her. As she continued to dive in, they gave way to a great web of molecules. The molecules themselves started to untangle, revealing gaping chasms. Soon she saw single atoms, spread out like the stars outside her window. Finally there was only darkness – true, oppressing darkness. It weighed on her, like walking at the bottom of a deep ocean. However in front of her was the object of her desire: A whispy thread, almost invisible and dancing to some unseen, unfelt current. She reached out to it, grabbing hold and immediately felt herself pulled through.

In the room, the temperature dropped quickly as the gifts of the immaterium were unleashed within it, causing frost to form on the walls and window, spreading quickly in gossamer webs. Goosebumps formed on her skin as her body shuddered uncontrollably due to the cold but she was unaware of it. Instead sweat poured through, drenching her gown and causing it to stick to her body. Her hold on the shard never wavering. Her mind had gone back through time, flung into distant worlds…

…She was lying on her back, her legs crushed under the body of a Carnifex. The beast had been felled by her hands but its charge bore her down with it under its massive bulk. Trapped beneath the creature she could hear the sounds of more chitinious horrors making their way over the slain body of their comrade. The clicking sound of hundreds of small feet moving en masse was unnerving. She could do nothing to get away but wait for the swarm to arrive and engulf her. However, she was not going to give up, she won’t end as Ripper chow. Readying her two blades, she was prepared to fight the incoming horde. She felt anger coursing through her veins, synthesized hormones driving her battered and exhausted body forward. She made herself as mobile as she could while the scraping sound of countless feet drew ever closer, slowly drowning out all the other sounds of the battlefield. Finally the first line of Rippers showed itself. They were ugly things, a cross between a worm and a centipede with a gaping maw filled with sharp teeth. Like oversized ravenous rats the thought came. “Come at me” she screamed her challenge and the creatures obliged, storming ahead in hunger as she brought her blades forward…

…The battlefield was nothing but sea of chaotic flesh and metal. The greenskins and space marines fought each other in a gruesome melee, choppas and chainswords gleaming in the merciless white sun as they descended upon opponents. Bodies littered the ground in the thousands, mostly of Orks but human bodies of Imperial guardsman and space marines could be seen in the mounds. The parched ground, blasted by the sun’s heat, drank in the blood and quickly became a sucking, muddy mire. It took so much effort to just move one foot ahead of the other. Even so, the Orks didn’t seem greatly bothered by the conditions and fought on with the ferocity their species was renowned for. One of the green beasts charged her but was hampered down by the mud, his run slowed down to a waddle. She managed to sidestep his axe chop with some difficulty. The weapon lodged itself within the mire and its owner with the mindlessness attributed to his kind simply attempted to pull it out, allowing her to step in and slash its throat open. A geyser of dark ochre erupted from the wound as the beast collapsed. She scrambled up a pile of bodies half sunken into the ground and pulled herself out with some difficulty. Careful in her steps, she overlooked the battlefield again searching for the chieftain. It wasn’t hard to locate the beast, a giant clad in scrap metal and wielding a huge power klaw. He stood where the fighting was thickest, dispatching space marines like they were mere toys. He was twice their height and several times their width. Even so the space marines managed to injure the monster, dark ochre ran in rivets from a dozen gushes in the scrap armor. She made her way towards the giant, spreading death among the ork ranks as she prepared to face it. The chieftain had its sights set squarely on the space marines so she shouted a guttural challenge at him, amplified by her suit’s vox caster. The giant turned around and faced her, bringing his power klaw to bear. She prepared her twin blades and once again hurled insults at the monster…

…She was on top of a mountain of corpses. They were human corpses, though barely deserving that distinction. Vile and wretched things covered with scars, filth and other crusted fluids. They wore the tattered remains of military and civilian garb on which the symbols of the Dark Gods had been scribbled over the God Emperor’s. She had cut them down by the dozen yet more and more clambered on top of the fallen. The mountain itself was a precarious thing, its terrain treacherous as feet slipped on congealed blood or snagged over awkwardly placed limbs. Many a cultist had caused a gruesome landslide as entire segments of the mountain detached themselves in an avalanche of flesh. Hack, stab, parry, slash. Her entire being had been distilled to these single moments. She had gone beyond exhaustion, her body moving by sheer will power alone. Her armor was filled with rants and dents where a lucky hit or a slowed reaction cost her a wound. Blood trickled from open wounds, her movements re-opening them time and again as she was forced into another desperate melee. She had lost all sense of time. It seemed to her she had always fought on top of the pile of corpses, and always will. She could hear in the distance the crackle of ionized air. Bolts of light started landing on the flesh mountain, hitting cultists at the back and the side. Reinforcements, her mind registered as she stabbed a cultist in the eye socket, his blood gushing out and making it easy to retrieve her blade. Slowly the tide of cultists thinned out as more las bolts descended upon them. Even so she had hardly time to breathe. Something else was climbing her mountain. It was a chaos space marine, his armor a mass of spikes and chains. His helmet had two great horns sprouting from it, twisted and black. The entire armor itself was painted dark red with what she realized had been blood. As he ascended the corpse pile his mailed boots crushed flesh and bone with a stomach churning squelch. In his mailed hands he carried a great power sword which he burnished at her in a challenge. One final contender for her throne at the top…

…Nivash entered the room to see her in the grip of the trance, her fists tightening over the shard which cut into the soft flesh of her palms, drawing clear blood. Nivash raced over, heedless of the inscribed runes which were glowing with ethereal light, his boots imprinting on the soft sand and blurring many of the engraved runes. They sputtered angrily as their glow petered out and soft columns of smoke rose.

He arrived and dais and pried her hands open, struggling as her grip seemed like that of a vice. Finally he managed to force her hands open and shook them hard, forcing her to drop the blood stained shard to the polished obsidian floor. He then kicked it away into the soft sand where it sizzled, the fresh blood bubbling on its surface and blackening from the heat. It was whispering angrily at the Aeldari. Nivash then took the silk bundle and ripped it to ribbons in order to bandage Venqah’s hands. He was careful as he was thorough, not wishing to cause Venqah any more pain. Venqah herself was still recovering from the trance, her eyes slowly regaining focus and her breathing, which had been fast and shallow, slowing down again. The sweat had thoroughly soaked her gown, plastering it to her body and becoming see through which revealed her generous curves. It caused Nivash to slightly blush though such thoughts were quickly banished by his anger at her actions. Seeing that she was back to the present, he lashed at her “You promised you would not delve into that accursed thing again!” he said, his tone near hysterical.

“I promised no such thing” she said, panting. The memories of innumerable wounds had caused her body to develop sympathetic bruising. The pain slowly faded and with some difficulty she levelled her breath. She suddenly felt the chill of the room as her sweat cooled off. Nivash, seeing her tremble, unfastened his cloak and attempted to drape it around her but she threw it away. Instead she started looking for the shard, spotting it where Nivash had kicked it off. She crawled towards it, aware of Nivash’s rising anger and dejection but she didn’t care. He had interrupted her ritual and could have caused her grave harm not to mention ruined her divination. Even now she struggled to recall the sights and sensations, to capture the thoughts he had held as he swung the blade at his enemies. She needed to know more and Nivash had been constantly standing in her way, thwarting her out of some misguided belief. She had no pity for the aspect warrior, only contempt.

Nivash tried once again to interfere, tried to interpose himself between her and the shard “Do you even see yourself? You are acting like a mad woman” his tone pleading. She shook her head as she started laughing. It started in fits and gasps before it finally took over her entire body, shaking it to its core. She quickly hugged herself trying to instill a measure of calm into her manner. She couldn’t get over how pathetic Nivash looked in her eyes. Like a sad puppy trying to gain a stranger’s love. She had no time for him and his childish meddling. “You stand in my way again and you will no longer be able to stand!” she warned him after she stifled her laughter, allowing her anger to take hold instead.

The Aeldari warrior flinched from the tone of her words as though stung. Good, she thought. He reluctantly moved out of her path and she retrieved the shard. It was silent and cool, caked with sand and smeared with blackened blood which gave off a nauseating smell. Even so she held it gently, as though holding an infant. She quickly dusted it off with her gown, not even sparing a thought to the fabric tearing and being smeared by the dirt. Once it was clean she searched for the silk cloth only to get irritated as she saw the thing has been torn apart by Nivash to bandage her wounds. She covered it with the remains, she’d have to find a more suitable cloth later on in her apartments. She cast her gaze over the room, getting angrier as she saw the damage Nivash had wrecked in his oafish manner. Never mind, she consoled herself, the damage can be repaired and soon it would not matter at all. She felt her impatience raise its head once more at the prospect. Just a couple more weeks and she will meet the red clad warrior which had escaped her best scrying attempts. She felt like a teenage girl again and laughed at her own juvenile thoughts. You are a farseer of Saim-Hann, she reminded herself, not a girl hitting puberty.

Even so, she couldn’t let go of her excitement and Nivash had picked up on it, his rekindled anger emboldening him again “Look at you, lusting over a Mon’Keigh!” he shouted. She rose to her full height, even in her ruffled and dirty gown she still seemed imposing. “Is that what bothers you Nivash” she asked mockingly, “or the fact that I did not choose you” she let her barbs sink into his heart. “Or maybe the knowledge that he is more the man you will ever be” she let the final taunt strike deep and wound the warrior’s pride. She could feel his rage building, his wish to lash out at anybody but her. His puppy love had not been endearing or comforting to her and she had wished he’d stayed back in the craftworld. She knew what awaited Nivash and it was not pretty though as the shared voyage progressed she felt less and less guilty of the outcome. Fate after all, was born of choice, and Nivash had made his.

“This entire expedition is but a fool’s quest” he finally let out “And you will see your so-called knight is nothing more than a lowly, dirty Mon’Keigh!” he shouted, turning his back to her and storming out of the room. She spent a few seconds staring at the door, almost afraid he’d come back to give her another piece of his mind but thankfully he did not. Relishing the silence which had befallen the chamber, she took the shard she still carried in her hands and pressed it to her chest, as though embracing a loved one’s memento. “Soon” she whispered to the shard, lowering her head as though talking to a baby.

“Soon”.

Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock

Right off the bat I have a confession to make. I don’t like the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. I saw the pilot, saw that ending and thought “Yep, not for me”. I am writing this as a disclaimer so you know I am not a fan of the series. Yet I really enjoyed Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock (though with some reservations).

If I don’t like Battlestar Galactica, why did I pick the game? Well it was for sale with a couple of good pieces of DLC for a cheap bargain on Steam and it reminded me of Battlefleet Gothic: Armada, one of my favorite games of all time, so I took the risk. I don’t regret it.

So what is Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock? In simple terms its a turn based tactical combat game with some strategy elements. No, I am not confusing the order of things and the review will make this quite clear. The player builds and controls colonial fleets as they engage the Cylons (frakking toasters!) both in skirmishes, side and mainline stories.

The strategic elements boil down to fleet composition, build queues, fleet positioning, research, officer recruitment and mission choices. The map itself is quite small so there is not a lot of space that needs covering. Not a lot of meat for a true strategy enthusiast. That said this level of shallowness makes sense when you realize the main meat of the game is the tactical combat.

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Battles start with a deployment phase where the player positions their ships in an initial formation before their turn starts. From then on, the player has to decide on their ships’ actions in a planning phase before ending their turn to see it play out in real time for roughly 10 seconds intervals. Once the enactment ends their turns begins again. As combat systems go its not the worst and I found myself quite immersed in it.

Combat in the game is quite deep thanks to the range of ships and munitions available, not to mention the physics behind them. Ships differ from each other in mass and thrust, meaning nimble frigates can turn on a dime compared to ponderous battlestars that require several turns to execute a similar 180 degrees maneuver. Whats more, the battlefield is three dimensional, adding verticality. Guns are locked into arcs and angles of fire, meaning turrets on the top of a battlestar wouldn’t be able to hit enemies below it and so forth. This makes positioning very important.

Another factor in positioning is ships’ armor. Ships have hull and armor hit points. Armor is distributed across a ship in sections, with its thickness differing according to the ship’s design. One example is the Jupiter class battlestars, which boasts thick frontal and side armor but is very thin in the back. Once the armor of a section is destroyed, the ship’s hull takes damage. Worse yet, depending on the section the ship’s sub systems could also receive damage.

The sub systems basically govern all of the ship’s functions. Navigation, to give one example, is located at the aft section of a ship and is responsible for speed, i.e. distance the ship can traverse in a turn. Should it take damage, the ship’s ability to cover distance will diminish. Sub systems have fixed hit point but thankfully can be repaired during combat, unlike armor. Officers can also buff the hit points of specific sub systems.

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All of this leads to a complicated dance as the player tries to position their ships so the thickest part of the armor will absorb hits while at the same time trying to get the maximum number of weapons to bear on hostile ships. To aid in this the game introduces a posture slider. Defensive posture minimizes weapon range but helps in repelling boarding action as well as better damage absorption while aggressive posture increases the range and effectiveness of the ship’s guns. Both decrease the ship’s maneuverability.

Besides guns various ships have secondary and tertiary munitions. Most ships will have missile tubes that can be armed with guided missiles, torpedoes, mines and chaff (you can also unlock nukes latter on in the story). Certain ships like the battlestars are equipped with hangars that can house fighters. Vipers can shoot down missiles, raiders and attack capital ships. Raptors are able to board hostile ships or boost the firewalls of friendly capital ships. Each ship can be tweaked to further suit the player’s or mission’s needs.

For these reasons the game locks fleets to seven capital ships maximum with a further point cap (which can be increased via officers). That said considering how hectic, especially in the latter game, battles can be I don’t see this as an issue. During the game I had fun experimenting with various builds, tweaking them as I went along. The constant escalation of force was interesting and quite thematic.

That said the Cylons themselves outside the main missions are not really that difficult and even there were mostly a threat due to overwhelming numbers. That said they still managed to pull a surprise or two on me by introducing hard counters to certain tactics I was employing up until that point. Add to that certain ships’ annoying ability to hack sub systems directly and thus damage them without firing a shot and underestimating them completely will prove fatal.

I found the story itself quite satisfying. The game itself is set approximately 50 years before the show and that is evident in some of the Cylon ships’ designs (not yet the sleek basestars shown in the series but getting there). The player assumes the role of second in command of the colonial fleet after the admiral alongside the battlestar Galactica went missing and the main shipyards were destroyed by a Cylon attack.

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Starting from such a low point, the story mostly revolves around beating back the Cylons and securing the loyalty of the 12 colonies, not all of which are on board the initiative. I also had the Broken Alliances DLC installed which adds a few more missions further fleshing these divides within the Quorum of Twelve (the colonies’ ruling body). The story itself is presented in mission briefings, cutscenes and voice overs during the actual missions. The voice acting itself is quite good.

Added to it is good sound design coupled with a great soundtrack which is evocative of the TV series itself. The fact I can recall most pieces and can say with certainty “Thats from Deadlock!” is a point in the soundtrack’s favor.

Another great feature is the replay camera, which is able to transform hectic battles into cinematic masterpieces. I really am in awe of the technical accomplishment alone. That said I didn’t really use it too much but I thought I should recognize the feature.

All told it took me some 40 hours on the easiest difficulty story to finish the story including the DLC content and as I said in the opening paragraph I found it wholly satisfying. However I also wrote that I had some reservations and I am going to lay them bare.

I am not going to criticize the shallow strategy part because as I said before, the game revolves around the tactical combat. The problem is there is too much combat. Outside the main missions most secondary missions and skirmishes quickly devolve into senseless repetition, not helped by the AI as I noted above. It feels like too much filler and it nearly caused me to step away from the game. In fact had I not wanted to write on the game, I would have quit by the end of the second act rather than have powered through all of it and had missed a lot of content (and possibly gave it a much lower score).

The second problem is that of progression. While officers gain experience through battle and can be also promoted via requisition points, ships remain static. Sure you can tweak ships later on using researched items but there is no real progression for the ship itself. A veteran ship and a newly built one don’t differ in any way besides the armor scaring (which is a small detail I really liked). It makes ships disposable.

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This leads me to the third issue, and that is the lack of a scuttling option. As the game progresses the player unlocks and builds better ships and with the fleet cap, will often discard earlier designs but its impossible to scuttle these ships. I myself ended with dozens of unwanted ships I used to either fortify planets or force fed the Cylons with. Quite going against the theme.

Last but not least is the UI. The UI in this game is clunky. It is uncomfortable and with just a few tweaks could have been much better. As it is, it just gets in the way at times and frustrates, which damages my overall enjoyment of the game. I know it sounds like a petty niggle but considering the playtime it really adds up to a major annoyance.

This leads me to the summary. I have a sneak suspicion that had I been a fan of the show and hadn’t played Battlefleet Gothic: Armada which came out a whole year before it, I’d have rated the game much higher. That said, considering everything I wrote above, I feel content giving it a 7 out of 10. 7 is quite a good score, putting it above average but just not as good as it could have been thanks to the issues I raised in the review. Still I’d recommend it for its combat and story but with a warning regarding UI and repetition.

The Case of Justifying Cheating in Fallout 76

Bethesda wants a written essay on why its bad to cheat in its broken game

Bethesda can’t help itself from generating bad press. After a string of disasters all related to Fallout 76’s launch, including misleading marketing, Bethesda has started banning players for “Cheating”. What falls under the definition of cheating seems broad, as people have reported that using quality of life mods (such as graphics enhancers) were also considered cheating by the company. Whether or not I believed all reports, what came next from Bethesda truly stunned me.

The company decided that instead of players simply appealing the bans, they should write essays on why cheating is bad, to be reviewed by Bethesda’s senior staff like its a highschool and they caught a bunch of students copying the answers to a test. After reading this I was truly speechless. I couldn’t process how a multi million company that produced some of the most groundbreaking and commercially successful games in history, is so completely and utterly deranged in the way it treats its customers.

Recovering from the shock of Bethesda’s audacity, I’ve decided to pick up the glove it tried to throw down in challenge, smacked itself squarely in the face only to stumble and fall down flat on its ass, and write said essay. Though I haven’t bought Fallout 76 nor was banned for cheating on that horrendous mess it dares call a “AAA” game with the biggest quotation marks on the planet, I hope I could still get some course credit from clown university’s own professor Bethesda and dean Todd “It just works” Howard.

I am not going to delve into the psychology of cheating. Suffice to say its a complex and, though fascinating, is beyond the scope of this article. I won’t go into the history of cheating either, as long and venerable as it is. This is not the article’s intent. Instead I’ll focus a bit on the how (only a tad, I am no programmer) and why people did cheat in Bethesda games in the past and may be cheating in Fallout 76. With that in mind, lets jump in.

There are pretty much only two ways to cheat in modern games, either accessing the developer console and inputting codes or using outside programs for it. These programs can be divided into two categories; Cheat Engine and trainers. I am not a programmer as I professed before, but I do know that both programs basically inject code into the game to achieve intended effects. What they are depends on the script and creator, with Cheat Engine being a more recognized, multi purpose tool while other trainers are usually tailored for specific games.

Okay, so now we know how to cheat, the next question is why we’d cheat in Fallout 76. The logical answer would be the same reason people cheated in previous Bethesda games. The common sense answer would be because Fallout 76 is a horrendous mess of a game.

In an average Bethesda game, the amount of bugs and exploits can be mind numbing. The fact that there are titles that have gone years without even a rudimentary fix, including the best selling game the company ever produced such as Skyrim, whose remaster contained all the same bugs as before, should speak volumes. Time and again I found myself glitching on terrain, requiring the no clipping code just to untangle myself from the landscape rather than reload a previous save which would have meant undoing an hour or so of progress.

Add to it old game design that even in today’s standards seems terrible and unbalanced and you have a recipe for disaster. One example are the weight limits. All the time I spent listening to friends playing Fallout 76, one of the most common complaints was about the weight limits. Conversation often drifted to discussing the ways to exploit and increase them since looting and fast traveling in that game seemed to be the main activities my friends were occupied with. All of this made me remember my own experiences in Skyrim.

In Skyrim, I often found myself over encumbered after visiting a dungeon or two, even after building my own manor house because fast traveling back to my home to unload would often break the pace of the game for me, further diminishing my immersion. When players spend half the time in loading screens, its not a show of good game design. In fact, after a week of dealing with the tedium of been nothing more than a glorified sherpe, I decided to make a rare decision and remove the weight restrictions in the game using a mod. The impact was monumental. From a game I played begrudgingly, always mindful of the damn weight limits, it became a fun game of exploration and discovery. It was that simple, yet impactful a change.

This is of course just one example, but there are many more. Suffice to say that Bethesda had prided itself on making huge expansive sand boxes with plenty of stories and locations for players to discover. Yet the mechanics it chose to implement in those games seem at odds with those very goals. This results in a lot of frustration, annoyance and tedium. What is left for players who want to experience those worlds but not be limited by such oppressive mechanics? Cheat of course.

Yes, a lot in a Bethesda game is improved with cheating. There is no debating that. If removing weight limits made exploration so much more enjoyable in Skyrim, I shudder to think what it would do in Fallout 76. After all, no one goes into a Bethesda game to experience the mediocre at best combat system or the agency lacking stories (in fact I never really finished the main storyline in Skyrim and I played that game for over 200 hours!) but explore the vast worlds presented by the games.

Since Bethesda games were until now singleplayer, no one batted an eye about cheating. No one would care if a fellow player cheated just to enjoy the world. After all, the conversations I had about Skyrim revolved around side quests and locales. For this reason many felt, quite rightfully I believe, that cheating in a Bethesda game was not a big issue. I am with them. If it helped them enjoy the game, more power to them.

Bethesda must have thought the same because it allowed the community to mod these games to kingdom come. These were not just the usual cosmetics or quality of life mods often seen in many games of the nature, but some that took the game a few steps forward. These mods would range from fixing persistent bugs that the developers themselves haven’t touched even after years of reports to adding or modifying existing mechanics comprehensively. Better UIs (especially inventory!), improved AIs and more detailed fast travel maps are just the few I had to install just to get a more satisfying game experience. In fact, playing Skyrim without mods is seen detrimental to the enjoyment of the average player. Think about that!

Bethesda studios themselves encouraged this I think, partly out of sheer laziness and cost cutting measures. If the modders fix the bugs and implement long overdue UI changes to the game, then Bethesda wouldn’t need to invest resources and developer hours in doing the bare minimum required of a game studio – making sure their game works consistently. This in turn cultivated its own mindset in the community of fixing the game through intermediaries since the company itself was untrustworthy in that regard and often broke more than fixed with the few patches it did issue.

Which leads us to Fallout 76. Let’s put it simply, the company lied in its marketing. It sought to use its fan base and expand further by promising a cooperative, online experience for Fallout players while emphasizing survival mechanics and PvP to a crowd that already had plenty games of that type to choose from (H1Z1, Rust, The Forest to name a few). Marrying these two populations was an impossible feat to begin with, not helped with Bethesda’s buggy, poorly optimized engine and the implementation of the same tired mechanics that work against the players. Bethesda was courting disaster to begin with.

Thus, when players got the mess that was Fallout 76, they did the one thing they’ve been conditioned to do in previous titles: Mod, cheat and exploit the heck out of the game to glean some enjoyment from their purchase. In most multiplayer games, especially ones involving PvP, a company would put some resources into anti-cheating programs. Bethesda, ever the lazy developer it is, chose to put one line of code about detecting Cheat Engine and called it a day. To say it was laughable would be to spit in the face of all the Fallout 76 players that had to endure this catastrophe.

Of course, etiquette, not to say conscience, would require players in online games not to cheat. That is just good manners. That said, Fallout 76 is not a competitive online game. The PvP handshake is such a joke, that most players just end up avoiding it. Even if someone chooses to engage in PvP, they are put into such a great disadvantage from the start, that its hardly worth it. Worst yet, there is even less of an incentive to go through it as the rewards themselves are poultry in comparison to the effort put into the whole thing. That is if the damage bug doesn’t strike the instigator. Fun, no? (The worst part is describing this reminded me of The Division’s PvP system and that is depressing on a whole different level)

So they cheat. They cheat to make the whole mess bearable. They cheat because they want to explore the world without the myriad of hindrances that Bethesda implemented with its shoddy design. They cheat because that is what they’ve come to expect from a Bethesda game and they cheat because in reality it has no real lasting effect on an ever diminishing online community as more and more players leave the game due to general dissatisfaction.

And now Bethesda woke up to see the utter desolation, not unlike the world of the game it created, and decided to act and curb what were acceptable norms up until this moment. Not for the players sake, of course, but for its own bottom line. If it truly cared about the health of the player base it would have overhauled its game design. It would have put more time into optimizing its engine. It wouldn’t have created an online shop and told people that mods will be supported only a year after launch. All of this speak of a company that was happy to allow its stale mechanics to devolve further, creating a horrible grind just so it could later down the line sell the fixes to its playerbase. Like a sleazy salesperson creating the very problem to which they just so happens to have a solution for. Scummy doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Faced with all the broken promises and features. Hours of endless grind. Constant disconnects and glitches. Inability to save and roll back. An aging engine and ancient mechanics as well as a custom of outsourcing core development to the community. No wonder people are choosing to cheat and exploit the heck out of the game. And as shown, they have every moral right to do so. Because Bethesda lied. Because Todd lied. And because their cheating seems mostly harmless, only hurting future microtransaction sales as Bethesda will undoubtedly attempt to milk its consumers for items and solutions that should have been there from the start.

Spare a thought to what would happen in a couple of years from now when the population has shrunk down to a level that Bethesda sees no real value in keeping the servers alive? People will not be able to go back and play the game since the servers would simply won’t be there. All the mods, all the grind, all that hard work, gone with a flip of a switch. And who can guarantee it won’t happen? Can anyone believe Bethesda’s word after the countless debacles this year? Yeah, I thought so myself.

You can’t, after more than a decade, go to the community you fostered, the community you conditioned to seek solutions outside the company, to use cheats in order to overcome the myriad of glitches and archaic mechanics in your game, and tell them they are in the wrong. You can’t create a half baked product whose multiplayer component seems almost an afterthought and whose PvP is a joke, and wag your finger at us for exploiting it as we try to glean some enjoyment out of this mess. You can’t call us cheaters, Todd, with flimsy proofs after you cheated all of us with this barely functional heap of garbage. The cheaters in Fallout 76 hurt no one and at least have fun. You Todd, and the entire upper management, cheated millions of their money and seem intent on keep screwing your remaining customers. So I don’t think you have the moral ground to call us cheaters while sitting on a throne of lies and broken promises, Todd.

You can send me my grade to youareagoddamnliar@pleaseresign.com. I am waiting with abetted breath for your reply.

Stepping Into the PewDiePile of…

YouTube needs a new face, one that doesn’t mainline racism.

I really didn’t want to write this article. This is only the second article I’ve written since I restarted my blog and yet here I am, about to step into the mire that is PewDiePie. Certainly not what I envisioned when I wanted to write about games and the culture surrounding them.

That said I can’t escape the shadow of PewDiePie’s latest controversy. The fact that I had to add “latest” should be the telling word. This isn’t the first time the “face of YouTube” (and by god, what a sad reflection is that?) had gotten into trouble, and I have a sneak suspicion it won’t be the last.

So what did YouTube’s golden boy do this time? Apparently in one of his videos he recommended viewers check the anime content of one creator going by the name “E;R”. Now this “E;R” fellow is a proven anti Semite with videos dedicated to Hitler speeches, using foul language against minorities and posting on Neo Nazi threads on Gab, the preferred (well, only) platform of the “alt right”, or Neo Nazis if we are being perfectly honest. Oops!

Full disclosure, I didn’t watch the video myself, but I trust all those who reported on it. I don’t watch PewDiePie videos for the same reason I didn’t watch the Twilight movie series: I don’t really care about them. I acknowledge that they exist and are somewhat popular and if people like them, good for them. However, while the Twilight movies were mostly harmless, PewDiePie’s actions have repercussions, not so much for himself but for others using the platform.

I am not going to talk at length about the landfill that is YouTube right now, especially in the advertising landscape. However PewDiePie and his ilk, who have built their riches off of YouTube, certainly aren’t helping. Besides mainlining hate and supplying a gateway to the “alt right” (can we just call them Nazis, please?) for impressionable teens who are the core demographic of PewDiePie, you know the moral aspect, there is the fact he is driving off advertisers. In an era where major organizations are losing funding due to association with far right (again, just Nazis) figures, no sane company would look at YouTube and think of investing major capital in an advertising campaign in a platform that generates so much controversy. That is, unless afforded more control over the content.

Whats more, I find it quite hilarious that people have been pushing PewDiePie down their audiences’ throat as some sort of answer to a growing number of non white, corporate channels in YouTube. Of course, they’d justify their stance by saying that they want YouTube to see that content creators still matter. However making or maintaining PewDiePie’s hold on the number one spot on YouTube through all these years have done little to stop the deterioration of the platform. One could argue that it even helped accelerate it as he brought more scrutiny on the platform as a whole with his constant attention seeking (at best) stunts like saying a racial slur live or guest spotting rabid Islamophobe and short person Ben Shapiro, darling of the “alt right” (again, Nazis).

The fact is, a cursory glance at the top 50 subscribed channels on YouTube reveals that a majority of them are corporate entities. Whether they are named after a band or a singer makes little difference. They are all meant to further corporate interests. The fact “T-Series”, the Indian music and film label, was picked upon for its fast growth smacked a tad racist. I’d have to ask the people who have been promoting PewDiePie if it had been say, Eminem or Katy Perry who were set to overthrow their golden boy if they had been just as adamant in pushing him.

Facts are, demographics, especially online, are changing. There are more Indians than people living in the “western world” (Europe and North America) which content like the “T-Series” would be far more appealing to. Why wouldn’t they want to subscribe to a channel that caters specifically to their tastes in music and video? How is that going to impact the landscape of YouTube negatively? If anything, I think that it will both give the greater exposure to various cultures and tastes, not to mention promote other content creators in those countries to create since they’ll see that there is an audience for it. What is so wrong about that!?

Of course, the defense goes back to “proving” to YouTube that content creators matter. Yet YouTube already has all the data it needs to realise that point and yet it has continuously ignored it, seizing instead on its monopoly to punish content creators by imposing more stringent content ID bots, demonetization tools for companies and maintaining archaic copyright dispute processes that lean heavily in favor of corporate entities. PewDiePie being the biggest channel hasn’t changed YouTube’s position once regarding these issues, so why maintaining it would do so now?

I understand looking at the desolation that has become YouTube and feeling angry, but scapegoating “T-Series” isn’t going to help. Instead realising that YouTube has been a corporate playground for years, ever since being bought by Google which sought to monetize the platform heavily, would do better for these people. There never was an “utopian” or “golden age” for YouTube but rather a wild west where everything was not so much allowed, as just existed as no oversight was in place to crackdown on it. What we see now is just the end result of law being brought to the lawless waste by corporate entities rather than government.

If you want to change YouTube for the better, instead of promoting a millionaire who just struck out for the third time with racism you should be promoting smaller, better content creators who are struggling to break through the sludge that is the YouTube algorithm feed. Lobby governments and support campaigns to bring YouTube and its corporate overlord, Google, to heel. Pressure advertisers with threats of boycotts if they won’t join the community in leveling the playing field for both the corporate and independent content creators. Do something, just not subscribe to a channel as a “declaration of support” because that is both lazy and self serving.

I don’t see a reason why corporate channels and smaller content creators can’t exist on the same platform. I don’t see why an Indian music and video company can’t coexist with a gaming channel and a history channel or a podcast about Warhammer 40k. Most important of all though, I don’t see why giving more subscriptions to a man who has proven incapable of holding himself to the standard needed of him as the “face of YouTube” is going to somehow make YouTube take content creators more seriously. I have a sneak suspicion it might just do the opposite.

*Photo attributed to Hard Drive

The Fallout Fallout

Fallout 76 is out and the verdict seems to be a public lynching

The first time I learned of Fallout 76’s existence was a week before its release when I started seeing reviews of its beta. To say I wasn’t really interested would be an understatement. I haven’t touched the series since Fallout: New Vegas which I bought at a bargain price, played a few hours then uninstalled.

I have found the Fallout series, in particular under the Bethesda banner, to be a messy, buggy, visually outdated, clunky games whose stories lacked agency and interest. The real interesting stories were often buried under terrible UI design and scattered in empty brown sandboxes. The shooting mechanics were terrible for a first person shooter and the character mechanics were too dumb for any serious role playing game. The worst of two worlds is the way I often viewed the series.

As disclaimers go, its quite long but I hope you readers get the message: I don’t like the Fallout game series. However, I can’t deny their cultural importance or the place they hold in mainstream gaming. Thus I just turn a blind eye to them and focus on more interesting aspects of gaming. For that reason, I had no interest in Fallout 4, only taking notice of its mixed reception the same way a passenger on a train takes interest in the landscape flowing past their window. Yet Fallout 76 seems to have done something quite extraordinary for me to not be able to ignore it: It made Fallout fans angry.

While I admit there is some satisfaction in seeing an enraged fanbase of what I view as mediocre game series turn on its creators, I have to try and think on WHY it happened. Why did this game offend so many in the Fallout community as to review bomb the game, have news outlets damn it and give it scores so low, lower in fact than Kane and Lynch, a game so terrible that it only warranted a 6(!) on Gamestop. Like a witness to a trainwreck, I feel compelled to watch and try to decipher the mess.

Watching the many reviews online, I personally don’t get the hate. Visually the game is indistinguishable from Fallout 4: Ugly. Bethesda games were always quite graphically impaired, filled with clunky character animations, horrible shooting mechanics and copy pasted interiors. Not much has changed on that front in Fallout 76. Next is the story or lack of. People complain about the fact there are no NPC characters to give life to the wasteland but in all my experiences with Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas that is an upgrade. Bethesda’s Fallout series never had much life in it and what NPCs you could interact with would often stare at you lifelessly or repeat their pre-programed routine, making you feel as though you were wandering in an animatronic theme park.

Next comes the bugs, but as infuriating and game crashing as Fallout 76’s bugs are, how do they differ from all the previous incarnations in the series? Bethesda has a reputation, A REPUTATION, as a shoddy game developer that pushes half baked products on store shelves, does only the minimal bug fixing and often relying on the community to debug its games. Those that bought the newest game have no right to be outraged in that regard.

Gameplay then, is the last aspect to explore as to the cause of the outrage. That said, there is little change on that front. It is still the same horrible shooting mechanics and lack of meaningful character progression. This time though, instead of choosing perks every few levels you get ability cards that help customize your character and perhaps supply an opening for another avenue of microtransactions. Not much change from Fallout 4. There is still the stupid looting and building mechanics that add very little to the game. The only two major changes in my eyes are the survival aspects (needing to manage your food and water) and the VATS system.

The survival aspects themselves are almost token, and don’t seem to intrude much on the overall Fallout experience while the VATS system change is, well, dumb. In the past, VATS was a nice pause button or a free “Get Out of Jail” card if things got hectic in a shootout. You could take time to pick targets, choose what organs to shoot for maximum success\damage then see it unfold in slow motion. Since Fallout 76 is an online multiplayer game, you can’t really pause the server for every individual so VATS was changed to basically an aimbot. No, I am not kidding. It is literally an aimbot, allowing you to target an enemy and lock onto them with your weapons with hardly any player input.

Did I forget to say Fallout 76 is an online multiplayer game? Yeah, I guess we found the reason for the outrage. The biggest problem for Fallout 76 is its multiplayer aspect. Not because the experience itself is horrible, after all as I demonstrated, there is little deviation from the games that came before it. That said, by making it a multiplayer game, Bethesda has pretty much shot itself in the foot.

The problem with making it a multiplayer game is that what little immersion there was in the game is basically ruined. Not only are the people in the server total strangers who may dress in wacky outfits and make rude gestures at the player, they also queue to the same events and stories, meaning they hinder quest completion as well as the immersion itself. After all, part of the “Charm” (With the biggest quotation marks possible) was the solo exploration aspect.

Don’t get me wrong, players had been clamoring for a cooperative Fallout experience (The sadists!) but not one populated by a myriad of strangers who keep running around, knocking things over and just reinforcing the emptiness of the world. In a way, Bethesda managed to expose the cheapness of the Fallout experience by shedding light on it with multiplayer gameplay.

Of course, this isn’t the only reason why Fallout 76 is receiving such pillorying. The multiplayer only aspect was merely the catalyst that lit the powder keg. The real explosive powder was the fanbase’s expectations of the game. While Bethesda marketed the game with an emphasis on multiplayer and survival, they did try to have it both ways by either being evasive on the singleplayer aspect, (You know, the thing that made the series popular) or claiming the multiplayer aspect won’t hinder it (Which it doesn’t, until you get disconnected from the server and lose all your progress). Of course, they also lied about performance and graphics but that is small potatoes compared to the main selling point of the game – Exploration.

After all, Fallout games (and Elder Scrolls games for that matter) are all about the exploration. You can yell “Story” from the top of mount Everest for all you like, but all Bethesda main stories (and many side stories) are total rubbish. Playing more than two hundred hours of Skyrim I didn’t feel once the urge to continue the main plotline. It was the lore and exploration which drove the game for me. The same is true for Fallout. The game series is good in spite of its stories, not because of them. However Fallout 76 doesn’t even have that good an exploration drive. After all its not the player exploring an unknown wasteland, its a bunch of players doing it. With the spell of crafting a unique experience broken, all the faults that have existed in the series since Fallout 3 came to bite its studio in the ass.

Yes, there is nothing new in the complaints of the Fallout fanbase. Bethesda continued to dilute the series, dumbing it down for mass appeal. It seems that this time they simply crossed a line that allowed the rubes to realize they were robbed. The degradation of the series was there for all to see, but I guess you only become aware of it with a crowd, with open mics running around an event and killing the boss before you can get your chance.

I feel like a lot of the outrage comes from waking up. The army of fans who really liked the series and deluded themselves into thinking a messy, buggy game that somehow gets worse with each iteration is worth it for the experience. When that experience was cheapened by the addition of the online component, they woke up to see they’ve been living in a slum catching fire and the landlord doesn’t give a damn saying instead “It just works!”. Yeah, I guess I’d be angry too.

That said, the only recourse those fans have is either try to force a refund (Which is a tad problematic since Bethesda made their own launcher and sold it outside of Steam for what I believe could be this very reason) or boycott Bethesda products. Don’t buy the new Starfield and Elder Scrolls VI. That said, we all know that fans often like to forgive abusive game companies because they liked previous games of theirs and they hold franchises to ransom. I don’t like to make allusions to battered spouses, but it sure feels that way. Would Fallout 76’s outrage live long enough to make gamers ditch Bethesda? I feel a tad cynical in saying “I don’t think so” because like every battered spouse they’d go back after a promise of “We are sorry” and “We will change and take your feedback into account”. After all, they made Skyrim! (and how many years has it been since Skyrim?). Todd wouldn’t lie (narrator’s voice: Todd always lies).

Bethesda, Bethesda never changes.

Warhammer: Vermintide 2 Shadows Over Bögenhafen

Shadows Over Bögenhafen is the new Downloadable Content (DLC) available for Warhammer: Vermintide 2 which came out more than a month ago. I stumbled across it when I saw a sale for the base game in my steam feed. Since I enjoyed the base game and the asking price (equivalent of $10) was reasonable I thought why not and bought it.

For a review of the base game you can go here, but suffice to say that the DLC doesn’t change the basic gameplay. It remains a co-op horde survival game with an emphasis on melee, an interesting loot and crafting system as well as plenty of character. I loved it the first time around and I still do. What the DLC itself adds are a couple of things that in hindsight should have been included before as well as a mini campaign.

The mini campaign takes place in the city of Bögenhafen where a powerful chaos artifact named the Blightreaper had been locked for safekeeping. When the Skaven and their Norscan allies, the Rotbloods, attack the city in order to take possession of the artifact, its up to the Ubersreik Five to stop them.

The mini campaign itself consists of two maps, each a sprawling district of the city. You start in the piers and go through the poor district before crossing over to the main city, traveling through the sewers and emerging into the upper levels. The map design itself feels a tad sloppy compared to the expertly crafted maps of the base game. I often found myself at dead ends forced to backtrack or going in circles. Another element that distinguishes these maps is visibility. In each map there is a part where due to circumstances (smoke or lack of light) visibility drops nearly to zero, making it harder to see incoming enemies or rely on ranged weapons. In particular the second map where in the first half you wade through pitch black sewers, forced to carry a torch which further diminishes your offensive and defensive capabilities.

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Enemy wise, its still the same deal. You have squishy hordes, tough elite enemies and bosses which can easily demolish a party if spawned in a tight claustrophobic room, which happens from time to time. In regards to the boss spawns, it seems like it was tweaked as in many maps I found myself fighting two bosses, sometimes even three.

Graphics still look gorgeous and the new maps have great visuals. Magnificent sky boxes, excellent lighting, sweeping vistas all contrasted by the grim mire of the unplanned urban sprawl and unkempt sewers. Echoing my words from the previous review, the art team has really gave it its all and it shows.

That said, the mini campaign only adds about an hour of gameplay in total. Thankfully, Fatshark, the game’s developers, were smart enough not to divide the community and allow all players to play the new maps in Quick Play mode. I also found out that you can select the new maps and play them even if the rest of your party doesn’t own the DLC, which is neat. Props where due.

The second major addition is Okri’s Challenges. An addition to the game that tracks and rewards players. There are 207 challenges in total, some as easy as finishing the campaign, leveling a character or killing a boss. Others require completing an insane number of missions on hard difficulty or killing a certain enemy in a certain way. Each challenge unlocks a reward, either cosmetic or a high level chest which will probably contain powerful gear. By the way Electronic Arts, this is how you instill in your playerbase a sense of accomplishment and pride. The fact that the cosmetic items cannot be bought and must be earned is really a throwback to better times in gaming when character appearances denoted skill.

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Like I said, this is something I feel should have been in the base game at launch. The fact however, that it was added with the DLC and even given access to the entire playerbase is commendable. It gives better purpose to grinding, as in the past it was just for better loot and completion’s sake (i.e. complete the game in every difficulty). It also helps retain players’ interest far better and incentivizes playing different characters and builds, something that was surely lacking before. This is evident in that fact that even though my main is Kerillian, I’ve been playing other characters in an attempt to level them up and complete challenges.

Another tool to help keep players’ engagement is the daily and weekly challenges. Daily challenges are available to all players while weekly ones are only available to DLC owners. The daily challenges often involve slaying 3 monsters as a party, or gathering 3 tomes or grimoires and so forth. They can be usually done under an hour with a full party or up to a couple of hours of solo play. They often reward the players with a valuable chest, thus helping weaker players gain good gear. The missions themselves reset at midnight GMT time. The weekly missions reward players with cosmetics chests (either weapon or character) and take significant more time. By myself it took around six to eight hours to complete the objectives. That said, since they reset only once a week, players have more time to finish them and once more, with a group they take significantly less time to clear.

This leads me to the final addition to the game, cosmetics. Though there were some alternate costumes before, the new DLC added a slew of them. A lot of them can be unlocked via challenges as stated before, each an indication of an accomplishments. Other varieties can be found in the Bögenhafen chests that are given by the weekly challenges. This includes hats, outfits and portrait frames. Also expanded upon were the weapon skins (also known as illusions) with new ones added. Whats more, now new weapons skins can be obtained via the same Bögenhafen chests. Thankfully, you can transfer weapon skins between weapons due to the game’s crafting system (thus you don’t feel like you wasted them, unlike another certain game *cough* Destiny 2 *cough*). Overall though, I found this aspect of the DLC the least interesting for me because the original look of the characters was already great (again, much credit goes to the art team) and I usually don’t bother much with character customization.

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Overall, the new DLC injects new vigor in the game. Thanks to it I’ve gone back to playing Warhammer: Vermintide 2 regularly and so have some of my friends. The fact that I still grind day in and day out so long after completing the main stories is both a testament to the game’s strength and the DLC’s additions.

If you can afford to buy the DLC, I highly recommend it, and even if you can’t, I suggest going back to Warhammer: Vermintide 2 to check on the free updates. I guarantee you’ll get hooked back.

Stellaris: Distant Stars

Reviewing a Paradox Interactive game is a tricky job. Within a year or two the game receives patches, new expansions and downloadable content, changing it completely. For long time Paradox Interactive customers such as myself, the base game is viewed as merely a foundation upon which the company will often build upon. Examples of this abound with Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis IV and Hearts of Iron IV. Stellaris is no exception and while the base game is solid and fun, thanks to expansions such as Utopia and Apocalypse, it has changed considerably. Now Distant Stars comes along to add another layer to the foundation.

Being a downloadable content pack, Distant Stars adds a lot to the game. Rather than breakdown every addition, I want to focus on what I view as the main selling points of the pack. Otherwise I’d just be parroting the change log. First and foremost, Distant Stars adds a whole slew of events to the game. Stellaris already had a large number of events which gave life to its randomly generated galaxy. Distant Stars adds even more, prolonging the exploration phase and giving players who focus on it further benefits. Some of the new events have quest chains and consequences which I’d rather not spoil in the review. Suffice to say they are all interesting and quite surprising at points.

Another noticeable change brought by the content pack is for anomalies. Before, anomalies would be ranked on a 1 to 5 scale and could be failed, leading to some catastrophic events (and dead scientists). With Distant Stars, anomalies rating scale was doubled, reaching to 10. Furthermore, scientists can no longer fail anomalies, turning the ranking into as a multiplayer which increases research time. The balance of risk versus reward is still maintained though as the multiplayer can really stack up. Occupying a single scientist in an exploration vessel for upwards of two years to research an anomaly is a waste of resources, especially in the early game where every exploration ship counts.

Other additions include two new Leviathans, each with their own unique rewards. New perks as well as changes to old ones (Master Builders receives a huge overhaul that makes it even more desirable). Re-balancing of traditions. A few new technologies including an ability for science ships to travel via sub space, thus circumventing bottle necks. The hyperlane generation has also received a fair bit of tweaking, creating more bottle necks and natural constellations which allow for a proper strategic depth. AI difficulty scaling returns, having been previously stripped from the game, for people who want more challenge. The marauders’ behavior was also improved and once a player empire reaches a certain level of naval power, they would call off raids. Pirates spawn was adjusted and now they won’t spawn every decade (by mid-game, if you manage your empire well, they wouldn’t spawn at all). Some event fixes were also added, in particular the Enigmatic Fortress and the Worm-In-Waiting.

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Yet I haven’t talked about the most major addition to the game – The L gates. L gates are a new mid-game crisis centered around these gates. Unlike other gateways, these spawn only in black hole systems at their center and are scattered all over the galaxy. They each bear the name “L Gate” and cannot be restored even if the player had researched the gateway activation technology. Instead, the player needs to gather seven insights through exploration. Once all insights are gathered, a new technology would become available called “L Gate Insights”. Researched, it will create a special project for a scientist to preform on the first L gate whose system the player had claimed. The L gates all connect to a constellation outside of the galaxy known as the L cluster.

Without spoiling what is out there, I can say that the gates were sealed for a reason. That said the L cluster has its own rewards. Special strategic resources that can only be found there, plenty of colonizeable planets that can be quickly and cheaply terraformed and lets not forget the L gate itself which connects to dozens of locations across the galaxy. This makes the L cluster quite valuable not just economically but also militarily. However the L gates must be treated as a proper mid game crisis, albeit one the player has some control over its timing (unless the AI beats you to it, at which point you are most assuredly in trouble). Thus opening the L gate should only be done when the player is truly prepared for it.

Graphics wise the content patch adds binary and even trinary star systems, brown dwarf suns and ice belts, making the universe even more beautiful and varied. Sound wise I haven’t noticed any additions to the soundtrack though it is solid as ever. That said there are a few new voice packs for notifications as well as a fully voiced tutorial advisor which can aid newer or returning players.

Overall I had a lot of fun with the new content and it did get me back into playing Stellaris for a few weeks straight. All the additions are solid and for its price tag of 10$ I feel like I got my money’s worth. It feels weird to grade a downloadable content pack but I’d give Distant Stars a solid 8/10 as it adds a lot to the base game. That said when it comes to recommending it, I’d put it strictly for Stellaris fans only. If you don’t like Stellaris or were turned away by the major changes in the Apocalypse expansion, this content pack won’t change your mind.

8/10 for Stellaris fans only.