Five Ways Umaru-chan is the Ultimate Gamer

As we wind down the home stretch of 2015, it’s a good time to look back on what a great damn year it’s been for geeks and gamers. Fallout 4, The Witcher 3, new Star Wars next week, Undertale, two great Marvel Netflix series, another year of Gamemoir; good times all around. And as always, Japan was ahead of the nerd curve and delivered yet another hit anime celebrating and mocking gamer culture with Himouto! Umaru-chan.

The show is based on a manga about the most popular girl at her high school. Umaru is beautiful, athletic, elegant, academic, loved and admired by all who know her. She literally sparkles. But she’s got a dirty little secret. The word “himouto” denotes a woman who behaves perfectly in public, but turns into a total slob at home. Umaru is a level S otaku, and as soon as she’s out of the public eye she reverts to a bratty, selfish chibi imp who can’t be parted from her hamster hoodie and devotes herself entirely to video games, manga, and the quest for the perfect junk food combination.

The show has captured the heart of the internet with its protagonist’s exaggerated (yet totally relatable) depiction of nerd insanity and it’s another feather in the cap of Japanese pop culture’s increasingly prevalent use of gamer culture. These are five reasons why Umaru-chan’s depiction of the life of a hardcore gamer is on point.

Split Personalityumaru comparison

It’s the central premise of the show that Umaru is a different person in public than she is at home. Only her long-suffering brother knows her dark secret. In the show as soon as she steps over the threshold to her apartment, her beautiful, elegant, sparkling self physically shrinks into the proper woman-child she is on the inside as she pulls out her nerd gear and she immediately begins plotting to spend every minute lazing about, eating crap, and gaming at all costs. Umaru avoids having friends over and when they do show up, they don’t even recognize her in that state, mistaking her for a little sister.

Considering that in Japan otaku culture has been relatively accepted for decades and this is still something people feel the need to conceal even there, you can imagine why American gamers have latched onto this show as quickly as they have. It wasn’t so long ago I was playing my DS in the breakroom at work listening to the meatheads a few tables over talk shit about me “watching cartoons” or “playing Pokemon or some shit” (it was Final Fantasy IV, noobs!). Maybe if they took up a hobby they’d have better things to do than comment on what everybody else does on their own time.

Point is, there is a weird shame associated with gaming in public. As if you’re doing something wrong by having a hobby that isn’t obsessing over which rich people are dating each other. Could somebody be the most popular person at school and be a proud hardcore gamer? Why the hell not? Umaru’s desire to maintain her lovable public facade while secretly indulging the unstated shame of her otaku leanings is the comedic hinge that makes this show swing.       

umaru umr fighting tournamentArcade Dweller

When I think of my formative years, I think of one place: the arcade. Back in the day, the best quality games were only available for a quarter a play as PC’s and consoles couldn’t achieve the same level of graphics and gameplay until around the PlayStation/N64 era. But more than that, the arcade was a place where gamers could gather and socialize. The smell of popcorn and quarters mixed with the cacophony of dozens of gaming machines with the volume cranked and crowd cheering Street Fighter II combatants and the feel of the coin return slots as the quarterless desperately searched each one for the possibility of just one more game. That was the ‘90s for me.

Arcades aren’t really a thing anymore in modern America, but Japan still holds it down, and it’s Umaru’s home away from home. Naturally, she can’t be recognized in public so she wears a masked disguise and goes by the name UMR. Why UMR? Because in the old days if you got a high score in an arcade game, you got the honor of entering your initials (or a 3 letter curse word of your choice) for all to see.

UMR is the scourge of the arcade, making the owners shake in their boots as she masters and exploits the infamous rip-off claw game and leaves with an armful of loot. She also befriends her excessively ambitious and energetic school rival after narrowly “beating” her in a local fighting game tournament, making her social enemy at school her secret gamer friend. Daaaawwww.

Strapping on Her Old Schoolumaru famicon

Any real deal gamer feels the siren song of old school nostalgia from time to time. It doesn’t feel like all that much time has passed since I was marveling at how amazing 16-bit graphics looked, but when I compare them to modern games it feels like I must have been cryogenically frozen for a hundred years. Did we really see that massive an improvement in a mere two decades?

Anyways, as amazing as games look right now (and as crappy-looking as those same games will seem ten years from now) there’s an undeniable charm to the classic ‘80s/‘90s titles minimalistic graphics and music. In one great scene, Umaru pulls out her Famicon and challenges her brother and friend to The Game of Life. The hell? Yeah, they used to make digitized versions of popular board games back then. All of the family fun, none of the cleanup.

You know you’re hardcore when you’re unironically playing an ‘80’s adaptation of a goddamn board game. That’s something so awesome, it would never even have occurred to me. At this point, any gamer not only has to respect this character, they need to worship her. And as young as she is, Umaru’s no nostalgia tourist, either. She knows the secret to 8-bit console cartridge repair passed down through the generations: if it doesn’t work, just blow in the bottom. Magic!  

umaru bath castle dsNo Time to Waste

Another nerdtacular moment came when Umaru took a bath while playing her DS wrapped in a plastic baggie, declaring that as a gamer she can’t let a second go to waste. And good god is she right. I’m a little disturbed that my first thought was “why didn’t I ever think of that?” With so many games coming out on all consoles all the time, it’s become impossible to keep up. What I wouldn’t give to have the kind of free time I did when I was that age.

Every weekly PSN sale tempts me and adds to my backlog of unplayed games as I pour dozens of hours into Fallout 4 and ponder how I am ever going to do anything else again while my DVR approaches full capacity. Must. Play. More. Games. But where to find the time? Should I divorce my wife? Disown my son? Sell my house and quit my job? All I really need is an electrical outlet, wi-fi, my PS4, and my portable projector. Everything else is just taking away from valuable gaming time, right?

It’s hard not to love the image of Umaru sleeping with her PSP clutched to her chest too. My son does this sometimes with his iPad on weekends when we let him stay up. He literally plays until he passes out. Is it healthy? Probably not, but if you can’t relate then you ain’t hardcore enough.

Dem Opening Creditsumaru pokemon opening

Himouto! Umaru-chan sets the tone right off the bat with its audial and visual depiction of its namesake’s insane lifestyle of choice. It’s a frantic mixture of gaming sights and sounds, homages, and general goofiness involving armies of hamsters (Umaru’s spirit animal, pet, and costume of choice), frenzied J-pop vocals, an all-protagonist dance party (maracas are involved), and of course a brief soft melodic interlude to show off her sweet and suave public persona before her starry-eyed chibi otakuism crashes back in.    

You won’t see a lot of shows or hear a lot of songs that incorporate the sound of Mario dying and you’ve got to love the Pokemon, Mario Kart, and Monster Hunter visuals. The lyrics are pretty much the character’s thoughts singing the praises of doing nothing, eating junk, having video games for friends, and acting like a brat in lieu of telling her brother she loves him.

I’m loving all of the gamer-baiting anime is doing these days. We may be legion, but as far as American media is concerned it’s the legion of the damned so we don’t get a lot of play outside of our own circles. A TV show where an argument between sister and brother is stylized as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney? Yes please. All hail the animated queen of gamers. Long may she reign.  

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Have We Seen the Horrible Future of Game Reviews?

Expressing opinions has always been a risky business, but it’s still a profitable business nonetheless. In the good old days, we had a limited number of publications who paid professional critics to review the latest thing and presumably help readers decide for themselves whether or not any given film/book/restaurant/etc. was worth their time and money. It was cute.

Welcome to the digital age. Now we are dealing with the infinite virtual real estate of cyberspace and its countless opinions and earning capabilities and an endless audience of anonymous people poised to vent their hate upon each other. And now we have Metacritic, ready and willing to deliver all of the reviews for all of the things to you on a single page. It’s a new world, baby. So why is it that all of this now means less than ever? Is it even possible to ascribe credibility to any given review when everybody with a keyboard or a cell phone is desperately posting and reposting every thought that enters their head across the net in an attempt to your attention by any means necessary?

rihanna chris riotta tweet shit happens

The author’s official response. Seriously.

What brought on this round of steady thinkin’ wasn’t Gamergate (thank god) or any other movement out to change the world (or at least the parts of it that matter the least), but a recent accidental leaking of Mic’s review template for a Rihanna album that hadn’t been released yet. That is to say they wrote an analysis of music they had never heard and just left out a few words and phrases to be filled in by whatever song/music service/lyrics fit the narrative for the album as they’d constructed it. And considering the increasingly banal output of most mainstream media outlets, this revelation was less of a surprise than I’d have hoped.  

This isn’t directly relevant to gaming, but what happens to older media will almost certainly happen to newer media if it hasn’t already, especially in a time where information is transmitted instantly across the entire world and everybody wants to be the first to soak up those page views. This is even more true in the tech-savvy and….mmmmm…. let’s say “occasionally overly passionate” gamer culture. So the question has been raised again: do reviews even matter? Like, at all? And should they?”

Obviously, the answer on a financial level is yes. Sites post these things because people read them. Publishers give bonuses to devs when their game achieves a high Metacritic rating, and gamers come out in droves to tear down any game that displeases them in the slightest manner by bombarding sites with bad user reviews while Youtubers make a living posting videos dissecting every aspect of releases old and new, so clearly the perception is that these things matter. At the end of the day, people are making a lot of money and getting a lot of attention doing this.

But consider the cultures of various forms of entertainment. Being a geek of all trades, I can’t help but notice that reviewing patterns differ greatly from one medium to another, and the results have become highly predictable. Often disturbingly so. Metacritic has often been lambasted for bringing review culture to a new disposable low, but they’re just the messenger. Each writer or publication is responsible for their own output. When “shit” like this happens it’s because they created it. Regardless of our personal interpretations of it impact on popular culture Metacritic is a great resource for tracking mainstream entertainment trends. So let’s take advantage and have a quick look at what gaming looks like compared to other entertainment media right now.

On the surface, game reviews seem to be striking a decent balance at the moment. At any point in time there are a lot of average scores, several good scores, a few great ones, and some stinkers. But when dealing with unimpressive AAA titles it does seem like the scores level out somewhat and magically dodge lower ratings while a lot of decent smaller games of comparable quality get the full brunt of the critical shaft.

Music is the oldest form of popular media, arguably the most subjective, and the least impressive when you look at the state of its critics. A glance at Metacritic confirms an intensely blase critical landscape where almost every release is within the same score range and the content of the reviews often say nothing of genuine artistic relevance. The only really highly rated albums are reissues of bonafide classics (which typically got lackluster reviews as well in their day) and the relatively low-rated albums are usually reserved for older flash-in-the-pan artists with limited followings. Everything else is almost custom-designed not to offend either the fans or the haters, as if they’re all looking for new ways of saying “it’s good if you like it, but not all that if you don’t”. It’s no wonder some sites feel comfortable using review templates.

metacritic games movies

Noncommittally positive ratings for CoD and Assassin’s Creed. How scintillating.

The film industry, on the other hand, seems to inspire elitism in critical circles, with a broad range of criticisms both objective and subjective. Some movies are so widely hated they will literally get a single digit average rating, others are endlessly applauded regardless of mainstream visibility, and most will have mixed results. You may not agree with any given review, but at least actual opinions are expressed with little regard for popular tastes. Film as a popular art is a little over a century old and the critical expectations and trends are pretty well established, for better or worse. It’ll be interesting to see if it follows suit and tips the balance further towards irrelevance in the future.

And that brings us back to video games. As an art form, it’s still finding its footing, so it’s not crazy that the state of its journalism is in flux. Sites rely on reviewing new releases, which relies on receiving early copies of a game from the publishers. And if you trash their games, they’re less likely to want to provide you with one. You can listen to an album or watch a movie in a couple hours tops, but most big games require a substantial commitment of time to explore and understand the mechanics and story so waiting until release day is hardly an option. The likelihood of somebody using impressions garnered from beta releases, demos, and past releases in the franchise to write a pre-review or to brown nose in the name of future professional considerations is much greater in gaming journalism than in other media.

And even putting that aside there’s the fans. The rabid, trolling, sanctimonious, Poe’s law invoking, death threating, fanboying fans. God bless them. God bless them to Hell. Even writing a well-thought-out opinionated-yet-objective masterpiece of digital entertainment analysis is going to bring on the hate either from lovers or haters of any given game or company. Could this possibly skew journalists’ content? Of course. Not everybody understands that when you guys threaten to murder people and their families in an AIDS fire because they loved the last GTA more or less than you did for any reason it just means you care. It’s like a digital hug (or at least an awkward unwanted grope).

Films have always been split between art and entertainment, with critics adoring the art and often disregarding the entertainment while fans have done just the opposite and music has insane fans that appear to have driven the state of its critical journalism into complete paralytic impotence. Where does that leave gaming? Games are pure entertainment now aspiring to be interactive art and succeeding more and more often, but in terms of fan passion we are trending hard towards popular music. We can probably expect professional critics to follow suit eventually.

It seems really likely that some gaming site is going to go full Mic at some point in the future if it hasn’t happened already, given the extra pressure that this youngest and most awesome of entertainment mediums places on its long-suffering journalists. As it is, most professional commentators are legit fans following their passion, but eventually that head of steam will run out, the corporate mainstream will have its way, and Gamergate will rise again, this time with complaints that go beyond an obscure female game designer cheating on her boyfriend with a journalist (god, did that whole thing really happen?).

So enjoy it while it lasts, folks. My psychohistory game is strong and I’ve seen the future. Right now we’ve got a vibrant community of sites and publications with frequently strong opinions (be they right or wrong) and that’s something we should relish as we discuss our favorite hobby. But there’s a lot of money to be made there and when corporate America figures us out, they will take us over and the result will be boring. We’ll always have the comments sections and message boards to name call and threaten one another, but in terms of legitimate opinionated professional content our days may be numbered.


mass effect andromeda

[USE AS HEADER IMAGE]

For BioWare fans, it’s been a long wait for [LAUNCH DATE], but Mass Effect: Andromeda is finally here. The latest entry in the beloved sci-fi action-RPG series is another massive space opera that rewards gamers’ patience with [INSERT RELEVANT PHRASE] and expands upon the themes of previous Mass Effect titles while successfully integrating [NEW MECHANIC STOLEN FROM ANOTHER GAME] with a new sheen of polish on the familiar tactical RPG-shooter mechanics that have defined the franchise. While some fans may miss the [FEATURE  FROM PREVIOUS GAME NOT PRESENT IN THIS ONE] and others will decry the launch day DLC, the sheer scope of the game is overwhelming and epic sequences like [LARGE-SCALE ACTION SCENE] are artfully contrasted with small personal moments that raise the emotional stakes even beyond the destruction of the universe. Scenes like [TEAR-JERKING MOMENT] are the kind of moments that make me proud to be a gamer and that’s where Andromeda really shines.

You weren’t supposed to see that. Whoops.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯      

Getting Into Character With Telltale’s Game of Thrones

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“The truth that will kill you

The power in lies

The Lords of the Rock claim

You win or you die.”

-Anthrax

If you’ve managed to pry yourself off of Fallout 4 long enough to play the first season conclusion of Game of Thrones, The Ice Dragon, congratulations (and maybe condolences?). I appreciate you taking a minute from picking your guts and pieces of blown mind off the floor to read this.

Telltale Games has long proven its spot-on dedication to molding itself almost flawlessly to the franchises they adapt to their brand of story-driven interactive fiction, but it wasn’t surprising when some said nay to HBO’s omnipresent dark fantasy based on George R.R. Martin’s ongoing masterpiece A Song of Ice and Fire as Telltale biting off more than they could chew.

Martin’s work represents a new level of detail and complexity in the fantasy genre and writing original stories in that universe that capture the original work is a nearly impossible task. Even Martin himself is barely up to it, taking the better part of a decade to write a single book these days. Factor in the cost of licensing from HBO and paying the star actors for likenesses and voicework and it’s not hard to see how Telltale could have fumbled this. How anybody else certainly would have.     

But on top of kicking out the best story of the year with Tales from the Borderlands -which concluded only lasttelltale game of thrones ramsay snow month- we got six episodes that not only captured the spirit and tone of Game of Thrones (minus the copious sex), but wove a story around the existing narrative incorporating nearly all of the series’ familiar elements into a seamless narrative that runs parallel to the story we all know while being an entirely new experience in and of itself. I don’t know how they do it and maintain such an outstanding level of quality. In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve become a bit of a fanboy.

Game of Thrones sets itself apart from Telltale’s growing and increasingly impressive stable of franchises by putting you in control of not one or two characters, but an entire House fighting for their existence on multiple fronts across Westeros and beyond the Narrow Sea. The result of controlling an entire diverse cast in a variety of settings and circumstances is that rather than projecting my own personality onto the protagonist, I was instead inspired to become them and see the world through their eyes.

You control five different characters representing House Forrester over the course of the narrative, each with their own personalities, struggles, potential allies and enemies, and methods for defending their family and home. While each of them allow for a certain amount of player projection, the variety presented is liable to force gamers to think of things in new ways and perhaps do things they’d never consent to do while playing as themselves.

The Forresters are beset on all sides by various forces orchestrated by a rival House and if you know anything about the books or show, you know that playing nice will possibly be rewarded with your character’s head on a chopping block. Literally. Then again, sometimes not playing nice puts a knife in your back when you least expect it. That damned if do or don’t approach is a big part of what makes the franchise the sensation that it is, and it’s on full display in this story. But this time, you’re calling the shots, making this foray into Martin’s universe that much more engaging.

The harrowing humiliations, the paranoia, the anger, the subterfuge, the alliances and betrayals and brutal satisfaction are all par for the course in Westeros, but no matter what I was expecting, I was taken by surprise time and again as I twisted, turned, and schemed while winding through the ongoing politics and warfare. The ways I reacted to each situation occasionally surprised me. And the results surprised me even more.

telltale game of thrones cersei tyrion miraMy roller coaster ride led me places I never expected to go and put me in situations I’d never want to be in. Some gamers decry that Telltale’s games don’t open up entirely different stories based on each decision you make and all end up more or less in the same predicament regardless of your choices, but the journey is the thing; not the destination. Mario games don’t end differently based on which goombas you stomp or what secrets you discover; it’s the joy of getting there in your own way that makes a game truly worthwhile.

Game of Thrones especially drives this point home by forcing the player deep into their own head to test their mettle time and again when faced with difficult situations. It’s way more than save Person A or save Person B only to have whichever one you chose die shortly after or choose to shoot a stricken character yourself or force somebody else to shoot them like in The Walking Dead. Not that that’s not emotionally engaging and brutal, but this one is a whole new level of nuance in terms of consideration and consequence.  

When playing as the child lord Ethan, the dilemmas of a young boy forced into a seat of power put me into a very different mindset from when I was controlling Mira, a handmaiden at King’s Landing using her feminine arts and tenuous royal connections to pull strings, or Asher, the rightful lord of Ironrath, now a brash exiled sellsword in Meereen. As Ethan, I felt a need to assert authority from a position of weakness while maintaining an aura of benevolence whereas Mira called for social finesse and low-key subterfuge while Asher is a hot-blooded warrior who seemed to demand action.

All six episodes were full of intrigue and violence, but the final chapter is extremely brutal even by dark fantasy standards and yet somehow fulfilling. It pushed me to my psychological limit and saw me lose myself almost completely in the characters, abandoning my personal beliefs at times and choosing to feed into Asher’s aggressive mindset and Mira’s fierce dignity and loyalty over my own concerns as a gamer for the survival of my characters or my real life desire for peace and compromise.

Game of Thrones tested these throughout, but in The Ice Dragon they come to a devastating head as the characters’ world burns down around them. It feels terrible and unfair, but then again, that’s part of the beauty of Martin’s work in the first place. Life isn’t fair and doesn’t subscribe to genre tropes and expectations, and many of the most engaging stories don’t either. And why should they?  

telltale game of thrones end choices

Spoiler alert.

While the player is given a lot of freedom to customize their characterization of the protagonists, the variety of player characters bucks the typical mindset of thinking of them as extensions of yourself and playing them accordingly. And that, more than anything else is what made this such an outstanding work, even among Telltale’s other triumphs. Minor thematic spoilers follow.

I felt a certain satisfaction as the characters like Tyrion Lannister, Margaery Tyrell, Jon Snow, and Daenerys Targaryen critiqued my characters’ decisions and graded my performance. In spite of the fact that I felt like a complete failure, there was still a glimmer of hope to be found and even some pride. In one excellent foreshadowing scene, two characters have a conversation weighing the philosophy of survival at any cost versus dignity. Given the choice, would you choose to debase yourself beyond any foreseeable redemption because where there is life, there’s opportunity or choose to die and leave a tale of bravery and sacrifice worthy of who you are?

And that’s the question at the end of this journey. As Cersei once said, “when you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die”, and sometimes, there’s just no way to win. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a way to do both in a sense. You can give your life for something meaningful (even if it’s just to one other person), rather than live as a walking joke; a living trophy on your enemy’s shelf. My arc with one character began as a self-involved quest to get other people to fight my family’s battle, but over the course of the triumphs and tribulations they were caught like a rat in a trap and chose to sacrifice themself almost for the singular purpose of bettering somebody else’s life. A small gesture, but any gesture that makes this crap world a little bit less crap has to count as a win, especially coming from someone whose own ship is sinking.

Gamer Nick knows these are only virtual people and a dead player character is no good to anyone, but my character chose to believe instead in faithfulness and friendship when they were at the end of their rope. And that’s a sign of great interactive fiction: when the characters almost take on a life of their own and can compel a gamer to work against their own best interests. I’m far from sure that I made the best choices for these characters, but I do know that even if the proposed second season never comes I left behind a story that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon, and that’s what conclusively makes Telltale’s Game of Thrones the best companion to the show and books for my money.

Lost in the Wasteland: Five Features That Are Missing in Fallout 4

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All right, we’ve all had time to bask in the glory of Bethesda’s latest digital life-consuming menace and weigh the insane hype and expectations against the finished product. The verdict is positive all around (barring the expected internet trolls) and while it’s not the surefire runaway winner for Game of the Year we were expecting after E3 thanks to an extremely great lineup of games in 2015, it is still arguably the single most addictive gaming experience there is.

That said, Fallout 4 could have been better. Even barring the occasionally last gen visuals, typical bugs and glitches, and dodgy controls there is room for improvement. Normally, that’s a pretty impotent criticism, but in this case the issue is that recent Fallout titles have had some rock solid features that have been stripped from the latest installment. Some of are assuredly decisions made in an attempt to mainstream their next big thing to make it more accessible to non-RPGers, some are possibly oversights, and others are just baffling. Here are five that I miss.

Gear Maintenance

fallout 3 repair maintenance pip boy

This is one feature that isn’t going to be missed by everyone, but for those of us who treat our open world RPG’s like second lives where we enjoy the challenges of struggling for survival, it’s an immediately noticeable annoyance. In previous games gear would degenerate with use and by taking damage, making it vital for players to pay attention and keep their stuff in working order.

Needing to repair and maintain your gear weighed heavily on the economics of previous games and made it profitable and worthwhile to invest points in perks that allowed you to use parts from similar gear to repair your favorite weapons and armour in Fallout 3 and New Vegas rather than burn money. You could also repair looted gear to sell at a premium price, increasing profits and lightening your load at the same time.

But I think what I miss the most is not being able to target enemies’ weaponry in VATS so you could shoot the gun out of their hand Wild West style. If you saw a particularly tough super mutant with a rocket launcher in play, you could snipe it and make it unusable to level the playing field a bit, but doing so would render it almost useless to sell so you had to weigh options. Weapon and armour degradation added an extra layer of strategy to the game in several areas and often forced players to improvise when their preferred gear got damaged, which makes for some harrowing but satisfying Wasteland survival experiences.

Rest assured that this feature was eliminated to make Fallout 4 more palatable to inexperienced gamers. After Witcher 3, this is the first massive RPG made specifically for next-gen hardware and it’s been rightfully hyped to the gills. There’s already an overwhelming crafting and modding system in place that we’re still wrapping our heads around and I figure Bethesda decided that gear maintenance would be one step further than a lot of gamers would want to go. Crafting and settlement building were somewhat optional, after all, whereas gear is an absolute necessity. But personally, I miss the immersive effect of having to care for my weapons and armour. And speaking of optional features and immersion…

Hardcore Mode

fallout new vegas hardcore mode

Them not recommending it just makes me want to play it more.

Fallout: New Vegas was heralded by some naysayers as a glorified expansion of Fallout 3, which was itself seen as a betrayal of the earlier games due to Bethesda taking over the franchise and using the same engine as their Elder Scrolls games to make it feel more like “Oblivion with guns” than a proper Fallout title. Well, Obsidian Entertainment took the reins for New Vegas, and they were formed from the series’ original developers from Interplay Entertainment. Although it still used the same engine, a lot of gamers preferred the personality of New Vegas and its new addition, hardcore mode.

Hardcore mode ratcheted up the immersion of the Wasteland survival experience by forcing players to eat, drink, and sleep. it also added weight to previously endlessly stockpileable ammunition, making you really think about what to bring and how much before you set out. In addition, stimpacks and sleep didn’t magically heal crippled limbs; you had to see a doctor or have very specific items.

Again, a lot of gamers might be thinking “who the hell would want THAT?” but it’s called “hardcore mode” for a reason. Fallout is often at its best when you’re struggling for survival in a desolate nuclear desert making due with whatever you can scavenge or steal. Most of the numerous culinary items just clog up your inventory in the regular games, and guzzling water, injecting stimpacks, and eating iguanas on sticks to heal your wounds meant you didn’t need to bother resting at all.

Experiencing human weaknesses in a video game isn’t something we deal with often, but in games like this I feel like more realism is better, even when fighting giant fire-breathing ants and terrifying mutated chameleon monsters with a portable nuclear missile launcher. Maybe Bethesda figured the audience for this was too small or they were salty because a lot of gamers liked New Vegas more than theirs, but this option isn’t in the new game. They could have thrown gear maintenance into it as well for the sake of the dedicated survivalists out there, but instead we got nothing. Except for the awesome core game, that is. #firstworldgamerproblems

Enemy/NPC Indicators on HUD

fallout 3 ghouls enemies hud

Hey, this guy’s looking at our red ticks on his HUD! Let’s get him, boys!

I guess I can understand why the above features were cut, but if you’re going to make things easier for new gamers, why make it so much harder to find NPC’s? In previous games, you could detect enemies as red ticks on your Heads Up Display’s compass, helping orient yourself to potential threats. This was particularly helpful because enemies can be hard to spot amongst the endless landscapes and limited colour palette presented by modern Fallout games, but they will certainly see you and be on you in instant if you aren’t careful.

Raising your perception stat was a great help in the previous games because it improved your automatic enemy detection capabilities, but now that’s gone. Enemies still show up at times in Fallout 4, but I have yet to determine how or why. It seems like they only show up on your HUD after they’ve detected you, but sometimes they don’t show up then either. It seems annoyingly random and unhelpful and now I have to constantly tap the VATS button to detect enemies in time to take action before they attack.

Previously, allies would show up as green ticks on your compass, making it easy to see who was friend and foe. Now you have to go into VATS to see if they will attack or not (green health bar means friend, and red means foe). Not only that, but it can often be a pain to locate your partner or other NPC’s in your settlements, who are prone to wandering and shacking up in random structures out of sight. In the old games, you’d see a green tick on your HUD and would know where to look, but now you have to either check every nook and cranny and hope you get lucky or ring a bell to bring the entire town slowly ambling your way. Annoying.

Companion Wheel

fallout new vegas companion wheel

The words say “open inventory”, but the picture says “carry all my shit”. Nice touch.

In addition to making it harder to locate your companions, Fallout 4 unnecessarily makes it more of a challenge to control them as well. New Vegas had a simple and elegant companion wheel which allowed you to easily issue commands on the fly whether it was to trade items, give you some space, kill all opposition on sight or follow your lead, use ranged or melee attacks, stimpack, etc. It was a fast and intuitive way to get your companion to behave however you wanted them to behave.

Bethesda took a big step back in forcing you to engage your partner in conversation trees for every little thing. Good luck issuing commands mid-battle ever. You have to walk up to them, activate them, wait for their response, aim right at them, and then attempt to point them at the thing you want and hope nothing is in the way. And if you want them to switch to melee or ranged attacks, you need to go into their inventory and personally equip them with the weapon you want them to use.

But the worst part by far is the fact that they’re clingy as HELL. They want to be right up in your personal space whenever you’re out in the field. Want to snipe an enemy? They want to be in front of your scope. Looting bodies? They want to stand on those bodies so your cursor picks them up instead. Walking down a tight hallway? Sorry, they’re standing there. Try jumping over them over something. It’s like owning a cat without the cuteness (okay, Curie is pretty cute). The whole interface is a huge step back for the series. I can see leaving out something like hardcore mode as a niche addition by another dev, but bringing something as important as companion interaction back to what seems like the stone age makes no sense.    

Grenades in VATS  

fallout grenade

Cue Wilhelm scream.

I love Bethesda and all of their works, but any way you look at it the physics are notoriously janky in their games. That means that throwing explosives can be a bit…clumsy. Clumsy like “you’ll probably die if it’s not a wide open area” clumsy. Something as simple as tossing a grenade to clear a room becomes a gamble. For every time you pull it off, there’s three times you’re either gunned or rushed down trying to line up a proper throw standing in the middle of the doorway or dying stupidly because the grenade bounced off of the door frame or hit the ceiling, your idiot companion, or something else and blew you up instead.

In previous games, your good friend VATS had your back and you could place your explosive device right where you wanted it to be: at your foes’ feet. I don’t know why this is no longer possible, but it’s a horrible oversight. The grenades could at least go where you’re aiming in real time, but no. You just have to huck it in their general direction and hope it lands somewhere near them and doesn’t somehow end up killing you. I spent an embarrassing amount of time trying everything I could think of to throw a grenade in VATS, thinking I was just too dumb to figure it out because no way would they take such an essential ability out for no reason. But nope. Well I am dumb, but they did take it out.

Not that the grenades never work right and you can’t learn to compensate and use them effectively in most situations. There is a perk that will allow you to see the arc of your throw, but it’s still a remarkably clumsy endeavor. The fact that the throwing mechanic is so unwieldy to begin with probably makes Fallout 4 seem more outdated than any single other aspect and thinking about why Bethesda took out the ability to use VATS to circumvent this issue hurts my brain.

It’s an amazing game – probably the best RPG we’ve seen in ages- and we will be playing this and loving it for a long time, but it’s still frustrating that so many cool and helpful features were removed that could have made Fallout 4 the unquestioned pinnable of the genre instead of a brilliant game with some significant and unnecessary frustrations tacked on.