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Thursday, April 26 2018 @ 05:11 AM -08

Fallout 4 review

Game developer Bethesda has a history of making great games. But there's a darker side to their efforts: all of their games are buggy as hell. Of course, that's never stopped them from inflicting their work on the public.

Fallout 4 is no exception to this historical pattern. The game can be a lot of fun to play, when it works. But play it long enough on a PC, and there's a good chance that you'll start to experience the dreaded 'infinite load screen'.

Fallout 4 sees every transition as an opportunity to annoy you with load screens that take forever, or just a really long time (so long that you eventually give up, anyway). Transitions (and the chance of an infinite load screen) occur when you fast travel, and when you enter and exit indoor locations (so basically, all the time). There's no way to know whether the load screen you're staring at will ever end; at some point it just seems like killing the process and restarting the game is going to be less aggravating than continuing to wait.

If you search the web for 'fallout 4 infinite load screens', you'll find something else seemingly infinite: people complaining about this problem. What you won't find is anything resembling help from Bethesda. There are lots of suggestions from other players, but sadly, none of them worked for me. And I've tried them all.

I'm giving up on Fallout 4. Bethesda may fix this problem some day, but I'm not holding my breath. And even if they do, I won't soon be able to face that loading screen, no matter how briefly it appears.

Recommendation: avoid Fallout 4 unless you enjoy frustration.

For your viewing annoyance, I've posted a video on YouTube that demonstrates this fun feature.

Review - EA Sports NHL Legacy Edition

It was 1994, and my buddy and I were looking for games we could play together. At the time, that meant DOS games running on a PC. Neither of us particularly enjoyed playing against each other, so we were trying to find games that could be played cooperatively. We invented cooperative modes of play in turn-based strategy games like Panzer General and Warlords II. We hot-seated single-player games like Duke Nukem. But that killer cooperative game remained elusive.

When we discovered that EA's NHL '94 could be played cooperatively, it was a revelation, and began a never-ending quest to find more great cooperative games.

Many single-computer sports games are uniquely positioned to provide a multiplayer experience, since there's typically only one view (an arena or stadium, or the portion of it where the action is currently taking place), and all players are almost always visible. All that's required is support for multiple controllers, and an understanding on the part of the developers - that cooperative play is worthwhile.

EA's NHL '94 was a lot of fun to play cooperatively. We quickly learned how to work together: one player digging the puck out of the corner while the other fought to stay in scoring position in front of the net, waiting for that perfect pass. Sure, the graphics were crude, and the audio limited, but the overall experience was a blast. EA also understood the value of having real NHL players in the game, and licensed the use of their names. Roster updates were provided by EA for free. Epic, weekly sessions ensued.

We also discovered that we could play cooperatively with as many as four people, and eventually started doing that as often as possible, although it could sometimes get a bit crazy. Still, four people around a single computer, bashing away on their controllers, with excited yells as we scored, high-fives all around, are some of my fondest gaming memories.

The EA NHL game changed over the years: the visuals and audio improved with available technology. Platforms were added, and we shifted from DOS to Windows, then eventually to consoles. We switched from joysticks to gamepads, then to console controllers. Features were added and removed, sometimes seemingly at random; some of the best features appeared appeared only once, such as individual user stats. Indeed, we started to notice early on that EA seemed to be starting from scratch each year, with the result always having better graphics, but with various aspects of gameplay either improving or actually getting worse. It became a running joke to wonder whether each year's game would actually be an improvement over the previous year. One year, the EA game was so terrible that we played the 2K NHL game instead.

Along the way, LAN and Internet gaming became possible as well. Until recently, we never found it necessary to use any of the network-based multiplayer modes, because we were always able to get together in the same place and play on one computer or console. Now, sadly, that's changed. We live in different cities, and our living situations (and health) aren't necessarily conducive to loud, beer-fueled, all-night hockey sessions.

Okay, so what about online gaming? Sure, it's not going to be quite as much fun as being in the same room; virtual high-fives just aren't the same. But at least we'd still be able to play, right? Not so fast.

There are several major hurdles to getting two or more people connected to play online. First, they all need their own computer or console, and they have to be the SAME KIND of computer or console. For PC gaming, that means a graphics card, which adds several hundred dollars to the price of a PC. Each PC would need to be able to run the most recent game, so the CPU and RAM specs needed to be current. Of course, consoles get around that problem, as long as everyone has the same make and model. Still, the expense involved in everyone having up to date hardware made this difficult.

But there are more hurdles to playing online. Everyone would also need to buy their own copy of the game. Since we always wanted to play the most recent edition, that meant everyone would have to shell out $60+ every year. For many of us, this was just too expensive to consider. Keep in mind that this was never an issue when we were huddled around a single computer or console; only one copy was required.

And so our epic hockey sessions gradually reduced in frequency, then stopped happening completely. Sad faces all around.

But that's not the end of the story. A few weeks ago, while commiserating with one of my hockey buddies, he proposed a solution: he would buy an XBox 360 (the same console I currently own), and we would both purchase the most recent EA NHL game we could find that still runs on the 360. We quickly determined that our best bet was EA Sports NHL Legacy Edition, which was released in 2015.

And it works. We're able to play cooperatively online. But there are some serious limitations. YES, there are good reasons for these limitations, but they only apply to competitive, human vs. human games where the players aren't actually friends.

What we've lost in going online with EA NHL Legacy Edition

  • No way to pause the game. Have to pee? Hold it until the end of the game! Need to get another beer? Sorry, you have to wait. Girlfriend called? Send her to voicemail. Pizza arrived? Let it get cold. Weirdly, there isn't even a way to call a timeout.
  • No way to change controller settings during a game. Using the wrong scheme? Too bad; suffer with it or cancel the game and start over.
  • No way to choose player colour. Used to being blue? Sorry, you're stuck being the almost-invisible yellow.
  • No way to remove yourself from a game, or join one in progress.
  • Replays are automatic and un-skippable. There's no way to stop play and manually check a replay to see what just happened.
  • Most gameplay settings are simply unavailable. In the local multiplayer game, you can tweak gameplay in numerous ways, to make the game more fun. In the past, we adjusted these settings frequently, gradually ramping up the difficulty as we got better. Being able to adjust game speed, pass speed, pass accuracy, pass interceptions, and automatic shot aim all made the game a lot more enjoyable, especially when a particular edition had gameplay bugs. Playing Legacy online, there's a single difficulty setting and that's about it, and even that is limited to GM mode.

Is there a solution?

Here's a suggestion for EA: add a 'couch experience' option for multiplayer modes. Show a big red warning message if you must, but please let us experience the game without all these restrictions. Open leagues and games would never use this option, because doing so would be untenable when the participants don't even know each other: the result would be both unfair and awkward. But for those of us who are used to playing cooperatively with good friends, it would be wonderful.

Your move, EA.

EVE Online: Griefer Heaven

Many people who've tried EVE Online report that playing it feels less like playing a game than it does struggling with an Excel spreadsheet. Indeed, some hard-core players apparently don't even bother to look at the cool space visuals, choosing instead to concentrate on the overwhelming multitude of lists and displays the game presents.

My own first impression was not that negative, although I can certainly understand why people are turned off by the game's complexity. Later, when I learned more and eventually joined a useful corporation, I began to appreciate and (gasp!) even enjoy playing. Recently I joined the ranks of the nullsec ratters, by which I mean that I locate and destroy the many server-controlled bad guys infesting asteroid belts in most systems. Kill 'em and salvage their stuff: fun, if repetitive.

But there's just one problem: even in systems owned by - and heavily populated by - people in my corporation, there are always hostile human players hanging around, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting players; particularly inexperienced players. No mercy is shown at all, ever. Your ship will be destroyed, your escape pod destroyed, and all your stuff taken. Even the smallest mistake is often rewarded with this extreme form of punishment.

Hostile human players that lurk in enemy systems, waiting for these kinds of mistakes, are so common as to render safe travel in nullsec space essentially a long-forgotten dream. Often, these hostile players are cloaked, so even if you can round up a gang of other players to go after them, they are essentially impossible to find. Yes, of course, we are all warned about this, and to a large extent I expected it.

But the thing I just realized is that this behaviour - in any other multiplayer game - is known as 'griefing'. A griefer is someone who plays online with one goal in mind: to disrupt the game for other players. On most multiplayer game servers, griefing is not only strongly discouraged, it results in a swift and often permanent ban. That certainly goes for the servers I run. But in EVE Online, this behaviour is simply accepted. The EVE universe is so hostile, so unforgiving, and so relentlessly nasty, that I'm starting to wonder why I even bother. The answer is simple: despite this major failing, it's still a very cool game - for those who enjoy the 'blowing things up in space' genre - as I do.

Still, I'm going to have to re-evaluate my subscription. My own servers are for co-operative play only, with human players teaming up to kill computer-controlled players. This type of server has none of the abuse and name-calling so common on other servers. People who exhibit nasty, uncivil, or unsportsmanlike behaviour are simply eliminated, permanently. This can never happen in EVE Online. Do I really need this kind of stress and abuse? If I did, I would just go to work.

Forgotten Hope 2

Wow. I just tried Forgotten Hope 2. I had to update my BF2 to version 1.5, but that in itself was a good thing, since 1.5 finally no longer requires the original disc to play, and apparently all of the add-ons are now free to play as well.

But FH2 is awesome. WWII combat, with all of the advantages of the BF2 interface and bots. I'll be looking at hosting this.

STALKER: Clear Sky - buggy as hell but still fun

My problems with S:CS start on its main menu. No, that's not a joke. The currently selected menu item lags behind mouse movement so badly that unless you wait for it to catch up before clicking, nothing happens; or - worse still - the wrong menu item is activated.

This kind of sloppy and unrefined programming permeates S:CS. Of course, being essentially an RPG, this is hardly unexpected. Aside: why is it that RPGs as a class of game seem to be the buggiest? Many of S:CS's bugs have been squashed or ameliorated by way of patches, but many remain.

Assassin's Creed 2

I'll admit it: my initial reactions to Assassin's Creed 2 were negative. Faces look weird: Lucy doesn't even look like Lucy any more, and everyone appears to be slightly cross-eyed. Items seem to hover. The Italian accents of the voice actors are uniformly terrible. Gone is the cool interface of the first game, replaced by something lame. Too many in-your-face confirmation messages: do you really really really want to buy this thing? Also gone are the well-integrated tutorials with the ethereal female voice; instead, you are thrown into combat with some fleeting advice in the form of text.

Fallout 3 - RPG replayability lives!

For me, the defining characteristic of a truly great game is replayability. Despite being a story-driven RPG, Fallout 3 - like its predecessors - has plenty of replayability. For instance, when you first begin to venture out from the comfortable surroundings of Megaton - which for most players is their home base - you will probably encounter a nearby grocery store. I say probably because it totally depends on which direction you decide to wander. Anyway, within and around that store is a band of raiders, and they guard a fair-sized pile of resources. Now, you can skip this encounter if you like. There are a lot of them and only one of you. You can sneak in and take only what you need, then get the hell out, which is the approach I took my first time through. I returned later on to confront the raiders when I was stronger. But there are many more ways to play this. I can see someone deciding to challenge the raiders early on, to take on this store full of maniacs, picking them off one at a time, heading back to Megaton to heal and rearm, until they are all wiped out. Cool.

Far Cry 2: wow! ugh! groan. wow!

Rarely have I had such mixed feelings about a game as with Far Cry 2. The first Far Cry was loads of fun. Sure, the ending was stupid, but 95% of the time I was playing it I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Great sound and graphics, scary and humourous in turn, nice weapon choices, a variety of transport choices, tough encounters and innovative gameplay made it one of those rare commodities: a mostly-scripted shooter that is fun to re-play.

Far Cry 2 has a lot of those same qualities. The graphics and sound are so utterly immersive, I often feel that I am alive inside the landscape of the game. Escapism at its finest. I haven't reached the end yet, so I can't comment on that, and so far there has been very little humour or anything particularly scary, which is a shame. Weapon choices are diverse, although quite limited at first. Transport choices are also abundant. Encounters are so far relatively straightforward, but I have heard that I should expect more challenge later on. And of course FC2 includes some gameplay innovations. But does it all work?

Battlefield 2 for XBox 360: demo notes

My roomie and I are playing a lot of BF2 lately - on PCs. If you read my earlier BF2 posts, you know how much of a struggle it was to get co-op working for this game. EA/DICE have issued several patches for the game, but none of them has added co-op features. Hard to understand, given the many petitions out there and the fact that co-op gaming is practically there already in the original game.

I now have an XBox 360. When the BF2 demo for XBox 360 became available recently, I was curious, so I downloaded it. The main menu for the demo includes four options: play, options, view controller setup and something else I can't recall right now. Choosing any of these options caused a message to appear (paraphrased): "You can't do this due to a subscription limitation." Forget how silly it is to prevent people from seeing the controller setup because of a subscription limitation - the real problem here is that the message is too vague. I eventually worked out that since the demo is online multiplayer only you need an XBox 360 subscription that allows online play. I've given Microsoft plenty of cash already and, coincidentally, never play online, so I've been fine with the free Silver subscription. But apparently Gold is needed to play online.

Here serendipity stepped in. A co-worker had - just the day before - plopped a 48 hour free Gold subscription card on my desk. I searched the opaque 360 interface for a way to use this card and eventually found one - or so I thought. I entered the code - a painful process without a keyboard or mouse - and was told that this code wouldn't work in this context. Well, RTFM, right? The card described how to find the appropriate place in the UI to enter this particular code. Once entered, I was able to play. And view the controller setup, of course.

No split-screen options were apparent. But is this only a limitation of the demo? Who knows. So I told the game to connect me to a BF2 server and got into a game. Of course, the game was populated by only two types of user: experienced console shooter players and total newbies trying desperately to learn how to aim their weapon with a little thumbstick. Score: experienced console gamers: infinity, newbies: zero. Include me in the newbie category, by the way.

After half an hour of dying over and over and never even hitting anyone, I handed the controls to my roomie. Suffice to say that his experience was the same. Why didn't they set things up so that the default game servers are all newbie zones? Remember, a demo is supposed to encourage players to buy the full game, not scream at their TV in frustration and vow to never buy the game.

I tried again, this time with the headset. Hey, it works! I can hear voices. What language is that? Chinese? That's not too helpful: Chinese people screaming at me. Oh wait, there's an English voice. He asks me how I'm doing. I press the talk button and say "Okay, I guess." He says "Great, now listen: there are a couple of dudes spawn camping. When you spawn, do a quick 180 and start firing. We have to kill those guys." All his remaining communications were about how to kill these spawn campers. I thought: Why am I playing this? So I stopped.

Amazing. On the PC, this game (with, admittedly, a lot of tweaks to enable co-op play) is one of the best co-op experiences I've ever had. One of the best gaming experiences ever, in fact. But on the 360, you couldn't pay me enough to try it again, for two reasons: gamepads don't work for first-person shooters, and no co-op play. Way to go EA.

Serious Sam 2

I loved Serious Sam 1 and its add-on. Sure, the monsters were not particularly smart, but there sure were a LOT of them. The game was funny and inventive and the combat was intense.

In terms of co-op gaming, I consider SS1 to be the benchmark against which all other first-person shooters should be measured. Playing through SS1 cooperatively was so easy it was utterly painless:

* no CD swapping required
* only one serial/key required for LAN play
* very simple game setup
* comprehensive options, including friendly fire, infinite ammo, starting point, player appearance, difficulty level, monster difficulty geared to number of players, pickups stay
* save and restore games (that's right, you can save your co-op game at any time and pick it up later with the same or different co-op partners)

That last one, the ability to save and load co-op games, is almost unprecedented in the world of FPS games. The only other game with that feature I can think of is Quake II. That game had a few problems with its co-op mode, though: pickups were not shared ("Do you need shotgun shells? I have 20.") and friendly fire could not be disabled.

So it was with a mixture of dread and anticipation that I bought and brought home Serious Sam 2. Would it have some nasty copy protection that required a CD and/or key for each player, even on a LAN? Would it even support co-op play? The manual provided the answer: YES. What a relief!

One of the best things about SS1 was that even a fairly old system could run it. Checking the minimum specs in the manual (something I normally do BEFORE buying), I was dismayed to find that a 2.0 GHz Pentium 4 was required. What? Even Battlefield 2 only needs a 1.8. My second game machine is only a 1.8 (upgraded for BF2, in fact), so at this point I was starting to doubt whether co-op SS2 play was in the cards, at least for a while.

Installation on my main game machine was painless. Four CDs, as opposed to the original game's single CD, pointed to the likelihood of richer visual content. Apparently a DVD version is available. Unfortunately, you need the "play" CD in the drive to start SS2, unlike SS1. On the plus side, the CD required is the fourth and last one, so there's one less CD swap involved in getting up and running.

SS2 has all the depth of the original game. Settings abound and are appropriately associated with player profiles. Yay! Lots of ways to configure controllers.

I started installing SS2 on the second machine, thinking the worst: that the installer would refuse to continue because the minimum specs were not met. Surprisingly, the installation completed, and guess what? The game plays fine on that machine! I'm not sure what's going on with the minimum specs in the manual and on the game box, but they don't seem to be correct.

I started SS2 on my main machine, created a LAN game, moved the CD from that machine to the second machine, started SS2 there and joined the LAN game. No problem! A friend and I played through several levels cooperatively and had a blast!

A few other things I should report:

* You can configure pickups to stay if you are already maxed out on related items.
* There seems to be a maximum limit on lives. The default is three, but you can set it to ten. Also, you can acquire more lives through in-game actions. In our testing, this was never an issue as we didn't die. But at some point we'll increase the difficulty and then this may be a big problem.
* There is already a patch. The patch fixes several annoyances with the user interface and a few other glitches.
* It doesn't look like you can save games at arbitrary locations. Instead, a system of checkpoints is used. I may have overlooked something here, so I'll keep looking.

Gameplay is similar to SS1, but improved in every conceivable way. Ditto for the graphics, sound and music. The weapons and monsters are very cool and once again very creative. Monsters still come at you in enormous waves, but this time you're fighting FOR something, not just to stay alive: often you are fighting to protect an NPC or a village. This enhances the already very involving gameplay.

Rating: 9/10 overall; 9.5/10 co-op gaming.