Monday, January 11, 2016

Fallout 4 First Impressions

No one's thought to clear up this broken glass in 200 years?
That's a health hazard waiting to happen.
The thing that irked me the most about Fallout 4 in the leadup to its release was that Bethesda didn't even have to try. You already had people losing their minds over it for months before it came out, an issue I examined in my exasperated article on the subject. Now, of course, it seems like people are more than prepared to question the game, and that's something, but I still want to give my thoughts. I had no real intention of playing Fallout 4; in my opinion Bethesda's version of Fallout isn't really Fallout at all because they didn't invent it and don't really seem to understand the point of it, and I was prepared for it to pass me by, but I was given Fallout 4 as a Christmas gift and so I felt I might as well give it a go. Thus I too entered the amazing world of mediocrity which is the Commonwealth Wasteland. What follows are my thoughts on the game so far, after playing for about ten and a half hours, apparently.
Well there's your problem.

In my opinion, the idea that your character was alive before the "Great War" which caused the nuclear annihilation of civilisation is an interesting one which has merit as a storytelling device; there's always mileage in the idea of a person "out of time" to explore the ways in which our historical moments shape us. This, however, comes with a number of issues as it manifests in Fallout 4 and which I will now relate.

The premise of Fallout 4's setup is that your Vault, Vault 111, which you were led to believe was designed to allow you to survive the nuclear war, was in fact a cryogenic experimentation facility. At some point, you conveniently wake up to see your spouse in the opposite booth being killed and your infant child kidnapped. There are two key issues with this:
The rare "Fallout cosplayer" gear.
1. It makes the gameplay seem ridiculous. As a big open-world RPG, Fallout 4 derives a lot of its notional entertainment value from being a "sandbox" in which you're free to muck around and have fun: you can explore, fight enemies, do side quests for various parties and generally squeeze the setting of all of its narratives and experiences. Yet you're playing as a character whose baby has been kidnapped. It just doesn't work as a motivation in this kind of game. A parent would surely be off following the clues without immediate time to spare for the issues of others, the recovery of their abducted child being their main goal. In Fallout and Fallout 2 the stuffing around factor could be justified in terms of gathering the resources you need to achieve your main goal - finding the Water Chip, stopping the Master, finding the GECK and beating the Enclave. In Fallout 4 it's much more difficult to swallow.

"Who's a getting-in-my-way-when-I'm-trying-to-sneak boy, then?"
2. It's trite. "Rescue your kidnapped child" is a pretty overused premise in fiction. Arguably all the Fallout games have been guilty of this, but that doesn't excuse it here. New Vegas is probably the most original of all of them, and that at least starts off as a pretty basic revenge plot. There's a third element which emerges from this as well:

Bonus Third Issue: It's basically just a reversal of the character motivation of Fallout 3. Fallout 3 was "find your father"; Fallout 4 is "find your son." That was the best they could come up with? I believe there are twists and turns later but they really could have done something better. Moving on...

I believe there may have been criticism of Fallout 4's graphics prior to release but I couldn't really be bothered researching it. It any event, I think the game looks okay. It looks a hell of a lot better than Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, that's for sure. Those character models in the Gamebryo Engine were horrible. I've been running the game on Low because my computer is comparatively old now - I got it in late 2012 - and even on low I think it looks fine. There are some texture pop ins and things naturally but I can live with it.

Cryogenic freezing may give you a shiny face.
Others have focused on this as well but I just can't get past the idea of Boston being the way it is two hundred and ten years after a global thermonuclear war. It's not just that it would have been bombed flat; you can make the excuse that, being on the East Coast, most of the Chinese aircraft and warheads would have been shot down before they reached it, a bit like in a game of DEFCON. That's a good idea actually - a crashed Chinese bomber. Where are things like that? But it doesn't change the fact that over two hundred years the city would have collapsed without maintenance.

I'll find my baby just after I've shot another few bugs.
Boston in Fallout 4 looks like the bombs dropped a few years ago at most, and yet two centuries are meant to have passed. People like to say "well the games are unrealistic so of course this is excusable" but the thing is, in Fallout and Fallout 2, this didn't happen: places like the Necropolis and the Boneyard were so named because they were built in the skeletal structure left behind by the wasted skyscrapers and edifices of the old world. Everything else had been blasted away or had succumbed to the ravages of time. In Fallout there is also the excuse that it only took place a mere eighty years after the Great War, and took place in a rather dry environment. Locations like Shady Sands were entirely new constructions.

Fallout 4, like Fallout 3 before it, still has scavenger-like societies of people living in towns made of junk and scrap, not rebuilding and starting again but clinging to the remnants of an old world that they never lived in. Even New Vegas continued the idea established in Fallout 2 that a new society was emerging, by representing the New California Republic of Fallout 2 as a comparatively "civilised" state which, while probably not at pre-war levels of development, was still an industrialised society of its own construction. For whatever reason, despite having the excuse of perhaps not being hit as hard, Bethesda's East Coast has not recovered to nearly the same extent. It's really a question of the timing. There's no real reason that Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 need to be set after Fallout 2 given how removed they are from its location, but I believe Bethesda wanted it to be plausible that the Brotherhood of Steel would have made it East. This leads into:

The whole composition of the game world (and this is true of Fallout 3 as well) is one which Bethesda has built out of a handful of now-meaningless signifiers of "Fallout" with a threefold purpose: firstly, to appeal to fans of the original Fallout games; secondly, to make their post-apocalyptic games seem quirky and unique (albeit using other people's ideas); and thirdly, now, to reference themselves and the concepts of Fallout which exist in the internet's popular consciousness dating back to the success of Fallout 3. In this they are mostly referencing ideas which they themselves never even invented, simply bought.

Thus there are things like: bottle cap currency, which Fallout 2 showed being abandoned once more established societies were developed; Super Mutants and various other mutated and gigantic irradiated creatures, even though they were specifically a creation of the Master in Fallout using the Forced Evolutionary Virus that was specifically found in the West-Tek Research Facility and Mariposa Military Base in California; and the abandoned ruins of the old world, even though the bombs fell two hundred years earlier.

My local supermarket looked like this on Christmas Eve.
In Fallout, all these things made sense: bottle caps were used as currency because they were convenient and sufficiently rare, the Super Mutant threat was part of the main plot involving the Master and his efforts to bring "Unity" to the Wasteland, and the old world was being replaced, like in A Canticle for Liebowitz, by a new one. Bethesda, however, sees Fallout as simply a game with ruins, a 1950s aesthetic, power armour, Super Mutants, ghouls, giant insects and pests, and bottle cap currency without any particular rhyme or reason to it. It just "is" because to them Fallout is just "stuff" that exists in some kind of vacuum, to be thrown together at will. Fallout doesn't really work outside of its original West Coast USA setting and it really shows in these games. I've seen it argued that really Bethesda just wants to make kooky 1950s style science fiction sandbox games and this is the most marketable way of doing it, and Fallout 4 brings that into relief. It's a bit dispiriting to see what was originally a rather striking concept, even if taking elements from the original Wasteland game, repurposed to have its most recognisable elements exploited in such a cynical way.

Seriously, why are there so many Feral Ghouls as enemies? Couldn't they think of anything else to use as an enemy? It feels like they just went around the map clicking intermittently going "Ghouls here... ghouls here... fill this space with ghouls... here's another empty patch, better fill it with ghouls..."

Trying to contact the parallel universe where Van Buren was released.
Why on earth did they make it so that Power Armour needs fuel, something that has never come up in any other Fallout game? I could understand if they wanted to introduce it early and thus you got a shonky suit in the initial Power Armour sequence that used batteries regularly, but why make it a universal element applicable to all suits of Power Armour in the game?

This particularly irks me for a rather personal reason. I like to play Bethesda RPGs without fast travel, because I think it makes the game more immersive. Yet if you just walk at a normal pace in Power Armour in Fallout 4, your batteries drain. Yet apparently if you do use Fast Travel, they don't. If you take the battery out, you clunk around at a slow speed like you're encumbered, which is pointless. What on earth motivated this immersion-destroying decision? Furthermore, aren't they powered by fusion cores? It's in the name. Fusion. Wouldn't you expect their power supply to last for a practically indefinite amount of time? They also can't be recharged, which is absurd. If the fusion core simply functioned as a kind of key it would make sense, but making all suits fuelled takes it too far.

Bethesda banners: still hanging after 200 years exposed to the elements.
In my Skyrim review, I argued that I would prefer the game to have a voiced protagonist, because in my opinion an RPG should have both NPCs and the player character voiced, or neither voiced. For this reason, I'm largely on board with the voiced player character. That being said, there are obviously points in the game in which the voice actor (I'm playing as the female player character) clearly has not received enough direction when recording responses, such that words are not always stressed in realistic ways in a number of lines. More work needs to be done on this in future.
As has been pointed out elsewhere, Fallout 4 is very much not like the RPGs of old in which you could choose to talk, sneak or fight your way through the story, or do a mixture of the two. Violence is very much on the menu here and the speech system is lacking in complexity, with the occasional Speech check being largely the extent of it. This may be a result of the misguided adoption of a Mass Effect-style dialogue wheel mechanic for choosing the gist of your character's responses, but I couldn't say for sure because I modded this out immediately with the "Full Dialogue Interface" mod before beginning the game. This may result in an "inauthentic" Fallout 4  experience but because Bethesda's Fallout is by its nature inauthentic I couldn't care less.

Must have been one hell of a law degree.
My other issue on this front is that the game shoehorns you so hard into being a certain person with a certain background: you're either a male veteran or a female lawyer with a spouse and a baby. For me, this takes things too far. In almost any other RPG you can be whomever you wish. Giving too much background limits your ability to role-play. The stupid thing is, they then never make anything of it. As I said, I'm playing as the female version of the protagonist with the legal background. At one point while I was doing an early mission for the Brotherhood of Steel, Paladin Danse (I think) quoted their Latin motto, and the Brotherhood member who doesn't like me scoffed that I wouldn't know what it meant. This is a logical scenario in which my player character's background should have come to the fore, because while it's not certain, as a former lawyer there'd be a good chance that she would understand that much Latin. These are just minor examples of Bethesda failing to make the most of what they've got.

All these issues with character and setting coalesce into a single fundamental problem: there simply isn't enough of a disconnection between the world the player character leaves in the opening and the one they enter after waking up in the Vault; the world outside is the world they lived in, just blown up. It isn't an unrecognisable space, completely rebuilt and reorganised with geography as the only identifiably consistent feature. Furthermore, the character's own reaction to their situation simply isn't strong enough. The whole game would make more sense if it was set about twenty years after the war rather than two hundred. In terms of both setting and character Bethesda fumbles the opportunity they've given themselves to craft something unique which carries on in the tradition of the original Fallout games. I can appreciate them doing what they did in Fallout 3 (even if it was unimaginative) because they were trying to revive the franchise, but Fallout 4 is just more of the same apart from superficial additions like the settlement-building gimmick and it simply doesn't work.

Boston: hit by one of those "soft" nukes.
Like Skyrim, Fallout 4 seems to be a diverting game but in many respects an unsatisfying one, one that like Skyrim is begging for modders to deal with its many shortcomings and for other developers to learn from its mistakes. Fortunately the indie and crowd-funded scene has seen the return to some degree of the classic computer RPG, with recent examples such as Pillars of Eternity, The Age of Decadence and Underrail showing that what companies like Bethesda can try to shove aside others can revive. Unfortunately, companies like Bethesda just don't need to go that extra mile anymore; there are simple things which could make the game feel more real like, for example, at night Travis Miles the Diamond City Radio DJ could go to bed and continuous music could play all night or a night DJ could take over. But Bethesda doesn't need to do that anymore because internet hype culture takes care of anything for them. Fallout 4 could have been literally anything and people would have bought it, and thus in many respects the fault is with the consumers as well as the composers. That's not to say that Bethesda couldn't work to make a greater value product simply out of professionalism and principle, but it doesn't change the fact that they'd as good as made back their money the instant the first trailer hit Youtube. Irresponsible consumers feed indolent companies, and it's a chicken-and-egg dilemma which only can be resolved if both parties make an effort - and how likely is that?

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Sherlock: "The Abominable Bride"

Breaking up with the Joker.
An abominable episode of an abominable show, "The Abominable Bride" surprised me by not wholly falling into every prediction I'd outlined in my 2015 article disclosing my fears. That's not to say it wasn't pretty uneventful television, but it could have been worse. It could have been infinitely better, but it could have been worse. It's still pretty bad, like almost all Sherlock is, but in this case largely for different reasons.

Correct Holmes attire: the bow tie inexplicably tucked under the collar.
The overall premise of "The Abominable Bride", if you didn't know already, is that it takes the Sherlock characters and actors and places them in the setting of the original novels and short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who seems to get a rather begrudging credit at the end of the title sequence after the "Written and Created By Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss" credit has made its rather doubtful claim - it's not as if they created the most important elements). Thus Holmes is a pipe-smoking sleuth who wears dressing gowns at home and a deerstalker and Inverness cape abroad, Watson is a moustache and bowler hat sporting Second Afghan War Veteran, Mrs Hudson is a housekeeper as well as a landlady, Lestrade is, well, Lestrade still but with mutton chops (this special overlooks his penchant for peculiar and affectedly fashionable outfits which Watson remarks upon in the original stories) and Mycroft is a fat bastard (actually in the original stories he was just a tall man of large build, probably overweight but not obese). To add their own flavour, Mary Morstan actually has a role instead of disappearing after The Sign of the Four, and Sherlock-specific character Molly Hooper works as a coroner disguised as a man.

Having a flashback to the Crimea.
This all works reasonably well and the characters can take on Victorian roles, that mainstay of British television drama alongside Jane Austen's era, quite competently. It is a little jarring to the trained ear, however, to note when the characters switch between the precise Victorian English of Conan Doyle's own writing, which is referenced heavily in this, and a flippant modern idiom which writers tend to use these days for the sake of humorous juxtaposition, which is to say characters in a historical setting speaking like modern people. Thus Holmes and Watson tend to slip into modern vocabulary to crack jokes, which doesn't particularly appeal to me. Nonetheless it's all presented reasonably convincingly, but to be fair Victoriana is very safe territory for the BBC.
T-shirts with these outfits printed on them soon for the BBC online store.

The plot, as is typical with Sherlock, is quite perfunctory and rather secondary to the main interest of the piece. Essentially, Holmes is investigating a woman who apparently committed suicide before coming back to life and murdering her husband. The resolution to this is all fairly predictable: a fake body was used during the suicide, then the woman actually had a friend kill her because she was dying anyway (which seems rather implausible for the time) and then a secret cabal of suffragists teamed up to enact vengeance on the evil men in their lives using her spectral reputation as a cover. This is more or less all stuff we've seen before in Sherlock, and it's not very surprising, but it's also not really the point.

"'But Holmes!' I ejaculated."
Time and time again I've outlined the fact that Sherlock has been constipatedly straining over two endlessly repeated points of dramatic interest for its entire existence: what is Cumberbatch's Sherlock really like? Are Holmes and Watson really friends? And of course the answer is always "An eccentric man, but fundamentally a good one" and "Yes." You'd better believe that this is once again the area of interest of this special, with time spent dwelling on Holmes' asexuality, his drug use and his isolation from the world. One particularly bizarre point is an inexplicable conversation Holmes and Watson have while staking out the mysterious bride in which Watson insists that Holmes must have some kind of carnal urges and bugs him about it until he is forced to utter one of Moffat's meaningless fake aphorisms: "I made me," whatever that means. Furthermore, in the final confrontation with Moriarty, Holmes is not alone - despite everything (like drug abuse and so on) Watson is there to help him. Hurrah.

Stop right there criminal scum.
So really in terms of character drama it's just the same old song and dance, apart from maybe a bit more affirmation of Mycroft Holmes' genuine interest in his brother's welfare and Holmes having some kind of unnecessary realisation that he and Moriarty weren't really equal and opposite and bound to each other and so on because he has friends whereas Moriarty was just some weirdo who shot himself. But it really doesn't leave one with much. The plot's simplistic. The characterisation is repetitive and simplistic. As such, the whole thing has to rely on gimmickry in order to do something interesting. Thus we truly enter spoiler country, in case you weren't already there.

"There are now parking spaces reserved for Spider-Man,
Doctor Bollocks and Rosemary West."
It turns out in the course of events that the entire Victorian scenario is just a sort of vision in the drug-addled Holmes' head as he returns on the plane from the end of Series 3, because he needed to re enact a cold case about a woman shooting herself and apparently surviving to see if Moriarty too could have survived. Surprise surprise: he can't. Moriarty's dead, but there's some postmortem plan or some other party is using his image or something. In any event, the entire thing takes place while Holmes is having some kind of hallucinogenic dream experience in a plane seat while Watson, Mary and Mycroft sit around berating him for his bad habits. Did you know that in the original stories, Holmes only ever used drugs when he wasn't on a case? The idea that they would assist him in a case is pretty ludicrous.

"Can I be shipped with someone other than Mycroft please?"
Thus, much like the 2014 Doctor Who Christmas Special, there are dreams within dreams, such that Victorian Holmes is in a dream of Modern Holmes in a dream of Victorian Holmes in a dream of Modern Holmes, before the ending establishes that there's also a Victorian Holmes imagining the modern day just as the Modern Holmes is imagining the Victorian era. Not only does this make the whole thing feel rather pointless - it's all in Holmes' head and conveniently for Moffat and Gatiss any plot holes or mistakes can be waved away with "it wasn't real" it only emphasises the absurdity of the ending of Series 3, in which Holmes was sent on a suicide mission after killing Magnussen, only to be immediately recalled moments later with no consequences whatsoever, an utterly ludicrous ending which Moffat and Gatiss presented to the audience with a straight face as if daring them to object.

Now with 30% more hot air.
Moriarty's presence in this episode is extremely unwelcome. I have nothing against Andrew Scott as an actor but I can't stand this portrayal of Moriarty, which is essentially just Christopher Nolan's version of the Joker with an Irish accent. Victorian Mycroft even describes him as a maths professor, but in the episode he's the same old creepy Moriarty, making gay jokes about Holmes and Watson, fellating his revolver barrel and acting like he and Holmes are in some kind of codependent relationship. There's that "cheekiness" I feared in my "concerns" article. Typical rubbish. Moriarty should never be more than a plot device to kill off Holmes, nothing more. Scott's version of the character has well and truly had his day and I sincerely hope that when Holmes says that he's really dead at the end that he means it.

"I'm as English as Queen Victoria!"
I also pointed out in my concerns article that Holmes shouldn't wear his deerstalker and cape in the city yet he does, despite Watson voicing concern about wearing the country tweeds he's still wearing from a rural adventure to the city morgue. On the other hand, Cumberbatch's Holmes does look quite snappy in the sequence at the estate of Sir Eustace (a desperate-for-any-work Tim McInnerny) in which he is wearing the deerstalker and cape with a snazzy tartan country get-up. That's probably the highest compliment I can offer it, however. The use of the Victorian setting just made me want to see these actors getting to do classic-style Holmes stories, perhaps with a touch of extra darkness in the vein of those tales Watson considers to be too sensitive for public release. To touch upon the cinematography for a moment, this special also features some dreadful spinning transitions which have been described as a homage but look totally out of place and jarring here.

Care for some crack?
Other than that, "The Abominable Bride" doesn't really even get away with being a sort of whimsical New Years' romp. It's the typical Moffat bag of tricks with some feeble efforts to bring in a gender theme in order to swat away accusations of sexism or misogyny. The women are nonetheless still heavily undermined, sidelined and used as shallow stereotypes and plot devices, however, so it hardly scores any points there. While this outing wasn't as bothersome as I expected, I nonetheless think that Sherlock has well and truly lost its way from the early days when there was some competence involved in balancing the mysteries with the exploration of character. These days it just seems to be narrative trickery intended to seem clever (without being clever) and a bunch of references for the sake of Holmes fans and, indeed, pure Sherlock fans, with the Victorian Holmes having confusing reminisces of the experiences of his modern-day counterpart. All the other stuff, like postmodern jokes about the illustrator and Holmes trying to use Watson's presentation of himself against him, fat Mycroft, the Reichenbach Falls and all the rest of it would be completely meaningless to the majority of the audience who apparently (to my horror) have never read any Sherlock Holmes, although to be fair, no one reads anything anymore. Much like Moffat's Doctor Who and its ongoing obsession with pointless references to bits and pieces of the old series, this is really just an exercise in self-indulgence, not written for a mainstream audience and not even really written for Sherlock's own diehard fanbase, but rather written purely for Moffat and Gatiss themselves, emphasising to a greater extent than ever the sheer irrelevance of this abominable production.