Deconstructing Fallout 3: Tenpenny Tower

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When I first played Fallout 3 on my Xbox 360 way back in 2008, I found myself drawn to the hubs and the quests. Exploring the wasteland was fun, but ultimately I was looking for structure and a story. I’ve recently booted up Fallout 3 again, but this time on the PC. With extreme (but lore friendly) modding, I’ve found the exploration aspect far more enjoyable and the quests frankly lackluster. I want to deconstruct the quests in Fallout 3 to think about how they work in relation to an open world map and the player character’s development choices.

Let’s start with the basics. Not counting the three childhood quests, Fallout 3 has a total of 66 quests in the base game: 10 story quests, 18 side quests, 22 unmarked side quests, and 16 repeatable fetch quests. Again, I want to briefly break down each of these to see how they’ve made use of the new environment and the RPG elements.


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You know what? “Tenpenny Tower” is a good quest. It’s well structured, it’s got some great roleplaying options to expand your character, and it has three major endings, each of which has a noticeable impact on a prominent trading hub. Unfortunately, the entire quest falls apart after it has been completed.

 

Gameplay:

Whether you like it or not, the Fallout franchise is now deeply entrenched in combat mechanics. Every story mission requires either combat skills or no skills at all. “Tenpenny Tower” finds a comfortable position between the new gun-based gameplay of Fallout 3 and the old character-based gameplay of Fallout 2.

The quest has a nice start. You meet ghoul leader Roy Phillips at Tenpenny Tower’s gate, but surprisingly he’s not the quest giver. Instead, the quest begins by asking you to exterminate the ghouls. If you’re playing an evil character and are nuking Megaton, this is likely your second ghoul encounter. Taking Gustavo’s quest to kill the ghouls, regardless of who they are, probably fits into your character. Good bit of synchronized story telling there.

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After exploring the metro tunnels and killing a few dozen feral ghouls you can either kill all the sane ghouls or convince Roy Phillips you can get him into Tenpenny Tower peacefully. This is where the quest gets interesting as Tenpenny himself will allow the ghouls in so long as a handful of VIPs agree. Already this feels like a Fallout 2 quest.

You can convince the VIPs in a number of ways. You need to convince an ex-slaver, a rich couple, and both shopkeepers to allow the ghouls entry. You could just kill these anti-ghoul protestors, but because Tenpenny Tower is entirely indoors and swarming with guards, you’d need to be stealthy or use Mister Sandman.

Aside from speech options, the shopkeepers are unique in that they have a stealth based trigger. If you steal from their stores, they will leave Tenpenny Tower citing a lack of safety. Although it’s a nice variety of gameplay, the narrative doesn’t make any goddamn sense. Two wealthy business owners were willing to drop everything, exile themselves to the wasteland (where the ghouls are) and hike all the way to Megaton (without any weapons) because someone stole their stuff?
Do you, the player, really believe that?

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The Wellington couple also has an interesting option. Ex-slaver Susan Lancaster sleeps with every man in Tenpenny Tower (and the gameplay reflects this. She actually sleeps in a different man’s bed every night). Mrs. Wellington is worried Susan is sleeping with her husband as well. If you engage in a little stealthy investigation, you’ll find Mr. Wellington wrote Susan a love letter. Like stealing from the shopkeepers, this breaks away from the standard “combat skills, lockpick, hack, speech.” It’s refreshing to see so much player choice and character building in the quest. If the entire game had been like this, Fallout 3 would have been right up there with Fallout 2.

In a nice bit of world building, Susan Lancaster is wanted for the “Strictly Business” quest, allowing the player to knock out two birds with one stone. Lancaster could have been a generic Tenpenny Tower NPC, but someone had the great foresight to include her in both quests. Additionally, Susan Lancaster will move to Mr. Burke’s apartment if the ghouls are allowed in. Not that it matters since she and the rest of Tenpenny Tower’s original tenants will inevitably be murdered.

 

KarmaF3Moral Choice:

Let’s make one thing clear:
The ghoul bigotry was justified.
Wait. That’s not strong enough.
The ghoul bigotry was completely justified.
Hold on. I think this point needs a little more emphasis.
The ghoul bigotry was completely 100% justified.

Fallout 3 tries to shoehorn themes of ghoul racism into several quests, but it never quite works. It never works because on the whole Fallout 3 treats mutants as enemies instead of characters. The problem is twofold:

First, every Fallout 3 ghoul who uses the word “bigot” is universally violent and dangerous. Roy Phillips and Mister Crowley both claim they just want to stick it to some “bigots”, but they really just want an excuse to kill smoothskins. Roy Phillips (who has good karma) takes it about 100 steps further. He has no issue with nuking Megaton so long as the blast kills a lot of smoothskins.
Second, the issue of integrating ghouls doesn’t work as racial commentary in a world where feral ghouls are more prevalent than civilized ghouls and humans combined. Fallout 1 had crazed ghouls, but they were non-aggressive and under control of Set, the leader of Necropolis. In Fallout 3, almost every dungeon has feral ghouls. There are hundreds of ghouls. The entire Capital Wasteland is saturated with them. Tenpenny residents fearful of ghouls turning feral were absolutely justified. There’s no indication as to when or how a ghoul turns feral.

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Racial commentary doesn’t work in this instance because in Fallout 3, ghouls are dangerous. Sure, there’s a handful of sane pre-war ghouls, but the vast vast majority of ghouls in Fallout 3 are feral. Remember Travis the chimpanzee? He was an animal actor who mysteriously snapped and lacerated a woman’s face. Those are the stakes of the “Tenpenny Tower” quest. The gameplay (dungeons full of feral ghouls) doesn’t match the narrative (ghouls are just people with a skin condition).

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The moral issue of mutant racism worked in Fallout 2’s Broken Hills because super mutants are just big green (usually dumb) humans. Other than lingering racial tensions from the Master’s war, there’s no imminent danger of living next to a super mutant. New Vegas revisited this idea as well. The writers of Fallout 3 completely misunderstood the point.

Tenpenny Tower residents were terrified of being murdered by ghouls. Those fears were completely justified since all three methods of ghoul integration end in the massacre of every single human resident of Tenpenny Tower, even those who were pro-ghoul from the start. Turns out Roy Phillips, the violent psychopath who advocated violence throughout the entire quest, was…surprise a violent psychopath. Too bad there’s no option to kill Roy Phillips but still allow ghouls or otherwise reveal his plan to kill the smoothskins.
If you (justifiably) murder Roy Phillips and his ghouls, you get bad karma and Three Dog vilifies you on the radio. It’s as if the quest writer and the Tenpenny Tower hub designer never spoke to each other.

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Questions:

At the end of the day, there are three unanswered questions behind this quest:

Why did the ghouls want to live in Tenpenny Tower? Why would you force yourself into an exclusive club that doesn’t want you and is actively afraid of you? Just to prove a point? Proving a point or setting a precedent only works in a world upheld by law and government. It doesn’t work so well in a violent world populated by isolated tribes.

Where did all these rich ghouls come from? Tenpenny Tower is supposed to be for rich wastelanders. Herbert “Daring” Dashwood made his fortune from years of exploring. Susan Lancaster made her career in the slave trade. Where did an entire hotel of ghouls get their fortune? Where did they come from? We don’t find out, most of them are generic NPCs. Roy Phillips says he has the caps to get into Tenpenny Tower, but that’s either a lie or a developer oversight.

Why didn’t the ghouls just refurbish Warrington Station? Roy Phillips uses Warrington Station as a base, but the place is a dump. Why not turn Warrington Station into a haven for wasteland ghouls and have ferals as guards? In this manner, Gustavo and Tenpenny would hire the Lone Wanderer for fear the ghouls were building an army, rather than because the ghouls were annoying. Instead of trying to integrate, the quest could have been solved by establishing a trade agreement. This would also explain where all the ghouls were coming from.
Side note: To put into persepctive how much Gustavo wanted the ghouls dead, he was willing to pay 500 caps, the same as Mr. Burke’s compensation for detonating Megaton. In Tenpenny Tower, killing three ghouls has the same value as procuring a one-of-a-kind fusion pulse charge and blowing up an entire town.

 

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“If you bigots don’t let us in, we’ll kill you all! We’ll also kill you all if you do let us in! You PRIVILEGED SMOOTHSKIN BIGOTS!”

Like so many other quests in Fallout 3, “Tenpenny Tower” is a story of missed potential and unanswered questions. It’s not a bad quest by any means. The gameplay offers a lot of non-combat options and even breaks the mold of “combat, lockpick, hack, speech” that defines the main questline. Unfortunately, the moral choice was poorly conceived and the ending ruins the entire quest. You either kill the ghouls and are labeled a racist or you let the ghouls slaughter every human in Tenpenny Tower, even those who were pro-ghoul from the beginning.

Such is life in the wasteland.

Desert Law: School Bus Mounted Howitzer

desert-law_w1010.pngMy Steam library is filled with post-apocalyptic games. Generally, I’ll pick up (or at least wishlist) any apocalyptic game I come across. Desert Law has been in my library for about two years. I picked it up on sale, played it for 10 minutes, and then uninstalled it. However, enough time has passed that I thought the game deserved another chance. Unfortunately, the game aged about as well as a bloated corpse in the wasteland sun.

Desert Law’s narrative makes Wasteland Angel look complex by comparison. After the apocalypse, tribes of road warriors kill each other over booze and car parts. What kind of apocalypse is this? We don’t really know. The entire world is a desert and some places are populated by angry sentient zombies napping beneath the sand.
Here’s the story: Generic wastelander Brad wants to woo a girl for mating season, but rival tribes of gangsters and pre-apocalypse military keep mucking up his plans. Brad convinces his tribe to kill everyone in their way until Jane (the love interest) notices him.

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The Postal Dude shoots Gengis Khan

The story is told in comic-book format. Make of the art style what you will. Speech bubbles appear and pages turn automatically. I personally found the speed of these sections to be a little too fast. I wasn’t able to read all the text before the page change. However, considering the prevalence of misused and misspelled words, it’s clear the game doesn’t care about the story and the player shouldn’t either.

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Gameplay revolves around commanding a handful of buggies and armored hotrods with swivel turrets. In an interesting twist, drivers can exit vehicles and continue on foot. Hero units drive standard cars, but grant slight bonuses to different vehicles. Like Starcraft, there are a few infiltrator style missions where you abandon your convoy and explore ruined settlements on foot.

Unfortunately, Desert Law is difficult for all the wrong reasons. A great source of difficulty comes from bugged pathfinding. Without micro-management, units will drive directly into scenery. Exciting chases are impossible because cars regularly bump into each other. Destroyed units act as physical barriers. Although the monster-truck unit can smash through concrete walls and small buildings, it cannot drive over destroyed cars. This makes defense missions incredibly difficult as your army is quickly boxed in.

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See the one car facing the opposite direction? The pathfinding made it crash into friendly units.

Units disobey orders and tend to chase enemies, making command options (stand ground, ambush, etc) completely useless. There’s no UI feedback to indicate you’ve given a unit orders. On multiple occasions, I’ve set up a defense line around a stationary turret. Despite being set to “stand ground” my weakest unit rushed into the fray before enemies entered the turret’s range. Even worse, this was a hero unit.

The game enters a fail state whenever a hero is killed. This wouldn’t be a problem in most RTS games, but in Desert Law hero units make up the majority of your army. Take, for example, the first real mission of the game. You start the quest with five units, three of them are heroes. As you progress through the quest, you’ll pick up another three heroes. You have a total army size of eight, but only two of your units are permitted to die during the quest. In most RTS games, hero units are exceptionally powerful, giving them enhanced survivability. In Desert Law heroes grant slight bonuses to standard vehicles. All these problems are only exacerbated by generally squishy units.

Enemies are comparable to player units, but are far more numerous. Units can be repaired by the mechanic hero, but there’s a catch. First, the mechanic doesn’t appear in every mission. Second, reflecting the post-apocalyptic setting, every unit has a set amount of ammo per level. The mechanic has no guns, but uses ammo by repairing vehicles.

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See the tiny health bar under the monster truck? That’s a foot soldier.

Just to recap, Desert Law is a strategy game where you instantly fail if any hero unit dies. The majority of your army is comprised of heroes who are only slightly better than standard units. You’re outnumbered 5:1 by enemies who are just as powerful as you. You can repair your vehicles, but can only make 3-4 repairs per mission. The game has no base building, but reinforcements occasionally appear after completing objectives.

There’s not a lot to say about Desert Law. It’s a single player blitzkrieg-style strategy game with an irrelevant story, no voice acting, and poor optimization.  Fortunately, the game is only $2.99, frequently goes on sale, and includes 29 missions. If you’re looking for a cheap distraction or compulsively buy post-apocalyptic games, give it a look.

If you’re interested in Desert Law, you can get it here

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I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: Gorrister

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Con-man, pacifist, business woman, Nazi, scientist. Five improbable entities stuck together in a pit of darkness. A prolonged nightmare of 109 years conducted by a sadistic self-aware supercomputer with unlimited power. This is Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.

Although on the surface IHNMAIMS is a straightforward story about five people trapped in an endless underground complex after a nuclear war, it has transcended into a franchise. The human characters from the short story were greatly expanded upon in the 1995 video game while the supercomputer, AM, gained some depth in a 2001 radio drama. A comic adaptation was created but never published, though a few English panels and the full Spanish version found their way onto the internet. This has become one of my favorite post-apocalyptic stories due to the development of the characters and the themes at play.

In this series, we’ll break down each of the humans: exposing their fatal flaws and then identifying what led them to redemption (and further punishment).

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Gorrister’s comic adaptation

Gorrister. The first character introduced in both the text and the video game. Originally, he was a conscientious objector, a peace marcher. In the game, he was an electrician and truck driver before the machine captured him. The only similarity between the two versions of this character is the spoken wish for death.

Like Benny, Gorrister was made into a parody of his former self. AM transformed an anti-war organizer into a man of indifference. Gorrister no longer cares enough to take action against AM (even if it was possible); all he can do is hope the machine will finally kill him. What’s interesting is that AM didn’t necessarily need to physically alter Gorrister’s mind; it’s possible that the torture and hopeless atmosphere of the machine’s complex was enough to reduce this character into an apathetic shell. Additionally, there’s an excellent irony to be found in this character. Staying out of the war is what led to his eternal torment. Had he been on the front lines of the war, he likely would have been nuked along with everyone else.

AM’s alterations of Gorrister are easily identifiable in the original text. Reduced to a shoulder shrugger, Gorrister sided with Ted in the belief that there was no point in journeying to the ice caverns. Further, even when practically immortal and on the brink of starvation, Gorrister could not be bothered to fight AM’s giant mutant bird. Perhaps he knew that AM would never let him have the flesh or perhaps he knew that fighting the beast was simply not worth it; either way it goes to show that Gorrister’s state of mind has been worn down to complete indifference.

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There is however one exception to Gorrister’s alterations that has always stuck out to me. When Benny is attempting to climb to the surface, Gorrister slaps Ellen to the ground for displaying her concern for Benny. I found it to be particularly interesting that the so-called shoulder shrugger, the so-called objector was so annoyed by Ellen’s concern that he attacked her.  In the comic adaptation, he even goes so far as to kick Ellen in the stomach while she’s already down.

Gorrister’s psychodrama is by far my favorite scenario in the video game. Whereas the other psychodramas rely on riddles and interesting gameplay mechanics, Gorrister’s story is almost entirely metaphorical from beginning to end. From its odd humor to it’s almost steampunk-noire atmosphere this is (in my opinion) one of the best adventure game levels ever made.

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Starting the level, Gorrister cannot determine where he is or what he’s riding due to extreme cloud coverage. This is a clear metaphor for Gorrister’s understanding of the situation; as he uncovers the mystery of the dining room, the airship sinks below the clouds, making everything clear. Further, Gorrister’s heart is literally ripped out of his chest by order of his mother-in-law, a clear allusion to Edna’s effect on the trucker’s marriage. This is just scratching the surface of the excellent metaphorical storytelling present in Gorrister’s psychodrama. Like Nimdok, the events relate to the character’s past, but in Gorrister’s story, they are told in a manner that relates to the situation at hand and gives you a tingly “ah-ha” moment when you realize the connection.

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From a gameplay perspective, Gorrister’s story has far more choices (and dead ends) than the others. One wrong step can trap the player in an unwinnable situation, especially when dealing with Edna. However, in many ways this only adds to the charm and replayability of a simple roadside honkey-tonk in the middle of the desert.

Although he began as an apathetic husk in the original story, Dreamer’s Guild really knocked it out of the park with Gorrister’s psychodrama. Like Nimdok, Gorrister was greatly expanded upon, allowing him to shift into a three dimensional character. The character’s quest to find death unexpectedly becomes a strongly metaphorical journey of self-discovery and inner peace.

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What other metaphors did you see in Gorrister’s psychodrama? Tell us in the comments!

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: Benny

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Con-man, pacifist, business woman, Nazi, scientist. Five improbable entities stuck together in a pit of darkness. A prolonged nightmare of 109 years conducted by a sadistic self-aware supercomputer with unlimited power. This is Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.

Although on the surface IHNMAIMS is a straightforward story about five people trapped in an endless underground complex after a nuclear war, it has transcended into a franchise. The human characters from the short story were greatly expanded upon in the 1995 video game while the supercomputer, AM, gained some depth in a 2001 radio drama. A comic adaptation was created but never published, though a few English panels and the full Spanish version found their way onto the internet. This has become one of my favorite post-apocalyptic stories due to the development of the characters and the themes at play.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll break down each of the humans: exposing their fatal flaws and then identifying what led them to redemption (and further punishment).

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Benny can hardly be recognized as once human.

We’ll start with Benny, who has always been AM’s favorite torture toy. Originally, he was a brilliant scientist. It is never explained why AM hates Benny more than the others, but for whatever reason he was reduced to a hunchback ape-like creature. His handsome features replaced by a network of fissures and radiation scars.

Aside from his physical body, AM takes pleasure in altering Benny’s mental abilities. However, I have to wonder if altering Benny’s mind is the best use of AM’s power. By reducing the scientists’ mental faculties, AM only makes it more difficult for Benny to appreciate the irony of his situation. A scientist unable to express his ideas is far more torturous than a scientist who is reduced to a babbling fool. Benny is like a servitor in Warhammer 40,000. His mind has been altered, but that doesn’t affect him, only those who once knew him. Perhaps that was the goal. So long as he is crippled, blind, and dumb Benny requires constant care and attention from his four companions.

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Expanding on Benny’s altered mind, it really doesn’t matter if Benny was once homosexual if his mind has been altered. Again, that was a different person, not the creature who now inhabits AM’s belly. As long as AM tampers with his mind, he cannot appreciate the irony of being forced to sleep with Ellen for 109 years. Originally, the game adaptation was going to deal with Benny’s sexual preference, but ultimately the character was completely revamped and given a new backstory.

In the video game, Benny was the commander of an American commando squad fighting in a Chinese rice patty during World War III. While deployed, Benny killed four of his squad mates. The reasons for the first murder is unclear, but it’s implied one squad mate couldn’t pull his weight and another tried to help him. Lacking compassion, Benny killed both of them for showing weakness. When the others found out, Benny murdered them as well. Something to briefly consider is if AM was created to oversee a war too complex for human minds, then it is possible Benny’s orders came from the great machine.

Interestingly, Benny’s initial psych profile is about cannibalism. This has led some fans to theorize Benny cannibalized his squad mates, just as he attempted to cannibalize Gorrister in the original story.  However, cannibalism is hardly included in the final game. If Benny even attempts to eat someone, he will be sent back to the campfire. This is odd as AM even calls the villagers prey. Unable to eat the village’s only food source, Benny was intended to cannibalize the tribe. Indeed, a deleted scene from early promotional footage shows Benny was supposed to eat a live baby

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Benny the Baby Burglar

The great thing about Benny’s psychodrama is that his mind is clear, but his body is crippled. Benny has become like the soldiers he once murdered. In a delicious bout of irony, Benny knows what he wants, but is forced to rely on the compassion of others and to display compassion in his own actions. Benny starts the scenario as a little more than a starving animal. By the end of the story, his stomach has been filled and he has made amends with those he wronged. Although Benny sacrificed himself to protect another, it hardly matters. Benny is effectively immortal; AM would never let him die. Sacrificing himself for another is merely symbolic and serves no real purpose other than to confuse AM. In the context of the psychodrama, the villagers don’t really exist. Even if there was a tribe of humans living inside the complex, Benny offering himself will only prolong the inevitable offering of the mutant child. The ending only serves to ease Benny’s state of mind.elder

Benny is an interesting character simply because of what he means to AM. In the original story the others are mentally altered, but physically intact. Benny is physically and mentally augmented until he no longer resembles the man he once was. He is a burden on the others, a constant reminder of what could happen to them if they misbehave. He has no consciousness and he must scream.

2016-12-14_0959Is augmenting Benny’s mind an effective form of torture? Tell us in the comments!

Wasteland Angel: The Mad Max Arcade

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Wasteland Angel is a post-nuclear themed vehicular arcade shooter from indie developers Octane Games. I like to pick up any post-apocalyptic games I can find, especially indie games, just to see how they use the setting. With that in mind, Wasteland Angel is a serviceable top-down arcade shooter, though not an especially great post-apocalyptic arcade shooter.

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Although an arcade shooter, Wasteland Angel boasts a story, told in comic book form, about the titular Angel (essentially a female Mad Max) driving across post-nuclear America to find an old acquaintance. In her quest, she will pass through a number of villages, each of which is being attacked by slavers with either a generic raider, Russian militant, or super mutant theme.

There are six chapters in Wasteland Angel, each of which is split into four levels. The first two levels always consist of slaughtering wave after wave of enemies as they try to abduct settlers from the local village. The third level is a boss battle in which you must “trick” a super vehicle into running over a napalm trail or land mines. The fourth level is a bonus round in first person, either a rampage mission or a race (against time, not AI cars).

Unfortunately, this formula gets old very quickly. There’s just not enough variety, either in enemies or gameplay. Once you’ve played the first two chapters, there’s really no reason to continue unless you want to finish the story.
The first two missions of every chapter are incredibly tedious as you must fight off hundreds of vehicles across 20+ waves. Worse is that there’s little variety in enemies. Even the boss battles are recycled.

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Same boss fight. New coat of paint.

There are three enemies in Wasteland Angel with a different coat of paint for each faction:

  1. Vehicle that only attacks you
  2. Vehicle that either attacks you or collects slaves
  3. Vehicle that only collects slaves

Occasionally, enemies will use your own items against you (some will leave a trail of napalm behind them), but between monotonous waves and little enemy variation, there’s not a lot to see here.

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It’s fun to make enemies SPLAT!

All this isn’t to say that Wasteland Angel isn’t fun. Although fleeting, there is some fun to be had with the vehicular aspect as well as the wasteland motif. Being that you’re in a car, your car makes wide, realistic turns. Guns only point toward the front of the car, meaning that players who adopt naval strategy will find themselves with more health and more time. Interestingly, cars react somewhat realistically to bullets. If bullets only graze your target, no damage is done and the player is treated to a metallic ping.  When a car is satisfyingly destroyed, it will often leave a driver in its place who will either shoot at the player or run away. Bonus points are granted for splattering raiders with your car. There’s great combat feedback and the car controls feel like Mad Max, albeit with more bullets, rockets, and mini-nukes.

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Challenge me! Show me your high score!

                Wasteland Angel’s tone and art style lies somewhere between Mad Max and Fallout. Small details, such as kneecappers, were added to enemy cars to make them look more wastelandish. The bandit character models are surprisingly detailed in a classic Road Warrior style. However, the Fallout art style shines through in the titular Angel, who wears a pink skirt and a pink bow-tie in her hair.  The opening menu and the post-mission score card both take on a 1960s pinup motif, adding to that Fallout feel. Additionally, Wasteland Angel includes super mutant rip-offs for its final act. Unfortunately, because the game chose a middle of the road approach to its art style, it inevitably comes off as generic. There are hundreds of pictures of post-apocalyptic cars on Deviantart, but many of them are drawn in the same style, a style which Wasteland Angel followed as well.

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You only see enemies up close in bonus missions, but they’re surprisingly detailed!

Finally, I’m not sure that the post-nuclear atmosphere was the best choice for this game.
I enjoyed it, but there’s a dissonance between the setting and the action. The post-apocalyptic genre is always about scarcity in one form or another, but Wasteland Angel has the player firing hundreds of bullets per second while facing off against hundreds of enemies in a single battle. Infinite ammo and near infinite enemies don’t really reflect the setting Octane Games has chosen.
This game would have worked better as the story of a sci-fi bounty hunter saving planetary settlers from space pirates. Such a narrative would have better connected with the gameplay and could have improved review scores.

As it stands, Wasteland Angel is fun for maybe an hour. There are some fun aspects with the car controls, bonus missions, and weapons, but they don’t make up for the long and tedious missions or the copy/pasted boss battles. Although I always try to recommend a piece of media to some specific person, I can only recommend Wasteland Angel for 30-45 minutes. It’s forgettable

If you’re interested in Wasteland Angel you can get it here.

 

Show, Don’t Tell: Scarcity in Mad Max

Resource management is nothing new to video games. Survival games and RPGs have had players carefully manage their supplies for over a decade. However, Mad Max (2015) took that concept and ran it in a completely new direction. In the Mad Max franchise, the oceans have dried up, crops have withered, and the great machine of society has sputtered until it finally ground to a halt. The future belongs to those who control the last precious drops of water and guzzolene. By giving glimpses of a backstory and making resource management an integral part of the gameplay, Mad Max makes players fear scarcity both in the game and reality.

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In Mad Max, the player can only be healed by drinking water or eating food. Water is kept in an accessible canteen, but food can only be used once and always consists of either wild animals, canned dog food, or corpse maggots. Since the local warlord has deployed hundreds of his men into the dried seabed, Max will need to heal quite often. This gives the player a sense of risk over reward: they could waste their precious water to heal or they could explore the enemy camp a bit longer and hope they find some food before a murderous war-boy finds them.

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Your car runs out of gas in the tutorial missions, but that will probably be the only time.

Fitting with the theme of scarcity, all cars in Mad Max run on guzzolene. Some cars are more gluttonous than others and the player is required to keep their vehicles well fed or else be run down by the warlord’s convoys. In this post-society world, those without a car are quickly made into slaves or fertilizer for the maggot farms. Two aspects of gameplay can give the player pause when using guzzolene. The first is that occasionally Max must sacrifice a can of fuel to be used as a bomb. The second is that a major part of the story involves Max traveling from camp to camp, destroying the local warlord’s oil rigs. It’s explained that this is done so there’s no reason for the warlord’s minions to come back.
In a future where those with gas rule, it seems foolish to destroy multiple oil rigs and crude oil stockpiles, rather than to take control of them; especially when you consider that Fury Road’s opening narration established the oil wars by saying “We are killing each other over guzzolene.” Perhaps it was intentional that Max declares war on the oil producers of the new world, as if to show history repeating itself even in the post-apocalyptic age.

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Fallout 3’s Springvale: an untouched opportunity across the street from Megaton.

Compared to Bethesda’s Fallout games, one of the great things about Mad Max is that the world feels like people have been living in it. In Fallout 3, 200 years have passed since atomic fire and nobody in Megaton has bothered to scavenge the neighborhood across the street. For 200 years food, supplies, weapons, and building materials were just waiting to be found. In Mad Max, survivors have produced methods for collecting water and generating food.Scavengers go out into the drained seabed hoping to find a rare shipping container packed with canned goods. The world feels alive and lived in, something that has always been a hallmark of the Mad Max franchise.

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Playing the game for the first time, those new to the franchise might think that Mad Max takes place in a horrific sci-fi world of endless sand, like Arrakis in Dune. However, to the game’s benefit, one of the major collectibles in Mad Max are “history relics”. These items take the form of either pieces of cardboard with writing on them or photographs with messages written on the back of them. Max will speak about certain items, providing context either for the post-apocalyptic world or how the times before The Fall relate to present moment and Max’s state of mind.

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This handwritten touch adds a lot that reading a wall of green text in Fallout 3 doesn’t.

When looking at a picture of a lake Max will say “So much water. It seems wasteful now.” Likewise, when looking at a picture of barbecued meat, Max will say (with a hint of disgust in his voice) “We ate our fill and threw out the rest.”
None of the characters in the Mad Max game care about the old times. Many wastelanders were born into the new world and don’t know anything else. The soft exposition does a good job of informing  both completionist players and those who know more, without detracting from the primary quests.  These small cues combined with the resource based gameplay cause the player to consider the scarcity of our own world. Ultimately, the gameplay and the backstory combine to form a warning, even if the player doesn’t immediately recognize it.

The Mad Max game forms a subtle subtext that directly relate to the game’s world and our own, rather than making blanket statements against the lifestyle of a consumer based economy. This is surprisingly well done because Max isn’t warning about what might happen, he merely explains what has already happened in his world. Every person Max finds a picture of is dead. reflecting the loss of his own family (the first relic in the game is a picture of Max’s family).

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Unfortunately, as Max becomes more powerful, the feeling of being in a dying world wears off. Max is given the opportunity to upgrade his own abilities and the fortresses of his allies. Through spiritual experiences, Max can dramatically increase the amount of water he finds and the fuel efficiency of his car (making guzzolene only useful as a bomb toward the end game). By upgrading fortresses, Max is treated to a variety of benefits every time he returns to a quest hub: Full health, a full tank of gas, a full bandolier of shotgun shells, and a full canteen of water. Although this makes the world feel alive and gives the player hope for a better future, it feels wrong to allow Max to have the maximum amount of equipment at all times in a world where most people have nothing.

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It’s great to see a fortress grow into a village, but the gameplay rewards interrupt the tone.

Every post-apocalyptic scenario deals with scarcity in some form be it women (A Boy and His Dog), water (Fallout), or even life itself (The Road). The Mad Max game takes both the concept of resource management and post-apocalyptic scarcity and molds it into something new. Mad Max doesn’t give endless exposition to say how scarce everything is. Instead, (at least for the first few hours) it throws the player into an inhospitable world and tells them to survive. Combined with commentary and images of the old world, this game produces a surprisingly effective rhetoric that causes players to at least reflect on their current lifestyle, even if they don’t realize it.

Does providing players with unlimited resources support or detract from the scarcity based game play? Tell us in the comments!