Police State

“Two weeks hard labor.”

That was the sentence given to me by “his honor” the Judge. Geeze. I can still see that fat sluggish tongue scraping the cheese dust from his bloated lips. Guy looks like a bullfrog with a mustache. And the smell… his whole courtroom smells like a plate of steaming hot puke with a glass of skunked beer.

After my “trial” (if you can call it that), I was shackled, beaten again, and hauled off to the blacksmiths. Saul Fore wouldn’t get me out of this one. For two weeks, he just glanced at me and shook his head. When I called out to him, he said that I was beyond helping. Those words hit a lot harder than the police batons, even if they didn’t leave me covered in purple splotches.

For the past two weeks I’ve been lighting forges, assembling weapons, and handloading fresh bullets. My fingers have turned grey, but it hasn’t been so bad. I’ve actually learned a lot about how guns work. Plus, all this gave me some time to clear my head and think about everything that’s happened in the past few weeks. Besides, hard labor is a lot better than getting thrown out in the wasteland…again.

You’re probably wondering: How did that idiot Joe Junkman get into this mess?

Well, I had just entered the BLVD with Saul Fore our food caravan. It had been a long, but uneventful journey from Abundance. Almost immediately, I spotted a crowd gathered round a band playing on a rusting pickup truck. Then the music hit me. All I could hear was the wonderful strumming of a finely tuned guitar. I ignored Saul Fore’s warning and followed the string of notes drifting through the air. I caught myself nodding my head and shaking my hips. I was in a trance, comfortably numb to the world around me.

That’s partially why I didn’t hear the curfew siren. The other reason is that I had no idea the BLVD had a curfew in the first place. At first, I didn’t even notice the “counselor’s” approached wearing their fancy suits and armed with nightsticks and hand crank sirens. The crowd quickly dispersed, but I had no idea what was happening. Nobody told me anything! Of course the Judge croaked out that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” Seems pretty stupid to me.

It wasn’t long before I was the last person on the street. The counselors boxed me in. One shouted something at me through a megaphone, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I didn’t want any trouble, so I shot my hands up and slowly walked toward the suit with the megaphone. He didn’t like that.

Something slammed into the back of my head. I hit the ground hard. A padded knee rested on top of me as my arms were roughly placed behind my back. I tried to use the old Junkman charm, but that just got me a steel-toed kick to the guts. Bruises. Just what I needed. I’m sure someone will find that attractive.

After all that, I was hauled off to the courthouse to await my trial the following morning. Of course, I had to defend myself in court so it didn’t go well. But all this got me thinking. What if someone were to put an official list of the BLVD’s laws on paper? And what if they sold that list for a few tags? And what if that someone was me?

Gunman Taco Truck: Refreshing!

gmtt-4.jpgAfter the monotony of Wasteland Angel and the abject failure of The Underground Man, I was delighted to learn of Gunman Taco Truck from Romero Games. The ultimate surprise came when I looked at the game on Steam and found that it was designed by a 9-year-old boy. With that said, Gunman Taco Truck is an addictive arcade game with a great sense of humor and a steep difficulty curve.

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The premise is simple. Scientists accidentally set off nuclear bombs, killing or mutating almost everything in the United States. One mysterious food truck driver must embark on a cross country trip from San-Diego to Winnipeg, Canada. Gasoline is expensive in the apocalypse. To make ends meet, our hero must slaughter mutants, harvest their meat, and sell delicious tacos.

The gameplay is a nice balance of resource management, lane defense, reflex based shooting, cooking games, and memory. It sounds like a mess of parts, but combined with a powerful premise, it all fits together quite nicely. In fact, I haven’t seen a game that flawlessly pulled together so many elements since Sunless Sea.

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To get meat, you’ll find yourself in a lane based arcade shooter, where you simply have to kill enemies before they get to you. Along the way, you’ll also need to shoot road signs for scrap metal (to upgrade your vehicle) and un-mutated animals for specialty meats. To pay for gas, you need to sell tacos. Here’s the catch: You need extra ingredients (cheese, salsa, cilantro, mold, etc) to fulfill the orders. Each gas station has either a grocer or a mechanic. Prices of items vary at each location. You never really feel safe because no grocer sells every kind of topping. On the one hand, this ensures that you can’t grind tacos. On the other hand, if you run out of toppings then you’re going to have a bad time.

That leads me to the next area: difficulty. Though the game starts out simple, the difficulty curve pulls up so hard it’s almost at an overhang. If you fail to upgrade your vehicle (or can’t find enough scrap metal) you’ll be eaten alive by super-mutants and giant frogs. The farther you go, the more enemies you face. In other words, the late-game quickly becomes bullet hell.

Now I mentioned that nobody sells every kind of taco topping. That turns out to be a major downside in this game. Some ingredients (salsaespecially) are included in almost every recipe. Unfortunately, I found that (because the game uses RNG) some ingredients are incredibly hard to find. I’ve had at least seven “Game Over” screens simply because no one was selling salsa.

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Though difficult, the visuals make gameplay rewarding. There’s a huge number of mutants, meats, and weapons in the world. Sprites are fun, colorful, and cartoonish. Great feedback, colors, and “hurt” sprites help the player navigate harder levels. Close ups of customers are charming and seem to invoke the art-style of Papers, Please.

It’s also worth noting that the game is honestly funny. After feeding hungry customers, you receive reviews. There’s a lot of flavor text and references that contributes to the tone and humor, without distracting the player. Finally, there’s the kid friendly “pinata mode”. Instead of exploding into a thousand bloody bits, enemies will explode into candy and stuffed animals. This is a great extra addition and highlights the care that went into this project.

I love games that you can jump into and play for 30 minute sessions; “Gunman Taco Truck” is no exception. From its fast gameplay to its charming premise, this is a welcome addition to your library of post-apocalyptic games. My one caveat would be price; Gunman Taco Truck sells for $11.99. Regardless, when compared to other post-apocalyptic indie games, this is a breath of fresh air.

If you’re interested in Gunman Taco Truck, you can get it here.

In the Belly of the Beast

Well, this isn’t so bad,

10f7365ae3a83129b412f4aeb2ba0b0d  There I was, trapped in a cage like a common animal. My captor was busy nursing a crackling fire. With the cave illuminated, I was able to orient myself to the exit portal. Looking around, I found a mattress, a chessboard resting on a table of stacked car rims, and even a carved china cabinet full of knick-knacks.

I was then distracted by an unpleasant pattering sound that scratched the back of my mind and caused my eyebrow to twitch and my neck muscles to tense. Turning away from the fire, I spotted a collection of drying pots and pans. Licking my cracked lips, I watched as precious water droplets rhythmically plopped into a tin dish. Though my head was still pounding from dehydration, I knew that my captor had must have a sustainable water source if he was willing to waste such a valuable commodity on washing dishes.

A monstrous humanoid shadow appeared on the wall in front of me, growing larger and larger as the sound of crunching sand grew louder and louder. Trembling, I turned around to formally meet my kidnapper. I don’t know what I was expecting.

Grabbing the iron lattice, the mutant revealed himself in all his horrific glory. My captor stood nearly seven feet tall. His flesh was a sickly yellowish green that had the consistency of fresh mucus. His whole body unnaturally oozed and festered, yet not a single drop of slime fell from his body. An odd explosive glow churned in his bloated belly. He wore little more than leather boots, tattered cargo shorts, and a pouch bandolier that seemed fused to his chest.

My captor introduced himself as Urmit, apparently of a race called the hulking horrors. My teeth chattering, I silently nodded my head. Suddenly, the mutant’s body made a grotesque crunching sound, similar to splitting wood. His muscular left arm atrophied until it was little more than a five fingered stump, while his right arm turned into a tentacle, slithering into the cage to meet me with a handshake.

Retracting his right arm and re-growing his left, the horror noted that I was extremely dehydrated. He picked up the tin dish full of drippings and slid it into my cage. As I emptied the curved plate, Urmit asked what I was doing out in the desert without any gear. I plainly told him that I was looking for a water source to help the people of Abundance. It was the truth after all, mostly.

“You mean like dat?” the mutant asked, pointing behind me.

I turned around once again to find a reflective pool that stretched as far back into the cave as I could see.

Now I just need to play my card right and get out of here.

-Joe Junkman

Deja Vu

I’m really not cut out for this.

I woke up to a sharp pressure just below my eyebrows. I was being dragged uphill. My whole body was sore. My arms were all ripped up after being dragged through the rocks. My legs would have been worse if I had been wearing shorts. I had no idea where I was going. That seemed to be happening a lot lately.

Trying to keep my cool, as I had in the spider’s web, I remained perfectly still. The pressure on my skull was such that, I felt whatever was dragging me could blind me or smash my head in at any moment. I did not want to startle my captor. Although I couldn’t look up to see the creature’s whole body, I could tell that it was humanoid as it angrily mumbled to itself. Its fingers were moist and sticky.

Before long, the moonlight and stars over my head were replaced by impenetrable blackness.  I was being dragged into a cave and a fairly nice one at that. My hands drifted through soft sand. It reminded me of the beaches of Brazil. Once all natural light disappeared, I was assaulted by the unsettling creak of rusty iron before being thrown into a cage. This was exactly like my last trip to Brazil.

I heard distinctive click of a padlock followed by the mumblings of a raspy congested voice. Aside from insane gibberings, I could make out “boil da water, add da meat, cook up some’fing real neat.”

Moments later, I could make out a series of sharp clicks coming from my right. The first spark revealed a monstrous silhouette, like that of a body builder. The second spark ignited the kindling, gradually revealing the creature in its entirety. The monster cracked his knuckles and turned to me.

This would be a really good time for Gray to show up.

-Joe Junkman

The Underground Man: Smoke and Mirrors

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I’ve played a lot of AAA games and I’ve played a lot of indie games, but I’ve never played a game quite like The Underground Man. The game is tagged as a “story rich RPG.” Although the character creation screen is reminiscent of old pen and paper sheets, this is most certainly not an RPG. The Underground Man relies on an old school vibe, similar to Kung Fury or Far Cry: Blood Dragon. Don’t be fooled, this game is a far cry from those it tries to imitate.

The best way to explain my frustration with The Underground Man is to describe my experience. The game’s store description reads:
Moscow: Sometime in the near future. The city and perhaps the Earth’s surface has turned into a radioactive ash. Those who decided that they could not exist in such conditions began to live under the ground.
The unusual wording of this description should have been an early warning, but I initially assumed that since the developers are independent and from Russia, that the game might have some other merit.

As the game boots up, you see the logo “Mehsoft”. That turned out to be a fairly appropriate name.  The music is an oddly good throwback to early SNES games and reminiscent of Kung Fury.

Moving on to character creation, the player is treated to a whopping 36 skills including “sexuality”, “sence of humor”, “mental complexity”, and “kindness”.  The player is given an enormous number of points to distribute, but all this is an exercise in futility.  None of these skills do anything, they have no effect on the game. Finally, the player cannot proceed until they write a character bio at least 140 characters long.

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Don’t be fooled. This character creation screen is a waste of time.

If you manage to make it past the character creation screen, you are treated to a picture of an atomic explosion that has been distorted to look authentically 80s. Without any further introduction, you are then dropped into an underground cave opposite a robed figure. Now begins a lengthy unskippable dialogue establishing your goal.

The player is told that the people of the underground have been harvesting potatoes for years, but that the crops are starting to go bad. Therefore, the titular Underground Man must go to the surface and find corndogs as they are “food wrapped in food” and therefore safe from radiation.  Should the Underground Man recover the corndogs, his people will scientifically analyze them to produce their own potato corndogs.
I actually don’t have a problem with this quirky and memetic dialogue. Not every post-apocalyptic setting has to be dark and gritty. Humor can serve as contrast to a setting’s gloom and despair.

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Notice that the first line spoken to the player is “Hello there, shithead.”

The dialogue system here is somewhat interesting. There are no dialogue options, you have to type out your answers. If you have no idea what to type, you’re allowed 3 hints that will show you the possible responses for the conversation. In the tutorial this amounts to “Yes”, “No” and “____”.

Over the next five minutes, the player is told that the last person sent to the surface went crazy from the radiation sickness and returned wearing women’s underwear. The tutorial NPC goes on to say that after trying to kiss another man, the previous explorer was beaten to death with shovel before the tribe urinated on his corpse. This is real. This is actually in the game.

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After 10 minutes, the player is finally given a sense of control. They’re told to move to the right side of the room by holding “D”. If you fail to do this or if you press any button other than “D” the tutorial NPC will call you a failure and you’ll be sent back to the main menu.  There’s no save system (though you do periodically receive checkpoints if you pass the tutorial), so although you can ignore the useless skills, you still have to write 140 character bio before starting again. Once you start over, you’ll have to wait through another 10 minutes of scrolling text before you can reattempt the tutorial. If you manage to pass the movement challenge, you’ll be asked to jump. You’ll be asked to jump over a dozen times. If you just mash the spacebar, you’ll be sent back to the main menu.

Should you pass the movement section, you’ll be allowed to fight a radroach. If you lasted this long, you’ll realize that the game is merely a 2D beat ‘em up. Your health bar is represented by three hearts in the top left corner of the screen. After the fighting tutorial, you’ll learn how to pick up items. Again, if you don’t perform perfectly, you’ll be sent back to the main menu.

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Empty screens just provide filler, rather than enhance the setting.

In the unlikely event that you pass the tutorial, you’ll find yourself walking across a few dozen empty wasteland screens before meeting the game’s only companion. Trap is the female(ish) sidekick whose dialogue consists almost entirely of rumors about what’s between her legs. So long as Trap accompanies the player, she will shoot at enemies with an energy weapon.2016-12-01_2324

The further you get into the “story”, the more reminiscent the gameplay is of NES shovelware. Everything that touches you removes one of your three hit points. Getting pooped on by a bird does the same damage as being punched by a zombie. Toward the end of the game, the player must engage in precision platforming across a lake of instant-killing green slime (filled with leaping piranhas). Additionally, there’s a short 2.5D driving section in a hovercraft (with holographic legs).

Despite its large number of locations, The Underground Man is horrifically padded. Much of the game is simply walking across multiple empty screen. Although this makes the wasteland feel big and empty, it doesn’t accomplish anything. The original Fallout didn’t make you walk across a dozen screens of wasteland, but it still gave players a sense of scale. The Underground Man could have relied on in-game cutscenes to transition between zones. Instead, they made the game longer. This is especially horrendous near the previously mentioned platforming section which requires the player not only to get across the acid lake, but then travel back in a single attempt. As it stands, the game is about 5 hours long (mistakes included). If you could skip the tutorial, fast forward through dialogue, and never made a mistake the game would probably be about an hour long.

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There’s nothing wrong with a joke game (even one that relies on memetic humor), so long as it has some redeeming quality. Even silly nonsensical games can be fun. Adult Swim’s Jazzpunk is an incredibly simple game, but it knows how to entertain. Steam reviews suggest that this game was made for the purpose of trolling and that an understanding of Russian humor is required to understand the dialogue.
I just don’t understand why The Underground Man was made, especially since most players will immediately request a refund. I’m reminded of Penn and Teller’s: Smoke and Mirrors (you may know it as the infamous Desert Bus), a fake game that only exists to frustrate. The difference is that Smoke and Mirrors was a multiplayer game meant to annoy and confuse your friends. The Underground Man is a punchline without a joke.

If you’re still interested in The Underground Man, you can get it here.

All Tied Up

I have a headache…

I woke up upside down. I had no idea how long I had been hanging here, but all the blood had rushed to my head. I tried to squirm free, but my entire body was bound in something strong, silky, and sticky. To make matters worse, it was pitch black; I couldn’t see a thing!

After what seemed like maybe half an hour or so, a beam of white light appeared, revealing my surroundings. The walls of my tomb were made of solid rock and wooden pillars, but everything was covered with streams of white silk.

Then I noticed the spider hanging from the ceiling. It was the biggest most grotesque thing I had ever seen. This monster looked like a black window, but was the size of a coconut crab! I tried to stay still as the light came closer, hoping that the creature wouldn’t notice me. Still, I felt sick to my stomach and my eyebrow wouldn’t stop twitching.

“Wakey wakey,” a woman’s voice called out. She shined the flashlight right in my face. I couldn’t see a thing.

When my eyes readjusted to the light, I was able to clearly see my captor. She wore a glossy cat suit and half of her head was shaved, revealing an awful rash or maybe an acid burn. The woman clicked her tongue, causing the spider to crawl up her body and rest on her shoulder.

She turned her head to the darkness and said “Is this the one?”

“Yeah that’s him.” a familiar voice replied.

The woman hissed and clicked at the back of her throat.  The spider leapt off her body and starting biting at my sides. I felt something cold flowing through my veins. I couldn’t even squirm. I thought my heart was going to shut down.

Then I dropped to the floor. My captors helped me to my feet. I thought I was being poisoned but there wasn’t a scratch on me. I still had no idea what these two wanted from me.

As my eyes adjusted again, I was able to make out the distinctive slouch hat and safari gear that could only belong to James Gray. The Australian brushed me off and said that this was the last time he was going to save me.

I really hate this guy.

-Joe Junkman

Radiation as a Gameplay Mechanic

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You can’t have a post-nuclear setting without radiation. Many films overlook this crucial aspect or at most offer a token Geiger counter scene (She Wolves of the Wasteland). This is largely because radiation cannot be seen, felt, or heard and special equipment is required to detect it. Despite this, radiation serves as an important gameplay mechanic in the majority of post-nuclear video games, but with gamification comes new challenges. In reality, radiation does not kill outright, even several lethal doses will not result in immediate death. Because radiation attacks the body slowly, game developers have approached this mechanic in a variety of ways.

To further explore this mechanic, we’ll be analyzing three game series that make extensive use of radiation.

  1. Metro 2033
  2. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
  3. Fallout

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The Geiger counter in Metro 2033 is primarily used for immersive world building. Small set pieces such as bioluminescent mushrooms or pools of bubbling green slime will cause the Geiger counter to tick. These pockets of radiation are mostly harmless, though Artyom can die if he stands in a radioactive hotspot for a few minutes. Although subtle, this gameplay mechanic immerses the player into the setting. Without radiation, the world of Metro 2033 could be mistaken for a sci-fi setting similar to Gears of War, especially since Moscow’s surface is considered poisonous rather than radioactive. This is why so many post-apocalyptic movies have an obligatory Geiger counter scene: it puts the audience in a survivalist mindset. The Metro games take this a step further, subtly reminding the player that the world above the tunnels is not like the world in the postcards.

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Though technically not post-nuclear, fans of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise are constantly aware of their radiation exposure. Contrary to handful of contaminated puddles and mushrooms in post-nuclear Moscow, the Zone is positively covered with fields of radiation. Players who wander into these hot spots will find their vision distorted by grey TV static.

Radiation damage is pretty simple: the more radiation you’ve absorbed, the faster your health decreases. Radiation can be removed either with a radiation absorbing artifact or a dose of anti-rad. Because artifacts drain radiation slowly and anti-rad is somewhat rare, players are forced to respond quickly after absorbing deadly amounts of radiation.

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Although the Zone’s radioactive hotspots (and anomalies) seem like a nuisance, they actually encourage exploration. Artifact hunting aside, anomalies and pockets of radiation act as landmines, encouraging the player to take the long way (usually ending up at a lootable location), rather than risk wasting resources or instant death.

Moreover, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. encourages a high risk/ high reward style of gameplay when dealing with artifacts. Although artifacts grant stalkers special abilities, they emit large amounts of radiation. Before obtaining high tier anti-radiation artifacts, players will occasionally be forced to balance their health, elemental resistance, carry weight, and radiation levels. Having artifacts emit radiation was a brilliant idea and one that makes the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series all the more satisfying and rewarding.

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Finally, there’s the Fallout franchise. Radiation sickness has been a gameplay mechanic since the first Fallout, but originally it didn’t effect much. In the first game, there were only two ways to get irradiated: Get smacked by a glowing one or wander into The Glow.

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Lets cook some hot-dogs!

The original Fallout has the most complex take on radiation sickness, requiring a chart to fully understand what it does. Every part of the character is effected: HP, healing, and SPECIAL (with skills as a result). If either HP or any S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attribute drops to zero because of radiation sickness, the character will die. However, as I said in another article, I don’t think that radiation was used to its full potential in  the original Fallout. Two doses of Rad-X makes the player completely immune to radiation, giving them 24 hours to explore The Glow without worrying about any side effects. Even if the player took a few points of radiation damage on arrival, they can use a single Rad-Away to instantly cure themselves. Allowing the player to reach 100% radiation resistance detracted from the danger of The Glow as the lore (and environment) states that even Brotherhood Paladins have died due to the intense radiation exposure.

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Fallout 3 streamlined the mechanic of radiation sickness. Instead of effecting several variables, radiation sickness only lowers endurance (at minor sickness), agility (at advanced sickness), strength (at critical sickness) and finally caused death at 1000 rads. Additionally, radiation was far more present in Fallout 3 than previous games in the franchise. The Lone Wanderer could not eat or drink  without absorbing at least a few rads. Additionally, radiation resistance was capped at 85%, making it challenging to approach areas like Vault 87.

With Fallout 3 and New Vegas came special perks associated with radiation sickness.  These perks are often overlooked as the majority of players want to keep their rads as low as possible. However, the brave few who uses these bonuses will find that their gameplay dramatically shifts toward min-maxxing.

  • Rad Regeneration: Offers the player free healing of crippled limbs in exchange for advanced radiation sickness (-2 EN, -1 AG). This perk comes free with the “Wasteland Survival Guide” quest, but is lackluster compared to admantium skeleton, which decreases limb damage by 50%. Perhaps this perk was ahead of its time. It would have been great for survival mode in New Vegas (as rare doctors bags are required to heal limbs), but in a game where a single stimpack instantly heals crippled limbs, this is a useless perk.
  • Rad Child: This perk is where high risk/high reward should shine through. Each level of radiation sickness increases health regeneration. In exchange for minor radiation sickness (-1 EN), player are treated to +2 health per second. At advanced sickness, players receive +4 health per second. Again, this is often overlooked simply because it relies on radiation, which brings S.P.E.C.I.A.L. penalties. However, by utilizing Wasteland outfits (which provide +1 EN, +1 AG) the effects of advanced sickness are practically nullified, while the player still benefits from extreme HP regeneration. Although for balance purposes this perk should be risky, it actually provides far more protection than power armor or a higher damage threshold while still allowing players to travel at maximum speed.
  • ATOMIC: This perk grants players a faster run speed, +2 strength,  and+2 damage threshold while being irradiated. Additionally, action points regenerate much faster based on level of radiation sickness. This synergizes amazingly well with Rad Child. The challenge is that the best parts of the perk are only available while being irradiated.Luckily, New Vegas has coyote steaks, which irradiate the player over time and whose effects stack. If the Courier should buy coyote steaks at every opportunity, they will become more powerful than any wastelander could possibly imagine.

Although overlooked, New Vegas’ radiation perks are definitely worth the penalties they bring, especially when combined with wasteland outfits and the Travel Light perk.

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Most recently, there is Fallout 4 and Fallout: Shelter where the mechanic of radiation sickness was streamlined once again. Radiation sickness now merely reduces maximum health by 1% per 10 rads (making 1000 rads still lethal). This really eliminates the potential of making a super-powered mutant cyborg that was present in New Vegas and eliminates the complexities of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system as a whole.

At a first glance Fallout 4 seems like it moved away from the aspect of radioactivity. Although the game moved away from player interaction with radiation, it expanded on NPC interaction in the form of weapons that utilize radiation damage. These weapons reduce the max health of an enemy, making it more difficult (if not impossible) for them to heal. What I find interesting in this new gameplay element is that some enemies are immune to radiation while others are highly resistant. This is a big shift from Fallout 3, where all NPCs were immune to radiation and would walk up to the door of Vault 87 without any trouble.

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Gamma Guns are fun

Overall, each game (even within the same franchise) deals with radiation differently. It’s a difficult feature to include in a game and it’s even harder to get right. There’s no right or wrong answer to the inclusion of radiation sickness in a video game or movie. Metro 2033 uses radiation merely to set the tone, while S.T.A.L.K.E.R. uses radiation to make players think about resource management and navigation, and the gameplay mechanics of the Fallout franchise continue to mutate in entirely new directions. Radiation is a necessary part of the post-nuclear atmosphere and I hope that game developers continue to experiment with this genre specific gameplay mechanic.

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How would you like to see radioactivity and radiation sickness used in video games?  Tell us in the comments!