Nerd Tourism – West Virginia from Fallout 76

On the brow of a hill overlooking West Virginia, some poor sap watches the world end. In the distance, three missiles careen into distant woodland before detonating with a bloom of nuclear fire. The soon-to-be-cooked individual doesn’t turn and run, though. They just take it in. This stuck with me more than anything else in Fallout 76’s E3 trailer. There’s something resigned about it. Something bittersweet. It makes me wonder what they were thinking when they realised they were screwed. Loss? Acceptance? Grief? That would be fitting, I suppose; the next time we see them, they’re half-buried, forgotten, and very, very dead. Their body is then looted by a happy-go-lucky shmuck from Vault 76 without so much as a ‘thank you’.

To be honest, it’s probably for the best that they were roasted alive. If they’d survived the inconvenience of a nuclear apocalypse, West Virginia would almost certainly have dreamed up nastier ways to kill them. 25 years of radiation have transformed anything that moved into a horrific clutch of fangs, rage, and gooey bits. This is a State trying to redefine itself in the wake of annihilation. Unfortunately for those emerging from the eponymous Vault 76, it’s settled on madness.

Not that you’d be able to tell. Not at first, anyway. The countryside surrounding our deceased friend is one of rolling grassland and leafy, autumn-time forest. Even the foliage creeping over their corpse is a eye-catching (but admittedly pallid) green, complete with nearby flowers. It’s almost normal, and the illusion breaks only when you realise what’s lurking beneath this eye-candy. Dragon-like Deathclaws, abandoned military robots, and mutated terrors waste no time in attacking anything that dares to appreciate the scenery. As such, it’s a far cry from the blasted wastelands we’re used to in Fallout’s vision of America.

That’s why this unfortunate chap’s demise is something of a mercy. Civilization as they knew it died with them, replaced by a waking nightmare. Although being incinerated is definitely a bummer, I guess it could have been much worse. Moreover, this person (and others like them) will prove vital for those who are reclaiming West Virginia after decades spent mooching around in Vault 76; their armour and weapons become invaluable to players in this brave new world. However, I wonder how many will stop and think about what the previous owner might have gone through. It certainly takes the shine off finding some cool loot…

For more guff and nonsense from Benjamin, follow him on Twitter @thewordyben.


Monster Hunter: World has One of the Coolest Backstories in Fantasy

Monster Hunter: World is the kind of game you can lose a lot of time and, judging by some fabulously absurd costumes, dignity to. An enticing loop of hunting and loot with which you’ll fight bigger creatures means that it’s often compared to Destiny, and that’s true on many levels. Although they’re poles apart in a superficial sense, they both have a deceptively rich mythology. In particular, there’s a fascinating nugget of lore that marries Monster Hunter gameplay and backstory together in the neatest possible way.

Safety is a luxury few can afford in the world of Monster Hunter (concept art by Mu Yu Jiang)

There’s good reason that the humans of Monster Hunter are obsessed with their prey – more than it making for a fun player experience, anyway. According to in-game lore and fan theories (such as this one by CMDR-Gimo on Reddit), an advanced civilisation from long ago used these creatures as fodder to create devastatingly inhumane tech. It’s real-world animal testing blown up to mad proportions; thousands of monsters were wiped out in pursuit of this goal until the savviest decided to fight back. Called ‘Elder Dragons’, these beasts were phenomenally bad news. In fact, they completely levelled civilisation. We’re descendants of the few humans that managed to survive. Fast-forward a few centuries and it’s an unforgiving life. The land is now overrun with monsters and any settlements we cobble together are in constant danger. Humanity has learned enough not to repeat its mistake, though; our characters are part of a ‘Hunter’s Guild’ that exists to maintain balance between monsters and mankind so that none of this can ever happen again. Monsters are only killed when their population booms or they become a threat to society, and none are exterminated. The goal is equilibrium, not extinction.

This is a logical way of justifying our exploits out in the wild. Rather than being a slaughter of wildlife for fun, we’re trying to encourage stability between us and nature. Furthermore, it leads to a unique setting we rarely see in other fantasy games. While I forget who suggested it on Twitter – I did have a trawl through my timeline, but no luck – it’s been suggested that there’s very little agriculture or farming in the Monster Hunter universe. Firstly, whoever-it-was suggested that there’d be little need for it when every resource we could possibly require (from armour and food to architecture, tools, and clothing) can be gained from the abundance of monsters who roam outside our door. Secondly, the high percentage of violent nasties means that staying in one place and working the earth isn’t viable. We’re outnumbered quite spectacularly, and there’s always a chance some hulking t-rex will stomp all over our crops. Or, you know, eat us. This would lead to entirely different traditions, habits, and culture. I find that really intriguing.

If nothing else, it’s refreshing. We don’t often see such drastic variation in fantasy settings, and that ignites the sense of discovery this genre is known for.

Check back each Friday for more on pop-culture lore, characters, and theories.

Now Star Wars: Battlefront II is Over, What Comes Next?

The chance to tell a story in official Star Wars canon is one many would commit bloody, bloody murder for. This is a world we’ve come to know inside and out over 40 years, so fiddling about in such a beloved toybox is one hell of an opportunity. It’s also a setting that can carry a range of narratives without buckling; basically, the sky’s the limit.

Star Wars: Battlefront II made the most of this with a tale from the Empire’s perspective. What should the series do next, though? Although it’s very likely that Battlefront III will follow the adventures of Zay (daughter of Iden Versio, our last playable character), there’s a whole universe of possibility to choose from within that.

AWOOGA! AWOOGA! Spoilers for Star Wars: Battlefront II ahead.

Looks like we’re heading for the Outer Rim next time around – concept art for Star Wars: Battlefront II

The Resurrection DLC sets up a current-trilogy campaign to perfection. After watching her mother die, Zay leaves for the lawless Outer Rim under orders of Leia… moments before The Last Jedi begins. It’s a real statement of intent/flare shot into the sky accompanied by an orchestral band that shrieks, ‘all aboard for Kylo Ren and Porgs in the next game’. This is a fab idea for more than brand synergy. While Battlefront III will probably hit at the same time Episode IX does, it’s an era we know precious little about; what we’ve cobbled together can basically be recounted in an elevator ride. As such, there’s plenty of scope to plug those gaps.

What better subject than the First Order? The Force Awakens waved vaguely in the direction of military loyalists left behind after Return of the Jedi, but we’ve got very little to go on beyond that. Specifically, we’re told that:

  1. They established themselves through the help of sympathisers.
  2. Were seen as a pocket of nutters without any real manpower (whoops).

What does life look like for the average First Order citizen? It makes you wonder if they buy into the bigotry of these Empire-wannabes or if they’re simply brainwashed. The Last Jedi tells us via Rose that they occupy planets and force the inhabitants to work for them, but just that’s the tip of the iceberg; how do they find enough children to abduct for their Stormtrooper program, for instance? Are kids willingly given over by fanatics within First Order space? Let us find out by going behind enemy lines, messing with the bad guys’ s***, and generally throwing a spanner in the works.

Failing that, lifting the curtain on the New Republic (which is now in disarray after Starkiller Base’s attack) would be a good call. After all, we’ve only been to the outskirts of modern galactic society in the last two films. I’d love to see how things have changed since the Empire’s day.

More, please – concept art for Star Wars: Battlefront II

Moreover, it’d be fun to find out whether criminal outfits like Jabba the Hutt’s have been snuffed out after peace was restored by Leia and co. (spoilers – I’m guessing not). This at least is a strong contender; I’d say Zay going to the Outer Rim guarantees bounty hunters, Tattooine, and scruffy lookin’ nerf herders. Which is wonderful, obviously.

Of course, there’s no reason why the developers have to limit themselves to this new era. In fact, I’d almost prefer them to take a leaf out of Battlefield I’s book and give us a range of missions from throughout the series. The latter provided a collection of war stories from various points across WW1, and Battlefront is ideally positioned to do the same. We could have the harrowing story of a clone in the trenches of the Clone War, culminating with that massive space-battle in Revenge of the Sith/Order 66. We might then step into a Rebellion fighter’s boots as they struggle past the biggest conflicts of the original trilogy, leaving us to finish up with Zay’s narrative post-The Last Jedi.

Regardless of where the story goes, it’s wonderful to see the developers given such a position of trust within Star Wars’ story. Lucky sods.

Check back each Friday for more as I go into the weeds on pop-culture story, lore, and settings.

Becoming the Heroes We’re Supposed To Be, Just in Time for Destiny 2

Destiny’s story wasn’t what you’d call a runaway success when it hit in 2014. If anything, it was a muddle of techno-babble that often forgot to explain itself. With no distinct characters and a tendency to side-line talent (Nathan Fillion was reduced to spouting one-liners), it also felt as if we were skimming over the surface of something deeper. Luckily, those problems are old news. The Taken King added a ‘quest’ system that strung missions together in a more logical fashion, and these steps give in-game blurbs that provide us with more background (not to mention an idea of what’s actually going on). It’s almost worth going back if you felt lost the first time around.

Destiny 2
Become legend, even if you don’t have the foggiest idea what’s going on – concept art by Jamie Jones

I’ve been polishing off leftover missions recently in prep for Destiny 2, and this renewed focus stayed with me. When I originally booted up Bungie’s shooter three years ago, I hadn’t the slightest clue why I was jetting around the galaxy punching aliens in the face. What’s more, Peter Dinklage never failed to spout unintelligible nonsense whenever I thought I was getting the hang of it. Because of this, I focused on finding loot and shooting bad men instead. And not being pushed off cliffs by my Fireteam. Damn it, Shaun.

However, Destiny’s story is miles better than it was back then. Despite sounding like a case of ‘too little too late’, the plot is now much easier to follow. Why are we on the moon, for example? Because a dead Ghost we found up there reveals the Hive’s plan for an invasion of Earth. Each level has been given this kind of exposition.

What’s more, certain missions have been shunted into more appropriate storylines. For instance, the quest that asks you to destroy Crota’s sword has been slotted into The Dark Below. Considering its focus on Crota, that makes a ton more sense. These small touches lift the narrative out of incomprehension.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s still flat and unambitious. Nevertheless, today’s Destiny can at least be followed without the help of a Wiki or doctorate in sci-fi jargon. Considering the fact that Bungie could happily have left it alone, this retcon is something worth applauding.

If you want to take a look at these old missions, check your ‘Abandoned Quests’ board. That’s where I found mine!

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Yeah, This is Why the Jedi Need to End

I boot up the internet and Star Wars is everywhere. With Star Wars Celebration 2017 coming to an end last weekend, the aftereffects of the event are still reverberating through the web like an infamous cry of a million souls before they were extinguished by a dirty great space laser. More to the point, everyone’s still recovering from The Last Jedi teaser and Battlefront II’s trailer. Suffice to say, that kind of reveal leaves a lasting impression.

However, one of the biggest takeaways from the event was Luke Skywalker’s claim that the Jedi must end in The Force Awakens’ sequel. As a former beacon of hope for the Jedi order, his disillusionment has caused quite a stir. The obvious question is ‘why’, but a better one should probably be ‘why not?’.

Perhaps it IS time for the Jedi to end – they’ve caused enough trouble. Concept art by Ryan Church

If you stop and think about it, the Jedi have been nothing but trouble. Besides appointing themselves as galactic police who stick their noses where it may not be wanted, they seem to rely on violence more often than diplomacy. Moreover, they bulled their way through the Clone Wars as generals and warriors when that’s precisely the opposite of what they were built for: I thought a Jedi’s lightsaber training is meant to be used in defence of the innocent and as a last resort, not a first response. Aren’t they primarily diplomats and monks?

Then there are all the amusing gaffs they’ve made throughout the original/prequel trilogies. Most egregious of these would be Obi-Wan’s flagrant dickery in lying to Luke’s face about his father. ‘True from a certain point of view’? Shove off, that’s ridiculous. It’s a somewhat limp attempt to justify a retcon and makes Obi-Wan look negligent. Then there’s Qui-Gon Jinn’s hilariously bad attempt at babysitting, where he takes a young child into the heat of battle when he could have left him literally anywhere else. Finally, the books reveal that the prequels’ Jedi temple was built on a super-evil Sith shrine that apparently corrupted them over millennia (it was apparently capped, but would you take that chance?). I mean, come on. I adore these films, but the characters do make some bizarre decisions.

Then there’s an aspect that, in contrast, the prequels handled rather well. The Jedi are essentially a cult: you follow their strict rules or you hit the road. Additionally, these rules can seem needlessly cruel. Take their refusal for Jedi to form attachments, for instance. This has never ended well, as demonstrated by Anakin’s fall and the fact that those same attachments let Luke save the whole damn galaxy.

Most damning of all would be when you read between the lines. As explained by Tor, a reason for Obi-Wan lying to Luke about his father could be that they needed an assassin who’d take out the Emperor’s greatest asset without querying why. Knowing about his head-in-the-clouds demeanour and daydream to be a hero, Kenobi fed him a suitably clichéd story about his father that’d set him on a collision course with Vader, no questions asked. It’s a calculated, manipulative move.

Similarly, Luke was given the surname ‘Skywalker’ and left with his family – surely a giant red flag to Vader – because he could also serve as bait as an added bonus. If Vader found him, Obi-Wan would emerge and take him down.

It’s a fascinating way of looking at the old Jedi order, and it doesn’t paint them in a very good light. As such, I’m not surprised that Luke wants to shut things down now he’s older and wiser.

Mass Effect: Andromeda – Are We Still Hung Up On Mass Effect 3’s Ending?

Sometimes people are just ready to be furious. There were those gunning for Mass Effect: Andromeda ever since it was in early access, and that sense of outrage only increased upon the game’s release. Judging by livid comments and videos documenting myriad glitches, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was an unmitigated car-crash. The user score on aggregate sites like Metacritic peg it at a wince-inducing 4.8 out of 10, for instance.

Yet the critical reception casts doubt over this conclusion. Based on average review scores from numerous outlets, the same site gave Andromeda a respectable 73%. It’s the kind of factoid that makes me ask whether it’s another case of fans with an axe to grind. More specifically, I can’t help wondering if they ever got over the infamous (and polarising) Mass Effect 3 ending.

It’s a bold new world, but some of us aren’t along for the ride – concept art by Ben Lo

That game’s finale caused uproar. Although fans voiced their anger in a way that beggars belief, I do understand some of the frustration that led to such insanity. Mass Effect 3’s continuity was baffling: characters travelled large distances with no explanation as to how they managed it. Moreover, certain events contradicted lore that’d been established in prior instalments. This led to theories about the main character being ‘indoctrinated’, wherein the enemy essentially brainwashes you. It also featured a disappointing end to the culmination of five years’ worth of choices. Indeed, we were left with a one-size-fits-all conclusion that didn’t take your prior adventures into account.

This angst forced Bioware to patch Mass Effect 3 with an alternate ending. While I enjoyed their solution to many of the problems detailed above, I appreciate that the original left a bitter taste in the mouth of many. As such, I suppose their hesitancy over Andromeda is logical even if I don’t agree with their wish to see it crash and burn.

Another critical factor was the climax’s bittersweet nature. This was not a happy conclusion. It was miserable, if anything: our hero probably died, their friends were scattered to the wind and beloved locations went up in flames before the credits rolled. We may have claimed victory, but it was won at a terrible cost. After three games and hundreds of hours spent in their company, I think most would want a more cheerful ending. The fact that we didn’t get it presumably ruffled a lot of feathers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this contributed to any lingering resentment. Indeed, I still can’t hear the soundtrack to that final cinematic without wanting to wail.

As such, I think this has more to do with Andromeda’s mixed treatment than you’d think. It’s a shame, because I’m a firm believer that it plays host to a great idea: colonising a new galaxy (as is the case in Andromeda) is exactly the clean break Mass Effect needs. Furthermore, it’s a good basis on which to build a fresh series. I just wish some weren’t bringing so much baggage along for the ride.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a Reminder of How Fragile Our Way of Life Can Be

Horizon: Zero Dawn is undeniably beautiful. Its overgrown cityscapes are a cascade of breath-taking green, jade and orange flora, but that’s to say nothing of the other areas you’ll trek through in your journey. From jungles to desert canyons, the game seems to be made up of one spectacular vista after another. Still, this is a morbid brand of gorgeousness nonetheless. The fact remains that we’re walking through the corpse of a society. The world we know is gone.

The world we know is gone in Horizon: Zero Dawn, but how? Concept art by Allan LLoyd

As such, Horizon is a wonderful but depressing bit of escapism. Much like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or fellow PlayStation exclusive The Last of Us, it stands as a stark reminder of how precarious our current status quo could be. Although we’re unlikely to be overrun with quirky robot wildlife anytime soon, Horizon reminds us of a truth we usually prefer to forget. We’re not invulnerable.

While said robots clearly had something to do with how everything fell apart in this game, we don’t need a tech-driven armageddon of our own to lay us low. Worryingly, our problems are less remarkable yet equally (if not more) devastating. To start with, climate change is one very real threat to our society. We can argue as much as we like about its cause, but escaping the consequences is impossible: as stated by NASA on their website, carbon dioxide levels are the highest they’ve ever been in 650,000 years. Moreover, our sea levels are rising as Arctic ice continues to shrink in size. Besides the Arctic ecosystem being thrown out of kilter and polar bears having a damn hard time of it thanks to global warming, this might end with disease running rampant and your home underwater. Earth Observatory points out that as ‘tropical temperature zones expand, the reach of some infectious diseases, such as malaria, will change. More intense rains and hurricanes and rising sea levels will lead to more severe flooding and potential loss of property and life’. If something doesn’t change then the globe may look rather different in a hundred years or so, and not for the better.

Secondly, disease is a genuine and utterly terrifying threat that could wipe us out all too quickly. The likes of 1918’s Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people, while the medieval Black Death wiped out roughly 60% of Europe’s population. That’s outright insane: you basically had a half-and-half chance of survival. Those aren’t great odds, and despite having vastly improved medical treatment nowadays we’d be forced to contest with new challenges due to international travel being so easy. In the early days of an epidemic, a carrier who may not yet be showing symptoms would simply hop on a plane and take their illness to a different continent altogether. Your problem has suddenly widened in scope.

We can’t ignore technology a la Horizon or Terminator either, of course. Artificial intelligence is getting smarter by the day and it’s certainly feasible that this could become a problem if machines somehow outsmarted us or messed about with the internet. We rely so heavily on the web that losing it would cripple our society. This is also why events such as solar flares (which are ejections of plasma from the sun that have the ability to knock out our tech when strong enough) are potentially a worry.

None of this is in danger of happening anytime soon, naturally, but Horizon serves as a stark reminder not to take things for granted. Our civilization’s survival is far from guaranteed, and neither is our way of life.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

Saving Fallout’s World… With Town Planning

You can make the elevator pitch for a Bethesda game in four words; go anywhere and do anything. Combining settings that are measured in kilometres, emergent gameplay and a multitude of roles to make your own, it’s no wonder their run-time clocks in at 100 hours plus. As studio director Todd Howard stated a few years ago, the aim is for players to ‘live another life, in another world’. A hotbed of water-cooler stories, they leave the door open for all manner of unexpected (if often bizarre) situations.

It’s unlikely people would want to hear mine, though. They’re not nearly so exciting. I suspect most find themselves pin-balling from one adventure to another. Their characters loot dungeons or master sorcery with which they’ll slay monsters, earning a clutch of impressive titles in the process – Dragonborn, Hero of Kvatch, The Lone Wanderer and so on. This is very much the case during Fallout 4. Survivors of a post-apocalyptic Boston are thieves and vagabonds struggling to stay alive. By contrast, I ended up becoming a town planner. I’m not entirely sure where things went wrong.

Around 75% of my time is spent cobbling together settlements. Rather than spelunking in bomb-savaged ruins, I’ve got steel shipments on my mind. It’s a compelling loop. By piecing together shacks for townsfolk or establishing farms, you’re tapping into a sense of ownership usually restricted for real-time-strategy games. Resources will then start trickling in, providing a hit of accomplishment after raising an empire from nothing. Better yet, you’ve put your stamp on the Fallout universe. Wasteland Workshop (downloadable content that provides a host of new materials to tinker with) hasn’t helped.

This vault-dweller seems to have been busy - concept art by Bethesda Game Studios
Someone’s been busy – concept art by Bethesda Game Studios

Although the above might lead you to think otherwise, this isn’t the aimless distraction it seems. Over the past few months, I’ve realised that’s how I ‘save the world’. Instead of butting heads with an antagonist or foiling their dastardly plan, being a hero is about helping the man on the street. Few pay much thought to what happens once a quest is over, so we miss what might be the hardest part of it all; picking up the pieces afterward. In Fallout’s case, there isn’t a great deal worth salvaging. As such, defeating villains feels irrelevant when society continues to limp on with its tail between its legs. These people still have to cope with irradiated water and mutated food. They’re also gunned down by raiders for little more than scraps. Repairing the civilisation this world lost must surely be a bigger priority, then.

Constructing those outposts was eye-opening in another way. Wastelanders make do with rubble and flotsam because pre-war technology is a mystery to most. Would we honestly cope any better? I’m not sure many of us understand how to keep the things we rely on (electricity, internet, cars and mobile technology) going if disaster pumps the brakes on life. We’d probably slide back into a dark age where the world is smaller and more savage, which explains a great deal about the inhabitants of Fallout’s universe.

That’s why my attention’s on houses rather than firefights. One treats a symptom. The other goes straight for the cause.