Prey

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Arkane Studios’ Prey reboot operates, like a great many first-person games do these days, in the visual and mechanical shorthand of Bioshock. An insular, seemingly idyllic, Art Deco society crumbling under an internal assault. A hero(ine) lead around by voices speaking in their ear. System Shock-derived gameplay centered on mind/body altering technology that can be crafted to a player’s style. Audio logs. Alternate histories. Tough to kill enemies. Ethical and philosophical quandaries (at least, an attempt at them). There’s some nifty zero-G sequences, a discordant electro-synth soundtrack and even some sidequest flavoring from Chris Avellone, but the frame is all over the production.

For its part, Prey offers up what it calls an “ecosystem” of alien creatures for your amnesiac researcher/test subject to fight or flight from. Wispy and covered in what looks like oil, the Typhon aren’t so much an ecosystem, though, as they are an invading force broken down into specialists. Some patrol, others stalk prey or infest an area, while some varieties focus on turning the environment or other people against you. So far, so usual. One in particular seems to exist to float around gracefully, ejaculating gold ether all over the place, and now we’re getting somewhere. Then, elemental variants of the former types crop up, and we’re back to familiar territory. The plot expects us to find these creatures mysterious and elegant–we’re told how amazing they are–yet their rote abilities, behavior, and appearances suggest otherwise.

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SCOURGE OF THE COMMONWEALTH

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Last few weeks have been taken up by Fallout 4‘s “Automatron” expansion. A nearly seamless implant into the 50s-gone-wrong hijinks of nuked Boston, it provides more of everything both good and bad about the main game. The quest line proposes the Mechanist (a side character plucked from Fallout 3, here used as an everyman cover identity) descending on the Commonwealth with an army of robots to save its people, liberating raiders and traders alike from this mortal coil with laser-y mayhem. A few screws obviously loose, it’s up to the game’s resident Vault Dweller to take matters into his/her hands (with a new robo-buddy in tow). While you’re at it, the Mechanist radios speeches about how you’re really the menace and must be stopped. Conflict brews, two would-be saviors prepared to slug it out in the baroque ruins of the old world.

At least, that’s the idea. This being a Bethesda plot, it naturally fizzles out. The Mechanist’s insanity is downplayed with some tossed off exposition about misinterpreted commands. The feud isn’t allowed to follow through, like a superhero team-up comic without even an external threat to unite against (a new, themed raider gang is only a complication, not the main event).

What’s left is new toys to play with: a couple new weapons and tech, formidable enemies (many of which you can one-shot kill with a laser musket if properly prepared), and the ability to construct and modify your own robots. Some top-notch tinkering let down by a wimpy backbone.

Fallout 4

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One thing which stands out in Fallout 4 is how hurried it is. Their last time around, Bethesda calmly, patiently reintroduced the series for the benefit of a wider audience; charting the growth of its Vault dweller in a mini-arc, culminating in his push out into the wasteland. Obsidian’s spinoff, Fallout: New Vegas, branched away from formula, putting players into the shoes of a lone gun whose spaghetti western revenge tale morphed gradually into a heist flick, with Nevada as the score. Setting established a console generation ago, Bethesda has opted now for the route of an impatient child, ready to show off its toys: Fallout 4 rams your Sole Survivor from the Fall of America into a cryo tube, murders a spouse and abducts the baby, then sets you off in post-nuke Massachusetts. Before the first hour, you’re already in power armor, punching out giant lizards and being hailed as the destined savior of Boston. Ugh.

Thankfully, Bethesda allows the option to politely tell the monomyth to fuck off after a few quests and get down to doing what Fallout does best: heading towards the general direction of a goal, with some distractions along the way. The Commonwealth is well-suited to this purpose, dotted with settlements and traveling weirdos to help or hurt, ruins to explore, enemy camps to obstruct your path. Progression from place to place becomes a series of exciting mini-stories, with rhythms all their own. The countryside and smaller towns offer deceptively serene vistas that can become long range gun battles or animal attacks. The metro area brims with escalating turf wars between raiders, mutants, feral ghouls, and more, forcing a cautious, block by block movement and counter-intuitive navigation around ruins. Each location packed with secrets, whether it’s a suspiciously cheery gated community, an underground shelter/science experiment run amok, or some abandoned flophouse and its skeletons. You’re left to sift through it all, figuring out what the wonders and horrors you witness mean. Bethesda may have sacrificed plotting and pacing, but their mise en scene has been sharpened to scalpel precision.

Fallout 4‘s biggest addition, a settlement-building side-quest that plays like Minecraft-lite, could easily have been a distracting, perfunctory experience which undercut the main portion. Yet, it’s treated as a natural outgrowth of exploration. Besides collecting scrap needed to build up their new home(s), players can begin to see the world in new ways: examining another community’s arrangement, what works and doesn’t, a subtle guide to how one should build their own. Changing, dismantling, building and rebuilding is complementary to the journey through the nuclear remains. How do you handle necessities? How much of the old world do you keep? Any of it?

In a series which, textually, has been asking those questions from day one, Fallout 4 feels the closest to addressing them interactively. It bristles with exciting possibility. Bethesda must’ve known this, too, as the other staples of the series–the skills and perks; the speech checks; the diverging quest-lines–have been streamlined into (at best) mundane functionality. As an iteration, it’s a growing pain; as an individual, it’s fascinating and eager. Either way, it stumbles towards greatness.

Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut

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Getting a jump on Fallout 4, inXile have re-released their post-apocalyptic sequel for consoles. Wasteland 2 distinguished itself from its rival siblings (the Fallout franchise is also descended from the original Wasteland) with emphasis on a group dynamic. Rather than a lone wanderer, picking up a companion or two, players are assigned a squad of Desert Rangers to explore ruins and keep the peace in towns cobbled together from junk. Followers can be recruited to sprinkle idle chatter with one another and help tip the numbers in your favor. With an isometric view and a cover/flanking system ripped from XCOM: Enemy Unknown, there’s also more tactical thought to combat than the Bethesda-era Fallouts. In my playthrough, I often found myself using most of my squad to lay suppressing fire, wearing down the rank and files while my sniper dropped back to pick off tougher enemies. Perfect for raiders, though requiring some adjustment when mutant animals or pod people begin bum-rushing the group. The level up system favors specialization; none of Echo-One are intended as legendary warriors, shaping the future single-handedly. Instead, we’re encouraged to think as components of a whole, chipping away at the insurmountable task of restoring a broken world.