Game Review: Vault-Tec Workshop (Fallout 4 DLC)

Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets

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Title: Vault-Tec Workshop (Fallout 4 DLC)

Developer: Bethesda Game Studios

Platforms: PS4, XBox One, PC

Release Dates: July 26, 2016

Genre: Action RPG

Players: Single player

ESRB Rating: M

Kid Friendly Rating: 17+ Ultra-violence, gore, swearing, sadistic activities.

Personal Rating: 3/5

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Synopsis:

Bethesda’s Fifth DLC for Fallout 4 is an interesting one. Once the wastleland wanderer reaches Level 20, they detect a new radio beacon. Tuning to this frequency triggers the start of the DLC. The beacon draws the wanderer to a vault buried beneath Quincy Quarries.

Upon arriving at the Quarries, the wanderer must fight their way through a horde of Raiders and heavy rads before arriving at the underground vault entrance for Vault 88. Once inside the vault, the wanderer meets Overseer Barstow, a ghoul who claims she was appointed overseer of Vault 88 long ago, but due to a series of mishaps and delays, the vault never properly got underway. In the intervening years, the Vault caverns have become overrun with all manner of wasteland creatures, including feral ghouls, mirelurks, molerats, and deathclaws.

Barstow tasks the wanderer with clearing out the vault caverns so that the vault can be inhabited and put to its original purpose, which was (according to Barstow) to conduct “experiments” on the vault dwellers.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a handful of story missions included in this DLC, as I was expecting nothing more than a brief “Hello,” and “Here are your vault tools. Have fun!” All told, there are eight missions here:

  • Vault-Tec Calling
  • Better Living Underground
  • A Model Citizen
  • Explore Vault 88
  • Power to the People
  • The Watering Hole
  • Vision of the Future
  • Lady Luck

Unfortunately, only the first four missions include what I would regard as substantive content (i.e. missions involving core gameplay action, like shooting bad guys and looting containers). The final four missions basically boil down to teaching tools for how to run the “experimental” vault facilities.

There’s no getting around the fact that this DLC contains, in large part, a bunch of “fluff,” as one of my co-wrkers would put it. For longtime Fallout gamers who have been turned off by the extensive people-managing and crafting found in Fallout 4, this will be disappointing overall. It contains a lot of it, and even the core gameplay pieces are mixed in with some tedious bits.

My gameplay falls somewhere in the middle. I enjoy the crafting, and I take a perverse pleasure in stripping down a settlement to its bare bones in a materials-gathering frenzy. The building of things, not so much. So why strip things down if I don’t like building much? BECAUSE I HAS SO MUCH MANY MATERIALS.

There is plenty to tear down in the vault tunnels, so lots to scratch that itch, and along the way, the wanderer encounters a fair amount of high-level foes, like legendary ghouls, a mirelurk queen, a deathclaw king, etc. That stuff is fun if you like the game overall. But, the DLC tails off in a collection of Sims-like activities, until finally the wanderer is presented with the vault, to use as sort of a blank canvas. This is where it loses me. And I’m not sure I’ll go back. But it was fun while it lasted!

A quick tip… The wanderer will find Vault 88 equipped with a pretty hardcore amount of power, but there is no obvious way to access it. Bethesda is amazing at not explaining things. They’re pretty much the best at it. The power is in the vault walls. All you need to do is install a vault conduit in the wall to access it. HOWEVER, in their infinite wisdom, the level designers did not provide power to wall pieces already installed in the vault. So you’ll need to strip down everything in the atrium and rebuild it before you can use it. Notice I said atrium. You can’t conduit the walls in the vault entrance, even though they have lights. Don’t ask me why.

Book Review: Metro 2033

Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets

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Title: Metro 2033

Author: Dmitry Glukhovsky (translated by Natasha Randall)

Published: 2005 (Russia); March 28, 2010 (U.S.)

Pages: 460

Genre: Science Fiction

Series: Metro 2033

Kid Friendly Rating: 13+ Features some swearing, but mostly a read for young adults due to themes. The book is not nearly as violent as the video game series, but the situations are equally tense and twisted. Also contains some dense passages that may be difficult to navigate for younger readers.

 

Synopsis:

Artyom is a member of the last vestige of the human race. Following World War III, residents of Moscow have taken refuge from the radioactive and chemically defiled landscape in the labyrinthine caverns of the Moscow subway system. While horrific beasts patrol the lands, humanity lives on in utter darkness below ground, scraping together a meager life from mushrooms, rat meat, and a handful of farm animals taken underground. Artyom was just a small boy when the world ended. Now 20, his life and countless others have been spent almost entirely underground in the various stations of the Metro.

After a mysterious man named Hunter blackmails Artyom and hands him a mission allegedly vital for the survival of the human race, Artyom embarks upon an odyssey that thrusts him through several unforeseen and extremely dangerous adventures.

This book was the inspiration for the well-received Metro 2033 (PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS4) andMetro: Last Light (PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4) video games.

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Final Thoughts:

I confess I am guilty of over-confidence in books that have been translated into different forms of media. As my thinking goes, there must be something great in the story if someone thought it worthy of the time and effort to put it in a new form. Generally, I’ve found this to be a good formula for finding fun reading material. Most often, the stories turn out to be engaging and fast-paced, if not particularly deep.

As an unapologetic PlayStation loyalist, I’ve not had the opportunity to play Metro 2033, which apparently follows the plot of this novel very closely (with considerably more shooting), but after playing Metro: Last Light on PS3, I felt strongly that I was looking at only a small part of a complex larger picture, and I wanted to know more about this world, in which the entire human race lives underground.

In this respect, I was not wrong. Glukhovsky has essentially created an entire miniaturized society to fill the Moscow metro system, filled with haves and have-nots, Neo-Nazis, socialists, religious zealots, soldiers, civilians, farmers, prostitutes, monsters, ghosts, and many things in between. The book is a remarkable piece of world-building, and for many readers, this may be enough to satisfy.

Unfortunately for myself, I am typically not this kind of reader, and though I patiently worked my way through the book, I largely felt that the narrative was missing something to pull it all together and drive the story forward.

I’m not sure how to go about further discussion without getting into spoilers, so for anyone who would like to tune out now, here is my rating: 2.5/5 stars. In world building, I give it a 5. In the context of a compelling narrative, I’ll give it a 2. Obviously, I’m weighting one of those much more strongly than the other.

** SPOILERS AHEAD  **

Artyom’s journey begins in a poor station unfortunately situated near to a hive of so-called “dark ones,” a race of human-like monsters who are feared for their ability to drive humans mad and to their death. After a man Artyom doesn’t really know convinces Artyom to confess a deep secret, he uses the secret to blackmail Artyom into undertaking a dangerous mission. Artyom must journey through the metro system to Polis in order to deliver a message that may save the human race.

Each subsequent chapter begins essentially a new “episode,” as Artyom finds his way through one unlikely predicament after another. One episode includes a broken pipe through which voices are heard that hypnotize the listener. In another Artyom is captured by the “Fourth Reich” and sentenced to death. In another Artyom is sold into a year of servitude cleaning shit pots in the wealthy area of the metro. In another Artyom is forced to go above-ground and meet the horrors there in order to rescue an artifact for religious zealots. In another, Artyom encounters a group of cannibals who worship “the great worm” who truly carved out the metro tunnels.

The tale begins to follow a predictable pattern of predicament-solution-escape, and at times Artyom makes it out alive through no ingenuity of his own. At times, the circumstances of Artyom’s survival feel just a little too convenient, or the manner of his rescue arrives from such a sharp left turn that it feels cheap. Not much connects the episodes apart from the fact that Artyom exists in them. New characters fade in and out, but few have any importance except to provide Artyom, through discussion, new theories on the purpose of his adventure, and of life in general.

The pacing of the story is a problem throughout, but on this point I hesitate to criticize too heavily, noting that the original work was written in Russian. In any translation, you have to wonder if some of the heart, humor, and wordplay that may have helped to make the story readable has been lost in the retelling. The book seems to have been a remarkable success in its native language, so it is possible some aspect of it was unfortunately left behind, despite a faithful translation.

Artyom ultimately succeeds in delivering his secret message to the proper recipient. It turns out there is an intact missile facility dating back to before the apocalypse, and if they can find a man who knows how to fire the missiles, they may be able to destroy the hive of the “dark ones” and cease their incursions. If such a solution seems overly simplistic at first blush, it probably is. There are a variety of threats both above-ground and below in this world, and while the “dark ones” may be the scariest to the inhabitants of the Metro, they do not especially feel that way to the reader. The “dark ones” seem to have the ability to create insanity and fear of impending doom in their human counterparts, but they still feel like only an abstract threat, in that they make few incursions to the Metro. There are far more terrifying creatures that Artyom encounters throughout his adventures, including demonic librarians, wolf-like creatures in the city, an amorphous blob deep underground that convinces people to sacrifice themselves to it, and humans themselves.

At various times during his journey, Artyom gethers the vague sense that he is on the precipice of greater understanding, of the world, of his fate, etc., but Glukhovsky chooses not to develop this idea in any appreciable way. At the end of the story (literally the last few pages of the book) Artyom finally has an epiphany that the “dark ones” were only trying to communicate with the humans, and the greater understanding that he’d felt on the edge of during his journey was that he was their “chosen” one to deliver the message to the rest of the Metro and enable a new age of understanding between humans and “dark ones.” It feels rushed, and though the theme had potential, the ending is ultimately unsatisfying.

Bottom line, if you want to know more about the Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light video games you loved, or if you’re curious to see this underground world in action, it is a perfectly acceptable adventure, but you may feel that there was a missed opportunity for a greater story.

The Unfortunate Saga of a Broken PS3 and Lessons Learned

Step 1: Diagnosing the Problem

On Sunday, October 18, 2015, the unthinkable happened. The family PS3, the hub of our living room entertainment, bit the dust. I had spent an hour while my daughter was napping tackling the Point Lookout DLC on Fallout 3 (Fallout Shelter re-ignited my appetite for the series, but I remain on the PS4 sidelines), and, when she woke up, decided to pop in The Lion King on Blu-ray for her to watch while she woke up a bit. Fifteen minutes into the movie, it froze completely and would not budge. I ejected the movie, brushed it off, and put it back in, but the PS3 refused to read it. Instead, I just heard a double-click, like it wanted to eject the disc, but nothing was happening on the screen. In retrospect, I wondered if Fallout was freezing a little too frequently immediately prior to this event, but if you’re familiar with Bethesda games, you know it’s kind of hard to tell.

The system was still powering up, going to the home screen, and playing Netflix without any problems, so it did not seem to be a motherboard or hard drive problem. That the drive was still sucking in and spitting out discs was also a good sign, as it told me the whole drive had not failed. The Google machine told me that my symptoms were indicative of a faulty or dirty laser. The acute nature of the failure led me to believe that it was likely a faulty laser lens, but I decided to try an old CD lens cleaner disc anyway. The disc played, but it did not solve the problem. This was not all bad, as it did give me some important information. The drive still played CDs. Further investigation revealed that it would play DVDs as well, but any PS3 games or Blu-rays got the double-click noise, with no other feedback. Some people online reported that they solved similar issues by fully dissembling the disc drive and cleaning the laser lens with alcohol and a cotton swab, but these reports were met with skepticism, and I did not believe the functionality could suddenly and irrevocably be lost due to an onslaught of dust, without any prior warning.

Step 2: Admitting you have a Problem

Okay. My PS3 has a faulty Blu-ray laser. As much as I’d like to shut my eyes and wish the problem away, I’m going to have to spend some money. My PS3 has been out of warranty for years. What are my options? Dump some money into repairing an obsolete system, or finally get moving on purchasing that shiny new PS4 I’ve had my eyes on for the last year?

Option 1: I did some quick research on professional repair services in my area. A professional repair service in my area offers a $99.99 flat fee for Blu-ray drive repairs.

Option 2: Put down $350 for a new PS4 (it’s $299, now, but this was before Black Friday).

Option 3: My research into the problem indicated it is possible for a mechanically-minded person to replace the laser lens his/herself. They go for about $25-30 on Amazon. Add in the jeweler’s screwdriver & Sony security lock set for another $10.

Option 4: Buy a used PS3 on Craigslist. Not very price-friendly. Most people are marking them up because they want to sell their games with them and it seems like all of the ones in my price range are broken ones selling for parts (Pro-tip: if you’re trying to sell your old PS3, you’ll have an easier time moving it if you sell your system separate from your games).

Option 5: As a consequence of Option 4, I found a guy on Craigslist who offered various PS3 repair services. After contacting him, he agreed that it sounded like a faulty laser lens, and said he could repair it for $50, with a 60-day warranty.

Step 3: Taking the Plunge

Perhaps trusting far too much in my own abilities, I went with Option 3. And here is where the real learning begins. I have a slim 120 gb CECH-2001A model PS3, which the Google tells me requires a KES-450A laser lens. No problem. I found the correct lens on Amazon, and, hey, it even has my PS3 model in the listing. Great. Can’t go wrong. A week later, the lens and jewelers/Sony security screwdriver set was in my hands. This set is not strictly necessary. The two “jeweler’s” screwdrivers are simply very tiny Phillips-head screwdrivers, and the security screws, from what I understand, can be jimmied with tiny flat-head screwdrivers. I was just trying to take some pain out of the process and figured I could use some of them in the future.

There are very helpful videos on Youtube (see here and here, and dozens of others) for taking apart and re-assembling the Blu-ray drive. I’ll leave the finer points to them. A few helpful points from a novice perspective:

  • One of the security screws necessary for opening the outer case is actually hidden under the Warranty sticker. I had no idea there was one under there! You’ll void your warranty the second you lift the sticker, so make sure you’re out of it before you go mucking around in there like I did.
  • Keep your parts and screws organized. The first time I put everything back together, I had a few sweaty moments trying to remember which screw fit where.
  • There was a small white plastic piece screwed into the existing lens that was necessary to install the new lens into the drive deck.
  • Make sure the drive deck rails are aligned perfectly horizontal to each other as you install the lens into the new deck.
  • Make sure all of your ribbons are secure and fully inserted as you put the drive back together.

Step 4: WHY THE F IS IT NOT WORKING?

A few of my own stupid mistakes first, so review my tips above, and hopefully you can avoid them. I first didn’t notice that the drive deck rails were slightly askew. Next problem was failing to re-insert one of the ribbon cables, so the full drive lost power. Once these issues were resolved, I was back in business, right? RIGHT? Not quite.

The drive was back online and spinning Blu-ray discs, but it didn’t sound right. I put the drive together once without the top cover on and could see that it was not spinning at full speed, and eventually it was giving me that dreaded double-click, like it wanted to eject. So, I’m back to square one. Nope. Not quite there, either.

I tried a DVD, and now the PS3 won’t read that, either. First thought, “great.” I’ve royally screwed something up, and now it’s effed. Guess I’m getting a PS4 for Christmas, or something. So I disassembled the PS3 one final time to get the laser lens out so I could return or sell it, and, what the heck, I’ll put the old laser lens back in there just to satisfy the neat freak inside me. Guess what? The old laser still reads DVDs just fine.

Now I’m a little annoyed. Did I receive an even “faultier” lens than the one I was trying to replace? I contacted the seller with my concerns. This was their response:

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Silly me. I forgot to “root” the laser. What the hell is “rooting” it? I decided that this was likely some type of firmware requirement I missed, and went in search of the answer. This led me down a rabbit hole of trying to figure out the firmware necessary to replace the full Blu-ray drive. It seems the drive has a “daughterboard” that is linked to the system motherboard, and you have to downgrade the system to a certain system version to run the system tool necessary to link them. This is my nightmare. I am in way over my head. After hours of research figuring out how to do this, I contacted my old Craigslist friend, and asked him what he would charge to simply “root” the laser that I already bought and installed.

“What?” he said. “There is no firmware required for a simple lens replacement.”

Duh. I knew that. “I’ll probably just bring this thing to you to fix it. But, if I told the seller I thought I received a faulty laser and they told me I need to ‘root’ it first, they’re just blowing smoke up my a**?”

“Sounds like it. Let me know!”

I wanted to do some more research before I decided to meet with this Craigslist guy, because I assumed that despite his proffered warranty, this was an out-of-basement-type operation. I tried the PSN network board and got zero replies. Fortunately, I cam across a very helpful PS3-modding website called ps3hax.net, and called upon their expertise. You can see my forum post and their replies here. Suspicions confirmed.

Step 5: Doing what I should have done

At this point, I’m totally frustrated. I want my PS3 back. I want to play Fallout. I’m just taking it to the Craigslist guy. I got it touch with him, and took it to his base of operations. I confirmed that it was an out-of-home operation, but he wasn’t the 12-year-old I feared, working out of his bedroom. He was totally professional about it, and replaced the lens in about 40 minutes, and it cost me $50, with the donation of my original faulty laser, which he says he uses to defray costs by returning it to a re-furbisher.

I was so excited when I got home and plugged… it… Dang. Dangdangdangdangdang. I left the power cord on top of my car when I drove off. Well, it took an extra week to get a new power cord, but now I’m back in business, and I got the refund on my lens purchase, thanks to Craigslist guy’s advice. I’ve finished the Fallout 3 DLCs, and some other side quests, and now I’m off to playing a terrible, demented game called Shadows of the Damned.

I can’t say I totally regret my experience, because I feel I learned quite a lot about the internal workings of the PS3, and I feel confident I could perform the repair, if faced with it again; however, for a novice, there is certainly some risk of headache here.

If anyone in the Pittsburgh area needs Craigslist guy’s services, let me know, and I’ll get you in touch.

(Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets)

Android Game Review: Zombies, Run!

Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets

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Title: Zombies, Run!

Developer: Six to Start

Platform(s): iOS, Android, Windows Phone

Release Date(s): February 27, 2012

Genre: Fitness, Horror, Adventure

Players: 1

ESRB Rating: N/A

Kid Friendly Rating: 13+ Rated “Teen” in the Google Play store. Features violence, gore, and scary plotlines. Undead hordes occasionally chase you through the wasteland. Language is generally PG and sexual content is minimal.

Personal Rating: 4/5

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Synopsis:

You’re a survivor of an apparent helicopter supplies crash in a zombie post-apocalypse landscape. Your story appears vaguely suspicious, but a nearby settlement called Abel Township seems cautiously open to allowing you to stay, provided that you will work as a “Runner,” one of an athletic group of people who venture out from the settlement to gather necessary supplies from abandoned buildings. Your past name is not important. You are now Runner #5.

The primary intended function of the app is as a running companion. Each story segment begins with a set-up communicating why the run is necessary, and the story is updated via radio communications with the base every few minutes. In between updates, you can listen to your personal playlist, music services like Pandora and iHeartRadio, or nothing at all. Enabling zombie chases in GPS mode triggers occasional warnings that zombie hordes are approaching, and you must sprint away or risk being overtaken and losing the supplies you’ve gathered. These supplies, by the way, are used to upgrade and expand your base, so you don’t want to lose them!

This game has been through several iterations since its inception a few years ago. What began as a clever, yet very modestly designed fitness app has evolved into a really fun fitness companion with some nifty tools. My favorite recent addition is a run log that can include a map of your actual run if GPS is enabled. You don’t need to use GPS to track your runs, though, and you don’t necessarily need to run at all. The app has an on board accelerometer, and also options to track for a set constant speed, or no tracking at all. I use it whether I’m on a run or just lifting weights.

The stories are pretty well written, with adequate doses of suspense and humor. Missions can be set to play out over ~30 minutes or ~1 hr, depending on your workout preference. The hosts of “Radio Abel” provide especially funny segments after missions, or for any of your freestyle runs. The app also includes other specialized missions, like searches for particular supplies, “airdrop” missions involving a run to a real, defined place on your GPS map, and “race” missions for 5k, 10k, and 20k distances.

The current iteration of the game is free to play, although there are some membership upgrades. You can take a look at the pay structure here, but I really suggest that you just download the free app and see what it’s like if it interests you. Fees are the biggest drawback, but I do believe the content justifies the expense. I’ve also been frustrated at times by glitches and similar developer issues, but the app has become steadily more polished over time.

I’m not a person who loves working out for the sake of it. I’ve always viewed it mostly as a means toward other goals, like being in shape for a particular sport/event, weight loss, etc. With age comes an appreciation for healthier lifestyles, including working out consistently, but motivation can still be tricky. This app won’t make me work out on its own (nothing would!), but it does make it a little more enjoyable while I’m out there doing it, it gives me something tangible to work toward, and it helps the feeling of accomplishment when I finish a mission/workout.

Are you a Runner #5? Let me know what you think!