“S**z If You Want To”: Watch Dogs 2, Ableism, and Cultural Ignorance

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Content warnings: multiple uses of a variety of ableist slurs and descriptions of ableist bullying.

Watch Dogs was a cool game that feel victim to its own overbearing hype, so when Ubisoft released the first trailer for Watch Dogs 2 and showed off it more light-hearted, teen-focused style, I was immediately excited to see where the series could go.

Except the trailer had one huge problem: the song. The trailer was backed by N.E.R.D’s song “Spaz”, which immediately put me, as a disabled person outside of America, on the defensive. It’s a word that keeps popping up in the media, often by creators with little to no understanding of the word’s international connotations.

Outside of North America, “spaz” is a slur often aimed at people with disabilities, particularly those with conditions that cause either cognitive or motor impairments. It comes from “spastic”, a term that historically has been used to describe people with Cerebral Palsy. A lot of its history as a slur comes from the appearance of Joey Deacon, a man with Cerebral Palsy, on the children’s show Blue Peter.

His appearance and mannerisms were quickly used by children as a way to insult each other, and eventually “spastic” gave birth to further words like “spaz”, “spack”, “spazzer” and “spacka”. From anecdotal evidence of those I’ve discussed it with, the word’s also grown into a slur in other European countries, and potentially in Australia too. The UK’s leading disability charity, Scope, was renamed from “The Spastics Society”, and using “spastic” in a medical context has all but vanished now.

(I hate this video, by the way.)

However, this progression of a medical term to offensive slur didn’t really happen in the States. The term was initially linked to disability, much like elsewhere, however, it’s since become more of a phrase to mean clumsy or erratic. Which, let’s be honest, isn’t much better than tweens using “gay” to mean “bad”, even if it isn’t technically considered a slur in its context.

“But Joe, Watch Dogs 2 is developed in Canada by a French publisher for a game set in America! It isn’t a slur there! What’s the problem?” The problem is the game is being marketed worldwide, including to countries where it is considered offensive. The trailer was released globally online, and pieces of media released internationally should consider how the words it uses are accepted in different cultures. The line “spaz if you want to” being repeated constantly doesn’t actually add anything to the trailer, and any other song could’ve been used, and nobody would’ve cared. The song adds nothing to the trailer in the States that no other song could’ve done, and it causes more issues internationally.

I have a disability which affects my motor skills and muscle tone (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome). I have very poor proprioception, and because of that, I did badly in PE (Gym class) in school. I didn’t have the stamina or the coordination to do what the other children were doing, and so because children are probably demons from the ninth circle of hell born to torment all those who are even the slightest bit different, that of course ended up in a lot of bullying.

I was called everything from “spaz” to “spack” to “Forrest Gump”, both in PE and outside of it. One time, in particular, we had to do long-distance running, and I remember the entire class decided to run alongside me mock-singing “Is This the Way to Amarillo”. Ableist bullying, like any other bullying, hurts. It being condoned or tolerated by teachers because they thought it might “push me harder” hurt (quite literally too, thanks to my condition). While I’ve gotten over it as I’ve grown up, seeing people uncritically use, or even worse defend, the use of those words that were used against me, feels wrong.

Ubisoft globally releasing a trailer – a commercial product trying to drum up interested purchasers – that uses language that disparages probably a large proportion of its consumer base, is, quite plainly, ignorant. Words have different meanings in different countries, sure, but when a French company releases a globally available trailer, there has to be some consideration that the content of the trailer isn’t needlessly, unjustifiably offensive.

Watch Dogs 2 looks great already, Ubisoft. We didn’t need to “spaz if we want to” as well…

Review: Steam Controller

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My Xbox 360 controller and I have been through a hell of a lot in the seven years since I got it.

It survived a whole summer-long binge of Left 4 Dead, came with me on my move to PC gaming, been thrown against walls because of Dark Souls, had its handles lovingly taped back on after said incidents. It’s weird placing emotional fondness onto an inanimate object, but I think I can safely say my 360 controller has been there for me in my darkest of days.

It’s now been unceremoniously dumped into a box under my desk, because I got a Steam Controller and damn is it amazing.

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Steam Controller

Manufacturer: Valve

Input: 1x USB Bluetooth dongle (included)

MSRP: £39.99/$49.99

The Steam Controller is unlike any controller I’ve used before. It gets rid of the twin analogue stick design that’s been so common ever since the PlayStation 1 days, and instead opts for a single, small stick and two huge trackpads. At first, I wasn’t convinced this would be a very good way of playing games, seeing as playing anything on a laptop’s trackpad is about as useful as controlling the game from fifty foot with a joined up collection of bendy straws.

Despite that, the trackpads on the Steam Controller work really damn well, mostly due to the advanced haptic feedback system under the right pad that allows it to feel more like a second analogue stick than a laptop. I’ve discovered I can quite comfortably play Team Fortress 2 (and get kills!) using the controller, which is something I never liked doing on my 360 pad.

The rest of the buttons also work really well, too. I love the triggers, which are really chunky and have both haptics-driven soft activation and physical switch hard activation points, which just feels so comfortable to use. The soft and hard points can also be bound to different functions too, which I found is pretty good for stuff like aiming down ironsights or sniper scopes.

I’m a big fan of the back paddles, which are in just the right position for my hands to not require too much effort to activate, but give off a really satisfying *click* noise whenever they’re pressed. Most games I play on it have now been rebound to use the paddles to jump and crouch just because of how accessible they are.

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Speaking of rebinding controls, every button is entirely customisable for every individual game you launch through Steam, including non-Steam games. At first, the amount of options and settings Steam gave me to configure was totally overwhelming, but as I started using it more and more, I got to know my mouse joystick from my mouse region and was soon able to set up almost any game to control just how I wanted it to. There are also configurations made by members of the community, which is a great way of quickly finding optimal settings.

I’m still struggling to get some games to work, Left 4 Dead has weird sensitivity no matter what I do for example, but overall the sheer reconfigurability of the controller is a massive plus.

The biggest appeal of the Steam Controller is its ability to easily play genres not usually suitable for controllers: city sims, point-and-clicks, RTS, that sort of thing. I’ve not delved into these too much, as they’re not generally types of games I like to play anyway, but I did give Cities: Skylines a try and found that with a bit of tinkering and reconfiguring, it is an entirely viable (if someone tiring) way to play. The right pad works really well as a mouse control, and there are enough extra buttons on the controller to allow for more finely-tuned control. Even Crusader Kings 2 is playable on it!

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Ergonomically, the Steam Controller is by far the most comfortable controller I’ve ever held. The face of the controller is concave, rather than convex, which means your thumbs don’t have to stretch out to hit the farther out buttons, but instead just rotate how they would naturally. It feels strange to hold at first, but it definitely helps reduce fatigue with longer gaming sessions, especially for people like me who may have gammy hands to start with.

There are only two complaints about the physical design I’m able to make. Firstly, I think the small thumbstick on the left side of the controller is raised a bit too high and placed too close to the centre. I do feel some strain on my left thumb after a while, especially when swapping between it and the left trackpad, which is actually placed lower than the base of the stick.

Secondly, the haptics are incredibly loud. Using the right pad and its haptic-driven virtual joystick produces a constant, audible buzzing noise. While it is drowned out by the sound of the game, people who stream or record videos may need to learn to play with them disabled just to reduce audio interference.

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Other than those two problems, the Steam Controller is easily my favourite gamepad ever. I am a bit of a unique case because of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome meaning I have specific ergonomic requirements, but even then I think anybody will be able to benefit from the comfortable design and versatile controls the Steam Controller supplies.

Sorry, Xbox 360 pad. I’ve met someone new, and it’s over between us.

This review was made possible by the generous support of my Patreon backers! If you like this sort of content, please consider pledging!

Review: Firewatch

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Before it came out, I was only vaguely aware of Firewatch. I’d seen a logo here, a bit of artwork there, but hadn’t really paid attention to it, what it was, or when it was coming out.

Now that I’ve finished it, I am so, so glad that I went into Firewatch completely blind. It’s a fascinating and lovely, if sometimes bumpy, experience that is definitely my first true contender for the best game of this year.

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Firewatch

Developer: Campo Santo

Publisher: Panic Inc. and Campo Santo

Released: February 9, 2016.

Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4

MSRPG: $19.99/£14.99

Firewatch places you in the shoes of Henry, a depressed man who’s escaped from his personal problems to an isolated job keeping an eye out for fires in a national park. Secluded away in your tower, far away from any civilisation, your only line of communication is with Delilah, your sarcastic and confident boss.

The game is a quote-unquote “walking simulator”, where Henry must hike to various locations in his sector of the park to uncover a growing, dark mystery while also trying to prevent any potential fires. There are two major components to any good walking simulator: a beautiful world to explore, and a narrative that can really hook you in. While there is one area where the game stumbles, Firewatch manages to succeed on almost all fronts.

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The world is absolutely gorgeous, with its colourful and low-poly style. While I didn’t feel particularly drawn to explore like I was in something like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, the environments I did go through were often memorable and a treat to look at. This was emphasised by the really cool camera mechanic, which gave me a limited number of photos I could take that would show up in the game’s credits, and could even be bought as physical prints. Campo Santo knew how good looking Frewatch was, and they weren’t afraid to flaunt it.

The layout of the forest was also very well designed, with enough alternate routes to dampen the irritation that came with the often frequent backtracking. Over time I grew from having to frequently consult my obtuse map because I’d gotten lost yet again, to being able to traverse through it pretty much from memory. This fit pretty really with the game’s narrative, which takes place over roughly two months and sees Henry grow into his role as part of the firewatch.

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The biggest appeal of Firewatch by far were its characters. The game’s almost entirely carried by radio conversations between Henry and Delilah, and every single bit of dialogue I heard was written and acted impeccably. Stumbling across new conversation points was a delight, and they could deftly swing from being hilarious to emotional in only a few seconds. The chemistry between the two is so endearing, and I’d happily go as far as to say this might be some of the best writing and performances I’ve seen in a game in a very long time. I really hope we get to see some more of Henry and Delilah at some point, even if it’s just as a prologue.

Unfortunately, my biggest complaint with Firewatch is with the actual story itself. It’s not an especially long game – my run was about three hours long, which is fine considering how high-quality everything else is – but it still drags on a bit with the mystery’s build-up, only to follow it with a very unsatisfying and kind of rushed conclusion.

For the majority of the game I was completely engrossed in the mystery, only for it to all be brushed away with a naff explanation in the last twenty minutes or so, leaving me wishing I’d taken more time to explore instead of getting so caught up in the events.

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Despite that, I think Firewatch is a game that’s about the journey rather than the destination. Simply listening to Henry and Delilah’s conversations, listening to them work through their personal problems, and watching them grow to be more comfortable with each other while explore a beautiful park was good enough for me.

If you’re looking for a groundbreaking plot or deep mechanics, I’d recommend you look elsewhere because I’d argue that isn’t what Firewatch is really about. If you want a fantastic world to hike through with some exceptional dialogue that isn’t afraid to explore some darker topics, I absolutely and completely recommend you take a look at Firewatch. You won’t regret it.

Looking Back at 2015: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

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We’re only a month away from the endless onslaught of Game of the Year awards. In a month, me and plenty of my friends and colleagues will be drafting up lists of our favourite games of the year, while also thinking ever so slightly less of the many people who don’t agree with us.

Before that happens though, I wanted to take a look back at some of the games I didn’t get the chance to talk about at the time for whatever reason.

These are not reviews, some of the games I haven’t played for months. They’re also not necessarily my Game of the Year™. They’re simply the games I found interesting (for better or for worse), but never really discussed when they came out.

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This year’s been an utterly fantastic one for fascinating stories in games. Undertale, Life is Strange, The Beginner’s Guide, The Charnel House Trilogy, Emily is Away, the list goes on and on and on of stories I’ve really enjoyed. Notably, this year is finally the year where the quote-unquote ‘walking simulator’ genre finally clicked for mem and became something I can enjoyably play.

This is where The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture comes in. Set in a Shropshire village after the end of the world, when it came out I remember the gaming industry react incredibly weirdly to it. There were plenty of complaints about it being a slow, plodding game with a difficult to follow narrative, and, as a result, it was unfortunately left by the wayside as other games came out. I heavily, heavily disagree with almost every single complaint I’ve seen levied at Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.

I’m from the Midlands in the UK, so not all that far from Shropshire; seeing how the area is represented in Rapture was incredibly interesting. I’ve walked through woodland and farms that looked identical to places in Rapture, and I even found furniture that looked surprisingly similar to things that are in my house right now. Exploring a setting that is often so close to my own environment was a weirdly memorable experience, and I’d argue that Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is the closest thing you can get to actually exploring the British countryside in a game.

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Maybe this is why I never had a problem with Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’s pacing. Some argue that the game was too long (roughly six hours), and a lot of time was spent slowly ambling from plot point to plot point. However, I simply enjoyed the wandering too much for it to bother me. The freedom of really having a sometimes very personal and invasive around a village that looks very similar to ones just down the road from me was fascinating. Being able to see how the people really around me might be living and working succeeded in keeping me engages through the slower portions.

That experience was made all the better by the game’s overall presentation. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is one of the most hauntingly beautiful games I’ve played in a long, long time. Watching as the sun quickly sets over the church, or watching how the plants in the fields sway in the wind were very subtle effects that really made wandering through the game a pleasure.

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That’s not even mentioning Jessica Curry’s stellar soundtrack (which I’ve pre-ordered the vinyl release for, that’s how good it is). Watching lights fly through the sky while a choir sings in the background sent shivers down my spine. Seriously one of the prettiest games of the year in every possible way.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is your usual soap opera, and all the small-scale domestic conflicts they’re known for, wrapped up in an apocalyptic science-fiction story. It manages to dive seamlessly between an unknown and potentially alien threat wiping out the valley to dealing with more relatable problems like religion and euthanasia in a way that doesn’t feel disrespectful or limiting to either narrative. I found myself enjoying Lizzie’s romantic problems just as much as I did Stephen’s more frantic race against time, and I equally cared about each of the different plot threads The Chinese Room juggled.

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Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is one of those games that I wish had a bit more time in the limelight. While the game does sometimes veer more into being about that vague cultural concept of “Britishness” than actual realism, Rapture manages to handle effortlessly a large amount of plot threads worth discussing at greater length. Threads such as the religious debates present in Jeremy’s chapter, or how the game portrays a disabled character without ever actually physically showing them in Lizzie’s.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a game that’s stuck with me in a massive way in the weeks since playing it, and I’m incredibly glad I took a chance on it.

Looking Back at 2015: Bloodborne

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We’re only a month away from the endless onslaught of Game of the Year awards. In a month, me and plenty of my friends and colleagues will be drafting up lists of our favourite games of the year, while also thinking ever so slightly less of the many people who don’t agree with us.

Before that happens though, I wanted to take a look back at some of the games I didn’t get the chance to talk about at the time for whatever reason.

These are not reviews, some of the games I haven’t played for months. They’re also not necessarily my Game of the Year™. They’re simply the games I found interesting (for better or for worse), but never really discussed when they came out.

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My least favourite videogame of all time is Dark Souls. I hate almost everything about it, from the massive lack of checkpoints and the clunky as all hell combat, to the obtuse stats system and the often unfairly punishing level design; everything came together and resulted in the game being an experience I can’t describe in any other way than complete and total loathing. I utterly, utterly detest Dark Souls.

Going into Bloodborne, I expected to feel much the same way about it that I do Dark Souls. I was totally prepared to hate the lack of a pause function, and find an endless stream of numbers that make no sense, or wind up being killed simply because Bloodborne is still fundamentally a Souls game. What I found turned out to be the most fun I’ve had with a From Software game ever, and one of the biggest surprises I had this year in gaming.

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Bloodborne differed from its Souls cousin in a few slight yet important ways. It was a much, much faster game than Souls, letting you dart all over the place more readily and get your attacks in more frequently. Weirdly, this speed made Bloodborne feel like a more forgiving game. Panicking, flailing, and thinking on the fly (often unsuccessfully) were a part of every encounter and the game expected you to make some input errors every now and then.

Where Souls needed laser-precise tactical thinking, Bloodborne was much more of a ‘go with your gut’ sort of game, and that alone made it a more enjoyable experience for me.

Another problem I had with Souls was the ridiculous distances you often had to go between a checkpoint and a boss encounter. Having to trek for minutes through hordes of difficult enemies, only to be killed by a boss a few seconds into the encounter and have to start that segment all over again, felt like an obnoxious and almost disrespectful waste of my time.

While Bloodborne did sometimes run into those same problems (the lead-up to the Cleric Beast early on in the game being a particularly annoying example that I remember), I noticed it was also more liberal with giving you interesting shortcuts that weren’t hidden in the arse end of nowhere.

This tighter level design compared to Souls meant having to fight your way back to a boss felt like it had a purpose, with exploration between point A and point B being more readily rewarded. Regaining ground lost in Dark Souls felt like being repeatedly kicked in the teeth, whereas in Bloodborne it felt like being encouraged to look at things from a different perspective.

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One of the few things Souls did well was teasing the player with a deep, often hidden lore through character designs and the setting’s architecture, rather than through any of the game’s immediate events.

Bloodborne was a bit more direct in its storytelling, but that doesn’t mean the fantastic visual and enemy designs that tell their own story weren’t still present. Just stopping a moment to take a look around, or studying how the various bosses link into each other’s stories was incredibly rewarding to me.

Bloodborne’s Gothic Lovecraftian setting was used to great effect. Yharnam felt like a real place, with bands of hunters marching down the streets with torches and pitchforks, and terrified citizens cowering in their houses. This was a massive improvement over Dark Souls’ Lordran, which while great at telling a story did also sometimes feel a bit game-y, with enemies placed into the world like pieces on a chess board, just waiting for me to be killed repeatedly by them.

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Ultimately, what I took away from Bloodborne was a realisation that the template From Software has used for their games since Demon Souls can work in a way that’s fun, challenging and rewarding, without being unfair or frustrating to play. Dark Souls was a bad game, but Bloodborne proved to me that it didn’t have to be a bad game. That’s a really reassuring thought with the “Soulsborne” series seemingly becoming an annual occurrence.

I could still do with a basic pause feature though. Playing for more than 20 minutes is murder on my wonky hands.

Looking Back at 2015: Grow Home

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We’re only a month away from the endless onslaught of Game of the Year awards. In a month, me and plenty of my friends and colleagues will be drafting up lists of our favourite games of the year, while also thinking ever so slightly less of the many people who don’t agree with us.

Before that happens though, I wanted to take a look back at some of the games I didn’t get the chance to talk about at the time for whatever reason.

These are not reviews, some of the games I haven’t played for months. They’re also not necessarily my Game of the Year™. They’re simply the games I found interesting (for better or for worse), but never really discussed when they came out.

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Back when I was managing editor for Indie Haven, a common discussion we had revolved around trying to figure out which games were and were not suitable for coverage. We know the likes of Call of Duty would certainly never count as “indie”, but what about things like Life is Strange or Telltale’s games?

Because of that debate, we had a simple litmus test that I explained as “indie games are like porn, you know it when you see it.” If a game felt indie in some way and wasn’t a blatant major AAA release, and it was a game worth sharing with the audience, then we’d allow it.

But then games like Grow Home burst onto the scene back in February and really challenged my oh-so-conclusive test as what is and what isn’t indie.

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Developed and published by AAA powerhouse Ubisoft, Grow Home is still one of the most indie-spirited games to happen this year. Beginning life as a fun little experimental project to be shared internally at Ubisoft, it eventually got developed into a larger title made for public release.

Grow Home has the player try and climb to the top of the world while also growing a huge plant taller and taller. Climbing is heavily physics-based, with the controls sometimes feeling a bit clunky. Playing as a clunky little robot called B.U.D. completely recontextualised the frustration brought by those controls, and managed to turn them into something incredibly enjoyable while also fairly challenging at times.

There isn’t all that much to Grow Home. If you’re not climbing a mountain, you’re climbing a plant, or climbing around a cave, or climbing on a bull or just climbing something at some point in time for some reason. But those simple mechanics are used to great effect when the world you’re given to use them in is as expansive and fun to explore as Grow Home’s is. Kilometres of floating islands, dark caves and waterfalls, all littered with wildlife, were realised in a wonderfully clean low-poly style. Grow Home is definitely one of the prettiest games of the year both in the architecture of its space and in its visuals, that’s for sure.

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Grow Home is an important game to remember from this year for a number of reasons. Even if it is another Ubisoft game about climbing, it’s an example that hulking AAA publishers can and should take time out to produce smaller experimental titles such as this.

It also shows that in a year where we’ve had games like The Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid V raising the bar on both graphical fidelity and mechanical depth, a good art style and simple mechanics are still all you really need to make a memorable game.

Good job, Grow Home. You’re a game produced by a groaning, AAA company, yet you also managed  be one of the most delightfully indie games of the year.

Review – Fallout 4

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Fun, Yet Cynical

I’m a pretty massive Fallout fan. I absorb the game’s lore and fan wiki like an obsessive sponge, and just love exploring the retrofuturistic wastelands Interplay and Bethesda have given us. The series’ black humour that never verges into over-the-top grimdark edginess, the incredibly creative locations and groups of people you come to meet; I just can’t help but love everything about the Fallout series. That’s why it pains me to say that I am somewhat disappointed by more than a few elements of Fallout 4.

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There are plenty of things to like about Fallout 4.

Fallout 4 takes place in and around Boston, Massachusetts; an area known in the Fallout universe as the technologically advanced Commonwealth. For the most part, Bethesda has managed to deliver on giving us a world worth exploring that totally lives up to the interest built during certain quest lines in Rivet City from Fallout 3.

It feels like a real place where people are surviving and thriving, unlike Fallout 3’s Capital wasteland, while also not feeling as sparse and monotonous as New Vegas’ Mojave. There’s plenty of stuff to find, and a great mix of rural and urban areas to delve into.

Fallout 3 and New Vegas were RPGs first, and shooters second. While on the whole this was the best way to go (what with the series being dubbed the “Post-Nuclear Role Playing Game” and all), it did mean that shooting in the previous games felt incredibly flat and pretty unsatisfying.

Fallout 4 took inspiration from popular shooter Destiny, and as a result massively improves on the gunplay from its predecessors. Shooting feels meaty and enemies respond to your shots, and damaging limbs has become a really viable strategy as opposed to just aiming for the head previous. It’s the combat that feels like the biggest improvement over the previous games, and dang is it fun.

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Another massive change is how one of the most ubiquitously Fallout things, the Power Armour, functions. Previously, you would simply require training to use it, and once you had acquired a suit you would be able to trudge along the Wasteland with it at all times. The armour has its own power supply, and when it runs out of juice, you can either refill it or abandon it and continue on foot. As a bonus, you take massively less damage when wearing it.

It’s a nice system, as I’ve never liked using Power Armour in the past due to the bulk of it slowing me down while doing quests. Now it serves as more of a vehicle to get you safely from point A to point B, protecting you from ambushes from the less friendly Commonwealth inhabitants.

One of the best new additions Fallout 4 is also the thing I’ve been most pleasantly surprised about: base building. I expected it to be more of a pointless, shallow little side-feature that I’d only do if a quest required me to, but oh how wrong I was. Scavenging the land to find the best materials to make my dream home in the post-apocalypse took up a hell of a lot more time than I was expecting.

My houses in Megaton or The Strip in previous games were something I used only to sleep in if I needed to, and never really felt like a home to me. I never bothered putting up ornaments or storing my items when I knew I’d have a pack-mule of a companion to do all the work for me. But my little settlements across the Commonwealth were mine. I’d put the work into making them habitable and safe, and I was going to make damn sure they succeeded. It was a really nice palette cleanser after utterly annihilating a band of raiders, or climbing around a Super Mutant camp.

What it does well, Fallout 4 does really well. It makes it all the more disappointing that there are some pretty huge issues with it too.

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One of the most interesting things Bethesda teased us with up to launch was the inclusion of a pre-war segment. The world of Fallout before the bombs dropped has always had an air of mystery and curiosity around it, so having the ability to see it for myself was incredibly exciting.

So imagine my disappointment when the entire pre-war segment amounted to not much more than choosing your character and getting to the underground Vault. I had no sense of attachment or loss once I’d moved on through to long after the bombs simply because I wasn’t given any time to be invested in it or the family that would revolve around much of the main plotline.

It served as a neat narrative purpose for players new to Fallout by making the playable character just as unaware of the workings of the Commonwealth as we are, but it also felt like a big kick in the teeth for those of us who have been invested in the series for a number of years.

Fallout 4’s habit of skipping past what makes Fallout so special pervades the entire game. From the 15 or so hours I’ve spent on it, a lot of the dark humour that the previous games had is long gone. Fallout 4 feels like it’s been designed by Bethesda’s marketing department to be as sellable and “safe” as possible: there’s Nuka-Cola, there’s Super Mutants, and there are Vaults, but they’re all icons that can be easily pressed into memorabilia. There hasn’t been anything or anyone who felt as special to me as Megaton’s Moira Brown or Freeside’s The King, nor locations like Oasis, the Sierra Madre or Little Lamplight. It’s just been sad people in the post-apocalypse surviving the post-apocalypse while being sad, and not much else.

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Fallout has never had particularly well-designed menus: if it isn’t Fallout 3 and New Vegas’ clunky Pip-Boy, it’s Fallout’s weirdly unresponsive metal shutters, and Fallout 4 is no exception to this. The Pip-Boy has returned, and probably through some dark arcane magic they’ve managed to make it even more fiddly and difficult to use than before. I have yet to find a decent way flipping between submenus and have had to jump quickly between using my keyboard and the mouse depending on what information I want to look at. It just feels utterly awkward to use, and that’s before you consider how unhelpful the new equipment system is.

One of the big changes from Fallout 3 and New Vegas is that armour can now be equipped on individual body parts: a leather left arm, a metal right leg, that sort of thing. It may give some ideal opportunities to cosplay as bloody Edward Elric if you want, but when you’re just trying to get the best out of what you have in a pinch, it can be a massive, massive pain in the arse. It also means playing dress-up with outfits is often not worth the hassle of remembering exactly which boiled leather left big toe you had equipped when heading back out on the road.

Weaponry isn’t much easier to control either. The new hot bar would, in theory, function the exact same as previous games: weapons are assigned to number keys that will equip and unequip them as you press the number. In practice, the icons that represent each item are vague and totally unhelpful when organising which gun goes where, and so often I found myself just hopping into the Pip-Boy and equipping them that way rather than risk accidentally pulling out a teeny-tiny little stick when going up against a Super Mutant.

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Previously I mentioned that the last few Fallout games had a bit of an imbalance between their shooter and RPG elements. While Fallout 4 has drastically improved its shooter elements, it hasn’t necessarily balanced the scales as the reworked RPG mechanics fall completely flat.

The new stat system revolves itself heavily around the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system for absolutely everything. Whereas before S.P.E.C.I.A.L. worked as a baseline for your character to grow from, now they define exactly who you play as at all times. Gone are the days of levelling up your speech, now you have to put points into your charisma instead.

This feels like a simplification too far, as it can be difficult at times to know which skills you want to improve are related to which stat. Whereas before I could just improve my lockpicking skill directly, now I have to improve my perception enough to unlock the perk that lets me pick more complicated locks. Spreading one skill out over multiple points feels totally unnecessary to me while also making the entire affair pretty shallow as you just can’t level up essential skills are quickly.

Had Fallout 4 come out under any other name, I would’ve absolutely and vocally recommended it. The gunplay is solid, the world is well-designed, the new base-building system is deeply involving, and the entire thing is just fun to play. However, the magic of New Vegas and Fallout 3 seems to have all been washed away with the increased popularity of a post-Skyrim Bethesda and all the possibilities for memorabilia that entails. It just doesn’t feel like a Fallout game to me. It’s just a few cutesy robots and a godawful UI.