I know the last entry was really negative. If it helps, the worst is over. This story never becomes great, but we’re past the horrendous self-sabotage of the excruciatingly paced opening.
Actually, there’s one last nasty bit:
Once Walker is done with Prowley’s Purgatory of Exposition, Walker has to go outside and explain the situation to Lily. So we need to listen to Walker repeat parts of what we just heard. The only thing worse than overlong needless exposition is doing it twice, so this is a little annoying.
The repetition is actually pretty short – less than 30 seconds – and it’s done over the radio while Walker is walking from the HQ to the gates of the city. That takes the edge off, and maybe it’s worth reiterating the premise of the upcoming adventure to make sure it sticks with the player. Still, after such a long clumsy delivery of information, it feels like salt in the wound.
Obviously this wouldn’t really be a problem if the previous scene was more economical with the player’s time, but you could improve it even more by re-framing the conversation. You could avoid having this feel like a recap by simply having Lily present during the briefing. Then Lily could react to her mother’s briefing, thus doing some character-building stuff. We could get some emotional stuff done so the scene isn’t 100% expositionAnd if you don’t want to waste time on icky emotional stuff, then don’t make Lily the daughter of Prowley. We’re either doing pathos or we aren’t. Pick one.. Walker and Lily could discuss what they’re going to do next to make the player’s goals clear. Even if they’re repeating bits of the briefing, it won’t feel like an expositional re-run if we present it as part of what we’re going to do next.
Again, I don’t like the idea of the hologram briefing, but I’m trying to get through this without changing too much. In my briefing, you’d get something like:
Prowley’s Dumb Hologram: You need to go and tell the other communities what happened here.
Lily, who is actually present and not standing outside for no reason: Jesus. Mom had a plan for everything.
Walker: And it still wasn’t enough to stop General Cross.
Prowley’s Dumb Hologram: Talk to the leaders of Gunbarrel, Wellspring, and the science enclave in the Sekreto Wetlands. Everyone needs to focus on defense. This is what I’ve been warning everyone about. Maybe now they’ll listen.
Walker: Screw that. If the Rangers couldn’t hold Vineland, then the other places don’t have a chance. We need to take the fight to Cross.
Lily: How are we supposed to do that?
Walker: I don’t know yet. I’ll visit these towns and see what they know.
Again, this makes Walker the protagonist instead of a minion of a dead NPC. It points us towards our goal without destroying the sense of mystery. It shortens the briefing. It gets Lily involved in the plot rather than making her wait outside while Prowley takes an exposition dump on our protagonist.
I’m not going to claim my intro is brilliant, but I think I’ve fixed the worst problems with the original briefing.
I have one last nitpick before we get started on our Wasteland Murder Tour. That’s this guy:
This guy is screaming at one of the town guards. (Or is she a Ranger? But I thought all the Rangers were dead? Whatever.) He’s angry that the bad guys won. This might be understandable if the defenders had run away or hidden, but they got slaughtered defending the city. The defenders died protecting him, and now he’s yelling at one of the few survivors. This guy is being an unreasonable ninny.
You could argue that this is a “realistic” reaction, maybe? I’ve never been the survivor of a sacking, and maybe this is something people do. But this guy is the only civilian we see. Just like the disaster with Joe Colonist in Mass Effect 2, this guy represents what we’re fighting for and the fallen community we’re trying to avenge. He should be an extremely sympathetic character. Instead, he’s a complete moron and an asshole.
The good news is that this isn’t a cutscene. These two are talking as you enter the area and it’s up to the player if they want to stop and listen or keep moving forward. That’s nice, but it would be even better if this guy was somewhat sympathetic.
How I’d fix it:
Joe Civilian: I gathered up all the survivors I could find. We’re holed up in the cafeteria. We’ve got a lot of empty bellies and those freaks burned all our food. You guys have any rations left?
Jane Guard: Can’t help you. One of those monsters stepped on the barracks and it’s just a big pile of busted concrete. If there’s any food in there, you’ll have to dig for it.
Joe: What about medpacks? We got a lot of injuries too.
Jane: Maybe check the bodies of the Rangers. Like I said, all our stuff is under the barracks.
Joe: The Rangers are gone. Even their bodies. I think the Authority took them.
Joe: I guess we better start digging then. (Walks away.)
That gives us some worldbuilding, and helps us empathize with the people we’re about to protect / avenge. None of this is essential. The player can stop and listen if they care, or sprint past to the open world if they just want to shoot shit.
Speaking of moving out into the open world…
Lily gives Walker a car and from here Walker has complete freedom to explore the wasteland. The open world has officially opened at this point. It’s been about 23 minutes since the player hit the New Game button, and they’ve spent less than 4 of those minutes actually playing the game.
The car is called the Phoenix. It talks. It’s voiced by Lynda Carter, who played Wonder Woman back in the 1970s. (You younger folks might remember her as Vermont Governor Jessman in Super Troopers.) In what is probably a random coincidence, she was born in Phoenix, Arizona. (Or maybe they named the car after her hometown? I don’t know. This game has a lot of weird stealth callbacks and references and this could be one of them.) These days she’s married to Robert Altman, Chairman and CEO of Zenimax, parent company of Bethesda Softworks, publisher of Rage 2.
None of that is germane to this analysis, I just thought it was a fun bit of trivia.
Power Level and the Intended Experience
The player needs to meet with the three leaders of Project Dagger: John Marshall, Loosum Hagar, and Dr. Kvasir. You can meet with them in any order you like, although I think the game intends for you to meet them in the order I listed. The gameworld gets tougher as you get further from home, so taking them out of order might have you crossing paths with foes before you’re ready.
The game doesn’t have character levels the way that an RPG does, but outposts are ranked on a scale of 1-10 in terms of difficulty. Marshal’s area is mostly 3. Hagar’s region is around 5. To reach Kvasir you need to drive past a lot of 7-9 stuff. Since this is a skill-based shooter with an upgrade system, there’s no good way to measure player power in a way that can be boiled down to a single number. If you’re really good, you can probably take on level 10 stuff as a newbieDisclaimer: I have not attempted this.. The upgrades are mostly improvements to things like cooldowns, ammo capacity, and reload times. There’s no concept of a “player level” that automatically scales up health and DPS like in Borderlands. It’s up to you to figure out when you’re ready for a Threat Level 10 encounter. I actually really like this system.
I love how this uncertainty makes the open world more free. It’s not like an RPG where your level 7 character arrives at a level 15 dungeon and you can clearly tell you’re not supposed to be here. Instead you’re like, “Huh. a threat level 7 encounter. I’ve never tried anything that tough. (Beat.) What the hell? I’ll take a crack at it.”
This lack of information might be a no-no in an RPG with an intended path of progression. But this is an open world game where you’re supposed to wander around doing what seems fun and your power is based on skill rather than leveling up. This lack of gamedev babysitting is exactly what you want.
In this write up I’m going to cover the three leaders in the (apparent) intended order. That means we’re headed to meet…
Of all the characters in the game, Marshall is probably handled the best. Walker arrives in the town of Gunbarrel, asks to see Marshall, and when Walker asks about Project Dagger he turns around and says that he needs Walker’s help first. There are mutants below the city’s power plant, gumming up the works. Once you go down and clear them out, he’ll help you with Project Dagger.
This is a pretty classic video game sidequest scenario and it all basically works. I have just a few quibbles:
The smallest problem is that this idea of the power being out isn’t really supported by what we’re shown. Marshall makes this request while tending his bar, which is flooded with neon lights. The city is lit up from the moment you enter. People talk about the power being out, but the lighting doesn’t change as a result of your actions.
It’s not a big deal in this genre, but I’d suggest changing the problem to water or communications if you’re not sure whether the engine / art team can handle swapping between powered and non-powered versions of the city. The supposed “power plant” is filled with pipes and valves and doesn’t have anything in the way of recognizable electrical infrastructure. Maybe this was supposed to be a water treatment plant but the designers changed the dialog to refer to a power plant for some reason? I don’t know. It’s a little weird and distracting.
You’re So Special
My second problem comes from the dialog between Walker and Marshall as Walker heads into this sewer / treatment plant / power station / murder dungeon.
Marshall is talking about how he runs the city when we come to this exchange:
(continued) …plus, there’s always a gun for hire to do the jobs if things go south.
That’s what I am? A hired gun?
Hell no. You’re a Ranger, that’s a whole different enchilada. A whole lot spicier AND meatier!
Just making sure, Marshall. Just making sure.
I strongly disapprove of this ego-stroking so early in the story. It would be one thing if Walker was a famous badass like Master Chief. Even then, having the protagonist go around acting like their allies need to validate them is kind of lame and un-heroic. Walker is a new recruit who attained her rank through attrition, so it would be totally reasonable for people to doubt her abilities. Moreover, having her prove she’s more than a hired gun would give us a bit of character arc. People could distrust Walker because she’s an impulsive young gun, and then come to respect her once she’s accomplished something. Yes, this is an age-old trope, but those tropes exist for a reason! It’s much more interesting and heroic to have the protagonist earn their allies than to have them show up and act like they’re entitled to respect.
It’s a small thing, but if we’re trying to tell a minimalist story in the context of a shooter then using the right tropes is a must. Tropes enable you to pack a lot of meaning into a small number of lines of dialog. Leave the expectation-subverting and the fancy plot deconstructions to the RPG nerds.
But even if we decide we want to have other characters stroking Walker’s ego, Walker should not be policing their appraisals of her. When Walker balks at being called a “hired gun”, it makes it sound like she’s a spoiled diva. Walker’s character is paper-thin, but what little characterization we have says that she’s a gruff, practical military hard-ass. In terms of shorthand writing tropes, this is not the sort of person that goes around fishing for validation from people they just met. In a movie, this sort of behavior would signal that the character is weak and emotionally needy. This is why I cringed so hard at this throwaway exchange. I think the writer was trying to build up our hero, but the presentation makes it seem like she’s either entitled or emotionally insecure.
Like I said earlier, Walker has to go through a sewer level to get the power back on. In the end, you restore power by turning this giant pink valve:
This looks… not at all like a power plant. It looks like a sewer, so I have no idea why they didn’t just call it a sewer and have you restore water rather than power. In any case, this does create a small hiccup for my re-write. This level is basically what I suggested for the tutorial mission in my rewrite of the introduction. There are several of these sewer levels in the shipped game, so I don’t think the one I added is a dealbreaker. However, we really don’t want to start the game with two sewer levels in a rowActually, you have to knock over a bandit camp on the drive from Vineland to Gunbarrel, so these two sewer levels wouldn’t be back-to-back. But they’re still too close together. or the player will think that’s all we have to offer. So let me do a quick patch to this mission:
The thing is, none of these lairs are integrated with the main story. They’re just map markers for you to visit during your murder tour of the wasteland.
To fix the problem of back-to-back sewer levels, I’ll swipe one of these lairs off the open world map and stick it under the town of Gunbarrel. Since the art can’t support switching city lights on and off, let’s ditch the idea that this is a power problem and instead go with communications. The big brute has been chewing through the cables, and now Gunbarrel’s communications gear is disconnected. Marshall explains that he can’t help you with project Dagger if he can’t communicate with you in the field, so you need to slay the beast so the engineers can go in and repair things.
A Side Character Spoils The Ending
My biggest gripe with this section is the dialog we get once the power is back on. Marshall informs Walker that, “Project Dagger involves driving a jury-rigged tank into Authority headquarters alone and manually distributing a nonotrite murder-mickey to the grand ghoul himself: General Cross.”
Why do we have a super-complicated plan to kill General Cross, when everyone thought he was already deadDuring the intro, Prowley expresses disbelief that Cross is alive.? Since this plan has evidently been around for years, why didn’t anyone ever enact it? The story makes it sound like the four main leaders came up with a plan they didn’t need, and then stopped talking to each other for no reason, leaving the plan in limbo. When was this plan devised and who were they going to use it on?
The story is vague enough that the player can easily cook up some post-hoc justifications for this. But making the story coherent is not the player’s job. So not only is this ruining the next N hours of story by explaining everything that’s going to happen ahead of time, but it doesn’t even make sense or fit with what we’ve already been told.
As it turns out, the final mission goes exactly as Marshall describes. Again, this takes away Walker’s agency within the story. Walker isn’t going to make any decisions, learn anything new, or undergo any personal growth in order to make this plan happen. She’s just going to go out and do exactly as she’s told.
Walker could devise this plan to enter Authority headquarters, and then each of the three leaders would explain why it wouldn’t work as a way of giving her the mission. A paraphrased version of that plot might look something like this:
Marshall: Only authority Tanks get in or out of their base.
Walker: Then I’ll take out an enemy tank and repurpose it!
Marshall: Impossible! That’s suicide.
(One mission later.)
Kvasir: You have a tank, but you need to break the door encryption codes. And that’s impossible. To do that you’d have to (kill a bunch of dudes and access a computer), and that’s impossible!
(One mission later.)
Walker: I’m back, I got the computer codes or whatever.
Loosum: You have a way to get in, but you don’t have a way to kill General Cross. To do that, you’d have to (kill a bunch of dudes and access a science thing), and that’s crazy.
(One mission later.)
Walker: I did that.
Marshall: I’m sorry we doubted you for the whole game. You really do deserve (respect / the Ranger Armor / a gold star)!
You see the difference? Walker isn’t just the one coming up with the plan, but also the one deciding to go on these missions. This makes her proactive and her allies passive, which is the way it should be in a broad action story. Instead of your allies telling Walker how awesome she is, she could instead be a driving force in the story by demonstrating her badassery.
You could do all of this within the framework provided by the game. All you’d have to do is change the dialog to put Walker in the driver’s seat. (You might need to shuffle the missions around or whatever, but the point is that this isn’t more expensive than the alternative.)
Say Something Nice
There’s one little moment here in Gunbarrel that I want to focus on. When Walker enters Marshall’s bar, she finds Marshall having an argument with Gulo, his spy.
Gulo has a hood and a face mask with a particular voice distortion that always makes me think of Tali from Mass Effect. I have no idea if the similarity is intentional.
Gulo uses unique slang that makes her really interesting. Like the War Boys from Mad Max: Fury Road, the slang is thick enough that it feels like the product of another culture, but it’s not so heavy that you can’t figure out what the heck the character is talking about. This brief conversation is really good. I don’t mean it’s “good for a shooter”, I mean it’s honestly good. This kind of stuff is hard to do.
This is one of those strange moments that made me curious about how this game was written. The dialog usually oscillates between functional and cringe-inducing, but then we get occasional exchanges like this one where it feels like a completely different writer snuck in and added half a page of solid material to the script. Who is this writing ninja, and how did they get away with it?
On the other hand, nobody else in the game talks like this. In another part of the game there’s a sign outside a club or whatever. It says, “Don’t clap back. If you basic, you basic.” That cringe-inducing bit of modern slang sounds completely out of place. It would be like Luke Skywalker shouting “Totally tubular, dude!” in Return of the Jedi when they blow up Jabba’s ship. Ephemeral pop-slang doesn’t belong in fantastical alt-worlds.
The Gulo slang was excellent. Ideally, I’d like it if each town had a few unique verbal quirks or accents to make them seem culturally unique, rather than limiting most of the slang to a couple of characters. In any case, these kinds of worldbuilding details can bring a world to life without requiring any additional art assets. I wish there had been more of that sort of thing in the game.
 And if you don’t want to waste time on icky emotional stuff, then don’t make Lily the daughter of Prowley. We’re either doing pathos or we aren’t. Pick one.
 Disclaimer: I have not attempted this.
 Actually, you have to knock over a bandit camp on the drive from Vineland to Gunbarrel, so these two sewer levels wouldn’t be back-to-back. But they’re still too close together.
 6 meters.
 During the intro, Prowley expresses disbelief that Cross is alive.
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