Gaming Round-Up: Adrift

Do you ever find that when you finish a long game that you really love, you have a hard time getting into anything else for a while? That’s been my experience since finishing We Happy Few. I’ve tried a lot of things, but not much is sticking.

My character in Conan Exiles.I did finish the Reign of Terror mod for Grim Dawn, which recreates Diablo II, but to be honest it ended up feeling like a bit of a slog. Even with the updates provided by the Grim Dawn engine, the gameplay hasn’t aged that well, and even the story is a lot more shallow than I remember it being.

I did get to experience the story of the Lord of Destruction expansion for the first time, not having played it back in the day, and I think I liked it a bit better than the base game’s, but even then it wasn’t exactly thrilling.

A few weeks back, both Conan Exiles and Fallout 76 ran simultaneous free trial events, and even though neither is a game I’ve really had on my radar, I decided to give them a shot for curiosity’s sake. We Happy Few did leave me with a bit of a craving for more survival mechanics.

To my great surprise, I actually ended up enjoying Fallout 76 quite a bit. It does have a lot of jankiness — the combat is weak at best, the character models are hideous, and the PC interface is an unmitigated disaster — but even so I was actually rather sad when the trial ended. I’m tempted to pick it up on sale at some time.

I miss my CAMP. I had a lovely spot on a mountain peak between two forested valleys. I was growing a vegetable garden in the back. Player housing can be really fun when it’s a meaningful part of the game and not just a place to decorate once and then forget about.

The view from my CAMP in Fallout 76.Exiles, on the other hand, I didn’t enjoy at all. Whereas F76 was occasionally annoying due to bad design, Conan Exiles feels like it was designed from the ground up to be constantly annoying. I get that they’re going for a savage world where danger is constant, but when even the sheep treat you as KoS, you’ve just lapsed into the realm of unintentional self-parody. To say nothing of the nightmare of inventory management…

And honestly, even if you fixed those problems, it still wouldn’t be a very interesting game. Crafting is somehow even more gameified and mindless than in the average MMO (a bizarre choice for a game that’s almost entirely crafting), and there’s just no point to anything. No story, no meaningful goals.

After that I dipped into a few titles from my backlog. First was Far Cry: Primal. I really like the concept of the game, but the reality of it just didn’t click for me. Too much of a grindfest. I don’t understand why so many single-player games want to be bad MMOs these days.

I did enjoy the animal companions, though.

Next up was some strategy games — Surviving Mars and The Hive — but neither grabbed me. I give The Hive credit for an original concept, but in practice it was a pretty generic RTS, and it just didn’t feel like it was bringing anything new to the table.

Speaking of RTS, though, one highlight that did crop around this time is a game called Nordic Warriors I tried via a demo key given to Massively Overpowered. It’s a single-player game, so I wasn’t able to cover it on MOP, but it did impress.

A battle in the tactical RTS Nordic Warriors.The story of Nordic Warriors is based on Norse mythology, which is always a good way to get my attention, but more importantly, the gameplay is an homage to Bungie’s Myth games from back in the 90s.

Anyone who’s followed this blog for a long time knows I loved Myth back in the day, and there’s just nothing like it even now. Its hyper-realistic real time tactical strategy is a style of gameplay that simply doesn’t exist any more. Anything to bring back that kind of gameplay has my support.

In some ways, Nordic Warriors shows its low budget — the entire development team is just three people — but all things considered it’s an impressive effort at bringing back the Myth experience. I will definitely be picking it up when the full version goes live later this month.

In the meanwhile, that still left me without a game to fill my lonely days. Right now, I’ve gotten back into Elder Scrolls Online. Not for Greymoor, though. It looks like a pretty underwhelming expansion to me, and to be honest I almost forgot it was even a thing. Instead, I’ve finally started on the previous expansion, Elsweyr, which I bought on sale ages ago but never got around to playing.

I won’t lie, I didn’t go into this with a lot of enthusiasm. On paper ESO is my dream MMO, but in practice it tends towards being merely adequate. I think a lot of it is just down both the writing and the combat being fairly mediocre. I like the Khajiit, so I was curious about Elsweyr, but my expectations were low, especially after the disappointment of Summerset.

It’s early days, but while I may not be blown away, I will say it’s growing on me. It already feels better than Summerset, at least. Dragon fights might not be wildly original as public events go, but they’re definitely a lot more exciting than just reskinning Dolmens.

A Khajiit town in the Elsweyr expansion for Elder Scrolls Online.While the meat of the story is still kind of underwhelming, the world-building is interesting. Unlike most of the game, Elsweyr feels genuinely fantastical, and I am enjoying meeting all the strange and bizarre subraces of the Khajiit. And if nothing else, Khajiiti NPCs have vastly more personality than the Altmer.

Something has gone badly wrong if even I find Elves boring.

I’ve also switched to my warden rather than my main for a change of pace, which may be helping a little. She certainly kills things faster; normally I’m not a fan of mowing down mobs without any difficulty, but given ESO’s combat isn’t exactly a delight, I’m more okay with it right now.

I’d like to start a necromancer, but then I’d have to deal with having an untrained mount again. It’s a shame that ESO is so alt-friendly in so many ways, but that one mechanic just feels so punishing if you try to switch to a new character. Weird how MMOs work against their own designs sometimes.

I’m not convinced I’m not going to lose interest and jump onto something else before long, but so far at least I find myself warming up to Elsweyr. Mayhap it may tide me over until Nordic Warriors releases, at least.

Then again, there is also a part of me that’s hankering for some Age of Empires…

Review: We Happy Few

We Happy Few is a stealth/survival game taking place in a dystopic alternate version of 1960s England. In this reality, the Germans occupied Britain during the Second World War, and though the occupation only last a few years, the British were compelled to do terrible things in that time.

The title screen for We Happy Few.To cope with their shared trauma, residents of the village of Wellington Wells turned to Joy, a powerful drug that causes users to forget anything unpleasant, leaving them in a state of mindless euphoria. Being sad is now a crime, and “Downers” are exiled into the wilderness, or disappeared entirely.

That premise intrigued me from the moment I heard it, but stealth has never been my cup of tea, so I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy We Happy Few or not. I opted to wait until it went on a deep discount on Steam before buying it.

I kind of regret that now. We Happy Few is an amazing game, and I would have happily paid full price if I’d known it would be this good.

WHF’s reliance on stealth was an issue early on. However, the saving grace is that stealth in this game is not mandatory in the sense that being caught will cause a fail state. You just have to fight more if you’re bad at sneaking (like I am). I had to restart the game on a lower difficulty to survive the many, many fights I kept getting myself into, but once I did that I was able to start making real progress and truly enjoying the game.

The combat in WHF is a bit simplistic, but it’s enjoyable enough, and it gets the job done. I was also really surprised by how immersive and enjoyable I found the game’s survival and exploration mechanics to be. We Happy Few stands as one of the very few open world single-player games that I feel actually justifies its open world, rather than using it as a crutch to pad out the game.

The world seen through the lens of Joy in We Happy Few.I was especially impressed by the quality of the side quests in this game. Side quests are usually something I endure more than savour, but in WHF nearly every side quest was interesting or entertaining on at least some level.

My favourite involved a cult of lunatics worshiping a supposedly divine yam. The premise is great, but the execution was better. I was amazed by how elaborate the quest was. They even repurposed a lot of actual pagan prayers for use by the yam cult.

The amount of effort and research poured into such a silly and ultimately irrelevant side quest is a testament to the passion and devotion of We Happy Few’s developers.

For more of my thoughts on We Happy Few’s open world and survival mechanics, stay tuned to Massively Overpowered for an upcoming MMO Burnout column on the topic.

But while I did largely enjoy the game mechanics and exploration content of We Happy Few, it’s the main story and the themes it raises where this game really shines.

I’m not normally a fan of dystopic fiction, for a variety of reasons. However, We Happy Few aces two things that dystopic stories tend to ignore.

The bucolic splendour of the Garden District in We Happy Few.One is that this is a fairly appealing dystopia. The Joy-fueled haze experienced by the citizens of Wellington Wells may not be quite so brilliantly seductive as the selective memory editing of Remember Me, a similarly powerful dystopic game, but it isn’t too hard to imagine a world where people have been seduced by the promise of eternal happiness. It’s more believable than the openly horrific settings of other dystopias.

The other is that We Happy Few acknowledges something a lot of similar stories ignore: dystopias don’t work.

We Happy Few is less a story of plucky heroes rising up to throw off their shackles as it is that of a broken system collapsing under its own faulty premise. Absolutely every aspect of life in Wellington Wells is falling apart; Joy is poisoning the entire town, literally and figuratively.

There’s this terrible lie that pervades our culture — including our fiction — that evil may be unpleasant, but it gets things done. Efficiency and decency are seen as opposite ends of a spectrum, where one has to be sacrificed in the name of the other.

But that’s not true. We’re told that torture may be wrong, but it yields useful information (it doesn’t). We’re told that strongmen may not be lovable, but they get things done (they don’t).

In reality, oppressive authoritarian regimes are almost invariably riddled with corruption, incompetence, and inefficiency. Justice, equality, and liberal policies almost always lead to better results across all sectors of society.

Townspeople in We Happy Few.And We Happy Few understands this. Wellington Wells isn’t run by evil geniuses. In so much as it has any leadership at all, it’s run by cowards and idiots.

I will also say that a lot of themes of this game resonate with me on a very personal level, having spent much of my life on a rollercoaster of various sedatives and antidepressants, most of which just made things worse for me.

While I acknowledge that drugs do help some people, the way medication is often sold as a cure-all is deeply disturbing to me.

Something that really struck a chord with me is the fact that Joy comes in various tasty flavours — chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, blackberry… I was reminded of a time many years ago where my doctor gave me some free samples of an antipressant. They were chewable and had a delicious mint flavour.

I don’t even think I want to know what they put into those things to make them taste so good. I don’t even like mint, normally.

I’m not shaming people who take antidepressants. If any of them actually worked for me, I’d take them happily. But I think we can all agree something has broken in our system when doctors hand out candy-sweet happy pills to anyone willing to ask for them.

The Jacobean Club is looking a bit worse for wear in We Happy Few.It also struck me that although the core theme of We Happy Few could boil down to “things suck, and there aren’t any easy answers,” I still managed to find it a fairly uplifting game.

One of the many things I’ve dabbled in to try to treat my mental health issues is dialectical behaviour therapy, and WHF is a great lesson in two of DBT’s core principles: validation and radical acceptance. Sometimes you just have to acknowledge that yes, things suck, and it’s okay to feel bad.

Sometimes trying to cheer up — or having others try to cheer you up — isn’t helpful. It can even make things worse. Sometimes you just need to face the fact that things are bad, and there can be a certain relief in that.

I can poke a few holes in We Happy Few’s story here or there — it’s a bit slow-paced, and it doesn’t answer as many questions as I’d like — but its strength far exceeds its weaknesses.

If there’s one place WHF stumbles, it’s the DLC. Even then, none of it is actually bad; it’s just not as good as the main game. The first two DLCs — They Came from Below and Lightbearer — are just jokey side-quests, though they do feature some clever game mechanics.

The final DLC, We All Fall Down, returns to the main story and is all around a lot more enjoyable, though even then it suffers a bit from feeling somewhat disconnected from the events of base game.

Confronting the doctors in We Happy Few.Despite somewhat underwhelming DLC, though, We Happy Few is the most I’ve enjoyed a video game in quite a while.

Overall rating: 9/10