Part 30: Bonus Update: Can We Fix This Game?Bonus Update: Can We Fix This Game?
I'm not gonna sugarcoat it, and I said as much in the OP. This game is bad, and it wallows in its own filth like a pig. Is there anything in here worth salvaging?
The Elephant in the Room
I'm going to say it right now, ATOM TEAM could never have produced a good game. We've covered all the stupid Nazi shit like Abraham the Jewish Stereotype, the 14 word racist shit, the Pizzagate quest, mutant genocide shit, etc. While it's enough for me to conclude the update with "no", I'm going to ask that you humor me and we set that aside for a minute, but if you can't, I understand.
The game is extremely incompetently executed at a fundamental level. All of the game's systems are incompetently executed. Combat is excruciatingly dull. The perk tree is a busted mess full of worthless crap with only a few hidden gems that are mandatory to make combat possible. Companions are mostly a liability. The crafting system is unmitigated garbage. There are maybe three worthwhile skills excluding the combat ones that require heavy investment just to hit with your weapons, and even lockpicking is a tedious affair where the game happily informs you 5 times you failed to open the lock. The overworld is slow and dull, the maps are both too large and featureless, and everything is terrible.
The random encounter is loaded, and we are not in combat. We have several screens to search for the wasps from the Unity Asset Store.
The writing deserves a completely different essay, but I will say that the supposedly insightful third-person narration manages to ruin everything it touches. Either the writers are not confident in the dialog they've written, or - more likely - because they believe anyone who would buy this game is a complete idiot, the narration is constantly sledgehammering home what you are supposed to feel, because the writers are incapable of evoking it.
I cannot stress enough that the writing is incapable of inspiring terror, so they resort to lazy shortcuts like this.
There's also the small matter of the descriptions being bloated and redundant in a game that is in love with its own verbosity.
You guys knew this was coming
So, no, if you asked ATOM Team to fix the game I can confidently say they are not capable of it. We haven't even gotten to the lazy referential "humor" that infests this game, because all it really serves to do is remind the player they could be enjoying something good.
The most noteworthy feature of the game is just how much it despises you, the customer, for buying and playing it. The opening of the game makes it clear enough when the developers give you an AK and a bunch of cool soldier stuff, and then have it cutscene stolen by robbers who immediately sell it off and you can't get it back.
There are just so many examples, from the crafting messages mocking you when you fail to roll a joint to the robot that requires 100 technology to activate and then just crashes.
The player is constantly characterized as lazy, incompetent, and only in it for loot and XP, which is neither original nor funny and has been immortalized in countless uncreative sprite webcomics. I really cannot stress enough just how much the game despises you for the unspeakable crime of giving the ATOM devs money and then expecting to use the product you purchased. Nothing good over here!
What, Exactly, Is This Game About?
Xander77 and I asked the developers this question and they claimed the game was about living in an authoritarian regime, kind of like Prisoners of Power by the Strugatsky brothers. It's an interesting comparison, because Maxim - the Strugatsky brothers' protagonist - crashlands into a hell planet run by turbonazis that he tries to end by himself with his superior physiology from being a space guy and his advanced scientific and historical knowledge. Maxim has an immediate motivation because the regime threatens his friends and love interest, as well as his own moral compass. The ATOM protagonist has none of this, and there's not even one regime that controls the planet like the evil world government does in the novel. Of course, ATOM team is also on record as lying about their influences, so we can safely take whatever they say and ignore it. There are a few themes that come through the game loud and clear.
1) Fuck you for buying our game, and you are roleplaying an absolute idiot.
2) Everything is connected into a bizarre conspiracy.
3) Is this real, or am I hallucinating things?
If we're salvaging this game, we can discard theme number one. It's a funny joke maybe once if at all, and then it just becomes offensive and self-defeating when the Steam refund button is right over there. This leaves us with a bizarre conspiracy set in post-Soviet post nuclear war Russia where the player is constantly questioning what's going on. Now, I'm not sure if that's what they were going for, but because the game is all over the place spurting dull narration every time you click on something, that's what I'm assuming we're going with. We HAVE the conspiracy mostly in place, but we're missing a few critical items.
Why Do We Care?
A lot of this comes back to General Morozov. I've repeatedly pointed out the Cadet (as the ATOM wiki refers to the protagonist) has absolutely no reason to care about Morozov or the missing ATOM squad other than being a part of ATOM and having a vague mission to find Morozov. Now, the kickstarter claims that as the main character is solving a mystery and promises nonlinearity but we're not going there. There needs to be a reason to solve this mystery besides the one we got, which is that a bunch of faceless dudes with a video projector told us to.
It's kind of impressive how little we get on the man. We get the original hint to Bunker 317 from Otradnoye, this leads us to the Mushroom Cult, the Mushroom Cult is obviously jerking the Cadet around but they're too horny to pick up on it, and we have a dream if we get stoned off our asses on Katya's fuckawful mushroom beer that hints at mushrooms maybe being important to the story. The first fix is to give the character an obvious reason to give a damn about finding Morozov and the missing ATOM members. Maybe the Cadet's friend was on the expedition. Maybe Morozov was the Cadet's mentor, and we keep getting flashbacks to Morozov teaching the player character how to shoot a gun or whatever. The current "yeah here's a picture from the opening cutscene you've probably forgotten" and then Morozov is never mentioned again is kind of stupid. Ostensibly, we're infiltrating all of these bandit gangs, sewer mafias, sleepy starter towns, sexy women's houses, pornography shoots, and other stupid crap nominally so we can find someone who knows about Morozov, and we never learn if the powerful bandit leaders or genocidal dictators actually know anything about Morozov because we never ask. Ariadna literally sends the player character off for a month to waste their time while volunteering no useful information, and the developers give us the choice between attacking her or going off to do the waste of time quests. Exciting!
So we need a reason to care about Morozov, and we need some way of feeding the player information to make them feel like they're making some progress on the whole Morozov quest thing. It's not like Morozov was being particularly subtle about going to Bunker 317, the Otradnoye guards tell you that's where he said he was going, and it's not hard for me to imagine Dan's bandits, the Krasnoznamenny military, and/or the Peregon guard having the motivation and interest to salvage whatever is in Bunker 317. I'm not going to spoil what the whole deal with the thing in Bunker 317 is, but it could easily be something that all of the factions of the Conspiracy want, like Rocket 0000 in Gravity's Rainbow. The player's search for Morozov would naturally attract the interests of various factions of the Conspiracy, from the Krasnoznamenny General Secretary to Dan to the Peregon leadership to Ariadna/Artyom and the Mushroom Cult. Hell, go nuts and make the mutant circus and the Red Guards conspiracy factions too. Then you can have multiple routes through the game as you do quests for whichever faction, and neither faction has all the answers so you can try to string factions along, betray them, whatever and you would end up with a nonlinear mystery plot. Is this a lot more work than railroading the player into doing what the pretty lady says? Yes, and it's a lot more work too, but once again you could save a ton of hours by cutting the narrator. You can also tie a lot of the weird crap into the conspiracy like the Shoggoth fight, or maybe have the player gain revelations by using the hallucinogens instead of just "I'm in a video game lol!", but people would absolutely bite on this and this is the one time you can actually use the JJ Abrams mystery box. The game clearly wants to be surreal with things like dimensional travelers and talking pigs, and to a lesser extent with the vaguely recognizable celebrities and references everywhere, but the prose fails it and it's never able to conjure the sense of paranoia that Pynchon or Dick can. Ideally, you want these things to be happening so you can force the player to question the reality of this conspiracy or their character's own sanity, and the dull narrator just does not do that. When done right, you can go completely nuts and have a conspiracy of grocery stores run by talking beavers or some crap, dissonant narration that clashes with what we see on screen, and UI fuckery that forces the player to put together puzzle pieces to figure out what is going on, where is Morozov, and what is Morozov trying to achieve? Everyone is after the Cadet because they think the Cadet knows about Morozov and his dangerous secret that could tilt the shadow war in their favor. The Cadet is in over their head and trying to figure out who to trust and what they can safely reveal. What seemed like a fairly typical post-apocalyptic setting is slowly revealed to be completely insane, causing further doubts in both the Cadet and the player. I do not know if this is what the ATOM developers intended to create, but it's certainly one way they could have turned this mess into an interesting - if not good - game.
Unfortunately, this requires actual effort and forethought and thus ATOM Team could never do it. I am saving the Soviet legacy theme for the end of the game, because there's a bit more to comment on once the main plot is revealed.