Borderlands Pre-Sequel: Handsome Jack’s Fall Is Bad

The Borderlands: Pre-Sequel presents us with the fall to evil of Handsome Jack, who is either a low-level programmer or a mid-level manager depending on who has their hands on the script right now. Overall the game suffers badly from different parts of the game being written by different people with little editing for consistency, or alternatively, from one writer who was unable to keep track of character traits and arcs from one day to the next. Feels more like the former, though, like the script is being written by people with a different idea of exactly who these characters are and where they’re going. Is the AI Felicity thrilled with murder or repulsed by it? Is Handsome Jack a low-level programmer or does he report directly to the Hyperion CEO? Once you finish one of the game’s twelve main story missions and move on to the next, these details get scrambled.

Jack’s descent into evil seems to have been written into the outline with enough detail to keep everyone on the same page, but unfortunately it’s just not very good. He commits a series of escalating crimes that starts with the level of violence required of a shooter game deuteragonist and ends with him killing four allies to guarantee hitting one traitor. That’s a good arc that brings him from the fairly heroic place he starts to one step before the violent megalomaniac he is in Borderlands 2. The problem is two-fold: First, we never see him take that final step, and relatedly second, while his crimes escalate over the course of the game, his motivations for committing them are all over the place, not tied to a specific drive that draws him deeper and deeper into evil.

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Borderlands: Vehicles

Borderlands has vehicle sections sometimes. The first game, for example, gives you a heavily armed, bulked up dune buggy pretty early on to help get from one end of the Arid Badlands to the other in a hurry. This is basically just a slightly slower than normal fast travel system at first, as the Arid Badlands is built around a road running east-west and the bulked up buggy is too big to be taken too far off that road, but then the next area, the Dahl Headlands, is much more wide and open, focusing heavily on vehicle combat. The game’s next hub area is the Rust Commons, which is about 70% buggy-traversible, and its final hub area the Salt Flats (though visited relatively briefly) is vehicle-focused like the Dahl Headlands was. The DLCs follow a similar pattern, with the General Knoxx DLC being heavily vehicle focused while vehicle combat is totally absent from Jakobs Cove and the claptrap areas.

Having wider, more open spaces traversed by vehicles helps give the game world a sense of scale, adds some variety to the gameplay, and gives the game a chance to show off its cool vehicle designs. Unfortunately, Borderlands’ vehicle gameplay sucks. Your vehicle is too fragile, it’s very difficult to effectively dodge enemy projectiles, and the only thing that stops the vehicle sections from being interminably frustrating is that aim is a crapshoot for both you and enemies, which means even though swerving around incoming shots is rarely reasonably doable, it’s also rarely required, as the majority of shots miss all by themselves.

In order for Borderlands’ vehicle sections to work, it needed more time and money, and this from a game that’s already clearly struggling to get things done in time to ship. The General Knoxx DLC was potentially a chance to do better, but without seeing the budget and the code, it’s impossible to say for sure (plus, it’s worth noting that General Knoxx did do better, just not much better, and not nearly realizing the full potential of the idea). So I’m not really suggesting the following system as what they should’ve done, because it’s possible the resources just weren’t there. But I am suggesting the following system as something that would be cool.

Borderlands is a looter shooter, and the premise behind its vehicles is that you can use hypertech digistructors to create new vehicles from thin-air at any vehicle station, so there’s no reason why its vehicles shouldn’t be randomly dropped loot just like its guns. You’d want vehicles to be relatively rare drops from regular guys, so that they don’t distract from the guns, but to reverse the odds for drops from destroyed enemy vehicles, so that the number of vehicles you’re looking at goes up when you’re in a vehicle-friendly part of the game.

Just like guns, different vehicles should have different damage, accuracy, rate of fire, shields, top speeds, acceleration, and maybe some other stats, and just like guns, these should be randomized but within a certain range based on their level and vehicle class. Some factors, like speed and rate of fire, are heavily impacted by vehicle class, while others, like damage and shields, are heavily impacted by level.

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Borderlands: Moxxi

I have two things to say about Borderlands related to the character of Moxxi, and they have basically no connection to one another except that they’re about Moxxi, so this is the Moxxi post.

The first is that Mad Moxxi’s Underdome sucks. It’s an arena DLC for the game where you fight off waves of enemies with steadily rising buffs to their HP and damage and so on, with randomized modifiers on the match like a certain type of gun doing more damage or everyone moving faster or enemies having regenerating health. The DLC is dogged by two problems: First, that finding the enemies in the arena can be a huge chore, and second, you don’t get any rewards worth caring about from it. There is no XP gain in the arena, enemies do not drop any loot, and while completing rounds does drop new guns, it’s a rate of 1 new gun per round and they’re not skewed especially strongly towards being any good. They do seem to be a minimum of green quality, i.e. not total trash, but at one gun per round, this isn’t nearly enough to make it worth the time. Coupled with how frustrating it is to actually find enemies and get into the fray, and the whole DLC is basically a bust except for introducing the character of Moxxi – but she gets a separate intro in the General Knoxx DLC anyway.

In a completely different game in the series, the Pre-Sequel, we learn that Moxxi is a mechanical wiz who talks with a redneck accent when “out of character.” As portrayed in the first two games, Moxxi is a show presenter/host who presents herself in a heavily flirtatious way with a healthy dose of apocalypse-glamor. She’s also the mother of Scooter, whose primary schtick is being a mechanical wiz, and you’d think they could’ve just let Scooter have all the mechanical wiz parts of the plot. Sure, that would mean the Pre-Sequel would have a lot of Scooter and not much Moxxi, but so what? Scooter’s a perfectly good character. Sure, I like Moxxi better and I imagine that’s a common opinion (half the point of Moxxi’s character is that she’s charming and charismatic, whereas Scooter is an obliviously crass redneck), but just because I like Moxxi doesn’t mean I like it when she’s wrenched out of character to do Scooter’s job.

They also could’ve used Janey Springs, although Janey’s not a particularly good character. She’s a junk dealer who lives out on the moon frontier with the scavs, and any time she’s sticking to that, she’s good, but unfortunately the game really wants her to be a gay disaster and is absolutely 100% clueless as to how to write that character. Whenever it portrays her interacting with men, it trips over itself to deliver Feminist Messages(tm), but then Moxxi’s exhaustion with Janey’s flirting suggest that either Janey is a sex pest who won’t take no for an answer or else Moxxi is a cruel gossip who doesn’t clearly communicate her lack of interest to Janey but talks bluntly about how much she despises Janey behind her back, and to random adventurers that Moxxi only met five minutes ago, no less.

Although, having written that, I realize that half the problems with Janey’s character are because the story spotlights Moxxi at her expense, and if we’re minimizing Moxxi’s presence in the story (or even cutting her completely), then that problem disappears. Touch up the writing on some of the other quests (the basic premise of her connection with Deadlift is fine, the joke just doesn’t land) and she’d be way better at Moxxi’s job in this story than Moxxi is.

It kind of feels like the Pre-Sequel writers were trying to make Moxxi a more complex character by giving her more than just her show presenter style? But if so, it was a failure. When we see Moxxi “out of character,” she’s still putting on a show. It’s just a show of being a redneck mechanic, like Scooter does. The presentation is much lower effort, because the showrunner Mad Moxxi persona is all about glamor and spotlight, that’s the whole job, whereas the Scooter’s Mom persona is about being grounded and competent, something you’d put on to inspire enough confidence in your mechanical skills to convince people to pay you to fix their truck, and then relying on your ability to actually fix trucks to turn that into repeat business. Or, outside a business environment, just angling your presentation towards how you like to fix trucks because you are proud enough of your truck fixing skills that you would like to lead with that. The mechanic persona directs people’s attention to a specific skill you’d like people to notice you have, whereas the showrunner persona directs people’s attention to the vivacious and fun-loving nature of the persona itself. A mechanic’s presentation is not the key skill to their business, but they do still have to get their game face on before going to work.

If you wanted to present Moxxi out of character just to make the point that her public-facing persona requires effortand can’t be maintained 24/7 (and I’m not even sure that’s the point of this rather than just lazily slapping an excuse for Moxxi to participate in the Pre-Sequel’s plot where she doesn’t othewise have a role, but assuming the point of the scene is actually that Moxxi’s persona can’t be on all the time), you don’t want to have her putting on another, lower-effort but equally focused persona. You want to show her in a hoodie and pajama pants trying to untangle a snarled schedule for next week’s fights or counting up income and expenses to see if putting in some new slot machines is a good idea or just watching Space Netflix to unwind, depending on whether you want to focus on how the Mad Moxxi persona requires behind-the-scenes effort or on how Moxxi is a regular person (I mean, she’d still be a Borderlands character, but Mad Moxxi is an exaggerated character even by the series’ standard) who has regular breaks and weekends and stuff between her performances.

Either one would’ve made Moxxi a much more interesting character with a twenty-second glimpse of her in a different model and voice than we’re used to seeing her with, exactly like we got in the Pre-Sequel as it is, but instead Moxxi seems even more unreal and cartoonish because she has this second, completely unrelated persona and skill set.

Borderlands 1 Plot Workshop

The first Borderlands game had a pretty generic shooter plot and got a bunch of attention for reskinning itself into one of the first magenta games. It didn’t go full magenta untilt he sequel, and I like the light sprinkling better than the more concentrated doses later games had, especially the Pre-Sequel (and I’m slightly worried about how bad it’s going to be in 3, which I have not played yet). I’m not here to talk about line-by-line dialogue, though. This post is about the tangled plot of Borderlands 1 and how it could’ve been much smoother without really changing anything except a bit of expository dialogue.

Borderlands has two recurring problems in its plot. The first is that it doesn’t tell you the significance of what you’re doing until it’s already done, with characters like Angel (whose motives for helping you aren’t even explained or even hinted at in this game), Dr. Zed, Marcus, and Patricia telling you what to do and then explaining how it gets you closer to the end goal of finding the Vault after you’ve done it. The first and obvious rewrite, then, is to move an explanation for why you’re doing what you’re doing to up front.

And second, which is that you are always proceeding directly towards the Vault, which means the path to the Vault is ludicrously convoluted. And although the Vault is talked up as the central MacGuffin, it and its Eridian creators are barely in the game. You don’t encounter the Eridian aliens who built the thing very much until the very end, just outside the Vault, and when you do encounter them, it’s not any more significant than as a new enemy type. It’s an interesting new enemy type and I’m glad it’s in the game, but you do not spend the finale learning ancient Eridian secrets. You spend it fighting the Crimson Lance mercenaries. The only Eridian secret is that they actually built the Vault to contain some tentacle monster, not to hold treasure, and that tentacle monster stabs the only built-up villain of the entire game to death to yoink the final boss fight for itself.

The actual gameplay of Borderlands isn’t about Vault hunting at all. It’s about defeating bandit chieftains and later the Crimson Lance. So rather than bothering with all this Vault key fragment nonsense in the first place, maybe it’d be better off to cast the protagonists as bounty hunters and mercenaries. The Vault is Patricia Tannis’ obsession, and Commandant Steele’s (Commandant Steele being the commander of the Crimson Lance). The player’s got a list of bandit chiefs to take down and that’s their MacGuffin, only dragged into all this Vault business because everyone else cares about it.

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Borderlands: Enemy Spawns

I probably don’t need to introduce Borderlands, y’know, the looter shooter game. I’m giving the complete series a playthrough from 1 to 3, including the Pre-Sequel but not Tales, unless I decide that some number of these games are actually Regrets. I like gun roulette and I like shooters, so probably even some really awful writing isn’t going to bring me down to Regrets, but I haven’t tried Borderlands 3 yet and the overall trajectory of the series’ writing is to get steadily more magenta over time, so we’ll see if it manages to cross the Regrets threshold despite its gameplay.

But today I’m talking about enemy spawns. Using the very early part of Borderlands as an example, the starting town is Firestone, the first villain is a bandit captain named Nine-Toes, and one of the first quests is to go and clear out a bandit outpost just across the road from the gate into Firestone. Perfectly good little quest with one problem: The bandits respawn, so if you ever revisit that outpost for any reason, it’s inescapable that you didn’t actually accomplish anything. On the other hand, you don’t want all enemies to never respawn, because that both makes maps uncannily safe as soon as you’ve cleared them (because enemies never patrol or reoccupy cleared territory unless you want to write in an entire AI for trying to take and hold territory) and it means you can’t have the fun of returning to an area you’ve overleveled and obliterating the opposition (something the Borderlands series is already bad at, since it has a nasty habit of leveling enemies in old regions after breakpoints in the story – but doesn’t even do that consistently, so sometimes you get sent back to an old area that you’ve out-leveled by 5+ but sometimes you’ll find all the enemies just got juiced up to about your level).

If I were put in charge of a remaster/make/boot of the series, I’d give it four types of enemy spawns based on two toggles: Story flags and character level.

Some enemies would stop respawning after a certain story flag has been set. This is reserved mainly for named boss enemies, and the story flag is killing them. Once you kill Nine-Toes, he doesn’t come back. Some unnamed enemies also qualify, if the story makes a point that you’re clearing them out to get some tactical or strategic advantage. Those outpost bandits, for example, would stop respawning after the quest to clear the outpost is complete. The story made a point of clearing that outpost in particular to stop Nine-Toes from seeing everyone who goes in and out of Firestone through the gate, so it stays cleared. The story flag doesn’t have to be relevant to the main plot, necessarily. Zephyr Substation is a wind farm that the bandits have overrun which you visit while acquiring a key to a stronghold that holds a key to another stronghold, which is not amazing quest design, but the important thing for purposes of this post is that there is a side quest to get the wind farm operational again and the bandits occupying it should keep spawning until the side quest to reactivate the farm is completed, not the main quest to fetch a key from it.

Some enemies should stop respawning after you reach a certain level, regardless of what story flags are flipped. Borderlands is already one of those games that cuts the XP given by enemies based on the level difference, and about 5-10 levels over the enemies they stop giving XP entirely (there’s no hard cutoff, it just gets cut into a smaller and smaller fraction of the default until it rounds down to 0, so it can be 5 levels for one enemy and 15 for another, but 5-ish is about the point when enemies stop being relevant). They’ll keep respawning if you’re underleveled even if the local plot is complete and stop spawning when you reach a certain level even if the local plot is incomplete.

This category is for patrolling bad guys, like the bandits and alien wildlife you find moseying around the roads and trails connecting points of interest to one another. If they’re not worth XP, that suggests they’re also not worth the players time, so stop respawning them. These enemies are now so weak that the player can walk right past them while ignoring their bullets if they don’t want to go to the effort of mowing them down, so just don’t bother. Most areas have a level range, so when you’re right on the cusp of outleveling that area, it’ll despawn the lower end of the range as you outlevel it completely, but leave the upper end of the range, which is only 3-4 levels below you, which organically gives a sense of areas starting to thin out as you progress. It’s not directly tied to how many of them you’ve killed, but it’ll feel that way.

Some enemies stop respawning only if you reach a certain level and flip a relevant story flag. For example, some patrolling enemies I would normally give a purely level-based despawn are required for a kill-ten-rats kind of quest, and while that is also not amazing game design, you definitely don’t want to make it possible to softlock yourself out of it by overleveling until the patrols stop spawning. Also, the bandits in various bandit strongholds holding bosses like Nine-Toes and Sledge should keep respawning until you have outleveled them by 5+ and you’ve defeated the relevant boss. If you show up to the boss dungeon ridiculously overleveled, you still have to fight the whole dungeon for pacing reasons, and if you defeat the boss at a normal level (or while underleveled) you can still revisit the dungeon for level grinding purposes and/or for funsies for as long as the enemies there are powerful enough to be remotely relevant. Only after the dungeon has served its purpose in the main plot and ceased to be remotely meaningful opposition does the general bandit population stop spawning.

Finally, you want a handful of stray enemies who keep respawning no matter how overleveled you get or how far into the story you get. The bandit strongholds, for example, might have one or two rooms that remain fully stocked with bandits no matter how powerful you get, and while some of the absurdly hostile wildlife moseying about the map might stop spawning when you get too high level, others might continue to suicide rush you when they see you walking or driving down the road. This allows a player to do the whole “obliterate some low level enemies to see how far you’ve come” thing without obligating them to do so whenever driving around lower level areas (especially since both the first and second game have a few quests encouraging you to return to much earlier areas of the game).

Far Cry 4: Just Leave(tm)

In a previous post I talked about how Far Cry 4 is two really good games combined into a single just okay game. Here I’m going to elaborate a bit on how it could’ve been really good at just the one thing by editing the story a bit.

The game opens the same way and can retain the “wait for Pagan Min to get back” ending. If you don’t take that, you flee the palace with the Golden Path and end up in southern Kyrat. Your goals now are to inter the ashes of your mother at the shrine with Lakshmana, honoring her last wish, to kill Pagan Min and his lieutenants, honoring the last wish of your father as relayed to you by the Golden Path, and to get out of Kyrat alive. You can get intel on Pagan Min’s three lieutenants (Noore, de Pleur, and Yuma, all good enough characters to retain even if none of them are particularly spectacular) by completing side quests: Outpost raids, assassinations (including for the one CIA guy), destroying propaganda, hunting, you can even do the drug thing if you can find some excuse why Yogi and Reggie have dirt on Pagan’s lieutenants (and they do have some kind of connection to Noore). Some side quests are general purpose, adding small amounts of intel for all three, some side quests are for a specific lieutenant.

We’re putting all three of these lieutenants in southern Kyrat (in the game as it is, Yuma is in the north, so we’re moving her). The Kyrat International Airport is also down there, and at any point after the tutorial you can go there, steal a plane, and Just Leave(tm), fulfilling your goal to escape Kyrat alive but failing to honor the dying wish of either of your dead parents.

The revelation that your father killed your toddler sister and your mother killed him for it is being moved way up to the halfway point of the game, when you open up the bridge to northern Kyrat. The Lakshmana shrine is also going somewhere in this area (Pagan Min’s palace might get relocated here entirely, or maybe there’s a shrine near the bridge that the protagonist’s mother had some personal connection to, whatever). Pagan Min’s forces are running scared, the Golden Path are ascendant, and Amita and Sabal’s vicious sides really start to show.

In the game as it is, if you side with Sabal, he kills a bunch of people for vague sins against the gods to usher in his new oppressive theocracy, and if you side with Amita, she pressgangs a bunch of people into the Golden Path against their will, in both cases in an epilogue scene that is hinted at in a drug-induced hallucination/prophecy. Outside of this drug trip, there’s no strong indication that Amita and Sabal aren’t perfectly heroic freedom fighters (despite some differing values about the importance of Kyrati religion and whether or not drugs are cool). The game definitely isn’t devoid of hints that these two are budding dictators of their own, but it’s easy to reach the end of the game and feel like you chose the wrong leader, which obscures the game’s strongest point: The theme that you can’t wring a free and prosperous nation out of every war just by identifying the bad team and killing all of their doods. Sometimes there’s a side fighting for democracy, but sometimes there isn’t and in the latter case there is nothing you can do. You can’t impose liberty on people by force.

So in the revised version of the game, you go into northern Kyrat having already interred your mother’s ashes and knowing that your father is a child murderer, while Sabal and Amita are splitting off to fight one another and the Royal Army remnant still led by Pagan Min. You now have the option to Just Leave(tm) having fulfilled your mother’s dying wish, leaving your father’s unfulfilled, or you can fulfill your father’s dying wish by hoovering up more intel from both Amita and Sabal (further spotlighting just how evil both of them are in the process) to locate Pagan Min and kill him.

Key to the general vibe here is that you aren’t a major factor in the war. The Golden Path was already ascendant when you got here and continues to be throughout the first half of the game. Your connection to founder Mohan Ghale and handiness with a knife means you get assigned to kill some of Pagan Min’s lieutenants, and you can sack Royal Army outposts as a side quest, but the Royal Army can recapture sacked outposts and the Golden Path regularly captures enemy outposts without your involvement. Outposts stay captured long enough that you don’t get the Far Cry 2 problem where they respawn after thirty fucking seconds, but you are not repainting the map by attacking outposts, you are just shoving the front line around in a way that doesn’t leave a permanent mark.

Particularly in northern Kyrat, it’s now a three-way war in which (assuming you don’t Just Leave(tm)) you have to help both Amita and Sabal against each other for the intel on Pagan Min’s final hideout to track him down and kill him. You’ve got some targets to hit and a shrine to locate and if you’re following the objectives the interface nudges you towards, you can’t have any long term loyalties.

Once Pagan Min is dead, you have another chance to Just Leave(tm), or you can stay behind, pick a side between Amita and Sabal, and see the war through. You can also give up on finding and killing Pagan Min to side with one or the other of them by completing all of their missions in northern Kyrat and none of the other’s, and then choosing to give up on killing Pagan Min to side with one of them. This is a bad idea. Amita is a ruthless power-monger who doesn’t need the son of the founder of the Golden Path hanging around as a threat to her legitimacy, especially not one who’s a capable enough warrior to have won the respect of the troops (you might not be winning the war single-handedly, but you’re still a very deadly fighter). Sabal is a murderous traditionalist who thinks you’ve been corrupted by having been raised in the West and are on the list of people to be killed to purge Kyrat of its sins. If you help one of them win, the map is covered by their faction, they’re all hostile, and now you need to get to the airport anyway to flee the country. It doesn’t really count as Just Leaving(tm) anymore because you got chased out of the country rather than deciding you’d done what you came to do and departing.

The level of personal involvement of your family in the Golden Path is probably still too much to carry the theme properly, so this might be better off if, like in Far Cry 2, you’re a mercenary who’s being paid to kill Pagan Min/his lieutenants, or if you have some personal grievance with Pagan Min and are coming to Kyrat for revenge. A total revamp of the plot, without making use of much of the pieces of the existing game, would dramatically expand the length of this project and no one is particularly salivating to see the result, but doing this properly would probably require a major overhaul to the protagonist. Ultimately, “returning to your roots” is more of a vacation-y tourist-y kind of arc, more suitable to the Murder Vacation version of Far Cry 4 than the Murder Can’t Help version I’m laying out here.

Far Cry 4 Is Two Really Good Games Combined Into One Pretty Okay Game

Far Cry 4 is mainly something to give the visual and hands-controlling part of my brain something to focus on while I listen to podcasts and audiobooks. This is something I really like to do, and I’m having a pretty good time with Far Cry 4, although I suspect it would be much less so if I’d played Far Cry 3 on PC. Because I played Far Cry 3 on console, Far Cry 4 is my first time experiencing the full potential of these game mechanics. But Far Cry 4 could’ve been a great game even despite the looming shadow of its predecessor, if it had picked one of the two games it’s trying to be and committed to it.

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Far Cry 4: Disappointingly Under-Armored

Usually, in Far Cry games, you are fighting some kind of enemy militia. Far Cry 4 and, if I understand correctly, Far Cry 6 are the exceptions so far, where you fight an actual national military. And at least in Far Cry 4, it’s a disappointingly small difference as compared to the militias and pirates of earlier games. Now, sure, these are the national militaries of tinpot dictatorships, presumably not even regional powers, let alone superpowers with a bottomless backlog of tanks and jets on the bleeding edge of military engineering. You wouldn’t expect them to necessarily have much in the way of nightvision, it’s not super out of place that they communicate mainly via radio signals you can intercept, and it’s fine that the standard issue assault rifle is the AK-47 rather than the AK-74 or tacticool rifles from recent years like 2009’s FN SCAR (the efficacy of things like the FN SCAR over older weapons is debatable – after decades of paying arms manufacturers for new assault rifle designs, the US army has decided to use the M16 forever – but certainly the only armies still using AK-47s are armies who can’t afford AK-74s).

But you would still expect these tinpot dictatorships to have tanks at all. Not to mention IFVs, which are just perfect for video game bad guys. An IFV is essentially a light tank which also carries a squad of infantry into battle, so it’s something you can slap onto your existing infantry squads to upgrade them into a miniboss. And yet, they don’t appear in Far Cry 4. It’s not like Far Cry 4 doesn’t already have vehicles with turrets, so it doesn’t seem like it’s a technology problem.

Tanks have the problem that it’s very difficult even for a supernaturally durable lone attacker to take them out, as modern tanks are basically immune to frontal attacks from most shoulder-mounted anti-tank rockets. There’s plenty of solutions, though. First of all, it’s a Far Cry game, so you can decide to ignore realism and let an RPG-7 blast straight through the front armor of a T-72 for no better reason except that it’s cool. Secondly, when you picture an RPG in your head, you are picturing an RPG-7, and that is a 1959 weapon ineffective against modern tanks. But it’s not like the whole world gave up on anti-tank weapons and just kept using RPG-7 forever. Far Cry 4 has a secret unlockable weapon which, the Wiki tells me, is some Biblical reference because the arms dealer who gives it to you is a Christian zealot, but it looks like an RPG-29, which punched through the front armor of a perfectly modern Challenger 2 in Iraq. But also, third, you could always have tanks be nearly impossible to destroy from the front and have fights against them focus on hitting their weaker top and rear armor.

Instead, Far Cry 4 gives us exactly one new enemy type (not counting wild animals), the hunter. The hunter is a very good addition to the game, a stealthy enemy who doesn’t show up on radar and if you tag them (which normally allows you to see enemies through walls) they only stay tagged for maybe five seconds before becoming untagged, plus they can take control of nearby animals, which are normally hostile to both sides. Hunters plug up a lot of Far Cry 3 enemies’ most consistently exploitable weaknesses (luring in or releasing an animal is way OP, tagging all enemies so you can see them all through walls makes stealth pretty easy and makes you almost impossible to flank), and if Far Cry 4 were about fighting warlord militias or pirates or religious terrorists, that would’ve been fine. But Pagan Min’s army is supposed to be an army, and the absence of any armored vehicles is a disappointment.

Wyrd Sisters: What Happened To Esk?

Wyrd Sisters is the second book in the Witches sub-series of Discworld, and the sixth book in the series overall. I’m not super concerned about the other sub-series in this post, though, so we mainly care about the first book, Equal Rites, and Wyrd Sisters itself. We also care about Sourcery, the fifth book in the series overall and the third book in the Rincewind series, mainly because of the implications it has for several of the characters in Equal Rites.

In Equal Rites, Granny Weatherwax helps Esk, the first female wizard, realize her destiny and learn wizardry. Granny Weatherwax is a witch, not a wizard, and in Discworld witches and wizards are very separate schools of magic, one only for women and one only for men. This is the fundamental premise of Equal Rites, although of course Esk upsets everything by becoming a female wizard. At the end of the book, Archchancellor Cutangle of the wizards’ Unseen University asks Granny Weatherwax to be an extracurricular professor for the university, hoping to encourage more women to enter the profession by employing a female professor. The exact details of the arrangement aren’t clear, but the basic idea seems to be that wizarding students will go to Granny Weatherwax for a summer to learn some witchcraft and round out their magical education a bit. It’s the capstone to a sub-plot of Granny Weatherwax and Archchancellor Cutangle putting their differences aside and recognizing what they have in common, mirroring Esk’s own journey in which she waffles between witchcraft and wizardry, always sticking up for the one when a practitioner of the other is talking shit.

Esk (and, for that matter, her friend Simon) is a student at Unseen University as of the end of Equal Rites, third book in the series overall. Then in the fifth book of the series, Sourcery, Unseen University gets obliterated at the center of a new mage war as a sorcerer (an ungodly powerful super-wizard) dissolves the old order of wizards, leading to a free-for-all that leads to an attempted coup against the gods (thwarted not by the gods but by Rincewind, the Disc’s least capable wizard). There is no mention of what happened to Esk. Now, fair enough, Sourcery is not in the Witches’ sub-series, Rincewind has no idea who Esk or Simon are, so he wouldn’t be checking up on them.

Being a book in the Rincewind series, it involves a lot of traveling to exotic locations, encountering fantastical perils, and running away from them at top speed (or, in one case, hitting them with a half-brick in a sock), so there’s not a ton of time spent in Unseen University itself, and most of what we do see directly concerns the sorcerer’s takeover and the disastrous results of the subsequent reordering of the wizarding hierarchy. There’s a lot of talk about how wizards don’t and shouldn’t marry or especially have children (the eighth son of an eighth son is a wizard – the eighth son of a wizard is a sorcerer, and sorcerers are calamitous) and the upper level wizards are all male, but given the recency of Esk’s acceptance into the University and the relative timidity of the integration of female wizards, it’s not surprising that none of them have cracked the upper ranks yet and that they’re still too few in number to be a noticeable presence in the sorcerer’s power struggle. There’s no sign of Archchancellor Cutangle, but the new Archchancellor is said to have been relatively recently appointed, so we can assume that Cutangle bit it at some point to make way for a new character who could more suitably play the role required in the plot of Sourcery. That’s kind of sad, Cutangle was shaping up to be a pretty good Archchancellor despite his flaws, but the plot of Sourcery kind of demanded that the University have a mediocre Archchancellor instead – so it goes.

All well and good for Sourcery, but that does mean Sourcery left Wyrd Sisters on the hook to resolve the fate of Esk (and, implicitly, Simon), because it stars Granny Weatherwax (along with new faces Nanny Ogg and Magrat, the mother and maiden respectively to Granny Weatherwax’s crone). If nothing particularly terrible had happened in Unseen University or Ankh-Morpork (the city the University is built in) then we could assume that Esk is getting along fine while Granny Weatherwax and the other witches are confronted with other troubles off in the Ramtops, far away from Ankh-Morpork. But at last accounting, Esk was at ground zero for the apocalypse! A line about receiving a letter or something would’ve been appreciated, to establish she’s still alive (or alternatively, a line about a funeral to confirm she was a casualty of the war, although that seems like an especially grim fate for a twelve-year old girl who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and put in a book’s worth of great effort to be there).

It can’t be that Wyrd Sisters is a prequel, either, because it’s a plot point in Equal Rites that Granny Weatherwax doesn’t like to fly on broomsticks and it is a plot point in Wyrd Sisters that she came late to flying on broomsticks but now does it rather a lot. The exact positioning of Sourcery in the timeline is unclear, but I feel like if you’re going to nuke the last known location of your previous book’s protagonists and have readers not worry about it because the Rincewind plot is all set 50 years before the Witches plot (or whatever), then you’ve got to be pretty ham-handed with establishing the timeline, either with explicit lines in the book putting events relative to one another (i.e. “fifty years before the time of Simon there was another sorcerer, a real sorcerer…”) or else by heading each chapter with an actual date.

Discworld is a pretty loose setting which doesn’t generally truck with that kind of timeline finnickiness in the Tolkien tradition. In the first book, Terry Pratchett jokes that you can’t map a sense of humor, and thus kicked Rincewind and Twoflower around to different locations heedless of how exactly they bordered each other, and this is fine. By Wyrd Sisters, we are dimly aware that Ankh-Morpork, Sto Lat, and Lancre are all city states in some kind of proximity to each other, but we don’t really know the details of their international relations with one another, like, we have no idea about the other two city-states’ opinion on the Lancre coup that sets off the plot of Wyrd Sisters, and that’s fine. The books aren’t about these things.

But one whole book in the series was about Esk and Simon and Cutangle, dammit, and if you’re going to start the end of the world from their last known location, some words as to their ultimate fate would’ve been appreciated.

Far Cry 4’s Arena Went Out Of Its Way To Suck

Far Cry 4 has an arena that you reach about a third of the way through the game. It’s thorough but standard arena gameplay: You fight in a small enclosed space against a bunch of enemies who are split up into different teams, some wild animals get mixed in, you have to be the last one standing, you start with a pre-defined weapon but can loot more from defeated enemies. You start out at rank 1 and each rank has a different arena battle associated with it, including your starting weapon. My first issue is that your starting weapon doesn’t have a clear trajectory. You start with a revolver, then get a glock that seems to mostly be a lateral move, and then you get a machine pistol which sounds better but is actually much worse because individual bullets deal way less damage and it’s way harder to line up headshots. I wonder if you’re supposed to get worse and worse starting weapons as you rank up, to increase the challenge? But if that were the case you’d think they’d start you with an AK-47 to make the downward progression more obvious.

But that’s mostly a nitpick, regardless of the details you start with a weapon that sucks and have to make do with that until you’re able to loot something better. No, the way Far Cry 4’s arena goes out of its way to suck is that instead of having you complete each rank’s battle once, you instead have to fill in a progression bar. But there’s next to no variation in the arena battles at any given rank whatsoever, so the higher ranks don’t have you fighting three or four randomly selected arena battles until you rank up. You fight the exact same arena battle three or four times until you rank up. There’s some connection to one of Ubisoft’s tie-in apps that they tried to push in the mid-2010s, and it looks like the app still exists, but Far Cry 4’s multiplayer doesn’t exist anymore so whatever impact the arena app had on the experience is gone now, and was ill-conceived to begin with.

If you want to do a tie-in app you have to go whole-hog with it, connect the two games to each other at such a fundamental level that they are two different modes of the same game, like, maybe the mobile app is a realtime game of managing a business or country or whatever and the PC/console game allowing you to rampage through the map to cause and/or solve problems for the mobile users. If you balance it right, it could probably be fun, and if it’s a major premise of your game, the people who play that game will be the people who want that. Admittedly, that would be a weird as Hell entry into the Far Cry series so probably don’t call it that.

But regardless, Far Cry 4’s tie-in app, like the tie-in app for Assassin’s Creed Unity, is an afterthought that the core game is better off without and which is almost certainly no fun to play on its own.