Now’s a good a time as any to talk abaht Fallout 4, not least as the damn game has successfully extracted most of my attention in the last couple of weeks. I completed the quest to recapture the Castle last night which is far enough into the game to prattle on about it. 

Having been wedded almost exclusively to the Nintendo bandwagon for the past twenty years, I have missed out playing – chiefly due to being obdurate – many of the major titles that other gamers have enjoyed. Many games I would never have played, titles like Gran Turismo, Soul Caliber, Tony Hawks, Fifa (though I did play the first on the SNES and hated it). But every once in a while, I stumble across a game, often in a series, that I try out and think “why haven’t I played this before?” Then I consider that on the N64, I didn’t like some of the sequels that came on that console (Duke Nukem, Quake) and it kinda put me off.

So why did I pick up Fallout 4? Dunno really, tough one to explain. I suppose it was the fault of the shopping vouchers (as mentioned in blogs passim) which were begging to be spent. There was nothing I wanted on the clothing or the utensil front so entertainment was the chosen option. I looked at Xbone titles in store and it was quite difficult to choose a game as there weren’t any “must have” titles on the shelves. The only game I’m truly looking forward to in the near or far future is South Park: The Fractured But Whole which is a while off. And backwards compatibility for the Xbone is painfully slow; have they released any other titles after the original flurry? I’d like to replay Red Dead Redemption and some of the other titles I have for the 360 which I hadn’t gotten around to playing just yet.

I vaguely remember the ads for Fallout 4 (but more prominently the Fallout 3 adverts) which is why it registered in my brain as well as what little I’d read up on the series. Other contenders were Evolve, Far Cry 4 & Far Cry Primeval. Had Elite Dangerous been available on hard copy, I’d have snapped it up without a second thought. Again, as mentioned in the last blog entry, I drifted towards blu-rays and the special offers as I think the last film I bought was the remake of Robocop – major let-down. Only picked one title and as I had three minutes before I had to meet the gang for bowling, I snatched the game off of the shelf, paid for it and headed up the escalator to the second floor.

So that’s the why. Typical pedantry, I know but I’ve never had a connection to the series before now and it has just never flagged up on my radar. In fact, I don’t know many other gamers who have played it; many of my friends are into other genres, titles etc. 

I assume many of you readers know the premise: starts in an alternate Earth, 2077. The zeitgeist of the 1950s never went away and influences technology and design for almost 120 years. Eventually a cold war between the USA and China blows hot with a full scale nuclear exchange oblitering global civilization. Some citizens are chosen deliberately for the Vault Programme, to live in underground cities for years, even decades as the fallout settles down. In this title, you fast forward 210 years as your character (and all the residents of the nearby town) have been put in cryo-suspension except you’re the only one to survive – well, you and your son who was thawed out early and stolen which you somehow witnessed despite the slumber. You awake to a very different world from the one you knew, one set in what was Massachusetts and is now referred to as “The Commonwealth”.

Fallout 4 is a hybrid RPG/1st Person or 3rd Person (depending on perspective) shooter which has developed its own attribute system called S.P.E.C.I.A.L. (as opposed to the more traditional GURPS. Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, Luck are the seven categories and obtaining points in the main categories will unlock options in sub-categories. This already gives your character a very broad range of skills to learn and diversify depending on your gameplay preferences. I think that quite wisely, not too many gameplay options are directly tied into S.P.E.C.I.A.L. so you’re not restricted too much if you don’t put points in one skill over another. The Local Leader perk/sub-category is pretty essential to settlement management so shout-out to that one and Strength is crucial to carrying stuff if you’re a pack-rat or a walking arsenal. 

 Also, the game has a touch of the Sims about it in terms of Settlements. Your character is going to help rebuild civilization to some extent – to help the downtrodden masses, to provide areas of sanctuary when exploring the map, strongholds where you can sleep securely and the ability to harvest and craft goods and items for use later. Each settlement is set over a particular parcel of land – some are huge (like the Castle), some are tiny (like Hangman’s Alley). You can construct buildings to live/work in, defences, plant crops, generate electricity from crude nuclear powered generators for more advanced items and even set up shops to sell items. Also, you can customise/pimp your buildings and settlements with furniture, decorations and the like which is where “the Sims” comes into it.

Like any RPG, your character roams the land encountering people who’ll give him/her quests which vary in difficulty. It’s no spoiler to say that you start in the north-west corner of the Commonwealth and slowly spread out in terms of exploration and influence. The north of the Commonwealth is dangerous but manageable. The south which includes (what was) Boston is far more challenging with all sorts of post-atomic horrors (giant animals, mutants) and hostile survivors attacking you and generally making your life difficult. Quests are typical RPG fare: find/recover items/people, escort missions, clear out enclaves of hostiles, make something special for someone, pay someone off either cash or large quantities of raw materials/manufactured items. Not that I mind this but it would have been nice to have seen something a little different.

Also in the mix – the ability to travel with a companion who will work with you, fight with you and more importantly, carry stuff for you! There are no bottomless inventories in Fallout 4 folks, your ability to carry (and wear) items is quite compromise. Whilst S.P.E.C.I.A.L. will increase this a little, your companion will be essential as you pick through the ruins. My carrying capacity is approximately 400 at the moment, half of which is allocated to clothing and items (weapons, food/healing) so it’s hard to pick clean a location without being compromised in speed which is the penalty for overloading. 

Finally the Pip-Boy. A handheld device which allows you to manage your inventory, quest log and map and is also a short-range torch, ideal for looting the great indoors where the lights are all off. You can connect your mobile phone or tablet to the game if you download the app and run the pip-boy off of that device (battery guzzler though, plug in first) so you can play and have your inventory up simultaneously (handy with the maps and seeing when you’re almost full in inventory). A detailed menu system but occasionally you muck up controls and flip between menu categories rather than the sub-categories as you might otherwise want.

Graphics – nice. Wonderful detail on the environment and the characters and enemies are wonderfully detailed. I also like the retro look of the computers & pip-boy you interface with. Everything has a ragged look on it and makes you feel that it’s survived the apocalypse albeit quite scathed. The various weather types (sunny, foggy, light rain, heavy rain, radiation storm) are rendered very nicely and you sometimes have to suppress a shiver when it’s really chucking it down. It breaks from reality where even in the middle of December, you get 12 hours of daylight but it’s an acceptable break otherwise the game would be quite unplayable as it starts in October 2287 which is past the equinox. I haven’t seen any snow as yet…dunno if it’s yet to come or the world of Fallout 4 has done away with it altogether.

Sounds – very nice. The title theme is haunting and appropriate so full marks there. When you’re roaming the landscape, there’s nothing but silence…until you stumble into a nest of Mirelurks and then the combat music starts up in earnest. Exploring locations, buildings and settlements will also start up the soundtrack again which is often a single melody with a secondary instrument providing ambience. It’s very reflective of the solitariness of your character (and companion) as they roam the Commonwealth either trying to heal the land or just being a schmuck, killing everything and everyone in sight. There’s also two in-game permanent radio stations at the start of the game which you can listen to on the Pip Boy, one playing 1950’s type music, the other playing classical. You can build radios and jukeboxes in settlements to provide your settlers with something to listen to. There’s not all that much talking in the game, you can’t have endless chats with NPCs and they seldom interact so there’s little opportunity to eavesdrop funny conversations. That said, I’m glad more of the game is devoted to gameplay rather than speech. 

 I’ve logged almost 72 hours of gameplay time and I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of the game. Whilst I pretty much own the northern third of the map with my settlements, I’ve only just made my first forays into downtown Boston with an outpost in Hangman’s Alley and a couple in and around the sea (now including the aforementioned Castle). In RPGs, I’m the sort of person who will pick up every single item possible, craft all the weapons and armour, upgrade all the weapons and armour etc. so a lot of my play time has been spent looting every single building I come across, picking clean each corpse I’ve cut down and then bringing it all back to base to store. Once settlements are linked, they can all access each other’s materials (craftable items and craftable foodstuffs) but NOT stored weapons & ammo, armour and crafted food. So I’ve had to designate a single settlement a hub for weapons and armour (so I can keep track of it) whilst dispersing surplus food and ammo to various settlements. Each of my settlements is mostly self-sufficient in terms of food and water though you can, once supply routes are open, keep under producing settlements supplied with surplus.

Also, building up the settlements is quite enjoyable and a relaxing break from running gun battles that occur. The building menus are easy to use and there’s a wide range of options which you can use to give each settlement a bespoke flavour. Whilst most settlements consist of at least one central structure (not erasable), some have two, three or even more which you can build in and around. Sanctuary Hills is typically your second settlement (the Red Rocket Station is the first but is rather small) which is effectively the small town where you lived before the Great War and there are several houses still standing which you can clean out and refurnish as well as several wrecked houses where you can start again. Note to the novice player here: PLACE FLOORBOARDS/FOUNDATIONS FIRST, even on a pre-rendered foundation otherwise you won’t be able to build properly. Final note on settlements: each one is constrained by “size”. This isn’t how big the settlement can get, it’s how many objects the site can support – structures, furniture, shops, food items etc. So don’t build a shack and make an incredibly detailed home filled with consumer durables, large dormitories will suffice just as well with a few creature comforts. Your people will be happy if they are fed, watered, protected and have a few items tossed their way to make them happy. Shops and bars are far more effective at keeping folk content than radios, TVs and paintings.

I’m hooked. But I think that’s clear from the above. The exploring appeals to me together with collecting, crafting and building up the settlements. It’s been a slow but methodical process, sometimes getting a bit too distracted from the game’s main quests into secondary and tertiary objectives. Thing is…in most of the locations, items (and enemies) respawn so you can keep getting distracted, especially when a settlement (like the Slog) is surrounded by enemy strongholds full of goodies. Or rather, I keep getting distracted by it all. It’s also an ethereally beautiful land in which to free roam (and slay the occasional mutant) and stumble across surprises. Suspended disbelief: not much has been picked over in 200 years, nor rotted away – clearly this USA built stuff to last.

Negatives: The bloody dog. Don’t get me wrong, Dogmeat is a useful companion but sometimes he just gets in the way and won’t move. Or stand still long enough to obey orders. I haven’t tried any of the other companions as yet in fairness… Settlers nicking your Power Armor is also a nuisance though I did see on the wiki that if you just remove the power cores, they can’t get the damn thing to move which might be a plan. And falling off boats in Power Armour is a nuisance too – seeing underwater is a right doozy.

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