Fallout 4 – Location, Location, Location

Fallout 4 Box ArtDipping back into the bottomless well that is Fallout 4, today I want to talk a little bit about the Commonwealth itself. Going in, there were plenty of posts all over the web from people worried that the game looked too colorful, or too vibrant. And sure enough, it’s definitely a much more colorful world than Fallout 3 was, but coming right from New Vegas I can definitely see the progression that I think Bethesda is going for. If you look at the three games that they’ve published, there’s a clear progression of nature returning to the wastelands. Those three games take place over the span of ten years, starting with Fallout 3. Going beyond that, they take place in three very different locations in regards to the actual targeting of the bombs.

The lore of the game spells out most of the bombs hit out west, which makes sense since it was China that launched them. Of the three Bethesda games so far, Washington D.C. is the target that makes the most sense for an East Coast target. That’s why Fallout 3 looks so bleak – it got hit hard by the bombs. New Vegas (the city, not the game), despite being a symbol of American decadence really only exists as an economic location, and self-contained at that; which means that, compared with the California targets, probably wasn’t a very high priority target. Which brings us to Boston. Boston, to me, is in the same class as New Vegas. It’s not the biggest East Coast city – NYC is – and it’s not the most pertinent political target – Washington D.C. would be. Of course it’s still a cultural and economic target, plus it’s a huge city. That to me, more than just the time difference since the bombs fell, is why the Commonwealth is in relatively good shape. If the bright colors turn you off, you’ll really be missing out on one of the best games in a few years.

Fallout 4 Boston Skyline

That isn’t quite all I want to talk about with regards to Boston though. One thing I keep finding myself saying as I explore the actual ruins of Boston is “damn, look at that ____.” Every corner seems to reveal some kind of awesome building or encounter to check out. The very nature of Boston makes it more fun to explore than D.C. to me. Boston has the same density of buildings and roads/alleys that D.C. does, but in 2287 has a lot more high rises that survived. There’s a hell of a lot more verticality to the Commonwealth than in the Capital Wasteland. Add in the updated graphics, and the more varied looking locations and, to me, Boston is the winner so far.

You’ll note that I didn’t mention New Vegas there. That’s because to me, New Vegas is much more about the wilderness areas. New Vegas itself isn’t quite the same hub style city as the greater Boston or D.C. Metro areas are. Where I think you can compare New Vegas to Fallout 4 is in those smaller outlying settlements. New Vegas is chock full of them – Goodsprings, Primm, NoVac, Red Rock Canyon, The Fort, McCarran – the list goes on. Fallout 4 has a similar list, they just are a lot smaller, and more spread out. The smaller cities like Cambridge, Lexington and Concord don’t quite fill the same role, but instead it’s places like Sanctuary Hills, Tenpines Bluff, Sunshine Tidings Co-Op, The Castle and so on. That’s a direct result of the addition of the Workshop system – taking places and making them into towns that function how you want them to. I’m still figuring my way around the Settlements mechanics, but I want to get something up this week about them.

A huge part of any Bethesda game is the in-between moments – those times when you aren’t going through a quest location and are wandering around the over world. Whether it’s Cyrodil, Skyrim, The Capital Wasteland, The Mojave Wasteland, or The Commonwealth, Bethesda might be the best developer/publisher at filling those empty spaces with value. Hell, the only developer that I even put in the same category is BioWare. Between the myriad different individual locations that can contain their own little stories, the very alive wilderness and the random encounters that always populate the world, there is always something exciting going on out there.

Halo 5: Guardians – Breakout and General Multiplayer Thoughts

Halo 5 GuardiansThe last week has been a pretty busy gaming week, with my Xbox One being back to working order. Between catching up on Destiny, playing Fallout 4 finally and hopping back into Halo 5: Guardians with my college buddies, it’s been a lot of different style games. Now that I’ve gotten a good chunk of play time under my belt with Halo, I thought I’d talk a little about how I see the game shaping up over time.

I talked way back at launch about the new Warzone mode, which features 24 players on the biggest maps in the game. Since I’ve gotten my Xbox back, I’ve been able to play a good amount of the other new game mode – Breakout. Breakout is a new competitive mode, based heavily on the paintball game of speedball. You have one life per round, and it’s first to five rounds gets the win. Weapons are a little different than normal Arena play, with you spawning with a SMG and Pistol. With no shields on the characters, finding the precision weapons on the maps becomes a pretty important part of playing. More than normal modes, I think communication is much more imperative in Breakout. You don’t have a particularly large margin of error – a good player can drop you in just a few headshots from the pistol. You need to make your initial pushes smart, and as the game progresses, evolve your tactics depending on the situation. It’s a lot like SWAT, just with a little more health, and the obvious different game type.

Halo 5 Breakout Crossfire

Map-wise, the selection of Breakout maps are all pretty similar. They’re all Forge maps that take place in a virtual reality arena. The pieces are modular, so they all look just about the same, it’s just the layout that changes. That said, they do take a little more to learn because of the nature of the game mode. You don’t have the luxury to learn the map as you play, because one wrong move could get you killed. To me, Breakout is the mode that requires the most mental focus – even over SWAT. You have to be thinking about your placement in relation with your team, as well as trying to predict the enemies tactics. Playing a team that does the same thing every round turns the game into an execution game, while playing one that changes based on previous rounds keeps each round as tense as possible. It’s also the mode that almost requires you to have a full team of four to really succeed. Solo-queue play is a great way to get frustrated fast, since you have to slow down on the start of a round to see what the rest of your team is doing.

In general, I think Halo 5 is the best game in the series since Reach on the multiplayer front. Warzone is a blast, and the more competitive modes actually feel really well matched. Sure you’ll still run into an Onyx ranked player while you’re a Platinum, but it’s a lot less frequent than previous games. What I think 343 did really well this time around was make all of the weapons feel right. The Battle Rifle hasn’t felt as good as it does now in ages. The other precision weapons feel accurate, while having the right range and rate of fire. My only real concerns online right now are spawn issues – which are typical this early on in a game’s life; and the vehicles can be a little wonky, albeit not as game swinging as they used to be. If you were turned off of Halo in the last couple years, this is absolutely the game that could bring you back in.

Destiny – Where Do We Stand Now?

DestinyIf there’s one game that I’ve played and written the most about over the last year, it has to be Destiny. It’s a game that just hits all the parts of an FPS that I really enjoy, with some sprinkling of RPG to keep it interesting. Yes it has had its ups and downs – I won’t deny that. But the second year started off so strong that I think expectations shot back up following The Taken King. So much so that if you head over to the subreddit or forums you’ll see a lot of posts demanding information about the next content we’ll get to play. Bungie did announce and introduce a new set of loot to the game this week, but it is gated by the Refer a Friend system; which has a lot of veteran players a little ticked off.

The new loot includes a new sword, the first since The Taken King launched, along with a good mix of cosmetic items. The big sticking point for most of us is the new Sparrow – the first truly new model introduced to the game since launch. It has the same archetype/stats as the Year One Veteran reward Sparrow, but has a sleek Tron-esque look to it. The problem is that the only way to get this gear is by bringing in totally new account to the game, then playing through a quest with them. I understand the need to keep the player base strong with a game like this, and in theory a Refer a Friend system isn’t the worst way to go about it. The problem I have is that for people like myself, all of my friends that I play games with already have Destiny, or did and no longer want to play it. Any friend that I could refer, I did back in Year One so we could play then. That basically means I won’t ever be able to get those new items, which stinks because even with all the great new games I’m playing now, I still make time to play Destiny every week.

The Taken King Logo

Which really speaks to the larger quagmire that I think Bungie is finding themselves in now. The player base was so engaged and recharged after The Taken King launched in September that Bungie really didn’t need to do much to keep us involved. But we’ve now gone two full months with the same content. The majority of players are starting to be the ones who have run through just about everything. The top 1% is growing as Bungie repeats the time-gated events like the Black Spindle mission, and No Time to Explain’s quest line. Even by now last year we were in prime Dark Below preparation mode, since it came out in early December. I would hope that Bungie has a plan for the next couple steps, and we’ve actually seen the very beginning with them outlining the December Patch a bit. But just letting us know that the weapons are getting another balance pass, and we’re getting a new set of Exotics to chase (most of which are Year One items) isn’t really enough. There are too many other fantastic games out right now to pull players away from the grind of Destiny.

I have no idea what the next DLC will be, or even how it will be presented to us. With the microtransactions that are in game now supporting the game, we might not get a huge purchase for a big pack. It could very well be brought out piecemeal for little to no cost. It’s really tough to say for sure because of the lack of an Expansion Pass, and with Activision refusing to say one way or the other how they want to do the DLC this year. That said, I think we’ll find out a lot more in the next week or two. This week will be probably a little weird with Thanksgiving on the usual Bungie Weekly Update day, but who knows, maybe this will be the week they announce it. Whatever route they do decide, I think that the sooner they make the move, the better it will be for Destiny moving forward.

Fallout 4 – Atmosphere Even After the End of the World

Fallout 4 Box ArtI’m starting to really get into the portion of a Bethesda RPG where the little details are starting to really shine. I suppose you could get here faster, but I just play their games so slow it takes me a few days to really feel it. Fallout 4 so far has done a fantastic job of really raising the bar for Bethesda’s work with atmosphere and world building. I’ve always been a big fan of their work with that in Elder Scrolls but for because of the nature of Fallout it makes it a little more difficult to really feel alive. That’s not the case this time around. The Commonwealth Wasteland feels much more alive – in more than just the major settlements. The in between spaces have life – whether it’s finding the little bits of history, or stumbling across hidden enemies.

Bethesda might be the best developer at putting in little spots throughout the game world that have no direct impact on the story, but add so much to the experience. One of my favorites so far has been a small house in the Northwest portion of the Commonwealth. It’s nothing special, just a handful of Ghouls outside of it, and a broken down power relay tower on the front yard. But inside the house you can find a locked, hidden root cellar, with a named Ghoul behind another door. He’s got a barrel of radioactive material with him, but what makes this so neat is the terminal there. It holds his manifesto, with him furious about the relay tower. To illustrate his point, on his workbench you can find the pieces necessary to build a Mini-Nuke. There’s no reason – that I’ve found yet, or could imagine – to ever be directed there by the game. But if you do go exploring and take the time to really look through it, you’ll find tons of little self-contained stories like that all over the place. That’s always been something that Bethesda does incredibly well.

The other area where I think Bethesda has stepped up their game here is in terms of making the enemies a lot more vibrant. In previous games Ghouls were pretty easy to spot – if they were being sneaky, they just would be crouched somewhere in a room. Still easy visible and even targetable with V.A.T.S. That’s not necessarily the case anymore. Ghouls lie down when they’re not active, looking like dead bodies – or streaming in through windows and holes in ceilings/floors. They may not be zombies, but the Feral Ghouls definitely act like them now. Then you have Mirelurks – giant mutated crabs/lobsters that hand around water. It’s one thing to be able to plan your attack. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of stepping on top of one, because their dormant state has them pretty much buried in the ground. That’s a pretty common trick I’ve noticed in the Commonwealth – Mole Rats burrow underground to pop up and attack you, and Radscorpions follow suit. In a game where past experiences taught me that there were no surprises in fights, this is a hell of a switch.

Fallout 4 Radscorpion

A lot was made before the game launched about the new color palette and that there actually was color. The new engine basically lets Bethesda make a world that looks like the real world probably would, given the circumstances of Fallout. The new human models actually look like people – the power of the character creator in particular is pretty impressive. The new animal enemies look really brutal – especially the Radscorpion and Mirelurks. Adding in weather elements makes the world feel like it’s actually real – fog rolls in, rain starts to fall, and you can tell even if you’re inside. Sure there a couple things that I’m still getting used to – mainly the new leveling and dialogue systems. But in general, I really like just about everything Fallout 4 does. Once you get beyond the initial Bethesda-game Anxiety, where the game is just so damn big, and there’s just so much to do it can get a little overwhelming; that’s when I think you’ll really find that this is Bethesda’s best Fallout game yet. I can’t wait to see how they keep improving it moving forward.

Fallout 4 Combat Early Thoughts

Fallout 4 Box ArtNow that I have my Xbox One back and, more or less, back to the spot it was before it crashed on me, I’ve really been digging back into Halo 5 and Fallout 4. They’re both games that I’ve been looking forward for a big chunk of this year, so it’s fun to really dig into the mechanics of both games. Today I want to talk a little bit about the changes to the combat in Fallout 4, at least within the first handful of levels and quests. I know that there’s still a ton of little details to find out later on – especially once I really start putting skill points into perks instead of S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats.

Of all the changes from previous Fallout games to Fallout 4, I think the combat is the one that’s taking me longer to really adjust to. That’s a good thing though, because the real root changes are for the best. Bethesda brought in developers from Bungie and id Software to help really nail down the combat. Those are two of the strongest FPS developers ever, so the core fundamentals are certainly improved from the previous games. The gunplay actually feels more like a shooter, and puts a little more value in thumbskill than it used to. From an RPG standpoint, that can feel a little blasphemous. And honestly, I think if it had happened way back with Fallout 3, I think it would have been a much bigger issue. But RPG’s have evolved a lot over the last 7-8 years. Games like Borderlands and Mass Effect and Dead Island have really combined RPG fundamentals with more dynamic action. Fallout 4 is just the next logical extension of the progression, brought to probably the biggest stage in modern RPG’s.

Fallout 4 VATS

What I think is really keeping me from adjusting faster is just that I’ve been playing New Vegas so much in the last couple weeks. Those last generation Fallout games had a combat that was a bit more determined by your characters skill levels. Use a traditional lead and powder gun with low Gun Skill, and it’s going to be less accurate. That extends to the V.A.T.S. mechanic, which I always kinda thought was borderline cheating. Freezing time and getting more accurate shots directed at individual body parts seemed a little unfair. Both of those facets have gotten a pretty strong focus with Fallout 4. V.A.T.S. now slows time down, but enemies are still able to fight back while you’re trying to place your shots. It’s still a little cheap to me, but much more in line with the in-universe rules. That, combined with the new S.P.E.C.I.A.L. focus, helps decide if you’re really going to focus on V.A.T.S or real-time combat with your skill point allocation.

That real-time combat has evolved to a spot that I think really puts it into a good place. It’s certainly not setting the world on fire, especially compared with the current crop of FPS’s out now, but it’s definitely better than it used to be. I feel a lot more in control of my performance – where I aim, is where the bullet goes. That alone would be enough for the combat to feel better, for me. But Bethesda also added in more flexibility – with a melee attack and grenades mapped to a shoulder button. No more specifically equipping grenades instead of primary weapons – just have them equipped and you can toss them by holding down RB/R1 button. That means that I’ll be using them a lot more frequently. Same goes with the melee attack – you have a gun bash now, tied to that same RB/R1 button. Take out a Feral Ghoul’s leg and it’s immobilized – no more wasting ammo on it, go punch it till it’s dead. That extends to the more nuisance enemies – Mole Rats, Bloatflies, Radroaches all can be easily felled with a few gun bashes. It makes Strength important for any character build, not just melee and carry weight.

Combat is always an important part for any RPG, and Fallout has finally, I think, gotten a great system in place that really fits all the different combat styles. It works with melee or ranged, unarmed or explosives. It’s not flawless of course, but I think it’s a great step forward, and has me thinking about how Bethesda could apply what they’ve done here with Elder ScrollsFallout is a huge game, with all kinds of moving parts, so there’s a lot to digest. Hopefully I’ll revisit the combat in a couple weeks after I’ve really managed to get a lot deeper into the game as see how it holds up toward end-game content.

Fallout 4 – Initial Impressions (Finally)

Fallout 4 Box ArtAfter three weeks of waiting for my Xbox One’s service order, I finally got my console back yesterday and was able, after a good five years, to play the next entry in the Fallout series. I’m a week late with my initial thoughts on Fallout 4, but I do want to put down how my first few hours of playing got me thinking.

It’s hard to judge a game like Fallout 4 after such a short time. With a game like Destiny or Halo I can kinda tell after a handful of hours how the game is going to shake out, especially with multiplayer. Fallout 4 is a totally different beast though. It’s a game where 40-60 hours is the low end of the expected spectrum. I’ve written in the past about my love for the Bethesda RPGs – the obscene number of hours put in with Oblivion and Skyrim and the two previous Fallout titles. Since my Xbox One went down, I went back into New Vegas and easily put in another 35 hours to my old save file. Really all that says is that the initial thoughts I’m having here with Fallout 4 aren’t really worth a whole hell of a lot.

That doesn’t mean that they are totally worthless. In truth, those first 10 or so hours have a pretty profound impact on how the whole playthrough will shape up. It’s hard for me to say with where I am in the game how it’ll play out, but from past experiences, I know that those first few areas and quests help define your character. In Fallout 3, once you left the Vault and entered the game proper, your first major Karma based decisions were all based around Megaton – the first true hub area in the game. In New Vegas it happens even earlier, with your decisions in the actual tutorial area of Goodsprings impacting your reputation with two different factions. Depending on how you want your character to evolve over the game, your choices in these places matter. That’s a big part of why when I started Fallout 4 I was going really slowly through those first few squares around Vault 111. I want to build up a few points to put into my S.P.E.C.I.A.L before I hit the meat of the game.

Fallout 4 Concept Bomb

That meat, to me, starts with the Concord encounter and then back to Sanctuary. Which is where my current save is set – I’m currently in the process of rebuilding the town, which is a whole other topic to discuss this week. But in those first few quests, while you’re still learning the mechanics, Fallout 4 does a really great job of showing you just what world you’re in. Concord in particular is a perfect example of a Wasteland town – overrun with Raiders, and even infested one of the most dangerous creatures on the East Coast, a Deathclaw. You learn about lockpicking here, along with hacking terminals. You get your first chance to really enter conversation trees. You can start to decide what kind of weapons you’ll use. You learn how the new inspection mechanic works – containers and dead bodies no longer involve opening up a separate menu, it’s all very fluid – which is admittedly taking me some time to get used to. Then you get the Power Armor.

Power Armor has always been the Fallout mascot – there’s a reason it’s on all the packaging. It’s directly linked with the series, not only for promotion, but within the actual context of the game world. This is the first game where the Power Armor you wear feels special. It’s no longer just a piece of gear you put on to give you high damage and radiation resistance. Now it’s almost a character in and of itself. You actually have to power it with Fusion Cores. It feels like a totally different way to experience the game – and it makes me feel weird. I am a huge example of RPG anxiety in my playing. I worry about every item I find – if it is at all a little rare, I squirrel it away somewhere safe. In New Vegas I’m a Guns and Speech character – I talk my way out of sticky situations to try to make the Mojave more peaceful, and use my lead shooters to take out Caesar’s Legion. That means I should sell any Explosives or Energy Weapons I find, especially the unique weapons that are worth way more Caps. I don’t though – I have them all in my safe in Novac. I do that with armor too. So with the Power Armor in Fallout 4, my instincts all say to find some safe space and just leave it there, lest it get destroyed or lost.

Part of my worries with that seem like they don’t exist anymore – Bethesda took item condition out of the game. This is just one detail of a larger design ideology – you see it in the dialogue system too. Bethesda went the same route that BioWare has done with Mass Effect and to a lesser extent Dragon Age. They simplified all the RPG mechanics way down. Long dialogue trees with reputation and karma are gone, in favor of a more fluid system that leaves a little mystery to what you say. Item condition is gone to focus more on keeping you in the action. Individual Skills are gone in favor of everything being built around the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats. All of that can be a bit of a shock – especially to longtime fans. As someone who is coming right off of New Vegas, it’s certainly tough to get used to. It’s almost like going from a college class to high school. All the same ideas are there, just in a little less detail.

Here’s the thing though, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Streamlining all those complicated mechanics helps open the game up to a larger audience. And for RPG purists, there are other places in the game that still have a lot of depth. The new skill system actually does have a lot of depth – since you only get one point when you level, it puts a lot more impact in your choices early on. The weapon and armor modifications are pretty crazy in how many choices there are. The workshop/settlements are in that same boat – it’s not at all unlikely that working on them will be a major portion of my play time.  There’s still a lot that I need to dig into with the game obviously, but early on, I have to say that I’m really enjoying my time in the Commonwealth. I’ll have a lot more to talk about with Fallout 4 in the coming days and weeks.

Season Passes – The Good and the Bad

Rainbow Six SiegeI always love when I see a headline that gets my writing juices flowing. That happened today when I read about the announcement of the Season Pass for Rainbow Six: Siege. Generally, I’m in favor of Season Passes – I think that developers get that they’re a good way to get players invested in the DLC season early and throughout the duration. With Rainbow Six though, I think they missed the mark by a pretty substantial margin.

The new content for R6 includes one-week early access to new operators, exclusive weapon skins, and a permanent reputation gain boost. There are a couple other little bits, like random skin packs and challenges, but ultimately, that’s the extent of the Season Pass. That’s really weak. There’s no word on whether R6 will have actual DLC in the form of map packs moving forward, but if there is, you can bet there will be even more backlash against this Season Pass. Ubisoft has said that they want Rainbow Six: Siege to be a prominent esport game. If that’s the case, I really think this was a tremendously bad move. No content that’s included in the $30 price tag is relevant to the extended lifespan of the game. That’s what Season Passes are supposed to be about. The content that’s in the Season Pass is much more in line with post-launch microtransaction content. I talked earlier this week about microtransactions in games, but I’ll repeat it quickly here. I think when they’re done well, they work fine. If they had made these items available that way, I think that would be no problem at all – except maybe the reputation boost.

Fallout 4 Box Art

Contrast that with the Fallout 4 Season Pass. Also costing $30, that Season Pass will give players access to all the future DLC for the game. That’s a hell of a value. Fallout: New Vegas, which I’m replaying while my Xbox One is out at service, had four full sized DLCs, along with one that added in a whole slew of weapons and mods. Those full size, story content DLC each cost $10. Assuming that Bethesda goes the same route with Fallout 4, that means that the Season Pass is a no-brainer – it saves you $10, not counting any of the other possible add-ons. Same price as the Rainbow Six one, but the content included is so much more valuable. Call of Duty goes through the same question every year too – is the Season Pass going to save me enough money VS. buying the maps separately. What Activision and the developers do with the Call of Duty Season Passes is add in a little extra, usually a weapon skin or player calling card, that adds in a little more value to help it out. Not only do you, nowadays, save $5 versus buying the maps, but you get a couple unique items.

Whether we like it or not, I think Season Passes are here to stay. They, much like a lot of elements in modern gaming, are very much a fluid entity. There are great options out there to get a bunch of awesome extra content for a more value-driven price; and there are ones that just don’t make sense from a value standpoint. Every player is going to have their own thoughts on these sort of things – hardcore fans will pretty much always go for them, as a way to support the game and keep the game fresh. Less invested players might be more inclined to skip them.