News and Notes Catch Up

Fallout 4 Box ArtWe’re still in a little bit of a lull in terms of big game launches – we’re a couple weeks away from The Division still, but there have been a couple headlines that popped up over the last couple days that have piqued my interest. Like I did with the FPS news last week, today I’ll talk a little about what I’ve seen and my interpretation of it.

We’ll start with the news today from Bethesda about the first three DLC packs for Fallout 4. Monthly DLC packs are headed to the Commonwealth starting in March, ending in May. The timing makes sense – the game came out in November, so most of the hardcore players have pretty much beaten everything that the base game has to offer, and really it’s just standard timing for big game DLC launches. The interesting part is that they come with a price raise. The season pass, until the 29th of February, costs $30. On March 1 though, the price will jump up to $50 to account for the new expanded DLC plans. So if, like me you’ve been waiting for the actual plans to pick up the season pass, now is definitely the time. I don’t think we know if that $30 will include everything moving forward, or just these first three DLC packs. What I do know is that these first three packs are pretty cool sounding. First up, Automaton will add the ability to build and create your own robot minions, and has some story content to go with it. In April, we get the Wasteland Workshop – bringing with it arena battles and new workshop items. The big one comes in May though – Far Harbor. Bethesda is calling it the biggest DLC they’ve built for Fallout, and it’s going to be set up in Maine. Now that we know that there’s more DLC coming after May, bringing the total value up to around $60, Fallout 4 will be staying on my Xbox all year long.

Mass Effect

Next up we learned today that a writer from BioWare, Chris Schlerf, has joined Bungie to work on Destiny moving forward. That’s in and of itself a pretty big news story, but bigger because Schlerf was the lead writer for the upcoming Mass Effect: Andromeda and had been on the team all the way back to 2014. In all likelihood, ME:A won’t be impacted too much by this – I would think by now that the story is all fleshed out and they’re in full swing to, hopefully, get the game out this year. Adding a writer from a studio that has a track record of consistently strong story content in their games to Destiny is a really intriguing move though. Destiny has been continually made fun of for it’s certainly threadbare story. Yes, The Taken King improved that side of things a whole bunch, but I’m really interested to see what bringing in someone from a studio that has always put a lot of emphasis on story to a universe that, I think, has a really strong potential is exciting. With Destiny 2 not coming until next year, that give Schlerf and the writing team plenty of time to come up with a real beast of a story.

I’m expecting this week’s Update to have a little bit of everything in it. They’re bound to wrap up Crimson Days, but now that we have the road map, I would love if they started to talk a little more about this spring content we’re getting. Tomorrow I think I’ll put down a couple of ideas that I really hope that Bungie at least has considered for the spring update.

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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.

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.