Pacing

Pacing is an incredibly important concept in game design. Pacing can be defined by the ability of a game to remain fun and novel for a player throughout the beginning, middle, and end of the gaming experience. In other words: for a game to end while you are still having fun. Otherwise perfect games can be destroyed by bad pacing, even if you had immense amount of fun while playing, simply because you often remember your final experiences with a game more than the first ones.

Pacing is also almost entirely subjective, often depends on variables outside of designers’ control, and is sometimes impossible to force.

I was thinking about pacing the other night as I was playing Fallout 4. I am basically at a point in the game where what I do doesn’t matter. I am level 46, I walk around in the highest-level Power Armor 24/7, I have 25,000+ caps, and have more than enough supplies to build whatever kind of Settlements I want, if I ever cared to do so.

There is nothing left to challenge me. This fact was rubbed in my face last night when I fell down into a basement area and a Legendary Alpha Deathclaw walked into the room, 10 ft away. I shot it with a Gauss Rifle around 3-4 times and it died, never having the opportunity to even attack. This is on Survival difficulty.

For all intents and purposes, I am done with the game. But the game isn’t done.

This is not Fallout 4’s fault, per se. RPGs are always tricky to balance, even when they are on rails, simply because grinding XP to out-level challenging content is a pretty standard, time-tested strategy. Add in an open world, and pacing pretty much goes out the window. Or, at least, there is an implicit expectation in open-world games that the player will supply their own pacing.

Unfortunately for me, I am utterly incapable of pacing myself.

At this point, what I should be doing is ignoring everything but the main story and plowing forward. And that is precisely what I keep intending to do. At the same time, I do not anticipate playing Fallout 4 again until after the first DLC get released, at a minimum. In such a scenario though, there is always the possibility that I put a game down and never pick it back up again. I would rather breeze through trivial encounters in order to experience interesting side quests than possibly never see them at all.

Of course, I would rather experience them in a challenging, tightly-paced manner even more.

Gameplay of the Year

So, Polygon released the list of Game of Year 2015 contenders last month:

  • Bloodborne
  • Fallout 4
  • Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
  • Super Mario Maker
  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

While I might be alone in railing against inexorable fate and media narratives, I will be very disappointed if Witcher 3 wins Game of the Year (again). But in examining the feelings that give rise to this disappointment, a question surfaces: what deserves to be a Game of the Year anyway?

When it comes to mechanics, systems, and everything that makes games games, it seems clear to me that Metal Gear Solid 5 deserves to be Game of the Year. Everything in MGS 5 simply works. The controls are tight, the stealth gameplay compelling, and the Fulton system synergizes brilliantly with every other game mechanic. You can kill people from afar, but you want to steal them for your base more, which leads to close-quarters sneaking and higher tension gameplay. The way all the pieces of MGS 5 harmonize with one another is simply a thing of beauty and elegance.

…which is a real shame, considering how much of a disaster the story ends up being. “Disaster” is a bit uncharitable, but the abbreviated ending leaves one with a sour taste in one’s mouth, making it easier to forget how ~60 hours of incandescent joy preceded it.

Then you have Witcher 3. Mechanically, the game is just bad; none of the various systems fit together, and often actively clash. You are encouraged to collect hundreds of different crafting components, including junk you can break down for parts, but the vast majority are completely pointless. Random loot will give you high-level blueprints for items you will never be able to use, while recipes for staple items are conspicuously absent. Everything about the first two games that established Witchers – and Geralt in particular – as a fantasy noir detective that needs to plan encounters ahead of time to survive, flies out of the window mechanically, as Geralt gets to pop infinite potions and bombs like they were MMO abilities with per-encounter cooldowns.

…but Witcher 3 will still likely win Game of the Year. Because of things like the Bloody Baron quest. Or when Geralt (spoiler alert) finds Ciri. Nobody will remember mindlessly pressing Alt and Left-Clicking a million times to snore through the combat even on the harder difficulties. Hell, nobody will even remember that, for however good the Bloody Baron quest was, how ridiculous it was in a narrative ostensibly about a race against time. Or how Novigrad was one giant slog through completely unrelated nonsense. Or how little sense it made, pacing-wise, for there to be an open world at all.

It seems to me that what is really being voted on here is “Game Experience of the Year.”

Which is… okay, I guess? Hell, I’m usually the guy defending story over mechanics from the people who believe plot has no place in gaming. In this specific scenario though, I hate the idea that MGS 5 is going to lose because it lacked 1-2 missions to seal the deal, whereas Witcher 3 is going to win because it had a few bright spots in an ocean of bad design.

Ironically, Fallout 4 has thus far hit the sweet spot inbetween the two extremes for me, but I don’t believe it will win because it didn’t hit the sweet spot hard enough. Plus, ugh, that useless ass UI. How could they have they spent so much time coding in Settlements and approximately zero minutes giving us an interface worthy of that descriptor to interact with it?

Bah.

I will say though, I’m happy to see Ori and the Blind Forest show up under four different categories. While there were some difficulty spikes in there, Ori is one of the best-looking, best-sounding, and more entertaining indie-esque titles I have played this year.

This is Why People Pirate Things

You might have read that I picked up Grand Theft Auto 5. You might also have heard that “Rockstar Social Club” is Rockstar’s laughably bad, Origin-esque attempt at creating a platform for their, like, two games or whatever. Why not just use Steam (which they are also on)? Probably because they must be digging through the couch cushions for quarters, given how they already cut corners on their goddamn server technology.

Case in point:

Party like it's 1999.

Party like it’s 1999.

I knew the download was big (60gb), so I started it overnight. I woke up to that. 230 KBs? You’re telling me I have to leave my computer on for three days straight to finish a download? My Steam games download at 1.2 MBs on average. It’d be one thing if I were trying to download from a small outfit or whatever, but this shit is a clown show. “It’s after Black Friday and everyone is downloading at the same time, overloading the servers.” You know who doesn’t have this problem? Steam. Blizzard (minus Diablo 3 launch). Pirate Bay. Any semi-intelligent network engineer who can plan ahead.

I mean, seriously, after seeing that speed I started researching to see if I could just download a pirated copy and sign in with a legit account at the end. That was when I found this Youtube video talking about a program called Ultrasurf. Downloaded, launched it, and picked my jaw up off the floor:

GTA5_Download2

The one “quirk” with this “solution” is that Ultrasurf cycles through various proxy servers at certain intervals, which technically interrupts the download. For the most part, the GTA 5 launcher will pause and then resume the download no problem. After 5-10 cycles of this though, it will stop the download entirely, forcing you to press Retry to get it moving again. I’m not in a particular mood to babysit this download for eight real-time hours, so I had to look for another solution.

Enter Advanced Mouse Auto Clicker 4.0:

Embrace the Dark Side.

Embrace the Dark Side.

Just so we’re clear, I had to download a proxy server program that can supposedly defeat the Great Firewall of China, then set up an auto-mouse clicker program that checks to see if the Pause button changes into the Retry button. Just to fucking download my legitimate copy of GTA 5. I mean, sure, I could have bought it from Steam and paid an extra $9 to get a stable download. Or I could have paid nothing and got a stable download from Pirate Bay.

HMM. I wonder what I might be more inclined to do next time?

Rant over.

The Sorta Haul

Is it a haul if it’s only three things?

  • GTA5 w/ 500k online cash = $26.99
  • FFXIII + FFXIII-2 = $9.17 (@NewEgg)
  • Motorola Moto G 2nd Gen smartphone = $99 (@Amazon)

I’m punting on the $19.99 Dying Light because I know that there is a substantial DLC coming early next year (so substantial they’re raising the Season Pass price), which means I should either be buying the game + Season Pass now, or waiting for the GOTY edition to include all the DLC at some indeterminate future time. And even if I did the former, it means not playing the game right away, as I’d want a smoother segue into the DLC rather than an awkward, months-long gap.

Also punted on Far Cry 4, mostly because I’m miffed that the $15 deal was apparently a pricing error. The “gold” edition is still around for $22.50, but nothing I have read really indicates that the DLC is worth $7.50.

Actually, everything seems pretty silly having just purchased GTA 5. Not only from a game-time perspective, but the 60gb installation is forcing me to look at all the other games I currently have installed on my SSD but never booted up once. Shit, I technically have both FF14 and Elder Scrolls Online installed. Or I could delete Wasteland 2 and Total War: Shogun 2, and maybe actually get around to finishing Pillars of Eternity; that adds up to around 60gb. Hmm.

As far as the smartphone goes, that was strategic impulse buy. I was debating making any decision for a while, and had basically came to the conclusion that I could wait it out. Then my parents were late to Thanksgiving dinner because they got lost due to their TomTom GPS not having been updated in 10 years. It seems rather absurd that in 2015 you have to pay $50 for map updates when I could pull up detailed satellite images (and Street View!) like a goddamn NSA agent from any smartphone. Indeed, they only purchased flip-phones about two years ago, and never set up texting either.

So… yeah. The idea with the Moto G is that I’ll test it out, see if I like it compared to the Nexus 4, then gift whatever one I don’t like to them. Worst-case scenario: I bought them a $99 smartphone for Christmas. Or, I suppose, they get a Nexus 4 that randomly shuts off every few weeks. I’m not even convinced their phone plan would get that much more expensive.

Black… Wedthurfriday

The deals, they have begun. My own shopping list:

  • | | Far Cry 4 – $15 (@Ubisoft); $22.50 Gold Edition (@Amazon)
  • | Dying Light – $20.39 (@Steam)
  • || GTA 5 – $26.99 (@GameBillet) $35.99 (@Steam)
  • |??| Darkest Dungeon – $11.99 (@Steam)
  • |??| Life is Strange (1-5) – $10 (@Square-Enix) $13.39 (@Steam)
  • || Divinity: Original Sin – no sale (?!)
  • |??| The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky – $9.99 (@Steam)
  • |??| Shadow of Mordor GOTY – $14.99 (@BundleStars)

Just to be clear, I’m not buying all these games. The ones with a green checkmark? Yes. Red circles are not good enough of a discount to purchase, and the question marks are, of course, question marks. This entire exercise is kind of superfluous given how I am still trucking through Fallout 4 (70+ hours), but hey, the less of a gap between mainlining high-quality entertainment, the better.

I may or may not update this post with additional deals as they catch my eye.

Edit: Life is Strange is $10 on the Square-Enix website.

Edit2: Apparently Far Cry 4 sale on Ubisoft went away. Amazon has Gold version up though.

Edit3: Ooo… GTA5 down sub-$30.

Impressions: Overwatch Beta

I managed to get into the Overwatch beta stress test this past weekend, and ended up logging a dozen or so hours with the game. Did I have fun with the game? Absolutely, yes. Am I still concerned with the game’s longevity and overall direction? Sadly, also yes.

Matches in Overwatch are generally over quick. In fact, here is one with me playing Pharah:

That’s five minutes from start to finish. Respawn timers are 10 seconds. There were a few matches that went for 10-15 minutes, but for the most part, the only downtime you’ll experience in this game are either in-between matches or running back from the spawn room to the fight. Time-to-Kill generally depends on the character, but you can be one-shot or otherwise die within 1 second depending on what goes on. Fighting is almost always quick, manic action from start to finish.

One thing that I’ve enjoyed more than I thought I would are the MOBA-ish elements. There are four archetypes – Offense, Defense, Tank, Support – and each character generally has two abilities with cooldowns and an Ultimate ability that charges from damage. I also like how the character select screen will warn your team if it is missing the expected balance, e.g. no Support characters, no “builders,” and so on. Sometimes you can ignore the warnings depending on the maps, but for the most part it is accurate; without a Tank, it’s tough to push capture points and otherwise stop enemy advances.

(Incidentally, my feelings on the TF2 vs Overwatch matter haven’t changed from a year ago.)

That brings me to my first issue, actually. I kinda feel like the competitive scene of this game will be a joke, and there really isn’t anything Blizzard will be able to do about it. Such a conclusion was driven home to me rather forcibly in one of the most absurdly bad matches I have ever played, perhaps in any videogame:

You have no chance to survive, make your time.

You have no chance to survive, make your time.

The enemy team was Attacking in Hanamura, which meant they needed to capture Point A in King of the Hill fashion, then Point B to win the match. As you can see above, the enemy team consisted of three D.Va characters and a Winston (all four of which are Tanks), and Lucio, who is an passive AoE healer with an Ultimate that puts a huge shield around every friendly nearby. That they also had a Pharah is immaterial.

The short version of this match is that all the Tanks, whom all have the ability to jump/fly past barriers by the way, just rushed Point A and sat on it. I hesitate to say that such an attack is impossible to defend against, but I honestly have no idea how you’re supposed to within the time you are given. Your balanced team is just going to get murdered, and by the time you respawn, Point A will already have been taken.

Even if Blizzard made it so that only one person can be a certain character, there are enough Tanks to reproduce this strategy. And it’s not even a particularly risky strategy when Attacking. I’ll talk about the overpowered D.Va in a moment, but the only way I can imagine beating this would be to have Defense consist of 3-4 Junkrats just spamming the capture point with grenades. And even that might not be enough.

In this context, what is the Pro Scene going to consist of? Maybe Blizzard doesn’t particular care about the Pro Scene. In which case, I’d be nervous about “investing” in this game in the long-term.

As I said before, I have had fun with Overwatch. I kinda want to be playing it right now, actually. But at the end of each match, there is a lingering worry that this is just another Titanfall. In other words, it’s a game you’ll have fun playing for a week, and then never play it again. Which, admittedly, is how most games you buy end up. But when I look back at Battlefield 2/3/4, I see shooters that I had fun playing over months and even years. It would take some really crazy good progression system from Blizzard to engender a similar feeling of “investment,” and I just don’t see how that would be possible given the switch of Overwatch to the B2P model. Cosmetic unlocks could be a thing, but I doubt alternate guns will factor in, and unlocking new characters is totally off the table.

Characters

I am not quite sure how much more tweaking Blizzard plans to do with the characters, but some are crazy OP and others are just downright awful.

Big fish, little pond.

Big fish, little pond.

The Tank character D.Va is one of my favorites, and absolutely belongs to the former category. Her default Mech mode features dual-shotgun cannons that fire quickly and never need reloaded; her L-Shift ability lets her fly around for 3 seconds, reaching high ledges or just escaping; her E ability negates all incoming projectiles in a cone in front of her, including many Ultimate abilities. And D.Va’s Ultimate? She primes her Mech to self-destruct, which is instant death to all enemies (and herself) in an entirely way too large area. When “killed” in Mech form, D.Va bails out and runs around with a legitimately respectable gun but no other abilities. If she racks up enough damage, she’ll prime her other Ultimate, which is summoning another Mech to pilot. If you use the self-destruct Ultimate and it kills 1-2 people (not hard to do), that will be enough to allow D.Va to hop into another Mech right away.

Like I said, crazy OP.

An example of the opposite is Symettra, who is classified as Support and also technically a Builder. She “supports” by press E on teammates once and giving them a recharging shield. Which is okay, I guess, but that’s the extent of your healing support; if you see a teammate going down and you already gave them a shield earlier, there is zero you can do to assist them. Symettra can create up to 6 little laser turrets which deal damage and slow enemies, but unless you spam a bunch of them in one area, they are easily destroyed and do next to nothing. Finally, her Ultimate is creating a Teleporter. Which, while useful, isn’t likely to swing matches given how quickly they end.

The injury to the insult of Symettra’s abilities though is her weak-ass attacks. Left-click is a super-short range auto-target beam that deals more damage the longer it fires. Good luck surviving that long as a goddamn Support character at short range. Right-click is a less than useless charged-up, lethargic orb of energy that crawls across the map. I don’t know how much damage it deals, and I kinda doubt anyone does, as it’s unlikely anybody has ever actually been hit by it.

Torbjorn is a much better Builder in every way.

Torbjorn is a much better Builder in every way. He can even give people Armor!

The rest of the characters are a mixed bag. I enjoy Pharah, but her Ultimate is almost always a waste of time as it makes you a huge, bullet-attracting beacon in the sky. Some of the Tanks are weird, because they’re terrible by themselves but way better “support tanks.” For example, Zarya couldn’t hold a point to save her life even with healer backup, but Zarya + Reinhardt/Roadhog is almost good enough of a combo to not need a healer at all. Winston’s sole function in life seems to be an anti-Reinhardt (the electricity gun goes through Reinhardt’s shield), as he will easily die to any other Tank 1v1.

I’m not going to go through every character – there are 21 of them, after all – but I do appreciate exactly how different each one of them end up being. If you can’t find a character that matches your play-style, then you probably just don’t like FPS games. Honestly, it’s actually to the point where I have to wonder what other characters Blizzard could really add in the presumed expansions.

Bottom Line

Overwatch is fun. Is it $60 fun? Not right now. We’ll see what Blizzard adds, but it’s possible nothing will make Overwatch more than just another Titanfall.

Things I’ve Learned About Myself via Fallout 4

I have been playing Fallout 4 pretty much non-stop since last Tuesday, and in that time I have started recognizing a few things about myself and how I play the game. These are not perhaps grand, personal epiphanies caused by Fallout 4 – I have certainly seen the seeds germinating in other games – but there is something about this game that is causing them to be more noticeable than normal.

Voice Acting Makes Characters a Character

Generally speaking, I do not role-play RPGs. By which I mean, I do not construct a character that looks like me, and I do not make decisions based on what I would personally do in that situation. If anything, I role-play the character I am playing as themselves, or whatever idealized form seems more narratively interesting. Which, I suppose, is still technically role-playing, but nevermind.

This predilection means I don’t actually like Fallout 3 or Fallout New Vegas all that much from a narrative standpoint. In Fallout 3, you are a blank slate, literally controlling your character from birth to presumably mold him/her into something resembling you IRL. Which, personally, just always seems like an easy way to skip writing a convincing narrative. “Let the reader fill in the details.”

The protagonist of New Vegas had a backstory, but the implementation was even more discordant, as I noted in my review:

I wasn’t protecting my home, my family, nor was I my own person. I was… the Courier, a stranger in familiar skin, following a past everyone knows about but me.

Fallout 4 reminds me of what I already implicitly knew from Mass Effect: voice acting makes all the difference. Even when you still have the difficult choices to make, a well-delivered line can leave you with an impression of a character, and that impression can serve as your guide to who they “really” are.

Is voice-acting appropriate in every game? No. Does its presence often lead to more railroaded plots (due to the costs of recording twice as many lines)? Yes. But as someone who would rather experience plot vicariously rather than directly, it makes Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style choices a lot more bearable. The characters will tell you who they are.

Even Implied Romance Options Forces Me into Guy-Mode

The first character I created in Fallout 4 was, of course, Azuriel. As in, the wife. Played through the tutorial and even got all the way into Concord before something occurred to me. Could you romance companions in this game? As it turns out, you can.

I immediately rerolled as a dude.

It is a completely ridiculous reaction, but it happens every time in every game where romance is possible. Well, with one exception that proved the rule: I played a lady dwarf in Dragon Age: Origins several years ago. And it was awkward as fuck. Not that romance in any videogame isn’t generally awkward, but there is just something… maybe not immersion-breaking per se, but something personally off-putting about it that I can’t get over. Which makes my reaction to Fallout 4’s version of romance even more ridiculous, since you can romance any gender as any gender. But there it is.

I do plan to play the wife on my next “only pistols, no Power Armor, Renegade” style run though.

Change (in Formula) is Good

For the longest time growing up, I never really understood why all the Final Fantasy games had to have such radically different battle systems each time. Wasn’t FF7 good enough? Innovation, refinement, and so on are all worthy goals, but when you hit a certain plateau of elegance, why not just keep doing that thing?

Well… because then you have Fallout 4’s systems.

I grokked the entirety of Fallout 4 within the first hour or so of playing. The same strategies I’ve committed to muscle memory after hundreds of hours of Fallout 3 and New Vegas were immediately successful. Loot guns, leave the armor. Peek around corner, VATS, hide until AP regenerates. Food > Stimpacks unless you’re pressed for time. If things get dicey, break out the Pip-Boy to stop time and organize your equipment. Shoot X enemies in the face, shoot Y enemies in the legs.

While the out-of-VATS gunplay is much, much improved compared to the prior titles, Fallout 4 is basically Fallout 3/New Vegas all over again. The same tricks work.

As someone who enjoys optimizing the fun out of games, this has left me in a weird spot. All the optimization is basically done. I spent a rather absurd amount of time looking over the Perk tree and trying to figure out the best way to navigate it, but it almost seems meaningless at this point; not only am I near level 30 (and thus am actually hunting for Perks to still take), most of the Perks aren’t actually that good. And even if they were, there is no level cap, so in a sense it doesn’t matter. If I’m going to optimize anything, it’ll have to be a much narrower field, like getting an OP character between levels 2-10 or something.

I feel like the Witcher series has steadily gotten worse from a mechanics standpoint with each iteration, but at least it was different each time. The changes gave me something to mull over and marinate in my mind. And it seems like being able to do that, even if the underlying mechanics end up being worse, is still better than not having to do it at all.

Legendary Items are a Bad Idea

To an extent, I am still conflicted on this point.

Legendary items are cool, generally, in any game they are in. Their rarity gives designers the chance to introduce abilities that might be too powerful to be added to random loot. Legendaries can also facilitate character builds, and thus encourage additional playthroughs. Legendaries are fun in Borderlands, Diablo 3, and Fallout 4.

Legendaries also remove entire categories of loot drops, replacing them with nothing.

In Fallout 4, I have been using the Overseer’s Guardian for the last 30 or so hours of gameplay. The only way I could replace this weapon is if I encounter an even more ridiculous weapon that trivializes the game more than the Overseer’s Guardian already does. Which is sad, because not only does this make all the weapon drops I’ve encountered vendor trash, but it actually discourages me from experimenting with anything new.

For example, I finally saw a Gauss Rifle on a vendor just yesterday. I always enjoy Gauss Rifles in Fallout – mainly due to how cool they were in the movie Eraser (holy shit, 1996?!) – but it “only” deals 125 damage baseline. Even if I could mod the rifle for more damage, it seems unlikely that it’ll beat 137 damage x2 from a semi-automatic sniper rifle. “Maybe I’ll see a Legendary Gauss Rifle drop.”

As soon as that thought formed in my mind, I began massaging my temples. After all, this is the same game that hands out weapons like this:

Guess it's better than extra radiation damage.

Guess it’s better than extra radiation damage.

Maybe I’m less conflicted than I thought. Legendaries are a bad idea, even if I enjoy the existence of Legendary mobs in Fallout 4. The latter fills holes in the gameplay, whereas the Legendaries they drop create them.

Quick & Dirty Guide to Fallout 4

Just now picking up Fallout 4? I envy you.

Here is all the spoiler-free info I wish I had before I started playing.

The Baseline SPECIAL

If you are new to the series or just want a character build that works, I consider this the baseline:

TL;DR

TL;DR

The leftover points can be put wherever, but you’ll probably want to get Endurance to at least 3.

Why is this the best? Simple: it unlocks the largest amount of the best Perks in Fallout 4.

Strength – 3

Unlocks Armorer, the first rank of which will let you squeeze out some extra mileage from whatever armor you manage to loot; Armorer also becomes important if you decide to go the Power Armor route. The rest of the Strength tree is useless for anyone but melee character builds and can thus be ignored. Note, however, that Strength impacts your Carrying Capacity.

Luckily, Companions are easy to come by and can carry ~200 lbs of wasteland junk.

Perception – 4

Unlocks both Rifleman and Locksmith. Rifleman is probably one of the more absurd Perks in Fallout 4 simply because it increases the damage of pretty much all the weapons in the game: sniper rifles, shotguns, laser muskets, etc. Meanwhile, Locksmith will, of course, allow you to pick locks. Two things of note though: bobby pins are pretty common (no reason to take Rank 4), and you can recruit a companion that can unlock Master-level locks. As in, if you take that companion, you won’t need Locksmith at all. You’ll miss out on the XP and other companion banter however.

As an aside, Perception governs VATS accuracy, so you might want to dump some extra points in if you end up using VATS a lot.

Endurance – 1

Basically, there aren’t really any good Perks in this tree other than Toughness, which only needs Endurance 1 anyway. You should be able to easily reach your health regen needs via farming, resting, and so on.

Optional: Endurance 3 will unlock Life Giver, the third rank of which grants passive regeneration at level 16. Since you’ll probably want Endurance to be higher than 1 anyway just so you won’t be one-shot by grenades and such, this isn’t much to ask.

Charisma – 6

This is technically optional, but Charisma 6 unlocks Local Leader. The first rank of Local Leader makes it so that all of your Settlement Workbenches becomes shared stashes (for components only). Basically, if you want to engage with the Settlement minigame with any kind of seriousness, you’re going to need this Perk. Charisma also improves prices when buying/selling stuff with vendors by about 5% per point.

Optional: Charisma 1, if you are fine either Fast Traveling all the time, or otherwise don’t plan on doing much with Settlements. Just note that Charisma impacts your dialog success rates. You can generally cheese these with chems and reloading saves though.

Intelligence – 6

This is enough to unlock Science, Scrapper, and Gun Nut, e.g. the crafting trifecta. While it is possible to just get Gun Nut at Intelligence 3, you will be hurting for screws, a crafting component that is otherwise sparse in the wasteland; the first rank of Scrapper will get you screws for days by salvaging crappy pipe guns that drop from 99% of the NPCs you kill. Meanwhile, the first rank of Science will unlock a plethora of both gun mods and Settlement options.

Agility – 3

It’s enough to unlock Sneak. Keep in mind though, that Sneak is less useful in Fallout 4 than in games past, because non-aware hostile mobs do not show up on the compass ribbon. You can certainly hear them talking to themselves, but the likelihood of you actually using Sneak successfully indoors (for the delicious Sneak Attack Criticals) is pretty small. Outdoors, Sneak is almost superfluous as you can generally just crouch and snipe from afar.

Luck – 2

It has been said that Luck is one of the more powerful stats in Fallout 4, and that may well be true. However, unless you are willing to commit a lot of stat points, two is enough to unlock the first rank of Scrounger, which will pretty much solve your ammo problems for good. Plus, sell your unneeded ammo for cash.

Optional: Luck 8 for Grim Reaper’s Sprint or Luck 9 for Four Leaf Clover. Grim Reaper’s Sprint has always been pretty powerful in the other Fallouts, and it’s technically possible for you to unlock it at level 2, if you wish. Going all the way to Luck 9 will allow you to leverage a pretty absurd amount of Perk synergy: Four Leaf Clover procs will give you an auto-critical, which you can bank for whenever with Critical Banker, which do an impressively high amount of damage with Better Criticals, and will likely kill your target and possibly proc a full AP bar via Grim Reaper’s Sprint, letting you pump out more bullets and restart the process with Four Leaf Clover.

Advanced Tips

Been around the Wasteland a bit, eh? Okay, here are my observations from playing the game:

Free Stat Points

The stat Bobbleheads are back again, and picking them up increases the relevant stat by 1 point. In other words, if you have a specific character build you are going for, you can budget your SPECIAL stats accordingly. For example, my baseline recommendation has Charisma set to 6 for Local Leader. If you don’t anticipate using Local Leader until after you find the Charisma Bobblehead, you can set Charisma to 5 and use that extra stat point elsewhere.

Also, there is a “You’re SPECIAL” book laying on the floor in your former house in Sanctuary. Pick it up and you’ll get a free stat point you can place wherever you want.

Advanced Stat/Perk Planning

The Baseline I recommended originally simply gives you complete access to most of the best Perks right away. If you instead follow the Bobblehead route (e.g. relying on the free stat to meet requirements) though, you can do some goofy things… like this:

Almost makes me want to reroll right now...

Almost makes me want to reroll right now…

Or maybe not put it all in Luck, but split it into Perception and Agility. Or whatever.

In fact, you can go even further down the optimization route with the understanding that not only will there be “dead levels” in there where your best Perk choice will just be leveling up a stat, but also that you don’t necessarily even need a particular Perk until later in the game. For example, Science won’t be used for much until you start routinely encountering enemies with laser weapons. You won’t want to unlock Local Leader until you have a decent stockpile built up, so maybe use Charisma as a dump stat until the end of your 20s.

Collect that Junk… Intelligently

Nearly every piece of lootable debris can be broken down into useful crafting components, which will be important if you engage in the Settlements system at all. There are two tricks here that you should pay attention to though.

The first is “Tag to Search.” If you open your Pip-Boy and browse over to the Junk tab, one of the options should be Component View. This will show all the components your currently held Junk will break down into. If you notice any with Aluminum, Screws, Leather, Oil, Adhesive, Copper, or whatever you might be low on, go ahead and tag those. Within a few hours, you’ll start to have a Pavlovian response to Office Desk fans, Lighters, and similar items.

The second tip is to not just rely on scavenged items in the world. Vegetable Starch is a Cooking recipe that makes 5 Adhesive per batch. Cutting Fluid is a Chem Station recipe for Oil. But also do not discount your everyday friendly shop keepers in Diamond City and beyond:

Mouth literally watering.

Mouth literally watering.

I used to have a Leather problem. Then I realized that I can get Moe to part with 6 Baseball Gloves for 5 caps apiece. That’s 18 pieces of Leather for 30 caps. The other vendors are not as lucrative in say, Oil or Aluminum, but it certainly beats revisiting already-cleared factories scrounging the floor for cans or spending an insane amount of caps for “shipments of X” at several thousand caps apiece. Do a little browsing each time you offload your raider loot, and it will all add up.

Mod Shuffling

After doing some weapon upgrading, you might notice your inventory filling with random-seeming weapon mods. What is actually going on here is that whenever you replace one mod with another, the old mod is not destroyed, but removed and stored. You can take advantage of this fact to both access better mods than you may be able to craft, or even use it to bypass the need for Gun Nut entirely (although you’ll want it for other reasons).

If you come across a weapon with a mod you want – say, a Silencer – head over to the crafting table and act like you are creating a new mod for that slot. In fact, that is exactly what you are doing: replacing the current mod with hopefully the “None” or “Standard” version. Voila! Now you have a Silencer despite not having Gun Nut maxed out. Just keep in mind that mods are base-weapon specific. A Silencer for a Pipe Gun is different than a Silencer for a rifle.

Keep a Charisma Suit Handy

Caps are more important in Fallout 4 than they have ever been, and Charisma is your ticket to getting more of them. Before offloading your latest haul of raider loot, equip your Charisma Suit, e.g. all the items with bonuses to Charisma. It should not take you too long to find clothes with at least +2 Charisma, and you can stack two additional points from both Sunglasses and Pompadour wig. Each point of Charisma improves prices by about 5%, which absolutely adds up over the course of the game.

Speaking of Charisma, vendors, and caps…

Better Living Through Grape Mentats

One of the most insane chems in Fallout 4, Grape Mentats are a craftable variation on the standard Mentats that provides you with +5 Charisma and a 10% buying/selling bonus from vendors. Whether you stroll into Diamond City laden with raider loot or are eyeing a vendor’s Legendary equipment selection, you will want to take some Grape Mentats.

How much of a difference does it make? This much:

  • At Charisma 9: item costs 2331 caps.
  • As above + Grape Mentats: item costs 1366 caps.
  • As above + Cap Collector perk: item costs 1301 caps.

As you can see, Grape Mentats “stack” with Cap Collector, but not very well. Which is fine, because Grape Mentats are easy to make and have no prerequisites. The ingredients are: Hubflower x2, Mentats x1, Whiskey x1. Given that the latter two are everywhere in the game (including on vendors), the only difficult part is actually getting Hubflowers.

Luckily for you, I have found a few good locations:

You can never have enough.

You can never have enough.

The circled areas generally have 4+ Hubflower nodes in a small area. Said nodes do respawn eventually, on an unknown timetable.

Avoid the Designer Perk Traps

Certain Perks have always been hit-or-miss in the Fallout series (Nerd Rage! is still awful), but there are some that are worse than others this time around specifically due to decisions the designers have made.

For example, rethink your desire for a Sneak build. Sneak Attack Criticals are still in the game, but achieving them is incredibly more difficult this time around, and almost entirely superfluous. Non-aware enemies no longer appear on compass ribbon, so you almost have to make some noise to even know enemies are present. Sneak also requires heavy investment before you can move faster than an agonizing crawl, and you are likely to be instantly spotted indoors anyway. Making matters even worse, Fallout 4 has Legendary item prefixes that will double the damage of the weapon when used on enemies with full health, and another that adds an additional projectile. Why run around slow all the time when you can have a gun that basically gives you Sneak Attack Criticals by default?

Another subtle trap is Nuclear Physicist in the Intelligence tree. Take it if you want the Radiation weapon damage boost, but do not take it for the Fusion Core boost. Getting 25%/50%/100% longer duration on Fusion Cores sounds like something you’d want for a Power Armor build… right up until you realize that Fusion Cores can easily be bought from damn near every vendor in the Commonwealth. With Grape Mentats, I can buy Fusion Cores for 240 caps. So at Rank 3 of Nuclear Physicist (which requires level 26), I’ve spent three Perks all so I can… buy Fusion Cores for 120 caps. Rank 2 Cap Collector will get you infinitely more caps for two Perk points in comparison.

Other traps include Sniper and Penetrator in the Perception tree. While they perform exactly how they are described, the point is that they sound cool, but aren’t actually that useful. For example, if you are in a position to use a sniper rifle, you will typically be much better off waiting for your target to peek their head over cover and shoot them outside of VATS anyway.

Power Armor Decision

After one of the first quests in the game, you are given your very own suit of Power Armor. Deciding on whether or not you are going to try using it full-time is one of the more important decisions you can make. And, yes, you can use Power Armor all the time throughout the entire game. The only limiting factor is Fusion Cores, which aren’t actually that limiting at all in practice. But the question, again, is whether you want to use Power Armor all the time.

I'm tired of your shit, Preston.

I’m tired of your shit, Preston.

The benefits are pretty clear: an insane amount of armor right off the bat, allowing you to tank damage and most non-water sources of radiation. Additionally, Power Armor automatically sets your Strength to 11 with a corresponding increase to Carrying Capacity. The individual pieces of Power Armor do take damage and need repair, but it generally only takes a few pieces of steel to get them back up and running again. From a mechanics standpoint, Power Armor can’t really be beat.

…unless you don’t like skipping most of the other gameplay.

While in Power Armor, you do not receive any of the benefits of other armor you might be wearing. For example, I came across a piece of Legendary leg armor that increases my movement speed by 10%. I bought a Legendary arm piece that reduces damage taken by Human by 15%. Incidentally, this is why I say you’ll want to make the Power Armor decision early: to prevent you from spending 2000+ caps on gear instead of Fusion Cores. Running around in Power Armor all the time basically means all those items – and any you might pick up along the way – are functionally useless.

The more damning for me personally though, is simply how Power Armor feels while playing. You walk slower, all the time. Power Armor doesn’t impact your Sneaking ability from what I can tell, but you will certainly hear your own mechanical footsteps all the time. A large part of your screen will be taken up by the Power Armor UI, even if you aren’t wearing the helmet piece. And if you do wear the helmet piece, 100% of your character’s spoken dialog will be filtered through the face mask. At first, it’s amusing, but you lose a lot of the voice-acting nuances and emotion this way IMO.

It’s a tough decision, so take your time. It’s not the end of the world if you change your mind – you can command your companions to don the Power Armor in your stead (assuming they don’t already have their own suit) – but there is no real reason to “level up” both paths.

Fallout 4: Actual Impressions

I want to go back to playing, so let’s do this stream of consciousness style.

Bugs?

I’ve experienced very few, if any bugs. Or at least, I’m so used to Bethesda’s janky game engine that most things don’t register as bugs anymore. The only “game stopping” bug I’ve encountered has been when my Pip-Boy stopped showing up; it was technically there (I could hear the beeps) but it would not render. Saved my game, exited, and it was there upon my return.

Beyond that, I’ve seen Dogmeat fall off ledges, some enemies get stuck, and the AI act goofy in the thousands of ways you put up with in Skyrim for years.

#JustGameybroThings

#JustGamebryoThings

Considering I was fully bracing for the Fallout: New Vegas-esque “download a fan hack to be able to even play the game,” this is one of the smoothest Fallout releases, ever. The bar is laying on the floor, but still.

Gameplay

It’s Fallout 3/New Vegas.

…in fact, I’m almost concerned. I played those games so much, nearly everything about them is a known quantity. It’s like quitting WoW for a few years and then resubbing for the expansion – things have changed here and there, but you fall into your old habits pretty quickly. Fallout 4 is going to have to do a lot to surprise me in any way. Not that it has to necessarily, but it can’t rely on novelty to get me in the mood.

By the way, I know it’s largely a thematic issue and all, but it would it kill them to not reuse all the posters and even radio songs from Fallout 3? The asset recycling got so bad in New Vegas that the entire game ended up feeling like an expansion to Fallout 3 rather than its own game. Thus far, Fallout 4 is getting a pass from me (voiced main character adds a little… character, to the story), but it’s a tiny bit disappointing just the same.

Crafting

The crafting system in Fallout 4 reminds me of exactly how garbage-tier The Witcher 3’s crafting is. I’ll have to make another post on this topic, as I feel a rant coming on.

In Fallout 4’s case, the crafting system is both robust and perhaps too clever for its own good. As you may have heard, now everything is useful. Which is great! And miserably awful. Here is an example:

There went my afternoon.

There went my afternoon.

Rather than require discrete units of a particular item – such as Wonderglue in Fallouts past – nearly every goddamn thing in the game world can be broken down into crafting components. This is pretty cool, as it was a giant pain in the ass in prior games when you unlocked a weapon blueprint and then spent the next two hours desperately looking for that one specific item in all the junk of the world.

The downsides… are many, unfortunately. First, when everything is useful, you tend to want to grab everything. There was never any reason to hoard telephones and hotplates and all the random bullshit debris in abandoned buildings before, but now there is. Right now, screws in particular seem almost more important than purified water. I love how you can “Tag for Search” specific components though, as it will tag items you are looking at with a magnifying glass icon to remind you that you need to grab that specific thing without having to double-check some crafting spreadsheet.

The second issue is that it appears Bethesda really, really wants everyone to have Charisma 6 for the first rank of the Local Leader perk. Without that perk, all of the Workshops you encounter in the world aren’t connected, e.g. they are not a shared stash. Which doesn’t sound too bad until you realize that you can easily grab 100 lbs of random garbage in any given building. Can you Fast Travel back to your whatever settlement you decide is your main base? Yep. Is it annoying to sit through those load screens just to unload your bags every 15 minutes? Yep.

The last thing that’s annoying feels like something that will get addressed with a fan mod eventually, but it’s still annoying right now. Basically, there’s no prioritization when it comes to breaking down “Junk” for crafting components. In the picture above, you’ll notice how one of the items being broke down is the Giddyup Buttercup Body. I actually already collected various pieces of this item (which is a little wooden horse toy), and I imagine that there may be some kind of trick or achievement to reconstruct it. Or would have been, had I not scavenged it for screws. Same deal with Deathclaw Hands: if you aren’t careful, those will be scrapped for generic leather, of all things. Not sure if there are craftable Deathclaw Gauntlets this time around, but for sure there are Baseball Grenades that require intact baseballs, and the game won’t stop you from breaking those down into leather either.

So the bottom line is that you have to be particularly vigilant when crafting lest you scrap an item you’ll need intact later. Which is a pain in the ass, considering Workshops have a “Transfer All Junk” button that’s too convenient not to use. I have taken to transferring everything over, then manually picking out what I suspect will be useful and placing those in a separate container.

Revamped Perk/Leveling System

I don’t know how I feel about it.

Actually, that’s a lie. Right now, I don’t like it. Back in the day, Skill Points were really like the old WoW talents in that there is really no “choice” in the matter (after you chose your direction) and the tiny incremental improvements didn’t feel that impactful either. That said, their absence leaves a void. For example, Sneak (Rank 1) makes you 25% harder to detect. Uh… 25% more than what? What’s the baseline? Another example are the gun perks, which gives a given weapon type (rifle, pistol, etc) +20% extra damage. There are level requirements to most Perks, so you can’t just get +80% damage with rifles right off the bat, but the difference between that first rank and not having one is immense.

I mean… okay… 20% immense, but still.

Amusingly, the way the game is set up, you can get at least a stat or two up to 10 right off the bat, granting you access to the “top tier” Perks straight away. Further ranks are gated by levels, but it’s an interesting approach. Want to be a level 2 character with Grim Reaper’s Sprint? Go for it.

The tricky part is that after character creation, the only way to access deeper Perks is to spend your Perk point from leveling up to raise the SPECIAL stat it corresponds to. Want to just start playing the game like a normal person? Fuck you, newbie, now you gotta spend the next four levels getting nothing of value. This is the situation I’m in with the whole Local Leader perk – in order to get one rank in Local Leader, I’ll need to dump three points into Charisma to unlock it (I only had Charisma set to 3 at the beginning). At the moment, I’m thinking that I don’t actually need that perk that bad, but it still sucks knowing that I could have “fixed” things at the beginning had I not, you know, started playing the game.

Skip “optimizing the fun out of the game” one time, and this is what happens. Lesson learned.

More?

Yes. Despite the negatives above, I have a burning desire to get back to playing. And I shall do so.

Fallout 4: Day 1

It’s been a while since I played a game for seven hours straight. On a weekday.

Taking that GTX 970 for a spin.

Taking that GTX 970 for a spin.

I’ll have more to say about Fallout 4 when I feel like typing instead of scavenging for supplies.

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