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In An Age (of) Game Awards

Since this appears to be a Thing now, let me hand out a few awards.

Overrated Game of the Year: Witcher 3

Witcher 3 conclusively proves that all that particularly matters in gaming awards is that it looks pretty and has an interesting story; gameplay and rational design systems are 100% optional. Which, actually, is a fact that I should have already learned from Bioshock Infinite, which managed to bludgeon its way to several awards in 2014 based solely on its visuals and media narrative, not the garbage story or weak gunplay.

Seriously though, search your feelings on this – you know it to be true.

Actual Game of the Year: Metal Gear Solid 5

Yeah, I went there.

Look, the question you need to ask yourself is “what does Game of the Year even mean?” If that means “which game had the most engaging gameplay, the tightest game mechanics, and the elegance of harmonious, interlocking design,” then MGS 5 is Game of the Year no question. Go ahead and try to argue some other game got gameplay better.

Did MGS 5 go off the rails towards the end story-wise, when Konami presumably had Kojima’s balls in a vice? Yes. Would one final chapter mission DLC wrap everything up to a ridiculous degree and catapult the game into gaming legend? Absolutely. Does it immeasurably suck that none of this happened? Crushingly so.

But goddamn if the act of playing MGS 5 wasn’t the best game experience all year for me. Witcher 3 probably had better voice acting and a more coherent story, and I spent more time in Fallout 4 overall. Nevertheless, I feel MGS 5 deserves Game of the Year more than the others because it got the actual game bits so, so right.

Game of the Year after Mods and DLC: Fallout 4

Calling it now.

You Can’t Go Home Again Award: Pillars of Eternity

I remember having nothing but fond memories of the Baldur’s Gate series, playing them for many, many hours during a time period where I was otherwise beholden to JRPGs only. Pillars of Eternity was indeed a return to form, and I thought those same good feels would return.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, they did not.

As it turns out, the pseudo-real-time combat of PoE (and by extension Baldur’s Gate) isn’t actually all that fun to me. Back in the day, it was novel and interesting, but I just can’t stand the tactical sloppiness anymore. You can’t simultaneously make positioning super important and not allow me to fine-tune my character’s movement, especially when two pixels are the difference between your tank tanking and allowing the assassin to slip through the doorway.

Also? Sitting around and auto-attacking for days isn’t especially engaging.

I love tactical games, queuing attacks, and so on. Pillars isn’t tactical though, as you have no idea when an attack is going to fire, if a potion will be quaffed in time, or pretty much anything else. Not necessarily a deficiency in Pillars itself – it is true to the form it is imitating – but it represents a gameplay type that simply doesn’t work for me any more.

Best New Feature in a Game: Hearthstone’s Tavern Brawl

I may have talked about Tavern Brawl from time to time already, but let me just say that Blizzard came up with game mode here that nobody asked for, but nevertheless ended up being exactly what the game needed. It’s hard now to imagine what Hearthstone was actually like without it. Did we really just grind Ranked or play Arena all day? Gross.

The brilliance with Brawl is actually manifold. Half the time you have to create decks from your own collection, but the other half of the time your collection doesn’t matter; this means that a new player has a shot to win against someone who has been collecting cards since beta. The weekly format means A) variety of play styles, and B) drives the Hearthstone conversation in interesting ways. On Blizzard’s side, Brawl also affords them the opportunity to playtest new cards, game modes, and receive real-time feedback on the same.

Of course, Brawl isn’t perfect. Some weeks, the rules are just crap. Brawls frequently jack up the RNG to insane levels. There have been quite a few repeats. The 2-3 day “cooldown” in-between Brawls doesn’t really need to exist, IMO.

But overall? Tavern Brawl is exactly what Hearthstone needed, right when it needed it.

Most Anticipated Game of 2016 (Thus Far): Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

I asked for this.

Runners Up:

  • Mass Effect: Andromeda
  • No Man’s Sky
  • Final Fantasy 15
  • Star Citizen (?)

Game I Would Really Like to See Out of Early Access: The Forest

Oh, and Starbound. And The Long Dark. And Darkwood, which was a game I technically backed in goddamn 2013. Now that I think about it, there isn’t a game I want to ever see in Early Access anymore.

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Review Bombing

Three years ago, I wrote a post called The Weaponization of QQ in which I discussed “review bombing,” e.g. the practice of people writing negative user reviews out of spite. At the time, one of the particular objects of ire was Mass Effect 3. The user rating has trended upwards from 3.7 to today’s 5.4, but there remains 2518 positive vs 2372 negative reviews. And the vast, vast majority of the latter straight-up include passages such as the following:

I would have given this [Mass Effect 3] just a five, as it’s just that, an average game. However, since it’s clear that Bioware bribed journalists and reviewers to give their game a good review, I decided to counter the inflated reviewer scores and give this game a zero.

Now in the waning days of 2015, I am here to say that the practice is, unfortunately, alive and well.

One of the more topical targets is Fallout 4, which also sits at 5.4, primarily due to “reviews” like this:

Overrated Bethesda is back at it again, and they created another piece of garbage idiots to j!zz over. For starters this isn’t a 0/10, it’s more of a 4/10 but I’m trying to even the score because the fanboys are giving the game a 10/10 without explaining anything.

The above opening continues with some actual criticism of game mechanics and such, which puts it in a shockingly vanishing minority of these sort of reviews. Many are just like this:

Slacktivism at it's finest.

Slacktivism at it’s finest.

It is not entirely clear how many of these people even played the game.

Fallout 4 is not, of course, the only high-profile victim. Even media darlings like GTA 5 are not immune:

Useful.

Useful.

Back in June, I had to scroll through thirty-eight (38!) negative Steam reviews to find even one that contained useful information about the actual game. The rest were simply outrage over one of the Steam sales in which Rockstar apparently increased the price ahead of the sale, via adding in-game currency as the only available bundle, thereby possibly disabling Steam refunds. Which is certainly an entirely valid concern by itself, but not one that really has anything to do with reviewing the game.

The first time I brought this up, I was concerned about what possible effects these user review bombings might have on the direction of developer game design. Now? I’m much more concerned about how devalued this practice has rendered user reviews and, by extension, all our opinions. Perhaps developers have never been overtly concerned with user reviews, so review bombing doesn’t matter. But they mattered a bit for me, when determining if a game might be worth playing. And now that resource is gone, to be replaced with the outrage of the day.

Review: Fallout 4

Game: Fallout 4
Recommended price: $25
Metacritic Score: 84
Completion Time: 22-100+ hours
Buy If You Like: Fallout 3, FPS Skyrim, Post-apocalypse recycling simulators

Not your father's wasteland.

Not your father’s wasteland.

After 95 hours of gameplay, I have come to one conclusion: Fallout 4 is one of the strangest games I have ever played. It is simultaneously brilliant and baffling; moving the franchise forward and pulling it back again; an unfinished and undocumented disaster packed with the most intricate of details.

Like I said: strange.

The main thing to understand right away about Fallout 4 is that it is almost a direct continuation of Fallout 3 (in terms of feel), and not Fallout: New Vegas. While many people say that New Vegas was the pinnacle of the (3D) series – and that may well be the case – it was also developed by an entirely different design team. Fallout 4 is a Bethesda game, not a Obsidian game, and so it has more in common with Skyrim than anything else.

From a gameplay perspective, Fallout 4 is the best that the series has ever been. The gunplay and FPS elements have been refined to the degree that it is now entirely possible to play the game without using the VATS system at all. Indeed, even when using VATS, time no longer freezes, but simply slows down, always keeping the player in the middle of the action. The addition of Legendary enemies (and their assorted loot) keeps enemy encounters relevant and exciting throughout the entire game. Many of the staple monsters in the game have received a conceptual facelift, such that Feral Ghouls, Deathclaws, and even the Sentry Bot feel both “new” and like they should have been that way all along.

Textless stories.

Textless stories.

Then there is the crafting. Oh, the crafting. Every single piece of post-apocalyptic debris is now salvageable into crafting components to support the Settlement-building part of the game, or the gun modding. This one “small” change completely shifts one’s exploration perspective, as now suddenly all the empty rooms you might encounter are full of the priceless treasures that are typewriters, office fans, and aluminum cans. Indeed, this might almost work too well, as it is easy to get distracted with salvaging these things rather than seeking out other, more hidden loot.

By the way, let me just say that Bethesda seriously nailed the ambiance and setting in general. Boston felt like a real (ruined) city, and not just a series of loading screens and skyboxes. Even the surrounding cities and suburbs felt like actual towns. Putting aside their gameplay elements, the addition of Settlements really went a long way in making the wasteland feel populated by real people, rather than simply being trash heaps from which raiders and enemies spawn.

That said… a lot of the rest of the game just feels off.

The Lockpicking and Hacking minigames are back, directly lifted from their original incarnations, unexplained in any real way in-game. Speaking of unexplained, the Settlement system has one of the worst UIs I have ever seen in a videogame. The Perk system overhaul is similarly ugly as sin, giving the illusion of depth but none of the functionality. Perhaps the Skill point system wasn’t all that much better, but at least each level felt like it had tangible progress towards a goal.

Some lines are okay.

Some lines are okay.

The voice-acting is extremely good, but the dialog itself (and the choices given) all seem rather bad. Indeed, this was the first Fallout game I have played in which the main story quest felt inconsequential, incomplete. Several times I had to look up what the main quest even was, as the “find your son” narrative receded into the background radiation of the wasteland.

All told, I played Fallout 4 for 95 hours and still ended up skipping a tremendous amount of the game. In all that time, I never got around to doing any quests for the Brotherhood of Steel, or visiting Salem, or even really poking around the bottom-right part of the map. There is so much more that can be done… and I’m unlikely to muster the drive to see it through. Does this indicate the game is deficient in some (many) ways? Perhaps. On the other hand, what right do I really have to complain about a game that generated 95 hours of entertainment?

The bottom line is that Fallout 4 is a game worth playing, whether you are a fan of the series or if this is your first Fallout title. I don’t think Fallout 4 is possible to become anyone’s favorite game, but there is more here than in 99% of the other games you could be playing.

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.

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.

The Price of Discounts

Unlike a lot of people, I am not pre-downloading Fallout 4. For reasons:

 Hi [name],

Thank you again for your pre-order of Fallout 4 from Funstock Digital.

You may be aware the game is available for Pre-Load this evening (Friday 6th Nov) and some retailers are sending out keys.

Following the recent release of Call of Duty Black Ops 3 where a small number of customers received duplicate or invalid keys we have taken the decision to hold the delivery of keys until Monday (9th Nov) to test our delivery system and ensure you are not caused any unnecessary inconvenience.

If you would prefer to cancel your order and obtain a refund then please contact support@funstock.co.uk

Sorry again but we hope you appreciate we want to get this right and don’t want to cause you and any of our customers any issues.

Kind Regards, Funstock Digital

Provided that I actually get to the play the game in the next few days, I’m willing to sweat a bit. After all, I bought it at $42.14. But the clock is ticking Funstock.

Fake Edit: Email saying the key is ready, but website is 503 for the past three hours:

I hope someone is losing money on this.

I hope someone is losing money on this.

Fake Edit 2: Electric Boogaloo: Site down to “scheduled maintenance.”

Great timing.

Great timing.

Not sure which would be considered worse: the lie that this is, or the truth someone would schedule website maintenance during Fallout 4’s release.

Real Edit 3: First Blood:

Finally got smart and checked the Twitter page:

Never again.

Never again.

FunStock, eh? More like LaughingStock. Or FuckYouStock. I’d threaten to DDoS your servers if they were up.

Final Edit: the Reckoning: Got in, more than six hours later. Their website is still coughing up blood and blank pages nine out of ten times. When I managed to actually get the store page, the Login button link takes you to a “scheduled maintenance” message 100% of the time. I went around the backdoor by going to the Account page, which then asks you to log in.

In any case, lesson learned. Maybe. If I would have went with GMG, I would have received the key no problem, but paid ~$5 more. Is it worth that? Maybe. I got work tomorrow regardless, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

Getting a Little Worried About Fallout 4

I must admit that I am getting a little worried about Fallout 4.

Everyone already knows there will be crippling, game-breaking bugs on Day 1. It took Bethesda nearly two weeks to make Fallout: New Vegas playable in an official capacity last time around, although there was a fan patch around Day 3. Bugs and such are not what I’m worried about. What I’m worried about is this:

Birth of a new meme.

Birth of a new meme.

It almost doesn’t even matter what Bethesda was going for anymore – this is on the level of “Press F to Pay Respects.” The T-shirts have already been made:

And I inexplicably want one.

And I inexplicably want one.

[Edited for clarity:]

It’s possible this “dialog diamond” has been known for a while, but this is the first I’ve seen of it. And I’m not sure I like it. Dialog has always been a big deal in the Fallout series, and I’m sure I am not the only one who has changed what they were going to say simply because a different response sounded better/was more humorous. Since the main character is voiced, perhaps this simplification was inevitable. But just look at your prior options in Fallout. Maybe your character will still say those things, but you may not know they will.

Now, Mass Effect more or less had the same deal and it turned out fine. More than fine, really, despite having this occasionally:

Decisions, decisions.

Decisions, decisions.

Regardless, the whole thing makes me nervous.

By the way, reading these Fallout 4 threads on Reddit have really opened my eyes to the apparent hilarity of LA Noir, which had a similar dialog style with sometimes shocking results.

What is somewhat more disconcerting though, are the lip syncing issues. I can’t actually link you the videos I was watching showing the lip syncing (or lack thereof), as they were taken down due to being leaks of unreleased content. I can, however, link to the official launch trailer. Which is perhaps the first launch trailer I have seen from any game that has had almost the complete opposite effect as what it should.

I say “almost” because I’m a huge sucker for post-apoc in general, and Fallout specifically. The series has always been one of the few that allows me to express my true desires to scavenge and hoard shiny things. In any other game, the idea of finding a random abandoned shack and having to search it for items I’m not likely to ever need simply sounds exhausting. In Fallout 3? That’s basically what I spent the entire game doing. And I loved it.

So… I’m conflicted. And probably better off hunkering down in a Vault for the next five days or so.