The Depths of Human Suffering
Despite assumptions to the contrary, the Wasteland was packed full of people yesterday. The notion that a nuclear war would wipe out the bulk of humanity was challenged when millions of people started strolling through the Commonwealth, collecting junk from the shambles of civilization, and having the time of their lives doing it.
I was one of those survivors. Oddly enough, we all seem to be from Vault 111, but I don’t remember seeing anyone else leaving the shelter. I guess I was just late to the party, since I had duties to perform during the day yesterday before I could start hoarding desk fans, screwdrivers, and Med-X. I got out while the getting was good, however, and returned home much like many others. What was left of home, anyway.
We had some good discussions, us survivors. Everyone seemed to be both amazed and concerned that their pockets were stuffed with pretty much everything that wasn’t nailed down. How much stuff could we carry? A lot, it turns out. At the end of the world, the most mundane item might be more useful than you think, which makes sense considering with the right tools and the right workstation, we could make better weapons, better armor, and even craft a small city of our own. Even after the apocalypse, nature finds a way, and by “nature” I mean humanity, and by “a way” I mean to abscond with stuff from the deceased and use it to make a sweet, sweet hand cannon.
Who knew that a simple desk-fan could help raise a city? That’s “raise” and not “raze” for you grammatically challenged mutants out there; the razing has already been done, and let me tell you, it’s not pretty. It is, to a degree. When the ecosystem is left alone, it can do some amazing things, despite the lingering presence of human footprints in the form of our houses, businesses, vehicles, and other elements of detritus that turned out to be sturdier in the face of nuclear annihilation than it’s makers were. A sunny day, the setting for idyllic family picnics and days at the park in happier times, couldn’t do away with the washed-out color of dread that accompanies being the only living thing for miles. Well, until we all found our dogs (not a euphemism; a real dog). Anything could be hiding anywhere. Radroaches, bloatflies, that massive-ass-what-the-hell-was-that-thing that burst from the ground in Concord. Humanity has always been it’s own worst enemy, and the Wasteland is the final proof.
All is not lost, though, I guess. There’s people out here — non-Vault dwellers — trying to make a go of survival. Not just survival, but are trying to re-make a life for themselves in a world that’s signaled that it’s just done with humanity. All of us Vault 111’ers traveled back to Sanctuary Hills with some survivors we met in Concord because they heard tell that Sanctuary was a good place to set up camp. We offered to stick around a bit and help them out, crafting beds, generators, and even automated defenses against the ghouls and mutants that didn’t get the memo that hope springs eternal. These people want a home, and my 2139 coffee pots and 436 wrenches can be used to craft the things they need. I admit, there’s something appealing in the idea of settling down in this disaster area, but I apparently have a mission that’s not super well defined at this stage, and I didn’t leave the Vault to make dressers out of lamps for the rest of my life.
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Bethesda surely delivers with Fallout 4. I didn’t spend a lot of time with the character creator, since I knew I didn’t have a lot of time before I had to deliver my daughter to her friend’s house for the night. I wanted to hit some kind of ground running, so I picked a stock face and went through the intro. To say that it sets a tone is a disservice. It sets the game in stone, and while I’m not a stranger to the Fallout universe, I was unsettled from the get go.
Part of the — fun, I guess — of the Fallout games is navigating the Vault, and then emerging into the “you damn dirty apes!” world that’s left. The games never waste any time throwing you into the remnants of civilization, and the first place you end up is your old neighborhood of Sanctuary Hills. It’s finally time to live out your fantasies of rummaging through your neighbor’s stuff, because all of the houses are nothing but abandoned shells. You meet your home-robot Codsworth (of course) who puts on a brave face but eventually breaks down after 200 years (!) of isolation and pointless housekeeping. It suggests you check out Concord, a mere 30 seconds to the southeast as the bloatfly flies.
Once in Concord, you are drafted to defend a “hey, this sounds like a Massachusetts kind of thing!” Freedom Museum against some raiders. You meet some survivors, including a member of the self-anointed Minutemen, the Fallout equivalent of Wasteland‘s Desert Rangers. These are the best analogues to a peacekeeping force the apocalypse has, but here the raiders are too strong and too numerous. Luckily, there’s a suit of power armor on the roof that needs a fusion core, which you — The Hero — are the only one who can retrieve.
The power armor is pretty awesome, allowing you to take way more damage than you normally could with just your Vault-Tec Brand Jumpsuit. And you get a minigun! Mowing down the bandits has never been easier; mowing down a fucking Deathclaw, however, is no walk in the park. I died once when the thing surprised me, so I bumped down the difficulty (even with the minigun I wasn’t doing enough damage to outlast my ammo supply) and he still managed to take a good beating before giving up the ghost.
In no uncertain terms, Fallout 4 lets you know that your path is not a linear one when the survivors want you to escort them back to your old neighborhood. One of their members has “visions”, and claims that this “Sanctuary” is where they’ll find peace. So you head out there, get a history lesson on the way (edugaming!), and end up being put to work crafting beds for this new “settlement”.
That’s about as far as I got with the time allotted to me for that session.
The punchline in discussions always seemed to be about how much crap you can collect. Like Skyrim and Fallout 3 before it, if it’s not nailed down, you can take it. And you should take it, because Fallout 4 has an awesome crafting system. There’s a kind of “upgrade-duplication” system which allows you to take an item you have already and modify it for better stats. This gives you a new item, leaving you with the original item. I suppose in this regard it’s like a blueprint that you can dismantle once you’re done. Then there’s the settlement construction kit, which allows you to build parts of buildings, furniture, amenities, and even shops. Along the way you’ll need to construct generators and defenses, because bad guys don’t respect non-lethal boundaries. Unlike other game systems, the crap you carry around doesn’t need to be dismantled in order to get at the raw materials. The goods provide whatever common-sense materials you might need for a specific purpose, like screws from a desk-fan. This takes a lot of the tedium of crafting out the equation, but it also turns into a mad scavenger hunt for anything and everything you can collect.
I still suck at the combat, though. Sometimes I was able to hit targets at a good distance, but once they’re in my personal space, I’m flailing around like an idiot trying to A) find them, and B) hit them. Thankfully you get Dog early on. He/she is a great early warning system, tanking pet, and will notify you of interesting caches of more junk for you to take. He/she can’t die; he/she did go down in the second Deathclaw fight, but a stim injection got him/her up and moving again. I have to remember to always have a stim on reserve for Dog, though.
One fun hobby is breaking into things. I “cracked” my way into a terminal in a home in my neighborhood and found out that this guy was a drug-dealer. He also left a clue about a safe hidden in another house under a dresser, but I couldn’t easily ID the house in question, and didn’t find the safe. But being a Bethesda game, I know that this is no idle window-dressing. It’s a reward for taking the time to work through this super-side mission that I’m sure a lot of people might not even bother with. And there’s also the lockpicking system, familiar to players of Skyrim and possibly Fallout 3 (I don’t recall).
The models and animations are still just left of normal. At least they now switch camera between the speaker and yourself, so you’re not just mutely passing conversation cards to the other person. After a zone transition, though, one of the NPCs was seen holding a rifle…but the rifle wasn’t there. The pathing was also kind of wonky, with these NPCs I was escorting to Sanctuary getting stuck on sandbags, fallen lamp posts, pieces of paper, you name it. Fortunately, once they get out of range of the group they’re supposed to be in, they find the intelligence to teleport to where they should be. And Dog is kind of spastic, scaring the shit out me as he bolted past on more than one occasion.
And finally there’s the setting itself. It’s as expected: really brown, really desiccated, and super-depressing. The default soundtrack, while great, enhances whatever feeling of dread and sorrow that the landscape invoked. I tried using the Pip-Boy radio, but it obscured the environmental queues and I was jumped by some nuclear molerats at the service station. It’s a heavy setting. I think it bothers me because unlike high fantasy worlds or games set on far flung worlds of high-technology, the settings in Fallout 4 could really exist. In some places in the world, they do exist. I make light of the need and opportunity to scrounge for materials, but this is really the kind of thing that could (and for some, does) happen for real. I’m hoping that at some point the “game-ness” of the game overtakes the visuals, but having played a good amount of Skyrim and never not being in awe of the landscape, I don’t anticipate that being the case.