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Tour of the Castles of Faerun


Whether I had previously related it or not, the party had followed the trail of cult contraband through the Mere of Dead Men (and I’m sure there’s some dead women in there as well) where they made friends with a feisty lizardfolk named Snapjaw after having slaughtered his scouting party. Lizardfolk are apparently incapable of carrying any fucks around…no pockets.

When Snapjaw learned that the party was interested in taking down the dragon cult, he offered to help them get access to their stronghold, Castle Naertyr. The cultists, he explained, had employed both the native lizardfolk and the more brutish native bullywugs to help out with their schemes, although since the cultists favored the bullywugs over the lizardfolk, and since the bullywugs…well, bully the lizardfolk, Snapjaw has little love for either the “dragon kneelers” or the frog-fuckers.

Getting into the castle was easy, since Snapjaw knew the way to avoid bullywug patrols and navigate through sympathetic lizardfolk. Once inside the castle, Snapjaw served as the party’s hall-pass. Very few inhabitants of the castle seemed to be interested in what to them to be another transient bunch of cultists, especially if they had a lizardfolk escort.

Now, down to business.

The party knew that this castle was where the treasure was being taken to, but wasn’t sure what was happening to it once it got there. Castle Naertyr is a not-insignificant piece of real-estate. It’s comprised of a keep surrounded by ancient yet sturdy walls connected to several towers. The party learned that most of the internal structures had three floors, and that there was a subterranean level as well.

They opted to start at the closest structure, which turned out to be an old chapel. Upstairs, they found a library tended by some low-level cultists and one of the cult’s dragonclaw enforcers who apparently had a secret love of literature. It cost him in the end, though, as the players mercilessly slaughtered everyone in the room, hiding the bodies under the rug (which was now about five feet off the floor and lumpy as hell).

One trip up another flight of stairs and the party found an astoundingly ornate set of rooms including an office, a sitting room, and a bedchamber. One small, totally empty room appeared to be a personal chapel sporting a crude painting of a five-headed dragon emerging from a volcano on the back of the door. Rummaging through the desk, the party collected a lot of shipping manifests, some survey maps of the area, and a Post-It note with a single word: [I can’t remember what the word is]. Never ones to leave any stone unturned or any documents unstolen, the adventurers swept everything into an empty pack and proceeded to the bedchamber.

Collectively suppressing a comical whistle of surprise, the party found the room to be filled with ornate furniture and lavish appointment. There was a well made, comfy looking queen sized bed, a few small tables, and two cabinets: one nondescript and the other emblazoned with the same kind of painting from the back of the door in the personal chapel. In the corner was a magnificent black dragon statue made of actual black dragon scales with rubies for eyes and diamonds for teeth, standing on an actual pile of gold and jewels.  The tables yielded nothing, and the bland dresser revealed only common clothing.

Lulled by the confidence that only a Adventure Co could muster, the ranger opted to open wide the ornate dresser, because he didn’t see any signs of traps. He didn’t see any signs of traps, but upon opening the doors wide there was a massive explosion of acid that blanketed the room, hitting everyone and damaging absolutely everything in sight.

The party quickly employed their best healing salves and quickly made their way out of the room and back to the castle courtyard. Stepping foot into the sunlight once more, the party noticed an old acquaintance: Azbara Jos, the not-so-well-concealed Thayan who had joined their two-month-long caravan and who it had seemed had fallen in with the cultists. Attempting to skirt Jos, the party peeked into the window of the castle smithy and learned that lizardfolk suck at metallurgical tasks. However, Jos had seen them, recognized them, and beckoned them to the far side of the keep where the met them secretly in the anti-chamber of his quarters. There he explained that he was sent by Rath Modar, a Thayan exiled for suspicion of plotting against Szass Tam, Head Necro lich of that creepy subcontinent. Modar is apparently fascinated by dragons, and dreamed of taking a massive dragon army back to Thay (accompanied by an appropriately ass-kicking metal soundtrack) to depose Tam. He sent Jos to see if he couldn’t work out some kind of deal or knowledge sharing with the dragon cult to realize this dream. Neither Jos nor Modar had any idea what the cult was planning, or what they were doing with the loot, but the party wasn’t forthcoming with what they knew or suspected about the cult activities. Jos did, however, tell the party that the crates of loot were taken into the Great Hall (caps appropriate) where he knew the spoils were sorted. Where the loot went after that, he couldn’t say.

He also let them know that the bedroom they trashed belonged to Rezmir, the head of the dragon cult and owner of the castle. Oopsie!

The door to the Great Hall was locked, so the party killed an hour at the smithy while the bard attempted to teach the poor lizardfolk the proper way to work metal. Unfortunately, lizardfolk are good at several things, none of which is working with metal, and after the party healed up, they left the poor creatures no better than they found them.

Next the party visited the kitchen which was run by an overworked, under-appreciated, and thoroughly disgusted dwarf who quickly shooed them through the door that lead to the Great Hall. As soon as they entered, they were conscripted by the dragonclaws to help sort the piles of treasure into other boxes, and then to take those sorted boxes downstairs into the caverns.

+   +   +

Castle Naertyr could either be a boondoggle or a major advancement of the plot. Thorough parties who want to kill time could do a lot of exploration, since there’s a whole lot of rooms on the four-floor map, but each room examination increases the chance that all hell would break loose and the party’s presence become compromised. The castle is mostly under the care of the cult steward, an elf-supremacist named Graybone, and is staffed with Rezmimr-approved bullywugs and Graybone-favored lizardfolk. The only cultists at the castle are those allowed to deal with the handling of the treasure, so are limited to being low level functionaries that can be handled by the dragonclaws should the need arise.

The party was on point this session. They didn’t stray too far into the corners of the castle (although I think under other circumstances they wanted to), and ended up in places that made plot advancement a very natural occurrence.

The first 1/3 of this chapter in the text is all about the politics of the castle, which made things rather difficult to plan and execute from a flavor standpoint. The bullywugs are the muscle of the castle, keeping the perimeter clear and making sure things keep running under the weepy eye of head bullywug Pharblex Splattergoo. The lizardfolk perform the menial labor, and while they’re smarter than the bullywugs, Splattergoo actually killed their leader and thus disheartened the tribe. Rezmir’s promise of favor with a dragon named (let’s see if I can get this right) Voahamananthahrahhanthhemnathar is what drew the tribe to her cause, and what causes them to put with the abuse under the bullywugs. Rezmir allows the elf Graybone to manage the operation of the castle while she…does whatever she’s doing.

What all this means is that there’s a lot of leeway as to how this chapter could play out. There’s a lot of talk about what should happen if the place erupts in combat. There’s some talk about how to handle more subtle infiltration, though, and while the party started Hoard of the Dragon Queen in the “guns blazing”, traditional MMO mode, they’ve since decided that not everything needs to be killed first, questioned later. For me, this is both good and bad. Good, because combat encounters take up a whole lot of time and don’t really advance the plot, plus I have to remember the tactical performance of several NPCs which doesn’t always happen (to the advantage of the players). It’s also bad because combat is easy to implement, and stories are hard. There’s got to be enough to do to make being in the chapter worthwhile for the party (so they don’t immediately find the objective and roll to the next chapter), but I have to be careful not to railroad them with hints, or through the “Jamna Chorus”, which I did last night when they wanted to create a castle-wide diversion by setting fire to the library. Jamna suggested it might make their job more difficult, since the castle would then be on alert. Thinking back, she could have taken over the trap-checking in the bedroom, being a rogue and all, but I didn’t want to make her to deus ex machina.

We got a lot done last night, though, and I was thoroughly pleased. I had spent about two hours on prep this week because of the convoluted nature of the castle politics, and making sure I knew roughly which sections might have combat, which would have combat, and which could be leveraged for important and optional plot advancement. I think it was worthwhile, and certainly necessary for this chapter.

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Life is Feudal; Assorted Brain-Dumps

Life is Feudal

Life is Feudal: Your Own is a survival sandbox game in the vein of…oh let’s see: ARK: Survival Evolved, Rust, Day-Z, and H1Z1, Subnautica, Savage Lands, Wurm (and Wurm Unlimited), and everything else that currently isn’t Fallout 4 (although that one is hovering just beyond the periphery). The premise is familiar for those who’ve played these kinds of games: you start with practically nothing on your person except enough sundries to keep you alive for a bit, and you have to forage for parts to build items of increasing complexity.

Overall, I don’t know that there’s anything super-different about this game that would make me recommend it to someone bored with the genre, although I’ve only put in a limited amount amount of time as of this writing. However, in that time I have managed to actually accomplish more than I have in almost any other sandbox survival game. I had to run across the map to find stone, because the starter 2/3 of the island were nothing but grasslands. I needed the stone to forage for flint to make some intro tools that would allow me to cut down trees. So I made an axe, a pick, and a shovel. That allowed me to fell trees, dig up some different kinds of rock, and re-plant trees. The biggest draw I can see for LiF is that it’s far more of a simulation of life than most other survivalbox titles, except maybe for Wurm Online/Unlimited. In that, I’d say that LiF is closer to Wurm than to others. Trees provide saplings you can replant, because as you take trees to build, you’ll need to grow new trees if you want to be able to continue to build. You can also uproot stumps to clear the land, and terraform the ground to make it more even, to build it up, or to make it better for crops. The promo material puts a lot of focus on the cooperative aspect of the game, and I was initially wary of the purchase (40% off until 11/20, so it’s a decent deal) because the reviewers were claiming that you needed a veritable army of players to accomplish anything, and that it wasn’t a game for the casual. I’m sure that if you want to recreate Westeros then you’ll need a kingdom, but to make a sustainable homestead, it might be doable solo, or you could make a small hamlet with a small group.

A lot of these kinds of games ship with really anemic server options, forcing you to hunt down esoteric wikis and guides to learn how to set up and run a server of your own. The solo set-up has a pretty nice UI that allows you to modify things like the skill cap (which limits how many “professions” you can learn) and the stats cap (so you don’t have gods among men), as well as XP earning multipliers and other enhancements to make the game as easy or as difficult as you like. Since LiF is a “skill through use” game, it can be designed so that multiple players will need to claim a profession, and work together for the materials needed to construct larger projects. Or you can just crank that shit up and let everyone do everything in order to make up for a lack of a large player base.

I’m considering setting up a dedicated server on my daughter’s unused desktop PC for anyone in the range of my voice that might have the game and be interested in a co-op town building experience. I’ll keep you posted.

Assorted Brain-Dumps

I keep forgetting to use both Steam In Home Streaming and the Xbox One streaming to my Surface. I was sitting in the living room last night after watching Supergirl with the family, and resorted to reading on my phone. I contemplated heading to the basement, but it was getting late. It wasn’t until right before bed that I remembered that I could have use either streaming option to send visuals to the Surface, allowing me to play something from the living room without having to totally abandon my family.

+  +  +

I had backed a project on Kickstarter a while back called “Tabletop Connect”. It was a virtual tabletop app, but unlike the dearth of existing apps, this one was in glorious three dee. GMs could build maps that had actual walls, and players and NPCs were represented by 3D models that could be controlled by players and the GM. Progress on the development was rather slow, and since apps like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds were mature and available I ended up using those, and not really paying much attention to Tabletop Connect.

I recently received an email stating that development on TC had actually been suspended because the lone developer had been bought out by Smiteworks, creators of Fantasy Grounds. This was curious for a few reasons. First, Smiteworks obviously liked what they saw in what was available in TC. Second, they hired the TC developer along with buying his project, and third, FG is currently undergoing a conversion to Unity, which is what TC was being built with. Considering that what was present in TC was mostly an anemic character sheet, but a decent map building and 3D game board, my assumption is that Smiteworks might be looking to bring a 3D view to Fantasy GroundsUnity Edition in the future. I think that would be a cool option to have (although I’d really prefer to have integrated VoIP first).

The more immediate upside was that backers of TC were given stored credit for FG, so I was able to pick up the “Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide” module for free. I still haven’t looked through it, but I’m eager to see what kind of resources it contains.

+  +  +

I’m considering re-buying Fallout 4 on the PC. I’m still really liking the game, but I can tell that it’s a game that’s going to wear me down to the point where I’ll find it easier to skirt it’s existence rather than invest the time and emotion into sitting down to continue from where I’m at now. Like Skyrim, it’s a game I want to see, but I’m still not in like with the combat; it’s stressful to me, and entering into a new area always stresses me out because of death and the revert to last save; if I didn’t remember to save (I know…) then I could end up anywhere in the past.

My solution? Cheat the hell out of the game through console commands. No, I don’t feel bad about this. If I’m there for the story, not having to worry about the bullshit of difficulty is something that’s right up my alley. I can play like I mean it, but once I get tired of ducking and covering, I can just wade in an punch a Deathclaw to death and be done with it. I don’t get personal satisfaction from besting a difficult game, especially one like Fallout 4 which has an innumerable number of opportunities to live in the world. I just want to experience the content, not use the game to feel better about my mad skillz.

+  +  +

Tuesday night we managed to get into the Dreadnaught in Destiny. I was apparently the one in the group that was lagging behind in the mission progression, so I was made the leader and we moved through five different missions. After having played Halo 5 and more recently Call of Duty: Black Ops III and Fallout 4, my aiming in Destiny was abysmal. I couldn’t hit the broadside of a…dreadnaught…at first, but eventually got my Guardian-legs back under me and was able to mow down enemies like nobody’s business.

+  +  +

And finally, our krew has opted not to attend PAX East in 2016. Two years ago we attended with a certain level of apprehension, and ended up spending more time hanging out in the hotel than we did in the convention center. Last year we only went down for a single day. This past fall, we discussed the upcoming potential and unanimously decided that the four days we spent there was just too much, with all the crowds and really nothing super-exciting to look forward to. One day wasn’t worth the hassle, since at that point there’s too much to see and do and not enough time. Standing in line for an hour (minimum) when you only have a one day pass is a colossal waste.

Good thing we came to this decision, then, because the badges went on sale yesterday, and the three day passes sold out in less than 15 minutes (Saturday day badges sold out in about 30 minutes). I can’t recall if any of the other PAX events ever sold out that quickly. It’s disheartening, because I didn’t find out about the sale until it was over (thanks, conference call!) Had I really wanted to go, I’d be pissed. In the past badges have shown up in bulk on eBay and StubHub, meaning people were buying them and re-selling them at a profit. On the other hand, it shows that there’s an insatiable demand here in the North East for geek-related events. We’re a region that’s usually snubbed when it comes to conventions and large geek-industry happenings, and I think this run on badges for PAX East shows that there’s a massive contingent of fans that would fall over themselves to throw money at any organization that’s willing to make the effort to acknowledge that the North East is also a place where fans and customers reside.

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I Am Cursed


Yeikes! This weekend I didn’t actually play much of anything which, coming off of my posts last week regarding Fallout 4, is concerning. I firmly believe that the more I talk something up, the less inclined I am to pay attention to it immediately afterwards. This is not the first time this has happened, but it usually happens when I get excited about A Thing, then want to talk about That Thing, and subsequently cool way down on That Thing. I need to stop talking about That Thing is what I’m learning.

I did play F4 on Friday, though, and left my settlement to fend for themselves. I upped the defense to equal the resources, which was the tool-tip, so hopefully the citizens will still be there when I get back. I heard tell that your NPCs can use your power-armor if you leave it for them, or that raiders can actually steal the armor if you leave it lying around. I moved mine to the Red Rocket which I haven’t developed yet, so hopefully it’ll be safe. I don’t use the armor much due to the abysmal gas mileage.

I struck out towards my next, most immediate goal: clearing a factory of raiders. I don’t feel confident about this task because I hate the combat in this game. I can barely hit the broadside of a barn let alone a target that’s rushing at me, and once it gets close enough for me to melee it, I can never find the target. If I didn’t have the dog, I’d die in every single encounter.

I headed east and south and found a quarry, a cemetery, a caravan, and a lone settler living in a trailer. I followed the collapsed highway and noticed a frightening radio-tower populated by at least one common raider and one in a suit of power-armor. I gave that a pass. I used the scope of my rifle to scan the landscape from the top deck of the highway and found some lights out there, including at least one person who had to deal with those feral dogs in his yard, and a lone robot wandering around. I’m not sure if he’s friendly or not. I guess I’d be well suited to the Wasteland, since I automatically assume everyone is hostile.

I managed to get to the factory, but skirted it along the highway to do some recon. I used my sniper rifle to take out some power-armor and maybe six to eight raiders, but didn’t get much further than that. My concern is that there’s dozens more in there, and since ammo is what you can find, I don’t know how soon I’ll be resorting to hand-to-hand combat, and I wonder if once NPCs are dead, do they stay dead? I would hate to return to the factory to find all of these targets have respawned, but my ammo situation looking just as dire as it did after I killed them all the first time.



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The Kind Of Thing Experiences Are Made From


I’ve played a lot of games in my life, which isn’t a brag so much as it is a preamble. A lot of us have played a lot of games in our lifetimes, so I’m sure this will resonate with many of you. We know that there are games that a pretty much throw-away — hey, mobile! — and games which are great for diversions. There are games which have massive budgets and huge marketing campaigns that make us question if we’re missing out on something if we don’t play them. There are games which come from absolutely nowhere and just reset our understanding of what’s possible. Sprinkled in between those tent-poles are all the rest of the games. Some stand above others, while others blend in. It’s not an indictment about the state of imagination in the games industry; it’s just what happens when you look out across the landscape and see a vast array of product that vies for your attention.

How do we choose? Steam Sales, for one. That embarrassing backlog that grows significantly at least twice a year may yield a few games we try, but more than likely it just…grows. There’s hype, of course, which is literally a “guilty pleasure” that I think most people would like to be immune to, but secretly allow it wash over them like the visceral pull of a holiday season. The problem is that we never know if we’re getting a great experience or a digital lemon until we’ve put the money on the counter. The glut of “Let’s Play” videos act as a new way to kick the tires before we buy because sadly, the days of the demo have more or less passed us by. In short, it’s a crap shoot. You can allow some random blogger on a big-name video game site to sway you for or against a game, or you can just dive in a hope to gawd that you didn’t just flush your Ramen budget down the toilet.

Most of the time I’d say — for me, anyway — the result is “OK”. There’s a lot of games that I like, such as The Secret World, Wildstar, Guild Wars 2, Elite: Dangerous, and Halo Whatever, but there’s only a handful of games that really affect me in ways that never go away. In some cases that’s a factor of me being me (and you being you) such that when what I’m looking for and what a game provides intersect in just such a way, it creates an experience. It’s difficult if not impossible to purposefully engineer this confluence, especially when you’ve got a handful of strangers with different likes and dislikes developing for a multitude of strangers with different likes and dislikes. It’s such a statistical shot in the dark it’s amazing that it works as well as it does, that sometimes there’s a game that just seems to fire on all cylinders for so many people simultaneously. I am thinking, of course, of Fallout 4. 

I’ve gone from wanting to keep this game at arms length to wanting to evangelize the crap out of it. Part of my original assessment stands, though: it’s still got that cloud of horrible dread overlaying pretty much everything you do, because everything you do involves the remains of a dead civilization that was once your civilization (quite literally). But the one thing that this installment in the franchise offers that I don’t think the others have is hope, and that hope is you.

Last night I continued my journey in the wasteland, but it wasn’t a journey so much as it was a laundry list of things. Errands in the burnt world. I had to make those beds. I had to dig some wells. I had to find a food source. It wasn’t lost on me that these are the same kinds of things we high-and-mighty Gamers-With-A-Capital-G bray about when it takes the form of Facebook games, but put it in high-def 3D with a dog companion, and it becomes a task that’s worth doing. Along the way I learned a lot about how to tidy up the rubble by salvaging anything and everything that was highlighted when I ran the cursor over it. I flattened buildings and emptied rooms while saving up materials at the workbench. At first it was a “how much of this can I do before I get bored”, but then it dawned on me that I wasn’t just engaging in busy work, I was making space for a tribe of people who wanted to make a go of it in this dead world. All that crap was just in the way, and once it was cleared, we could start rebuilding.

Honestly, I don’t even want to go out and shoot things in this game. That’s kind of the least interesting part at this point. I want to salvage anything I can so I can bring it back and build. I want to rebuild these homes so people can live like civilization allowed us to before we caught the Ultimate Stupid and wrecked it all. I want to plan and construct and execute the plans. I want to create a small town and be it’s Most Important Citizen, the only one who has the blueprints for a Better Tomorrow. The NPCs may not respond the way appreciative people would in the real world, but I can imagine that they do. That kind of takes the sting away from the horrible stuff that lies beyond the borders of our little township.

What makes it even better is that there a legions of people playing Fallout 4 who apparently feel the same way. Some people could do without the homesteading, but I’m seeing a lot of people who are eschewing the adventuring life in favor of building their settlements, at least until they need more resources or want to direct good people to their burgeoning enclaves. It would be great if we could credit Bethesda for having 100% certainty that this mechanic of building would be a home run, but I really think it’s one of those additions that was included to follow a trend (the survival sandbox genre), but which ultimately helps Fallout 4 to be much greater than the sum of it’s parts.

Reading people’s stories about how they’re building their towns — which isn’t really the main point of the game — is becoming a shared experience. It’s not something that can be engineered. These are the kinds of stories that people hold on to and relate years down the road in conversation or as touchstones for some of their favorite gaming memories. I think when we’re inundated with a boundless sea of opportunities, finding that at least one of our choices not just pans out but pans out beautifully enhances that sense that we’ve got our hands on something awesome.

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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.

*   *   *

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.

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