So, thereís a reason I havenít updated this blog in a good long while.† That reason, simply put, is that I havenít been playing much in the way of relevant games to comment on in quite some time.

True, thatís not to say I havenít been playing any games at all, but most of them have been things Iíve already covered: going back and playing/re-modding old stuff like Fallout 3/New Vegas and TES:Skyrim, and playing a good amount of pinball as usual (for real, even: I finally got around to visiting the Pacific Pinball Museum this year).† Beyond that, though, I really havenít done much in PC gaming, aside from picking up a few small indie titles, most of which I havenít gotten around to playing, as the mainstream, ďAAAĒ games market for quite some time hasnít really had much Iíve been interested in (I picked up Wolfenstein: The New Order somewhere along the line, but gave up on it midway through – itís a very competent shooter, to be sure, but Iím beginning to realize I donít have the same taste I once did for linear shooters).† I managed to pick up a whopping one new game for my languishing 3DS system (Fantasy Life, a fun, open-world, albeit very repetitive combination of RPG and life-sim), and dipped my toe into the world of iOS mobile gaming (which is, sadly, largely a cesspit of freemium awfulness, but that particular topic deserves its own separate article).

Which means that this is about the first time in the last couple of years Iíve actually picked up a major-party title on launch day.† Unsurprisingly, itís Fallout 4, Bethesdaís latest venture back into the wasteland and ostensible follow-up to Fallout 3 (and the spin-off New Vegas).† It is probably one of only two games I will pick up immediately this year, the other being Just Cause 3 (based on my experience with the prior one).† Admittedly, this speaks to my current preference for open-world sandbox-style games where character freedom is paramount – after being steeped in such games for so long, itís hard to want to go back to a more linear, directed experience (which, among other reasons, is why I havenít picked up a Call of Duty game since Modern Warfare).† Given how much Iíve enjoyed the previous entries into this series, it was a given that I was going to pick up Fallout 4, and so far itís been largely what Iíve come to expect from this series, with some new improvementsÖ and some new problems.

Somehow, Iím close to a dayís worth of playtime into Fallout 4, and Iíve really only scratched the surface, playing through (maybe) half of the main campaign and a dozen or so other sidequests.† So, this will be more a collection of initial observations than anything else.

-It goes without saying that one of the biggest draws of the recent Fallout games has been the wide-open gameplay, and to no oneís surprise, this one does not disappoint – once youíre through the intro, you can go basically anywhere you like in the game, as long as you can figure out how to survive there (with the exception of certain areas that are devoted to particular quests).† This has always been one of the major draws for me to this series: the fact that there are no artificial barriers to exploring the entirety of the game world (and if youíre the clever sort at manipulating the in-game console, you can probably step to any point in the gameís main or side quests, too).† As has also been the case, there are a lot of granular difficulty settings, including Very Easy, so there isnít an artificial skill barrier, either.† Overall, the game is generally quite accessible, and the only locked-out parts are certain features that require various perks to use (and again, judicious use of the player.addperk console command can get you past those barriers as well, if you so desire).

-Perhaps the biggest disjunct between Fallout 3 and New Vegas was the nature of the story.† Fallout 3 was very proscribed: you were the good(ish) person who was going to help the Brotherhood of Steel, almost literally the white knights of the piece, supplant the blankly evil Enclave and restore prosperity to the wasteland, albeit with a few opportunities to foment alternate paths along the way (and a better ability to choose sides very late in the game with the Broken Steel add-on).† Even if you decided to basically be completely evil, as far as Iím aware, the main quest required you to play along and be the good guy.

New Vegas, on the other hand, offered a lot more choice – while the main plotline starts out as a fairly basic revenge piece, once the titular New Vegas is reached, the ability to take the plot in a different direction, including telling all the other factions to sod off and taking over the wasteland for yourself, made for a much freer player-directed narrative, if perhaps a slightly less dramatic one.

Fallout 4 isÖ† a mixed bag in this regard, at least as much as Iíve played so far (and to talk about it, obviously there will be some spoilers of early in-game plot, so skip this portion if you havenít played it yet).† Like its official predecessor, Fallout 3, the introductory sequence is a bit overly long, striving to instill some sort of relationship between you and a handful of NPCs that you will never see again about five minutes after they are introduced, and features a non-interactive ďdramaticĒ scene trying to force emotional content down your throat (look, the bad guys are killing/kidnapping your family!† This will obviously be the driving reason for everything you do that follows this!).† This is in contrast to the mercifully brief Doc Mitchell intro/stat setup routine in New Vegas, which gives you a very quick orientation and gets you right out into the action.

Once you get passed the mandatory introductory sequence, thereís an ďescape the vault/smack some radroaches aroundĒ sequence similar to the one in Fallout 3, albeit without any further interaction with vault-dwellers (mostly because they bugged out, or are long dead).† Past that, and youíre out into the world, which is ostensibly open from that point on, although youíre quickly directed towards an introductory quest that introduces you to the first ďfriendlyĒ faction, the Minutemen.

In a way, I kind of wish the game began closer to this introductory quest, because it really gets you directly into the action, including giving you an opportunity right off the bat to climb into a suit of power armor and run around like a complete badass (even if you canít use it a whole lot beyond that to start out, but Iíll discuss that in more detail later).† As far as factions go, the Minutemen are the usual goody-two-shoes ones, but at least they make sense: a group of survivors banding together in the spirit of the areaís history to try and form a workable society again.

They mainly end up assigning mini-quests for a while, but eventually have some slightly more significant missions, including a fairly interesting set-piece; although as far as the main plot goes, they so far seem more or less irrelevant except to serve as impetus to use the system for fabricating new settlements.

As for the main plot, at least thus far, thereís not much in the way of moral ambiguity, such as the motives behind Mr. House or the NCR in New Vegas: youíre going up against The Institute, yet another organization portrayed as the face of prime evil, with no real nuance whatsoever, although some of the interim characters are revealed to be a bit more compelling.† As I havenít actually gone up against them directly, itís possible there might be a little more to them later on, but given Bethesdaís track record with Fallout 3 and the Enclave, I donít have a lot of reason to be optimistic (although to their credit, the Enclaveís AI ďpresidentĒ did provide a more compelling and complex character than the rest of the Enclaveís ďweíre basically just evilĒ personnel).

Also to their credit, some of the other factions are a little more interesting, if somewhat more peripheral: the Railroad brings up some interesting issues, and the Brotherhood of Steel seems to operate in more of a grey area than in the past, picking up the Enclaveís questionable ethos of ďkill everything that isnít human,Ē although it is something of an about-face from their righteously tolerant viewpoint in the previous entry.† There are a few other characters and side factions of note, although Nick Valentine is the only one that stands out particularly, providing some fresh perspective to what otherwise was becoming a rather staid ďtrack down the bastard who kidnapped your kid and then inevitably be forced to kill him anywayĒ plotline, albeit one that managed to involve said bastard considerably more intriguingly only after heíd met his demise.

So, still early days as far as the plot is concerned, and while itís something of an improvement from Fallout 3ís completely on-rails plot, itís still far from free of the usual Bethesda devices.† (Although, admittedly, as in most of these games you can decide to ignore the main plotline entirely and go off exploring or doing sidequests, but as the main plot is supposed to be the main draw of the game, it does need to be somewhat compelling, and the ďsomeone you know has gone missingÖ againÖ kinda like in Fallout 3Ē doesnít exactly show a ton of originality.)

-While weíre (vaguely) heading towards the topic of companions, I really do have to mention the dog.† While Fallout 3ís version of the iconic Dogmeat companion took a bit of random searching to get, and generally bit it after a few instances of combat, Fallout 4ís version of vaguely-uncanny-valley canine shows up near the place youíd most likely leave the initial settlement, and is considered ďessential,Ē becoming stationary and whining incessantly when defeated, only to spring back to perfect health a few seconds later.† (And speaking of uncanny valley, while itís already been rather widely pointed out, your sonís infant form is truly disconcerting, one of those terrifying 3D models that really should have been caught before the game was released to production – itís hard to conjure the requisite narrative sympathy when the baby youíre attempting to bond with, and later become upset over its kidnapping, looks like some sort of dead-eyed hellspawn.)

I think the idea behind Dogmeat was to be some sort of useful companion: hold enemies in place so that you can shoot them, fetch loot you might have missed, and so on.† In practice, however, Dogmeat is actually noticeably, aggravatingly worse than having no companion at all.† When he goes to hold an enemy, the enemy flails around and struggles, making it hard to consistently aim for them – far harder that it would be with them popping their heads out of cover, which is where they would be if Dogmeat hadnít charged them.† Which, by the way, heíll do even if youíre in stealth and trying to sneak, riling up the enemies and causing them to run all over the place instead of sticking to the patrol routines that you were trying to snipe them from.† Youíll also find that when Dogmeat ďfindsĒ something, itís most often a weapon that you intentionally didnít pick up from a defeated enemy.† All of that is annoying enough, true, but the worst part of all is that, unlike the other companions who only seem to interfere on occasion, Dogmeat tends to stick close by, and especially indoors is always underfoot, blocking doorways and impeding your progress, which is especially aggravating in close firefights when your stupid dog is preventing you from getting to cover.

I suppose Iíd be even more critical of Dogmeat if the dog was still there, constantly trying to get me to trip over him, but that hasnít been the case for quite some time now.† Midway through the main quest line, thereís a quest where Dogmeat is used to track someone by scent, and at the destination, my other companion said that it was time to give the dog a break, and weíd go scout the building it had led us to on our own.† When we got back out, though, Dogmeat had wandered off somewhere, and since then seems to have disappeared completely (before, it would show back up whenever I fast-traveled, but no longer does).† If, like other dismissed companions, Dogmeat was sent off somewhere, I have no idea what that location would be – the dog doesnít appear at any of the usual places I visit.

The other, two-legged companions are generally decent, although, unlike Dogmeatís suicidal charging, they sometimes seem very devoted to bringing up the rear, and occasionally allergic to combat – Iíd be sitting there, in the middle of an intense firefight, and the brave Brotherhood of Steel Paladin Danse would be staring at a wall doing nothing at all.† Actually, I could do without any more adventuring with that particular power-armored grump, whose lines of dialogue consist of random, gruff soldier-nonsense and who apparently disliked most everything I did (although bringing his stoic presence along on missions for the Railroad, an organization effectively at cross-purposes with the Brotherhood, was unintentionally hilarious – apparently, the game isnít programmed to notice this conflict, so none of the operatives in the synth-saving operation seemed to notice that I was hauling along someone ideologically devoted to murdering every last one of them).† Nick Valentine, though, was generally pleasant company, and wasnít afraid to jump into the fray (and could also hack terminals, something I hadnít specced my character for).† I guess that being able to order companions around more granually is an improvement, although the interface for it is somewhat inconsistent as to whether or not it will work properly, and will drastically reduce the control sensitivity when trying to pick an option, becoming rather frustrating when trying to do so while anything else is going on. (this is true for regular dialogue as well – I can recall an instance of sitting there, trying to get the dialogue menu to pop up and choose an option while it was stuck in that mode, while an enemy that I couldnít kill while stuck like that was wailing hilariously at me with a pool cue.)

-I really do like the extensive modification system for weapons and armor, something that goes a lot further than the not-really-any modifications in Fallout 3, and the limited weapon modkits in New Vegas.† Assuming you collect enough random junk and add the right perks, you can customize a ton of different things about various weapons and armor bits, fitting each one to your specifications (although in a lot of cases, the different mods are direct upgrades of each other without concomitant drawbacks or compelling new features).† These features do help to make up for the otherwise rather limited selection of both weapons and armor in the game.† Iíve encountered maybe a little over a dozen ďuniqueĒ weapons systems so far, maybe a half-dozen different armor classes, and three variants of power armor.† Without those customizations, that limited selection might have felt a little too limiting, but with them, it feels like thereís a much wider range of possibilities (and it is true that there may be some additional weapon systems later in the game).† The regular pistol, for instance, can be anything from a silenced close-in weapon to a scoped damage-dealer, and the ďpipeĒ weapons favored by the raiders can be converted from a .38-caliber plinker all the way up to a steady, semiautomatic sniper rifle with a ranged night-vision scope.† Armor can be modified, although not quite as much – the ďpocketedĒ mod, which adds to carry weight, is rather essential for all the junk youíll need to hoard to complete all those mods in the first place (and making the fairly rare ďadhesiveĒ category a limiting factor on every single mod in the game is an additional annoyance, for sure).

-Speaking of modifications, one of the most heavily modifiable things is now power armor – in previous games, it was just like any other armor, a suit and helmet, and primarily provided better damage resistance.† Now, however, the whole thing is broken down into parts: the armorís bare frame, and the leg, arm, torso and helmet pieces are separate, with pieces from any set able to be mixed and matched in any combination onto the frame itself.† (And, of course, each piece can be customized with various mods, including radiation filters, jump jets, and several other intriguing bits.)

I admit that I have something of a love-hate relationship with this iteration of power armor.† The customization is definitely cool, and it actually feels like a proper suit of power armor, rather than a mere cosmetic difference and increase in stats.† Thereís an animation that actually shows you getting into and out of it, and once youíre in it, the entire HUD changes to reflect its status.† Moving around in it, it really feels like youíre in armor: things move and sound solid and weighty, and a particular cool feature of the armor is that it mitigates fall damage, letting you plummet from a tall building and land with a resounding thud, stunning enemies and shaking the ground around you.† That first time you get to try it out, jumping off the roof, slamming down and spraying a bunch of raiders (and, apparently, a very lost Deathclaw) with a minigun, is a powerful set-piece right off the bat, and once itís over, youíre really jazzed – this early in the game, and youíve already got this badass suit of power armor!

A few minutes later, though, and the reality of it sets in.† In that basic form at least, power armor isnít particularly strong – a few solid hits, and a portion of the armor will break and become unequipped, no longer protecting you, and can only be re-equipped once repaired at a power-armor station at the cost of some resources (which, while fairly dear that early in the game, soon accumulate at a rate that means that if you hoover up most of the stuff you come across, youíre rarely out of anything save for the annoyingly rare adhesive).

The other big limitation is that, instead of simply going indefinitely like earlier versions, the new armor runs off the rare and quite expensive fusion cores (up to this point in the game, after running numerous missions and selling a good bit of random stuff, plus windfalls from the fortune finder perk, I have 8000 caps in total – each fusion core, by contrast, is around 500).† Fusion cores canít be recharged, as far as I know, and drain within power armor relatively quickly any time it is moving.† Ten or so minutes of constant exploration will probably drain most of one, and so using power armor for every mission is all but precluded until much later in the game when youíve managed to stockpile a decent number of cores, limiting the actual use of the armor to missions where you know youíll need it.

In a way, this makes sense – it allows you to play around with the armor much earlier in the game, without making you too over-powered right off the bat.† However, the limitations do feel vexing, and leads to that one part of games that I really kind of hate: where the game gives you some cool and powerful new feature for a while, and then strips it away from you arbitrarily, making you build back up to it again.† At least, unlike Fallout 3 (and New Vegasí Dead Money expansion), I havenít had any missions yet where all my equipmentís been stripped away from me, but the first time I had to reluctantly take off my power armor as my sole fusion core dwindled was a rather disappointing experience.

-The new ďslo-moĒ VATS system honestly kinda pisses me off.† It manages to take two cool features, the strategic pause of VATS and the bullet-time system that independent mods introduced to Fallout 3 and New Vegas, and combine them into a system that uses the worst part of both.† In the previous system, everything would pause while you selected targets, like a turn-based RPG (at least to the extent of your action points), giving you a break and allowing you to plan out some well-placed shots in an otherwise chaotic fight.† In the new system, though, the enemy is still moving, the to-hit numbers for the various body parts (and more importantly, their locations) varying constantly.† This is especially problematic with charging enemies, who, by the time you can get a decent hit chance in, are already right in your face, damaging you as you desperately try to click on the locations and begin your attack, making it feel much more frustrating than it should be.† Plus, thereís no way to use it without the numbers as a direct bullet-time mode that might actually be more helpful in the games more directly shooter-oriented play (well, I guess there are some very short bursts of bullet-time, assuming you donít mind risking an addiction to Jet, but in that duration I didnít find it particularly interesting or useful).

-Donít even get me started on the grenades.† Apparently all enemies in the wasteland are descended from shot-put champions or baseball pitchers, because while most of them canít seem to even shoot straight, every single one seems capable of landing a grenade directly on top of you from any position, even in some cases when youíre behind cover.† And unlike certain other shooter games that are known for this, you canít do some quick-react move and toss them back, only try to scurry out of the way, which is about useless because most of them explode either on contact or within a split-second of the grenade showing up beside you (and because your stupid dog is probably blocking the easiest path of escape).† Oh, and most enemies that have them are even more grenade-crazy than Powder Gangers with their stupid dynamite, lobbing the things nearly constantly.† Whoever thought this would be a good gameplay mechanic needs to have their head examined.

-I should take a moment to mention the atmosphere.† The one thing about New Vegas that always sort of bugged me was that, for the most part, the game didnít really feel all that post-apocalyptic in its ambience, more alternate-reality western than anything else, just a lot of barren land with some occasional structure that looked a little worn-down.† Fallout 3, by contrast, really did feel like the ruins of a destroyed metropolitan area, and especially navigating through the DC suburbs amidst all the ruined architecture, it really felt like a coherent ambience.† I still have fond recollections of just wandering aimlessly through the wastes, listening to the fifties-era tunes on the radio station, taking it all in and losing myself in that bleak and beautiful world.

Fallout 4, to its benefit, hews more towards a slightly more varied and colorful version of the Fallout 3 ambience than the wide-open, un-ruined spaces of New Vegas.† Most areas have a distinctive sort of character to them, from the densely-packed streets of the city center to the wooded hills and waterways.† There are plenty of interesting landmarks interspersed, and unlike Fallout 3ís small, divided snippets of the city center, the main metropolitan area in this one is largely contiguous, and can be explored without resorting to an annoying string of seemingly identical subway tunnels.† True, there is still plenty of repetition, especially in building interiors, although this has been true for just about every open-world game from Bethesda since Oblivion, so itís hardly much of a surprise.† Still, this latest iteration really does have some character to it – wandering about the Glowing Sea in a suit of power armor, fighting deathclaws amidst the hazy destruction, was among the most atmospheric experiences I can remember from most games Iíve played.

-I should probably wrap up this review with the one obvious caveat: it does seem a little misleading to try and rate this game as it is now.† The fact of the matter is, when I buy a game like Fallout 4, or 3, or New Vegas, or Skyrim, Iím buying it in some small part for the initial campaign, and game world, and thrill of experiencing it for the first time.† In reality, though, what Iím buying it for the most is the potential to craft that world to become exactly how I want it to be, thanks to the extensive modding scene for every one of these games.† So, when it comes to the problems Iíve mentioned, I know they arenít going to be there for good, just in this initial playthrough.† Annoyed by the new VATS system?† Eventually, there will surely be both a modification to restore the previous system, and to add in proper bullet-time.† There will also be a way to mod out the grenade spam, have mods cost less adhesive, and force Dogmeat to keep out of the way.† Obviously, this isnít to say that Bethesda should get a free pass for the problems that their game shipped with, some of them which really should have been caught in play-testing – but for the things that irk me in particular, not because theyíre a problem with the game but because I simply donít like them, I know that there will be the opportunity to remedy them, and nudge the game into the form that I particularly want to play.† Which is probably why Iím willing to simply shrug my shoulders at most of the quibbles Iíve mentioned and keep playing, knowing that theyíll all be taken care of sooner or later, while in a game where such modding wasnít possible, Iíd look on such problems much more harshly, as they would continue to impede my enjoyment of the game.

So, thatís what I have to say about it so far – Iíll probably have some additional things to say, and some more in-depth commentary on the story, once Iíve gotten the rest of the way through the main and ancillary quest lines.† From what Iíve seen so far, though, it has a lot of the strengths, and some of the weaknesses, of previous games in the series.† As far as an open sandbox goes, though, at least one with guns and a deeply atmospheric post-apocalyptic setting, it seems pretty hard to beat – and once the GECK comes out and the modding scene gets seriously involved, I can only see it getting better.

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