Sunday, July 16, 2017

Fallout 4 - Survivalist Simulator or Character Revealer?

Despite my initial qualms, I have been enjoying Fallout 4 on my PS4 a great deal - probably too much, truth be told, if my ongoing state of sleep deprivation is any indication. What I am not liking is the growing evidence that I may not be as good or 'nice' a person as I think myself to be.

I'd heard lots of good things about the series and have a couple of close friends who are die-hard fans. The post-nuclear war setting has had a fantastically detailed retro-future glaze applied to it, making the world of the late 2200s, (200 years A.B.) look as though civilization peaked in the 1950s. The art design is brilliantly comprehensive, complete with tubed, b&w television sets, ads for fallout shelters, Studebaker-inspired cars and tanks. and a perky mascot called Vault Boy who is probably first cousin to a similarly named burger mascot.

Despite this though, a massive, open-world game where you alternate moving stories forward by undertaking various quests and missions with foraging to gain supplies and experience just didn't have a lot of appeal to me. I generally prefer my games to be more cinematically paced, such as in my current overall favourite, The Last of Us.

But when Jim gave me the game for my birthday, he said to give it a shot, and  not to really assess it until I had a few hours of it under my belt.

Sure enough, early into the game I discover that my character has a base with a number of crafting stations, for building structures, weapons, armour, food and various chemical compounds. Each item you build has a recipe of sorts, requiring various items you hope to come across on your travels.

So much work! Instead of the Resident Evil-style upgrade system that makes your pistol a little bit better with each piece you add or replace on it through the game, suddenly you a half dozen modification slots with a half dozen options apiece, each of which require different components (adhesives, aluminum, gears, screws, steel, etc.) and potentially some sort of skill or perk you choose as you level up, such as Gun Nut, Science! or Armourer. Not much fun, but then again, I've never seen the appeal of Sudoku either.

Well, that was then. Now I'm the one playing this silly game until all hours, and the excitement I feel at besting a sturdy foe or level boss is nowhere close to what I experience afterwards when I stumble across an old typewriter or package of duct tape (gasp!).

Two things happened early on in the game that have significantly shaped my Fallout 4 experience. After starting out with an assortment of shoddy looking improvised 'pipe' guns, I stumbled across a more powerful .308 caliber handgun, with a suppressor, or silencer, attached.

My former favourite game is Metal Gear Solid, a game where stealth is as much a component as combat, and I don't know how much imprinting that mid-90s experience had on me, but if there is a stealth option in any of the games I play, odds are that is the route I am going to take.

The cover and screenshots of Fallout 4 make heavy use of the powered armour in the game, something else I am a huge fan of in many, many iterations (Starship Troopers, Battletech, Iron Man, 40K Space Marines, et al), but I quickly found that stealthily moving into position and silently popping my would-be combatants unaware, from the shadows, was immensely satisfying, and usually far less risky.

Soon I had enough skills and supplies to convert this rifle-chambered handgun into a proper longarm, outfitting it with a simple scope. Now I could skulk around the perimeter, taking a silenced headshot from under cover, then either moving away or to another equidistant position. Sometimes it might take several such shots, especially on larger opponents, like the 7-foot tall Supermutants. It was not a very time-efficient way to get things done, but prevented me from being overwhelmed, and besides, I hardly ever had to use any of my resources for healing.

Then, as I leveled up, I discovered I had access to way more of the perks on the chart than I had thought, and began looking at the various skills offered from the perspective of someone who thinks of a face-to-face, mano-a-mano throwdown as the pinnacle of foolishness.

I had put a lot of points into my character's Agility stat initially, which had left me a little short in other areas, but did allow me to take the Ninja perk, applying a multiplier to any sneak attacks I pulled off while hidden.

And at this point, my days of fighting fair were well and truly done.

Radstags, mutated, two-headed ruminant, are good eatin' in the game, but would often take 2-3 hits to bring down before my ninjafication, but now, a single headshot from half a football field away would drop the beast, accompanied by the satisfying cash register 'ka-ching!' sound that signified the racking up of experience points.

Even Supermutants could be felled with a single shot in many circumstances, and I spent the better part of two hours circling a camp full of them in a satellite dish array. Methodically picking off their sentries, tower guards and especially the savage Mutant Hounds that had thwarted my previous attempts at a direct assault. They would beeline for my position, homing in on either the suppressed sound or perhaps my scent, but by prioritizing them as targets, I could do my rest of my grisly work in a far more orderly and less risky fashion, only having to sprin away from a potential counterattack on one occasion.

At my next leveling up, however, I stumbled across a perk I had previously viewed and discounted: Mr. Sandman.

Now, despite reserving a lot of my perimeter breaches for the deadiest dead of night, I have not come across a lot of sleeping opponents to this point, and when I have, well, it just makes it easier to line the crosshairs up on them at close range, unless they are restless sleepers. But since by this point my go-to weapons were all suppressed anyhow (my TelCo long distance rifle ('The next best thing to being there,' or perhaps 'Reach out and touch someone'), a .38 submachine gun , and a 10mm machine pistol), well, it just seemed foolish and borderline ungrateful not to go Sandman.

Thus you find me perhaps mid-game: a full time, bona fide, dyed in the wool dry-gulcher. Having almost completely eschewed the powered armour brawler angle, my character Gideon now spends 80% of his time in the crouched position, approaching conflict zones from oblique angles, with maximum cover and multiple exfiltration routes, sometimes salting potential approaches with mines and then making myself fully visible after dispatching the tower guards in order to prompt pursuit. (Finding and retrieving deployed mines is a dodgy and dangerous business; far easier to just set them off at that point.) I endure numerous taunts from Raiders and other assorted dirtbags about what a 'coward' I am for hiding, and how ambushing isn't very 'brave'.

I'm not about to take character cues from a bunch of gits wearing gimp masks and who decorate their premises with human remains, but the option to 'Sandman Kill' appears even when I approach dozing allies. I arrive in the dead of night to let them know I have driven off the pack of Feral Ghouls that were harassing them, or the Raiders who had been making off with their livestock, and as I look at the option to snuff out their virtual life with a single button push, I can't help but think: my Fallout self is not a very good person. At least I haven't started thinking about all the potential experience points I am leaving on the table... yet.

When special forces recruiters look for snipers, there are two potential syndromes they try to detect and screen out of the program. The first is 'Texas Tower' syndrome, a giddy-feeling of nearly god-like power that comes with sniping targets undetected from an elevated position. The second is Munich Massacre syndrome, named after the German police who had Black September terrorists in their sights for days, watching them go about their daily business long enough to humanize them and develop empathy for them, and ultimately, leaving them unable to pull the trigger when the time came.

Somewhere between these two extremes lies a somewhat grey and apparently rather rare mindset, especially when coupled with the specific skills and attributes required to be a world-class sniper.

Thankfully, the world of Fallout 4 is a bit more black and white than that, and my targets rarely laugh, socialize, or go to the bathroom. Some of them do sleep,l however, and it is only a matter of time before this wasteland survival game becomes a de facto murder simulator, and I can't help but be a bit curious about how that goes.

In the end, the game is probably not telling me that I am a ticking bomb of sociopathy waiting to go off, or a potential thrill-killer temporarily sated by the interaction of video games. I am notoriously risk-averse in real life as well as in games, so my aversion to direct conflict is consistently reflected.

Besides, I probably come off comparatively well inside the game, especially given my eagerness to  take on pretty much every hard luck job that comes across my path. Apparently my Fallout-self and I share an inability to say no to such requests.

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