Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Fallout 4: "Survive..."

I'm having a rough time of it right now.  I've just killed a couple of super mutants, but my salvaged power armour is in shreds and its stolen fusion core is almost drained. I can't carry any more weight, I'm dehydrated, starved, and haven't had enough sleep, weakened by an infection and suffering from a minor case of radiation poisoning, low on food, water and ammunition, and my canine companion has been injured so badly that he's gone back to our base to recover because I don't have any stimpacks left to heal him.

My only hope is to sneak between the killer sentry bot on the hill and the nearby Gunner base without running into any radscorpions, feral dogs, ghouls or bloodbugs, eliminate all the raiders at the captured listening post to complete my mission, and then carefully retrace my route in hopes of getting home without being killed and having to start all over.

All in all, just another day in the Wasteland for Fallout 4's Survival Mode.

When Bethesda Games came out with Fallout 3 in 2008, they introduced an innovative open world gaming strategy which has stood the test of time, as demonstrated by the success of Fallout: New Vegas in 2010, 2011's Skyrim*, and Fallout 4 in 2015.

The basic system is simple: there is an overall plot line made up of many discreet missions, combined with side quests and random encounters.  The player explores the map on foot initially, but as new locations are discovered, they can be revisited by fast traveling rather than having to retrace the entire route.  Weapons, armour and supplies can be found in abandoned buildings, purchased from vendors, or looted from the bodies of opponents, and there are a variety of crafting stations so that the player can upgrade their equipment, cook food or create drugs. As the player accomplishes different tasks and completes missions, they accumulate experience points that allow them to level up and chose different perks that enhance their abilities or give them new ones.

The different games in Bethesda's library have built on this system in a variety of ways.  Fallout 3 rated your character based on whether or not they were a good person or a bad person, and modified the game's options based on that profile. Fallout: New Vegas introduced different factions that could either be allies or enemies depending on how the player interacted with them, and Skyrim allowed players to chose from a variety of species, and then select a political alignment in the course of gameplay.  Fallout 4 added the option of managing settlements by creating radio beacons to attract settlers and then constructing buildings, beds, water pumps and defensive structures to support the settlement's new inhabitants.

I worked my way through Fallout 4 from the start to the resolution of the main plotline, and then started to replay it so that I could do some side missions that I'd missed the first time by failing to join the Brotherhood of Steel** when I had the chance.  Sadly, after completing the game once, it wasn't as challenging the second time, and I found myself starting to lose interest.

However, there was another option.  I'd been playing at Very Difficult, the most challenging of the standard difficulty settings, but there was still another level:  Survival Mode.

Survival Mode changes Fallout 4 into something which may be a little too close to real life.  The player loses the ability to save the game whenever they want to - the only way to save your progress is to find a bed of some sort and sleep.  And regular sleep is a definite necessity, as is food and water, not to mention that eating uncooked food increases the chances of getting sick.

Fast travel is no longer an option: if a mission requires you to walk across the entire Wasteland and back, you do it the old-fashioned way, no instant jumps.  It's harder to locate supplies to scavenge, and trying to carry more than your rated load capacity will reduce your health and eventually cripple your legs.  Ammunition, which has no weight in the other modes, becomes a definite factor in your burden, and your companion's ability to help you out by carrying things is reduced.

The result of all these restrictions?  A much more challenging and gripping experience which has renewed my interest in the game.
Survival Mode requires caution, patience and planning.  Gone is the option of just saving a game if it looks like things might get dangerous, then charging in with the confidence that if you end up getting killed, you can just restore your game and do it again.  There's no more skipping across the entire map to sell a full load of looted weapons and armour to different merchants, and no more jumping to a location with a power armour maintenance rack every time something get banged up and needs repair.  Cooking stations and water pumps go from being somewhat pointless bits of scenery to crucial elements in staying alive, and the random beds, mattresses and sleeping bags scattered around the map suddenly make a lot more sense.

In Survival mode, you carefully select the things you take with you, and keep a constant eye on your surroundings as you travel, because it's very very easy to run into something unexpected that will kill you long before you even get close to your destination.  Finding an empty bed is a triumph, and the allied settlements become desperately sought refuges rather than micromanagement challenges.

Now I find that when I log in to play, I pay much more attention to my surroundings, looking for movement and moving cautiously along the roads and through the forests.  When I could fast travel from place to place, I had no feel for the map, but now I have a keen awareness of what's where, to the point that I'm surprised to discover that certain destinations were actually quite close to each other, even to a person limping along in damaged power armour.

Difficulty management is one of the great challenges of game programming. Too easy, and players become bored; too hard, and players may just give up.***  Ultimately, you need just the right amount of frustration as the final spice required to make a game completely appetizing, and, as with any spice, too much of it results in an unpalatable experience.  I'm pleased that Bethesda was able to add just the right amount of frustration to Fallout 4 in order to suit my personal tastes.
- Sid

* At this point, my gaming snob nephew Chris says, "Actually, Uncle Sid, it's Elder Scrolls V, not Skyrim."

** There are female members of the Brotherhood, but there's no option to ask them how they feel about gender-biased organization names.

*** A gaming experience which has actually happened to me - twice.

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