Fallout 4’s Commonwealth Is A Big Place – It’ll Teach You A lot
Ever since I saw the Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome, the apocalypse and I have held a special relationship. We’re besties.
However, when it comes to my post-apocalyptic game franchise of choice, I sadly cannot claim to have been there from the beginning. Given I was raised in a house that made use of Macintosh computers, I didn’t get a lot of gaming love in those days. Fallout only hit my radar in a sideways fashion from the experiences my friends shared as a child. So I never got to play Fallout or Fallout 2 – but not for lack of want.
Fallout 3 was my first chance to really play in their sprawling universe. I still play the hell out of that game on my 360 almost a decade later. I played through it no fewer than six times by my count. I tried different combinations (the stealthy character, the heavy gunner, the smooth talker, the saint, the bastard, but never as a pugilist), though there were always a couple core fundamentals that I would adhere to. Always save your Sugar Bombs (because being addicted to Ultra Jet is what the cool kids do). Never drink a Nuka Quantum (you need Nuka Grenades more than you need HP and AP). And always, always, always buy Grim Reaper’s Sprint at level twenty. You could buy another level twenty perk, sure… but good god, why?
So, when I got Fallout 4 I knew that barring some kind of actual disaster or apocalypse I’d be playing through it multiple times. Furthermore, I knew that after I ran through the main quest once with an organic mindset – not using strategy guides or spoilers – I’d come out the other side with clear learnings for my subsequent playthroughs where I’d be free to use every cheat I could get my hands on.
So, I figured that since I got through my first playthrough in about thirty days with a little over a week of extra days tagged on for sum up stuff, I’d share my experience with the internet while I run through my next characters formative first levels.
My First Wastelander
Before we get too far into my journey of discovery, I’ll start with the basics. Meet Gibson.
I went with the male character option first, and I gave him a more or less even spread in S.P.E.C.I.A.L. (4 points in each to start) before doing some tweaks. He had an extra point in both strength (for carrying equipment), and Charisma (because F3 taught me talking my way into or out of things is handy). I took defecits of one point each in Perception and Luck. When I came out of the Vault and got my free point from the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. book hiding under Shaun’s crib, I popped that point in Strength again because I am super focused on encumbrance issues – it’s better to have a Fat Man and not need it than to need a Fat Man and not have it.
This is the ex-soldier who I created to roam the wasteland initially, and it is from that build that I learned the ropes. The stats didn’t stay that way – but they certainly molded who Gibson turned out to be and how I played him.
Lesson One – Forget Most Game Mechanics From Fallout 3
Sure, you can approach the game the way I did the first time through – namely that I took everything as granted from Fallout 3. I went in and never drank a Nuka Cola Quantum. I saved all my sugar bombs. I left behind junk items. I dumped points out of luck for more concrete and reliable stats. I made sure I was buff enough to carry stuff. While a .250 batting average will keep you in the MLB, in fallout it just means that you’re likely to hit a dry spell for hits in the Commonwealth. I found myself in a familiar land crawling with familiar enemies… that played by rules unfamiliar and forced me into new ways of plotting a course through the game.
Gone were my morality choices (and their concomitant benefits and penalties – I generally play a better person now given I’m not shooting for maximum good/evil status achievements). Gone was the skill system (just totally absent). Gone was the way I knew of maintaining superior firepower (getting special named guns and upgrading schematics). I still had a workbench, but it only did one thing (weapons, armor, and power suit lift all handle specialized items) and schematics were never a part of the equation. I had to learn new ways to build, what junk had value (as it turns out… almost freaking all of it), and how the new critical system worked (man, I started dumping perks levels into Luck fast after that revelation).
The second biggest change was how Radiation worked. You could absorb a shit ton of radiation in F3 and you’d just get some S.P.E.C.I.A.L penalties. Most of those penalties were compensated for by drugs – if they even really affected you at all. But in Fallout 4, you take rads and it reduces your total attainable hit points. Radiation becomes something you stay away from or at least limit exposure to, becasue you hit a hot zone, you’re in for some trouble when you realize you can only take a hit or two before you die.
Lesson Two – Perks Are an All New Game
The biggest system to change though were Perks and the absence of a level cap. The Perk system received an almost total overhaul, at least at first glance. To say it’s entirely new is a little misleading – but also entirely apt. You do everything more or less in the same way by buying perks that you have the prerequisites for, but they labeled it in such a manner as to be visually simple to follow. The buying system is the same, but now you could see how it maps out better. You get a perk a level. All familiar.
However, by removing the familiar level cap that made you super choosy about how you went about selecting perks, they totally changed how I approached leveling. Sure – I could dump those perk points into Special Training before Fallout 4’s way of doing things came along. But some perks simply were too good to not get, and with the cap in place you never really upped S.P.E.C.I.A.L. scores. Why would I? I could have spent those points on any other thing that was going to be a lot more useful (Grim Reaper Sprint, every level of Swift Learner, Thief, Fortune Finder, Strong Back – that’s seven perks right there alone). With only 20 levels (30 if you bought Broken Steel) I had a limited combination of options. Some perks were precious, so if I wanted certain things I had to forgo simpler stat boosts that would let you unlock some of the other interesting perks. I had to stop thinking like that in Fallout 4 because suddenly, there was no limit.
I suddenly realized I could build the wastelander I’ve always wanted. It makes for a little choice paralysis at first – but on that second playthrough, you’re gonna know exactly what it is that you want having gone through the game the first time. You learn that VANS is useless – unless you’re on that first playthrough. You might learn that it’s not as important to load up on Lockpicking and Computers perks as it is to get Perks to craft better items. You might start opening up sneak options you might have avoided in F3. You might hold off on things like Mysterious Stranger or Idiot Savant because you want a more ‘realistic’ play through. It makes it a game you can approach in any style you so choose. You’ve got nothing but time to explore them ass with no cap.
The new Perks system is a great way to re-envision an already good way of doing things – I wish more games used it.
Lesson Three – Building a Better Stronghold
This was all new – the entire concept was foreign to me. Building a base in F3 meant allying with a settlement for long enough that they trusted you with a space. If you wanted something to spruce it up, you got it from that place’s merchant and it got installed. Home was where a workbench and a locker was. You didn’t really have to work for it that hard. With a bed, a place to get detoxed, and to cool your Nuka Cola’s, you had what you needed.
Fallout 4 will give you the basics – a couple of workbenches and a power armor station… but good luck buddy. You wanna sleep? You’re gonna learn how to build a bed with a roof over it (unless you found the root cellar tucked away in Sanctuary which I didn’t notice until after my first playthrough). You want cool stuff in your settlement? Learn how to wire it up or your cool stuff doesn’t have power. And holy hell, if you want to be able to build anywhere, you better learn how to draw settlers and get them moving between places. Because that junk doesn’t haul around itself. Nor do the people schlepping your crap from place to place deal well with things like, you know, starvation or raider attacks. You have to protect the people who show up at your door if you want them to work for you.
Lesson Four – Companions Are Actually Useful
In Fallout 3 there was nothing I hated more than dragging around a companion. They got in my line of sight. They were dumber than a box of hammers. And, worst of all, if you weren’t careful they’d die in combat. Then who was gonna carry your stuff around for you?
I’m reliably told that some things were fixed in New Vegas regarding companions, but I never got into that title – not sure why. But in Fallout 4, companions are useful. Primarily, this is because they’re functionally immortal. They can get shot to shit and get knocked out of a fight, but after combat is over they get up again (or you can give ’em a stimpack and put them back in the fight). Plus, sometimes they turn into friends with benefits. In multiple senses of the word (more on that a little later). As you gain companions’ respect, they open up to you and some of them give you quests. Chances are, after you finish that quest with them (and provided you haven’t done anything they highly disapprove of) they’ll open a perk you can only get from them.
Lesson Five – Codsworth Is the Best Starter Companion
Seriously. You’ll see Codsworth in the opening scenes and probably think ‘Oh man. Those Mr. Handy robots have always been more trouble than they’re worth.’
Stow that shit and get chummy with Codsworth. Not only is he the only character that has a good shot of being able to say your name aloud in dialogs, but Codsworth also kicks ass. The first time you see him burn a ghoul alive with his flamethrower, you’ll realize that this is the ‘bot you want at your back. He saws super mutants in half. And, when you’re out there in an unforgiving wasteland and need some health, he has clean water – which you can either drink or stow to make useful stuff with later.
Lesson Six- Find New Companions, and Sleep With All of Them
So, Codsworth’s murderous butler skills aren’t enough for you? You want more than someone who will just slavishly carry your junk for you? Is it not enough to get a perk out of his maxed out relationship level? Well, maybe you should go out and meet new companions. Like, say, Curie? Because you know what? You can romance that robot. Sure, she’s a Mister Handy model, but (SPOILERS) once you transform her into a synthetic companion, you get a shot at endearing her to you romantically. Which is good – because once you romance any companion in the game, you can sleep with them… and gain a perk called Lover’s Embrace which gives you extra experience for a short time after sleeping for even just an hour with them. This is great particularly if you’re sleeping in a settlement you can build things at. You already get XP for building stuff… so why not max it out after a little lovin’?
But, don’t stop there – polygamy is totally cool in Fallout 4. Gibson became the pimp of the Commonwealth. He has no fewer than three companions with whom he is bumpin’ uglies. Piper, Cait, and Curie are all hanging out with each other in my free love commune at the truck stop that I have come to call New Utah. Classy, I know, but I’m in it for the perks and… they don’t seem to mind.
And if you’re not into straight relationships, or if you’re sexually omnivorous, Fallout 4 (or me for that matter) won’t judge. I totally had the chance to get some on the down low from Preston after maxing out his relationship level. It’s just not how I’m wired though – three romantic companions seemed like enough for me.
Lesson Seven – Great Power Calls For a Great Number of Fusion Cells
Power Armor I’m told is the binding staple of all Fallout titles. It’s the armor you get once you’ve bled enough out in the wastes to deserve it. So, it seems really anti-climactic when after just two or three missions that you find a full on set of power armor on the roof of a museum. The people you’re with don’t even fight over it. They just tell you ‘hey it’s yours if you use it to bail us out.’
And you climb into that Power Armor and you feel like a god. You haul out that minigun, you jump off that roof, you blast your enemies into pulp… right until you run the armor’s battery into the ground and you’re stuck. You can’t move quickly any more and in the middle of a fight. Your armor is taking hits that you’re gonna have to repair later. If you’re carrying more than your unsuited Strength can handle… well, things just got real interesting, and not in a good way.
The lesson is: Power Armor is awesome… so long as you can afford to fill up the tank.
I’ve heard a lot of people come down on this element since Power Armor use was unrestricted once someone trained you how to wear it properly in previous titles. But I gotta say that I love it. It makes Power Armor not only a ‘sometimes’ thing, but also an immersive thing. You can’t just run around all day with it (not on a console anyhow – you could run a cheat on PC). You have to decide: is it worth it to burn fuel cores and repair it after my work is done. If you want to craft items or make food, you need to get out of that suit. It’s a tool for certain jobs. It becomes tactical. It’s a great bit of added crunch that I felt brought something to the franchise. In a game that has traditionally been about making hard choices, it adds another layer of complexity when deciding whether or not it’s worth bringing out a big game changer like Power Armor.
Lesson Eight – Everything Is Useful
I remember going through Fallout 3 and asking myself: why can I pick up spoons and shit and carry it with me? Some of you may be saying ‘duh, junk gun.’ But really, that gun was kind of dumb (still is kinda dumb save for shooting flaming teddy bears at your opponents). So there was no reason to pick up bent cans, or spoons, or bowls, or glasses. It was just useless.
Now, I am an inveterate hoarder – even more so than in my real life.
Fallout 4 lets you turn junk into value. That white dirty plate over there couldn’t possibly be worth anything – until you realize to build certain things you need ceramics. And you know what? Once you’ve collected a ton of that kitchenware, it adds up to a lot of ceramics for electrical components. It was then that I realized that all of this stuff wasn’t crap any longer – it’s all useful. Almost every item you can pick up can be broken down into components and those components can be put to good use. Anything that has copper, aluminum, silver, gold, springs, concrete, or gears is to be picked up and taken to the closest workbench because these things are needed if you want to build settlements or make other stuff. You can even sell some if you need to barter for more bullets (for what you get out of them, selling cartons of cigarettes can be more rewarding than scrapping them for cloth).
Same goes for creatures you kill. Grab that Brahmin meat – you can make killer steaks from them with no training whatsoever! Just find or build a campfire and start grilling the rads out of your crispy critters. You’ll be up to your nipples in Mutt Chops, Stingwing Filets, and Crunchy Squirrel Bits in no time (because Stimpaks are expensive and animals are easy to cook).
Lesson Nine – You Just Got Tricked Into Playing Farmville
If you really want to get the most out of your workbenches, you need to be a farmer. If you spent any amount of time trashing Farmville in the past couple years prepare for some humble pie. Because duct tape and wonderglue don’t grow on trees, and you need adhesive to make just about anything in the crafting system. But you can grow crops – corn, mutfruit, and tatos to be exact – to make vegetable starch. While a roll of duct tape or a bottle of glue gives you a single unit of adhesive, you can make a single unit of Vegetable Starch to get five units of adhesive – all without having to risk getting killed while in search of it. Rarely do I find my death picking crops. And unless I’m farming, I ain’t getting that starch.
So grab a hoe and start farming, clod hopper.
Lesson Ten – Eventually, You Have no Choice But To Build an Empire
Once everything is done and you’ve mopped up some of the post-story quests, that’s when you really start to cut loose. I returned to my settlement and immediately started futzing around with every building technique I hadn’t already tried. I had all this crap in the workbench… so why not?
I learned how to make 8-bit signs. Because when you’re living in a corrugated structure lashed together with the crudest of materials, you start wanting something nice around. Then, you tell your neighbors to go screw:
For the record, note that those are two separate buildings. The fort sign is at one end of Sanctuary, and this is at the other. The whole place has junk fence fortifications. Total defense is around 226. There’s thirty beds, a barracks, and oh yeah, a mall (six vendor stalls in front of a ruined house) complete with a sign for it:
Once I had all of that in place, I decided to test the limits of a small area:
That tower is six levels tall and bristling with machine gun turrets. In order to complete it I had to remove a few ground structures because I was informed by the game that I’d built to the maximum amount I was allowed. It literally told me ‘no more – this thing is too friggin’ big (that’s what she said!).’
Lesson Eleven – Appreciate What You Have, For Tomorrow It May Be Bugged
I love this game, but it has taught me, more than anything else, to save early and save often. No game is perfect, and this game has its fair share of bugs. I’ve had everything from V.A.T.S. bugging out until there’s nothing but sky and a rifle scope, to putting a bad guy so deep underground that I couldn’t get at him, to straight up not starting a mission and leaving me immobile. And in some of these scenarios I hadn’t saved and had to go back to do a lot of stuff over – like the entirety of character creation. In once case the bug was so deep I had to side with another faction to get what I wanted in a sideways fashion. So do yourself a favor. Do a whole save before you get in the shit, then quicksave while you’re in said shit. You’ll be glad you did. Bethesda has said they’re dedicated to fixing bugs, but it’s going to be slow going. And if you’re not a PC/Steam user, it’s gonna be an even longer wait.
So get cozy with the save screen. You’re gonna need it.
Lesson the Last – You’re Gonna Want to Do All of It Again
It’s really true – with multiple endings and a host of options, I’ve figured out so much from a first playthrough that I have to go back and do it again and this time maximize my experience. My second wastelander is Molly, and I’ve decided to make her strong, smart, and very unlucky. She’s doing things a little differently, becomeing a better crafter and losing the perks that were just first play through crutches. She’s already getting better equipment, finding more cash and ammo, and not caring about getting all of the extras behind the really tough computers and locks. She knows when to spend her fusion cores and when to freaking run and ditch her companions. Her settlements look like something planned rather than a rats nest of power cables and discarded crap.
She’s already level fifteen. And I look forward to another 70 levels of mayhem with her.
But don’t take it from me, play that bastard into the ground. I think you’ll find the experience rewarding even on the second time through.