Molly the vault dweller, wearing her new-found ushanka in the Starlite Drive projection booth

So my oldest mentioned how she would like a copy of Fallout 4 for Christmas, and I didn't worry too much about it until she also mentioned that it required an Xbox One to play and she only had a 360. With that in mind I considered replacing the motherboard, processor, memory and power supply in the non-working computer I built back in 2007 so I could gift her with a PC version of the game, but then I happened to look at the system requirements while shopping at Walmart. After my initial double-take when I saw the minimum requirements, I realized that while my current desktop would be able to handle the game, it would be cost more than an Xbox One to upgrade the old computer. Consequently I opted to give her a user account on my PC and she received a copy of the game via Steam as her Yule gift.

This would then fall under the category of "self serving gift" because as it happened to be installed on my computer, I of course would take advantage of this fact in the hour before I start my shift as I am waking up for the day. I started a play through and made it to level 10 before deciding to wipe and start over. I wasn't very happy with the performance of my first character. In Fallout 4, spending a bunch of SPECIAL points on intelligence in the early game is probably a bad idea, although it might potentially turn out to be useful later on. I decided to not wait and see.

So I re-rolled, and chose the name Molly because it was one of the names on the list that Codsworth will use in conversation (which is fun) and focused on a melee character with agility. This probably sounds counter-intuitive because agility is associated with mostly ranged weapon perks, but I wanted a character that could do a lot of damage with small, fast weapons such as the combat knife, and the added bonus to Molly's ability to sneak was a plus. I put 4 points in strength, 7 points in agility, 4 points in charisma, 5 points in luck and 3 points in the other traits. I then started off with the security baton that can be found in Vault 111, and immediately found the game much easier that it had been on my first run-through. The benefit of extra agility points is that you get more action points, which means I take full advantage of using VATS in combat. The bonus is that in many cases I take no damage from melee combat, because VATS will allow you to get your hits in first, especially if you notice potential combatants before they notice you. The downside is that until I acquire the Blitz perk, I have to get fairly close to those opponents to use VATS.

With this in mind, after acquiring a switchblade from a raider and modifying it with a serrated edge, I was feeling pretty confident and set out in a south-western jaunt across the country side, not following any quests but mainly just trying to see what I could find (and what sort of trouble I might get into). I successfully encountered and defeated super mutants, soft-shelled mirelurks, packs of wild mutant dogs, groups of raiders, a gunner encampment with turrets, and even survived a sneak attack by a pack of feral ghouls without taking a significant amount of damage.

At this point, however, I should have heeded the warning sign that things were about to get more dangerous. I had made it a bit to the south and west of Diamond City, in a hilly region with the occasional destroyed home. I considered looting one such home until I noticed it was occupied by yao guai (mutated bears), so rather than pick a fight with them I crouched down and snuck away. I had recently reached level 7 and had spent a perk point on the Sneak ability, so this probably helped.

Turning the corner of the next building, I came face to face with a Deathclaw. I stopped, and then noticed that next to its name was a skull, indicating it was a significantly higher level than me. The sneaking indicator had switched from "Hidden" to "Caution" and it sniffed the air but didn't seem to see me. I decided to creep backwards, and as I did so I noticed the Deathclaw lift its head away from me, turning toward the nearby hill. Cresting the hill came two more Deathclaws, and then a fourth Deathclaw a moment later, and all I could think at this point was, "Oh sh!*, I'm dead. I'm totally dead." as they proceeded directly to where I was crouching.

Then I heard a loud roar emanating from beyond the hill, and the Deathclaws scampered directly past me, somehow without noticing I was there. Bear in mind that I had never before faced a pack of Deathclaws, and was fully expecting to not survive the experience based on everything I had heard about them. The difficulty I experienced during a one-on-one fight against a lone Deathclaw in Concord while wearing power armor only solidified what I had heard. At this point I was seriously freaked out, because what could possibly make a whole pack of Deathclaws flee? I did not have to wait long to find out.

The largest super mutant behemoth I have ever seen crested the hill wielding a giant club, bellowing the whole way. If I had crouched just a few feet to my right it would have stepped on me as it chased after the deathclaw pack, swinging the club. The pack was no longer visible, and the yao guai made themselves scarce as the behemoth plowed into the ruined home, still swinging its club at anything that moved and continuing to roar in an enraged state. A few moments later, it was gone, and quiet settled around me.

For some reason I decided to keep going a bit further south, and off in the distance I saw something raise its head that distinctly looked like a deathclaw. It was at that moment that I decided to stop pressing my luck, and I used the fast-travel option in my Pip-Boy to return to the Red Rocket fuel station near Sanctuary, internally deciding that I should hold off on traveling south of Diamond City until I had acquired more levels.

I've played a lot of video games, spent a lot of time in Skyrim as well as post-apacolyptic Washington D.C. and surrounding regions in Fallout 3, and never experienced anything quite like this. This did not feel like a scripted event. This did not feel like I had triggered this scenario. The reaction of the pack of Deathclaws to an enraged super mutant behemoth felt natural and therefore hit home in a way I've never experienced in a video game before. Even though there has been a certain amount of criticism in how Fallout 4 seems to be less like other Fallout games in the series, this event seems to indicate that this may not necessarily be a bad thing. Fallout 4 is an awesome game, and I look forward to experiencing more scenarios like this one in the future.

The Long Dark

For those unfamiliar with the game, Voyageur is one of three available difficulty levels in The Long Dark, and the original playing experience for this game when it was first released via the Steam Early Access program. In terms of sheer difficulty, it could be considered in the middle range of the three, in that it is harder to find gear and supplies as compared to Pilgrim, bears and wolves can be aggressive if you get too close, but there is still more available gear than in Stalker and these animals are not quite as aggressive as they could be. So to keep it simple in gaming terms, you could consider "Voyageur" to be "normal difficulty", although to be blunt, all three playing styles are challenging. There are players who have survived hundreds of days in this mode, and in some cases over a thousand, but in my case I consider seventy days to be a significant achievement.

Aside from some luck, the biggest reason I've managed to survive for so long is because I have been playing in a relatively cautious and conservative manner. My previous session in Voyageur was ended by two subsequent wolf attacks after only surviving for five days in the Mystery Lake map, and I opted for random map selection when I started a new game, this time ending up in the western area of Pleasant Valley. I made my way to the Pleasant Valley Homestead (also referred to as the farmhouse), and made that my initial base of operations until I felt I had gathered as many materials from Pleasant Valley as was reasonable, and, facing a shortage of much needed sewing kits, I opted to migrate to the Coastal Highway Map after having survived for around thirty days. I could have crafted fishing lures to as a secondary option to repair and craft gear, but I was also getting a little stir crazy and wanted to explore the other regions in the game.

I first transitioned to the Coastal Highway and spent roughly thirty days in that region, fending off wolves, gathering additional supplies, sewing kits and toolboxes aplenty. After reaching day 60 I decided it was time to move on.

Currently, I'm living out of a a cabin known as the Trapper's Homestead, in the first region made available in the game, known as Mystery Lake. I've managed to gather the needed materials to craft a bow and arrows, along with wolf skin coat, deer skin boots and pants, rabbit fur mittens and a bear skin bedroll, and also successfully stockpiled a small supply of food at this location. I have a bit more exploration planned in the immediate vicinity of this region, but at the moment I could quite comfortably continue to survive in this region for several more days, even with the constant threat of wolves and bears wherever I may go.

Similar to the rules described by the main character in Zombie Nation, I have a series of rules I try to follow as I play. These rules could be easily summed up by the scout motto "Be Prepared". By following these rules I have so far (at least on this run) done a pretty decent job of staying alive:

  1. When possible, use a building with two doors as your home base - this is particularly important because most shelters with two doors also have a quick access door and a door that is somewhat protected with a barrier of some kind, such as a porch railing. Always exit the building through the door that leads to a protected space, so that you will have an opportunity to react if there is a wolf or bear immediately outside (and cover from which you could retreat back into the house, or use a ranged weapon to dispatch said predator).
  2. When possible, choose a building with a warm bed (it should have a better warmth bonus than the bedroll you start with), and a way to start a fire indoors - either a fireplace or a wood burning stove will do just fine.
  3. Always make sure your thirst is near or at zero before you go to sleep for the night. Don't sleep for longer than ten hours at a time (at zero thirst) without drinking to avoid dehydration negatively impacting your condition. Make sure you have eaten enough calories to survive the night as well.
  4. If you expect to wear your gear for a while, repair it - you will need to locate either a sewing kit or alternately a fishing lure and tackle (or craft one), and either scrap fabric or sacrifice found clothing items to repair the ones that you intend to keep. The better the condition your gear is in, the longer it will take you to get cold while outside. Don't waste precious repair materials on useless gear such as sneakers, and cotton socks.
  5. Always carry the materials you will need to start a fire before you go anywhere - you should have at least a few tinder, at least one piece of soft wood or a book, and either matches or a striker. I always carry one can of accelerant for emergencies, because you can start a fire with it almost immediately. If your fire-making skill is low, try to keep a book with you, because they are much easier to use to start a fire. I usually carry a log of soft firewood, use it to start a fire, then harvest hard wood once the fire is going.
  6. Always carry about a half-gallon of water with you before you leave - dehydration will kill you faster than almost anything else in this game. Carrying more is not a good idea because water is realistically heavy.
  7. Always carry some aspirin, antibiotics, bandages and antiseptic. Alternately, brew and carry rosehip tea, reishi mushroom tea and at least three crafted old man's beard wound dressing. You will get attacked, you will sprain your ankle, and you may get sick from eating bad food. If you have these first aid items on hand you can treat your condition immediately (although you may also have to sleep it off to recover fully).
  8. Avoid going outside during a blizzard because it will ruin the condition of your gear. If you get caught in a blizzard while outside, find a boulder or some place to crouch down out of the wind and start a fire to keep yourself from freezing. If you stay stationary with some cover it will prevent your gear from getting too badly damaged, but be prepared for the wind to change - keep a spare piece of soft wood handy if you need to find another spot to start a new fire. If you are inside and can't tell how many hours are left before night/day, and you can hear the wind blowing, there is almost definitely a blizzard raging outside (Caveat: sometimes you will have spent an hour indoors during a blizzard and it seems like there is still a blizzard going, but if you leave the building the storm will have just ended - it's worth periodically checking outside to see for yourself whether there really is a blizzard).
  9. While outside, periodically check you status, especially if you begin getting verbal cues from the character that he/she is tired, cold, hungry, etc. If hungry or thirsty, address those conditions as soon as you are able. If fatigued, bear in mind that sleep will be necessary soon, and you will not be able to carry as much without becoming encumbered (which will slow you down).
  10. Keep a significant distance between you and any wolves or bears you spy while outside. Use higher ground whenever available to be able to see a wolf or bear long before they see you. Pay attention to the direction the wind is blowing, because if a wolf is downwind from you, they will notice you from an even further distance than they would otherwise. Crouch to make it harder for you to be detected until you are safely out of range. Unless you are high enough to prevent a bear from reaching you, or can duck into a nearby building or vehicle before they reach you, do not provoke or engage a bear. You cannot fight them off, and they can potentially kill you even if your condition is 100%.
  11. Carry some form of meat on you at all times to use as a lure. Even if you don't have a weapon, if you have meat you may buy yourself enough time to run into the nearest shelter while the wolf checks it out. As soon as you hear a wolf growling, even if you can't see it, drop your lure and step away from the lure. The wolf will usually (but not always) go for the lure, giving you time to take aim and shoot it. The cost of a bit of meat vs around 7-10 lbs of fresh meat, wolf pelt and guts is an advantageous exchange for you. This is also much safer than engaging a wolf in hand-to-hand combat and will spare your gear from damage. It may be smarter to shoot the wolf before it starts eating, because if it changes its mind it will come for you instead. Aim for the head, between the eyes if possible.
  12. Cook your meat before trekking through the wilderness, because raw meat draws wolves. If you are concerned about being attacked while harvesting meat, start a fire beside the carcass. This has the added benefit of thawing a frozen carcass, which can then be harvested even if you do not have a hatchet or hunting knife. Keep an eye on your status while harvesting and cooking, and keep an eye on the fire duration. If a blizzard starts, forget the fire and get to your closest shelter immediately.
  13. When traveling outdoors, keep an eye out for deer and rabbits. They are an indicator that there are no wolves in the immediate vicinity (although they could be nearby). You can drive a deer before you as you trek, which may help draw out wolves that you might not have noticed otherwise. If the wolf takes down the deer and begins eating, this gives you an opportunity to shoot the wolf, potentially resulting in two carcasses for the price of one shot.
  14. As soon as you are able to do so, craft gear (deer skin boots and pants, rabbit fur mittens, wolf skin coat, and bear skin bedroll). These items are superior to any gear you can find while exploring, although they also weigh more than their found equivalents. Keep the gear in good condition, especially after a wolf (or bear) attack, because higher condition gear will help keep you alive longer while you are being attacked. Higher condition gear will also provide better warmth and protection from wind chill.
  15. Fishing and using snares to catch rabbits should be considered a secondary method of obtaining food (unless you have neither a rifle nor a bow). Neither produce as many calories per pound as wolf meat, venison, or bear meat, and there is a significant chance of failure to catch anything. Rabbit snares are beneficial in that they can yield gut and rabbit fur for crafting/repairing mittens, therefore if you choose to do either, start with snares.
  16. Be aware that nearly everything has a condition that changes over time. Tools generally do not degrade until they are used, but clothing, matches and food can degrade even when in storage. If possible, locate a secondary fire making source to support you when the matches are no longer available. If you are planning on a long run, conserve materials as long as you can, but be sure to use them before they are no longer viable (food that reaches 0% condition vanishes).
  17. Be aware that meat under 50% condition is considered spoiled and can cause you severe food poisoning, requiring antibiotics and sleep to recover. Avoid eating meat when it reaches this condition. It may be possible to use this meat as a lure for wolves, so keep it on you, just remember not to eat it. Also bear in mind that uncooked meat has a greater chance of causing severe food poisoning, so you should only eat it uncooked if you do not have enough calories/condition to make a fire.

There are more that I will add to this list as I think of them. In the meantime, be prepared.

Out for a stroll after the end of civilization as we know it.

"I would totally kill for a pair of boots right now," I muttered.

"What?" My wife was confused.

"Oh, in this game I'm trying to survive after crashing a plane in the Canadian wilderness as a result of a massive CME. I've got a bunch of tools, rifle, hatchet, hunting knife, but I'm wearing a pair of sneakers...in the snow," I offered in explanation.

"Ah," she said.

"So it's hard to avoid freezing to death, as a result," I concluded. I turned my attention back to the game, where I was busy starting a fire to prevent just that very thing from occurring.

My latest focus is on an indie game still in development, The Long Dark. Initially funded through Kickstarter, at this time the game is only available via Steam Early Access, although a Steam key can be purchased through the Humble on-line store as well. The protagonist of the game is a bush pilot who was forced into a crash landing as a result of a coronal mass ejection from the sun that caused severe atmospheric ionization, effectively putting society back into the pre-industrialized era. Winter has set in, and in order to survive the pilot must locate and utilize any available tools, gear and food he or she can use to survive another day.

At this point in development, the only portion of the game that is accessible is the Sandbox mode, which permits free-form play through one of three available maps and their interconnecting zones. When the game first released in the fall of 2014, only one map was available, but the developers have been making steady progress at adding additional content to the game, in addition to support for crafting your own gear, tools and weapons to aid in survival. They also release frequent bug patches and interact directly with their player base via Steam's community discussions and their own forums. Consequently, even though I am typically reluctant to pay for an Early Access game (which may or may not be a developer attempting to cash in on a project they never intend to complete) the development team at Hinterland Studio has shown a clear intention to complete this game, with the Story Mode expected to be released sometime in 2015. In my mind, the most impressive move by the developers so far was the replacement of the game's Unity 4 engine with Unity 5, to enable better performance on computers with high-end GPUs and/or multi-core processors. This transition appears to have only taken a few weeks to accomplish.

If I'm starting to sound somewhat fanboy-ish, that's because (against my better judgement) I am. Previously I had ranked The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as my favorite video game of all time. Even though the graphics in this game are not quite as realistic, I actually enjoy this game much more. That's probably because the challenge is real, and the scenario behind the game is one that could become all too real, should the Earth be caught directly in the path of a massive coronal ejection from the sun.

When I began the game, I immediately tried Voyageur mode, which is the middle difficulty level (and originally the only difficulty level available). Even though I was new to the game, I managed to survive for more than 5 days before I was finished off by a wolf in the dark. It was a harrowing experience, however, and even with the knowledge I already possess I found the only way I could stay alive was to keep moving and scrounging for food and clothing wherever I could. I expected to die any moment. Subsequent attempts to play the game at this difficulty mode met with disaster in less than 24 hours of game time, so I ended up switching to Pilgrim mode (easy difficulty) to get a feel for the game and attempt to learn the ropes. It didn't take too long to get hooked.

A significant portion of the game is exploration. Newcomers would probably find it best to use Pilgrim mode to get used to the game mechanics, because there is a lot to juggle. Thirst, hunger, fatigue, and cold are all statuses you have to keep your eye on as you play, because they impact your ability to survive. The type of winter gear you are wearing and the gear's overall condition directly impacts how quickly you get cold while you are outside. Tools are necessary for survival in order to do basic things like start a fire, harvest materials and food, and repair your clothing and equipment. All of this is hard enough without having to learn how to avoid and fend off attacks from starving, predatory animals.

I recently reached a point where I was no longer satisfied with the Pilgrim experience, because once you have successfully explored the majority of the three maps and their interconnecting areas, it turns into a slow, day to day experience which may feel like a bit of a grind to some players. At this point, confident that I had learned what I needed in order to survive a harsher apocalyptic world, I returned to Voyageur mode and subsequently died again within 5 days of game time. I returned to Pilgrim mode with the advent of an update bringing new craftable weapons and hunting mechanics, along with a new area to explore, but once I had achieved everything there was to achieve I returned again to Voyageur, where I have now survived over 11 days of game time, with successful hunting and as of this morning, surviving a wolf attack and living to tell the tale.

I have more to tell, but hopefully this should suffice until I have a chance to return and share my story.

Crows are your friend in the Long Dark