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Fallout 4's Pip-Boy is a glorified smartphone case

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"The Pip-Boy is an important part of Fallout and we love it so much we made a real one." Those words, delivered by game director Todd Howard at developer Bethesda Softworks' first-ever E3 media briefing this year, triggered cheers around the world. And thus, the Fallout 4 Pip-Boy Edition was born: a $120 special edition peripheral bundled with Fallout 4 that aims to mimic the game's wrist-bound menu and stat-tracking system. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the premium version of the game proved insanely popular, prompting Bethesda to apologize when it couldn't make any more units to meet demand. Not bad for a rather awkward looking piece of light brown plastic that sits on your arm and holds your cellphone. But is it actually worth the hype and high price?

Gallery: 'Fallout 4' Pip-Boy Edition unboxing | 23 Photos

Form

The Fallout 4 Pip-Boy is meant to give fans a chance at owning a real-life version of the universe's wrist computer. Given that we already have supercomputers in our pockets, it made sense for Bethesda to take the slightly easier path of just making a smartphone holster rather than build a proper, functioning Pip-Boy from scratch. It mostly succeeds, too -- especially given the price.

First things first: The Pip-Boy is massive. On its included stand, it's about eight inches tall at its highest point, nearly seven inches across and just under six inches wide. There was never a point when I had it on that I forgot it was there, which is fine; the in-game Pip-Boy is pretty sizable, too. Despite its size though, it's still pretty comfortable to wear for extended sessions. That's due in no small part to the squishy, ribbed memory foam liner inside the cuff. It even makes wearing the Pip-Boy comfortable enough that I dozed off while playing one night -- not an easy task.

Bethesda built an even more real version of the Pip-Boy for an in-game movie

Lift the metal latch and the Pip-Boy splits in half, while sliding a pretty well-hidden clasp down releases the lid on the compartment where your smartphone rests. I'm not swole by any means, so my arm fit pretty comfortably inside the cuff with enough wiggle room to get the device positioned just right so I could see the screen while I'm playing. It's worth noting that I have the PlayStation 4 version of the game and am sitting on a couch while I play. If you're on a PC, depending on your desk configuration, accessing your keyboard and mouse with this thing on could be a bit difficult. Oh, and it isn't ambidextrous, so you can only wear it on your left arm.

Now, about that smartphone tray. The Pip-Boy comes with several foam inserts that sit inside the tray to prevent your device from slopping around. I used the one designed for last year's iPhone and it worked fine on my new 6S. If you have a non-Apple or non-Galaxy phone, your results are going to be a little dicey. For example, none of the inserts helped keep my old Moto E in place or even fit it at all. A friend's Galaxy S6 Edge almost didn't fit, but his latest iPod revision did.

On the other hand, once your supported phone is in place, getting it out will take some effort. Every time I go to remove my phone, I have to use a butter knife to do so -- not even opening the lid and shaking it upside down is enough to pry my handset loose. That could change over time as the foam insert wears down, but for now I'm not worried about my smartphone's well-being while it's in use here.

Bethesda's Todd Howard starts showing off the Pip-Boy at the 15 minute mark.

After slotting it in, there's a small plastic frame to set in place over your smartphone's screen to give the whole thing a finished, convincing look while keeping the rest of your device's chassis hidden from view with the lid closed. All these little touches really sell the illusion that you have a working Pip-Boy on your arm. Well, until you start fiddling with the moveable knobs and dials on the thing.

Function

In Fallout 4, navigating the Pip-Boy's menus is handled by turning various gears on the wrist-mounted device. You can do that here as well, but nothing happens; they're all superficial and don't change anything within the app. It's disappointing, but that type of functionality would've likely added to the peripheral's already high price. What you can do, however, is turn a few amber LEDs on (powered by a watch battery in the phone tray). It's minor, but still kind of cool.

"Usually, I find second-screen experiences generally stupid gimmicks, but as far as stupid gimmicks go, this is the best fucking one I have ever seen. It is awesome." That's Todd Howard again from this past June describing the Pip-Boy app. It released last week and I've been using it during my play-through ever since. Is it as Howard describes? Actually, yeah. Setup is pretty simple: Select your screen-size, the platform you're playing on and your device connects to your PC or console via WiFi direct. The downside is that you can only have one device connected to the game at a time. That means you can't have your phone and tablet hooked into it at once. Realistically, probably no one will do this, but it's worth noting.

The app has all the functions of the in-game Pip-Boy: inventory management, access to your stats, quest log and map. Oh, and there are playable hidden mini-games (more on those in a bit). My most common use for this thing? Leaving the map screen open so I could keep a constant eye on where I was going in real-time. Having the app constantly running in my peripheral vision while playing is a much better experience than picking up my iPad every five minutes or trying to balance it on my arm.

Using the app is so much better than relying on the in-game menu system and it basically renders the game's onscreen compass useless, too. It's simply more convenient than opening the in-game Pip-Boy every five minutes to check if I'd really seen everything in an area. But here's the disappointing clincher: The bigger display you have running the app, the better the experience. Using my iPad Mini 2, I don't have to squint to see what I'm pressing and my fingers don't obscure three landmarks on the map at once. In that way, not having the Pip-Boy itself is actually beneficial. So I'm faced with the tradeoff of one type of convenience for another. I have a sneaking suspicion my Pip-Boy's going on a bookshelf sooner rather than later, though.

Because the app keeps your smartphone screen on constantly, it's a major battery killer. I started with a full charge the other night and the low-battery alert chimed on my 6S about three hours later. That's fine for a shorter session, sure, but Fallout games absolutely beg marathon sessions in their weird worlds. And there isn't a way to have a charger running into your smartphone while the Pip-Boy's lid is shut. Your best bet? Running the app on a tablet that's plugged into a power supply.

Gallery: 'Fallout 4' Pip-Boy | 24 Photos

Oh right, those mini-games. Throughout the nuclear-apocalyptic Boston that Fallout 4 calls the Commonwealth, there are a handful of classic arcade games tucked away in the irradiated nooks and crannies. I haven't found any yet, but my coworker Sean Buckley happened across knock-offs of Donkey Kong and Pitfall!, and the Pip-Boy app itself comes with a Missile Command clone packed in. They're pretty fun distractions and you can play them all from within the app as you find them.

Final word

I was incredibly excited when Fallout 4's special edition was announced at E3 and pre-ordered one for myself from my Santa Monica, CA hotel room. I didn't do it out of hype, but genuine love for the series, as I presume many, many others did as well. I knew that the app would be the heart of the experience and that my Pip-Boy would wind up on a shelf in my office anyway.

For all its non-functional bells and whistles, the Pip-Boy itself is really just a glorified smartphone case. Don't get me wrong, I really like the "wearable," but I can't help but feel a little weird wearing it around my apartment. Cosplayers (and eBay resellers) will likely eat this up, but once the novelty of the Pip-Boy wears off, the rest of us won't use it much. If you didn't get your pre-order in on time, all you're missing is another plastic doodad to dust.

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