Fallout 4 Review
The creaking behemoths that make up Bethesda’s core set of RPG epics, The Elder Scrolls and more recently Fallout, tend not to follow the same course as other mainstream commercial successes. There seems to be little regularity to any release, with one game appearing perhaps every three of four years, and often they’ll jump out of nowhere - a giant fanfare announcing an arrival barely months before release. They rarely glisten, with cumbersome engines that manage to judder along with erratic frame rates whilst still managing to look several years out of date. Meanwhile glitches and bugs will swarm out of nowhere, silly bugs, pesky bugs that frustrate the player at every corner, while loading screens rise out at inopportune moments tearing you away from the reality it attempts to create. These are all consistent themes from any release from Bethesda Game Studios and it seems a peculiarity in today’s modern gaming scene that, given this, they can still reliably churn out releases that contend for game of the year. With the release of Fallout 4 we again find the developers following this tried and true path and yet again we find an entry that could well be worthy of game of the year.
As with all entries in this series, Fallout 4 is set in post-apocalyptic America, in this case Boston, where nukes have ravaged the once green land creating a brown dying wasteland filled with monstrous mutated creatures waiting to feast upon any who comes near. Yet the game actually begins before this. In shiny clean pre-war suburbia, with its trademark sci-fi 50s aesthetic, we mould our persona. True to form, Bethesda have created another beautiful character creation wizard here, with frightening realism, and it’s not particularly an understatement to believe some will have spent hours shaping the contours of their avatar’s face and body. Soon however the bombs begin to fall and it is time to gather your family and disappear into the mysterious depths of Vault 111 before the blast hits.
You arise some time later to find America in ruins, your former home a shell and your pretty suburban paradise desolated. The main storyline in Fallout 4 is far more personal and empathetic that any previous Bethesda entry. You discover very early on that your infant child has been taken from you in the vault, and you must brave this new world to find out where he has gone. It’s hard to discuss events further without ruining the surprise of the plot, but it is certain that the poignant and hard-hitting nature is one of the most emotional and memorable in any Elder Scrolls or Fallout game.
But there’s a strange issue here. With such a desperate storyline, this constant drive to find your son, it creates a odd dissonance with the open-world role playing style of gameplay. Bethesda’s games are renowned for creating huge open-ended worlds to roam, entering caves or abandoned buildings at will just for the sense of discovery, and they’ve done so again here with miles of wasteland to explore. Much of the enjoyment in their games comes from stepping inside a random location and finding something completely unexpected. Yet if you truly role play Fallout 4, acting like an avenging parent stopping at nothing to find their son, your task is set in stone and no peripheral side quest or remarkable landscape should distract you.
Of course there’s no reason you have to do this. Fallout 4 can be played however you wish. Ignore your son for all it cares Yet the excellent narrative, coupled with the much improved conversation system really drives the story. Unlike any of Bethesda’s previous entries, It’s simply harder to not give a damn and wander off. Indeed the dialogue in Fallout 4 may well be the star of the show. Gone are the days of Oblivion where it seemed four voice actors created the entire world or Skyrim’s infamous infinite ‘arrow to the knee’ comments. No longer must we stare directly at vacant faces spouting out nonsense. Taking a leaf or two out of games such as the Mass Effect series, Fallout 4’s conversation system is directed, you are no longer a silent protagonist, and the camera switches positions, displaying body language. It all combines to make it a more cinematic and engaging experience.
This new system really helps improve your relationship with companions who you lead around the wasteland. The player is limited to only having one faithful follower at a time, a bizarre but necessary balancing restriction, and your actions when they are with you affects their feelings towards you. Being kind to those in need will often cause your friend to like you, as the system rather comically points out in text, and, like a social media acolyte, as you gather more likes you discover more about the characters, their backstories, their desires and sometimes even unlock new quests. And yes if you push it far enough you can even romance some. And no, it’s not as graphic as The Witcher or even Mass Effect.
But let’s not get too excited. It’s still a Bethesda game. While these companions are now immortal (not to be mistaken for indestructible: they’ll collapse on the ground for a while if they take too much damage), they are prone to glitching through walls, dancing around a room filled with mines or just simply going missing. The frankly terrible HUD has no info on their whereabouts and sometimes you might find yourself reloading old saves simply because one of your favourite friends has disappeared from the world.
Let’s discuss the combat system. Fallout 3 was often referred to as Oblivion with guns on its release, and while a little glib it was not too far off the mark. The gunplay was clunky and weak and fell far short of other First Person RPGs such as Borderlands. Fallout 4 is an improvement, but arguably not a monumental one. Enemies, at least humanoid ones, have gathered a modicum of intelligence and will now take cover, attempt to flank you or throw grenades towards your cover. Battles feel more fast paced and intense, but it still does not stack up compared to any modern FPS, a sign that perhaps this is not the developer’s forté.
The V.A.T.S. (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) returns as well (a token tribute to the original isometric Fallout games that never really quite fit in our opinion), relatively untouched. Tapping a button slows time down to a crawl giving and allows you to stack up attacks aimed at different body parts . Each shot has a hit percentage and when unleashed the camera switches to a cinematic position and unveils the results of each attack. It still feels clunky and both underwhelming and overpowered at the same time. The V.A.T.S. points restore over time, creating this rather dull but necessary mechanic of taking cover waiting for it to recharge then sticking your head out and using V.A.T.S. to deliver a few deadly blows. It is still exceedingly entertaining to dive out from cover and watch as you rip the heads off three super mutants charging towards you, but sometimes it doesn’t half feel like cheating.
Perhaps the most interesting and unexpected addition made by Fallout 4 is the ability to construct and run settlements filled with workers with needs and desires. It’s terribly explained, in a way that only Bethesda knows how, but eventually you’ll discover that it’s possible to construct entire buildings for your friends to live in, complete with food, water and power systems and working jukeboxes. You also must build up defences since it is possible for a village to be attacked by raiders or zombie-like ghouls, only this seems to happen extremely rarely, perhaps a statement that the developers thought it might distract the player too much from exploring.
Predictably the building system, particularly on consoles, is lacklustre and feels like it was tagged on at the last minute. Lining up buildings is messy and it is incredibly hard to place items where they are wanted. That being said the online world is already filled with some incredible creations that people with extreme patience must have built. While it is nice to build a town in a style of your own creation, many will find the purpose of each settlement is to lump all of your companions, weapons and tools together, which is very useful when it comes to crafting.
Crafting in Fallout 4 is perhaps the most useful improvement to the Fallout universe, and a step even further from the already quite advanced system in Fallout: New Vegas. It certainly fits in with the ramshackle wasteland world, where the player scavenges for metallic scraps left behind by their ancestors and pins it to rough leather jerkins for protection. Every weapon and every tiny bit of armour can be modified to improve its stats, giving the player huge flexibility in how they want to play the game. Armour can be made stronger at the cost of weight, or even pocketed to add the ability to carry more, meanwhile guns can be taken apart and altered completely. The player can tinker with the barrels, scopes, magazines and triggers to create the weapon they want, and often you will find your favourite gun evolve over time rather than simply swapping to newly discovered ones. Each modification is reflected in changes to the model, which often results in hilarious looking creations that could have been ripped out of the Mad Max universe, and given that you can name items how you please it’s easy to form attachments to them. Sometimes it’s irrationally hard to let go of your favourite gun even if you find a far superior version.
All of this building and crafting also creates a use for the piles of scrap (arguably the ‘s’ here can be ignored in previous games) that is lying around everywhere in the game. Nearly every item can be broken down at workbenches and converted into useful materials. You can even mark materials that are required and then adventure into the unknown to try and find them, yet another mechanic that drives the player to continue exploring further. Unfortunate there is another Bethesda esque frustration with all scrap work as well. All this waste takes up space in your impossibly large but not big enough inventory. Often you will be so full of scrap that it is necessary to dump it all back at one of your settlements, requiring a fast travel there and back. Two loading screens later you are back out again in the wild, but it all seems like an unnecessary waste of time, and the archaic H.U.D. only compounds the problem even further.
Every Bethesda game seems to follow this route. You can praise them for all the wonder and beauty they have created, then damn them for the illogical or irrational design choices they make elsewhere. Those that love these remarkable epics take all these issues in their stride, indeed find them strangely endearing, but it is easy to see why many do not quite see that same enjoyment. The truth is that Fallout 4 is yet another diamond in the rough from this design studio. It has another remarkable map that, especially for those who have visited the area, meticulously resembles the wonderful colonial city if it were to have collapsed into ruin. Diamond City housed in the derelict baseball ground of Fenway Park, gangsters living in old underground systems, you can even follow the Freedom Trail! Yet again you can spend a hundred hours playing the game and still feel like you’ve only seen a small proportion of the world. But it is still a game littered with bugs, comical glitches and a frustrating user interface and while most of this will get ironed out over time by patches and the community they do prevent it from becoming a complete classic.