“Bethesda often chooses the full nuclear option with their games. Rather than a tight, cohesive and polished experience, they go for pure volume. Fallout 4, as with their other titles, features an expansive world full of adventure of varying quality.”
Platform(s): PC, PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One
Release Date: November 10, 2015
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
There are fewer constants in life other than one: “War. War never changes” and two: Bethesda will dish out a sprawling, expansive, impressive yet buggy-as-Hell, meandering open-world game. Don’t take that last bit too much to heart, though, as I more frequently enjoyed my some hundred plus hours of scavenging and savaging in Fallout 4. Seriously, that over hundred hours is no joke. Seeing as how the game launched last week, I figured I should stop playing and actually sit my ass down for this review.
Getting lost in Bethesda’s trade-mark gameplay is nothing new. It’s kind of the whole point. You’re plopped into a huge map and given some light direction which you’ll quickly ignore because — HOLY CRAP THERE’S A LOT OF WORLD OUT THERE! In this regards Fallout 4 doesn’t bring anything new to the table. If you’ve played Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3, New Vegas, or Skyrim then you have a solid idea of how you’ll spend those dozens of hours. For the uninitiated, the vast majority of gameplay involves heavy exploration sprinkled with some shooting enemies, stripping everything off of them, and selling/scrapping what you don’t want/need. Repeat until you’re blurry-eyed and it’s 4AM when you could have sworn it was only 10PM.
So what’s happening throughout the main quest? I’m sure you already know some of the important details through some of those fun trailers. Basically, all was pretty happy before the big bang. Married. New Baby. Picket fences. The whole perfect life package. Yet, a looming threat of nuclear devastation was lurking around the corner but you figured it’d be OK. Plus, you had that Vault-Tec plan B in case the bombs dropped. Pretty swell by any other standards.
Nothing good lasts long in the Fallout universe. An unprecedented nuclear attack forces you and your family to quick hop into a Vault whereby you’re ushered into cryostasis. Some serious shit goes down and then you’re awakened some 200 years later into a bombed out Boston full of raiders, ghouls, and mutated creatures.
Considering the complete devastation, your character adjusts surprisingly well. There are some conversation threads that lead to confusing looks from the locals but I guess nothing is really that surprising to them anymore. It’s a shame, I really wish Bethesda explored more of the fish-out-of-water nature. As it stands, you kinda just drift from place to place completing any quests logged in your Pip-Boy.
Perhaps this is because the main character is now fully voiced and in doing so gives your character more ground within the game that it detracts from the open role-playing that these games typically offer. Since your character has some kind of backstory more than what’s usually applied it’s difficult to craft your own story.
Rightly integrated, this kind of thing wouldn’t be that big of a deal. Take some character freedom away from the player and play up the crafted character development. Simple enough. However, given the shear size of Fallout 4 it might be too distracting to force this on what is basically an open game with some light story elements. As a fan, I’m not really sure what I’d want more. Perhaps, if the game allowed more play time in the pre-War era to develop the character it could work. But in Fallout 4, you’re given a brief glimpse at the past, witness some horrific scenes that happen to your icicle family in the Vault, and after emerging into a world totally alien to what you knew are given a way-point and the reins are loosened (shrugs).
What is refreshing is that Bethesda is really trying to own Fallout this time and make their mark on the series. While the story can be somewhat awkward and a bit underwhelming and ill-paced, some of the threads and elements are fun to explore. The main story lifts plenty from Body Snatchers, Blade Runner, and even Terminator. There are several factions to join and grow and you have a lot of freedom to choose how. Again, too much freedom dulls what could be a sharp and poignant plot it’s enjoyable and enough to keep you motivated beyond scavenging.
The main threat comes in the form of enigmatic Synths — fake humans created by the even more enigmatic Institute. The Institute had a brief cameo in Fallout 3 if you recall. Basically, it’s an elusive and secretive organization of brainiac scientist-types that may or may not be replacing normal humans with robotic doppelgangers. On the other side of the spectrum is the Railroad who see these synths as thinking, feeling creatures that should be free. Rounding out the table is the Brotherhood of Steel who are more than a bit fascist with their views on technology and rollover anyone who gets in their way. The plot will take around the Commonwealth — formerly Boston and its surrounding area — be introducing you to the Minutemen a kind of peace keeping cadre who have fallen on some hard times after a devastating battle at their HQ.
At one point of another you’ll be given a choice of who to align depending on your specific goals. But since this is a Bethesda game, you’ll probably put off the main quest line to go exploring, stuffing your breeches with as much crap as you can carry.
While the basic structure remains closely to previous entries there are some significant gameplay changes. Weapons and armor (sans Power Armor) never degrades through wear and tear. So, no more pulling you’re hair out looking for duplicate combat shotguns to repair you’re favorite damage dealer. This comes as a great boon because now you can focus more on discovering cool new things with less management of your growing pile of trash.
Speaking of trash, Fallout 4 finally figures out how the random bric-a-brac can be useful for once. The world is your golden garbage bin. Nearly everything is for the taking and it all has some kind of use. Most stuff can be broken down into essential components for crafting. I’ll get more on the modding part later, but one of the big new additions is the recruitment and growing of settlements. A Sims Fallout of sorts.
Admittedly, I very much like the idea of building up settlements across the wasteland and culling a following of devoted settlers but the whole deal feels a bit rushed. Like, someone had this grand idea but either there was too little time to flesh out or perhaps it’ll get fluffed up in a future update. As it stands, the whole deal falls a bit flat. I would write about it more here but I would rather devote a full article to it.
Essentially, every settlement needs a few things to make it grow — a water and food source, defenses, power, and beds. You can even set up supply lines across the map to open up more functionality. It’s rewarding at first to break ground and set up shop but navigating the environment and figuring out which settler is assigned to which resource is needlessly complicated. You have to assign each person individually by looking them, tapping X, running to thing of whatever you want them to do and mashing X again. And there’s not an easy way to know who is doing what. A chart or bulletin board, anything really would benefit the whole ordeal. And each person can only do one thing, which is fine but even then they are limited by how much of one thing, say farming, that they can do.
And again, to what end? Sometimes there are side missions associated with the settlers but it’s Fallout‘s version of the random quest couriers from Skyrim. A settlers greets you when you arrive, says that a loved one has been kidnapped by raiders or something, a way-point appears on you map and you go kill whatever’s there. If you don’t the happiness meter goes down a bit for that location. Occasionally, a settlement will be attacked and you can help defend but I’ve rarely seen this happen. It would just be nice if there were more options. I can almost feel PC modders frothing at the mouth to unleash the full potential.
Power Armor is another major featured point. Perhaps not as much as base management, but infinitely more useful. In other games you had to wait a bit for the privilege to own a set. Here, you’ll nab a full suit of armor early on — like within the first hour or so. It’s functional but pretty old. Think of it as your dad’s old junker that he’s been working on for a few years and finally passed it down. It needs a little extra love but it’ll safely get you from point A to B. Fortunately, you can upgrade Power Armor with some nifty mods that add carry limits, V.A.T.S. accuracy, sneaking bonuses, etc.
Modding is also applied to your other equipment. If you’ve played New Vegas — especially after that Gun Runners addition — then you’ll have some idea of how your weapons and basic armor can be upgraded. Scopes, powerful receivers, extended magazines are just a few of the ways to bring out the full potential of your guns. With the proper perks you can outfit your Vault Dweller with some truly impressive firepower. Additionally, you can discover some Legendary items that have unique abilities, such additional fire damage per hit, decreased action points for V.A.T.S. uses, or other benefits. Typically, you’ll discover these by killing Legendary enemies out in the world. The encounter rate is based a little bit on your Luck stat as well as the difficulty setting.
The big, big emphasis on Power Armor stems from its massive utility on the road. It really feels like a walking tank. You can carry more junk, deal accurate damage, and it lets you burst into fights coming out the victor more often than not. Anything short of a Fat Man nuke just sorta plinks off your armor. On the downside, Power Armor requires fuel to use effectively. You can still operate a suit and it’ll offer plenty of defense but if you’re out of juice you can no longer use V.A.T.S., sprint, or hold as much stuff. Fortunately, I never really ran into this problem much ’cause I found an abundance of nuclear fuel canisters out in the wasteland.
After some time, you’ll amass a sizable array of PA variants. I was feeling a bit like Iron Man during my second run as I around 7 full sets of different armors. It’s certainly not necessary to hold on to all of them but you’ll feel like wasteland king having so many pimped out suits. With the right setup you can have a particular armor for every occasion. Though, typically, one set is more than enough to get you through the game.
V.A.T.S. gets some nifty alterations, too. No longer does it completely freeze play, placing some urgency on getting those shot placements just right. Furthermore, there’s a whole new critical hit system that draws from fighting games in way. As you land hits using V.A.T.S., a power meter fills up allowing you fire off a guaranteed critical hit. You can also bank the crit to use later and can even unlock certain perks that allow more crit banks or fill up the meter more quickly. It’s a rewarding systems that makes V.A.T.S. more usable this go around. If V.A.T.S. is a bit much you can line up shots the traditional way and the fighting feels really great this time. FO3 and New Vegas had some pretty awkward shooting mechanics that FO4 fully rectifies. Lining up and squeezing off shots feels natural and smooth.
What might put off some traditionalists, is the streamlined leveling and perk system. Fallout 4 still employs the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system to construct the basis for you character, but all points are universal meaning that you can put them just about wherever you wish. Each base stat level adds a new perk to be unlocked. Say you need to an extra point in Endurance to open the next perk you’ll two points, one to place in the Endurance slot and another to put into the perk itself. It’s refreshing and simple and nice change from the convoluted systems of the past. It also means that there is less nuances in characters but not really an issue.
What is frustrating is that nearly every skill check has been knocked out. In over hundred hours the only skill check I’ve needed in dialogue has been Charisma. Hacking and lock picking are also the same. It’s a shame that some of the trademark skill checks, like say having low Intelligence doesn’t drastically alter gameplay anymore. The second character I made was purposefully denied points in Intelligence and it hasn’t changed anything. In fact, it’s mentioned that I was a lawyer pre-War in a passing audio Holotape. It’s weird that I’m given the off and on relationship with what my character was in the past and how I want the character to interact within the game.
Additionally the dialogue options have been drastically reduced as well. I assume this is because of the voice work required to have sop many options is just too time consuming. You’re given a a few responses in dialogue but the input options are vague at best. Sometimes the character is very light-hearted when it should be a somber response. It’s not a complete mess, and the actors do a fairly solid job, but it can be distracting at times.
If nothing else, the art direction for Fallout 4 is stunning. I won’t nag too much about polycount, shaders, textures, animations, and whatnot because there’s so much game that you have to give up some things to make other stuff work. Again, Bethesda’s milking out a heavily modded engine we’ve all seen…. and it runs OK enough not to complain too much. I have had the dropped frames and some stuttering here and there (usually when more than seven or eight characters are fighting). I’ve gotten some decent load times but nothing too incredibly outlandish. Skyrim players will have an idea of what to expect. But you’ll see the occasional floating building or companion. NPCs might sink beneath the ground. Structures will become invisible or the physics will go bonkers with dropped items. One time I shot across the map for dropping a sledgehammer. It happens. It’d be nice to have a bit more polish, but without thousands of extra development hours and millions more in budget I don’t see how that would be possible. You just tend to accept these things and move on. Save often, save on multiple slots, have multiple quick and hard saves, and maybe keep a lucky penny or two around.
Still, FO4 is beautiful in its own way and has more variety than the previous titles. The Commonwealth features radiated swamps, blown out buildings, junk-yard settlements — all ripe with trash to rummage though and punks to put down. There’s even a haunting wasteland wonderland you’ll explore that really sets in the destruction of the old world. Furthermore, the look and feel remains consistent throughout and is enjoyable to explore. Gone are the dull, green and brown hues. The Commonwealth is bright at times, and dreary occasionally. Fog, rain, and radiation storms popup here and there and makes the world feel alive. The variation of armors, weapons, sights, and sounds make wandering the world exciting and fresh.
Listen, Fallout 4 is mired in the typical Bethesda open world jankiness. Yet, I’ve been enjoying my time with it. Is it for everyone? Probably not. The glitches and bugs and general ugliness of the Gamebryo engine might be a little too much for some. Others will overlook some of the unpolished stuff, briefly roll their eyes, and move on. There’s plenty of game here. While it might not all be sunshine and cupcakes, there’s enough to warrant a trip. Doubly so if you’re a massive fan of the other Bethesda games. Not much has strayed from their typical fair but if you like tons of content and what could be virtually years of gameplay Fallout 4 is never going to be short on that.
Bugs, scripting issues and some framerate stutters are to be expected in a game like Fallout 4. It's simply too big in scope to apply a coat of paint over every nook and cranny. However, the big caveat here is that is a lot of game to be had. PC gamers will undoubtedly get more out of Fallout 4 once some modding tools come out, so if you're wavering between which version pick up the PC if you have a rig of modest quality. Otherwise, Fallout 4 is overall a pretty fun and engaging experience.