A Belated Fallout 4 Review

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Since the release of Fallout 4 on November 10th, 2015, I have been vacuuming up information, reviews and opinions on the latest instalment in Bethesda’s franchise. From the moment I started playing this game, I was engorged by its riveting storytelling and its beautiful setting. Due to time constraints, I have only been able to plug about four days worth of gameplay in – and I haven’t yet finished the main story so there won’t be any spoilers here. Despite this, I have wanted to express to the world how I felt about this game for a long time because I am absolutely obsessed with it.

Before getting in to the actual review, though, I want to take a moment to talk about how much I appreciate Bethesda. I have a special relationship with each and every one of their games that I play and, to me, the games they have been producing in The Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises are clearly the greatest games ever made. That’s not to say that they are perfect, but they are miles ahead of any competition. The sheer size of the worlds that they give us to explore and inhabit and the range of characters we can interact with never cease to amaze and fascinate me. I have spent countless hours adventuring around the environments that create and I can honestly say that I never feel like I have played these games enough.

With this goodwill in mind, I am going to be discussing several criticisms I have of Fallout 4 – as well as the positive aspects. I would just like to make it clear here at the beginning of the review that despite its flaws, Fallout 4 is an outstanding video game and any limitations that it has are indicative of the state of the video game industry as a whole. Generally speaking, while video games are one of my greatest passions, there are not many that I actually like. I find many of the huge AAA blockbuster video games very average and I think video games have the potential to be so much more than they are at the moment – but this is probably a topic for a separate blog post in the future.

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Fallout 4 vs. Fallout 3 and New Vegas

The fundamental mechanics of Fallout 4 are almost identical to the previous games in the franchise. Lockpicking and hacking work in the exact same way. The HUD is very similar. Exploring dungeons has that familiar Bethesda vibe which became most apparent in Skyrim – with the good and bad attributes that come along with that. Despite the many new features, characters, locations and ideas that are in this game, for the majority of the time you are going to be doing exactly the same things you’ve done in Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Personally, I don’t mind this because I love those games. I am just happy that there is more Fallout to play. The new map to explore and hundreds of locations to check out are enough to keep me happy. But often it feels like they haven’t really changed much. The way I played the game was pretty much the same as how I played the others – with minor tweaks.

Companions

One of the things that Fallout is most loved for are its companions. I haven’t yet managed to find all of them (I’ve mostly used Preston Garvey, Piper and Hancock), but for me they suffer from the same problems as the previous games. People love to pick their favourite companions and, of course, memes crop up all over the internet to show the love (and hate) people feel towards them, but I’ve never really connected with any of the companions in any Fallout game. The reasons for this range from me finding them too shallow (or cliched) to just plain irritating. I think Bethesda needs to consider a complete overhaul of the companion system. Bioware are really good at this kind of thing and I think Bethesda could learn some lessons from them. Investment in deeper companions with a much larger range of intricate dialogue options, complex relationships and much more context-specific one liners or remarks. The random comments they spit out at the moment get tiresome incredibly quickly. I want to feel like they have an infinite number of things to say – it completely ruins the illusion and immersion in the game world when they start to repeat things they’ve said before. Bethesda pours attention to detail into their environments and lore, making you feel like you are playing in a world that is much larger than what you can actually see. The companions completely take me out of this because they are so basic in comparison. This is a role playing game, and the people playing the game probably start to form their own complicated and conflicted opinions on the things that they observe in the game through the eyes of their character. The companions need to match this level of complexity – especially considering that we spend many hours in their company. I want them to feel more than just a pack mule or a distraction for the enemies I’m fighting. I want them to feel like a fully-fleshed person –  like me.

The Dialogue System

This brings me on to my next point: the dialogue system. The single most important thing to me in a role playing game is to feel like I have control over my character and the attitudes, thoughts and interests that that character has. And I want complete control. I can’t think of any game off the top of my head where I have ever really felt like this. I don’t expect the developers to have put in every single possible option that a person might choose in these games, but to give the illusion that we are in total control is really important. Bethesda (and other RPG game developers) strive with each new video game to give us almost total control over how our character looks – so naturally that leads gamers like myself to either try to create some kind of persona for the character and role play, or play like it is us in the game world. I tend to prefer to play as if I am the character so a large dialogue system is incredibly important. Fallout New Vegas was really good for this which is why I hope that Obsidian develop the next Fallout game. The end of New Vegas felt complicated enough that I had reached a unique ending because of my choices. This feeling needs to run throughout the entire game – in every quest, every interaction. Fallout 4 did a huge u-turn on this by introducing a voiced protagonist. They severely limited themselves because naturally using a voiced protagonist would mean less dialogue options (due to budgetary constraints). Also, there have been several instances when I have chosen a dialogue choice thinking my character would react one way, when in fact the actual response is much different because of the weird vague dialogue wheel in Fallout 4. Another limitation Bethesda has put on themselves is that they’ve only given themselves four ways of responding in a conversation. The transparent ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘sarcastic’ and ‘more info’ options completely ruin the immersion and role playing experience. Where are the grey areas? Fallout’s world is so well-crafted, it strives to be so much more than ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Why, then, did Bethesda shoot itself in the foot and make its dialogue system so superficial? A classic example of how this ruins the immersion in a practical way is this:

  1. You begin a conversation with a character and are curious by what they have to say, so you ask some questions in a neutral sort of way.
  2. Throughout the conversation, you start to feel a bit sceptical or hesitant to do whatever they want.
  3. You try to respond to them in such a way.
  4. Either your character responds by leaving the conversation or by being disgusted with the character you are talking to.

I really hope that the next Fallout game ditches the voiced protagonist because it is probably the biggest mistake Bethesda made with this game – completely boxing themselves in and ruining the role playing aspect of the game.

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Preston, like the rest of the companions, has zero depth.

Settlement Building and Crafting

The settlement building was one of Fallout 4’s key selling points before release. Everybody was hyped up about the idea of building your own space in the wasteland which you had to supply and defend. The settlement building part of the game is very well done. I have had a lot of fun designing and creating different settlements and giving them my own backstories. The places you can build settlements are varied enough so that each one feels different. My one criticism would be that it doesn’t feel fleshed out enough. I have found the choice of items you can build to be very limited so it’s hard to try to build something truly unique in different settlements (or even in the same settlement). It’s difficult to make houses look and feel different from one another with such a limited number of items to create. Many people just build one building and put a bunch of bed in there for their settlers to sleep in. You can’t really blame them – especially as there is the second problem with settlements: the actual settlers. The settlers are nothing more than a random collection of miscellaneous faces with no personality or distinguishing characteristics. It would be too much to ask for each settler to be fully realised in the same way I described that companions should be, but giving them a name at least would help differentiate between them. Settlers very quickly become tools and resources instead of a group of people you are trying to defend and build a community with. Fallout Shelter did a far better job with settler management. Each one was named, there was a simple menu to control what they did and they had stats and a history inside your vault. Carrying this over to Fallout 4 would have given settlements so much more depth. I want each of my settlements to have their own history, for the settlers to evolve and develop as the settlement grows and I want to care if settlers die. I would suggest a basic family/relationships feature within settlements (allowing communities and relationships to grow between settlers – which could lead to a whole other side of settlements which would be interesting), giving settlers stats (which level up overtime depending on the personality of that settler, and the types of jobs they are typically assigned) and a bigger range of jobs to do, and maybe even some kind of hierarchy within settlements which runs automatically and can be manipulated by the player if wanted. More autonomy for settlements in general would be a good thing. Settlements should feel like living, breathing locations with a history and culture of their own – outside of your character.

Bethesda has recently announced that new DLC is coming in April, which will hopefully address some of these problems.

All that being said about settlements, the crafting system is put together much better. There is a huge range of modifications and the way that they have combined the weapon/armour customisation with the perk system is balanced and places limitations on the player in the perfect way. Also, the whole concept of every item in the game now having a worth is a very welcome addition. I have no complaints whatsoever about the workbenches/chemistry stations etc in Fallout 4. They’ve taken the concept that was applied in Fallout New Vegas and expanded it very well. It just works.

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Plot and Environment

For all the criticisms which I have levied at Fallout 4 in this article, they melt away as soon as I begin to think about the scope and depth of the plot and environment in this game. The paranoia of synths, the 50s style detective agency, and, of course, the harsh wasteland that we have all come to know and love are actually addictive. I adore Fallout’s style, its history, its personality. The range of different places you can explore – from downtown Boston to the almost barren farms, the nuclear storm-ridden Glowing sea, to the coastline – all fill me with excitement and intrigue. I already mentioned that I have put over four days worth of gameplay into Fallout 4 and I am not even remotely done with it. It fills me with excitement like nothing else does to switch on the PS4 and continue exploring the environment around me. Bethesda already get plenty of praise for their fantastic environmental storytelling, and they deserve every bit of it. I like that, particularly in Fallout 4, there are less formal quests and more stories you discover as you explore places. I think that was definitely a good move.

Just a few more miscellaneous things I wanted to mention before wrapping up:

  • Enemies: There is quite a limited variety of enemies in Fallout 4. You basically fight raiders, super mutants or ghouls for most of the game. I wish Bethesda had spiced it up with different kinds of enemies.
  • Games: The Pip Boy games are an excellent addition. I am absolutely obsessed with Red Menace. I have heard there is a role playing game you can find too, which I’m looking forward to.
  • Combat: The VATs and combat system in Fallout 4 is a huge improvement on previous titles. The game feels a lot more action-packed and the fights are a lot more like a gun fight instead of a plugging-bullets-into-everyone-fight. There are still issues, though. I think Fallout (and The Elder Scrolls) would be improved with more realistic fighting. We’re given the ability to target limbs and take limb damage – I think this could be improved in future titles. I think that enemies should die quicker (and so should you). Pumping everything full of health and then requiring shooting 1,000 bullets at each other to kill is an outdated approach to combat.
  • Graphics: I usually don’t care about graphics in video games, but it is worth pointing out that the cosmetic changes in Fallout 4 are instantly apparent and a huge improvement on the rest of the franchise. This is obviously due to a new generation of consoles, but the game looks absolutely beautiful.

To summarise my views on Fallout 4 would be to say that it is a massive improvement on the previous titles, but it still lacks a lot of depth. I do acknowledge that this is most likely because of technological constraints, but all the same, these are my views.

I think that Fallout is best when it focuses on survival. I’m excited for the new survival mode overhaul that they are planning, but I don’t think that survival mode should be an extra add-on feature. It should be the fundamental principle that Fallout is built upon. You should have to eat, drink and sleep. But you should also die pretty quickly if your being sprayed with bullets. You should have to be strategic in combat. You should have to scavenge on the fringes of a group of enemies instead of running in on your own and blasting them away. Bethesda’s games continue to suffer because you can very quickly hit a point where you just destroy everything. They have tried to combat that by putting in higher level enemies as you level up, but this usually just results in enemies with more health. Make us feel scared of encountering a group of super mutants, in the same way we are terrified of deathclaws at the beginning of the game. Throw us in to the harsh wasteland and make us suffer. Give us the basic tools and then force us to actually try to survive.

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