[section label=1. Introduction]
Another Fallout Game…
Fallout 4 is the younger, cockier child of the prestigious Fallout family. The family is one of the more successful and beloved gaming franchises on the market, with big brothers Fallout 3 and New Vegas selling millions of copies and inspiring modding communities years after their release. Meanwhile, Fallout 4 hangs out with celebrities and parks his Porsche in two different parking spots because he can. There are some slight spoilers in this review, but by time you’re reading this everyone will pretty much know the gist of the story anyway.
The Story We Tell Ourselves
What are Fallout games about? If you asked me, which I just did by writing this, I’d say it’s the story of humanity, civilization, our natural aptitude for evil, and our incredible capacity for hope. I’d also mention that they’re “about” doing whatever you want. You create your character, you decide what they’re good at, you decide how they talk to people, and how they treat others when no one is looking. This is pretty common in role playing games, and most Fallout fans wouldn’t feel out of place at a D&D table doing the same thing. In fact, The goal of the first Fallout was to create a computer game that was as close as you can get to playing GURPS, another well known pen and paper RPG. Tabletop RPG’s allow for complete player freedom and control, they let you experience a character in a way no other medium can. Fallout’s roots are in emulating tabletop RPG’s, it’s reasonable to assume Fallout games are about whatever you want them to be about.
So what is Fallout 4 about? From the intro you’d think it’s about Adrian Brody living in domestic bliss. Then after about 15 minutes of totally wasting the opportunity to show us the pre-war Fallout world, everything goes bad for Poor Adrian. The bombs are falling and the world’s about to end before he can even finish his coffee. Before you know it your character is a man out of time in a new and alien world, looking for the one thing that still makes sense, your infant son. And while I can appreciate a simple motivation with a human center to get the countless newcomers invested in the game, I can’t help but feel this belongs in a movie, not a game about doing what I want to do. So despite the best of intentions the story is more of a burden to be carried than a reason to care. It doesn’t encourage me to explore the world I inhabit in an organic way if my wife is dead, my son is missing, and I’ve just broken out of a refrigerator. Do you really expect me to want to join the Minutemen and rescue kittens out of trees or deliver letters to Santa for little Suzy?
the only thing more boring than my wife was her outfit
There is a major disconnection here. Bethesda expects us to go out into the world and make our own history, but doesn’t give us some basic storytelling freedoms. Because the main character comes with so much baggage, I feel as though I’m not playing a character I created. He already has a ton of development: a military background, a wife, a kid; that’s a lot of commitments. He sounds like a nice guy and all, but what if I don’t want to be a nice guy? What if I wanted to be a real dick and betray the Minutemen in Concord? There’s no way of doing that. You can’t kill them, they’re immortal NPC’s. If you don’t join them, you’ll be forced to kill the raiders who attack you anyway, you can then ignore the quest in your pip boy for the rest of the game. Meanwhile, baby Shaun could be in the process of becoming dog food for all we know–assuming we care at all.
[section label=2. Gameplay]
Can Fallout 4 Come Out and Play?
Sadly, the lack of player agency doesn’t stop with the misaligned goals of your main character. These sort of problems show up in other important aspects of the world too. There are two ways of interacting with NPC’s in Fallout: shooting them or talking to them, both feel weak and grant the player less control then they had in previous Fallout offerings. Talking has been reduced to the “conversation wheel” of only 4 options; rude, agreeable, sarcastic, and asking for more info. This Mass Effect inspired approach to conversations feels like a step backwards, and even though I like the addition of a fully voiced protagonist and the better looking conversation scenes, The ability to choose exactly what I wanted my character to say, or the satisfaction of using a high S.P.E.C.I.A.L stats option, or the opportunity to use skills I invested in while interacting with characters is sorely missed.
This approach worked better in Mass Effect thanks to emphasis on the alignment system, but seeing as there’s no longer a karma meter in Fallout, I can’t see the reasoning behind this lack of options. So I sit here with a character who’s been already written for me, choosing 1 of 3 attitudes, not being able to shape the kind of person I am in any meaningful way, and honestly not caring about what comes out of his mouth any more. Not because of a problem with the pre written character and dialog wheel way of role playing, the problem lies with introducing it to a series with an already established, working, and frankly more fun way of handling those aspects. You’re sacrificing originality and fun in an effort to play catch up to other titles.
I started to wonder if Fallout 4 was going to move away from it’s old school RPG roots and embrace being a AAA first person shooter, but shooting is the same odd, inconsistent duck from years past. Enemies would occasionally act as expected, but more often than not I found myself surprised at how close I could get without them turning hostile. This lead to a few unexpected deaths as I’d approach a still figure off in the distance hoping for a friendly face, only to be met with a hail of bullets once I crossed some invisible line. In areas with plenty of cover, enemies will hide and do an ugly blind fire sort of animation leaving them open for punishment, once shot they’ll retreat and start the whole whack a mole process over again. Meanwhile I stand around awkwardly getting peppered with grenades with precision the likes of which has never been seen before on this Earth, not able to use the environment at all. Why can’t I take cover too? No really, serious question, why can’t I take cover? This is supposed to be an open world shooter RPG with an emphasis on the shooting. I guess Adrian wasn’t high enough rank in the Army to learn that advanced technique.
Shortly after taking this shot, I stepped too close to a robot and he stole my lunch money
Speaking of advanced techniques, another small step backwards that I can’t defend is how you can’t disarm enemies in VATS anymore, and the reduced chance of crippling limbs. VATS doesn’t seem to offer anything special until higher levels when you have an increased chance of crippling limbs. Now that VATS in general feels less than optimal until level 42, you’re better off aiming for center mass and hoping the enemies and their inflated health bars explode in a mess of random damage spikes.
[section label=3. Graphics]
Graphically, there are some nice improvements all around, but when compared to other major releases this year, it looks like Fallout received a botched next gen facelift. While the game does feature NVIDIA’s GameWorks technology, it doesn’t seem to utilize it very well. Sure, Godrays are great and all, but I never felt like they added to the overall experience very much, and turning them off didn’t make me feel like I was missing anything. Even the games dynamic weather effects, while interesting in theory, just don’t seem to be executed that well here. Things like fog just seem to wash out the environment rather than transform it. From a technical standpoint; there’s nothing very “next-gen” about Fallout 4. While there is a massive open-world ready for player exploration, it just doesn’t feel like Bethesda has done anything new here in terms of player immersion. The huge environments offered up by Fallout 4 don’t feel alive. And while you could say that is intentional as the game is depicting a post apocalyptic wasteland, there’s still so much missing here
Longtime fans will be surprised by the protagonist being a vampire.
The textures are of embarrassing quality even for a Bethesda title. The world around is static and looks like it’s made of vinyl, rather than being in the Wasteland, I feel like I’m on a low budget broadway stage — good enough from a distance, but upon closer inspection you’re reminded that everything is fake. Combined with the fact that there’s no organic interacting with the environment, such as there’s no discernible effects of stepping into a puddle, or how aside from some blurry reflections on guns, there aren’t any reflective surfaces to be found. When compared to recent big name RPG’s, Fallout 4 fails to live up to expectations. The graphical failings can be mostly blamed on the archaic Gamebryo (Creation) engine. The inefficiency of the engine leads to requiring higher end hardware than necessary for this level of visual fidelity. AMD systems suffer especially, but there are reports of high end Intel system users experiencing frame rate drops and other problems. And the fact that the game engine speed is locked to the framerate is appalling by today’s standards. Stranger still, is the fact that the game does feature Ambient Occlusion effects, but limits it only to the aging SSAO, rather than giving players to option for other, more advanced technologies such as NVIDIA’s HBAO+. Fallout 4 isn’t a hideous game, but I can’t help but feel putting in some extra effort would have paid off, rather than looking like Bethesda did just the bare minimum.
[section label=4. Conclusion]
Conclusions: Power Armor, Dogmeat and a Fallout Experience
The Fallout games are all fairly similar in appearance and have a few quirks that make them decidedly Fallout. At the same time each one has tried to do something different within the agreed upon post apocalyptic setting. Fallout 3 had a couple of recurring themes, mainly they were family, redemption, and sacrifice. It even had Christian mythology thrown in. Revelation 21:6 is the main story line in about 30 words. It also works perfectly as the mythological heroes journey. New Vegas put Clint Eastwood, Frank Sinatra, and Wayne Newton in a spoon, held a lighter underneath, then injected them into the familiar fallout elements and played them in new ways bringing original ideas into the Fallout world with some western flare. this is obvious from the opening of both games. Fallout 3 starts with a tender family moment, and you’re covered in the afterbirth or “waters of life”. In Fallout New Vegas, you’re shot in the face by a gangster and wake up in some Podunk town that needs a tough sum bitch like you. Totally different themes, totally different feel, but still Fallout.
Compare both of these to Fallout 4’s opening and I think you’ll notice a distinct lack of identity. It’s as generic as possible, Adrian doles out the alternate history of the Fallout world, then he mentions his boring wife and kid who are about as interesting as my wife’s favorite TV shows.
Fallout 4’s recurring theme seems to be… that this is another Fallout game. It’s clear from the get go they want to give us that default Fallout experience by immediately throwing fan-favorite Dogmeat™ at us, and getting us into some classic Fallout Power Armor™ as soon as possible instead innovating or separating themselves from familiar images. Vault Boy might be the mascot of the Fallout franchise, but someone in power armor is on the cover of nearly every game in the series. It feels forced, and it doesn’t stop at what you see. Even the music feels awkward, most of the tracks are either callbacks to songs from the older games, actual songs from the older games, or something with heavy handed nuclear/atomic lyrics to really drive home the fact that you’re playing Fallout.
What is the default Fallout experience anyway? Someone at Bethesda must have said it’s “wandering the Wasteland in Power Armor with your trusty companion Dogmeat”. This is mostly true, players definitely like both of those things. But they’re usually earned after a few hours of being lost and alone in the world. You had to go through a lot of shit to get that fancy armor and find a dog that didn’t want to eat you. (and, even then, you could refuse both) But are they really that central to a Fallout game? It’s just some armor we’re talking about. I have to wonder why both of these things are shoehorned into the game so early. Are they worried the new action oriented crowd would get bored without power armor after 5 minutes? Was it to remind us that we’re playing a Fallout game? To ensure us that the bad ass on the box was, in fact, us? I don’t know. Maybe they wanted us to get nostalgic. It has been nearly 6 years since the last fallout game. And nearly 8 years if you’re only counting the Bethesda titles. And in those 8 years, I eagerly awaited to see what Bethesda would do in a world where games are bigger and more ambitious than ever before. I think it’s obvious I was disappointed by the lack of vision, the lack of understanding what works, and by the fact that I know this game could have been so much more. I don’t hate Fallout 4, but I certainly don’t love it either. The fun I had while playing was met with equal parts of frustration and confusion. I think, for now, I’m going to crawl back into my vault. I’ll be back to roam the commonwealth in a few months after a hardworking, dedicated team of modders shine this unpolished stone into the diamond it should have been.
Screw you Dogmeat
Am I the only one who thinks the default character looks like Adrian Brody?
Why does my gun disappear when I holster it?
Why can I step on a landmine, cripple my legs, then literally walk it off and be okay without a stimpack?
Why give me the option to tell Dogmeat to scram, if he’s tied to the main story and you have no choice in him joining you?
Is Adrian Brody a good looking guy? I think he is, in a unique sort of way.
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