Game Name: Fallout 4 (2015)
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios (Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim, Fallout 3)
Platform: PC, PS4, XBone (reviewed on PC)
Categories: Clunky 1st/3rd Person Shooter, One Player, Junk Hoarder, Nukes, Drugs, BFGs, Robots, Mutants, Zombies, Alternate Timeline Apocalypse, Base Building, Settlement Networking, Weapons/Armor/Provisions Crafting, Lockpicking, Password Hacking, Faction Missions and Alignment, Multiple Endings, Gorgeous Open World, Labyrinths and Locales, Primarily Combat, Targetable Body Parts, Hyper Violence, Repetitive Gameplay, Long Load Times, Buggy Missions and Visuals, Bad Pathfinding, 1950s Tunes, Extensive Voice Acting, Atmospheric Experience, Highly Moddable, Survival Mode, Customizable Power Armor!, Weak RPG Elements: Dialogue, Mission Resolution Options, Plot Branching, Unimportant Personal Stats, and Infrequent Ability Growth.
May Appeal To: Fallout newcomers, tinkerers, collectors, looters, explorers, crazed crafters, retro-future fanatics, trigger happy gore lunatics, and the twitchy FPS crowd.
May Repulse: long time followers of the Fallout series, pretty much. The guns/drugs use, glitches, body horror, PC graphics reqs, and a lack of multiplayer may chase off others.
Comparable To: the gun totin’ shootfest that is Borderlands 2, but with anti-radiation meds substituting the need for Adderall. Fallout 4 has less “RPG qualities” than all of its predecessors but is the prettiest to date. The map is smaller and more dense than New Vegas, easier to navigate than 3, and is less clever and humorous than 1 or 2 (which are completely different genres at this point). The default dialogue tree and “choices” are very much Mass Effect. Skyrim had interesting characters and quests vs checklists though it had less believable rules regarding competing factions as this applied to gameplay. TES: Oblivion had more tasks at the expense of being more repetitive while Morrowind allowed for some truly unique character builds and retained storylines that the average player never even discovered due to the world’s depth. Fallout 4’s crafting and networked base systems for attracting NPCs and generating scrap/revenue is a Bethesda first though it has some mild correlations with Terraria and Starbound the longer you think about it.
Learning Curve: 10 minutes, though you get introduced to the finer mechanics over a 5 hour period, I’d say. Even with intricacies in the crafting optimization, personal builds, and settlement management, entire swaths of the extra mechanics are completely optional.
Game Length: 30 hours for the main storyline, hundreds for total completion.
Difficulty: Adjustable, though the overall difficulty is region-biased.
Mastery: Impossible if you’re looking to max a character’s stats. The crafting options are staggering and there are some minecraft-level projects that I’ve seen emulate simple switch logic. The factions do not get along and many quest branches are pruned upon completion of others. It’s feasible to visit every location and plunder their secrets, lay claim to every settlement, and tweak your favorite loadout to their maximum efficacy. The game simply makes a single playthrough unviable for witnessing everything.
Story: Despite the complexities of Fallout’s history, it all breaks down into some key points: a tech divergence occurred where integrated circuit research suffocated in lieu of vacuum tubes, in no way limiting robotics development; the world’s oil crisis spawned desperate struggles for resources, leading to nuclear energy dominating in even personal goods like automobiles; global instability led to a Chinese invasion of the United States and mutual atomic obliteration. The bombs drop in 2077 upon a skewed timeline that has the music, convention, and complacent consumerism of 1950’s America, which gestates and emerges centuries later to reclaim the radioactive hellscape populated by Hulkish supermutants, bugs, and zombies.
But this is just the setting, one we’ve become well-accustomed to for the series.
This time around, players don the jumpsuit as a pre-war survivor, evaluated and ushered into the fortified vaults as the nukes obliterate Boston, MA. We literally witness the idyllic tranquility of a pristine suburb transform into a sun-bleached wasteland devoid of pleasantries, a white picket fence home of the past becoming a rag-tag headquarters for incursions into abandoned factories and crumbling freeways patrolled by bandits. The protective bunkers implemented by the government are often subjected to harsh social and biological experiments, and Vault 111 just happens to cryogenically freeze its original inhabitants to be awoken at a later time.
Groggy and distraught, the player character arises 210 years later to embark on a mission to recover their stolen son. And as luck would have it, several opposing organizations -from the militarized Brotherhood to the bleeding hearts of the Underground Railroad- are more than willing to exchange bottle caps and hardware for a few favors.
From a game experience perspective, the true story elements pale in comparison to the actual setting – so this distinction must be made up front. It’s a beautifully realized world where the depth of both conversation and faction interaction is exceedingly shallow -almost a rough outline- as judged by Bethesda standards.
[paraphrased] Typical NPC: “Hey bud, got a geiger counter?”
NPC: “Good. Because there is radiation out there.”
This kind of verbose meaninglessness permeates the very fabric of the scripted game, really. Save for moments like the first hour of introduction or the Prydwen airship’s arrival, scant few of the narrative beats land and makes the player feel anything; it’s all just a sequence playing out in the expected order. De-emphasized are the relationships with the main character’s personal entourage, stunning moments of betrayal, pivotal plot reveals, or the emotional currency with which player investment is wheedled.
In the story’s stead is this wild, untamed wanderlust for exploration that yields physical subtlety and implications at a deeper world. Whereas I’d normally categorize that sense and substance as world-building and presentation, Fallout 4 inherits the mythos of its kin while littering its own playfield with details that conceptually award attentive players while invoking the imagination of those receptive to details not tangibly explained. Isolated cabins littered with booze and cigarette butts, hidden floor safes secured by a secretary’s password, the downfall of a robotic horse company, the plight of a radio operator’s sanity, a school’s food substitute, and a serial killer’s art gallery all capture moments frozen in time like some sardonic museum erected to showcase the folly and foibles of humankind. This is where the game’s true interest and story lies – not in the static gaze of brainless, named characters insisting that another settlement needs your assistance.
Some of the best material is never spoken aloud.
And just as the main plotlines start to gain traction, the game doesn’t wrap up with an overview of villains killed or the well-being of various settlements you cultivated. It doesn’t finalize character futures or hypothesize at outcomes like with other Fallout ancestors.
It just unceremoniously ends.
Presentation: The pictures say it all: high res textures, rich color palettes, varied light sources, shifting weather conditions, and stylistic models with plenty of detail. Though smaller than previous entries, the map is appropriately gigantic and deliberate with it’s hundreds of indoor locations dotting the cityscape of Boston’s ruins.
Normally-mundane locations like grocery stores and office buildings are now treacherous, multi-tiered labyrinths of collapsed walls and exposed rebar, of plank bridges spanning crevasses several stories above street level. Larger structures such as the Fenway Park baseball stadium and several mechanical factories stand as gutted havens for one form of life or another, evidence of ramshackle hovels and animal nests breaching every orifice. Refuse and precious garbage extends as a jagged carpet as far as the eye can see, covering the toxic bay canals as they lap gently at the mutated carcasses along the shoreline and spilling from open wounds in the listing downtown skyscrapers.
Your character navigates the craggy hills of dense, leafless forests, the submerged terror of capsized fishing vessels, the neon wastes of perpetual radiation storms, and amidst the fallen giants of civilization’s edifices. Creatures plague your quest, most of which express toothy faces, claws, horns, or greatly disfigured limbs jutting in absurd directions. Sometimes an otherworldly glow. Sometimes a makeshift club or barbed projectile. Others just monstrous in size.
It all starts with the metallic shock of a discharged shell into the void, a muzzle flash in the distance, the electrifying sizzle of plasma bolts searing past, the anguished snarl as a behemoth falls, its unknown comrades rallying unseen with affirming curses bellowed menacingly in your visual periphery. The persistent clicks of the Pipboy assistant strapped at the wrist indicates a radiation hotzone as you slam a button to emit a ghostly glow, illuminating the area. Via dim monochrome display, you fumble with the available channels to access vital stimpaks to regain lost health, the edges of your vision clouding with pain.
A throaty gulp, tick, hissss later and medications begin their work, the glass-eyed jubilation of 1950’s pop music seeming less and less at odds with the bloody carnage swirling around you with each passing minute. Soon, the slap-happy twang of simple guitar choruses paired with squawking, giddy vocalists becomes infectious, leading to toe-tapping slaughter at the bidding of some tinny radio speaker crackling viciously in the gloom. The track stops, the record whispers white noise, and you’re left to sift through the biological shrapnel for some scraps of aluminum and plastic.
Unique Features: The retro-future apocalypse setting is still pretty fresh after all this time – the silenced majesty of a bustling 1950’s city reduced to smoldering ash, populated by ghouls, mutants, DOS computers, and robots. The lockpicking/hacking minigames entertain. Establishing settlements with hand-placed walls, cooking stations, merchant carts, and turrets while managing denizens’ survival and their duties is unique. As is the degree of detail for crafting sustenance, drugs, gun and melee weapons, stat-altering outfits, body armor, and of course…. completely serviceable power armor that runs off specialized fusion cores.
Combat – No way around it, this Fallout variant leans heavily on gunplay to drive the narrative and tie all mechanics into a cohesive force. Because of frame stutters, clipping, target sluggishness, and how utterly loose and clumsy the controls feel on this single player, first person experience with hundreds of hours of content…. you’d think it’d be less exciting and impactful. Graduating from a dude in blue jammies wielding pea shooters cobbled from lead pipes and duct tape to a Mk 6 power-armored ronin wielding a face-melting plasma rifle and quad rocket launcher is made all the more badass by the bullet-time death cam which frames the gruesome effects of your projectiles’ trajectories. The V.A.T.S. system is back and in full force, a hybridization of folding the old isometric aiming mechanics into a run-and-gun shooter by freezing the action and allowing the player to pick highlighted targets at their leisure – all with a varying probability of hit percentages. It’s entirely possible to play the game in 3rd person or disuse such mechanics, though the frequency and redundancy of battles (not to mention the difficulty in spotting blood-sucking insects and raiders among vertical debris) would cause the sub-par shooting elements to wear thin extremely quickly. Injecting your character with painkillers and inducing psychotic episodes to have a gatling laser tear a swath through a bum rush of glowing snot goblins or executing a string of nine precision headshots with a custom auto-pistol via V.A.T.S has never been more entertaining. Let’s just hope you never want to resolve conflict with anything other than your trigger finger and that you’re okay with moving at a “junk-laden casual stroll”….
Looting and Crafting – It’s the saving grace of the whole experience and one of few new additions to the franchise. I’m just a bit shocked that Bethesda hadn’t previously put it’s garbage-hoarding simulator engine to good use! What had been so out of place in the high fantasy environs of The Elder Scrolls series fits right at home here, in allowing literal tons of discarded detritus draping the countryside to be harvested and put towards the player’s discerning crafting tastes: medicine, anti-radiation ampoules, combat drugs, cooked consumables, bullets, mines, pistols, rifles, launchers of all sorts, energy weapons, experimental gamma-blasting alien weaponry, reinforced clothing, helmets, accessories, layered armor, and vintage battle-tested power armor. All that’s required are the scavenged/purchased ingredients, the base material to work with, and the relevant tool bench like a full-fledged power armor mechanics hoist. The junk is aplenty – strewn about your travels and tucked away in containers of all sizes or jealously guarded by the corpses of your fallen enemies. The rarer stuff will take work in acquisition – an armor frame tucked away in a military storage locker, a large shipment of uncommon commodities from a dry no-nonsense fembot, a fusion core or fissile materials located in a science facility’s generator room, a DeathClaw or StingWing ingredient required to play Gordon Ramsay in the post-apocalyptic future. Most recipes for these things will be unlocked via character leveling progression, a reasonably balanced crafting system that never leaves you without a new weapon optimization to work towards. Given the several thousand combinations possible (including rare weapon/armor drops with unique abilities), the best-equipped players spend many hours tinkering away at their respective workbenches to provide a considerable edge in battle. Importantly, guns do not degrade with use in Fallout 4.
Inventory and Character Management – Despite this reinvigorated emphasis on accumulation, the ability to manage it hasn’t improved beyond a “Store All” button on the menu’s Junk tab. The PipBoy is one of the most iconic and thematic accessories to the series though it’s capabilities are decidedly retro and cumbersome in the face of modern convention. Astoundingly, various smartphones can be lodged into the physical, pre-ordered PipBoy, have a management app installed to it, and control the Fallout 4’s digital version in real time but the novelty wears off pretty swiftly and you’re left wondering why the unending lists are so God awful to sift through. Every aspect of health management, leveling, radio changing, armament hotkey setting or juggling, item transferring, flashlight toggling, and map surveying are tied into this flickering black/green device with visual scanlines that display solely textual information or crude line drawings in the aesthetic of computers before proper GUIs were established. Immersive, yes. Primitive mini-games baked in, yes (and they’re amazing). But I can’t handle one more Bethesda game that duplicates this unresponsive and archaic inventory management system. With my over-preparedness and obsessive playstyle, I just get overwhelmed with this terribly inept interface that crushes its legs under the weight of its own bulk. I mean that figuratively and in the digital reality where my player runs around with 5000lbs of materiel at all times. Meanwhile, the character traits are a shadow of their former selves though gun enthusiasts will be pleased with the large amount of combat perks that mostly boost accuracy, damage, resistances, or increase crafting mod levels. Perk points are unlocked by gaining experience and leveling the character, and the available perks are based on the Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck character stats that range from 1 to 10 (really the only thing they’re used for anymore).
Quests – I’m glad that the complexities of nuance, layers, and varying approaches to quests are still alive in games like Deus Ex, The Witcher, and the Elder Scroll series because there is fuck-all reason to do anything but roam Boston and slaughter anything that moves. Hey, that’s a great idea for a Fallout 4 quest! [writes that one down] There is the barest, rudimentary semblance of a thinly veiled plot here, one that delves ankle-deep beyond a two sentence synopsis of what each of the major factions represent. I get the impression that having memorable distractions, characters you care about, and dialogue worthy of a second-pass by a paid editor would have been too big an ask for one of the most attention-deficit games descended from and masquerading as an RPG to come out in a long time. I think the primary reason I’m so bitter about this is how banal and rote the whole excuse to use your weapons is: 1) poor schlub begs for assistance 2) walk or fast-travel to the map marker 3) pause the action and V.A.T.S. a bunch of headshots 4) pick up the boss man’s item 5) return to the quest giver. The empty promises I repeatedly told myself the whole time were that I could approach combat in different (read as “less effective”) ways or that I would soon find a quest that really dug its claws into me and waxed philosophical about the nature of man or externalized my fears and insecurities. The only thing I experienced is that our juicy internal bits explode outwards and become external bits. You don’t TALK to antagonists, much less find an alternate way to resolve conflict (unless you simply betray the quest giver) and you’re always slaughtering hordes of grunts without any kind of pervasive “big bad” that leads them all and cajoles you into losing battles or inflicts some measure of humility. Everything just falls like chaff to my sickle and the game is entirely designed around this perversely egotistical fantasy of odds stacked in the player’s favor against a bleeding throng of monsters and miscreants that possess no future other than to die by my hand. The end credits don’t summarize your accomplishments and affiliations. Your actions have little to no lasting impact on the people you service. How are you supposed to build effective “quests” with a game mired in that sort of mentality? It’s all just a mindless pattern of following the objective arrows on your compass until you trigger a check marks. And it never ends.Psst! Hey, uh. Another settlement needs our help.
Settlements – Did you realize that there is a robust and meticulous meta game that lies just beneath the surface of this shooty-shooty action title? Due to the demanding time requirements (and the incessant yammering Preston Garvey is known for), I can imagine a lot of players bypassing settlement acquisition/building entirely but it serves as a welcome respite from your double-barreled problem solving. The quandary is one of logistics though it still feeds into the active combat on a number of levels. Once your “quest” for finding and defending a new location completes, the denizens are beholden to the player and allow you to act as some extension of martial law for their 50 square meters of limited farmland. You then get the laborious ability of constructing buildings on their property – mostly automated turrets, craft benches, “mutfruit” crops, shops, and a handful of other helpful things. These things need bodies to run them. Those bodies need their own food supply, water, and places to sleep. The new settlements will eventually expand on their own but you soon gain the ability to set up electric generators, lights, and advanced construction items (along with this game’s attempts at “beautifying” an area). The end goal here is that you create new bases of operations, that you have a warm bed to rest in, a home-grown supply of food, ubiquitous service benches, a self-sustained militia that staves off routine enemy incursions, stations to receive your latest hauls, shops to buy and trade new equipment, and a living network across 37 map nodes which funnel valued junk, money, and inventory items to set locations. Admittedly, this is an ambitious mechanic -especially for an unessential piece of the game’s core- and it is pulled off with a modicum of grace and utility. I personally love the idea and would like to have seen it refined or built upon in future iterations. My only critiques would be that placing items, assigning settler roles, and editing trade routes are woefully difficult to do in first person and under-explained within the games confines. You also have next to no forewarning when you must drop your current events to go and defend a settlement from an attack. (The doodad count for custom base additions needs to be raised drastically, by the way.)
Additional Comments: Crafting (which extends to Settlement planning) is a welcome addition to the series, a solid boost to a rather redundant and rhetorical system that is starting to show worse for wear. How dare the developers neglect my favored parts of the RPG experience to generate these things that I enjoyed in an almost equal measure! Also, the lockpicking and password “hacking” mini-games from other Fallouts are present.
What I Liked: There’s a lot to like here – an epic scope of battles, the cinematography, a rewarding reason to go exploring, lighting and special effects, the weather, an inspired ’50s music and art style, full modding support, a more focused and interesting urban map, lots of caves and dungeons, nearly endless [combat] content, the difficulty scaling and rare monsters, morally ambiguous factions, an incredibly deep crafting system for all manner of consumables and equipment, establishing and building settlements, the staggering equipment breadth without going ‘full Borderlands’, the in-game PipBoy concept and as a physical accessory, DeathClaws, V.A.T.S. as an equalizer for people unaccustomed to FPSs, the retro-future setting, and lockpicking/hacking.
I fucking love the power armor look, feel, customization, and operation in this game.
I also love my memories of previous Fallout games.
What I Disliked: Popular or not, this game has major flaws. All factions are composed of genocidal assholes with no middle ground, entire quest trees get pruned based on your alignment, you have no choices just employers, quest-breaking glitches are abundant (not the “fun” kind of glitches, NPCs are soulless and boring (way more than a game about AI and mutants should be), there is no story depth to add from the established lineage (other than synths), synths are technological unbelievable for this universe, the story “surprises” are extremely telegraphed, there is missed opportunity for deep conversations with your party members, accidental romance is way too easy for certain characters, NPCs push YOU out of the way when walking around, stiff animations, all manner of graphical anomalies, there is no weight/meaning/repercussions to actions (Fallout 3’s DJ talked constantly about your exploits and capping story threads), ghouls look like bloated/melted ass now or squinty catcher’s mitts, the “local map” is too zoomed in with enough details/lines to make it effectively useless in a lot of areas, the button to accelerate dialogue is the same as the shoot button and I either accidentally skipped conversations or shot at NPCs, the main character is super slow even when unencumbered, and the inventory management options are also atrocious at scale.
Fallout 4 won “game of the year” against the Witcher 3 in multiple venues and I hate the generic population for making that judgement in 2015.
I also hate that I remember the depth and rewarding experience of previous Fallout games.
(I’ve been playing for years since it came out, mind you, but Bethesda has a reputation for releasing buggy messes before alleviating the most egregious ones. Full disclosure: I had a minimal amount of mods, a known source for code that becomes at odds with itself.)
Graphics – Clipping on basic animations and character models, as well as the environment. Inconsistent resolution/scale/alignment on art assets. Sometimes high-res textures would never render for certain surfaces or objects. Object pop-in and NPC spawns were pretty noticeable at times. Invisible collision geometry forces you to circumnavigate its edges.
Audio – Groups of people talking over each other at the same volume. Loud, random pops and bangs, assumably from objects rendering improperly and colliding with a surface.
Combat – Vertibirds just outright crash all over the place. NPCs aggroing for no discernible reason. Some funky business with melee arcs, hit zones, and terrain.
Gameplay – Random items in my possession were incorrectly marked as stolen. Random stuff in the middle of nowhere would incur a stealing penalty without any known owner tied to the location. Certain areas of the map refused to mark themselves as CLEAR upon completion – potentially mission related though there must be exceptions.
Quests – 5% of my quests ended up having some problem with them – bad waypoints, bad NPC pathfinding, a botched checklist, unexplained parameters triggering, or just flat out unable to be completed. It’s not too unexpected for a game of this size but this shit is the most troublesome of them all, especially on a game this rudimentary when compared to the developer’s other titles.
Hours I Played: 273 hours and I begrudgingly sided with the Railroad
My Personal Reaction: I remember a time when pacifist runs in Fallout were possible, when players could explore the amusing dialogue options for wildly differing effects, when NPCs reacted to character builds and this encouraged experimentation. Although Fallout 4’s world is beautiful, immersive, and a rich garbage-collecting experience I’m a bit saddened at the focus on idolizing the form of a tactical weapons augmentation hoarder.
Elements that seem missing or subdued in this incarnation: shock value, interesting vault experiments, ethereal paranormal stuff, story closure, persistent decisions, dialogue trees, stat checks, and differing character builds (I miss ones that relied on charisma, repair, or doctor abilities). Regrettably, almost all of the classic RPG stuff that added depth or realism to the world is extinct. Potentially the most grievous is Fallout 4’s lack of cynical dark humor through pithy writing! This is very much a bright, happy AAA product seeking mass appeal from a younger audience and doesn’t know how to critique itself or the foreboding premise it represents.
Fallout 4 is certainly a good game on its own and only when comparing it to its own legacy do I quibble over the details. Unfortunately, I may forego the next Bethesda projects unless a return to glory or an overwhelmingly new [and polished] concept emerges.
Noob Tips: Bethesda continues it’s amazing tradition of full mod support and the community delivers. Check out these to augment your experience:
Full Dialogue Interface: The Mass Effect dialogue wheel falls flat on its face. Bring back that old Fallout touch by revealing dialogue options before you commit to them.
True Storms: Rain and radiation storms pelt the landscape at random.
Old World Radio: The soundtrack gets repetitive after a few hundred hours. Spice it up with Soviet march tunes, old school radio “talkies”, and more from 30 brand new stations.
Improved Map w/ Visible Roads: Makes the map less useless. Yeah, I said it.
Lowered Weapons: It’s a gorgeous game. Too bad you can’t see around that shoulder-mounted BFG. You can still see what weapon is equipped on-screen.
CleanWater of the Commonwealth: Drastically improves the water graphics rendering.
Settlement Limits Slashed: Finally, you can customize your base to your heart’s desire.
Body Slide w/ CBBE: Perv out with the best of them.
Depth and Replayability: Multiple player-driven objectives like establishing trade networks, base tinkering, perfecting your armor and armament, exploration, collecting bobbleheads, and clearing missions off of multiple queues offer extreme obsession. The story and RPG essentials players may have expected are nearly absent. Despite entire quest branches becoming unexpectedly available past certain points, one long single playthrough was personally preferable over multiple starts with different characters.
Suggested Value: $60
Where to Buy: GOG, Steam, Gamestop, Best Buy
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