A game where the magic is in the margins rather than the core, and if you’re okay with that sort of experience, you should get it. If not, well…
Earlier this week, Bethesda Studios released the latest game in its Fallout series—Fallout 4. Not the most creative title by any means, but in this case, it’s not that big of a deal. Anyone who knows Bethesda also knows that (a) they only have two major franchises (Fallout and The Elder Scrolls), and (b) they only release a game every three to four years. Fallout 3 was released in 2008 and Skyrim followed in 2011 (remember, New Vegas was developed by Obsidian, not Bethesda). The fact that Skyrim broke the 20 million units sold (not shipped, but sold) mark last January indicates beyond a doubt that Bethesda has developed an audience rivaled only by Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series and Activision/Blizzard’s Call of Duty. That’s some pretty elite company, so yeah, they can afford to just slap a new number on their latest game release. They’re Bethesda. People know them.
While the overall critical response to the latest Fallout entry seems to have been positive (I’m not entirely sure though—I try to stay away from other reviews before I write mine), the fans themselves have been on the fence about it, for a variety of reasons. So, before I get into my own review, I want to go ahead and get a few points out the way:
1) If you want a game where the main quest story is going to blow you away, Fallout 4 is not for you.
2) If you want a game with the best graphics of this generation, Fallout 4 is not for you.
3) If you want a game that runs flawlessly, to the point that you will never find yourself pulled out of your game world immersion, Fallout 4 is not for you.
4) If you want a game that feels so incredibly different from its predecessors that you won’t even recognize it as the next installment in a series, Fallout 4 is not for you.
There. I’ve said it. If you fall into any of the above categories, be forewarned that Fallout 4 is not going to live up to your lofty expectations. In all fairness though, if you expected any of these things, you’ve probably never played a Bethesda game for any significant amount of time, and/or your memory of Fallout 3 and Skyrim is a bit tainted by nostalgia. Anyway, on to the review!
In some ways, Fallout 4 is really Fallout 3.5ish. The main theme in Bethesda’s advertising material is “Welcome Home,” and for anyone who has played the earlier Fallout games, that motto is more than apt. Most of the enemies, weapons, and factions you see will be familiar to you. The core game mechanics, Pip Boy menus, and general control scheme are the same as before. Even the game’s general look and vibe still scream Fallout. Overall, this is a game you’ve already played. However, while some people have been put off by this familiar feel, I actually think Bethesda made a good choice designing the game in this way. There are enough variations in enemy types to keep you guessing, even though you will recognize their general forms (i.e. Supermutants, Mirelurks, Feral Ghouls, etc.). While the gunplay operates by the same rules as before, it has been greatly improved, such that I find myself ignoring V.A.T.S. as often as I use it. Some familiar factions also make a comeback here (like The Brotherhood of Steel), but there are enough newcomers to keep you interested in how their interactions will play out. Even the Power Armor, which has been a staple of all the Fallout games, is more than an aesthetic/stats upgrade; it significantly alters the gameplay, and strutting around the Wasteland in it is an exercise in godlike domination.
What I’m saying is, familiarity is not always a bad thing; and in this case, rather than making Fallout 4 feel repetitive or uninspired, the familiar design makes it especially easy to dive right into the world and begin exploring every nook and cranny you can find. In that way, the game design feels slightly invisible, for better or worse.
As I mentioned above, Fallout 4‘s main story is pretty bad, but I don’t know how fair it is to judge a game like this by that standard. In fact, all of Bethesda’s main stories are bad. I’m sorry, but if you thought chasing the Wastelander’s father around in Fallout 3 was fun, there’s something wrong with you. And don’t even get me started on that ending! While Skyrim had a slightly better main plot, it dragged in a lot of places. The faction quests, especially that of The Dark Brotherhood, were where that game’s narrative really came to life. The bottom line is that Bethesda has never been great at a main story, and if you’ve been playing their games for the main plot—well—you’ve been missing out.
That being said, the main quest line in this game has a particularly poor start. One of the best elements of Fallout 3‘s thoroughly average story was the opening segment in the Vault, where your character grows up and makes certain key decisions about his/her personality (Tunnel Snakes Rule!). Fallout 4 puts you in the Vault for a few minutes, and that’s it. I get that Bethesda probably wanted to distance itself from the same Vault-style intro it had done before, but avoiding that part of the story made me feel little to no connection to my character and the McGuffin he had to chase around. In previous games, that lack of connection would be acceptable because your character was silent. You would actually become the Wastelander yourself. Now, your character has a voice, meaning you the player and your character in the game are two separate individuals. In this case, Bethesda needed to do a better job of helping you connect with that character on an emotional level. Instead, they skipped quickly through the parts intended to create that connection, leaving a rather lackluster finish on what could have been an interesting narrative turn for the series.
Still, the world you are chasing said McGuffin around in is simply wonderful. Fallout 4 is set in Boston, while previous entries were set in Washing D.C. and Las Vegas respectively. Bethesda pulled out all the stops to make sure that Boston is represented in its entirety, and their version of the city is stuffed to the brim with new locations to explore and loot. A nice change I’ve noticed between this version and previous entries in the series is how far apart the different locations are. Boston feels slightly smaller than D.C. or Vegas did, but the space the developers cut was the open, empty terrain. Instead of wandering for what seems like ages to discover a new location, you find them here in only a short jog. This keeps the game moving at a nice pace, and it cuts down on those never ending walks across a bleak terrain for which Fallout is infamous.
Inside these numerous and varied locations, you will find tons of loot, and, as usual, you can pick everything up and take it with you. The difference in this game is all of that junk actually matters. The new crafting system is deep, and the random items you find are automatically broken down into component parts you can use for upgrading your weapons and armor. And we’re not talking merely improving your weapons and armor either (i.e. by adding higher attack or defense points to each); instead, Bethesda has included a myriad of attachments and revisions to these objects that allow you to match your own play style. The only downside to these attachments is that most of the good ones are locked behind an upgrade system, and if you don’t allocate quite a few upgrade points into those areas, you probably won’t get a chance to use most of them.
Where the crafting system is most experimental, however, is in the base building elements of the game. There were quite a few building mods for Fallout 3 and Skyrim, and this part of the game seems to be Bethesda’s attempt to replicate that experience. The same materials you use for your weapons and armor also serve as construction material for your own home, where you can store your gear and collectibles, draw in settlers to your new community, and even build defenses to ward off the dangers of the Wasteland. Though there doesn’t seem to be any real endgame purpose to this mechanic, if you’re a fan of Fallout, you understand that most of what makes this series great has nothing to do with the endgame. It’s about the experience at the time, in the midst of the play through, and by that standard the base building system is a lot of fun. Still though, if you’re a gamer who needs every element of your games to be both streamlined and practical, you should probably skip everything but the essentials in your base and move on. Another downside of the base construction system is that the game doesn’t explain any of it. There are no tutorials showing you how to do any of the crafting in this game, so be prepared to do some learning on your own.
While I think the game looks nice graphically, the consensus among most other people is that its presentation is dated. I’m playing on PC with a rig that is slightly under the recommended specs, and I’m still running the game on high settings at 60 fps. The console editions are obviously not going to be as graphically intense, but overall, I think Fallout 4 has a more than respectable appearance in the graphics department. Where it struggles is in the animations. Some of the character animations (i.e. the way NPC movements are depicted) are downright horrible. In fact, at times it seems like Bethesda didn’t do any upgrading at all since Skyrim and maybe even Fallout 3. Just a gentle reminder, Fallout 3 was released in 2008. Other games released in 2008? GTA IV, Left for Dead, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and Metal Gear Solid IV. That’s how far back we’re talking here. As an example, in one of the main cut scenes, an NPC pulls a gun out of his leg! No, he’s not a cyborg. That’s how bad the animation work in this game is. I mean, we’re in a cutscene for crying out loud! They couldn’t give the guy a holster? Albeit, this moment was rendered in game, rather than a traditional cutscene, but come on—this is 2015. In a world where The Witcher 3 exists, poor animations have no excuse.
On that note, we should probably talk about bugs, and this game has a LOT of them, more than I remember in either Fallout 3 or Skyrim. Again, I’m playing on PC, which seems to be faring the best in terms of stability. I have heard, however, that the console versions are still having serious, often debilitating and/or game breaking issues, so be forewarned. Actually, if you’re playing on console, I would recommend that you don’t buy this game until a few more patches go out. At some point, releasing a broken game is simply unacceptable.
Yes, I’m aware that Bethesda is known for a certain level of bugginess, and I do think that the scope of what they attempt in their games earns a certain amount of leeway in this department. But, for as long as it took them to make this game, and how many assets they’ve reused (the image for a cave on your minimap is a copy/past of the one from Skyrim), they should have done a better job of bug testing here. Still, I personally haven’t encountered anything game breaking—mainly just frame rate hiccups and other goofy Bethesda usuals, like NPCs who get stuck in the ground, etc. That being said, bugs and breaks tend to be specific to the individual and his/her actions, so save often, just in case.
Concerning recycled assets, the voice actors they use here are pretty much the same as those they used in Skyrim. They’ve also kept these actors using the same registers of voices they’ve used in other games, which may in fact be their natural voices. While this may seem like a somewhat silly complaint, you go ahead and try to keep from feeling weird when Belethor and Garrus have a conversation next to you in Diamond City. EEEEE-VERYTHING’S FOR SALE! I won’t tell you which main character has Belethor’s voice, but trust me, you’ll know it when you hear it. It’s moments like these where the game design appears lazy, and I wonder where all of the man hours went over the past four years. Is that harsh? It sounds harsh.
So what do you do with a game like Fallout 4? In some ways, it’s more open and free than it’s ever been, but because of the design choices that make it such, the game as a whole suffers. In the end, Fallout 4 is a game where the magic is in the margins rather than the core, and if you’re okay with that sort of gaming experience, you should get it. If not, well, I’d say wait until it goes on sale and pick it up anyway. This is one of those rare games that, despite the problems, deserves to be played, and if you miss it, you’ll likely end up being sorry you did.