Fallout 4 Review
Fallout 4 is a game that it took a long time for me to make up my mind about. Its opening hours are a glorified tutorial that serves to do little more than annoy long-time fans with strange changes that drive home the fact that the last bits of that old Fallout vibe—already eroded to virtual nothingness by Bethesda’s first try, Fallout 3—are now truly dead and gone. That’s not to say that it’s a bad game, though, because things eventually pick up toward the middle of the game and become entertaining; Fallout 4 includes several improvements from Bethesda’s last game, such as less empty space, weapons that don’t have to be repaired (this comes down to personal preference, but it’s worth noting that the original games didn’t have weapon degradation), and fewer invincible NPCs. However, it’s also a huge step back from the complexity of previous titles in many ways, boiling all dialogue down to a wheel of four options and dumbing down the RPG elements to the point where it’s little more than a glorified shooter. I enjoyed my time with it, all things considered, but it’s not a game I’m likely to ever revisit or look back on fondly so much as a pleasant one-time distraction.
Better writing overall, but Bethesda still can’t do nuance
When I started the game, I quickly realized that I hated the default male character’s voice acting. There’s just something about it that I found forced and grating, so I instead created a female character and played with the surprisingly entertaining customization options until I had a character that looked mischievous. It was at that point that I figured that I’d play through the game as evilly as possible, or at the very least as some kind of chaotic neutral character prone to caprices of the murderous and altruistic varieties. It quickly became apparent that the game’s Bioware-esque dialogue wheel didn’t allow for me to play as much more than a concerned parent, however, and while that didn’t stop me from killing entire settlements as per my whim, the dialogue never matched my character’s play style. The closest I ever got was using impatient-seeming dialogue options that led to brusque responses. That’s not to say that there’s no evil dialogue there, of course—it’s impossible to know for sure since the dialogue is all represented by vague summations of what each option entails, but for all my efforts, I never managed anything beyond simple rudeness.
That having been said, I don’t hate the dialogue wheel as much as others seem to. Sure, it’s a huge simplification that forces you into one of four (or in many cases, one of just three because one choice exists for clarification rather than actually moving the conversation forward) dialogue choices, making it harder to actually “own” your character, but this also creates a certain linearity to conversations that allows voice acting and companions intervening with their thoughts to be more possible. Since Bethesda took over and the series shifted from an isometric RPG to something more along the lines of an Elder Scrolls clone, I’ve never really had the sense that my characters existed in the world like other characters do, with the player character being more a conveniently combat-competent witness reacting to other characters’ hijinks than someone with any actual relevance to events beyond MacGuffinry. Having the main character talk may be incredibly limiting, but it also allowed me to feel like my character was an actual person in the game world for the first time since Bethesda obtained the series, which is enough of a positive to make me overlook the dialogue wheel. Courtenay Taylor’s excellent voice acting no doubt helped with that, as did the companions and their oodles of personality.
The companions are really the best and worst of the game. Series staple Dogmeat is the first companion I found, with the second being the perpetually eager reporter, Piper. I hated Piper immediately, unloading a great deal of minigun ammo into her face. To my disappointment, she proved to be invincible, and a burning hatred of the game began to burn inside of me because of it. Deciding to ignore her entirely, I continued on, eventually settling on Codsworth, the main character’s loyal robotic helper. However, he abandoned me after I stealth-killed a bunch of random NPCs, and once he was gone I found myself unable to do anything to change his mind about me.
The Karma system has been removed entirely, with followers either growing fond of you or coming to resent you based on the actions they witness you performing and how they mesh with their personalities, and I can’t say I like the change much because of how little sense it sometimes makes. For example, let’s take Piper: if you’re using her as your companion—and you can only have one companion with you at a time now—then lockpicking doors will cause her to like you more. However, stealing causes her to dislike you, even if you’re stealing from a bad person. So long as it’s owned by someone and shows up as red, she doesn’t seem to agree with you taking it, even if you have perfectly moral reasons for doing so. Likewise, she seems to be perfectly fine with lockpicking the doors of completely random people, even if you have no reason to be snooping around their stuff. It’s a pretty glaring double standard, and the absence of nuance here and in the story at large is typical of Bethesda, but nonetheless strange given the effort they clearly went to making more enjoyable and interesting characters. Even Piper eventually grew on me to the point where I went on a goody-two-shoes streak to appease her, instead taking out my annoyance at her double standard in hilariously passive-aggressive ways like putting her in an old-timey, stereotypical stay-at-home-housewife dress and giving her a minigun to lug around.
The story doesn’t really make any sense, and the setting is unrecognizable
The beginning of the game sees you entering a vault as the bombs begin to fall, only to be cryogenically frozen for 200 years. Of course, you wake up just in time to see your spouse killed and child kidnapped, and this seems to present a pretty huge plot hole: how did you wake up from a cryogenic sleep just in time to witness this? The kidnappers don’t have any reason to wake you up. Do all of the cryogenic pods turn on and off at the same time? Considering the entire plot revolves around you recognizing enough of the kidnapper to lead you on the trail of your child, some clarification on that point would have been welcome. That’s a minor qualm, though, and nothing compared to the fact that the world has so little in common with Fallout that it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that this game started out life as an entirely new IP. Synths, briefly encountered in Fallout 3 but otherwise nonexistent in Fallout lore, are suddenly the focal point of the world, with many communities living in fear of being taken and replaced. They’re such a big part of the game that two of the game’s joinable factions revolve around them, in fact. Then you have the Gunners, which are raiders-but-not-raiders who end up being entirely superfluous in a world already filled with hostile factions. Even the locations are completely different than anything seen before in a Fallout game, with locations like the baseball-inspired Diamond City being full of lights and color and hosting personalities like intrepid reporter Piper and gumshoe detective Nick Valentine. It’s like Snatcher mixed with some noir flavoring, with Fallout elements just tacked on top of the whole thing. This is bound to disappoint those going in to the game expecting something more in line with the rest of the Fallout series, but it’s also an undeniably enjoyable atmosphere.
The shooter gameplay is better, but the RPG side of things has suffered
Playing Fallout 3 or New Vegas as pure shooters wasn’t a very enjoyable way of experiencing those games because the shooting mechanics weren’t as reliable as using the more strategic VATS to take several free shots at an enemy’s head. As a shooter, the game’s been much improved, with the gunplay being more akin to what you’d expect from a first-person shooter game. Weapons feel like they have weight, recoil has to be managed, and you can customize your weapons in order to put suppressors and scopes onto anything you like. Additionally, weapons don’t degrade over time, so ammo is really the only thing you have to pay attention to. Reflecting this focus on real-time shooting, VATS isn’t even introduced in the game, instead leaving you to figure out how to use it. Even once you figure out how to use it (the Q key on the PC), the first thing that sticks out is that it doesn’t pause the game anymore. Instead, it slows down time while enemies still act, so you can take damage or even die while in VATS.
This has also meant that the RPG elements are hugely reduced to accommodate the emphasis on shooting. For one, the skill system has been removed entirely, so your proficiency with pistols is no longer dictated by how many points you put into the “small guns” skill. The game’s unique perks that were unlocked every few levels have also been removed, replaced with a system where leveling up revolves around “perks.” However, unlike the perks in previous games that often conferred weird, unique benefits, most of the “perks” you can unlock either increase your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats (strength, agility, etcetera), unlock crafting opportunities, or most frequently, increase your damage with certain weapons by a certain percentage. Leveling up, then, has become a completely soulless thing devoid of personality, and while I eventually warmed up to the game as a whole, my contempt for the new leveling system can’t be adequately expressed in words.
The reason most perks revolve around combat is that there’s rarely another way of approaching situations. Where the first couple Fallouts were shining examples of giving the player multiple ways of accomplishing a goal (whether it be by hacking, dialogue, or whatever else), I can count on a single hand the number of times I came across an encounter that allowed multiple approaches. Progressing in most cases requires shooting a lot of things, and while dialogue—and by extension, the charisma stat—is great for flirting with happy companions or getting extra information from NPCs in certain rare situations, focusing on it to the detriment of combat prowess is generally a bad idea since violence is often the only approach Fallout 4 ever allows for, and the game’s waves of enemies won’t be talked to death.
The shooter gameplay may be improved, but it’s still not quite at the level you’d expect in a AAA shooter. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the many areas with oddly placed invisible walls, because these walls not only block you from taking shortcuts in the environment (no doubt to funnel you toward enemies), but they also have an annoying habit of soaking up your ammo while the enemy in your crosshairs remains untouched. These invisible walls, which are arguably even worse than in previous games, render entire types of weapons entirely useless. For example, missile launchers are a no-go because they do a pitiful amount of damage and invisible walls can save enemies from being damaged in the first place. The Fat Man portable nuke launcher, the most ridiculous and entertaining weapon from previous games, is similarly useless because of these same invisible walls. Even when I obtained a special one that does double damage to enemies at full health, I found myself reloading whenever I’d use it because I simply couldn’t hit enemies. Long-range shots would consistently miss just enough that an enemy would be shielded by a wall, invisible or otherwise, whereas using it short-range was clearly never an option. The end result is that it’s not a viable weapon if you want to succeed. Instead, silenced weapons and investing in perks that raise your sneak attack damage are. Once I had put a few points into those I was virtually unstoppable, and losing shots to random invisible walls didn’t suddenly alert everyone to my presence (causing them to rush me all at once) like it so often did when using explosive weaponry.
The game certainly has its upsides, though
In previous games, certain characters were invincible and that was that. In Fallout 4, characters who are invincible at one point often become mortal at a later point, allowing you much more freedom to pay them back for any perceived slights with lethal force. The game’s rare children are still invincible no matter what, but there’s no stupidity like Fallout 3’s all-children settlement, Little Lamplight, so the limitation is a bit more bearable. The point at which I began eliminating entire factions for personal reasons is the point at which my enjoyment of the game hit an all-time high, and this was mostly around the time I was admitted into the Brotherhood of Steel. Once I had joined, I met one of their high-ranked members and immediately noticed that he had an awesome hat. “Someday,” I thought to myself, “that hat will be mine.” Alas, attacking him made everyone hostile, so I continued on, hatless but determined. Soon afterward, I met the faction leader and was immediately struck by how awesome his coat was. It was around this point that both he and hat guy ended up in the same lightly-guarded area, so I made my way through the ship the BoS used as a base, eliminating everyone one at a time so that there’d be minimal resistance when I finally made my move. Around half an hour later, no one was left on the ship but hat guy, coat guy, an invincible kid, and a cat. Using my trusty silenced pistol and keeping to the shadows (which makes it possible to shoot a friendly character in the head without them becoming hostile or even noticing), the first two were soon removed from the equation and I finally had the hat/coat combo of my dreams. I wore both for the rest of the game despite neither offering much in the way of damage protection from energy weapons, which I faced a lot of, what with massacring the energy-weapon-using Brotherhood of Steel.
A few named NPCs in the BoS weren’t present for my massacre, so I entered some power armor (completely reworked to be a customizable exoskeleton that uses expendable fusion cores as you move, making it more a temporary Iron Man type of thing than the rare late-game armor it’s been in games to this point), which now protects you from fall damage, and jumped off of the airship to the BoS-occupied base beneath to hunt down those remaining. Later, I sided with a faction that required fighting waves of BoS enemies at this base while waiting for a counter to reach 100%, and enemies simply stopped showing up somewhere between 50% and 75%. I strongly suspect that the named NPCs make up a final difficult wave of enemies, and that I spared myself that by double-crossing them early. Or maybe it was just a bug.
A similar thing happened with the Railroad, another faction I ended up betraying, where the faction I sided with began to offer me the quest, only for the game to recognize that they were already wiped out and give me dialogue (along with a fair bit of experience) about how relieved they are that I already took care of the problem. I was pleasantly surprised to see someone actually acknowledge my actions rather than just giving me the quest normally and instantly completing it.
The verticality of the game is another plus in its favor, with many locations consisting of multiple levels. Clearing out some raiders, you might take some stairs to a door and find yourself on the roof, with ramps leading to a secret alcove full of raider ammo and supplies. Another time, you might be wandering around, only to get hit by an enemy from high up where you didn’t expect anyone to be. It adds a certain level of interest that was lacking in the much more ground-floor oriented Fallout 3, and it contributes to many of the game’s locations being more interesting to explore than in previous games.
Then there are the small touches that add more than you’d expect them to. Being able to eject someone in power armor by pickpocketing their fusion core? That’s pretty cool, and it can allow you to steal undamaged equipment to sell. The stuff you find on terminals is pretty weird and amusing, too, as is going through with a massacre and then discovering that some of the people were actually synths in disguise. Since dead synths have a certain item on their corpse that indicates their synth status, it can be entertaining to go around shooting people in the head and discovering who’s real and who’s just a machine.
But with the good comes equal bad
To start with, your companions being invincible is a blessing in disguise because of how absurdly stupid the AI is. Allies will often run into your line of fire for no apparent reason, with temporary allies (who haven’t joined you yet, but who follow you in certain missions) sometimes becoming hostile because of it with no obvious way of placating them. This leads to situations like I encountered when I was clearing out a den of raiders with a temporary ally, only to watch as they ran into my bullets and became hostile while still following me, forcing me to clear out the raiders while also occasionally shooting my companion enough to knock them down for a few seconds and keep them from shooting me in the back. Even if that doesn’t happen to you, however, enemies still behave stupidly. While they’ll now seek cover and shoot from behind it (smart), they’re also weirdly prone to running in zig-zags and falling off of buildings and platforms to their death (stupid).
Then there are the missions. Some of them are actually entertaining, but others are simple “kill everyone/everything at X location” or “find X object and bring it to me” bore-fests. Some quests are randomly generated like in Skyrim, and they don’t do much better at hiding their meaninglessness. It’s especially bad that missions that send you to exterminate all enemies in a location—like an early one that sent me to hunt down all the ghouls in a small town area—devolve into tiring searches since some enemies are hidden. I ended up having to lockpick a little capsule thing to let out the last ghoul, which is just such monumentally stupid design that its grating.
There are also completely inexcusable flaws so dumb and obvious that it blows me away that they’re even a problem. For example, clicking through conversations you’ve already heard can sometimes cause you to accidentally over-click and fire your weapon, shooting the person you’re talking to. Another problem is that if you save, only to die to a mine you didn’t see seconds later, that mine sometimes won’t be there to collect when you reload the game. On top of that are the crashes, the “rain on the visor” effect in power armor when it’s raining still happening when you’re indoors, the stat boosts power armor paint confers being poorly communicated, characters who talk to you while standing sideways for some reason or ignore you entirely, and worst of all, the fact that nothing you do has any effect on the ending.
“Ending slides? Who needs ending slides?”
One of the best parts about earlier Fallout games were the ending slides, a short summation of your actions and what effect they had on the world and its characters. They were your own personal ending, reflecting your play style and otherwise giving you a warm fuzzy feeling of satisfaction. Fallout 4 doesn’t have ending slides. Instead, you get a generic cutscene no matter what, with one minor variation in the very beginning depending on whether you sided with a certain faction or any of the others. There’s no closure, no explanation of how you’ve affected the world. Just the one vague cutscene, and then you’re plopped back into the world. “Weak” can’t adequately describe just how pathetic I found the ending to be, but suffice it to say that I suspect many critics who have praised Fallout 4 without question haven’t actually finished the game.
Inconsistent, oudated graphics, but a great soundtrack
I was initially wowed by the game’s graphics when creating my character, but eventually found them underwhelming. That said, I played at something approximating a medium-high setting because I—like many others—couldn’t get the game running without huge frame drops that come out of nowhere otherwise, so the game is a little (but only a little) prettier than in my screenshots on its highest settings. That doesn’t change the fact that textures pop in like crazy, sometimes failing to do so and sticking you with the low-quality versions out of nowhere until you do something to reset it like finding an area transition or loading a save. Even if that weren’t true, the graphics simply can’t stack up to other games released this year, with games like The Witcher 3 blowing Fallout 4’s away while managing a more consistent frame rate. The game’s soundtrack, on the other hand, proved to be unexpectedly great, bridging the gap between Mark Morgan’s more ambient scores in the original games and the bombastic, orchestral-heavy Bethesda fluff. There’s more than just that, of course, with the biggest standout being the occasional electronic pieces that reminded me of some of the music in the Metroid Prime games in the best of ways. There’s a great deal of musical variety here, and that’s something I really came to appreciate.