Fun, Yet Cynical
I’m a pretty massive Fallout fan. I absorb the game’s lore and fan wiki like an obsessive sponge, and just love exploring the retrofuturistic wastelands Interplay and Bethesda have given us. The series’ black humour that never verges into over-the-top grimdark edginess, the incredibly creative locations and groups of people you come to meet; I just can’t help but love everything about the Fallout series. That’s why it pains me to say that I am somewhat disappointed by more than a few elements of Fallout 4.
There are plenty of things to like about Fallout 4.
Fallout 4 takes place in and around Boston, Massachusetts; an area known in the Fallout universe as the technologically advanced Commonwealth. For the most part, Bethesda has managed to deliver on giving us a world worth exploring that totally lives up to the interest built during certain quest lines in Rivet City from Fallout 3.
It feels like a real place where people are surviving and thriving, unlike Fallout 3’s Capital wasteland, while also not feeling as sparse and monotonous as New Vegas’ Mojave. There’s plenty of stuff to find, and a great mix of rural and urban areas to delve into.
Fallout 3 and New Vegas were RPGs first, and shooters second. While on the whole this was the best way to go (what with the series being dubbed the “Post-Nuclear Role Playing Game” and all), it did mean that shooting in the previous games felt incredibly flat and pretty unsatisfying.
Fallout 4 took inspiration from popular shooter Destiny, and as a result massively improves on the gunplay from its predecessors. Shooting feels meaty and enemies respond to your shots, and damaging limbs has become a really viable strategy as opposed to just aiming for the head previous. It’s the combat that feels like the biggest improvement over the previous games, and dang is it fun.
Another massive change is how one of the most ubiquitously Fallout things, the Power Armour, functions. Previously, you would simply require training to use it, and once you had acquired a suit you would be able to trudge along the Wasteland with it at all times. The armour has its own power supply, and when it runs out of juice, you can either refill it or abandon it and continue on foot. As a bonus, you take massively less damage when wearing it.
It’s a nice system, as I’ve never liked using Power Armour in the past due to the bulk of it slowing me down while doing quests. Now it serves as more of a vehicle to get you safely from point A to point B, protecting you from ambushes from the less friendly Commonwealth inhabitants.
One of the best new additions Fallout 4 is also the thing I’ve been most pleasantly surprised about: base building. I expected it to be more of a pointless, shallow little side-feature that I’d only do if a quest required me to, but oh how wrong I was. Scavenging the land to find the best materials to make my dream home in the post-apocalypse took up a hell of a lot more time than I was expecting.
My houses in Megaton or The Strip in previous games were something I used only to sleep in if I needed to, and never really felt like a home to me. I never bothered putting up ornaments or storing my items when I knew I’d have a pack-mule of a companion to do all the work for me. But my little settlements across the Commonwealth were mine. I’d put the work into making them habitable and safe, and I was going to make damn sure they succeeded. It was a really nice palette cleanser after utterly annihilating a band of raiders, or climbing around a Super Mutant camp.
What it does well, Fallout 4 does really well. It makes it all the more disappointing that there are some pretty huge issues with it too.
One of the most interesting things Bethesda teased us with up to launch was the inclusion of a pre-war segment. The world of Fallout before the bombs dropped has always had an air of mystery and curiosity around it, so having the ability to see it for myself was incredibly exciting.
So imagine my disappointment when the entire pre-war segment amounted to not much more than choosing your character and getting to the underground Vault. I had no sense of attachment or loss once I’d moved on through to long after the bombs simply because I wasn’t given any time to be invested in it or the family that would revolve around much of the main plotline.
It served as a neat narrative purpose for players new to Fallout by making the playable character just as unaware of the workings of the Commonwealth as we are, but it also felt like a big kick in the teeth for those of us who have been invested in the series for a number of years.
Fallout 4’s habit of skipping past what makes Fallout so special pervades the entire game. From the 15 or so hours I’ve spent on it, a lot of the dark humour that the previous games had is long gone. Fallout 4 feels like it’s been designed by Bethesda’s marketing department to be as sellable and “safe” as possible: there’s Nuka-Cola, there’s Super Mutants, and there are Vaults, but they’re all icons that can be easily pressed into memorabilia. There hasn’t been anything or anyone who felt as special to me as Megaton’s Moira Brown or Freeside’s The King, nor locations like Oasis, the Sierra Madre or Little Lamplight. It’s just been sad people in the post-apocalypse surviving the post-apocalypse while being sad, and not much else.
Fallout has never had particularly well-designed menus: if it isn’t Fallout 3 and New Vegas’ clunky Pip-Boy, it’s Fallout’s weirdly unresponsive metal shutters, and Fallout 4 is no exception to this. The Pip-Boy has returned, and probably through some dark arcane magic they’ve managed to make it even more fiddly and difficult to use than before. I have yet to find a decent way flipping between submenus and have had to jump quickly between using my keyboard and the mouse depending on what information I want to look at. It just feels utterly awkward to use, and that’s before you consider how unhelpful the new equipment system is.
One of the big changes from Fallout 3 and New Vegas is that armour can now be equipped on individual body parts: a leather left arm, a metal right leg, that sort of thing. It may give some ideal opportunities to cosplay as bloody Edward Elric if you want, but when you’re just trying to get the best out of what you have in a pinch, it can be a massive, massive pain in the arse. It also means playing dress-up with outfits is often not worth the hassle of remembering exactly which boiled leather left big toe you had equipped when heading back out on the road.
Weaponry isn’t much easier to control either. The new hot bar would, in theory, function the exact same as previous games: weapons are assigned to number keys that will equip and unequip them as you press the number. In practice, the icons that represent each item are vague and totally unhelpful when organising which gun goes where, and so often I found myself just hopping into the Pip-Boy and equipping them that way rather than risk accidentally pulling out a teeny-tiny little stick when going up against a Super Mutant.
Previously I mentioned that the last few Fallout games had a bit of an imbalance between their shooter and RPG elements. While Fallout 4 has drastically improved its shooter elements, it hasn’t necessarily balanced the scales as the reworked RPG mechanics fall completely flat.
The new stat system revolves itself heavily around the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system for absolutely everything. Whereas before S.P.E.C.I.A.L. worked as a baseline for your character to grow from, now they define exactly who you play as at all times. Gone are the days of levelling up your speech, now you have to put points into your charisma instead.
This feels like a simplification too far, as it can be difficult at times to know which skills you want to improve are related to which stat. Whereas before I could just improve my lockpicking skill directly, now I have to improve my perception enough to unlock the perk that lets me pick more complicated locks. Spreading one skill out over multiple points feels totally unnecessary to me while also making the entire affair pretty shallow as you just can’t level up essential skills are quickly.
Had Fallout 4 come out under any other name, I would’ve absolutely and vocally recommended it. The gunplay is solid, the world is well-designed, the new base-building system is deeply involving, and the entire thing is just fun to play. However, the magic of New Vegas and Fallout 3 seems to have all been washed away with the increased popularity of a post-Skyrim Bethesda and all the possibilities for memorabilia that entails. It just doesn’t feel like a Fallout game to me. It’s just a few cutesy robots and a godawful UI.