“My idea is to explore more of the world and more of the ethics of a postnuclear world, not to make a better plasma gun” – Tim Cain, Producer and Lead Programmer for Interplay/Black Isle Studios
“Violence is funny! Let’s all just own up to it! Violence done well is fucking hilarious. It’s like Itchy and Scratchy or Jackass – now that’s funny!” – Todd Howard, console player and marketing expert
Reading the 2 quotes above could just as well be an excellent synopsis of everything one should know regarding a new Fallout game by Bethesda. The difference in philosophy between the 2 “orators” (the first, one of the original creators of Fallout, the second, a programmer who designed dungeons and brought coffee to Julian Lefay during the development of Elder Scrolls: Arena and Daggerfall) is so obvious that there is almost no point in trying to debate the game any further. But, for the sake of our valiant hearts and hairy chests, we shall persist.
It’s been said and written time and again ever since Bethesda’s acquisition of the Fallout license, but let it be written once more: “Fallout” as the game franchise we came to know in the time of Interplay/Black isle, is dead, and the only thing that the fans of the old Fallout games have left to look forward to is some sort of “acceptable compromise” between the old and the new, much like Fallout: New Vegas by Obsidian Entertainment. But, leaving that compromise aside, there are always Fallout ventures that were created under the exclusive supervision of Bethesda. In these situations, playing the final product from the viewpoint of the so-called “hardcore Fallout fan” is sort of like an autopsy: we know it’s dead and nothing can bring it back, but at least we can find some closure in trying to see exactly what killed it…
So, with the official release of Bethesda’s Fallout 4 a few days ago, and consciously ignoring the Lowest Common Denominator that will surely and blatantly once again declare it “GAME OF THE YEAR” before even playing it, let us put on our latex gloves and surgical mask, and, scalpel in hand, take a peek inside the rotten and infested with radioactive bloatflies carcass that bears the name “Fallout 4” on its tag.
Back in June, when the official Fallout 4 announcement trailer was released, I wrote an article in which I listed some of the features we could pretty accurately surmise would be a part of the final product, simply by seeing them in the trailer. In the article we can read, among others, that the game would take place around the general area of Boston, that the protagonist would be fully-voiced, that the pre-war scenes would be some sort of introductory tutorial, and that the story would most likely deal with “cryogenic freezing, with the protagonist living through the great nuclear exchange of 2077, being frozen in a Vault, and emerging 200 years later to repopulate the Earth“. It turns out that the above were pretty accurate, after all.
The story of Fallout 4 begins one Saturday morning, October 23rd, 2077, in a community on the outskirts of Boston. The protagonist (a veteran of the Sino-American War if we select the male character, a Law school graduate if we select the female – for the sake of convenience I will refer to the protagonist as a “he” from now on) lives the typical American Dream morning full of conjugal love (expressed to the point of fakeness in-game), white picket fences, restless babies and Mr. Handy servants doing the house chores. After the typical morning pleasantries, the couple receives a visitor: a Vault-Tec employee who informs them that they’ve officially secured a position inside Vault 111, which is right outside the community. Then, suddenly, the announcer’s voice can be heard on TV: “we have confirmed reports of nuclear detonations…“
The family, consisting of the couple and their baby son named Shaun, exits their house and rushes to Vault 111, managing to enter it just mere seconds before a nuclear bomb explodes a short distance away from its entrance. Inside the Vault, the members of the family go through the expected stages of registration and clothing, before being led to their Cryo-Pods by Vault-Tec scientists under the pretense of medical examinations and being successfully frozen. An unknown period of time passes and the cryo-sleep of all Vault “denizens” is interrupted by 2 unknown intruders, who open the cryo-pod right across from ours and forcibly abduct our baby son before returning us to cryo-sleep’s sweet embrace. Another unknown period of time passes when, eventually, the protagonist’s cryo-pod mysteriously opens, bringing him back to consciousness. Managing to eventually exit the Vault, he is officially the “Sole Survivor“: a defrozen Vault Dweller who lived through nuclear war and is unleashed unto a Brave New Wasteland to find his son.
If that whole concept sounds familiar, it is probably because we’re talking about a reverse version of Fallout 3’s story – after the critically-acclaimed, extremely deep and emotional “FIND DAD” majesty of Fallout 3, this time WE are the dad, and we are looking for our son. Original and ground-breaking storytelling by Bethesda, because “it just works“!
The similarities between Fallout 3 and 4 do not end here however, since, as was pretty-much expected, Fallout 4 is for all intents and purposes “more of the same” in regards to the visual and technical aspects. This can obviously be attributed to the use of Gamebryo/Creation Engine, which, for some reason is STILL a favorite of Bethesda in almost all their titles since 2002. There are some tweaks here and there, like the updated color palette that takes the game away from the grey-brown dullness of Fallout 3 and New Vegas and towards a more colorful artistical direction (that reminds us quite a bit of Bioshock: Infinite), but despite that, it is true that the game engine is old, and it shows, both in regards to the overall graphics quality and its restrictions (there are plenty of indicative videos around on YouTube to support that). It should also be noted that some of the bugs and glitches that we’ve seen in Fallout 4 can be seen in pretty much all Bethesda titles since 2006’s Oblivion!
Leaving the technical issues aside, Fallout 4’s gameplay introduces quite a few innovations – some are nice, some are mediocre, some are plain useless. Let’s start from the nice ones. The first one is the new way of using Power Armor, which is no longer considered just another equipment item you can put into your inventory, but functions more like a “vehicle” of sorts: we find suits of Power Armor scattered around the world, we press “E” to enter the suits (or to exit them, if we want to park them in a garage or something), when we “wear” them the HUD changes to represent what would logically be the inside of our helmet, our movements become noticeably slower and heavier (if you try to jump into a body of water while in Power Armor, you will go straight to the bottom!), and we also need to supply them with the proper fuel (Fusion Cores), which keeps getting drained as we move around and, if it runs out, our Armor starts to hypofunction and movement becomes even slower.
Ignoring the fact that eventually we find seemingly infinite amounts of Fusion Cores (which means that we can pretty much wear Power Armor all the time instead of treating it like a “luxury item” only to be used in difficult missions/fights or other special occasions), and moving past the cringeworthy fact that we find our first suit of Power Armor literally during our FIRST quest, and then keep finding them literally EVERYWHERE in the world (Power Armor in Fallout games used to represent a rare and extremely powerful piece of pre-war tech that was usually found near the end of the game and was considered “top-tier gear”, but now it is just a random piece of equipment that can be found aplenty in the wasteland being worn by EVERYBODY, from frozen Level 1 Vault Dwellers to Raiders to literally everybody), this particular feature is rather well-executed and adds a different but pretty twist to the normal use of Power Armor.
Another nice innovation is the extended Crafting system. While in Fallout 3/New Vegas we could just insert mods into our equipment, in 4 we can customize every aspect of it, be it custom parts for our weapons or modifications to our armor (including Power Armor), with every different custom part offering certain benefits and/or penalties, like increased/decreased Range/Rate of Fire/Accuracy/weight or increased protection against certain types of damage. This essentially allows us to customize our weapons to perfectly suit our special way of handling combat situations depending on our character.
Crafting is not restricted solely to weapons, however. One of the much-hailed and advertised features of Fallout 4 is the Workshop, which allows us to literally craft… houses and furniture. By scavenging the necessary ingredients from around the world, we can use Workshop benches to create wooden or metal structural parts (floors, roofs, walls, doors etc.) which we can then use to build the post-apocalyptic house of our dreams. We can also build Power Generators, Water Pumps, electrical appliances and power pylons, various kinds of furniture, turrets/mines for defense, vegetable patches for food, or even Stores of various sorts. This crafting system is combined with the existence of “Settlements” – scattered communities around the world, inhabited by various wastelanders that the player can aid (after doing a quest or two for them, that usually require clearing out a dungeon, I mean location, from Raiders), increasing their total happiness with his investments until reaching the possibility of starting trade caravans between the various settlements.
An interesting, creative and rather fun feature, no doubt. The “con” that eventually arises, of course, is that NONE of the above has any real consequence on the game whatsoever, other than the player getting richer or acquiring more items. Whether you choose to build relentlessly and become a post-apocalyptic Boston tycoon, or just ignore everything and let the Raiders merrily rape and pillage the settlements to their heart’s content, the end result is essentially the same, with no particular positive or negative consequences other than the ones that relate to more caps in your virtual pocket.
“It is an optional sandbox feature that can be explored or completely ignored depending on the player’s desires. Why make it all about choices/consequences?” one might ask in the game’s defense. The answer is simple: because Fallout 4 is still marketed as an RPG (and is, theoretically at least, the 5th installment in one of the greatest RPG franchises in the history of gaming). Thus, one would expect the most advertised feature of the game to have some sort of Role-Playing extension. Imagine gaining access to new quests if you rebuilt a settlement, being able to recruit new companion NPCs that you normally wouldn’t find, or even being able to choose between playing as a benevolent landowner or a vile despot that terrorizes his settlements’ inhabitants and makes shadowy deals with Raiders (who might also offer you new, “evil” quests). Instead of that, we have to make do with a fun, but rather pointless in the long run, sandbox feature, that could easily have been part of any other non-RPG game in the market.
And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for: the most useless Fallout 4 features.
Behind curtain #1 we have… the fully-voiced protagonist (*applause*). At first glance, one might say that this feature offers a more “cinematic” experience, since dialog now takes place 100% in third-person view and the protagonist can (theoretically) participate in conversations with a more dramatic tone, either with his words or with his overall body language. However, it soon becomes apparent that none of the above can really be seen in-game, since 99% of the player’s dialog choices are either typical generic questions like “What can you tell me about X or Y?” or cheesy and uninspired one-liners that didn’t really require third-person dialog in order to be worded. And as for the “more dramatic tone”… well, let’s just say that the protagonist’s voice and lines are so talentless and badly-written that the whole “tragic father looking for his lost son” act wouldn’t convince or excite even the mentally handicapped.
Adding to the mediocrity of this feature is the brand-new Dialog Wheel that replaces the typical dialog window we’ve come to know in 3/NV. As stated above, Bethesda probably wanted to introduce a more dramatic tone to the way dialog is done, obviously inspired by the way dialog is handled in Bioware’s Mass Effect or Dragon Age series. Of course, it is rather hard to be dramatic when 90% of the time our 4 dialog choices consist of “YES“, “NO“, “MAYBE/UNSURE” (when selecting this, the character expresses doubt – about ANYTHING or ANYONE, regardless of whether there’s a reason to feel/express that or not), or “SARCASTIC” (when selecting this, the character just utters a moronic “joke” – for example, in an instance where you are asked to fetch some high-tech gadget from a dungeon I mean location, you press “SARCASTIC” and the character responds with something like “Hm, I had already bought that from the super market but left it at home…“, which literally makes you want to punch your computer screen in order to purify the mass amounts of sheer stupidity).
And, in curtain #2 we have… the new Skill System (*applause*). Or, to be precise, the TOTAL LACK of a Skill System. Forget about established Fallout skills like Big Guns, Medicine, Speech or Lockpicking. Also forget about S.P.E.C.I.A.L. the way you used to know it (5 being the default “mediocre” value, increasing it makes you better, decreasing it makes you gradually worse). In Fallout 4, there ARE no Skills. Every time you level up, you simply gain the ability to select a Perk, while the basic S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attributes (that have a default starting value of 1 and can be increased by spending Perk points after leveling) simply influence what Perks you can select. As for the Perks themselves, some of them function like the typical Fallout perks (increased Healing Rate or Experience Gain, increased carrying capacity, “Mysterious Stranger” etc.), others allow you to pick locks or hack terminals of higher difficulty level (e.g. in order to hack an Expert Terminal you must put 2 points into the Hacking perk), some influence the level of weapons or armor crafting you can do, 1 or 2 have to do with the Settlements system, and virtually ALL others simply affect how much damage you or your companion can do in combat with specific weapon types.
Which brings us to our next point: Fallout 4 is, for all intents and purposes, more of a Sandbox First-Person Shooter with some RPG elements, rather than a deep RPG that is simply played in First-Person view (because “that’s what Bethesda does best“, as we were told when they first acquired the license). This can be deduced from the almost complete combat-oriented nature of the game’s Perks (whoever wishes to create a non-combat oriented character like in Fallout 1/2/New Vegas will simply not find any Perks that will allow him to avoid combat or explore more peaceful paths/character builds – even the perk that supposedly allows you to be more persuasive in dialogs ALSO increases your weapon damage at the same time), but also from the fact that it is virtually impossible to advance in the game without becoming proficient in at least one type of weaponry.
One who fancies himself an Advocate of the game will, once again, come forth and say “well, yeah, but every Bethesda game to date essentially put more emphasis on Open-World, Sandbox exploration and generally on having fun, rather than in deep dialog, thought-out plot or solid RPG elements. In that sense, Fallout 4 is an excellent game“. Not taking into account the fact that Daggerfall and Morrowind were excellent and quite deep RPGs for their time (and that Bethesda essentially started this new approach to game-making with 2006’s Oblivion), the “Advocate” has a point: exploration gameplay remains solid in Fallout 4, the landscapes of Boston offer a welcome change from the desert wastelands of Washington or the West Coast, there are lots of locations to discover, and one who enjoys this sort of playstyle can have fun for hundreds of hours simply by exploring, meeting goofy characters, playing various mini-games on his Pip-Boy, or by killing time with the new Crafting/Building system.
“Then what more do you want, man? Isn’t that the essence of Fallout? To have crazy fun in a post-apocalyptic setting, and contribute to the rebuilding of the world (which you can totally do now with the new crafting system)?”
Here, however, the Advocate is mistaken. Regardless of the fact that Bethesda chose to ignore it (if they really wanted to make “a post-apocalyptic game about having crazy sandbox fun“, they could have easily just started a fresh IP and we would all be happy – this is still a “FALLOUT” game, however, and it shall be judged as one), the real essence of Fallout from its creation up until New Vegas is that… “War, War Never Changes“.
And I don’t mean that as the completely devoid of any meaning catchphrase that Bethesda has turned that phrase into, for marketing and imaging reasons, and keeps spamming it around whenever possible. I mean it in the deeper sense of the saying, as is also implied by Tim Cain in the opening quote at the start of this Review: as the almost ironic realization that humanity, instead of learning something from the whole experience of world-devastating nuclear war, instead keeps on trying to recover from the woes of war by waging EVEN MORE wars amongst itself, emphatically proving that human nature cannot be changed and that human history and civilization is a never-ending, perpetual cycle.
In the previous Fallout games (1,2 and New Vegas for the most part – 3 is another category all by itself) the above point was explored through deep and well-written dialog, morally ambiguous choices in regards to both the main plot and the various secondary quests (with each choice also having its ambiguous consequences), through multiple possible endings depending on the above choices, even through the possibility to play as an “Evil” character (and we’re talking REAL evil here, the type of character who allies himself with the repressive forces of the world and takes advantage of human misery, not the smartass who keeps spewing out “Sarcastic” one-liners and thinks he’s oh so naughty). In Fallout 4, we have a glorified First-Person Shooter with extended exploration gameplay and (rather fun, true, but still completely irrelevant to the true essence of the franchise) various secondary features, but with ZERO real essence or depth. Even quests (it is almost ironic that even Fallout 3 managed to do better than 4 here, with a respectable amount of quests that could be solved peacefully) 95% of the time are simply about some mundane and simplistic task like “kill all enemies at that dungeon” or “fetch that item from that dungeon and return it to X Faction”.
And speaking of Factions: while there are 4 different Factions in the game (Minutemen, Brotherhood of Steel, the Institute and the Railroad) and pre-release the word was that “siding with each faction offers a different ending”, in the game we see that the options are actually just 2: either side with the Institute, or with one of the others. And even then, 3 of the 4 factions have the same final quest (what changes is only what faction’s troopers will accompany you during the final mission), and the Ending Cutscene and Narration is THE SAME for ALL 4 possible endings. Taking also into account that Ending Slides have not been implemented in the game (so, no “special endings” depending on your actions in various locations, no narrations about the eventual fate of your companion NPCs), we eventually see that the “4 endings” are really just one and only one. A triumph of computer RPG design, to be sure.
“Then why did this game sell tens of millions of copies from week 1, if it’s as bad as you say it is?”
Because, dear friend, Bethesda is a company that designs games for a target audience that DOESN’T PLAY RPGs. The company is above all else a master of marketing, and CONSCIOUSLY doesn’t create deep and meaningful RPGs – it creates open-world playgrounds that can be played by the Lowest Common Denominator of the market, whether this is some 5-year-old kid who can’t even speak English, or some random console player who only buys the latest Pro Evolution Soccer or Call of Duty game each year (or the latest GTA, to drive around and kill prostitutes in LA). Playgrounds in which you can run around mindlessly and giggle at all the silly stuff you encounter, without worries, without real consequences to your actions, without restrictions or insurmountable difficulties. This was also obvious in Fallout 3 (at least Fallout 3 did have a Karma system, with Negative Karma being gained for notorious actions, despite the fact that it became positive again after a few days and a few donations here and there), but in Fallout 4 (where Karma has now been completely removed as a system) it goes one step beyond and is much more obvious – partially because we can now include into the equation both Fallout: New Vegas (which showed us that it is absolutely possible to create a deep and well-written First-Person Fallout game without sacrificing the more “literary” aspects of it), and even Witcher 3 (which showed us what it really means to be an “AAA” RPG with quality, soul, emotion, but also with truly solid RPG mechanisms at the core of gameplay).
No matter how many millions of copies it sells, the fact remains that Fallout 4 is a mediocre-to-bad RPG, a Fallout game without its soul, without the deeper meaning that MUST be present in a game that bears the name of this RPG franchise. Admittedly, it CAN be a rather fun theme-park, especially if it is played without any real RP expectations or without putting much thought into it, but that cannot undo the fact that it is still a Fallout game that is empty at its core. It’s sort of like the Transformers films by Michael Bay – expensive, shiny mediocrities that still earn its makers hundreds of millions of dollars precisely because they target the Lowest Common Denominator of the market, who also happens to be the majority.
And so we conclude the review with this pessimistic fact: in the end, no matter how much soul you put into your work, no matter how hard you try to provoke thought and self-reflection, mediocrity will always be rule, and the Lowest Common Denominator will always determine the fortunes of the market. “It just works“!
No hope. No hope…
- Solid Open-World Exploration gameplay
- Pleasantly improved Shooting and Stealth mechanisms
- Extended Crafting system
- Plenty of fun filler material to pass the time
- NO THREE-DOG!
- One can always hope for a new joint venture with Obsidian…
- Shallow dialog, one-dimensional quests, quite predictable main plot
- Too much emphasis on combat, rather than on RPG mechanisms
- 4 different endings that are essentially… one
- The new Dialog Wheel and Skill System take pointless simplification one step further
- Aged Game Engine that can’t hide its weaknesses
- For all intents and purposes, a “Fallout” game in name only