Fallout 4 – have Bethesda finally nailed it?

power armour

War. War never changes. And not much changes with regards to Bethesda’s approach to making ambitious open-world role-playing games (RPGs). Good news if you loved the previous two instalments of the Fallout franchise or their fantasy RPG Skyrim (2011). The bad news is that many of the problems that plagued those games still persist. After completing the main quest and clocking up more than 80 hours, I think I’m ready to do my review.

In terms of plot spoilers, I give away nothing outside of what happens in the relatively brief introductory sequence.

For those who’ve been living in a Vault for the past decade, Fallout 4 is Bethesda’s long-awaited sequel to Fallout: New Vegas (2010) and Fallout 3 (2008). Like its predecessors, it’s set in a 1950s-inspired retro-future in the wastelands of North America some two centuries following nuclear annihilation. The game begins with an emotional introductory sequence that treats us with a brief glimpse of life just prior to the Great War, with our protagonist fleeing to the safety of one of Vault-Tec’s nuclear bunkers as the bombs start falling. You emerge from Vault 111 in 2287, having been cryogenically frozen for the duration, to discover everything you knew in tatters and determined to find out what happened to your family.

nuke

The end of the world as we know it. Fallout 4 treats us to a brief glimpse into life just before the nukes started falling.

From then on it’s totally up to you how to proceed. You can be a vicious psychopath, an ambiguous mercenary or a boring goody-two-shoes, with plenty of scope for specialising in different skills and weaponry. You can explore and scavenge, trade with caravans and settlements, take on a myriad of side-quests, murder and steal, join factions, and battle with raiders, monsters, horrifically-mutated humans and a variety of militia groups.

In this respect, little has changed since Fallout: New Vegas, but there has been some worthwhile tweaking. The crafting system has been expanded. So all that worthless junk that litters the wastelands can now be scrapped into useful components for upgrading your gear. While weapons/armour can be better customised to suit your own play style or fulfil a particular niche. Expanding on this you can now manage and link up the settlements you control, allowing you to construct farms and water purifiers, defences and accommodation, radio beacons to attract new settlers, stores for trading, and an array of cosmetic items. Not something that holds much interest for me, but I can see how this could extend the longevity of the game for some after completing the main quests. Sadly the instruction for settlement building is pretty poor and the UI is just plain clumsy.

perk chart

The new perk chart. Seriously, who the hell designed that?

In contrast, character building has been streamlined. No longer do you progress skills by continually performing them, instead you choose a perk each time you level up with XP being earned through combat, exploration, conversation and hacking/lock picking. It does feel a little arbitrary as many of the perks can only be unlocked if certain requirements are met (i.e. level and S.P.E.C.I.A.L status), but its preferable to the tedious grinding that dogged Skyrim so much, even if logically it makes less sense than “practising” to get better. The new perk interface is a horrible mess though and the person who designed it should be dumped in a radioactive lake.

We’ve also been treated to a far more interesting variety of guns. I particularly enjoyed the crude nature of the highly-customisable pipe guns, something you come to rely on heavily in the early stages. And power armour has seen a complete revamp. It’s become a tactical asset, with usage heavily restricted by the need for consumable fusion cores. Rather than putting it on it’s now something you get into, complete with it’s own special HUD, and you can really tank in combat. There’s nothing quite like donning your suit and mowing down a small battalion of raider scum with a minigun.

power armour hud

Come at me bro. Power armour has been completely revamped. It’s now something you get into and its use is limited by the need for consumable fusion cores. And it really lets you tank in combat.

Graphically, we have seen significant improvement thanks to a new physically-based lighting system and a range of visually pleasing weather effects. Controversially, the environments are also far more vibrant than previously, with splashes of colour brighting up the festering decay. In my opinion, they manage to do this while still maintaining the characteristically bleak ambience. It’s certainly preferable to Fallout 3’s infinite sea of brown and the changes do make for a far more dynamic, varied and atmospheric game world, nicely complemented by an evocative soundtrack and some great positional audio.

But it does feel like the ageing Creation engine is creaking under the stain. A major issue lies with the framerate being tied to the speed of the game. So removing the 60fps framerate lock causes an array of glitches and abnormalities (such as altered gravity, physics and movement speed). At the opposite end of the spectrum, travelling to certain areas (eg Corvega) leads to massive framerate dips due to legacy CPU bottlenecking issues; something that’s not exclusive to the PC version and it’s close to unplayable on occasion. And while at the larger scale Fallout 4 does look stunning, on closer inspection much of the geometry is very simplistic and some textures are of embarrassingly low resolution. And though lip-syncing and body-modelling animations (as well as the voice acting) of more central characters have noticeably progressed since Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas, the majority of NPCs remain cringingly robotic. You’ll also encounter a wide range of collision bugs and visual glitches on your travels, though these do often provide a source of amusement.

glowing sea

The glowing sea, bring a hazmat suit. Fallout 4 is incredibly atmospheric thanks to the new physically-based lighting system and a range of weather effects, including radiation storms.

I’m also disappointed by what seems like some dumbing down. Gone is the karma system that determined how characters interact with you and which factions you could join. Now you can kill and steal with impunity. In its place we have the affinity mechanic, which essentially boils down to a whether chosen companion will sleep with you. Irritatingly, the majority of these bores castigate you incessantly for “questionable” (in the Roy Batty sense of the word) behaviour. Fortunately, faithful pouch Dogmeat doesn’t judge me or better still even talk, otherwise I wouldn’t even bother with a companion.

Annoyingly, they’ve also removed the hardcore option, so now there is little reason to eat, drink or sleep outside of regaining health. And why bother when stimpaks are so abundant and take up no inventory space. It also makes cooking fairly pointless. Conversation has also been dramatically simplified. Now we’re always presented with just four brief dialogue options that only give an indication of tone and not what will be actually said, which I occasionally found to contradict my intention. That said, your choices too infrequently have any meaningful consequence (aside from a slight sweetening of payouts) and I feel that conversations branch far less than they did in Bethesda’s previous RPGs.

dialogue options

Not only is your character now voiced by an actor, conversation has been simplified to just four descriptive dialogue options that only really indicate tone and not what will actually be said.

Further shortcomings derive from a failure to address long-standing issues. Combat and stealth remain seriously underwhelming despite minor improvements. There is no formal cover system, the stealth mechanics are uninspired and inconsistent, and the AI is atrocious. Enemies constantly get stuck on the scenery, pathfinding is broken (that goes for companions too who perpetually get lost, stuck or simply disappear until you fast travel) and they don’t work together or attempt to flank. They do sometimes lean out from cover, but for the most part cheerfully march towards you in nice straight lines. They don’t even seem to notice dead comrades and get bored of searching for you after about three seconds. While fighting monsters rarely amounts to little more than back-pedalling and emptying your gun into their face. Combat just seems far too easy, while not being particularly fun, but increasing the difficulty level only make your foes even more bullet spongy as opposed to improving their abilities or intelligence. Half-Life, a game from 1998, had better gun fights. Yet shooting is a massive part of the game, so why can’t they get it right? And in spite of some reworking, V.A.T.S, the slow-motion action point-based targeting system, still feels hopelessly out of place in a game that doesn’t feature turn-based combat. While the lock picking and hacking mini-games remain more tedious than challenging.

VATS

Dogmeat, my trusty canine companion, hold downs a feral ghoul while I target it in VATS. VATS is a slow-motion targeting system that spends action points. But there is no turn-based combat in Fallout 4 and so it feels hopelessly out of place.

The UI also continues to frustrate. Far too much time is wasted on wading through your ever-expanding inventory. Finally we have some filters (weight, value, damage), but they’re just not that helpful. We need to be able to sort by things like type, effect and strength. Apparel is very situational in Fallout, so you’re regularly changing outfits, yet we’re unable to group our favourite armour sets together for quick switching. And why do you have to search through your inventory to access quest-specific documents/audio logs that have just been acquired? And why can’t Bethesda make decent maps? You think they’d have learnt from the some of the excellent UI overhauls made by the community for Skyrim and the previous Fallouts. Another pet peeve of mine is that weapons magically reload when you switch away from them and it’s quicker to do this than to manually reload (especially if you do it via the Pip-Boy), which makes reloading-based upgrades and perks entirely redundant. Seriously, how did that get through testing?

ghoul

The combat in Fallout 4 is seriously underwhelming. Enemies are very “bullet spongy” and fighting them often boils down to back-pedalling while shooting.

Perhaps my biggest gripe with Fallout 4 is that your character is now voiced. This is supposed to be a sandbox RPG, yet my character has been defined for me. This also ties in with the simplified dialogue options and having the (not particularity compelling) central story rammed down your throat. So one minute I’m gleefully slitting the throats of innocent settlers as they sleep (I highly recommend the sandman perk, it’s terribly naughty), then a minute later my character is bawling about his missing son or promising to help out a wronged farmer. The actors sound far too wholesome and earnest, completely lacking in any semblance of ambiguity. Yes, it makes conversations more cinematic, but I’d much prefer a silent protagonist and the use of my own imagination. Frustratingly they got it right in Fallout: New Vegas and Skyrim, where the background to your character is left murky and the game lets you to allude to your past through a range of dialogue choices.

And its hard to maintain a suspension of disbelief when no one reacts to all the traders and settlers I’ve slaughtered (though at least the game responded to me prematurely ending the career of the Diamond City Radio DJ), or when I rob the place blind (which is far too easy by the way). On top of this, children, companions and key NPCs are invincible, there is zero depth to any of the characters, and there’s frequently a discontinuity between quests and conversations. For a game that relies heavily on immersion to suck you in, the illusion is all too easily broken.

dead DJ

I really wanted that jacket! For the most part, as long as you’re not seen doing it, murder goes completely unnoticed. The illusion of a living, breathing world is easily broken. Though in this case, one of the kids took over DJ duties after I put an end to Travis’ radio career.

Okay, so I’ve been pretty critical. But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t enjoyed playing Fallout 4. Despite all the flaws, it’s incredibly addictive. I love playing the lone wanderer, just me and my trusty dog, exploring the insanely detailed and atmospheric world that Bethesda have put so much effort into bringing to life – the desolate ruins and the stories they tell, the harsh wastelands fraught with danger, the respite to be found at colourful settlements. It’s a game driven by curiosity and endless diversions. That insatiable urge to investigate the new thing that’s just appeared on your compass. You never know what it might turn up: a new quest, some awesome loot, a tragic tale of the lives that once dwelled there, a raider camp, or an encounter with a legendary foe.

For me, it’s a love-hate thing. Without a doubt, Fallout 4 is Bethesda’s most polished open-world RPG to date, but it still feels so amateurish at times. It’s riddled with bugs and too many immersion-breaking features. The combat ultimately fails to satisfy. Too many legacy issues persist. So much potential remains unfulfilled. Perhaps Fallout 5 will finally get it right? In the meantime, praise be the modding community.

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