Fallout 4 was my runner-up Game of the Year for 2015, and I want you to keep that fact in mind for the duration of this review. I enjoyed it a lot more than I think did a large amount of the gaming community, because despite a hugely successful launch I do continuously hear small niggling complaints about it. After all, as this is a Bethesda open-world RPG and so one expects to hear only praise and memes about it for the next 5 years, but one cannot help but notice that on places like Steam and Metacritic the average score is rather lower than one might expect. Unfortunately as well, is that these complaints were often about things that I too picked up on. So allow me to preface that despite the fact that this review might well sound rather negative, I did most definitely absolutely enjoy the game.
Fallout 4 continues the tradition of FO games by throwing an unprepared protagonist into the deep-end of the post-nuclear apocalyptic wasteland where one adapts quickly or dies. This time though they took it one step further of just how unprepared you are. In Fallout 1 to 3 you play as a vault dweller turned lone survivor, the comparative comfort of the vault traded for semi-automatic weaponry. In New Vegas you are a simple courier turned avenging angel when you survive a bad case of bullet to face.
Well, take a step back boys, because the new kid on the block is even MORE unprepared, in that you are a pre-War veteran whose service in war secures you and your family a place in Vault 111 where you are immediately cryogenically frozen for 210 years, awaking in the year 2287. The first thing that occurs upon waking up is watching your infant son Shaun get stolen from another cryogenic chamber directly opposite from you, your spouse murdered in cold blood right in front of your very eyes.
I have to say that I hope this does not spoil anything overly for anyone. This all occurs in the first 10 minutes of the game, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but I have to admit that watching it all play out for the first time was really pretty spectacular. In fact, the opening hours of the game are possibly some of the most gripping it has to offer and do an excellent job of immersing you in the world. Watching the nuclear explosion detonate in Boston while descending into the vault was pretty exhilarating and almost terrifying in a way. Then watching your spouse get shot to death right in front of you makes you set off with an air of grim determination into the wasteland.
The next hour or so continues that theme of immersion while demonstrating a lot of what the game has to offer, you meet Dogmeat and kill some mole rats, so he joins you as you head into town and meet up with your old robot butler. Incidentally, Codsworth has been programmed by Bethesda to be able to say around 1000 common names, so when I entered my own name and was greeted as “Mister Sebastian” it honestly felt like the robot was addressing me. It adds legitimately nothing to the game, but it was a lovely little touch and occasionally lovely little touches can MAKE a game. Continuing on you find Preston Garvey, the last Minuteman, protecting a bunch of survivors from Raiders. All is going well.
Then you are put into a suit of power armour in order to repel a counterattack, and boy oh boy do things heat up! Power armour is no longer just another item of clothing to wear, instead it is essentially almost a mech one can climb in and out of at will. The armour is capable of withstanding an incredible degree of punishment, increases your carrying capacity, reduces the radiation you receive and it also LOOKS fucking awesome. It is also allows you to survive a fall from any height, which is also super fucking cool, because you can jump off a building and land with an intimidating slam right in the middle of your foes (damaging them in the process if you’ve modded the armour enough). It’s also capable of being equipped with a jet-pack (so that instantly improves the game on its own) and any other number of cool gizmos. It is unquestionably one of the smartest design changes in the whole game, changing power armour from just a high-level item to literally POWER ARMOUR.
Then, just to REALLY nail you over the head with the content of the game, as you mow down the raiders with a minigun lifted out of a crashed vertibird, a deathclaw rears its ugly head and comes charging towards you. That fight alone was one of the most memorable I’ve had in any game in a long time. Deathclaws move with a deadly and sinuous grace that is beyond impressive, ducking and weaving as it charges headlong towards you so that the bullets of the minigun just spray around its dodging form. It really made it clear that this thing is the dominant predator of the wasteland, even if you are inside a bloody walking tank, and it was just so cool to watch. Meanwhile bullets and lasers and explosions are going off everywhere. It was an impressive opening to say the least.
This first hour and a bit is fairly linear, to allow the game to tutorialise most of its functions, and this allowed Bethesda to create an excellent opening experience for their game. During this time you learn another thing really worth noting about the game which is that the gunplay has improved massively. FO3 and New Vegas were average shooters at best, with such a heavy reliance on VATS that the actual FPS part of the game left a lot to be desired. FO4 however is just so much better. It’s difficult for me to say exactly why it is better, perhaps the controls are a little more responsive, perhaps its because VATS now feels like something to complement your own shooting rather than completely rely on. It may also be due to the action and feel of the guns and the way one can use cover, grenades and some tactics effortlessly. Overall the improvement was tangible, changing the game from an average shooter to a great one.
Other new functions are also rather excellent. The ability to customise your own weapons and armour, much lauded from the trailers, is indeed an excellent addition to the game. It feels so perfectly at home in a game where technically you are surviving in a wasteland that you should be cannibalizing guns, materials and armours in order to build a safe and happy settlement and to improve your own arsenal. To date, I have not played around as much with the settlement building as I would like, but it definitely seems rather robust with the potential to be expanded massively with mods. A minor complaint here though is that the control system for building things leaves a little to be desired as it seems to have been designed with the focus on consoles rather than PCs.
There are downsides to the game though, significant ones which slowly become more and more noticeable the further into the game you get.
The very first one you encounter is one that is incredibly widely criticised: the new dialogue system of the game. Where previous FOs had a silent protagonist and during dialogue your options were presented in text form in a list, now Bethesda has switched to a conversation wheel which always has four responses. In rather Bioware-esque fashion the responses tend to include a positive one, a negative one, a neutral one (which usually tends towards the whole “sarcastic funnyguy” we know and love) and an option to press for a little more information. This alone isn’t too big of a problem (after all Bioware absolutely owned this dialogue system forever) but there are several other elements which DO make it a problem.
First of all is that the options are presented in an extremely inconsistent way. There are variances within the game but the two main options are either that the option will be presented as an equivalent phrase (for example your character might say “That’s actually a pretty good idea, let’s do that.” if the option is “Good idea”) or as some kind of summary of the dialogue (using the previous example, the option available might be “Confirm” or even “Agreement” like it is an emotion of sorts). This continuously leads to problem after problem with actually determining what it is that your character is going to say. Several times, from stunningly early in the game, I would click an option assuming one thing would be said only for my character to say a completely different interpretation.
Worse is when the latter option of presentation is used and there are so many possibilities of what could be said that you dare not choose an option because you have absolutely no idea what your character will say. The oft-quoted example being if the response option is “Sarcastic”. In certain situations this could lead to so much confusion because you don’t know what it is that your character is being sarcastic about, all you know is that sarcasm is definitely in play.
It’s absolutely beyond ridiculous and it is my fondest hope that Bethesda are absolutely aware of how much they fucked this one up and will never do it again. It is absolutely no surprise that one of the most-downloaded mods for the game is one which replaces the conversation UI with one more reminiscent of previous FOs, so you actually know what the fuck you are going to say before you say it.
The system has been more broadly panned as well. While previous games might have had the occasional conversation with only one or two options, sometimes it raised a lot higher than that. Now though you always have four, and they are consistently similar responses as well. And this absolutely drastically limits the way one can play the game. I understand why it happened of course, with a fully voiced protagonist it’s pretty unrealistic to expect as many books of dialogue, it’s probably just not feasible to record all of that in a game as broad as Fallout.
Equally, I understand why they made THAT decision. Having the protagonist fully voiced was actually a fairly cool experience and helped with drawing me into the game. Especially considering that a big issue with previous Bethesda games is how the silent protagonist could make the dialogue a little stilted and awkward where now it feels like it has more of a sense of flow. That said, I am not a fan of the voice actor (for the male protagonist at least) as everything feels very emotionless or at least said with the exact same sort of inflection.
After the early stages of the game as well, things take a turn for the worse with how tight the game feels. The game world is massive and it feels it, it is really nothing short of an excellent experience to explore the Commnwealth. There is so much to investigate and it feels like there is a new secret around every rock, a new enemy to fight, a new tape to listen to, more loot to collect or a new character to meet. However, because of its broad size the game also feels somewhat stretched in a sense. Beyond exploration, the actual questing often seems not to vary from fetch quests or kill quests. Of course, some of the quests can be pretty awesome and fun, but the best of the game again just seem spread out to thin over to big an area.
As well as this, while the main story feels well written and executed, as does the central conflict of the game, because you will invariably be busy wandering around blowing up super mutants half the time, one tends to lose sight of the overall objective. Despite watching your son get taken from under your very nose, there never feels like much of a sense of urgency to save him.
This, I feel, ties in with the lack of options available when it comes to dialogue, and I think a lot of problems actually stem from this too. Another oft-mentioned issue is that characters can feel very bland and uninteresting, and once more this just feels like it is down to the simple fact that one does not get that much opportunity to interact much with them, beyond a few phrases here and there. This is especially true of your companions, who ought to be the most interesting characters in the game but only really get a few very brief discussions as means of exposition of their life tales.
Some of the lack of options actually, perhaps counter-intuitively, actually seems to tie back to a change in the system of the game which initially felt like an improvement. Levelling up in FO4 is a much smoother experience than before because it completely removes skills and instead you only upgrade perks upon levelling up. At first this seemed like an over-simplification of a preexisting and working system, but it actually grew on me very quickly because it seemed to remove a lot of needless fluff from the game and served only to make it more streamlined. However, it later on then occurred to me that the lack of the skills seemed to be fueling the lack of options (but really, one still ought to be able to use the perk system in the same way).
Other minor grievances plagued me throughout the game as well. For example, at first I have to admit that I was pretty impressed by how the game looked, especially the nuclear explosion at the start (with the exception for fucking lizard-baby Shaun). However, as time progressed textures and small details just seemed to draw my eyes with how disappointing they looked. It simply looked like a heavily modded Skyrim rather than a whole new game. Inventory management is also a HUGE fucking pain. Selling items for caps seems to be pointless now (as I really have yet to find a decent use for all the caps I already have) and instead one dismantles them for components for base and item crafting. HOWEVER, this means that literally every trip into any enemy-filled building is immediately followed by a trip to one of your workbenches so that you can actually get rid of all the scrap because of how over-encumbered you get… Sometimes two trips if there were some particularly nice pieces of weaponry or junk kicking about.
There is one of thing I hear fairly regularly about FO4 that feels, unfortunately, to be pretty close to the truth. This is that, at least in comparison to previous Bethesda RPGs, it is a great shooter but not such a good RPG. It’s something I feel I have to agree with, I will maintain to anyone who will listen that the shooting really is excellent and the gameplay is actually pretty awesome, but even with that taken into consideration, it just did not quite have the same magic as previous games from the company.
I think it’s worth saying that perhaps a good deal of the negative feedback stems from the fact that this IS Bethesda RPG. It’s a company we have come to expect excellence from and so when any of their games do not live up to the massive hype which precede the game’s release, it is rather more noticeable than if it had come from anyone else. I mean, from many other companies, FO4 might be considered utterly fabulous, but as we expect the best from Bethesda, any time it does not quite match that it is just immediately apparent.
This feels like my take-home message for this: it’s good, but Bethesda can and SHOULD do better. Through some kind of witchcraft, the game really looks great, but a company like Bethesda ought to be using or have developed a new engine by now to make it look oh so-much better. The dialogue felt like it had a flow and rhythm, but also it just needs more of those options that we should expect from a Bethesda game. The wasteland was broad and detailed in so many ways, but it also felt a little shallow once you got passed the initial rosy excitement. Characters could be funny, interesting and totally worthwhile interacting with, but once more they just did not feel as fully fleshed out as they could have been.
Overall, it was great, but I really do expect more.