Fallout 4 - Smart Improvements and Busy Work
With any of Bethesda's open world RPGs, the biggest challenge comes from wondering where to even begin. Fallout 4 is no different. Like its predecessors, it depicts a massive post-apocalyptic world where the ruins of an uber-patriotic alternate history America are waiting to be unearthed. Its retro-futuristic atmosphere still holds strong, binding together the time tested formula of exploration, loot, character development, and player choice. With these elements intact, Fallout 4 is essentially a much improved Fallout 3 or New Vegas. Bethesda’s “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy is in many ways the game’s biggest strength, and very clearly a weakness as well. By bringing forward everything largely unaltered, they bring forth everything that worked, and also everything that didn’t work.
That’s not to say the game hasn’t been improved. In fact, the enhancements to Fallout 4’s moment to moment gameplay make its predecessors difficult to go back to. The greatest contributing factor to this bittersweet accomplishment is the vastly refined shooting mechanics. No longer is Fallout burdened by rigid aiming and a nearly unusable reticle. Rather, Fallout 4 brings the series up to par with modern shooters. The player can even sprint now! Being excited about an addition as minor as sprinting goes to show how badly the series needed to catch up. In fact, the shooting is good enough now to make the classic auto-aiming mechanic, VATS, obsolete. It’s still there, but isn’t the necessity it used to be.
On top of this, there are a multitude of subtle changes to nearly every mechanic. Radiation is now a serious concern, as it should be in a game called Fallout. Now, radiation will eat away at players maximum health points. It cannot be healed until cured with Radaway or a doctor’s aid. This causes radiation management to be a constant and frightening concern. Throw in enemy’s dealing in Radiation damage and you have a game significantly more challenging than its prior incarnations.
Crafting has received a massive overhaul as well. A player can now easily modify any weapon or armor set, making a great use for the piles of garbage and scrap littering the war torn wasteland. Crafting mechanics exist in dozens of games, but it stands out in Fallout 4 with one simple, yet breakthrough idea. Needed materials are made easy to find with a simple highlighting tool. If extra materials are needed, the game will draw attention to those materials right out of the environment. This intelligent addition makes what tends to be tedious in most games a simple pleasure. In many ways, scavenging for random junk completes the post-apocalyptic fantasy.
This junk can also be used to create settlements in various spots across the map. These settlements will become populated causing the player to do some minor resource management but at the benefit of creating new vendors to buy and sell goods or just to scratch any creative itch. Honestly, it’s perhaps the least well developed feature of Fallout 4. There are rough edges all over the settlement editor and the limits of what are possible become apparent early, but it’s an immensely enjoyable distraction regardless.
Still, the changes to the dialogue system are the most intriguing - divisive even. Bethesda seems to have taken notes from Bioware and rid themselves of dialogue trees by replacing them with the equivalent of a dialogue wheel. The player now has up to 4 options for the character to respond to others. Often they fit too nicely into the tired dichotomy of evil choices against good choices. It feels like a major step back from New Vegas which featured a complicated array of potential moralities. The system does have benefits. With the available speech options simplified into one word suggestions of what the player character will say, scanning choices can be done quickly. This allows for snappier decision making, which combined with excellent voice acting, creates naturally flowing conversations. While nice, the sacrifice of numerous and varied responses is too great a loss.
Furthermore, the camera will take on a cinematic style during conversations. However, its implementation is sloppy. Due to the dynamic nature of Bethesda’s particular brand of open world design, conversations can happen anywhere and everywhere. The camera has to adapt to any situation, whether the scene happens outside or in a tight space. Rarely does it succeed. Instead of seeing two characters nicely framed, you might end up staring at a blank wall.
This sloppiness can be found permeating nearly every other aspect of the game as well. While glitches are an expected occurrence in any open world game, they are always more severe in Bethesda’s. Starting with Oblivion, they’ve now crafted four similar games with excessive technical issues, five if you want to count Obsidian’s New Vegas. Frame rates will dip when seemingly nothing should be making them so. Computer terminals are a risky proposition as they can permanently trap a character to them. And A.I. companions? Who knows, they can simply vanish. There was a hope with a new generation of hardware and years of criticism that Bethesda would finally apply some polish, but those hopes appear dashed. It’s not enough to make the game unplayable, nor does it make the game unenjoyable. However, it is incredibly frustrating.
No, the glitches aren’t this games biggest issue. Rather, the quests and storylines are. There’s not a single questline in the game matching the sense of adventure felt in the past. Objectives will range from killing everything in a location to ... no wait ... that’s it. The majority of quests feel randomly generated. They’ll point the player to a location they’ve not yet discovered, populate it with standard enemies, and ask the player to wipe them out. This pattern repeats itself over and over again.
It doesn’t help that the general plot is simply a reverse of Fallout 3. In that game, you had to venture from your vault to find your father. In Fallout 4, you venture from your vault to find your son. While the game does throw a few twists and turns here and there, they’re all too predictable. With the dialogue robbing the player of truly meaningful choices, it’s difficult to become invested in it. Oddly, it feels as though the cast of characters has been vastly improved. Hard to go wrong with a P.I. machine man … and a French machine lady … and wonderful machine butler … machines are cool. Other than meeting these new friends, there isn’t much to see.
Overall, Fallout 4 is a smarter and much better playing game than its prequels, but it lacks the staying power those games had. The strength of Bethesda’s games has been found in their content, but Fallout 4’s noteworthy locations and quests are stretched thin. Perhaps nostalgia is blinding my tired eyes, but the game just isn’t packing the same punch it used too. It’s an odd thing to say for a game I’ve spent hundreds of hours in, and expect to spend even more, but I feel underwhelmed. It’s a situation where the game is definitely worth getting, but on the understanding it won’t light the world on fire.