FALLOUT 4 Review: Vault-Tec Never Changes

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Game: Fallout 4
Developer: Bethesda
Platform Reviewed: PC
Disclosure: Copy purchased

The biggest thing about Fallout 4, is that it is unequivocally Fallout (post v.3, of course).  Every facet of the game, from the atomic bombed out crap-sack world’s landscapes and crumbling skyscrapers to the futuristic gun battles against raiders and radiation crazed zombies feels like that classic Fallout style first person shooter.  The major difference that surprised me with this new iteration on the Fallout series, is the vibrancy that is illustrated in the world.  

Although the overall game is rather decent, there’s some glaring missteps in the game’s design that hold it back.
Where general sci-fi dystopia style worlds usually filled with color pallets ranging from rust to dark rust.  Fallout 4‘s world is colorful. Large swaths of vivid reds, blues, and yellows dot the terrifying landscape, much like the world you’d find today.  And really, this makes sense.

 

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Just look at that detail!

If you look at pictures of real life nuclear disaster sites, none of them are completely devoid of any colors other than mud and green glows.  Life still flourishes, even amidst the most dreadful of conditions.  Hell, even Chernobyl has green forests, blue skies, and a mostly well-preserved city/township with a full fair ground.  The visuals of Fallout 4 take this to heart and it really brings the world to life in new and surprising ways.  Where Fallout 4 excels is immersion both visually and audibly.   From enemy models to even the bumbling nervous radio personality, the world feels like Fallout.  And yes, as a former student disk jockey at the University of Kansas, I kind of feel a connection to the “Diamond City Radio” host.  I’ve been there.  On the air with no guidance, just a stack of records and a microphone.  His rambling and strange antics make him more believable as a post-apocalyptic radio personality.  His lack of refinement makes him feel genuine and it gets the point across that some random person just happened to “find” a radio antenna and started broadcasting.

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Monster bears are fairly common in the wasteland.

Combat also is very Fallout.  The game allows you to choose your own style of how to approach conflict based on how you attribute points into your character.  Your options span the gambit from mighty melee attacks to computer assisted devastation through your handy smart-watch’s V.A.T.S. equipment.  A large variety of weapons assist you in your journey and the staggering amount of crafting options let you customize your arsenal and armor on the fly.  But this is where things get a little hairy for Fallout 4.  Although the overall game is rather decent, there’s some glaring missteps in the game’s design that hold it back.

Crafting:

While ambitious in its implementation, the crafting system itself has its flaws.  Nearly every gun and scrap of armor can be taken apart and refitted with what ever means of destruction you like within the confines of what is allowable within the crafting system.  There’s a harsh limit to the system.  Guns and armor can only be tinkered with so much.  Damage output can only increase so far.  Which means that as enemies get stronger and have more health as you level, guns and combat in general becomes less and less effective.  The crafting system is finite while the enemy strength is practically limitless.

This equates to a bell curve of viable combat options.  Where I am at in the game currently (around level 75 or so), most weapons in the game are trash, including the legendary weapons.  I have a no-reload “Never-Ending” fat man (a giant mini-nuke bomb launcher) that handles almost every situation (save for indoors or cramped spaces) and all other guns do next to no damage to the heavily armored sacks of meat and health that are my opponents.

Armor also has stark limitations, but whereas the weapons take time to become obsolete, armor starts out that way.  This problem is two-fold.  The first is that armor is collected piece by piece.  Two arms, a torso, a head, and two legs are all pieces whose sum creates your armor.  These pieces can be worn over other clothing, but instead of letting you choose what fun and interesting clothing to wear (out of Fallout 4‘s impressive lineup of styles and fashions) you are limited to an extremely small selection of underwear.  Most clothing forces you to unequip your armor in order to wear them, which is a shame.  I don’t know why it should be so much harder to wear metal plates over a dress than over a jump suit.  It is as if they flaunt this massive customization system in front of you saying you can wear whatever you want, but keep in mind a stray bullet catching you naked can take off a limb.  So just only wear the armor and we’ll all be happy.

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Super Style’n

The other problem is the same as the guns.  Armor crafting upgrades are static.  They don’t increase with level.  So after a time, all armor becomes obsolete in the world.  Even in power armor, if I’m not quick enough on the draw to sneak attack with my fat man nuke launcher, the claws of a death claw will tear through my power armor like tissue paper.  The game’s difficulty increases, not because of skill and challenge, but because the raw statistics on the armor and guns stops matching up to the challenges of the ever-changing world.  As I level up, the armor and weapons theoretically should be increasing in value on their statistics.

If I find a gun at level 70 it should do more damage than finding a gun at level.  This makes every piece of armor and every weapon inherently more valuable the longer I play, making me weigh my options each time I come across new items of these types.  Armor and weapons should be a source of endogenous value.  Something the player should covet as they run from loot crate to loot crate.  However, because of the hard statistics on the armor and weapons, they end up being worthless after a point.

Workshops:

I do really like the idea of workshops and home bases in Fallout 4.  It makes sense for the player to start-up settlements and it’s actually pretty fun taking the time to build them and create little dwellings and buildings for your settlers to live in.  Although the concept is nice and its execution is pretty decent, it needs a lot of quality of life improvements make it really pop.  I’ve spent a great deal of time making crazy buildings and turret traps.  Even the wiring and lighting system can cook up some pretty spectacular systems (like colored light boxes, signs, turrets, booby traps, and the much more).

For starters, having a grid on the ground that placed items could snap to would be fantastic.  Building pieces do snap to each other, but laying down the first one or lining up multiples is always awkward and strange since it is completely free form.  So when you are trying to line a building up with a sidewalk that already exists as part of the ground you want to build on, it’s really hard to get it straight on.  With this, being able to completely clear your workshop space of all foliage, debris, tires, piles of discarded metals, houses, cars, trees, and other items that a lot of times can’t even be targeted, would be nice, too.

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The colors!

It also needs a better camera view. Especially a camera that isn’t your character’s first person view.  Building things is a chore when you can’t see what you are doing… which happens often as the terrain or whatever it is you are trying to build gets in the way of your sight.  Some sort of free-flowing camera would do better than your first person view.

The settlers at your workshop are annoying and can’t do anything for themselves.  Randomly, and fairly often, you’ll get quest pop-ups that tell you when a settlement is under attack or monsters are killing villagers.  It’s up to you to save them (even though you lined the perimeter with over a hundred automated turrets equipped with high powered rocket launchers).  This would be fine if you had nothing else going on, but if you are in the middle of a major story quest or in a DLC area that is not in the same zone as your settlement, you can either choose to take the consequences of letting your settlement die or stop everything you are currently doing to go help on the pointless nearly non-rewarding side quest.   And after a while, when you get so many settlements, you start getting bombarded with requests from all of them.  Everyone needs the player’s help.  No, Roman.  I don’t want to “go play darts” every five damn seconds (Grand Theft Auto IV is a stark reminder of this awful annoying “friend activity” side quest mechanic is).

Getting side quests from your settlement workshops is fine.  But hampering the player’s agency by giving consequences for ignoring those quests is not fine.  The constant annoyances of being called into action by every settlement has worn me down.  It’s gotten to the point where I just ignore them, completely.

Game Engine:

Bethesda’s game engine is showing its age.  The same bugs that plagued Skyrim (Caution: link contains strong language) can be found in Fallout 4, although to a much lesser extent.  Rag-doll bodies fly through the air, NPCs spawn in floors.  Models bug out flailing their limbs about and get stuck on geometry.  In my game, I have a suit of power armor where the ends of the bolts (the large hex part) are floating around as I move about.  They are attached to the fore-arms instead of the shoulders where they are located on my character model.  It’s the same game engine Bethesda has been using for its previous titles and seeing the same bugs and issues game after game, it gets pretty old.

Another, but extremely minor, complaint I have is the game’s UI.  It seems overly simplified and not stylized for a fully developed game.  It feels rushed and slapped on at the last minuet.  I mainly say this because it is missing some important channels of communication.  As a player, I have no idea how much breath I have when I go swimming underwater.  I actually though it was infinite for a while because there was no display or indication on the level of breath I had while swimming in that filthy irradiated sludge Fallout calls “water”.

AI:

Bethesda’s AI has always been an interesting and quirky system.  Having Non Player Characters worry about things such as food and sleep in addition to what actions the player is currently taking, gives a fine level of detail to a great deal of the world.  However, some combat AI actions leave for instant restarts of my game.  Specifically, if an NPC finds a fat man nuke launcher while I’m trying to fight my way through a subway tunnel.

I remember approaching my first raider encampment at level 2, only to find myself underneath a mushroom cloud and having to restart from the closest auto-save, character creation.  What had happened was that there was a fat man nuke launcher left on a shelf for the player to discover.  The enemy raider became under attack.  Decided his level 2 10mm pistol was not as good as the nuclear bomb thrower, so they picked it up, and fired it with computerized pin-point accuracy for a perfect head-shot.

Every combat with humans, and to a lesser extent super mutants, is a gamble depending on what items are scattered around the level in which they populate.  Was there a rocket launcher left on a couch? A fat man in a long forgotten bathtub? You’ll find out soon enough as you’re suddenly blown to shreds!  Where I’m at now, it’s not as big of a problem with my high tech power armor shell, but in the early game, every combat situation was a nail biter of survival.  This random chance of an NPC picking up some high explosive ordinance makes combat based not on skill, but random chance.

(caution: game trailer contains strong language and animated violence.  Rated M for Mature)

Story:

The story is what ruined Fallout 4 for me.  The narration starts out out fine enough, a little drab and predictable but not terrible.  It has some interesting twists and turns for sure and some pretty good characters.  Characters have a range between being multi-faceted and single dimensional.  But the ending, or rather the near ending, is awful.  The non-spoiler version is that the game removes player agency, forcing you to make stupid single decision choices.

Even though your character’s kills and narrative situations clearly show that you should be making some sort of choice outside of the binary black and white ones presented, you are still only given the choice between option A or option B.  It’s bad narrative design and it should not exist within a title such as Fallout since previous versions have given the player different options based on the player’s stat levels.

Fallout 4 Story Spoiler

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Because of the lack of a better option than the ones that are provided, I created my own option.  I chose neither.  My Fallout 4 game will have no main story conclusion.  Although this is a testament to player created agency, it’s also short sighted design since there is no outcome or resolution.  It will forever feel “unfinished” due to the sour options presented.  And just to be clear, it’s not because the decision is hard (the choice you are forced to make is a basic “Which do you prefer.  Flavor A or flavor B”), but because I was shoehorned into making a binary choice that lacks other opportunities that have been presented previously throughout the game to my character.  Previous Fallouts (3 and New Vegas, to a lesser extent) had these options.  If your stats were high enough, you could choose new endings that were previously unavailable.  But in this Fallout, it’s completely one or the other, no middle ground, no ground at all.

Dialogue:

Tying in with the story issue above, the dialogue is another aspect of flawed game design.  Voicing lines is tough and expensive in games, and Fallout 4 has an enormous amount of voice acted lines. Bethesda even touted at E3 2015 that your robot butler would have over one thousand recorded names that he could say.  The actual list was kind of strange because things that you would expect to be in that list, like common names, would be missing.  Yet things you wouldn’t expect to be there, like odd slang words, strangely were.  Polygon magazine made a video of some test cases they came up with (caution: strong language).

However, some issues arise when the voice acted dialogue is coupled with the “select what to say” menu.  The menu itself was overly simplified, but didn’t make clear what choices were what.  Generally, the bottom choice was “good” and the choice on the right was “angry/rude/bad”, but the other two choices were a wild card.  So you may not get what you want to say because what you selected through the menu wasn’t what you meant for your character to say.

For instance, the option you select says “yes” but for some reason your character threatens to shoot the friendly old lady who was just seeking help finding her lost cat.  On top of that, but many conversations are gated when all you want is more information.  Which means that once you say something, the conversation is over.  You can either say “who are you” or “why did you do this” but not both for some strange reason.

One good thing is that you can quick save mid conversation.  The sad thing is, to hear all the dialogue recorded in for the NPC interactions, you have to quick save every step through the dialogue trees so you can hear the different options play out.  To be honest, I really like that my character talks.  I like that some of the more witty and sarcastic choices are actually pretty funny and entertaining.  I just wish the dialogue option selections wasn’t so convoluted, and had more than four options per choice.  More than anything else, I want more skill based choices like in previous Fallout 4 games.

In conclusion, Fallout 4 is a pretty decent game.  Although it lacks a lot of the polish I was expecting in the areas above, it plays really well.  It’s pretty, it screams Fallout 4, it is everything we love about Fallout.  I just kind of wish it was better written, had better UI and AI elements, the leveling system was conjoined with the crafting system, and that settlements had better in game creation tools.  If you are a fan of role playing games or just love the idea of retro-sixty’s dystopian futures, this game is very much worth a play through.

Rating: 

7/10 A regular pint-sized atom bomb.

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