Yes, we’ve made it to the fourth main outing of the inexplicably-populist post-apocalyptic open world RPG. Ever since Oblivion it seems that Bethesda have been incapable of doing anything wrong; each game they release experiences a couple of million more copies sold than the last one, and Fallout 4 doesn’t look like it’s in any danger of being an exception to that rule. That they salvaged the Fallout IP from the Interplay debacle and turned it into one of the most successful franchises in gaming is laudable; that their approach to Fallout 3 was to simply paste that IP over the top of Oblivion is less so. Don’t get me wrong, Fallout 3 achieved great success in splicing some of the core Fallout concepts together with the stock Bethesda open-world gameplay (guns, VATS), but this came at the cost of it being a noticeably shallower game than its predecessors in terms of actual RPG-ness. Even at the time I remember thinking that it was fine for a first outing, but that any follow-up should make better use of the setting and include such radical features as “an actual plot” instead of stunt-casting Liam Neeson and hoping nobody would notice it wasn’t there.
This is why I’m a little dismayed at Fallout 4. I’m dismayed despite some of the good iterative improvements it makes to the mechanics, and despite Bethesda making the visuals a little less grey this time around, because in all other respects it is exactly the goddamn same as Fallout 3. Fallout 3 was Oblivion With Guns. Fallout 4 is Skyrim With Guns. If you have played literally any other Bethesda game from the last 15 years then you’ll know what to expect from Fallout 4. There’s a huge world map covered in a shitload of markers for you to discover. Roughly half of the markers are settlements and other points of interest, while the other half denote the location of mini-dungeons that you can blast through in 5-10 minutes. You get quests from the former to kill things in the latter. The quests and plot are about as deep as the virtual paper they’re written on. There’s a certain amount of joy to be found in the exploration, in seeing what’s over the next hill or around the next corner, but the switch from Skyrim’s snowy vistas to Fallout’s muddy, dirty wasteland means it’s operating at something of a disadvantage here. It is, in other words, a Bethesda Open World Game, with everything good and bad that that statement implies.
“But Hentzau,” you might ask, “what on earth were you expecting from a Bethesda game?” The answer is: exactly this. I can’t fault Bethesda for not delivering on my expectations because they’ve done precisely what I thought they would do. They’ve stuck to what they know. In fact they’ve arguably exceeded my expectations since there’s one or two areas of the game where they (gasp!) successfully innovate, which at least avoids Fallout 4 being a straight rehash of F3/Skyrim; it does have some unique selling points that lend it some of its own identity. So while I’m a bit disappointed that F4 doesn’t deviate (much) from the standard Bethesda Open World Game formula, I can’t in all good conscience use that as a stick to beat the game with since for some – if not most – of its prospective audience that’ll be nothing but good news. So when writing the rest of this review, I’m going to try and leave that by the wayside, especially since the next thing I’m going to say might surprise you:
I quite enjoyed Fallout 4.
Yep, despite large portions of the Bethesda formula running very much counter to my particular tastes, I found there was actually a lot to like about Fallout 4. It’s by no means a comprehensive package of plus points, and the enjoyment that you derive will depend largely on your ability to use the character progression and crafting system to set your own goals, but as long as you’re willing to play the game on your terms rather than slavishly engaging with every mechanic it offers you for the sake of it then it is, in terms of mechanics, probably the best game Bethesda have released yet1. The biggest speedbump it encounters is right at the start of the game, in the pre-nuclear fire prologue that sets up your character; I found this tremendously dreary and not a good way to set the atmosphere or make me care about my supposed motivations for venturing out into the post-apocalyptic wasteland that is the setting of every Fallout game. Once the game has set you loose, though, and once you start to fully comprehend some of the possibilities the new mechanics make possible, then the chances are you’ll be hooked in for a good long while.
But what are these new mechanics I keep mentioning? Well, there’s three worth talking about, two of which are good, and one of which I thought was a bit of a failure. They are, in order:
- A completely redone character levelling/perks system.
- A new crafting system for customising guns, armour and equipment.
- The ability to build settlements in the wasteland that slowly grow as they attract new settlers.
The first two features are largely unambiguous successes. Talking about the new perk system first: the old Fallout system of percentage-based skills governing your chance of success at doing things in the game (pickpocketing someone, shooting a gun etc.) and perks that give you specific, passive bonuses has been condensed into a single sprawling system of perks. At the start of the game you get 30-odd points to invest in your character attributes (Strength, Perception and so on) which isn’t so different from the previous Fallout games, except that, interestingly, the “base” level of competence in a given area has been lowered from 5 to 1. This means that you start with one point in each attribute, and that you can’t really have a character with lower-than-average Intelligence (a favourite character archetype of Fallout) because it’s not possible to lower your attributes from their starting level. All you can do is boost them with those starting points; this is a weird way to start the game, and I must say it went against every natural fiber of my being to start a character with only one point in Luck and Charisma since my instincts were screaming at me that this was just crippling my character. It’s very unlike the previous games – or most RPG attribute systems in general – and the most confusing thing about it was that Fallout 4 asked me to make these decisions blind, without any real clue as to how these stats would affect my progression. It doesn’t show you the perk tree until you’re actually in the game and have run through the tutorial, at which point it’s a little too late to make changes without doing it all again.
Once you see that perk tree everything becomes clear, however. It’s got one track for each of of your attributes, and each track is split out into ten tiers. Each tier of the track contains a single perk which will either confer some new ability or provide some kind of passive bonus. As you’d expect, the higher-tier perks (or lower-tier, since they’re set up starting from the top and progressing downwards) are broadly better than the ones at the start of the track, and this is where the attributes come in; they each have a passive effect on your chance to hit, melee damage, hit points etc., but they also determine which perks you can and can’t take. For example, you won’t be able to take a sixth-level Perception perk unless you have at least six points invested in Perception. Every time you level up you get a single point to invest in this perk tree, which you can either spend on a perk or on increasing one of your basic attributes to make new perks available.
As a basic setup that works pretty well, especially so since a given attribute’s perks will at the very least enhance one another – and some of them go from so-so to truly and utterly broken once you unlock certain high-tier perks – meaning it pays to specialise. The thing I really like about this new perk system, though, is that nearly all of the perks in it are interesting and/or powerful. They have a significant effect on how the game plays. Every point spent in the tree feels worthwhile, and most perks can be levelled up multiple times to increase the bonus they give you. For example, even a basic “Increase rifle damage” perk increases it by a whopping 20% per point spent, and you can invest five points for a total of +100%, neatly doubling your damage output. That’s a powerful perk to take and a great decision to have to make, and the fact that most of the time it is a genuine decision between two or more potentially awesome choices should tell you a lot about how good this perk tree is. You can spend *hours* in here plotting your route through it depending on the character you’re trying to build – and for me personally, the nice thing about the perks is that they aren’t even remotely balanced. There’s about a zillion ways you can combine perks to make a ridiculously overpowered character, and that points to a surprising degree of awareness on the part of whoever designed this: they’ve realised that balance doesn’t matter in a single-player game just so long as the player is having fun making interesting decisions, and figuring out which of those zillion ways is the *best* way to break the game is fun.
Then we come to the second success on the list: crafting. Crafting mechanics are all the rage these days so it’s no surprise they’ve made an appearance in Fallout, but what I did find pretty surprising was how seamlessly it was integrated into the game. Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the crafting, though, I should talk about the new equipment system: previously in Fallout you’d have a bolt-action rifle, a semi-auto rifle and an assault rifle, and these would all be separate weapons. In Fallout 4, however, they are all the same weapon: you take the base of “rifle” and apply different modifications to it to make the weapon that best suits your playstyle. If you want an automatic weapon for fighting at short range you add a short stock (for hipfire accuracy), a set of reflex sights and an automatic receiver. If you want a long-range sniper rifle then you instead add a marksman stock, a long-range scope, a powerful receiver for boosting the damage of the round, and a long barrel for boosting the range of the round. By mixing and matching these modifications you can make pretty much whatever you want; the only real limitation is that each base type of gun will fire one specific type of ammo, and while some guns can be rechambered for a different calibre you’re always stuck looking for that ammo type if you become overreliant on one weapon in particular.
This equipment system is very flexible. It does have a significant flaw in that the DPS of every weapon you make will be roughly the same (since automatic weapons do less damage per round), and since ammo is a finite resource that you have to scavenge you end up gravitating towards building weapons that maximise the damage inflicted per round. Nevertheless it’s another set of interesting decisions for the player to make, with one significant caveat: unless you can scavenge an existing weapon with the modification you want, you need to turn to the crafting interface to make modifications for your guns from scratch. This requires two things; first, you need points in the relevant perks (Gun Nut for guns, Armorer for armour, as well as Science for certain high-level power armour and energy weapon mods), and then you need raw materials to actually build the thing.
The way you get said raw materials is actually really, really smart. You remember all those junk items from Fallout 3? The pre-war money, Abraxo cleaner and the like, which had no in-game purpose other than to clog up your inventory? (Sidenote: the inventory interface in Fallout 4 is still utterly dire, as with every other Bethesda game.) That’s all changed now. Junk items can now be broken down into raw materials for crafting, which catapults them from “pointless time-waster” to “most important items in the game”. Much of the latter half of my game was characterised by a never-ending search for items containing Adhesive and Aluminium, which are used in vast quantities for high-level gun and power armour mods. This search meant I had to go into unexplored areas with the sole purpose of finding untapped sources of these materials to scavenge. Not because I was exploring, or because I’d got a quest to go there, mind; literally the only reason was because I was 5 adhesive off of being able to complete the Calibrated Shocks for my power armour legs (or whatever). This not only gives those junk items a point, it’s also an incredibly natural thing to be doing in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. You quickly learn to identify what is and isn’t important, and if you’re having difficulty there’s an incredibly useful perk that highlights items containing raw materials you’ve tagged in your HUD.
It helps a lot here that – again – the higher level weapon and power armour mods are really, really useful. Silencers and sniper mods are as overpowered as you’d expect, and are mostly locked behind level 4 of the Gun Nut perk; meanwhile a high Armourer skill lets you install a targeting system in your power armour helmet that highlights all “living” entities (this includes robots for some reason) in red, which is insanely good for night-fighting. Investing time in getting these mods onto your equipment feels like a good thing to be doing with a satisfying outcome.
Unfortunately I really can’t say the same for the settlement construction mechanic; this kind of ties into the crafting mechanic in that it revolves around using raw materials to construct buildings instead of weapons, and the idea is to provide food, water and beds so that people will come along and settle in your wonderful new town. This is a nice idea, but in execution it’s sorely lacking. My big problem with it is that the settlements don’t do anything. They just sit there, occasionally being attacked by raiders (which obliges you to drop what you’re doing to go defend the place that’s under attack) but otherwise having zero impact on your game or on the wasteland in general. Because this is a Bethesda game the settlements themselves are fairly puny – you won’t get a population of more than 10 without taking certain perks in the Charisma track – and have the same broken-down, ramshackle look as the rest of the world despite you having literally just built the buildings out of raw resources.
As a consequence the settlements are one area of the game that don’t feel satisfying to engage with at all. The truly baffling thing about them is that there’s a fair bit of effort that’s gone into the building mechanic for it; there’s a whole power system with switches and timers and so on that you could build into something fairly elaborate – that is, if you felt like dealing with the terrible building interface for several hours. Now, I do kind of understand why the settlement construction is in the game. There’s a significant portion of the playerbase who buys into Bethesda RPGs as virtual worlds and will really get a kick out of being able to build their own mini-villages even if they’re ultimately pointless in a mechanical sense, so their inclusion makes a broad amount of sense. For me, though, the settlements needed to have some tangible effect beyond spawning half a dozen settlers into existence where there were none before. Maybe you start getting patrols of militia wandering around; maybe shops have a better selection of goods or better prices thanks to the increased security and civilizing effect you’re having on the wasteland; or maybe you could tie it into a questline that’s a little more elaborate than the procedurally generated “Go to location X, kill monster Y, come back” quests that you do to clear the settlement locations in the first place. There’s at least a couple of dozen ways I can think of to make this side of things more appealing to people who burned out on Minecraft several years ago, and it’s really puzzling that none of them are actually in the game.
The rest of it is pretty much stock Bethesda, and if you’ve played Fallout 3 you’ll know what to expect. There’s one last minor plus point in that they actually managed factional endings to the game that branch somewhat in a mutually-exclusive fashion, similar to New Vegas, but this is cancelled out by the total dumbing down of conversation choices in Fallout 4 – apart from basic Charisma checks there are no dialogue-based skill/attribute checks anywhere in the game, and the actual dialogue has been condensed into a very bad implementation of the Mass Effect dialogue wheel where the one-word descriptions you’re given often bear little or no relation to what you character actually says. Oh, and your character actually says stuff this time; the player character is fully voiced, but the male voice actor’s delivery is on par with the notoriously awful hero dialogue from Ultima X.
So, is Fallout 4 a good game? I’d tend towards a pretty solid yes on that count. I tend not to invest 36 hours of my time into bad ones. Will it change your mind on Bethesda games? No, probably not. If you have a fundamental problem with the way they put their RPGs together than Fallout 4 might not be the game for you; if on the other hand you liked – or are merely just ambivalent about — their previous efforts then it’s possible Fallout 4 might be a worthy sink for your time. That is, just so long as you’re capable of that goal-setting I talked about earlier. I played until I’d perfected my character build within the confines of the systems the game provided and then made a beeline to the end. Your criteria may be different, but as long as you can set them, and as long as they’re not plot-related, you’ll probably have a lot of fun with it. Ultimately I think it’s pretty telling that I’ve spent my time here almost exclusively talking about Fallout 4’s mechanics; I don’t think it’s a game to enjoy for its writing or its world, but there is enjoyment to be had here nevertheless.
- As mentioned Skyrim has it handly beat on aesthetic and exploration, but the systems in that were super-shallow compared to Fallout 4. ↩