Although I’ve not currently reviewed any other Fallout games, Bethesda’s long-running sci-fi series is one which fascinates me. These days it occupies a kind of double-bill space alongside The Elder Scrolls in the pantheon of major RPGs; it’s basically the post-apocalyptic, gun-toting equivalent, after all, right down to the everlong release schedule and the myriad bugs. And yet, they’re still easy to love, and engaging, and always a highlight of the calendar when new ones drop. Oh, also just like The Elder Scrolls, I’m a Fallout zoomer – I know the original titles are held in terribly high regard, but I’ve never tried them. As of yet, I’m strictly a modern Fallout fan; I’ve played 3 and New Vegas, and enjoyed them both, so I was certainly feeling ready and raring to go when I first downloaded Fallout 4.
That was a couple of years ago. In the intervening time, I’ve tried to play and progress in 4 over the course of 3 or 4 playthroughs. Unique among the modern Fallout games for me, 4 is the one I’ve found with the most roadblocks for me. But why? What exactly does it do so differently, or wrongly, compared to its illustrious precursors?
Fallout 4 (PC, PS4 [reviewed], PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
Released Nov 2015 | Developed / Published: Bethesda
Genre: RPG | HLTB: 27 hours
We’re playing an RPG, so let’s start with the story. I actually think Fallout 4 has one of the finest openings I’ve played in a game for a long while. We begin before the bombs, creating not one but two characters: a pair of loving parents who’ve recently welcomed their first child, their son Shaun, into the world. Their house in sunny Sanctuary Hills overlooks the bustling town of Concord; inside their lives are bright and beautifully decorated, punctuated by the whirring hustle of their robotic housekeeper Codsworth and the gentle cries of Shaun. A Vault-Tec salesman wanders from door-to-door trying to convince locals to sign up to the local shelter, Vault 111; navigating the conversation is our first introduction to the gameplay of Fallout 4 in characteristic CRPG fashion.
But all good things must come to an end, and in the world of Fallout there’s only one way it can happen. As the sirens begin to blare, you and your partner hurriedly grab your baby and run for the hills behind Sanctuary where, set deep into the peak, is the great steel and concrete elevator to Vault 111. Around you, neighbours are in turn funneled into the Vault or forced away at gunpoint; seeing the Vault-Tec salesman engaging in a panicked argument with the guards before being shoved aside adds a cold twist of inhumanity to the rush. Just as the elevator descends, the last sight of your home is the white-hot tower of fire of a nuclear bomb exploding, and the oncoming rush of air that barrels towards you as you slip beneath the ground.
Any longtime fan of the franchise will know that for our protagonists, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Vault-Tec are well known for their proclivity towards human experimentation, and the isolated Vaults set deep in the Earth’s crust gave them free, unfettered control over the lives of their subjects. Our oblivious couple find themselves guided into pods and before they can react, the Vault-Tec scientists engage a cryogenic preservation process, freezing them in time. When we next awake, it’s to a harrowing sight. Sealed in our pod, we can only watch on in horror as some unknown assailants unfreeze our partner, wrench baby Shaun from their grasp, and cruelly murder them. With the screaming Shaun in their possession, they take their leave, but not before a chilling comment about retaining “the spare” with a sneering glance at you. Before you can force your way out of your pod, the cryogenics are re-engaged and you fall once again into the icy grip of sleep.
The second time we come to is when the game finally passes control over to its player. We collapse from our pod, pitching down onto the floor beside the long-dead corpse of our partner. The rest of the pods have failed, leaving us surrounded by the frozen bodies of Sancutary’s denizens, and the rest of the Vault lies in uneasy silence, its scientists and guards all dead. With a grinding roar, the great door to Vault 111 unseals and we can take our first steps out into the blasted wasteland of what was once our home.
It’s after all this that things start to go downhill. We start the game with a great premise; a stranger in a now-unfamiliar Boston, we set out into the wasteland with the singular goal of finding our stolen son. It’s a solemn, strong driver for the plot; with nothing left to hang onto, our displaced parent-in-time focuses on the one remaining facet of their life. The problems start soon after. The sharpest among you might well be hearing the warning bell start to ring; this is an open-world RPG and in the grand Bethesda tradition it prides itself in giving as much freedom to the player as possible. This leads us into a significant piece of ludonarrative dissonance; there’s no good reason for our character, regardless of how we decide to play them, to ignore the issue of their child. And yet the game lets us put that on the back burner, treating it with all the urgency or worry of a missing item off a grocery list. The plot point of a parent having kid problems is a very “in” narrative in the modern gaming landscape – consider Joel in The Last of Us, for example, or Kratos in the later God of War titles – but you’ll note the difference there is that these are linear narrative-driven games that force the character development and plot movement along fairly easily-controlled lines. Fallout 4 fails its players and its story by treating it as just another quest, cheaply ignored in the need for ludic freedom and in doing so robs it of all its power.
And yet, despite this push for player freedom I still had significant moments of feeling completely constrained by the story, with events spiraling out of my control. There are four factions that vie for your loyalty in the Commonwealth – the Minutemen, who attempt to rebuild settlements and form a protective alliance of soldiers across them, the Railroad, an underground organization dedicated to rescuing synthetic AI-fuelled humanoids, the Brotherhood of Steel, a Fallout staple order of paladin-clerics that gather powerful technology and act as a marauding sometimes-tyrannical sometimes-militarily benevolent government, and the mysterious Institute, a group spoken of in hushed and feared tones, infamous for their reported human abductions and commitment to developing synths to seed throughout the Commonwealth population. Each of these has a main quest specific to them, and during the course of a regular playthrough you’re likely to see at least some of each of these quests. Thing is, when I played the game I accidentally made a dialogue choice that seemed to all but lock me into following the questline of a faction I really, really wanted to avoid helping. While it was fixable, at the time it certainly felt inevitable, and that took a lot of the spark out of the playthrough for a long time.
A lot of what’s wrong with Fallout 4 is exacerbated by the dialogue system implemented here. The previous 3D games used a very traditional RPG dialogue system in which you chose responses from a drop-down menu. These were often augmented by your stats, such as high Science or low Intelligence scores, which could often result in unique interactions; this was especially true of Charisma, which always opened up tons of options to charm your way around combat or to sweet-talk your way into new situations. Fallout 4 does away with all of this. Instead it has a system that resembles Mass Effect of all things, with a limited selection of voiced responses. Each time you talk to an NPC you get just 4 options that pop up. These almost always follow a generic pattern: one is a generic affirmative response, another a milquetoast negative, a third slot typically kept clear for queries of “more information please”, and the last is often a sarcastic retort or a neutral, non-committal statement. All of these are presented with just one or a few short words description to give you a broad impression of the kind of reply you’re going to give, but it’s never the reply in full so you won’t know exactly what you’re going to say.
This simplification is because of the commitment to the full voice-acting in the game since, for the first time in Fallout, we don’t play a silent protagonist. The changes to the levelling and perks system also means that we no longer get many chances to use our skills in dialogue, and when they are they’re typically just labelled “science” with no explanation of what that response might entail. Even the charisma options are nerfed, reduced to a traffic light colour coding to indicate the vague chance your response will work. All of this constitutes a major blow to the roleplaying in this game; we barely get to shape the Sole Survivor’s personality. Regrettably, it’s also not the only way in which Fallout 4 seeks to reduce roleplaying options from the player’s hands.
Leveling up is now entirely perk-based. Each time you level up you get a point per level to put into either your primary skills (strength, intelligence, charisma, etc) or you can buy a level in a perk. The higher your level in your core values, the more perks which unlock in a kind of perk-tree. Perks are also often locked behind requirements before you can purchase it, whether that’s the base amount of its related core stat that you need or if it’s a simple level gate. The majority of these perks should be familiar to any modern Fallout fan, with lots offering a range of mostly functional upgrades to your character, such as increasing your toughness or improving your damage with a specific weapon class. Naturally, some are very “Fallout” in nature, like the long-recurring trait “Lead Belly” which allows you to reduce the radiation damage caused by ingesting the wasteland’s food and water.
While you can plan what you want, none of it feels like it adds to your roleplaying in a meaningful social or personal sense. What I mean by that is that the perks are functional to the gameplay of Fallout 4; because the dialogue system has been stripped back, the charisma perks are typically less interested in manipulating your conversations, for example, and instead the highest levels just improve things like the prices set by merchants or making traders start visiting your settlements. I found that my normal pattern of going hard into charisma and science fell to the wayside, supplanted by a need to stuff points into perks that let me fix and modify my guns and armour, or build more structures in my homesteads. The end result is a system which all feels very perfunctory, rather than supplementing and informing the process of role-playing.
Settlements are a new, major part of the game. In some respects I think Fallout 4 deserves a lot of praise for an imaginative response to a minor problem that plagued 3 and New Vegas: namely that the games are stuffed to the gills with junk items that have zero purpose. In 4 though it’s finally worth hoovering up all the coffee cups and discarded pre-war money you come across in the wasteland because once you’re at a friendly settlement you can dive into the game’s construction mode and convert your junk to usable resources for building things. Building settlements is fairly comprehensive and you could be forgiven for thinking this is the game’s primary mechanic. Friendly settlements, such as your hometown of Sanctuary which becomes, well, sanctuary, to a small group of rescued wastelanders in the beginning of the game, all come with a range of needs to fulfill and which can only be done so by engaging with the game’s construction tools. While in build mode you can scrap nearly everything around you, stripping the world to bare ground and accruing tons of resources which can in turn be spent on making shelters, furniture and decorations for the local populace. You’ll need to ensure they’ve got enough pure water to go around, not to mention sourcing food to turn into growable crops for them to stave off hunger – and you’ll even be prompted to build defenses for the town in order to avoid them being attacked and overrun by raiders and super mutants.
It’s pretty overwhelming at first, and the game isn’t entirely clear that engaging with all this isn’t quite as desperately important as it makes it out to be although you’ll often be directed to personally defend struggling settlements if you don’t at least make a token effort to build some turrets and pop some settlers on guard duty. By the end of the game I did find that I was at least getting the hang of it a bit, and tried to improve my primary HQ (an old coastline fort) but it largely felt like a lot of busywork for uncertain gain; also I’m crap at planning out where things should go and how things should look and there’s something distinctly unsatisfying about doing all this work only to end up with a ramshackle mess.
I feel like I’ve whinged a lot so let me flip the script and say that the core gameplay is where Fallout 4 does at least genuinely shine. Partly that’s because it’s llargely lifted from the previous two games, so any fans of those know roughly what we’re in for. It’s an RPG played by default in first person so there’s a lot of FPS stuff mixed in as well but historically the gunplay in Fallout has been a bit wonky. Here though it’s taken cues from proper shooters, and as a result the guns actually feel good instead of the functional-but-clunky combat in 3.
There’s a lot of focus on modding and crafting your own weapons to suit your playstyle; I found that once I got a decent sight on a laser musket and had a good sniper rifle in my hands I was very much at home in the Commonwealth. The weapon modding uses the same construction material as the settlement building, including the ability to tag what missing elements you need for a certain upgrade, causing them to be marked whenever you come across them in the world which in turn makes scouring ruins a lot easier.
The franchise’s trademark VATS system also makes another return, and it works identically to its previous appearances. When you press the VATS button time slows to a crawl and you get to aim your shots at specific body parts of your foes, with hit percentages displayed next to each bit. Each shot you cue up expends AP and once you’re out of that your character begins to fire off their shots, with each impact recorded in glorious slow-mo. Given that the game isn’t really a fully-realised FPS under the hood, the VATS system is a very welcome addition to your arsenal, giving you the chance to compensate if you’re not very adept at aiming in real-time (yes, like me).
Despite the good stuff – and make no mistake, some of Fallout 4 is good, else I don’t think I’d have persevered with it – the overriding thoughts that I was left with after finishing my chosen main quest was one of exhausted disappointment. It felt like such an empty victory; not only had I had to deal with the emotional whiplash of feeling like I’d buggered up my playthrough for so long, but also the sheer absence of any worthwhile role-playing elements was significant and frustrating. I assume the excision of the majority of Fallout 4’s role-playing was part of Bethesda’s ongoing push to make their once-dense games more appealing to the console crowd, but I think they’ve missed the point a lot with it, or at the very least grossly underestimated their audience. While console versions of franchises that were once PC-exclusive do need some paring down, it most cases it’s understood that is in relation to their menu-heavy design, but Bethesda seem to consistently misunderstand the assignment and the result winds up as what Fallout 4 is. Mechanically it’s got some sound points, but without any satisfying role-playing elements it’s a vapid wasteland.
3/7 – MEDIOCRE.
A game that makes you go, “Well, it’s alright…” but it’s a kind of drawn-out, unsure, and reluctant decision? These are those games. Might just be worth playing if you can get it on the cheap.