My relationship with Bethesda has been… a strange one. I guess you could say it all started about a year ago, with Skyrim. I was quite the straggler when it came to that title, I don’t suppose you could have called me a gamer upon its release way back when, and even in the following years my- in hindsight- arbitrary aversion to the fantasy genre meant that I couldn’t fully assimilate myself into that lusty, captivating universe until 2015.
It was, as they say, love at first sight. I don’t know exactly how to describe it… the feelings or the reasons why- you hardly ever do when it comes to infatuation- but I was taken. I don’t know… there was this ever present, palpable kind of love that was deeply sewn into the mechanical fabric of that game, from the spectral presentation of the skill trees to the silently significant readable storybooks scattered across the world. The apparent overarching fantasy tone had a kind of seamless translation from concept to reality which has now become a rare find in AAA climate. I know that’s not a very objective or analytical description, but it’s my most honest. This was the disc that launch’d a thousand plays, certainly.
Because of exams, or the difficult logistics of having to constantly switch between PS3 and my then newly purchased Xbox One, I only managed to sink about 60 hours into it. That’s not innately an indication that I became disillusioned with it, but, well, I did just stop after a while, a while which was relatively ephemeral compared to triple digit hour counters I hold on other titles. And, despite any reason I could give as to why exactly that is the case, a return is always opportune.
I kept going back to her, she was my one and only, but eventually- what was it, exactly? I suppose- the monotony settled in. As much as I’d like to see it differently now, once you’ve killed a handful of dragons, you’ve pretty much killed them all. Once you’ve raided 10 caves of Draugr, you’ve pretty much raided them all. Even the least analogous activities, like scrolling through particular books you procured in a venture eventually feel like you’re reading the same words again for the umpteenth time, regardless of whether you’ve read them even once. Conscious knowledge or enjoyment of doing these various activities in a sprawling world becomes a lot less nuanced than that with increasing familiarity. Slicing the head from a walking skeleton using a newly brandished blade I titled ‘Utter Vanquish’ inside a damp and dingy cave I happened to bounce up becomes beheading a draugr, becomes raiding a cave, becomes completing a quest, becomes simply playing Skyrim.
Maintenance of passion for these activities, and in turn the whole game, goes against an incline after an artificially accelerated familiarity through repetition and lack of nuance. There’s a difficult reconciliation you have to take when hitting the 50+ hour mark, at least in my opinion. Do you continue to stretch out this adventure you once loved, even though you can feel a swelling listlessness and fatigue in what it has to offer?
The love was gone. I couldn’t take it any more, the things I found attractive in her, the times we had together- stretched, stretched until it snapped. The love was poisoned. And I haven’t touched her since.
But it seems I see my ex lover Skyrim a lot these days. As much as it’s an authoritative statement to make, it is arguable that Bethesda set the industry-spanning gold standard for non-niche action RPGs in the late 2000 to early 2010 period. The formula was established if not expertly cultivated by Skyrim, apparent but less so in Oblivion. Skyrim being as seminal a title as it was has influenced countless AAA titles and series such as The Witcher, even smaller establishments such as loot mechanics were influential to Bethesda’s non RPGs such as Dishonoured and Wolfenstein. Skyrim’s commercial success, media presence and general popularity made it not only the gold standard for singleplayer action RPGs but for any AAA title. And, of course this spawned many subtle and more apparent iterations in the industry as a whole.
This makes Fallout 4 particularly interesting, as it is the direct successor to the gold standard which Fallout 3 helped to establish. This in and of itself holds a great bearing of expectation when playing but an even larger bearing is that of innovation- what can we expect of Fallout 4 when we have seen the leap from Fallout 2 to 3, of Oblivion to Skyrim, of any highly successful Bethesda singleplayer RPG to the next? Well…
Right- to begin I should list my credentials. I’m 70 hours deep with 35 XBL trophies amassing 68% total completion with the main story finished through the Minutemen ending. I’m also at level 47 with 99 total quests completed.
I’m gonna be honest- I’ve never touched Fallout 3. I know enough about it for relevant discussion but not enough to do a section on unique new features as a successor to that game. If I ever play it I might update this section to include just that.
Upgrading and and procuring weapons is one of the most motivating features of loot and raid gameplay. With the amount of looting you’ll be doing, which is a lot, most of it will be in mind of the new weapons crafting system, which allows for modifications (increasing amounts with the levelling of Gun Nut and Science! perks) of components such as barrels, sights, receivers and muzzles. There are simply too many weapons to assess individually, but speaking in the general sense most weapons have their own sense of identity and uniqueness, and no two weapons barring perhaps the single and double barrelled shotguns will be best used to quite the same purpose. It is impressive, and the potential of versatility when it comes to modification allows for an unparalleled kind of choice which I can’t say I’ve seen before in a AAA single player FPS. After level 20 or so I began to rely more heavily on the legendary weapons you can procure through legendary enemies or secret sections of the map. These offer varyingly significant advantages, ranging from 150% effectiveness on certain enemy types to a comparatively weak 15 points of damage through incendiary rounds. These are implemented fairly- the higher your difficulty setting, the more likely you are to bounce up a legendary enemy who would offer a legendary weapon or armour piece.
My one gripe with the system is that many of the game’s scripted encounters- the positioning and general AI programming of enemies- don’t allow for an exclusively or even largely melee approach to combat. Melee weapons seem to also be rarer and inherently less powerful than normal firearms. This is a shame, as Bethesda seem to have taken the time to implement a thorough melee weapon crafting system while simultaneously hindered the viability of a melee character. The melee weapon-firearm dynamic seems to be the inverse of Skyrim, where using ranged weapons was an acquired taste, it is now the case for hand to hand in Fallout 4. I also would have liked to see optional skins or decals for firearms, as implemented with power armours and selected melee weapons.
For the majority of my time playing this game I’ve been quite a bore- I’ve worn outfits exclusively. I don’t know- the option to garner a well-rounded set of individual armours seems beneficial but also cumbersome along with the maintenance of a very similar system of procuring and upgrading weapons. It was just one less job to do to wear outfits and it provided a generally more consistent look to my character. What’s pleasing is that all options are viable- individual armours, power armours and outfits. Power armour is highly customisable, and more buffed armour sets available encourages endless foraging. Something in the game that sticks out like a sore thumb, though, is that you procure your first power armour set, and heavy weapon (both for the chance to pummel your first deathclaw), roughly an hour into the game. This is an appealing effort, appealing to a mainstream audience who perhaps wouldn’t naturally persist towards these things lest they can experience them sooner. It’s ostensibly harmless, even fun, but in retrospect this instance is quite harmful to the pacing and progression of the entire game. It gives you less to strive for and less to wonder about the nature of- and adds to a very real problem of listlessness that I’ll later address.
The opening sequence of Fallout 4, despite it’s awkward pacing, is very well cared for, the small section of Sanctuary Hills in which you begin is meticulously rendered. Similarly, major cities of the wasteland have their own respective identities, Diamond City a prosperous, echeloned community with a deep fear of synths, and Goodneighbor the anarchistic enclave for ghouls and misfits, to name two.
What brings my opinion of the world down an awful lot is its wasteland- Fallout 4 is simply another contender in this long list of recent AAA games which boast dubiously large environments as selling points. It suffers from GTAVitits, in the sense that small areas with character are diluted with sheer, vast, infinite space. They become more sparse, however the sparsity doesn’t accentuate the excitement upon finding one of these cared for areas. Like Far Cry 4, any section of the basic land is indiscernible from any other, which does build a sense of monotony. And there is also this odd tonal dissonance when it comes to its wasteland theme- much of it is simply illogical.
A brief comparison between Fallout 4 and The Last of Us
A game that handled its post apocalyptic theme well is The Last of Us. Set 20 years after a world-shattering contaminate, it shows among the dwindling societies the dregs of humankind before, in artefacts such as letters and in the wordless stories linked objects can create. The world of The Last of Us is a beautiful wreckage, rife with uninhabited and echoing testaments to former society.
Fallout 4’s Boston is illogically intact for an apocalyptic cultivation 10x longer than our much more gritty Last of Us. There is a certain leniency you have to have in the Fallout series as a whole to maintain that suspension of disbelief: how likely is it that 200 years of raiders have not stumbled across this food, how come the story prefaces the lack of resources as a cause of anarchy amongst the Commonwealth even though there are lights all over this building, how come not a single person in this post apocalyptic society speaks anything other than English?
You can’t risk to ask yourselves these questions, the ones that weren’t even necessary for The Last of Us lest the tenuously serious tone that Fallout asserts be shattered. However, the illogically stable society in Fallout 4 makes the maintenance of leniency particularly hard.
I’m not a particularly dab hand when it comes to the new settlement system- but in an industry that has been so assimilated with sandbox adventurers a la Minecraft and Garry’s Mod as of late, the introduction of this settlement building mechanic will be a joy to many. It’s entirely optional but doesn’t feel as if it is due to its sheer expansiveness and long list of advantages. I’m extremely tempted to start a playthrough where I entirely focus on rejuvenating the Commonwealth’s economy through trading lines rather than go forth as a one man army as I have been. The drastically different style of play on offer boasts a versatility in experience for Fallout 4 that I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen before. It’s a real Sims-Battlefield-Bioshock hybrid. I only wish that the abundant advantages of this play style were shown to me before now, as if I had known sooner I certainly would have been more partial to it.
The Dialogue System
Crikey- shite- this is awful. I’ve tried to give it the benefit of the doubt for the system’s inherent aspiration to add a more narrative heavy approach (which I happen to like) to Fallout 4, but, Jesus, mate, if you’re gonna do it do it right.
It would be a lot better without the awkward glitches. Sometimes you’ll just have to restart entire conversations again because the person opposite you will decide to give you a never ending blank stare lest you take two steps back and re-approach them. There is simply no excuse, after almost a decade of potential development, as to why this is a problem.
It’s clearly an iteration on the Telltale boom that’s swept over AAA titles such as the underwhelmingly concluded Life is Strange (I tried to do a post on it but the ending was so insubstantial that it was even hard to articulate why I didn’t like it very much- there was simply so little to assess) and Telltale’s more mainstream efforts such as Tales From The Borderlands and their Game of Thrones series.
A brief comparison between Fallout 4 and The Walking Dead
Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us and their first season of The Walking Dead are two of the most captivating narratives that I’ve ever experienced in games, mainly because of their choice dynamic, an apt dialogue wheel being instrumental in this. Fallout 4’s wheel is anything but apt. There are many reasons for this, the first being that you’ll never have more than four choices to make, and almost every time you encounter an option to speak, one of those four selections is reserved for the ‘sarcastic’ option.
‘Sarcastic’. What does that even mean? It’s an adjective. There’s no referent. Sarcastic what? Sarcastic insult? Sarcastic agreement? Sarcastic nihilistic remark? WHAT IS SARCASTIC?
Prefaces for other dialogue choices aren’t great either, usually just two words are laid out to preface what it is you would say and that is simply not enough. The Walking Dead’s ‘I don’t trust you’ option is ‘To the point’ in Fallout 4, except there’s an inescapable tentativeness in choosing that option because you don’t know what the bloody point is that you’re getting to. It’s frustrating because you almost never receive enough information to make an informed dialogue decision, which holds more weight when certain decisions can dictate the balance of relationships with characters.
But what fails this Telltale iteration the most is the stark lack of an option to not say anything or to simply say no. In this sense Fallout has inherited some annoying qualities from Skyrim, you can never seem to easily refuse a quest which in turn means that it is stamped on your checklist indefinitely. A gradual build up of seemingly endless settlement quests becomes daunting to the sight, and it does imbue boredom. I would say that part of the reason for this poor dialogue system is that lines from our protagonists cost more now, but if that were the case then Bethesda should not be splashing cash so that Codsworth can say an arbitrarily high amount of input protagonist names during conversation.
Gunplay in Fallout 4 is rather solid, firearms have smooth and unique firing animations, and natural ADS technique is just as viable as the newly implemented slo-mo V.A.T.S system so it allows for diversity in opportunity. What impresses me the most, however, is Bethesda’s aptitude at creating formidable enemies. Jumpscares, both scripted and unscripted, are executed well through more gangly enemies such as ghouls and super mutants. It’s not P.T. tier eeriness but it’s more than what I expected from a AAA shooter.
Framerate has never really been a bugbear of mine, and I’m perfectly satisfied with the 30fps on offer. I also use an external 1TB hard drive with my Xbox One, so I may be at an advantage when it comes to framerate during play sessions. Often in combat sequences or in urban environments I will notice a staggering in framerate to the point where I had two hard crashes- certainly less frequent per hour than Skyrim but still present.
I must admit, I’ve not yet had that moment in which I’ll stop mid-venture to just soak up and observe the scenery. The graphics are neither conspicuously poor nor conspicuously impressive, but in all fairness, any Bethesda game has to make graphical concessions due to the expansiveness of the world. One thing that is conspicuous, however, is the remaining pervasiveness of loading screens. It’s not as bad as Skyrim but when major AAA titles such as Arkham Knight are able to boast entirely loadless playthroughs on console, it is ambiguous as to the necessity.
It is a noticeable issue, again, less so than Skyrim but still present. I don’t think it’s an indication of some kind of technical deficit at Bethesda, nor is it in itself an indication of a poor release (despite the reality), but simply evidence of the sacrifices Bethesda had to make to ensure the game did not buckle under it’s graphical prowess.
What is it with videogames and mouths? I swear the inside of every videogame character model mouth is a rubbery, dry, screeching void of pain. Particular characters in this game are quite poorly lip synced, however what is impressive is Bethesda’s seemingly universally working facial animations for protagonists, considering all the features and gender of that face is fully customisable. It’s odd, some characters such as Piper seem to be pleasantly but dissonantly well rendered. Is this evidence of an initial effort to have a smaller cast of more fleshed out, better voice acted characters, or just one of Fallout 4’s intermittent spurts where they hit the narrative par?
Our tale begins with some typical RPG orthodoxy, you sculpt your character to your taste and are then launched into a ludicrously fast paced pre-pocalypse opening section. I wouldn’t have a problem with the fast pacing were it not for the paramount importance of the section: the majority of our emotional attachment to our wife (/husband) and child has to be formed here, it can only be formed here. I think you have about one passing conversation with your wife about whether to settle into Vault 111 or not, and that is the extent of her(/his) character development. Their then imminent death is incredibly weak-hitting because of this. To compare to Naughty Dog’s brainchild once more, the crucial deliberation on Joel’s daughter in the opening sequences of The Last of Us shows us how a substantially longer initial development can really impact the inciting plot point shortly after. Fallout 4 has minimal deliberation on our characters, and so we are minimally invested in them even when the title’s narrative means that we eventually have to be. It’s very messy.
But the true orthodoxy is apparent afterwards, where you’ve woken up after a 200 year cryostasis period to avenge your wife(/husband)’s murder and son’s kidnapping. The following events see you return to your home, where, as you’d expect, everything’s amok. You’re then greeted by the Minutemen (always appreciate a good Watchmen reference), who through some means or another direct you towards Diamond City where you are acquainted with the likes of Piper and Nick Valentine, the two most outstanding supporting characters. Nick manages to track down Kellogg, a rogue institute agent who is confirmed as the man who shot your wife and kidnapped your son. You kill him, collect his… brain, enter a brain analysis pod (pretty indie, right?), progress through a restored memory sequence of Kellogg and through this find out how to infiltrate the Institute and rescue your son. From this point onwards player agency is more heavily exercised, you can choose to side with either the Minutemen, Brotherhood of Steel, the Railroad in order to dethrone the Institute, or you can end up siding with the Institute as you’ve now found out that your adult son is a kind of Institute despot.
This overarching narrative is troubled, it’s so heavily contingent on moral quandary in which faction to side with, but really, there is none. There are two obvious moral choices: the altruistic Minutemen and Railroad as opposed to the rather Orwellian Institute and the LARPing cringelords of the Brotherhood of Steel who strive for a totalitarian police state. There’s simply no moral incentive to side with either of those two latter factions save for the fact that the culty skrublord despot running things at the Institute happens to be your son, you know, that baby you knew for about a minute of screen time (can we talk about the fact that I had two white parents and my baby was straight up black? It’s not a problem… I’m not like that… I mean maybe it’s because the room wasn’t superbly lit but I mean my two parents were pretty white. It wasn’t like that 1/16th Cherokee kind of black either, like that baby was straight up African. Preston, I swear to God…). The Institute are proud of their explicitly Orwellian aim with no redeeming features, they outline no solutions to better the Commonwealth save for vaguely outlined medical research (which would probably never be fully distributed in a post-apocalyptic environment) and they leech off of valuable resources from above ground; they are an amoral and selfish organisation. Shaun is the only incentive to side with the Institute and acts as a kind of innate moral obligation to our protagonist, but this dynamic ultimately fails by portraying our Shaun as unsympathetic and our protagonist as little more than a medium for agency. The addition of voice acting and extremely narrow dialogue options creates a larger separation between player and protagonist than in any one of Bethesda’s recent titles, barring those with linear or semi-linear narratives like Wolfenstein. Because of this separation, the protagonist’s military background, his personality, even the inflection of his voice, they don’t feel like my own. And that includes Shaun.
So I leave my choice of siding with the Minutemen with no lingering questions rattling around, no what ifs. Each faction has their own respective logistical advantages, that is to say they each offer their own special goodies, but, Jesus Christ, any quests these factions have to offer that aren’t directly tied with the main quest are so shit-curdlingly woeful that if I have to go check out one more settlement in this game I will seduce Preston Garvey slowly and tactfully and then blow his brains out while he sleeps. Repetition upon repetition upon repetition of the same fetch/raid quests build a monotony to an extent that most of what you’ll do in Fallout 4 to level feels like a chore. It makes seriously being partial to any of these factions seem not viable or at least unattractive- I’ve done the same exact Minutemen quest 17 times over in different locations across the map with different interchangeable contexts and characters. The general longevity of AAA open world games is established by the developer assuring the player that completing quests or objectives will offer something worth emotionally investing in. In the case of The Witcher, minutes of cutscenes might be dedicated to the most minute of side-quests to reward the player for their exploration and levelling. These Destiny style rinse-quests are the cardinal sins of any open world AAA title, and are becoming more prevalent.
The protagonist isn’t in any way captivating, his or her most introspective or endearing lines are always no more than a passing sentence, and even then are optional. It is because of that shallowness that the main quest falls under itself due to its contingency on players being invested in the protagonists and his/her morals. What is pleasantly surprising, despite all this, is the fleshing out of supporting characters. Kellogg’s oddly well executed memory sequence is one of the few moments of Fallout 4’s narrative that displays moral complexity and a tangible reason for immorality. Similarly, the relationship system of Fallout 4 allows for DMCs with characters if persisted with over quests, which in themselves entail insight into characters’ own fears and personal weights, but may in turn lead to bond-establishing personal quests, rather than the Bioware method of a slow burning to cringey pixel sex.
Referring back to a comment I made about rewarding players for exploration, to many, the most memorable tales procured in these games are the unpredicted and unscripted ones that you make yourself. The majority of people will completely disregard the character’s arbitrary backstory to the protagonist as they prefer to craft their own identity as a fabled lone wolf or general of the Minutemen or expert-trader junk baron. In any experience of Fallout 4, what consists of the ‘main story’ is entirely subjective, but if you do choose to deviate from the narrative Bethesda has carved out for you, the heavy layers of quest-padding implemented means that the stories you end up making may be ones you’ve been told countless times already.
Fallout 4 is certainly not to Fallout 3 as Skyrim was to Oblivion, it’s not an epic effort of innovation to the series or even to Bethesda’s own golden formula, it’s simply an iteration on a standard set almost a decade ago. It’s not all bad, an iteration of something terrific can be itself terrific if not more than its influence. Even though it might be old, an RPG engine with such a level of interactivity that you can pick up a bottlecap off the ground is still impressive but with familiarity simply hits less sharply. And, when you’ve played the iterations of this framework and the seminal titles themselves for years now, diminishing returns are bound to take effect. The stark similarities between this game and those from the last decade are troubling- indicative of something that might be a creative or innovative deficit at Bethesda. It’s massive scope is- old, it’s countless quests are old- tired, it’s sprawling arsenals are old, tired- stretched. That’s not to undermine its status as a commercial and technical behemoth, an impressive and versatile one, but it is entirely possible for something to be simultaneously tremendous and tired nonetheless.
Is it worth buying?
Due to its sheer scope of playstyles, and in turn countless hours of potential playtime, yes.
Goethe’s 3 Questions
What is the creator trying to do?
Release an iteration of the Fallout 3 standard with a more mainstream-pandering approach to shooting.
Was the creator successful?
Yes, in an apt maintenence of Fallout lore and an establishment of a solid shooting mechanic that competes in the AAA market.
Was it worth creating?
Yes, as a testament to Bethesda’s aptitude for innovation, regardless of an apparent creative deficit.