Kieran: There once was a man with a loyal pet dog…
Other Students: That’s good!
Jacinta: But the well-meaning dog spread fleas wherever it went…
Other students: That’s bad.
Robert: So the man flea-treated his dog, leaving thousands upon thousands of tiny parasite corpses in his wake…
Other Students: That’s good!
Verity: Thereby enraging the dead fleas’ million relatives, inciting them to militarise and march on the man’s homeland with murderous intent…
Other Students: That’s bad.
[Continue ad infinitum]
At some point in my childhood – probably on a sugar-fueled primary school bus trip – this game etched itself on my memory. Was it a fun game? Not particularly, but I bet the bus driver preferred it to the raucous singing that would otherwise have taken place. The reason this story is being dredged up at all is that I’ve been sitting on a post about Fallout 4 for weeks now, but can’t manage to make it sound like I don’t think the game is rubbish. Having won a bunch of industry awards this is clearly not the case, so in the name of balanced feedback I’m going back to the drawing board with the above framework in mind. If eight-year-olds can manage to tell a story that covers the good and bad then so can I!
On a side note, if you’re a casual or hardcore Fallout player then I’d be keen to hear if my impressions match your experience at all.
Fallout 4’s retro-sci-fi inspiration is undeniably cool. Its stylistic influence is visible in everything from your hovering robotic companion, Codsworth, to the dilapidated vehicles that could have been lifted from The Jetsons.
In terms of Fallout 4’s landscape, Bethesda’s vast Wasteland is unrelenting in its desolation, and appropriately so given the nuclear disaster that befell it. Behind the decaying exterior, however, are more subtle glimpses of ’50s Modernism and futurism gone awry. Whether it was out in the wilderness, on a remote farmstead or in the heart of a ruined city, I found myself being reminded again and again of the level of care that went in to crafting such a consistent vision.
20 hours of Wasteland exploration has yet to reveal any locations of traditional beauty. The total lack of verdant foliage makes me regret the nuclear blast far more than even the most emotive plot points. There is still the occasional vista that causes me to stop and reach for the Share button, but Fallout 4’s landscape is naturally much more in keeping with that of Middle-Earth: Shadow Of Mordor than Skyrim, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Far Cry 4 or Destiny. The latter games provide evidence of how amazing fictional worlds can look on modern consoles, though they do have the advantage of trees with leaves still attached so perhaps it’s an unfair comparison.
Bethesda has tailored the way in which you interact with Fallout 4’s digital world for maximum immersive impact. The player is free to choose their preferred perspective from first person or third person view and switch between them at any time with the press of a button. If you enjoy seeing your character running amok in all their scavenged garb then third person is the way to go. If on the other hand you like being in their shoes and seeing through their eyes then first person view will feel much more engrossing. Giving the player these options is a considerate touch and one that I appreciated. Perhaps the biggest call the developers made – and one that has been a mainstay of the Fallout series – is using the iconic Pip-Boy to present all the important RPG data you need to survive and thrive in the Wasteland. On a conceptual level, I think that seeing your character access their maps and quest notes on screen is brilliant, but…
…the Pip-Boy’s operation is unwieldy to say the least. I’m not suggesting I could design a better interface that functions on a small, clunky (no touch screens in this alternative future), DOS-powered device, but there must be a clearer or more intuitive way to navigate the layers of data. I’ve found that wrestling with the Pip-Boy in order to organise my gear or review quests breaks my sense of immersion in the game rather than reinforcing it. Long-time Fallout players may decry the idea, but switching to a full screen display the same way you do when selecting Perk upgrades could make managing all the weapons, armour and random stuff accumulated on my journey far more pleasant and get me back into the actual game faster. I once heard someone describe Dragon Age: Inquisition as an Inventory Management Simulator, and Fallout 4 takes things at least one step further. Just see for yourself:
The huge variety of perks and specialist gear on offer in Fallout 4 makes for great freedom of play style. The ability to spec your character and equipment to support common builds such as stealth or tank, or less common builds such as the Hannibal Lector (max intelligence, max perception and health regeneration with cannibalism!) has to be one of the game’s greatest strengths. I see this depth and complexity as a double-edged sword: done well it could lead to hundreds of extra hours of repeat gameplay as new strategies are forged and refined; done badly it could create a stumbling block that keeps the number of hours played in double or even single digits and sees the player passing Fallout off in favour of Rocket League.
Sadly, the level of introduction this aspect of the game receives is limited. There is a brief description of the seven S.P.E.C.I.A.L ability trees when you spend your initial character points, and more thorough explanatory videos that play each time you start the game. If like me you purchase a disk version of Fallout 4 you also get this pretty [useless] chart:
Looks great… but tells you almost nothing about how to plan your character build in order to achieve your goals. The ‘Condensed Edition’ manual is simply a button layout diagram followed by pages of advertising for Dishonored 2, Doom and The Elder Scrolls Online. As I mentioned earlier I’m a newcomer to the Fallout franchise, but even with a good deal of gaming background to fall back on the initial perk selection process felt more like guesswork than strategising. And it’s nice that upon leaving Vault-111 you’re given the chance to re-spec your character before continuing, but without a little more guidance as to how the perk tree functions (or maybe some suggested upgrade paths based on standard RPG builds?) this feels like a empty gesture.
Equally poorly introduced is the Settlement development toolkit. Within the first few of hours of storyline you are tasked with establishing your own little colony of apocalypse survivors. This involves clearing debris, building dwellings, creating infrastructure, planting food and assigning people jobs. The tasks I just covered in one sentence of 14 words form the first Settlement quest, and required a combination of trawling YouTube and tedious in-game trial and error to complete to a basic standard. For the most part I’m happy for developers to steer clear of tutorials and let the player discover a game’s more advanced mechanics for themselves, but not when the system runs about as smoothly as the century-old abandoned vehicles lying strewn across the landscape.
If Settlement development is going to be a core element of the Fallout 4 experience as opposed to advanced or end game content, then shouldn’t it be made as functional and accessible as possible. Given that the Pip-Boy has already scuttled any ongoing sense of immersion perhaps a Sim City style God-view would smooth things out and make for a more satisfying Settlement creation process?
I bought Fallout 4 based on the pre-release promise of near-endless weapon modification options. Destiny offers RNG weapon perks, Fallout 4 has DIY; that was the hook, and I was willing to fork out $60 for the experience.
Firstly, it turns out that you need to be Level 13 to access the Rank 2 Gun Nut perk that unlocks the first batch of really exciting weapon modifications. Oh, and you’ll probably need Rank 2 Science as well. If you’re hoping to have a cool melee weapon then you’ll need to be at least a Rank 2 Blacksmith, and good luck achieving all of these this within the first dozen hours of play after you ignorantly put all your character points into Charisma. Is it fair for the exciting modding perks to be Level-walled like this? I suppose so. If Bethesda intend for them to be mid-game advancements then who am I to complain that they aren’t available earlier. Bethesda have got a slightly more illustrious game development history than I do after all.
What I will complain about though is the tiny little item that has brought me to return Fallout 4 to its case for good. Adhesive. If you’re still reading this then you probably know that almost everything in the game can be collected and broken down into crafting ingredients. The primary ingredient in short supply and high demand for any kind of weapon or armour crafting? Adhesive. At the 20 hour mark I assessed my nice little collection of custom weapons and came to the sudden realisation that I’m tired of questing for an hour or more for the sake of XP and a couple of sticks of glue with which to make my next reflex sight. If I want a Marksman’s stock for the sniper rifle I just scavenged that’ll be another 4 or 6 or 8 or 20 units of adhesive. It could be 200 for all it matters. There are too many other great games out there for me to spend another 20 hours grinding or farming for adhesive and nuclear materials with which to make my dream sci-fi firearm*. Were this the only case of THAT’S BAD in Fallout 4 then my character would be at Level 40 by now and I’d probably have stumbled across enough adhesive for a couple of fully modded weapons, but as it is I just can’t be bothered.
Signing off from a $60 game after just 20 hours… That’s bad.
*”But this isn’t just a game about crafting guns!” I hear you say. Here’s an excerpt from the abandoned article that seemed way too negative but may provide a broader perspective: