I almost never buy games DAY ONE, let alone for full price. Yet Bethesda’s ad campaign for Fallout 4 was so relentless, so clever, so fanservice, that I found myself bewitched by the hype, making my first gaming-related impulse purchase since the release of Total War: Shogun 2 in 2011. From Fallout Shelter to the Live Action Trailer to the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. video series, Bethesda ensured that the gaming industry braced itself because Fallout was coming. Predictably, the question is if Fallout 4 lives up to the hype.
You engage in some casual narcissism in the mirror when your spouse interjects themselves to interrupt your “mirror-hogging.” Shortly after an exchange of sweet nothings and a possible visit to the crib of your infant son, Shaun, a representative for Vault-Tec appears at your door to recruit you to Vault 111—in the event of a nuclear holocaust, of course. Whether or not you cooperate does not change the fact that shortly after this exchange, the sirens sound off. Your spouse grabs the baby as you all evacuate your house and head toward the vault, even bypassing a military checkpoint where the same Vault-Tec salesman who had stopped by earlier is denied entry. A vertibird lands just north of its military post, facing the entrance to the vault in question. You arrive just in time: a blinding flash and a mushroom cloud to the southwest is followed by a shockwave of doom that you narrowly dodge as Vault 111’s elevator descends into the depths below.
After being greeted by the Vault-Tec staff at the base of the elevator, you are instructed to step into the decontamination chambers after being given a trademark Vault-Tec jumpsuit to wear. You step into the vertical apparatus across from your spouse, and as the chamber activates after the door closes, you drift off to sleep…
…and awaken to witness two unknown characters open your spouse’s chamber, murder them, and kidnap Shaun. One of the marauders looks into your chamber and calls you “the backup,” and you drift back to sleep…
…and awaken once more, but this time, your chamber door opens, and you sprawl onto the floor in a coughing fit while coming to the realization that you are the Sole Survivor of Vault 111, frozen in suspended animation for a length of time unknown. You make your way through the Vault and collect a relic of technology, a working Pip-Boy, from the skeleton of a Vault-Tec doctor, and use it to unlock the vault door to the elevator where you embark on a journey to find your son’s kidnapper and spouse’s executor.
Violence: There is no shame to Fallout 4’s game; decapitations and dismemberments are frequent in the Commonwealth. One perk, Bloody Mess, ensures that most deaths end with head, arms, and legs fly in different directions even when a bullet from a 10mm pistol lands in the chest of the intended. Caverns are littered with half or fully decomposed cadavers, and in raider and super mutant camps, some of these bodies are displayed as trophies, food, and/or deterrents for outsiders.
The violence here is no different from any other Fallout game, nor it is it any less macabre.
Alcohol/Drug Use: No other franchise in the entire gaming industry encourages the usage of drugs more than Fallout. Perks such as Chem Resistant and Party Boy exist to nullify negative consequences such as addiction as well as intensifying the positive effects and durations of their benefits. Alcohol is more abundant than clean water, as are the staples Buffout (steroids), Jet (speed), and Mentats. There is a reason for their inexhaustibleness: Fallout 4 introduces the chemistry set, allowing the Sole Survivor to combine chems and gain multiple effects while enhancing them. Given the workings of the new character building system Fallout 4, it is strongly discouraged to play “straight arrow.” After all, two companions “like” when the Sole Survivor uses chems. Having rolled a character with 3 strength and 1 charisma, I found myself constantly popping Buffout and Berry Mentats to account for my Sole Survivor’s deficiencies.
Sex: While it is possible to romance a companion after performing many, many actions that they “like,” this is the first Fallout game where, after 80+ hours of play, I have not encountered any slavers (the The Pitt DLC for Fallout 3 suggests that slaves are generally used for labor, but I say pay closer attention the the role of women in Caesar’s Legion in New Vegas for their real purpose), nor did I even encounter a sexual favor in exchange for pay or a good deed done. The most chequered companion, Cait, is more likely to drink the Sole Survivor under the table or rough them up in a fist fight than sex them up. Fallout 4 is remarkably clean in regards to sex for an M-rated game in 2015, and that is refreshing.
Then again, the game is huge, so I could have missed something. Besides, I failed every attempt at flirting with my low charisma.
Language: The full might of all that is perverse in the English language is shall be unleashed upon thine ears while playing Fallout 4, as there is no filter. Raiders are particularly crude.
Spiritual Content: The Church of the Children of Atom, a cult that worships high concentrations of radiation as signs of blessings and observes the Great War of 2077 as a miracle rather than the annihilation of human civilization, returns to Fallout 4 while making a prominent cameo in the main story. Additionally, a generic chapel sits at the entrance of Diamond City, a major town. There, patrons are encouraged to pray to whatever or whomever they choose.
Fans of Fallout 3 and New Vegas may as well skip down a paragraph because Fallout 4 is such an intentionally iterative game that there is little distinguishing it from its predecessors let alone its competition. The only exclusive gameplay feature that differentiates it from any other FPS or TPS is the return of the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System, fondly known as V.A.T.S., allowing players to “pause” the action and aim for specific target points on enemies: heads, arms, legs, torsos, abdomens, stingers, wings, and so on. One minor change from previous Fallout games is that V.A.T.S. no longer completely freezes the action while the Sole Survivor takes aim, but instead renders everything in a kind of slow motion that should not be confused with “bullet time” in games like Max Payne; enemies can still inflict damage while V.A.T.S. is activated, sometimes making for some embarrassing deaths.
Fans of traditional shooters will be pleased to discover that usage of V.A.T.S. is no longer obligatory, for real-time gunplay has been vastly improved. The physical mechanics of aiming, reloading, shooting, or chucking in the case of grenades, feels more natural, more satisfying. I would go as far to say that Fallout 4 favors Rage in its progressive state of gunplay. It is possible that after Bethesda published New Vegas in 2010, Rage in 2011, and Wolfenstein: New Order in 2014, the company took note of how shooters had evolved, and stepped up its game.
Scavengers should rejoice, as the least subtle addition to Fallout 4 includes its scrapping, building, and customization system. I have already covered the chemistry set in the Content Warning section, but it is also possible to construct settlements, cook stat-enhancing foods, modify (power)armor, and customize weapons—the latter of which I sunk the majority of my time among these new features. Admittedly, I constructed the bare minimum to get the first settlement of Sanctuary up and running, and did not touch it again until the main story required me to do so. Survivor-type games like Minecraft and DayZ are all the rage these days, and fans who like to play Fallout on ultra hardcore mode (requiring food, rest, and water to survive in-game) will soil their pants with glee, but I am thoroughly disinterested in gathering enough materials in trash and debris to become an architect or civil engineer in a post-apocalyptic virtual world. Neither did I touch the armor workbench because every time I tried to add an armor piece to my outfit, my character would strip down to their underwear with only that armor piece on. I also used power armor sparingly.
I desired to one-shot everything in the face, so I favored damage and crit over accuracy and range and preferred rifles over any other weapon. Through the weapons workbench, I was intent on reprising the prototypical “sniper” character. Unfortunately for me and any other unsuspecting players, many of the modifications or builds to anything are locked behind a “perks paywall.”
I am quite torn in regards to the new character development system. On one hand, its simplification makes it easier for anyone to map his or her build trajectory through the categorization of perks under each S.P.E.C.I.A.L (strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, luck) column. On the other hand, the more complex secondary skills, such as speech, guns, or melee are “hidden” behind other perks or unlocked by collecting comic books throughout the Commonwealth. Skill points are completely gone, which means that rolling with a character with 1 charisma but a 50+ speech and still be a smooth talker is now impossible possible. Thus, intelligence no longer affects the number of skill points gained per level, but instead, how much experience is gained for completing tasks; the more intelligence, the faster one can level up. That is not as exciting as intelligence checks during conversations for roleplay purposes.
Points for the initial build are severely limited. I rolled a character with 3 strength, so I could only carry about 130 lbs. It would take me no time at all to surpass my weight limit, frustrating me in the fact that I needed to keep a healthy selection of salvage for weapons and who-knows-what-else, yet I became encumbered too frequently. On the other hand, I rolled a 6-7 in luck and took the Mysterious Stranger perk for the first time, and had a riot whenever he showed up to one-shot a boss or legendary enemy. Once, the Mysterious Stranger hung around so I could talk to him. He called himself Preston Garvey, and I told him that he was not Preston because I *KNEW* Preston. He replied “Uh-oh!” and ran away. That alone was worth a point in the perk!
But alas, though some may consider the simplification of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L./perks tree a “quality of life” change, Fallout 4 is paralyzingly limited in its impression as an RPG in ways similar to how EA oversimplified the monstrous inventory from Mass Effect to Mass Effect 2. The suppression of RPG elements in Fallout 4 is most strongly represented through how just about everything in the Commonwealth is hostile. I remember playing through Fallout 1 and 2 by rolling a character with an intelligence of 9 and being able to beat the game without ever lifting my gun by simply outsmarting everyone, final bosses included. I continue to be disappointed in the modern Fallout games that almost any conflict is resolved through violence. So much for roleplay….
The problem of having to kill just about everything to make progress in Fallout 4 is exacerbated by the fact that there are practically zero new enemies. Zero. A couple of boss fights present unique combatants, but they can appear upwards of dozens of hours apart! Bethesda tries to mitigate the monotony of everything-outside-of-cities-(and-sometimes-even-there)-wants-to-kill-you by producing derivative foes whose difficulty can be determined by a suffix. By hour 10, a simple raider scales to “ravaging raider” or some similar Diabloesque modified duplication.
All I know is that I have taken five levels of the Rifleman perk and I should not have to empty several clips from my assault rifle into this Glowing One’s face. How can a head carry that much lead? In other encounters with my silenced 10mm pistol, I regularly score non-lethal headshots on raiders while sneaking, resulting in a fight that should have never taken place. Taking more levels of the Sneak perk does not make me any more visibly camouflage, but instead “codes” enemies to have short attention spans when I switch from my 10mm pistol to an assault rifle for “stealthy” operations. Enemies hear a gunshot and practically trip over their dead commrade who is in two pieces and a few dozen seconds later, forget that anything happened. Immersion fail.
I do not care if some enemies are legendary; taking down bullet sponges is never, ever exciting. Bethesda should have learned this from Borderlands. Speaking of legendary enemies, they are interesting in theory, but after killing the 15th one that dropped a piece of armor that I cannot use, I stopped being excited when I found one. The weapon to armor drop rate seems to be 1:10. Bethesda must have stolen the RNG code from the Real Money Auction House era of Diablo III rather than the Reaper of Souls edition.
Finally, the ability to explore may arguably fall under the “Presentation” category for any other game, but in Fallout, using the compass to search for or stumble upon new map markers is a core game feature. Unfortunately, as every tenth hour passed, my excitement for discovering new locations bestowed diminishing returns. After finding perhaps a comic book or magazine, fusion core, or power armor frame in the umpteenth “dungeon” (in modern Fallout, this could be a sewer, cavern, factory, or house), new locations began to annoy me as my quest log expanded to impossible lengths. These are not the kind of world-building, zoetic side quests found in The Witcher 3, but instead, they are almost always filler. Bethesda even phones in its “filler” by including a picture of Vault Boy with a thumbs-up to represent them rather than a custom animation. There is also a “misc” quest category for various fetch quests. How much more banal can side quests be?
Unmarked locations still provide that jolt of wonder and anticipation as if finding an easter egg. In one instance, I happened to have the companion Cait following me when I found an old bank with something close close to 30 intact safes that all required lockpicking; she adored me by the time we left, and I was satisfied by my pocketfuls of practically useless pre-war money and gold bars.
The opening five hours of Fallout 4 are phenomenal. Players are treated to a brief but endearing portrayal of daily life in the pre-war commonwealth and find themselves rushed urgently to Vault 111 among other panicked citizens, producing a kind of anticipation. The descent into the vault itself generates an appropriate degree of cynicism: those don’t look like decontamination chambers…what is Valut-Tec really up to? Exiting the vault serves as an adequate tutorial without disrupting what appears to be carefully crafted pacing. If players then directly follow the first few quests up to “When Freedom Calls,” they will be introduced to Fallout 4‘s first companion, Dogmeat, participate in their first firefight between raiders and the Minutemen, acquire their first suit of power armor and minigun, be prompted to leap from the top of a building to the ground without accruing damage, and slay their first deathclaw.
The buildup to the early deathclaw duel is outstanding scripting and setpiece showcasing. When all is said and done, the player should have all that was mentioned in the previous paragraph plus one of the few new weapons to Fallout, a laser musket. Tragically, Fallout 4 falls-apart from here.
Combined with the abatement of RPG elements, the game’s trademark unwillingness to goad the player to proceed in any particular direction utterly annihilates any exigency that the driving force of the story—finding Shaun and/or avenging the murder of the Sole Survivor’s spouse—establishes in Fallout 4‘s opening hours. After the Minutemen find themselves in Sanctuary, the walking distance from Concord to Diamond City is considerable enough to get lost while traveling to all the locations in-between, as is the next major city that requires visiting. 30+ hours of game time can easily pass easily before the player might be compelled to pick up the main quest again, and by then, it’s just silly to see the Sole Survivor get all worked up about the tragedy that sparked the adventure. Shaun is out there somewhere but who cares; I can collect a wardrobe of power armors, an arsenal of fat men!
Perhaps Bethesda realized though the production of Fallout 4 that they should just stick to creating engines and locations to explore, leaving story writing to the more skilled such as Obsidian Entertainment (New Vegas), because the plot of Fallout 4 is by far the worst feature of the game. Once the cheap “big reveal” takes place, the Sole Survivor is left with choosing between factions that vaguely establish why they should be picked over the others, and are therefore arbitrarily antagonistic toward each other because…reasons. I would even go so far to say that Fallout 4’s primary ideological interest is plagiarized! I’ll put it like this: I found the idea of Johnny 5 being “alive” in Short Circuit (1986) ridiculous as a kid, and my reasoning remains unchanged after Blade Runner, The Terminator, Ghost in the Shell, I, Robot, and especially Mass Effect 3 when I sided with the Geth to take back Rannoch even after its meticulous (and cool) “inside the ‘brains’ of the Geth” mission. Call me cognitively dissonant, but I imagine that even the sympathizers of the “artificial intelligence has a right to ‘live'” argument will roll their eyes at how impotently Fallout 4 presents its stakes in the ongoing sci-fi discourse. Plainly stated, the plot in Fallout 4 is a gargantuan step backwards in the series; its only saving graces are the stories of the companions and the game’s very own “inside the brain of [SPOILER REDACTED] mission,” which looks to be a video game trope.
In terms of graphics, I could not get Fallout 3 to run at a constant 60 fps on an 8800GT, nor did my luck change while running New Vegas on an HD5850. With shadows turned down (allegedly, the “high” setting renders shadows as far as the draw distance), Fallout 4 runs at a smooth 60 FPS on a GTX970. Considering the fact that I only encountered one memorable glitch (Dogmeat disappeared after I met him for the first time at the Red Rocket truck stop, forcing me to reload), I must confirm that Bethesda has crushed expectations of jankyness. I am sincerely shocked at how smoothly Fallout 4 runs on the Creation Engine, the successor to the notorious Gamebryo.
Yet the explanation for Fallout 4’s smoothness has less to do with programming prowess, and more to do with the fact that Bethesda did the bare minimum to modernize the visuals. If the Fallout franchise existed in a vacuum where it only had itself to compare, then the improvement from Fallout 3 to Fallout 4 would be tremendous. But Fallout 3 was released seven years ago, so that should be expected. Bethesda mentions in an interview that the lack of “next-gen” graphics is due to the fact that nearly everything in the game can be interfaced. Some believe this is a valid explanation, but I call it an excuse, especially when charging $60.
Again, the fact that Fallout 4 runs smoothly should be an expectation rather than a feat worthy of praise. Polish is what I look for, and while the Pip-Boy is a Fallout staple with its UI being integrated into Fallout 4 and New Vegas for dose nostalgia through archaism, Bethesda has made almost no changes to this thing, and managing status, quests, and inventory is unnecessarily clunky. This green-tinted Tandy brand impostor was cute the first two times. It needs to die.
The character creation engine is admirable, and there are plenty of impressive builds out there that speak to the number of options at a player’s disposal. Still, the engine did not improve facial and body animations. In conversations everyone appears to be combatting rigormortis, sporting unnatural and robotic movements and erratic facial expressions. If the Sole Survivor says something that the NPS does not like, the offended’s face will contort for a few sentences, then break into a smile suddenly when the voice acting lines for the negative response have been exhausted, and the NPC quickly forgets being offended. Indeed, this small detail in character interaction (again, POLISH!) exacerbates another issue with Fallout 4: few choices—such as being a pretentious jerk all the time—yield any truly meaningful results with the exception of an exclusive number of plot trees.
I do not even want to bother dedicating a paragraph to the aforementioned dialogue trees. The options typically include: sarcastic, inquisitive, positive, or negative response. The voice acting of the (male) Sole Survivor is among the worst I have ever heard. I hear the female Sole Survivor is not quite FemShep from Mass Effect, but she’s easier on the ears.
I do have to confess that I am impressed by Inon Zur’s musical score, particularly his inclusion of dynamic music. I especially appreciate “A Critical Chance,” a short yet outstanding piece that manages to capture perfectly the desperate struggle of a battle in the Commonwealth, imprinted with with that unmistakable Fallout melody. I also found myself running Fallout 4 just to hear the main menu music and enjoy the cycling video clip. Players who actually like to use the Pip-Boy radio will be pleased to find tracks from the previous Fallout games in addition to “Wanderer” by Dion, one of rock-n-roll’s greatest hits that has made a comeback from obscurity thanks to the Fallout 4 commercial.
Fallout 4 feels to me as though Bethesda created a world for gamers to tinker around with, and the real work will be accomplished through the imaginations of the gamers themselves though crafting and exloration in addition to the contribution of modders. Even after investing a heavy number of hours into the game, I cannot help but to feel that it is incomplete, missing some critical component that makes me believe that my time and monetary investment was worth it all. Fallout 4 does not feel like a true sequel, but instead, an inflated DLC or comprehensive expansion. Make no mistake, those who simply want more Fallout will most certainly be satisfied. I instead anticipated an evolution in the franchise rather than the status quo, and find this iteration motonous and redundant at its core.
The Bottom Line
If one approaches Fallout 4 expecting not an RPG but a "survival simulator" where the core mechanic is to salvage practically any and everything, defend one's loot with near-FPS style gunplay, and participate in pithy character interactions, then the game delivers. For those looking for a game with memorable character development and interactions, meaningful plot devices, and wondrous discoveries, then Fallout 4 disappoints in what matters.