There will never be another Fallout 2 and you know what? I’m fine with that.
Yes, yes, I know it’s an unorthodox way to start a review. You were probably expecting some play on “War never changes”, but I know what you want from me. You want me to tell you whether or not Fallout 4 is as good as Fallout 2 and if you want a quick answer then…no, it isn’t. And I don’t think anything can ever be. If you want a lengthier analysis, then strap yourselves in because I have a lot to talk about.
Fallout 4: Windows [Reviewed], Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: 10 November 2015
Price: €59,99 [Disclosure: Game copy supplied by Developer/Publisher]
The Fallout series has always been very close to my heart. I played the first one about 14 years ago when I was in middle school and it blew my mind. It was my first CRPG and I couldn’t believe the level of detail and immersion. The wasteland, the characters, the locations…this wasn’t just a game. It was a world. The writing and the entire dialogue system were amazing to me, as was the fact that my actions had consequences. I’m not a native English speaker and I consider the original two Fallout games, due to the large amount of text they had, to have contributed heavily to my learning to writing English good. Naturally when I played Fallout 2 and found it to be so much better than its “just great” predecessor, I couldn’t believe it. The writing was even better, the world had even more depth and the post-apocalyptic wastes had gotten a dark humorous atmosphere. Fallout 2 was special (no, I’m not using the acronym. We’re not doing that).
All good things eventually end, however, and in the middle of the development of the third Fallout game (we’re not talking about the spin-offs, although Fallout Tactics is a good game as well), Black Isle closed down and eventually Interplay sold the license to Bethesda. Bethesda had had experience with developing RPGs, but theirs was a different breed of game altogether. They featured massive, completely explorable open worlds but lacked in narrative. It was not so much an inherent flaw, as much as a concession. The two series simply focused on different things. Naturally, when Bethesda announced Fallout 3, the backlash was massive. Grim predictions of “Oblivion with guns” were made and for the most part were correct. While I don’t consider Fallout 3 to be a terrible game by any stretch, I can certainly see where it had gotten more shallow in terms of narrative and while story and narrative are two of my main concerns while playing a game, I value overall atmosphere higher than them. In that regard, Fallout 3 was still Fallout in my eyes, and I managed to enjoy it. Fallout purists will argue that these changes destroy the spirit of the series and it’s hard to argue against that. Some people will always react strongly to change, and that is fine.
Bethesda briefly lent the license to Obsidian Entertainment (a company founded by Black Isle veterans) and they gave us Fallout: New Vegas. Obsidian had somehow managed to make the best of the Gamebryo engine on which Fallout 3 ran and give us a narrative experience that was much closer to the original series. Even some of the purists mentioned above hailed the game as being good, so when Fallout 4 was announced, there was a vocal backlash against it being developed by Bethesda and not Obsidian. When some of the changes and overhauls were revealed, it was the Fallout 3 era purists’ turn to complain. It looked like we were going to see another generational war and war…war never-
No. We’re not doing that. Anyway, I think we have enough context for the series and my relationship with it now.
Fallout 4. Finally.
The game starts off with a live-action black and white sequence and a monologue on war, before we are introduced to our potential protagonists, their default names Nate and Nora, husband and wife, parents of baby Shaun. The character creator is pretty extensive, opting for a sculpting system similar to what you may see in EVE Online, rather than the usual sliders. You start the game in a hazy pre-war sequence in a colorful American suburb just as a Vault-Tec representative is trying to notify you that you’ve been selected to live in a “vault”: a high-tech nuclear shelter built to sustain many people for long periods of time in the case of thermonuclear war. Highly serendipitous, seeing how war begins several minutes later and your assigned Vault 111 is within desperate fleeing distance from your house. Series veterans will know that the Vaults were actually designed as (or retconned into) behavioral experiments, each of them having their own special gimmick. In the case of Vault 111, the gimmick is that the inhabitants are cryogenically frozen in order to study its effects. I won’t give away what happens next exactly, but I will say that you awaken exactly 200 years after the war and your canonical protagonist name this time around is The Sole Survivor.
Exiting the Vault and once more having the sudden rush of daylight blind me for a split second before seeing the Boston area hills and valleys slowly fade in was nothing short of exhilarating. This was Fallout 4. I was playing Fallout 4. The first character you’re likely to meet is your old Mr. Handy robot Codsworth who, based on how common a name your character has, can say your name and scare the shit out of you. After a brief spat with it during the introduction sequence this is where you’re given some more time with the new dialogue system. Rather than having a list of verbose dialogue options as in previous games, Fallout 4 opts for a system resembling the dialogue wheel seen in latter day Bioware games. Also similarly to these, we now have a voiced protagonist and more cinematic, cutscene-like dialogue sequences with different camera angles focusing on whomever is speaking. We’ll be revisiting this topic in a little bit.
You are directed, with some urgency, to the nearby town of Concord where the main plot can be advanced, but you are also briefly notified about the crafting and building mechanic available in your little destroyed suburb. Now…I usually stay away from the whole hype culture thing, the trailers, the marketing campaigns. During the last year I think I only saw two trailers: Fallout 4 and Star Wars. I knew there was building and crafting. I knew I could build a home. I was not prepared to be able to build an entire town. Entire towns. As soon as I found out that I could scrap destroyed buildings and items and build incredibly modular and complex structures and systems I knew I was in trouble.
Of the first 10 hours of game time I think I spent maybe two of them exploring the wastes and actually fighting wasteland creatures. The rest were spent picking up everything (oh look, a single cigarette! I can use this for cloth and asbestos) and hauling it back to my settlement, planting melons, attracting settlers and catering to their needs. Your small towns will quickly boom, you will establish supply lines between them, be attacked by raiders, build defenses, be visited by travelling merchants or becoming a trade hub yourself. I could go on for hours about the settlement system, but I still want to talk about the actual game for a while. Suffice to say that building settlements are a lot of busywork. Completely optional, delightful, consuming busywork.
The new perk system is one of the most controversial changes of the game. Essentially, the skills and perks have been merged into a massive set of ability trees, each corresponding to one S.P.E.C.I.A.L attribute (for the laymen, that’s Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, Luck). There are ten rows, each with a requirement of one to ten of one particular attribute, and multiple levels each for a total of about 270 individual perks. These perks can be anything from charisma abilities allowing you to more easily persuade NPCs or manage your settlements to agility perks allowing you to be more effective with pistols and so on. With each level you can invest one point in either one of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L abilities or one or more levels of a perk. Experience can be gained in a multitude of ways, from the classic questing and killing to crafting, repairing, cooking and building. I managed to get to level 6 barely killing anything, which is perfectly fine, seeing how there is no level cap.
A handful of these perks are also tied into the crafting system. Essentially all weapons and armor have taken a step up from New Vegas in terms of customization, this time around being incredibly modular. You can change most pieces of a single weapon and have a lot of options to exchange them with, giving you the opportunity to modify any weapon to fit your preferred play style. Regular armour comes in two flavors: either wearing an entire suit with flat defense values or my preferred version: Clothing, overlayed with individual pieces of armour for each body part, including three just for the head (mouth, eyes and top of the head). This is, for me, a comfortable degree of granularity. You can customize each piece of armour, make it lighter, harder, more resistant to certain damage types and so on.
Enemies come in multiple flavors, with some being formidable opponents. These are the Legendary enemies. They hit harder, take a lot more punishment, occasionally heal to full health and often make for really epic (used here literally) battles where you are forced to use creative strategies in order to defeat them. They drop “legendary” items, which have bonus abilities and are stronger than their regular counterparts. Even these can be modified to fit your play style and even named for extra flavor.
One of the first companions you find is Dogmeat (or one of his incarnations) and you can put goggles and bandanas on him so adorable! In general, companions can help you by carrying your extra load and fighting alongside you. What they don’t know is how to get out of your way when you’re firing. Combat, in general, is much more interactive this time around. Whereas in Fallout 3 and New Vegas character models would just make animations at one another, here Dogmeat will grab a raider by the arm and slam him to the floor, ghouls will lunge at you and grab you before biting and so on. Everything is much more dynamic in combat, especially with the addition of stamina (which uses the Action Points you use in the VATS system) which you can use to sprint for short distances and use a strong melee attack with your equipped weapon. On the topic of VATS, it no longer stops time, but rather slows it down quite a bit. This adds a bit of urgency to your decisions, as you no longer have the luxury to carefully pick a body part to shoot while practically invulnerable.
I will not be getting into the main story too much. Suffice to say that it involves themes of paranoia similar to what you may have seen in Battlestar Galactica and a fairly interesting faction system. The story missions have a lot of intense scripted sequences, something that previous Bethesda Fallout games lacked, adding to the dramatic nature of the story. Whether a deathclaw shows up out of nowhere while you’re battling raiders, or you climb into a vertibird to mow down a Super Mutant army, the game is full of memorable moments that I will not spoil here. What I will talk about is the Power Armour.
In previous games you gained access to it rather late in the game. It was an important milestone in that it made you a lot stronger and more resilient. This time around you find it right at the start of the main story, but my God, did they get it right this time… My first encounter with Power Armour was in Fallout 1 at the Brotherhood of Steel bunker where a paladin told me how it’s more of an extension of one’s limbs, how it’s a complicated system of servos and hydraulics, he basically described it to me as an exoskeleton, or a mech. The Fallout 3 era was highly disappointing in bringing the Power Armour to the 3rd dimension, turning it into just another piece of gear that you wore. Fallout 4 has the suit open up as you climb into it. A different HUD full of gauges and the feel of a cockpit fires up. Each step you take feels heavy, yet there is no loss of mobility. You tear a minigun off a crashed airship, you jump off the roof of a building, slamming into the ground with earth-shaking effect and start mowing down your enemies. The Power Armour finally feels like that paladin at the BoS bunker described it to me all those years ago. The trade-off is that it behaves more like a vehicle, requiring rare fusion cores as fuel, so the suit is now a resource to be used strategically rather than a state of the game. And, of course, you can mod it and paint it to your heart’s desire.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Everything we’ve talked about until now is all well and good, but after a day or so of playing, I allowed my initial ecstasy to subside and my opinions on the game to crystallize for a bit. Response to the game has certainly been mixed, almost polarizing. Fallout 3 era purists seem to hate it almost as much as Fallout 2 fans hated the third and I completely see where they stand, even if I don’t identify with a lot of the criticisms. But let’s try to break everything down and see where we stand, because I’m writing this nearly two weeks after the official release and hindsight bias is great.
First off, graphically, Fallout 4 looks stunning from afar. Full disclosure: I played it on unsupported hardware. I currently own a Radeon HD 6950 which is technically below the minimum spec threshold for Radeon chipsets, but fairly superior to the GTX 550 Ti minimum for nVidia chipsets. As a result, I was able to keep the game running at a steady 30 FPS on Medium-High details (with a maximum of Ultra). While some players have had issues with framerate dips and the like, the game running fine on my slightly out of date machine is, for me, a testament of some good optimization on Bethesda’s part. The vistas, lighting and particle effects all look amazing and the color palette is, first of all existent when compared to previous 3D titles and somewhat vibrant. Where the game fails noticeably is in texture quality when up close. While good-looking from afar, the game is far from good-looking when paying close attention to some in-game items. Another criticism would be the under-designed player HUD which attempts to be minimalistic, but only succeeds in looking ugly and half-assed.
The sound design is of usual Bethesda Quality, with a lot of attention put into environmental effects and acoustics. The soundtrack is of usual stellar quality. The entire soundtrack of Fallout 3 makes a comeback on Diamond City Radio, as do some new tracks such as Skeeter Davis’ infectious, addictive track The End of The World. For more classically-inclined players, there is the aptly named Classical Radio that plays all your favorite tunes from composers such as Wagner, Strauss, Brahms, Chopin or Tchaikovsky. With the radio off, you can listen to the ambient soundtrack composed by video game music veteran Inon Zur.
The combat, while as mentioned, is far more dynamic than in previous titles, occasionally forcing you to use the environment and other strategies creatively (especially on the highest difficulty setting), suffers from some bad AI and its over-dependence on grenades. Sniper rifles, however, have received an overhaul, finally making them useful. There is no longer a Hardcore Mode (the mode which, in New Vegas forced you to haul food and water after you to avoid starving or dehydration) it is replaced with the simpler Survival Mode, which is the hardest difficulty setting with the addition that healing items work over time rather than instantly. Radiation has been streamlined as well, now directly affecting your maximum health, lowering it as you accumulate rads.
Of course, one of the biggest points of contention with Fallout 4 has been the perk system. Players have complained that the removal of the skill system is “dumbing down” the game. I’m here to explain why I disagree and why streamlining and dumbing down are two different things. Fallout 1 and 2 were pen-and-paper inspired turn-based isometric RPGs. They had numerical skills ranging from 0 to 100% (and beyond) which directly affected the likelyhood of success in shooting a gun, landing a critical hit or picking a lock. Technically, you always had a chance, no matter how slim, to succeed in an action based on your skill. It made perfect sense since it relied exclusively on dice rolls and random number generation.
With the introduction of FPS mechanics in the 3D era the skill system felt clunky and out of place. You had to be both good at aiming a virtual rifle at an enemy and have a high skill value in Guns in order to successfully land a hit. Lockpicking had a numeric value from 0 to 100 but had hard thresholds at 0, 25, 50, 75 and 100 depending on the lock difficulty level, essentially translating into a need to invest 100 skill points (roughly six experience levels) into something that had five thresholds. The new system gives you exactly that option of investing X points into X thresholds. I don’t feel that the old skill system fit well into the 3D era Fallout games and with 270+ perks to choose from I hardly feel like the new system is “casual”.
By far, however, the biggest complaint and one that I share has been the dialogue system (and the quests in general the majority of which just ask you to kill all the enemies in a location). I really get this one, I do. The writing and dialogues were always the best things about the series, as I mentioned back when we started. I harbor no ill-will toward the Bioware Dialogue Wheel. I love both the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series and I understand that having a fully-voiced protagonist and cinematic talky sequences will take some resources away, I do. It’s hard to make such an overhaul to the overall feel of the dialogues without sacrificing at least some depth but it still pains me a bit to see it go. I no longer know what my character is going to say. Yes? No? Sarcastic? What does Sarcastic mean? Am I going to punch someone to shut them up like Commander Shepard? Why can’t I answer with a long-winded Blues Brothers quote anymore? Why don’t my S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats factor into my choices anymore? Why can’t I play a barely-functional oaf with 3 Intelligence that is incapable of tying two syllables together anymore? I resonate with all of these complaints. I’m not that upset about the changes, because I see the need to move forward and make new Fallout games for new generations of players, but I understand why so many people are.
Last thing I’d like to touch on are the many bug reports. While I’ve heard little to no talk of game-breaking bugs, there are a few benign graphic glitches such as constant splashing animations in water while nothing is there, as well as a few annoyances, such as your settlements reporting huge drops in resources causing them to decay unless you pay them a short visit to have the resources be counted properly. I’ve been lucky so far, but others have reported AI pathing bugs messing up scripted moments, losing various limbs for the remainder of the game and so on. While none of these seem to be that big of a deal, I understand how encountering too many of them can ruin your experience.
There will never be another Fallout 2 and I’m fine with that. Fallout 4 is a great game. It can even be an excellent game once Bethesda solve some of the issues and once the modding community gets their hands on it. They already made the dialogue system look more like the classic one and I’m expecting an HD texture mod soon. The bugs will be patched out before we know it and Fallout 4 will meet its true potential. Because there is so much potential here, as with all Bethesda games, and I think once all these things are taken care of, it will become one of those rare gems of video gaming, but as it stands, it’s just good and I can’t give it any points for anything that it’s not. There will never be another Fallout 2. I’m fine with that. I can always go back and play Fallout 2. And at the end of the day, all of its flaws taken into account, all the good and all the bad together, the fourth installment of the series still feels like Fallout. I can’t complain too much about anything that feels the way it’s supposed to. I don’t think I have a good enough reason to complain. Don’t you know it’s the end of the world?