Thursday, 14 January 2016

Fallout 4 - Review

Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One (version played) 

The real battle in the radioactive wasteland is one of inventory management. Really, it’s been a consistent problem in every Bethesda game, and, whilst not game-breaking, it’s still the most baffling thing to have to raid through upwards of five different menus just to find where I put a roll of duct tape.

Seriously, where did I put that piece of duct tape? I need it. No, I don’t necessarily need it, but the settlement I’m building up does. They need to be able to defend themselves, so I’ve tasked myself with setting up some rudimentary defences. Ah, there we go, stuck up a new defence tower. Wait, no, I didn’t mean to move the water pump. Now every one’s going to die of thirst…

Fallout 4’s biggest new feature is that of settlement building. Like 95% of modern games, it’s tasked itself with adding crafting mechanics to its litany of other gameplay elements. Post-Minecraft game design posits that every big-budget game should have things to build, regardless of what genre you’re playing. Every game should have its own Lego set. 

Fallout 4 jumps into this hard. After a brief hour or so it thrusts you into your first settlement, with the opportunity of rebuilding it. Not only that, the very story and themes that Fallout 4 plays with are about rebuilding things. If Fallout 3 was about exploring the sorry state of a post-nuclear world, then Fallout 4 is about making it something better.

It’s baffling then, that this system should be so vague and obtuse, not to mention made all the more frustrating thanks to the game’s cluttered inventory management. For such a major focus of the game, Fallout 4 offers very little explanation of how to manage settlements. It wants you to be excited and to care about rebuilding things but offers you no advice on how to do so, as well as give you the option to ignore it entirely. My first few hours of Fallout 4 were used wrangling this system, trying to understand how it works and what I needed to do to get the most out of it, only to find later on that the benefits were virtually non-existent and my time spent on it little more than a distraction.

When looked at from this angle the game’s story beats and overall approach begin to make more sense. In Fallout 4 it’s almost impossible to play as a bad guy. In fact, it’s impossible to be anyone other than the character that Bethesda have provided you with, complete with half decent voice actor. The dialogue wheel, a somewhat simplified version of Mass Effect’s conversation wheel, replaces the typical list of written responses. 

The story this time round sees Bethesda crib ideas from a number of different places, least of all themselves. Just as Fallout 3 had you traipsing across nuked out Washington D.C., Fallout 4 has you doing the same across New England, only this time for your son. As the story progresses, various factions crawl out of the woodwork similar to Fallout: New Vegas. The Brotherhood of Steel quickly make their presence felt, rolling in on giant airships, suited up in power armour, whilst the Railroad keep themselves firmly out of sight, shuttling away any synthetics they can help into hiding.

It’s here where Fallout 4 begins to stumble a little. Whereas there’s no doubt that the world itself is impressive, and certainly still the star attraction in a game that can soak up untold hours, the people that inhabit it can seem like self-contained chunks of gameplay, rather than all interacting within the same cohesive world. All of the game’s factions, for instance, rarely come into conflict with one another, until the game dictates it during the main quest’s climax. 

Oh, we’re told that the Institute (the closest the game gets to a straight-cut “bad guy” group) has no regards for Synths but we rarely see that until the final hours of the main storyline. The Brotherhood of Steel will come rolling in on airships, but they’ll stay politely contained at the police station for the most part, until you come calling them.

Which, perhaps leads into what’s possibly the biggest criticism that can be levelled at Fallout 4; it’s barely a role-playing game. Gone are the different character builds and dialogue options, the very things that allowed you to craft a unique character. Much like Skyrim, if something could have been streamlined or removed it has been.

Unlike Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas available perks are dictated by the “tier” that each of your SPECIAL stats are at. For example, should your strength be at one you’ll only have the first perk available on that list, should you have more points invested in that SPECIAL stat, then more perks deeper down that line are available. 

It’s disappointing then, that the perk system seems so…bland. Like Skyrim there’s little personality to be had amongst the different abilities on offer. Some are so downright pointless and situational that they serve no purpose half the time, whilst generic “good stuff” perks, such as damage resistance and increased damage output, are so obviously the best options that practically any build is going to want them. 

This is compounded by the game’s approach to quests. Just as the rest of the game has undergone a streamlined approach, so too has the missions that you’ll play through. Practically every objective involves killing things or collecting something. Granted, it’s difficult to keep quests varied in a game of this scale, but the overall effect is a game where kill counts reign supreme whilst nuanced storytelling takes a back seat. Only once during 20+ hours of gameplay did my silver-tongued charmer manage to talk his way out of a fight.

Rarely in Fallout 4 will a quest spin off in a direction you weren’t expecting; that thrill of getting swept up in events beyond your control is a thrill that beats through the heart of almost all of Bethesda’s games. Here, you tick off the objectives one by one and then collect your reward. 

All these slightly mild disappointments are made all the more frustrating because the game genuinely looks good. Gone are the bland sludgy browns and faded greens that dominated Fallout 3’s colour palette. This is a vibrant, sometimes colourful game.

It plays well too. Not perfect, mind, there were moments when random body parts of fallen enemies gained rudimentary sentience and began crawling across the floor. In another bizarre moment an important character suddenly grew elongated limbs; I guess the radioactive wastes were having a bigger effect on him then I thought.

Yet, jokes aside, it’s a major improvement when the console version no longer feels like you’re trudging through mud once you encounter more than two or three enemies on screen. Whether you’re using VATS, or simply shooting at things in first-person, it feels responsive and tactile in a way the previous games never managed given the hardware and engine limitations. 

However, when the best thing you can say about Fallout 4 is that it runs well and looks nice, you can’t help but get a sense that somewhere the heart and soul of the series has been ripped out. Fallout 4 is a dense, sometimes fascinating adventure, but one that’s also dominated by bland watered down gameplay and simplified mechanics. The focus here makes for a game that’s less “an RPG with shooter elements” than “a shooter with RPG elements”.

Now I have to go, there’s been an attack on one of my settlements; they need me to help. Only now, my power armour has gone missing (it’s now separate from your regular armour and comes with its own upgrades, which is a neat addition), one of my settlers has taken off with the whole thing thinking she can use it.

So that’s what I get for building these people a new home. I give them food, even replace their water pump that I carelessly erased from existence, only to have them take off with by best bit of kit to go and kill a few bandits.

Now, where did I put that duct tape...?


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