As I sit here having finally completed the main story arc of Fallout 4, I’ve come to realise one thing – that game is bloody huge. However, after over 70 hours of play, 40+ levels, and copious amounts of spent ammunition, there is still more to do. New locations are awaiting my arrival, NPCs are waiting my interaction, and quest chains are awaiting completion. Of course, having all the content in the world means absolutely nothing if it’s not entertaining, engaging or stable affair, but even after all this time I want to be wandering around the wastelands of Boston.
It’s a testament to the overall quality of the writing throughout the game more than anything, which is good considering Skyrim’s main arc suffered in that regard (eg. I can remember the Dark Brotherhood sub-plot, but the journey of the Dovahkiin? Nope.) The fact there are a number of paths to progress the main story, and how many of the side missions weave in and out of it, helps achieve this too. This of course it just one of the reasons Fallout 4 succeeds as an RPG, but is it the slice of perfection we were hoping it would be?
Well, it does its damn best to try and be.
For those who have avoided the hype train or have been living in an actual vault for the last year, Fallout 4 puts the player in the role of a pre-war survivor of Vault 111. The transition from hometown Americana (delivering a memorable sequence that gives a glimpse of a world we haven’t seen much of) to a cockroach-filled hellscape shows that Bethesda’s showmanship is on fine form once again. Admittedly, the E3 press conference numbed the effectiveness of the sequence, especially in comparison to impact of Fallout 3’s surprising first hour, but it was still a strong opening.
Upon entering post-apocalyptic wasteland formally based on Boston, the Fallout fan in me was able to ease into the game with little issue. The controls and systems felt familiar enough that I was able to jump in with no problems, but the truth is that there has been plenty of streamlining under the hood, and often for the better. Tying perks to the SPECIAL system initially came off as restricting, but the more I actually progressed the more I liked how perks are locked until a certain stat like Strength or Perception is high enough. Additionally, some of the perks are fantastic in the implementation, and I applaud Bethesda for the Idiot Savant perk, which rewards players for doing anything so long as their Intelligence is low. As such, I may have to do a “dumb luck” run at some point.
We’ve said time and time again at Dealspwn that we love choice, and I honestly think the progression system offers that. However, there are other bigger examples of choice to be found, such as allowing the main character to be male or female – a first for the series. As is the case in most Bethesda RPGs, the cosmetic options available are plentiful here. It also helps that the vocal performances by Brian T. Delaney and Courtenay Taylor are fantastic, and have encouraged me to do a full second playthrough to see how the other half fairs.
But I digress. Choice. That’s what we were talking about, and it is best shown through the newest systems to be added to the series - item customisation and settlement building. Being able to tinker around to improve weaponry and armour is delightful, especially once you’ve scavenged enough materials. The visual changes are just as satisfying as knowing you’ve just beefed up the damage or added damage resistance. Of course, certain improvements are tied to the perk tree, adding further levels of choice to the mix. Do you improve your accuracy, or learn how to add a bunch of new mods to that sweet gun you just found? I actually relished those kind of decisions.
Likewise, conversations and interaction with NPCs has been streamlined as well, with lists replaced with four options with some that are clearly indicated as flirt or charisma checks. While I enjoyed spending time with the companions that I did come across (there still a few I have yet to meet, apparently) I did feel that earning their friendship was rather easy. In most cases, it comes off as “do something you normally do while playing” and it meant that my lock-picking skills had Piper idolising my character in no time. Even with the random chance of Charisma checks (something we’ll get to) it just seemed a little too straight forward, especially with the removal of the Karma system.
Of course, the big new addition of settlement building is the one toy everyone was looking forward to, and I’m happy to report that, for the most part, it hits the mark. Those not wishing to enact an episode of Grand Designs: Fallout Edition can go with prefab units for ease, but the choices given to the player are staggering. I was able to build multi-storey complexes, filled with items for my settlers. This leads into the management portion of the game, which I was somewhat prepared for thanks to surprise mobile hit Fallout Shelter. This aspect is somewhat optional (so long as you can get over the guilt-trip-ridden prompts saying settlements have been raided or in need of food) but the systems used to build settlements and assign settlers gets the job done. It would have been better had we been able to leave first person view at this point, as there are moments where the snap mechanic gets twitchy, but perseverance is rewarded, I guess.
If there is a complaint from customisation, it stems from the way items are broken down for materials. You see, all items in the world can be broken down into useful materials, which is great in that everything in the game has a purpose. The problem is that the only way to break items down is to go back to your settlement, drop the items on the ground, and then dismantle them in build mode. If there is a much simpler way of doing it, there wasn’t any prompt telling me how, and it made the gathering of materials a little more tedious than it needed to be. [UPDATE: So, it turns out manual dismantling isn't needed (cheers soulleech!) but this leads to another point - some aspects aren't explained or even mentioned, such as the wall lean feature when in combat. While I'm not a fan of continuous tutorials, it would have been nice had some aspects been explained, or at least made more obvious.]
What isn’t tedious is the combat, which remains as brutal as ever. The VATS mechanic returns, but only slows down time instead of pausing it. I found this change heightened the risk of any encounter and made VATS much more of a last resort instead of a “go to for critical hits” solution it had been in previous games. It also made me use it less as a result, but thankfully the first person mechanics are probably the best Bethesda has produced in its RPGs. Even the Third Person view works well, although I really wish there had been an explanation on the wall-lean mechanic that is actually present.
Perhaps the biggest throwback to the Black Isle games of yesteryear is the inclusion of random events and chance in Fallout 4. NPCs and enemies can be randomly spawned across the map, along with Legendary foes who drop special items. These random encounters are exactly that, so if you die and have to reload there’s a strong chance they won’t be at the same place a second time (or will be replaced by something else.) I liked this aspect, as it made every journey unique and encouraged me to fight instead of running away. Likewise, changing Charisma checks in conversations to dice rolls adds an unpredictable element I felt gave each success more weight to it (especially early on.)
The question many of you are probably asking is “Is it riddled with bugs like every other Bethesda RPG?” and the answer is still yet, but nowhere near as bad as it has been in past games. Cosmetic issues such as a cutscene taking place within another character’s head (giving flashbacks to THAT AC Unity bug), Brahmin randomly spawning in buildings, and lip syncing not even happening during dialogue were some of the small offenders. There were more experiencing-breaking ones, though, such as one companion being locked out of use, but my biggest bug-bear was with audio levels. Some NPCs were so quiet as they spoke that I had to put in headphones just to hear them. Considering how Bethesda has offered choice in how conversations are now handled (by cutscene or traditional first person) it baffles me that they didn’t check that audio levels are consistent across the two.
In terms of overall engine performance, it was about as stable as you would expect for something with Fallout 4’s scale. Frame rates on the PS4 held up well until huge brawls started between factions (or Fat Mans entered the equation, more to the point.) Likewise, the textures on show swing between “not bad” and “not great” once you got up close, although not to the extent that the experience is ruined. In fact, the visuals were capable of delivering some superb vistas once you made it up high enough. I was somewhat taken back as I looked over the Commonwealth from atop a skyscraper.
It should also be noted that this is by far the most colour the franchise has ever been. The variety of landscapes is refreshing after the sea of greys and browns that have previously plagued the series. Even the costumes for characters are more than just rags thrown together, adding to the personality of the populous. Sure, everything may be falling apart, but there’s beauty in the breakdown this time around. Another visual point of interest was the facial animations during some of the conversations. The expressions of the main characters in particular (especially when angry) are rather impressive, although it did make other NPCs come off rather unanimated by comparison.
Another point of note is Inor Zur’s score, which manages to compliment the visuals in a fantastic manner. Resting at Sanctuary gives that feeling of hope among the devastation due to the music that plays there, and the tension of battles is heightened thanks to the accompanying score. I do have a criticism though, in that the outro stings after a fight end up being rather disjointed because of the way the audio samples fade between each other.
Ultimately though, any problems found within Fallout 4 seem to become insignificant when everything comes together. You can argue that the missions are effectively the same thing we’ve been doing for years (war never changes, after all), and you can even say that the twist for the main story is fairly predictable, but it’s the presentation of those missions, and the satisfying combat is sandwiched between them, that makes it all so enjoyable. There’s always something to discover and, thanks to the eventual repopulation of areas, always something kill, meaning that even if you aren’t interested in starting over there will also be something to do.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, there are some Deathclaws I’m going to go hunt down and then run away from once I remember what a terrible idea that is.
- Some of the best writing Bethesda have produced.
- Streamlined progression systems make for a better experience.
- Customisation opens are plentiful and will steal the hours away.
- As usual, there are bugs to be found - some more troublesome than others.
- Performance does suffer during large battles.
- Relationships of companions appear somewhat oversimplified.
The Short Version:
While there may be bugs, and some mechanics not clearly explained, it’s hard not to be in awe of the extensive open world Bethesda have created with the Commonwealth. Streamlined progression, an improved narrative, and extensive customisation make Fallout 4 a serious contender to the RPG throne.
9 – EXCELLENT: Only the exceptional need apply here. There might be one or two slight blemishes, but overall games that score a 9 are genre-leaders: must-have titles with perhaps the odd imperfection. You won’t be wasting a single penny in buying a game that scores this high. A few games of this calibre will make it worth spending hundreds on a console or powerful enough PC. Killer apps, indeed.
Platforms: PS4 (tested) | Xbox One | PC
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks