Release Date: November 10, 2015
Rated: T for Teen
Publisher: Bethesda Game Studios
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Platform: Xbox One, Playstation 4, PC
Completion time: 3 days, 5 hours and 20 minutes aka 77 hours and 20 minutes.
FallOut 3 had a bevy of expectations lobbied against it before its eventual release. Fans of the franchise had been waiting a little over a decade for a sequel that seemed like it wasn’t going to happen, and Interplay was no longer developing the franchise. Bethesda Studios, the studio mostly known for the rich and lavishly detailed Elder Scroll series, was jumping in as the new developer. Knowing Bethesda’s gameplay style also meant a major change in the feel of FallOut as well. No longer did we have the strategic turn-based play style fans had come to love and expect. The reality is, FallOut 3 was fundamentally a completely different game from its predecessors. Gone were the days of the top-down, isometric look, replaced by a first person, close-up experience. Instead of strategizing how to use Action Points in a single turn during combat, fights were much more active and action points were used for a new system called VATS (Vault-Assisted Targeting System). There were a lot of places to discover and explore, collectibles that provided plenty of backstory, and fascinating NPCs littered across the wasteland. At the same time, FallOut 3 did this without compromising the atmosphere and aesthetic the series was known for making it a solid entry into the series.
That’s not to say FallOut 3 did not have its detractors; most games often do when they undergo a major transformation. However, the majority consensus was that this was a genuine FallOut experience that revitalized the franchise and made it relevant for modern times. The game was followed by FallOut: New Vegas, a game that fellow friend and writer Marshall Garvey deemed worthy of our Hall of Fame . While the game certainly carried as big of a hype or critical reception as FallOut 3, the game definitely continued to maintain the excellence the series was becoming the standard for.
FallOut 4 was a game that brought with it lofty expectations, exacerbated by the general assumption that longer development will ALWAYS equal a better game. For most of the years it was in development any news was scarce and far between, and when there was ANY sort of news it was discussed for days. There were plenty of fake announcements, screen leaks…the list could go on. However, it was hard to deny the truth; FallOut 4 was a heavily anticipated game. Soon as it was released, the game was going to be under heavy scrutiny from fans and critics alike.
In my 77+ hours total of playing time, I’ve only completed one out of the three (four?) endings, I can honestly say FallOut 4 is a game that is as easily memorable as is forgettable. Here’s why.
War Never Changes, But It’s Never Black and White
Imagine the year 2077, a time where the world is warring over what’s left of the Earth’s natural resources. The play is then introduced to the main character, a person who’s preparing to give a speech at Veteran’s Hall in Cambridge regarding their military service. As the family is preparing to get ready and running through their daily routine, a Vault-Tec representative comes knocking at the door to inform the family that they’ve been selected to have room in Vault 111. As the Vault-Tec walks away and life seems to go on, a warning siren is blaring over the entire city. This can only mean one thing: nuclear bombs have been dropped, and it’s only a matter of minutes before the drop. Having so conveniently been given approval to live in Vault 111, the main character and their family rush towards it and make it just in time as the bombs fall.
After having gone through standard protocol (identification, etc.), everyone learns that they’ll be cryogenically frozen. Eventually, everyone is put in a cryogenic state as the screen turns white to show what it’s like to be frozen. What feels like only seconds later the main player awakens to watch a major event happen helplessly that sets the stage for FallOut 4. After the event ends, the main character is frozen again until the system malfunctions. Having fully awakened and exited their cryo chamber, the main character learns that they’re the sole survivor. Across the barren wasteland of Boston, among the various factions and creatures across, the Sole Survivor goes in search of finding answers set up by the major event while also changing the Wasteland for the better or worse.
There’s a lot going on in FallOut 4 aside from the Sole Survivor’s main quest; there are factions littered across the Commonwealth that are quietly preparing for war with each other. Each faction has unique story-related quests that allow the Sole Survivor to see their ambitions, the lengths they’re willing to go and what the expected outcome might be. It’s fascinating how well each faction’s subquests tie into the main story, via direct or indirectly. In fact, the faction you end up choosing does somewhat impact the ending of the game, doing a brilliant job of making this an overall cohesive experience.
At the same time, the world is so incredibly detailed and fleshed out that it would do the game injustice not to explore everything within. From the array of NPCs that players meet along the road, to the plethora of companions available to travel with to the various buildings, everything has some sort of history that’s interesting and unique. Some landmarks had me so intrigued I had to return a second or third time to see if I’d missed anything.
However, I’m sure I’m going against the grain when I say this, but I’d feel disingenuous if I didn’t say something about it. Storytelling is a HUGE component of a game for me; I’m more for the story being told and how the gameplay fits within the context of the story and how the gap between the two is covered. Things like pacing, story arcs, and random world events have to find a balance that continues to push the players towards the intended outcome without sacrificing player agency. It’s a complicated, delicate balance that is either deftly mixed or is covered over by exceeded expectations.
A lot of the NPCs that players get to meet are fascinating, no matter how prominent a role they had. Depending on the factions players choose to side with, the main characters all feel fleshed out and unique. Each have their own motivations, their own interests and ways of talking. While there are some repeat discussions or recycled dialogue, talking to them never begins to feel old. I found myself derailed on quests because I wanted to learn more about the characters. I’d make sure to repeat conversations to be able to explore EVERY dialogue option given.
FallOut 4 is a conundrum to me because of how at odds the gameplay is at with the story being told: the lack of a cohesive identity makes a game that is good feel like it holds itself back. The story feels like it wants to be told at a faster, frenetic pace given the main character’s motivation. However, the world feels so vast, big, and imaginative it’s hard to not get caught up wanting to explore every nook and cranny of the Commonwealth. The game becomes a frustrating overall experience because the circumstances feel dire, but the narrative experience feels like it lacks an urgency or heart. There’s a disconnect between two elements that are typically married to each other.
One thing I have to say, though, is that I’m disappointed in the ending of the game. While each faction has an impact on the ending players get to experience, they all revolve around the same major components. Then again, the major components the ending centralizes on would be hard to ignore or not be part of the experience, it’s just that it sucks how it really hampers the ending. The choice could be a limitation of systems or hardware capabilities or it could be a bunch of numerous technical issues. However, I feel like it stemmed from laziness. Confirming the ending with other friends had me feeling like I had with the end of Mass Effect 3; all the roads genuinely lead to a similar outcome. The journey ended up feeling like it wasn’t justified and the decisions players have feel like they’re mostly irrelevant to the game.
Boston May Be Expansive and Dull, But the Cast Heightens the Overall Experience
If FallOut 3 and New Vegas taught players anything, it’s that the world was going to be a fascinating place after the bombs drop. From clothing trends, weapons invented to even the city designs, it was an interesting look to what lengths humanity would take for survival. Even more exciting was seeing the remnants of the world of the past versus the present. Seeing broken down structures, posters and other relics of the past serve as a reminder of how different things can be.
In contrast, FallOut 4’s environmental design fails to be as engaging or excited as its predecessors. The prototypical brown, green and gray color pallet used makes the world feel dull and bland. In fact, most of the buildings feel indistinguishable from one another. Cementing that frustration were the different-but-very-similar major cities of the Commonwealth – they’re different in design, but similar in tone. Were there some sites that piqued my curiosity and had me wanting to explore the area more and more? Absolutely. However, these environments felt very unique and different in comparison to its counterparts: they stood out.
While some may prefer to hoof the campaign alone, taking a companion along really heightens the experience in a positive direction. This is a great thing because of several important details; they impact the way fights are going to go, impact background dialogue between your companion and other NPCs and lead to interesting sidequests. In total, the game has 13 companions to choose from. Each character has their own views on major relevant topics and their own goals that inevitably end up leading to quests the main character can be part of. Having that sort of payoff . The same can be said about all characters players will meet on their journey. Each one adds to the diaspora of the Commonwealth as well as provide insight.
What counteracted the dullness of the environment were the companions players could choose to have along during the journey. Each of the 13 companions have their own motivations, goals, and thoughts on both the social diaspora, the journey, people and areas. Even more refreshing were the conversations initiated by the companion: these discussions opened helped to flesh them out and offered an ability to see how they think and feel. Details like that really stood out for me during my experience. The choice of companion also affects how combat situations go as well. Some prefer to fight from a distance, some prefer close quarters combat, or even fist to fist combat. The detail Bethesda put into the Companions provide an extra element to the journey that improve the overall experience. It’s a saving grace in comparison to the boring environmental design.
However, the biggest gripe I have with the character design is the blatant recycling of character models littered throughout the game. Numerous times I’d find myself swearing up and down I’d seen the character before, only to find out that it was a different character with the same design just a different hair color.
Much like my frustrations at the dichotomy at play between gameplay and story, I was also frustrated at the dichotomy between the lack of detail in the visuall design of the game versus the extensive detail in the writing. It’s curious as to why Bethesda couldn’t find an ability to put as much detail into the artistic design of the game from a visual perspective versus as the writing perspective.
Most of the Gameplay Stayed the Same, For Better or Worse
I’m as much for innovation as for not fixing what isn’t broken. In the case of FallOut 4, retaining the same gameplay design as FallOut 3 was an excellent choice. The VATS (Vault Assisted Targeting System) is still just as addicting to use as in FallOut 3, and landing Critical Hits are just as satisfying. The guns feels and sound great, making combat exciting.
For those new to the FallOut franchise, VATS is a targeting system that highlights certain parts of the body and tells you the percentage the character has of landing a hit. In addition, with each successful hit landed using the VATS system, a Critical Hit gauge is built up. Once it is full, players can use it to land a Critical Hit that deals nearly double the damage to the target. Players can choose to level up certain Perks to improve their accuracy in VATS and become a lean, mean, killing machine.
The variation in combat level for enemies makes the fights exciting and provides plenty of adrenaline. No two fights felt similar in approach or strategy during my playthrough and left me wanting more when I survived one. In fact, one of my favorite fights is one early on in the game; it involves a mini-gun, power armor and a very angry Deathclaw. Trying to figure out the best approach to taking down the behemoth was a fun challenge that set the bar for how combat would feel.
Like many other RPGs, I loved learning about which weapons and approach worked on which enemies. Having to pay attention to these details during each skirmish kept me actively focused and concentrated instead of falling into autopilot. In fact, in many battles, I found myself constantly gauging the level of danger and deciding whether or not to run away.
I also really enjoyed FallOut 4’s perks system due to the variation it provides to gameplay. Preferring to be melee or assassin oriented? Maybe playing long range sniping is your style, or close quarters combat? There are numerous perks to level up to build the ideal class players want their character to be. While using the timeless class-building system key to RPGs, Bethesda does enough to make it feel unique to the world of FallOut. There are certainly no two classes that look or feel the same: each is distinguished and unique.
The same is true of weapon and armor modding. Depending on the build of the character, players can create various mods to improve the weapons. Mods can create bullets that light people on fire upon impact, or severely cripple an enemy. One weapon in particular (my favorite), the syringe gun, will fire shots at enemies that “lock them up” and tip them over. Seeing a giant Deathclaw become paralyzed and stiff from serum is equal parts hilarious and scary.
While it’s an annoying feature, I also found the challenge of looting to be a refreshingly challenging aspect of gameplay. The way players choose to level up their characters also affects the weight they can carry for loot. Weapons, junk, and clothing have weight associated to them and impact how much players can carry. It certainly adds to the challenge of deciding what is most important to the player to keep and why (Pro Tip: Carry and store as much junk as possible).
The biggest gripe (as well as for many others) I have with FallOut 4 is the emphasis on building settlements. This part of the game required players to build all the facets of a settlement from the ground up: defenses, houses, power, etc., through the junk they find during their trek through the Commonwealth. From finding hot plates to wild corn, anything players find will help towards building. Players can measure the “happiness” of a settlement by a little box in the upper right corner that displays a happy face, a percentage number, and an arrow point up and down (that’s green and orange, respectively) to let players know if the happiness is increasing or decreasing. It’s a frustrating, time wasting experience that offers no reward or feeling of satisfaction. Whoever thought wasting countless hours on gameplay trying to build a settlement from the ground up is beyond me.
There were also plenty of radiant quests that required players to defend, replenish or restart a settlement. FallOut 4 took it a step further by letting you know that a settlement was under attack at anytime in the game, which become increasingly annoying to see over time. Inevitably, I gave up on this silly quest to build the happiest settlement on earth and continued on my quest. It’s safe to say a lot of settlements ended up being overtaken on my part. Did I feel like a dick for ignoring them and seeing an announcement that a settlement was overrun? Yes. Still, trying to manage that while trying to get through the story became too much and offered too little of a reward to maintain.
In many ways, the dichotomous nature of FallOut 4 makes it’s easy to argue that the game feels like it has a lot of pieces thrown in together that aren’t cohesive enough to provide a great overall experience: the game is not a sum of its parts. There were a lot of moments where I wondered if I was truly enjoying the experience or if I was simply bored but was forcing myself to progress through the game. There were a lot of back and forth views I had on the experience that enlightened me to the game being a lack of a sum of its parts. It feels as if the game could’ve used more time in development to find ways to marry all the elements together so they complemented one another. Instead, it feels like an inconsistent experience that leaves a lot to be desired.
Essentially, FallOut 4 highlights the good and bad of Bethesda. It highlights their ability to create a living world with their amazing attention to detail. As a developer, they’ve always been consistent in delivering a world players WANT to explore. At the same time, their stories are often at odds with their design and at times feel like they’re disjointed and disconnected. Unfortunately for FallOut 4, this is highlighted. Whether or not that is a major flaw in the experience is entirely up to the player. For me it ended up being a big part of the experience.
Oh, and if anyone didn’t know..FallOut 4 is also buggy like any Bethesda game. Texture glitching, popping in and out of the screen, character stretching, game breaking bugs…the list can go on. This will ALWAYS be a major problem with Bethesda games that the developer seems to never be able to deal with at launch.
The Commonwealth is Ready to Explore at Your Own Risk
FallOut 4 leaves me feeling conflicted in that I can see why fans of the series might like the game and some might dislike it. The game feels like a bunch of disjointed features that epitomize the contrast between gameplay design and storytelling. The pacing of the story feels like it calls for a fast, frenetic pace that requires a more linear narrative than an explorative open world. Yet, the game has so much detail in its overall design that it’s hard to not want to explore the Commonwealth to see everything. Characters definitely make the world of Commonwealth worth exploring in that they all feel fleshed out and alive. Exemplifying this are all the companions players have to choose from to join them on their adventure.
The gameplay pretty much feels like what players would have experienced before in FallOut 3, and doesn’t attempt to innovate or improve on anything, which is good and bad. VATS is still just as fun as ever, and critical hits feel just as satisfying. Class building, armor and weapon mods can be a lot of fun and offer plenty of variation in gameplay. The weight management within looting provides a small little challenge that proves to be frustrating in a good way. Fights are equally exciting and fun, forcing players to strategize and think on their toes in combat. This is due in large part to weapon, enemy and combat strength variation.
At the same time, the game’s focus on settlement building is neither fun or challenging and saps away some of the enjoyment of the overall experience. The radiant quests to protect them or to build them left me feeling bored and frustrated to the point where I ignored them completely. Pretending like they didn’t exist made the experience much more enjoyable.
Essentially, FallOut 4 is a game that’s not the sum of its parts due to its dichotomous nature. It has the details that can make a great game; like tying the sidequests into the main storyline, the personality and abilities of companions and NPCs, and exciting combat. At the same time, the recycled character designs, bland environmental design feel lazily designed. My shining example of the laziness is the ending Bethesda created for the game: like Mass Effect 3, all the endings revolve around the same major component that feels like a true lack of choice. The ending feels like it negates the experience the player has and doesn’t take a lot of the player’s decisions into account. The tone of the narrative structure doesn’t merge with the gameplay Bethesda aims to create. It’s a confusing mess that is equal parts frustrating as much as exciting.
I want to say that I’d wholeheartedly recommend this game because the positives can far outweigh the negatives, but they weren’t enough to warrant a must buy. I’d say people new to the series should consider downloading the digital version of FallOut 3 and playing on their PC, Xbox One or Playstation 4 before playing FallOut 4. For those who are fans of the series and are curious enough to get it, I’d say approach with caution. It’s certainly a FallOut game in almost every facet, but at the same time it feels like it lacks the heart its predecessor does. Was the game overhyped? That’s a question I think will depend on the experience of the player. For many, it met the hype and for others not so much.
Overall, it’s a game that might be best and more fulfilling to purchase when on sale than full price, but it won’t put a damper on the experience if you got it full price. It’s a competent game, I just wish it was a more cohesive experience.