For a game about the gradual rebuilding of society after its cataclysmic end, Fallout 4 manages to be primitive and unfinished in all the wrong ways.
Bethesda has a reputation for building hugely expansive but flawed and unpolished game experiences. Fallout 4 doesn’t break that trend, for better or for worse, but it does feel like the formula is starting to wear thin, and the legacy issues of games past feel all the more detrimental to the experience this time. Worse, the elimination and/or streamlining of various game systems make Fallout 4 feel shallower than its predecessors.
The game and its overall experience begin in parallel. The world is crisp and clean and immediately arresting. Getting a glimpse of a long-gone era sets the stage for a dramatic presentation of the world after the apocalypse. Character creation takes place in front of a bathroom mirror, with your spouse commenting on your face as you mold it like virtual clay. It’s a much more organic way to create the visage with which you will face the wasteland, though it lacks the precision of the “slider” approach. Bethesda’s decision not to include more precise control of your appearance is indicative of the experience as a whole.
Aesthetics are far from the only area in which Fallout 4 trades depth for simplicity. When it comes time to choose your characters abilities, you will discover that this new design philosophy has made drastic cuts to the options available in earlier iterations of the series. Skills have been cut completely; in their place you get a single character point to spend each time you level up on stats or perks. Each point in one of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats — Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck respectively — unlocks a new perk in a line below it. Future points can then be invested in the perks themselves, amplifying their potency or otherwise expanding their effect.
The system has been streamlined to the point of over-simplification. In a previous title, you could create statistics that would match certain natural abilities but over time invest in specific skills that might or might not be directly in line with those early choices. Perks came along once in a while as a sort of wildcard, shoring up weaknesses or adding personality to your player character. If you wanted to be a character that relies on his intellectual abilities, you could do that while still finessing your way through melee combat with a combination of skils and speed. In Fallout 4, you cannot even craft the most basic upgrades to your armor without a significant investment in raw physical strength. Aside from making very little logical sense — surely grafting complex tools and features onto your equipment requires more brains than brawn — it is just a single example of a very restrictive approach to development.
This approach bleeds into the personality of your character as well. In every other game in the franchise, you are the one to decide who you are, by way of your choices and actions within the world. Dialogue choices vary wildly enough that you could just as easily play as the main character of Father Knows Best as Dexter. Choices, from the mundane to the dramatic, have always allowed you to interpret the world and your place within it as you chose.
But in Fallout 4, most of these choices are taken from you. The character is established as a devout family man (or woman), and your dialogue choices from the prologue to the very end are characterized by a four-point system: Yes, No, Sarcasm, or a general query for more information. You aren’t even given an indication of what your character will actually say. You just pick the gist and hope it’s something remotely like what you envision. Unless you’re envisioning an extremely generic video game protagonist, it’s probably not.
Combat is largely unchanged from the previous two Fallout incarnations. VATS returns, though the lack of control over your character building makes accuracy and range feel extremely haphazard. There is very little indication as to how the investment of your points will affect the way you fight, and some bonuses seem to apply exclusively to either VATS commands or real-time combat. Most of the time, they seem to affect neither. I didn’t notice much of a different between a high Agility/Perception marksman styled build compared to someone with little to no investment in gunplay or its related stats at all.
Since dialogue is virtually identical regardless of build, and combat follows the same notes no matter how you play, the game lacks the rich sense of replayability that other Fallout experiences — and indeed other Bethesda games as a whole — boast. But plenty of games do just fine with linear progression, and Fallout 4 has a big open world for your to explore. It’s a shame that it stumbles there, too.
If you explored the Capital Wasteland of Fallout 3, Boston’s “Commonwealth” is going to feel very familiar. The initial brushes with life and color fade quickly into the same dozen or so dead trees dotting a wretched trash-strewn landscape. Most of the buildings you’ll come across you won’t be able to actually enter and work with piles of refuse to create surprisingly narrow hallways of exploration. If you do find a structure to explore, it will almost always look nearly identical to others you’ve encountered. The differentiation is barely more than a palette swap in most cases, and the similarity becomes very confusing when you’re trying to navigate your way through. When one pile of slightly different garbage is your only landmark, backtracking becomes a pretty regular occurrance.
You’re going to be doing a lot of backtracking whether or not you get lost. There’s a whole lot of junk to pick up, packed into every corner of post-apocalyptic Boston. If you’re a packrat, you’re in luck; this time all of those rusty forks and broken blenders serve a purpose.
Base-building enters the Fallout franchise in a big way. It is a central aspect of gameplay and comes with a whole new set of challenges and achievements. All of the debris you collect can be dropped off at a settlement, then broken down into core components for use in building and upgrading these miniature colonies. As your home grows, it will attract more survivors. Those survivors will need sustainable food, clean water, and fortifications to defend them against raiders and roaming mutant terrors. Provide for them, and they’ll be happy. They’ll congratulate you, and sometimes even earn you a bit of money. Fail them, and … well, nothing, really. There are no real consequences to just abandoning these activities altogether, and even people left for weeks without food or water won’t do anything more than whine a bit if you pass by.
And there’s a good chance you’ll let them whine, since the interface for building settlements and interacting with their denizens is poorly documented and mind-bogglingly cumbersome. Getting items to line up properly is an exercise in frustration only trumped by wiring power to those elements that require it. The complete lack of consequence in anything you’re doing means that unless you are finding the design itself enjoyable, it’s best to just move along.
Outside of your grim adventures in babysitting, you’ll have plenty of quests to keep you occupied. The vast majority — easily 90% — will boil down to “Go to X, kill everyone, come back.” If you were hoping to create a character built for any other approach, things are going to be very difficult indeed. Even when you can talk your way through a situation, it will almost never actually get you out of a fight. The days of smooth talkers, diplomats, or cunning con artists are long gone in favor of battles that start feeling very familiar after the first several dozen shootouts in the rubble.
And yet every single point of contention could be muted if the game were executed with an appropriate level of polish. Unfortunately, at no point does the game feel more than half-finished. You’ll stick on terrain, making it easy to empathize with AI companions and enemies that do the same. VATS will give you a 90% chance to hit an enemy, but the bullets will spark midflight off of an invisible obstacle as you’re peppered to death with hot lead. Accessing a computer console is like playing roulette. Frequently, the game’s controls will simply stop responding altogether. It’s the same with lockpicking, talking to people, or entering a building or zone.
These aren’t one-off experiences. In my time with the game I have had to revert to previous saves dozens of times, in every variety of situation imaginable. My only consolation is that the enemies seem to suffer many similar issues. Some simply forget to fight you, others charge furiously into corners while screaming for you to stop hiding. It was comical the first time it happened. And the second. By the thirtieth or so, the punchline was a bit thin.
Overlooking the technical foibles is even more difficult by visuals that seem pulled from a prior generation. The game is capable of looking beautiful, but I never found an instance where that beauty was the result of any special technical achievement. Characters look better than they have before, but it’s wholly due to throwing more polygons at them. Animation is straight out of older games, and the faces range from reasonably decent to terrifying trips into the uncanny valley. Instead of leveraging its somewhat primitive graphics into performance gains for a wider audience, the game stumbles on the most basic levels. Lighting, shadows, and texture streaming are still huge issues, and the game is capable of making even high-end systems chug for no apparent reason.
In reading this, I know that it gives the impression that I detest Fallout 4. I do not. There is fun to be had, in measured doses. The series’ humor remains intact. There is an enormous amount of content through which to sift, and diehard fans of Bethesda’s approach to virtual sandboxes will be rewarded with dozens, if not hundreds, of hours of exploration.
I just can’t shake the feeling that we’ve seen this all before, and in an effort to streamline the experience, they have inadvertently pruned its soul. More than anything, it feels like the game simply wasn’t ready for release. It’s a disturbing trend in the world of massive AAA releases, to rely on customer loyalty and nostalgia to float half-baked offerings that will be “completed” with content updates and DLC later down the line.
Stepping into the Boston wasteland, I was breathless with excitement. But if this adventure is an indication of Bethesda’s regard for its audience, I think that next time I’ll wait in the vault until the dust has settled.
Nate Church is @Get2Church on Twitter, and he can’t become a wildly overhyped internet celebrity without your help. Follow, retweet, and favorite everything he says. It’s the Right Thing To Do™!