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A Post-Apocalyptic Retrospective Part 2: A Critique of ‘Fallout 4’

Now that we’ve seen the progression of one of the greatest franchises in gaming history we can get to the problem at hand, everything that Fallout 4 got wrong. Instead of trying to outdo the level of player input in New Vegas, match the complex quest structures of Fallout 2, or even trying to stay in line with the satirical tone set in stone by Fallout itself, Bethesda made the executive decision that the series wasn’t about ANY of these things. Nope, if Fallout 4 and its embarrassing first two DLCs are any indication, Bethesda thinks that the quintessential Fallout experience revolves around going to ruined places, murdering things, reveling in the frequent ding of experience points, and being rewarded by repeating the same sequence for a hundred hours. For the first time, I understood what the purists felt when Fallout 3 was released. Here was this marvel of a series that was intelligent, innovative, and above all else, entertaining, and instead of getting a modernization of mechanics and progression of its themes, fans slogged through a first-person-shooter wearing Fallout’s face as they slowly realized that nearly every compelling element they cared about had been stripped down, misinterpreted or gutted entirely. Better presentation, tighter controls, and all the hype in the world couldn’t save this game from being the most mindless, shallow and disappointing game I’ve played all year. It isn’t an objectively awful video game, but it is an absolutely abysmal Fallout entry.

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This is not an instance of a series’ stagnation nor a team’s refusal to innovate, which is commonly used to criticize the Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed games, but a case of blatant misdirection. Fallout 4 not only fails to progress the series in any meaningful way, but manages to actually regress the franchise to the point where it is hardly recognizable. Fallout 3 was designed to be more user-friendly and accessible for newcomers, but as linear as its main quest was, its side quests, unmarked events and environmental storytelling made up for its simplification of more complex systems before New Vegas perfected the balance of action and RPG mechanics. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim faced similar criticisms of being oversimplified, and while I mainly agree with this, the sense of wonder that it conveyed through its use of diverse locations like The College of Winterhold, the Thieves Guild headquarters beneath Riften, and Blackreach, made it a worthwhile experience overall. Fallout 4 cherry-picked some of the worst aspects of their past projects like the ungodly repetitive “radiant quests” of Skyrim, and the streamlining of the main quest from Fallout 3 and bewilderingly made them core parts of the game. Aside from its great aesthetics and polish (by Bethesda standards), Fallout 4 fails in nearly every category.

Before systematically going through all the ways this game regressed, it’s only fair to give credit where credit is due and praise the parts of the game that were actually improved. The sole factors that are undisputedly better in Fallout 4 than any other game in the series are its graphics and controls/movement. While its stiff animations and occasional glitches prevent it from comparison to the likes of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt or Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, its visuals and environments are leagues ahead of past games, and post-apocalyptic America has never looked so enticing. Dynamic lighting, interior skyboxes and changing weather also add to the games atmosphere significantly. More importantly, sprinting is a godsend that should have been added years ago and the contextual cover system and improved VATS are nice additions to a game that will live or die depending on how long it takes the player to get bored of shooting at things. Another minor change that goes a long way is that looting bodies or containers now takes place in real time, adding a good amount of urgency when scrambling for ammo and weapons during a firefight. The user interface overall is functional most of the time, but companions remain as hard to control as ever and the idiotic decision to implement a limited dialogue wheel in a series that’s supposed to be story based is beyond my comprehension, but I’ll dive deeper into that when we get to the story.

Enemy AI may be marginally more intelligent than in past games, but NPCs and allies remain dumb as dirt, constantly obstructing your path and refusing to cooperate while in settlements. Though the game does feature a vastly more expansive weapon and armor crafting system that should improve customization in theory, its actual implementation simultaneously undermines the game’s own economy, loot, character progression and inventory systems. Equipment mods that are found, work as they do in Fallout: New Vegas, but are indeed more varied, the real trouble comes when creating these mods. The first problem encountered by players eager to begin crafting is the needlessly high barrier to entry for each type of mod. Want to attach something stronger than chains to a baseball bat? That’s going to require a base Strength of 4 and 2 ranks of the Blacksmith perk. Feel like slapping a night vision scope on that laser rifle? Better have a base Intelligence of 6 and 2 ranks of the Science! perk. Need to put any rank 3 mod on an actual gun? That sucks, you need to be level 25 to put those 3 ranks into the Gun Nut perk, which also needs a base 4 Intelligence.

By the time most players are at high enough levels to actually craft anything worthwhile, they then run into the problem of not realizing that duct tape and cameras are more valuable than actual weapons, since the adhesive and crystal that they can be broken down into can make better killing machines than anything a wandering merchant is carrying. The fact that you can make better items than what you can loot off legendary enemies, or buy, destabilizes how the game actually plays out, making players more interested in rummaging through craft stores than hunting the game’s strongest enemies. The only customizable system that doesn’t break the game is how it treats Power Armor, making numerous mods a ton of fun to track down, making it feel just as rewarding to pilot as in other games to compensate for how early you get it.

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If the crafting system didn’t already make this clear, the character building system is an absolute disaster. The once diverse and customizable SPECIAL system has been oversimplified in a way that makes even Skyrim’s lousy character building look like Dark Souls by comparison. Completely eliminating skills themselves, players pick their base SPECIAL stats at the start of the game, and then gain a perk per level, with each one locked behind both level and SPECIAL requirements. As if this didn’t dumb things down enough, SPECIAL stats can now be leveled up in the same manner as perks and there is no level cap. This completely eliminates any individuality among different characters, since any given one can not only max out all of their abilities, but completely redo their base stats. Making matters even worse, stats like Charisma and Luck are made almost useless, as they have, comparatively, no practical effect on the game. Since skill points were removed entirely, skill checks have also been nearly omitted (there are only a handful of them in the base game), meaning that no dialogue or special occurrences are limited to specific builds. Two thirds of speech challenges themselves have been relegated to asking for higher amounts of caps from people, and since you can now quick save during conversation, the entire system becomes pointless. Considering how essential certain perks are to crafting, settlement building and combat, nearly every player will dump points into the same skills (Lockpicking, Hacking, Crafting etc.). By locking major mechanics behind these perks, Bethesda kneecapped their entire game, assuring that every playthrough will feel exactly the same. I honestly can’t comprehend how anybody thought this was a good system to put in an RPG, making a game that should be personal and replayable, generic and a waste of time.

I wish I could blame the lack of care given to the RPG elements of the game on the Settlement system that Bethesda seemingly put so much effort into, but just like the other important aspects of Fallout 4, it’s ill conceived and poorly implemented. While fans and modders alike have always fantasized about building their own towns in this series, I doubt that any of them would actually prioritize this feature over making a competent entry of the franchise, let alone one that was as unpleasant as the one Bethesda made. Aside from the garbage controls for constructing whatever eyesore most players will inflict on their villagers, the developers failed to create an effective tutorial to actually teach players how to use the system effectively. Assigning villagers to jobs, sending them to different settlements and actually powering these hellholes are also needlessly convoluted and the transition between creation mode and normal gameplay is so jarring that it’s amazing that more players don’t suffer from whiplash. Although a few dedicated fans (and masochists) may find some fun to be had in this mess, it takes up a ridiculous amount of time, and is mandatory to reach certain points of the game for factions like the Minutemen. The more time spent with this game, the more apparent it becomes that Bethesda was so obsessed with allowing players to create their own world that they nearly forgot to make an interesting world of their own. For all the games vivid aesthetics and detailed environments, only a handful of these environments actually serve a purpose. In truth, Diamond City, Goodneighbor the Prydwen and eventually The Institute, are the only locations that the game puts any effort into developing, possibly hoping that players would care more about bland, self-established villages that they have to babysit, than actual towns. While the map is definitely better designed from a gameplay perspective, incorporating a lot of verticality into urban cityscapes, the various blips on the map are significantly less inspired than even Bethesda’s own Fallout 3. In fact, most of them play out similar to the banal dungeons of Skyrim, serving only to usher you along a direct path towards a token boss monster that will undoubtedly reward the player with some “unique loot,” which will inevitably be less practical than whatever the player has been encouraged to craft.

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This tired, bland design is even permeable in the game’s disappointing quests, the majority of which solely exist to take up space and provide some semblance of progression. Preston Garvey’s “Another settlement needs our help, I’ll mark it on your map!” quote didn’t become a meme because it was funny, it became a meme because it’s a pathetically encompassing phrase that sums up everything wrong with this game’s mentality of “It doesn’t matter what you accomplished or why you did it, just move on to the next thing!” Radiant quests sound great on paper. They have no bearing on the game world besides taking up play time, they can be randomly generated, they can be justified by the player because it keeps rewarding them, and most importantly, they usually don’t require any effort. The fact that these words are the most memorable part of the game says more than any critic ever could. I’ve run through radiation storms without a suit, I’ve charged up to Alpha Deathclaws to fight them with my bare hands, I’ve run through artillery fire naked, but I’ll be damned before I ever set foot near Preston Garvey again. The main quests leave absolutely no room for interpretation. You’re going to side with one of four equally underwritten factions, kill whoever they don’t like and end the game by either crashing the Brotherhood’s airship or detonating the Institute’s nuclear reactor, and I promise you that reading that sentence was more enjoyable than actually doing either mission. Even the quests that take place in some of the most vibrant environments in the series, like the Glowing Sea, the Institute and downtown Boston manage to completely waste the space. I lugged 300 pounds of duct tape, assault weapons and desk fans to Fenway Park, and this game seriously expects me to care about a quest to paint the walls? Give me a break. It’s a real shame that a setting as rich and full of history as Boston was merely used as window dressing.

Though Fallout 4’s gameplay is incredibly disappointing when compared to the series, if it was simply called something else, it would be a considered a pretty mediocre action game with some shallow RPG elements. No, where this game really falls flat is its story. The Fallout series’ main stories (until now, I guess) are based on three central principles. Primarily: the games satirize the ultra-patriotic, blind nationalism that purveyed the country in the Cold War era in order to create a false sense of nostalgia for an “American Golden Age” that never actually existed. Secondarily: the games use this setup to create an absurdist post-apocalyptic backdrop, aesthetically and fundamentally trapped in the Atomic-age, where the “old world” is a concept so foreign that it is utterly incomprehensible to the survivors of the very damage it caused. And most importantly: for the most part, this setting is played totally straight, and characters behave in realistic ways that show genuine emotion and thought. Fallout 4 quickly breaks the first two of these ideas within the opening minutes while rushing through a prologue that takes place before the bombs fell. Instead of making your own character, Bethesda decided you will pick one of two fully voiced protagonists; a stoic male war veteran, or his wife (no, she doesn’t get any defining characteristics). Coincidentally, seconds after signing up for the nearest Vault, bomb sirens sound off as the Great War begins. After being cryogenically frozen in the vault for 210 years, you are awoken to the sight of your spouse murdered and your baby kidnapped. Escaping the Vault into post-apocalyptic Boston, called “The Commonwealth”, the “Sole Survivor” sets out on journey to find their son and avenge their lover.

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Honestly, there are so many problems with even the basic set up that the only way to organize it is to systematically break it down from the beginning. To begin, the game quickly and thematically separates itself from every other main title in Fallout by grounding its player in the pre-war world. This could have been handled in an interesting manner, asking deep questions about what it means to be a “man/woman out of time,” how it feels to lose your old world and how a survivor would see the new Commonwealth, but due to both the games unambitious story and terrible dialogue options, it is completely wasted. Worse than that, it replaces the iconic satire of the old-world with a genuine sense of nostalgia for it, placing the protagonist on a pedestal and acting as though they are going to be the saving grace that returns the world to how it was. Instead of critiquing the ridiculous state of Cold War America, the game is effectively endorsing it. In addition to this, it completely demystifies the Great War lore, by showing it firsthand. Even from a direct narrative perspective, the intro is all too brief and coincidental to justify any player actually caring for this family. Fallout 3 spanned the first 19 years of the hero’s growth into adulthood, making them actually connect with their father before he disappears, so they can actually justify the whole game revolving around him. New Vegas was even more concise and effective with its introduction. “This guy directly tried to murder you, go deal with him as you see fit.” It’s both open-ended enough to allow for player input, and simplistic enough that you the player, want revenge as much as the Courier. Fallout 4’s prologue gives no depth to any of the family, then expects gamers to care about them when they disappear. It’s a rushed, shallow and lazy way to kick off a story.

Sadly, this laziness has been extended to the entire plot of the game, by replacing the perfectly functional scrolling, optional dialogue menu with a limited four option wheel. When this was first shown in trailers, fans held their breath to see if the game could pull off fully voiced player-dialogue based on optional brief prompts (as Mass Effect perfected). Having played through the game multiple times and exhausting every conversation tree I could find, I can confidently say that Fallout 4 has the most incompetent and ineffective character interaction system of any major RPG I’ve ever played. Any semblance of character or intrigue is completely lost on this game, as all speech options boil down to four responses: yes, snarky yes, no or more information. Further information only returns the conversation to the same four options until you eventually choose whatever option is required to make the game proceed. Apart from which faction you choose and a handful of side quests, the player’s actions are completely inconsequential to the game’s story. At one point the player has to rescue robotic detective Nick Valentine (one of the three or four developed characters in the entire game) from Vault 114, the headquarters of the mafia-like Triggermen. Whereas other entries in the series would have multiple options for stealth, diplomacy, hacking/lockpicking or rigging the Vault’s environment to help, Fallout 4 becomes just another corridor kill-fest until you face the man in charge, and convince him to run away. Like every companion in the game, Nick begins your partnership questioning your character, watches you kill some people he doesn’t like or approves of your stealing skills, tells you their tragic back story, watches you do more meaningless busywork, reveals some “shocking” twist to his life, and then declares your friendship for life. Compared to the companion quests in New Vegas, this is one of the biggest downgrades to the story by far.

Complex characters like Arcade Gannon, Cass and Boone didn’t give you soliloquies every other time they saw you blow somebody’s brains out, they carefully evaluated specific decisions you made, who you sided with, how you treated others and what your overall goals for your adventure were. Despite meeting their judgments of your character, you couldn’t just click through dialogue, you had to actually think about what you were trying to say and what words you would use to appeal to the companion’s personality. Fallout, Fallout 2 and New Vegas had some of the most colorful and interesting dialogue options I’ve seen in the medium. Every journey was filled with deception, playing multiple parties, intimidation, seduction and persuasion. The series that once had a range of player dialogue from lighthearted quips like “On the scale of one to ten, I’d say it’s a ‘shut the fuck up and fix me,’” to philosophical debates such as “Where you see death, I see change – and I see it as a strength.” These shortcomings all culminate in the game’s sorry excuse for “endings.” Delusionally believing that allowing the player to continue playing the game after the final mission excuses them from providing any sense of closure, Bethesda chose to not include the iconic endgame slides that show your impact on the world. A lot of fans were outraged at this change, but it’s actually quite reasonable on the developers’ part, considering you DID NOT have a meaningful impact on any part of the Commonwealth. Sure you blew up your enemies, but what did that accomplish practically? What does that mean thematically? How are the people we met affected by this? All good questions, none of which are answered. All the player gets is a pat on the back, a few cool items and a worthless title before being sent on to the real heart of the game: more radiant quests and settlement building! Fundamentally misunderstanding the very premise of the series, Fallout 4 neglected to include any role-playing in a role-playing game, resulting in the weakest title of the franchise and one of the biggest disappointments of 2015.

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“But wait-,” some fans say in denial, “some of the best parts of these games were the DLC. A few good expansions can put Fallout 4 on par with the franchise! Right?” I’ll get to this anti-consumer thinking later, for now, let’s take a look at what Bethesda has put out so far. The first DLC was promising enough when considering the low bar set by the base game. Released on March 22nd, Automatron brought back one of my favorite villains from Fallout 3: The Mechanist! It offered four fairly interesting quests, a mediocre twist on a fan-favorite character and introduced customizable robots to the game. Mixing and matching parts for robot companions is a fun gimmick at first, but grows boring quickly, as the robot’s bland writing contrasts their striking design. Yet again, the game locks a major system away behind the ranks of (what should be) build-specific perks like Robotics Expert, Science!, Blacksmith and Armorer. It’s an entertaining little distraction, but for the same price as past DLCs, Automatron is hardly worth the cost of entry. Buying time to finish up the first expansion that would actually be worth a damn, Bethesda released Wasteland Workshop for half the price of a normal DLC. To the collective groans of the gaming community, the expansion added a few more options for settlement building and a barely functional “Arena mode,” that allowed players to capture and fight the various enemies of the Commonwealth. While those five dollars would be better spent on games like Super Hexagon, Pony Island or The Binding of Isaac, if you’re somehow into building meaningless defenses for nameless villagers and a pointlessly good looking town, Wasteland Workshop can definitely do that for you. Finally, we get to the newly released Far Harbor. Regardless of the fact that the only reason I have this expansion is because I was dumb enough to buy the season pass, and likely due to the incredibly low expectation I had going into it, Far Harbor blew me away. I have almost no complaints about it. It is easily one of the best expansions of any game in the series. With better writing, a more interesting atmosphere, less linear quests and actual player choice, this expansion follows the Sole Survivor’s interactions with the three factions fighting over control of the titular fog covered island off the coast of Maine. The Synth character, DiMA, alone is more compelling than nearly any given character or companion in the Commonwealth, and linking him to Fallout 4’s strongest component, Nick Valentine, was a brilliant move. Featuring a ton of exotic weapons and enemies, the main quest’s level of interactivity and genuine intrigue made me question if it was even made by the same team of people who made the base game!

That being said, under no circumstance would I ever recommend playing Fallout 4 over any other game in the franchise, or any of the various better RPGs released in recent memory. At its core, it is a fundamentally unbalanced, oversimplified and boring video game that failed its series, its genre and its fans. The myriad of thematic, narrative and mechanical problems that plague this game are not simple issues that can be patched, altered or remeoved. A Mass Effect 3-style extended ending cannot make up for its horrendous dialogue and no amount of balancing can fix its tedious quests. Barring a Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn-scale remake, recommending Fallout 4 solely to experience Far Harbor or any future DLC would be like asking somebody to play through Bioshock 2 a dozen times so they can get to experience its Minerva’s Den expansion. Fallout 4’s depth makes Fallout 3 look like Dwarf Fortress by comparison. Bethesda sacrificed every nuanced RPG aspect of the Fallout franchise to make a sub-par action game that would appeal to larger markets while banking on the goodwill of dedicated fans. War never changes- but this franchise has, and I seriously doubt Bethesda will be the team to change it back.

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If you want to see Part 1 of the retrospective, check here: http://www.goombastomp.com/features/fallout-retrospective-part-1/

To learn more about the recent controversy surrounding Fallout 4 PC mods being stolen for the console addition, check out Wesley Yin-Poole’s write up on Eurogamer: http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2016-06-06-row-over-stolen-fallout-4-mods

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1 comment

Erik Malkavian July 8, 2016 at 1:30 am

Great assesment. I have get a hollow feeling everytime I go to a new area HOPING it will have something meaningful going on and a quest but 90% of the time I found just another “shoot ’em bang bang” damn freakin’ Bethesda for this hollow and shallow game!

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